Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Irish war and the British left

One of the highlights of the socialist blogging world is reading the splintered sunrise, from Belfast.

This recently caused me to reflect that as the IRA ceasefire was some 13 years ago, many British socialists have spent most or all of their political life in the period since the Irish war finished. As you get older there is a bizarre foreshortening of memory, and it only seems 5 minutes ago to me! Yet the war had a huge impact on the psychology of the British left – and that has now changed.
I remember as a young lad, when I was working as a hospital porter, reading Dan Breen’s “My Fight for Irish Freedom” in the Porters’ mess-room, which had a lurid paperback cover showing a volunteer shooting a British soldier. It caused an absolute shit storm at work, with threats of physical violence, and it forced some of the other lefts to defend me, and come off the fence over Ireland. It was actually quite tough, especially in manual workplaces, to come out as a supporter of the IRA. (If you want a measure of the declining influence of the left, back in 1978 to 1980 when I worked at the Royal United in Bath, in that one workforce there were about 6 to 8 CP members, myself as a young SWPer, my mate Simon Newell who was close to the Militant (he is now a far from militant Unison regional officer), and a nurse in the Militant. This isn’t even counting the Labour lefts!)

Back in 1988 I was paper organiser for the SWP’s Bristol district, the IRA carried out a couple of very successful actions, killing some six British soldiers at Lisburn in June and eight more at Ballygawley in August. One of these – and I cannot remember which – had killed some lads from Bristol, and there had been a local news angle on the TV and in the Bristol Evening Post. The front page of Socialist Worker ran on Troops Out, and I think all of us were nervous about going on the streets with it. This local angle made it even harder than for the Enniskillin bombing the previous year, where the SW had a very good headline “The bitter fruits of British imperialism”

In those days we ran a Friday evening sale and three shifts of Saturday paper sale in Bristol, across three or four different locations and we would expect some 30 or 40 comrades to be selling. The first thing I remember is that the RCP, who had a sale near our main pitch, didn’t turn out that Saturday, presumably because their paper had a “Victory to the IRA!” headline, or similar, and they didn’t have the bottle to sell it.

Anyway, before each shift started I organised a brief caucus, and explained that we were selling on the slogan Troops Out, and that we were arguing that the blame for the deaths lay with the British occupation, and that if people wanted to see an end to the war then the British should quit Ireland. And it went well, I think we did encounter some hostility, but we also did engage with an audience who agreed with us, and we even sold some papers to serving soldiers in the Gloucesters, who were shortly off to the six counties. Although I wouldn’t exaggerate our impact, it was important that in England there was a public presence on the streets that would argue that the war-aims of the IRA were justified, and the manner in which they conducted their struggle was up to them.

Nowadays, over the issue of the war in Iraq, or opposition to hospital closures or whatever, the British left almost entirely occupies a world where they are swimming with the stream. But the Irish war was a defining issue that we couldn’t duck (unless you were in the Militant), and where we had to stand up and argue a usually very unpopular position.

It is worth digressing here to discuss the British SWP’s ambivalence about Ireland. The party always tolerated quite a wide range of opinion over the issue. (Recently over at “Richard Lenin’s Tomb” he wrote that the SWP had always supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and quoted an ISJ article by Jonathan Neale from 1981 to prove it, but this misses the point that the SWP didn’t have “a line” on issues like Afghanistan. Generally although there was a lot of debate during the 1980s, the Cliff regime only came down firmly on an issue if it became a factional football, or related directly to the core differentiators of the SWP like State Cap – there were SWP members (such as myself) were more ambivelent over the Russian intervention). Over the issue of Ireland there were some – and the current national secretary Martin Smith was one – who very firmly supported the armed struggle. Other comrades were much more ambivalent about the violence, and would argue instead that we should be emphasising that the SWM in Ireland were providing a political alternative to militarism. I always tended towards the chuckie side of the argument, and I remember a public meeting in Bristol about the Birmingham Six making a contribution so fulsome in praise of the IRA that the speakers assumed I was in Sinn Fein. (Although I didn’t go as far as one Bristol comrade who always wore a safety pin on his lapel: a coded message about the split between the officials and the provos for the cogniscenti).

The armed struggle was important. As long as the IRA were at war, then every day the partition of Ireland was at the forefront of British politics, because at any time there could be a bombing or an armed action against the British Army. What is more, the message from the provisional IRA and Sinn Fein was that they rejected the existing state, and did not accept that a political solution had to be found with the existing political framework, that was a truly revolutionary position.

For the British left, support for the IRA was a sobering reality check about the political gap between ourselves and the mass of the working class. In the absence of the constant need to defend the Irish struggle, much of the British left has become quite flabby over the issue of violence, and this has contributed to a bizarre capitulation by some to the fiction of liberal democracy, as if the “democracy” we enjoy in Britain was unconnected to the oppressive violence that the British state is prepared to use around the world to promote the interests of capital.

(It is worth commenting upon the equally bizarre contortions of Sean Matgamna and the AWL, who during their entry period in the IS (later to become the SWP) they criticised the rest of the left for being too soft and not supporting thr IRA enough, and now have exacty the opposite position. indeed they used to support the Islamists fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, but now weep tears about oppression by Islamists in Iraq)

The cease fire was a recognition by the IRA that revolutionary violence was never going to force the Brits out of Ireland, however the tragedy is that they have never recognised that militarism is not the only way that the status quo can be challenged, and the acceptance of the Good Friday agreement is capitulation to the partition.

(BTW - The PIRA poster above from the 1980s is roughly translated as ""No Freedom, Until Freedom Of Women".")


Louisefeminista said...

But it was always unconditional but critical support for the IRA.

Oh and didnt the SWP initially support the troops going in in '69? But the (I won't swear)worst offenders were the Milies and Soc. Org with their pro-imperialist line.

I also think it was kinda tough to argue about the Irish struggle especially if it was close to home.

For example I am from an Irish Protestant background and I was brought up to believe that the North of Ireland was "British" and when I went on a Troops Out Demo as a teenager, my mum refused to speak to me for some time as I was "letting the side down" and it also didn't help that my brother served as a soldier in Ireland in the early 1970s (he once brought home on leave a plastic bullet).

But i also agree with what you say about the armed struggle.

AN said...

No - the SWP didn't exist when the troops went into Ireland in 1969 :o)

The IS did exist, and did not support the troops gong into Ireland, however they did recognise that to make the main argument oppososition to the troops being sent in - in the concrete circumstances of 1969 - was to support the B-Specials carrying out a pogrom. the headline of the paper was "The Barricades must stay".

Most bizarelly i remember being castigated at a Militant public meeting on the issue of the pill tax in around 1990 about the fact that the SWp allegedly supported the troops going in to Ireland ( a bit off topic or what) - to which it was easy enough to reply - but you support them being there now!

AN said...

and "Unconditional but critical", the troile is - what does that really mean?

From my perspective it means our criticsm was that the military struggle was never going to win on its own.

BUt others used it as a cop out to mean they could have the luxury of not really supporting the IRA when the going got tough, like after Eniskillin or Warrington and all the civilian casualties

neprimerimye said...

For me the bottom line is that many of the left groups in Britain used the terminology of 'critical but unconditional support' but in practice acted as little more than cheerleaders for the IRA. The former IMG (indeed the disUnited Sectarians in general as is most stark when one considers that parts of that tendency liquidated into Sinn Fein) at one stage and Red Action later on. The problem being that they tended to paint the petty bourgeois nationalism of the IRA in red hues that they never truly deserved. Which stance was adopted as a rersult of those tendencies displacing the working classes from the centre of their analysis and replacing it with all manner of petty bourgeois ideologies opposed to communism such as Stalinism, feminism, etc.

That many on the left still hold to idiotic myths, as exemplified by louisafeminista above, rather sucks. For example the myth that IS supported British troops being sent onto the streets is plain daft given that (a) British troops have always been in Northern Ireland and (b) the real arguiment was whether or not to call for Troops Out when they went on the streets in the context of the Orange pogroms of the day.

Other myths are that the RSL/Militant and AWL had pro-imperialist lines on Northern Ireland. In fact Workers Fight, the forerunner of the AWL, always called for Troops Out. The problem with their position being that they were also in favour of a new division of Northern Ireland. Which position holds the key t their later evolution I might add with regard to both Ireland and Palestine regardless of their discovery of Shachtmanism much later.

Similarly the Militant always opposed british troops being on the streets of NI but never did much about it as they held that the way forward was to build workers' militias based on a Labour Party orientation! In effect their position was led them to abstentionism but was not pro-imperialist. Although it was seen as such by the Pabloite fadists of the IMG I admit.

Alex Nichols said...

The path from ultra-leftism to reformism is well trodden one.
In Britain, "Troops Out" was the right position and the only one capable of getting a mass audience.
In the early 70's, the only organisation which came out with a "Victory to the IRA" slogan was the IMG.
Some people may remember the pamphlet they put out called "Ireland's Permanent Revolution".
This argued that Ireland would become 'Britain's Cuba' and even promoted totally unrepresenative outfits like Saor Eire.
I met the author a few years ago and he totally repudiated his political past. He's not the only example I could cite.

The I.S. had support for "genuine national liberation movements" inscribed on its membership card.
In concrete terms, that can actually mean accepting a programme which isn't your own.
The position of "Lenin's Tomb" reminds me of I.S. circa the VSC, with postmodernist academic overtones.
Supporting a bunch of feudal reactionaries like the Mujahideen, when they were clearly armed to the teeth by the US,
is akin to giving unconditional support the the KLA in Kosovo.
If I were him I wouldn't advertise the fact, but then he drapes himself in the flag of Hizbullah, so I'm not suprised.

The Provisionals, while being overwhelmingly working class in composition, never had a socialist programme.
It's not that they didn't fight, no one fought harder. They didn't betray a mass movement to the left of them.
The population were totally weary of 25 years of warfare.
Ireland's membership of the EU and the inflow of capital to the country have changed the political landscape.
That's why no credible "ultra-nationalist" section of the IRA has emerged to challenge their leadership.
The problem is that their politics have never went beyond nationalism.

AN said...

Thanks Mike and Alex

With regard to what Mike says, yes there has always been a problem in undertsanding that the support for a national liberation movement was not contingent on that movement being somehow socialist. Indeed the paradox is probably that the provisionals fought the armed struggle becasue they were not socilaists.

However, with regard to the Militant and the troops out position, while you are formally correct that the Millies supported troops out but subordinated it to class unity around bread and butter issues, it was in fact so subordiunated that many of their members didn't know that was the position. I remember arguments with Militant members (and cadre of some years standing) during the 1980s who did not support troops out unitil after classs uity had been achieved.

Alex - I think supporting victory for the NLA in Vietnam, and supporting the Mujhadden in Afghanistan are quite differemt if only because the Vietnamese were just that beast "a genuine national libertaion movement", who sought to form a national Vietnamese government free from French/US domination. Whereas the Afghan war lords were only ever rural gangsters seeking to tear the country apart.

I think you are right that the war finally finished becasue everyone had had enough, and you probably know more about it than me, but the impression I get is that the weariness was as much from the IRA as the wider nationalist population, as the volunteers got older, and the was took on the elements of a war of attrition.

AN said...

And Mike, I don't really think the IMG deserve the compliemnt of bwing called pabloites, do you?

Derek Wall said...

Interesting although only old lefties like me with Irish family will get what you mean by 'chuckie'

Will there day every come....

AN said...

True Derek,

Perhaps it is indulgent sometimes to use the old jargon, but in these days of google anyone curious could probably find out what it refers to.

No their day will never come, unless they have changed what they were fighting for to the dream of introducing PFI as cabinet ministers in coalition with Paisley!

tiocfaidh ár lá - my arse!