Derry, the IS and the troops in 1969

August 28, 2009 at 9:16 pm (history, Ireland, Jim D, left, political groups, SWP)

Yesterday’s Morning Star carried an article marking the fortieth anniversary of the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ in Derry, Northern Ireland. It’s good that these events are remembered, and interesting to note that the Star‘s piece is written by a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Even more interesting is what the author of the piece, SWP’er Keith Flett writes about the Wilson government’s decision to send in the troops:

“Many words have been written about whether the British troops were welcomed into Derry.

“However, the view of those among the leaders of the Bogside uprising at that time, such as Eamon McCann and Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey, remains clear. The arrival of the troops and the pullout of the B Specials represented a short-term victory – a rare enough thing. In the longer term, the British troops were recognised as no friends to the republican cause. It did not take long for the point to be made – in 1972 Derry saw the events that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.”

 I’ve quoted that section of Flett’s article in full, because I don’t want to misrepresent him in any way. It’s clear that Flett considers the arrival of the troops to have been a “short term victory”: which was, indeed,  the ‘line’ of the SWP’s forerunner, the IS (International Socialists) at the time, even though the present day SWP leadership regularly deny it.

All of which would seem to confirm much of the accuracy of this account, by the Alliance for Workers Liberty’s Sean Matgamna (at the time a leader of the oppositionist ‘Trotskyist Tendency’ within IS), including the following damning account of the role and politics of IS with regard to Northern Ireland in 1969:

“That (IS) approach was either an assertion that there would soon be a unification of Catholic and Protestant workers on both sides — or a call for letting the sectarian forces fight it out. And at the very beginning of the article (in Socialist Worker) the author had already effectively dismissed the Protestant workers.

“‘The Green Tories of the South showed that while Irishmen were being attacked by armed sectarian mobs, their chief concern was to keep the Southern arsenals locked, while making unreal speeches about a UN peace-keeping force” ( from Socialist Worker, August 1969).

“‘Irishmen’ were being attacked? And what were those who attacked them? What nationality were the Protestant sectarian mobs? What nationality were the “sectarian” Catholic youth who stoned the Orange march? It would be difficult to find a more concentrated expression of primeval Catholic-nationalism than this! The editorial wanted to expose the Southern government as not good “Irishmen”.

“In fact “open the arsenals” was the cry of the comic-opera Stalinoid “Republicans”, whose major contribution during the mid-August crisis was to stir things up and vindicate Northern Ireland prime minister James Chichester-Clark’s story that what was happening was a general Catholic-Nationalist insurrection, with the lie that the IRA had active service units fighting in the North.

“The cry “open the arsenals” was a cry that the southern Government should abdicate in favour of letting nondescript “republicans” loose on the Northern Protestants: that is – abdicate the responsibilities of government and let the island dissolve into civil war.

“Since no government would choose to do what “open the arsenals” implied then, the demand was an “impossibilist”, for propaganda-purposes-only, Sinn Fein demand to show up the Dublin Government as “traitors”.

“From what point of view, anyway, should socialists want such chaos? The consequences would have been Catholic-Protestant civil war all over the island. As it was, there was a small eruption of Catholic sectarian threats against Protestants in Donegal and a Protestant church was set on fire.

“In the name of honest dealing, I need to say here that if the Southern Government had on 12 or 13 August sent its army into Derry and the other Catholic-nationalist territories on the border, including the Catholic-majority towns, then I would not have been amongst those who condemned them. Socialists would, in my view, then of course have tried to protect Protestants, denounce the Irish hierarchy, condemn church-state relations in the South, etc.

“However, IS’s “politics from below” backing the Republicans’ call was irresponsible idiocy. And to combine that with sighs of relief and oblique support for the British Army in the North — and with denouncing us (the forerunners of today’s AWL, then the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’ within IS) for “wanting a bloodbath”!

“One of the curious features of IS’s performance is that it did not call for volunteers from Britain to help the embattled Northern Catholics, as in all seriousness it should have done. The Trotskyist Tendency did, in a fashion. Immediately after IS Conference, the IS branch in Manchester where we were mainly concentrated sent Joe Wright and myself to Derry.”

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hQe6dBJSq4]

PS: I’ve just noticed this piece by Eamon McCann in last week’s Socialist Worker: McCann (who was, like Matgamna, physically present and actively involved in the defence of ‘Free Derry’ at the time), confirms Flett’s (and the 1969 IS) assessment of the arrival of the troops as at least a “short term” victory. Presumably, the SWP are now going to have to stop re-writing their own history on that particular point…

20 Comments

  1. johng said,

    It was a short term victory over the orange state. of course it was. their masters in Britain had to intervene and their paramilitaries were demobilised. all this in the face of an uprising of the oppressed.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    So, John: the presence of foreign/imperialist troops isn’t always and everywhere a thoroughly bad thing? The slogan “troops out *now* !” isn’t always and everywhere appropriate?

    The beginnings of if not exactly “wisdom”, then at least…thought, John!

  3. skidmarx said,

    So Jim, should the Muslims of Srebrenica addressed the slogan of Troops Out Now to the Dutch soldiers that stood aside to let the Serbs massacre them?

    I need to say here that if the Southern Government had on 12 or 13 August sent its army into Derry and the other Catholic-nationalist territories on the border, including the Catholic-majority towns, then I would not have been amongst those who condemned them
    But would you have Jim?

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Skidders:
    Yes and no. In that order. Maybe.

  5. skidmarx said,

    The difference between Matgamna and those calling for the opening of the arsenals seems to be that he would only want the Southern army in Catholic majority territories, thus re-partitioning the North, but doing nothing to stop ethnic cleansing in Belfast.
    But as you seem to think that letting thousands die in Bosnia so that your principles can remain pure is good…

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Skidders: I got my (previous) answer to your questions:

    “So Jim, should the Muslims of Srebrenica addressed the slogan of Troops Out Now to the Dutch soldiers that stood aside to let the Serbs massacre them?

    I need to say here that if the Southern Government had on 12 or 13 August sent its army into Derry and the other Catholic-nationalist territories on the border, including the Catholic-majority towns, then I would not have been amongst those who condemned them
    But would you have Jim?”

    …completely the wrong way round. I was in a hurry, and trying to be a smart-arse, simultaneously.

    I *should* have replied: “No and yes. In that order. Maybe.”

    I hope that clarifies matters.

  7. Jim Denham said,

    Actually, Skidders, I’m *still* wrong! I should have replied “No and no. Maybe.”

    Sorry.

  8. resistor said,

    A bit early for your first drink of the day Jim?

  9. Jim Denham said,

    Not at all early for me. And I retain a principled and sound grasp of socialist principles 24/7, I can assure you.
    How’s the red-brown current and contemporary anti-semitism going, resistor?

  10. skidmarx said,

    The slogan “troops out *now* !” isn’t always and everywhere appropriate?
    So according to JD version 3.0 the answer to this one would be yes (it isn’t),no?

  11. Jim Denham said,

    For the sake of clarity, Skidders, my answers are:

    Re the Muslims of Srebenica: “troops out” would not have been an appropriate demand, even towards the useless Durch troops.

    Re the hyperthetical arrival of Southern Irish troops in Derry etc in 1969: I wouldn’t have
    objected at the time.

    So the answer id “no” and “no”. The “maybe” because the Irish scenario is hyperthetical and I was only just getting involved in politics at the time.

    Insofar as I understand your comment #10, the answer’s “yes.”

    Hope that’s clear now.

  12. skidmarx said,

    Well I’m tempted to quote from Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:”It’s plain , plain as a fart. Clarity is a function of thought…”

    Anyway, my point was to get back to what you said in point 2, though I realise now that you weren’t necessarily saying that Troops Out Now is a univerally applicable slogan. Do you? Do you think johng or the SWP do? Or have you set up a caricature of the SWP in your head, and are then surprised when the real thing is a bit more sophisticated?

    Is it “good that these events are remembered”, or are they hypotheticals from 40 years ago?

    Personally I think that Matgamna is talking rubbish about the IS position, and that his position starts down the catastrophic road of re-partition, and that there is no contradiction between McCann and Devlin welcoming the replacement of B-Specials with the army and a Troops Out position.

  13. martin ohr said,

    skidmarx: you seem to have missed the point of the 40 year old argument, and the subsequent re-writing of SWP history.

    The argument at the time was that the IS leadership wanted to drop the slogan “troops out” for a couple of months, at precisely the time when troops were going in. The re-written history of the SWP/IS tradition is that they always argued a consistent troops out line. What’s important is that the politics remained the same, but formally only the slogan was dropped, in actual fact the politics were put on ice along with the slogans.

    Moreover Matgamna and others demanded that the issue be put to the membership- the IS leadership manouvred to stop this happening.

    40 years on it may be easy for you to say, there is no contradiction between troops out and welcoming troops in; the documents and arguments from the time show a different story.

    It’s an important debate, because it marks the start move in IS from serious and thorough debate and internal democracy towards the leadership around Cliff tightening their grip on the organisation, which ultimately led to the splits which formed signifcant distinct groups on the left.

    In a sense it doesn’t matter whether Cliff or Matgamna were 100% correct, but the manner in which politics were placed secondary to tactics and democracy secondary to leadership control.

    On the basis of what I have read Matgamna and the prototype AWL were completely correct to argue not to drop the slogan; I’ve never heard the other side of the story though, because until now SWP/IS people denied that it ever happened.

  14. skidmarx said,

    there is no contradiction between troops out and welcoming troops in; the documents and arguments from the time show a different story.
    The IS didn’t say that the troops should be welcomed in. The headline of Socialist Worker was “The Barricades Must Stay”, McCann and co. were dealing with the reality that many Catholics were welcoming the troops, and warned from the start that the troops were not there to help.

    What’s important is that the politics remained the same, but formally only the slogan was dropped, in actual fact the politics were put on ice along with the slogans.
    I assume you mean that it is claimed that the politics remained the same.

    the documents and arguments from the time show a different story.
    Not that I’ve noticed.

    In a sense it doesn’t matter whether Cliff or Matgamna were 100% correct,
    Unless one thinks that Cliff was 100% correct ,and Sean’s position was mad.

  15. Jim Denham said,

    Skidders:

    John G and many present-day SWP’ers *do* seem to believe that “troops out now” is an absolute principle in all circumstances, and what little SWP agitational material I have bothered to read of late also gives that impression. Which is why the IS history of Derry in 1969, and the recent comments of Flett and McCann, describing the arrival of the troops as a limited /”short term” victory is significant.

    As for “Unless one thinks that Cliff was 100% correct ,and Sean’s position was mad”: is that your position? Mine is that Cliff &co were inconsistent, unprincipled and a long way from serious working class politics in 1969. I think Sean’s article (quoted and linked to in the main piece above) pretty much proves that. But Sean and the Trotskyist Tendency of IS were not fully worked out at the time and also got some things wrong. Nevertheless, the Trotskyist Tendency was at least groping towards coherent working class politics over Northern Ireland at the time, whereas the IS leadership was simply all over the place, advocating what amounted to civil war one moment and giving back-handed support to the arrival of the troops the next.

  16. skidmarx said,

    I’ve had a quick look at Sean’s article, and I think it pretty much proves nothing. It accuses SW of “Catholic-nationalist demagoguery” because it dares to point out that a Protestant state is attacking Catholics as Catholics. It talks about “effectively supporting the troops” which is the sort of sleight-of-mind Sean (wrongly)accuses SW of. Because there is bad housing on the Shankill he denies there is any discrimination against Catholics. He says that the demands SW places before the barricades should be removed were all being implemeted, yet the B-Specials were just replaced by the UDR, the RUC weren’t disarmed, etc. I could go through all three sections of his article line by line and dispute just about every assertion he makes, but I don’t currently think it’s worth the effort.

    I can see from Martin Ohr’s comment that this is all important to you, as one of the founding myths of your tendency. It’s difficult to comment on the internal politics of the IS at the time, not having been there, though it might be said that given the subsequent evolution of your group, an early divorce from the IS was good for both sides.

    John G and many present-day SWP’ers *do* seem to believe that “troops out now” is an absolute principle in all circumstances
    johng doesn’t say that it his comment on this thread, and I would be very much surprised to find anyone in the SWP believing that a tactical slogan is a universal principle. Which is why the IS history of Derry in 1969, and the recent comments of Flett and McCann, describing the arrival of the troops as a limited /”short term” victory is not significant.

    “Unless one thinks that Cliff was 100% correct ,and Sean’s position was mad”: is that your position?
    I think so. 100% might be a good working estimate, while Sean was simply all over the place, advocating denial of any discrimination one minute and giving back-handed support to re-partition the next.

  17. skidmarx said,

    A quick addendum on Troops Out:
    The usual lie about the IS position was that they supported the troops going in, repeated here with the “effectively” qualification.But when they are replacing the B-Specials who along with the RUC were attacking the Catholic population, their introduction did provide a breathing space, and to have demanded their removal at that moment might well be considered to be “effectively” supporting continued B-Specials attacks.

    Of course your obsession with this might be said to show what excellent far left polemicists you are:

    http://www.irishleftreview.org/2009/06/17/left-polemicist/

    (See point 10).

  18. Jim Denham said,

    Skidders: you are entitled to your views, but I’d be interested to know *which* of the many and varied Cliff/IS positions on Northern Ireland in 1969 you consider to have been “100% correct” – they can’t *all* have been.

    I would contend that the evidence that’s been shown in this article and the posts from readers (including yourself) and the articles by Flett and McCann *prove* beyond reasonable doubt that IS did, indeed support the troops going in. That’s no Lie”, Skidders, unless you think the word “victory” (albeit qualified with words like “short-term”) means something other than what I and all know dictionaries say it means.

    All my dealings (admittedly mainly over the internet rather than in person) with John G and all my recent dealings in person with other SWP’ers confirm the view that they *do* indeed regard “troops out now” as an absolute principle in all situations that can be described as “imperialist intervention”. I’d be interested to see what John G has to say on that precise point.

    Btw: I followed your link to ‘Irish Left Review’. I recognised a lot of groups and individuals in that description, including all the main far left groups in the UK . It was mildly amusing I suppose. Point 10 could be said to advocate indifference to honest accounting as opposed to the rewriting of history.

  19. skidmarx said,

    That the UK government had to replace the authority of the Nothern Ireland government with its own forces was a victory.
    I don’t see a wide variation in Cliff/IS positions on NI in ’69, so maybe you’d better spell out what you think they are if you want an answer.
    I’m sure johng would not say in the case of Srebrenica we want the troops out right now. Not supporting imperialist interventions is different from being an idiot.

  20. Poumnik « Poumista said,

    [...] Rosie on Orwell as Autumn and war advance. AWL’s Jim D on SWP’s Keith Flett on Derry 1969. Photography and memory. The posthumous life of Leon Trotsky. WWII and the socialist project today. [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 514 other followers

%d bloggers like this: