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.”
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…