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".")