50 YEARS ON REFLECTIONS ON BURNTOLLET
50 years on from the outbreak of the so called “troubles” we have had a range of commemorations and interpretations of who did what, why and how they were wrong and how it was the “Sticks” (ie Official Republican Movement)
the SDLP, the Provos and the CPNI who were the real founders of the civil rights movement.And indeed was not Gerry Adams the real brains behind the civil rights movement!! And that the whole of the Provo armed struggle was for “equality”.
Not that the volunteers of the IRA(Provo wing ) were actually aware of that!!!They fought and died for the ending of partition and the unification of the island under some variant of socialism. As indeed did the volunteers of the Official IRA. Many young people today, even those going to university have swallowed hook line and sinker the Sinn Fein line that it was all about “equality”.
This writer begs to differ. For the record, at the time of the emergence of the civil rights struggle I was a student at Queens University. I was a member of both the Labour Group at Queens and the Fintan Lalor Republican Club,-out of solidarity with republican comrades who were banned both by Queens and the Northern Ireland Government at the instigation of Bill Craig then Minister of Home Affairs
I fully participated in the activities of radical students who reacted to the attack by the RUC on the Civil rights demonstration in Derry on October the 5th 1968.On the following Wednesday along with hundreds of others I marched towards the Belfast City Hall from the Queens Student Union.The RUC prevented us from reaching the City Hall so we sat down in Linenhall Street and protested. That confused the peelers for they were not used to dealing with educated youth with a background from both catholicism and protestantism. We eventually walked back Queens and established the Peoples Democracy - a loose anarchist type movement initially. On a number of occasions we were attacked on the streets by young working class protestants from Donegall Pass and Sandy Row. On November 30th 1968 loyalist thugs under the direction of Ian Paisley occupied the centre of Armagh City to prevent a civil rights march. They roamed those streets armed with iron bars and sticks unmolested by the RUC.
Many of us then in PD. observed this collaboration between the official and unofficial police forces for the unionist state.So we were not unaware of the sectarian tensions raised by street protests that seemed to challenge the very existence of the Northern Ireland State. I came from a town where our friendly protestant neighbours simply refused to acknowledge our existence during the 12th fortnight.
Future accusations of naivety by respected journalists, academics, bitter opponents and former republican participants in the Provo war, never mind the constant drip of revision from those never had taken any part in the struggle either for civil or national rights are all part of the attempt to re write history.
This with a view to say that if only a more moderate policy had been adopted the “troubles “ would never had started and that nice man, Prime Minister Terence O’Neill would have introduced the necessary reforms for our’wee six counties”. An all would have lived happily after “in a land of milk and honey”
Such views ignore the elephant in the room. The reality is that the state of Northern Ireland was and is a cesspit of sectarianism. That sectarianism pre-date the foundation of that state. It has its origins in the concept that some people are better than others. So in many parts of the world it manifests itself in racism, religious bigotry, homophobia or misogyny-the hatred or contempt against women.All societies have elements of these traits. The north of Ireland has these in bucketfuls. And all of these traits are useful weapons in the hands of the ruling class. The British ruling class has always used these traits and still does. And they have used it consistently to maintain their occupation of any part of Ireland.
Repression always eventually leads to a reaction. Irish history is no different.That reaction has historically taken two main forms which have sometimes worked together. One was the struggle for reforms(-ie.repeal of the penal laws, catholic emancipation, home rule, sovereignty and civil rights) by placing pressure on the British Government to change their repression using lobbying, persuasion and eventually disobedience and mass rallies. The other was the use of violence, usually as a response to increased repression and violence from pro-state forces. That then would lead to the unleashing of sectarian violence using the advanced guards of the Orange Order and any other reactionary pro-British elements
Below is a very brief overview of how sectarianism has been used historically to limit any advantages towards any sense of reform
The colonisation of Ireland and the Plantations had divided Ireland into two broad categories of people-the protestant planters and the native Irish, mainly Catholic. Prior to the victory of William of Orange at the Boyne in 1690 it is estimated that Catholics owned 22% of the land in Ireland. The new regime was in complete control of the political social economic and cultural life in Ireland. However that Protestant Ascendancy lived in complete fear of a revival of Catholic claims and support for the Stuart cause. So they introduced the Penal Code that left the vast majority of the population in penury and misery.
“Under the heading 'Religion’ the Catholic bishops were banished completely from the country, while Parish Priests had to be ‘registered’ and also take the Oath of Abjuration. In ‘education,' Catholics were forbidden to have schools of their own or to have their children educated by Catholic teachers, while under the heading ‘property,' no Catholic could own a horse worth more than £5. They were also forbidden to buy land, and they could not lease property for more than 31 years, while at the same time having to pay a rent that was to be at least-two thirds of the annual value of the land. Neither could a Catholic become a guardian, nor could they carry arms, while the ‘Laws of Inheritance’ were also altered so that a son or daughter who adopted the Protestant Religion would become the sole heir/heiress to the property.”
“In 1719 came the most disgusted of all the Penal Laws - the castration of unregistered priests. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, Catholics were denied the vote (1727) and were not allowed to enter the army, the civil service or the legal profession.”
However the effects of the Penal Laws did not have the desired effect of destroying Catholicism in Ireland. On the contrary it strengthened it in the eyes of the people. The Mass Rock and the Hedge Schools became buried deep in the folk memory of the people despite the sufferings endured during the 18th century. That explains why even today Catholics in the North retain an affection for Catholic Schools even in the face of clerical brutality and abuse. In the South however there is increasing liberalisation and secularism. The power of the Roman Catholic Church has been severely diminished.
During the 18th Century there were a number of minor “famines” including in 1741 the ‘Bliain an Air’ when over 300,000 died. Being a Catholic peasant then meant one was never far from death through starvation whilst still suffering from state discrimination and repression. It was no wonder that many sought protection from the many illegal gangs from a sectarian background that sprung up’
Furthermore Catholics also had to to pay the hated “tithes “ tax to pay for the upkeep of the Anglican clergy. Presbyterians also had to pay it and was a constant source of resentment to them.
Because of the ban on education during both the 17th and 18th century on catholics those who wished to become priests had to leave Ireland. So institutions for training priests were established across Europe. France had a concentration of these institutions. These returning priests influenced by the ideas of the countries they were trained in brought fresh thinking back to Ireland.
The British Government was uneasy at this particularly because of the influence of “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason”.The idea that reason was the primary source of authority and legitimacy totally undermined the absolute authority of both Church and State. Ideas such as liberty and religious tolerance threatened the very existence of theses institutions. All over Europe small groups discussed these new radical ideas enthused by the slogan “Sapere aude” or “dare to know”.
In Ireland the spread of radical ideas, including relatively new concepts like “liberty, equality and fraternity” also had a profound effect on sections of the Presbyterians middle classes leading to demand for an Irish parliament and eventually, from more advanced radicals, an Irish Republic.
The loss of the American Colonies in 1775 had shaken the British establishment and led to some easing of the penal laws from 1778 onwards. Britain had no desire to loss any more colonies especially not Ireland which could become a base for Britain’s enemies.
The authority of both Churches and Monarchy was undermined by these ideas of The Enlightenment. The French Revolution influenced by the Enlightenment overthrew the French monarchy and sending shivers of fear around the ruling absolute monarchs of Europe.
One side effect of the French Revolution was that the Irish seminaries in France for priests were confiscated by the State in 1792 and 1793. The Catholic Church in the form of the Irish Bishops having no desire to see “revolutionary priests” returning from the continent petitioned the British Parliament to relax the laws against Catholic education. That government also had no desire for “revolutionary priests” either and already engaged in war with revolutionary France quickly conceded to the Bishops and
“An Act for the better education of persons professing the Popish or Roman Catholic religion”
was passed in June 1795.With the aid of a grant from the Government, Maynooth Seminary opened in the autumn of 1795.
In the same year the foundation of the Orange Order also took place. It arose from sectarian clashes in rural Armagh and the Order committed to maintenance of the Protestant Ascendancy, gave the Government the ideal weapon to turn on or off the sectarian tap as circumstances dictated.
Both, Maynooth, ie the Hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and the Orange Order have dominated Irish society for two hundred years-two bastions of reactionary thought, opposed to any and all progressive ideas that could benefit society. Even today, both opposed the fundament ideas, never mind of the French Revolution but also of The Enlightenment.
The attempt by the United Irishmen, under Presbyterian leadership to unite both sections under an Irish Republic was crushed by a brutal response from the British Government that used sectarian divisions to ensure that attempt failed. Both the Orange Order and the catholic secret societies participated in these events.
Indeed after the Act of Union was passed in 1801 Ireland suffered adverse economic conditions partially due to the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. These impacted on local communities. Rural areas in the North has previously seen sectarian tensions between catholic and protestants. These generally taking the form of clashes between the Orange Order and the Ribbon-men.
“The Ribbon Society was a Catholic secret society set up at the beginning of the 19th century as a counter part to the Protestant Orange Order which had been growing in numbers and influence across Ulster since its inception in 1795 .http://www.lurganancestry.com/ribbonmen.htm)
The Ribbon-men were in the traditions of "The Defenders" and "The White Boys” armed rural groups from previous generations.Their aims included resisting the Orange Order and to fight against the miserable conditions in which the vast majority of Catholic tenant farmers and rural workers lived in the early 19th century. The Ribbon Society itself was a sectarian organisation which wanted to separate from the English Government and “regain all rights lost since the Reformation “ and put down Protestantism. However it vaguely looked to the likes of Daniel O’Connell and the catholic middle classes to lead their uprising. When that failed to materialise the Society’s two main aims became, resisting the Orange Order and mutual aid for its members.
During the recent round of the “troubles” Belfast was the centre for much of the sectarian bitterness and violence. That was no accident.
Belfast began to grow from the beginning of the 19th century. The population that flocked to the Town from rural parts of Ulster brought with them their own religion, culture traditions and prejudices.
However sectarian riots and disturbances were not confined to Belfast.
Between 1812 and 1815 there were sectarian riots in Antrim, Belfast, Bangor and Ballynahinch coinciding with a sharp decline in the living standards of weavers and factory workers.
In Belfast the most violent districts were Sandy Row and The Pound Loney. Their residents began to come into Belfast from the beginning of the eighteen hundreds. They took with them the sectarian beliefs and passions they had inherited from their histories. The first sectarian clashes occurred in North Street on the 12th July 1813 when Catholics attacked Orange men outside a pub they used for their lodge. North Street Belfast was the scene of two more bitter riots the next two years
In the 1820s sectarian tensions arose probably from a number of causes. Following the establishment of Maynooth there was an increase in the number of priests by 52% between 1800 and 1835 in Ulster and an increase in the catholic middle classes. The influence of Maynooth was spreading at a time when Protestant Ministers established the Second Reformation to convert the Catholic population.
This in turn coincided with hysterical reactions to false prophecies of a priest called Pastorini in the 1770s who predicted the violent destruction of Protestant churches by 1825.These began to achieve prominent circulation during the famine and fever of 1817 and indeed led to violent outrages in Munster, known as the Rockite Sectarian Riots against Protestants.
In 1822, 1824 and 1825, riots broke out on the Orange Orders 12th Marches in Belfast. In self defence members of both communities looked to the Orange Order or the Ribbon Society for protection.Fierce clashes occurred in Cavan, Monaghan,Armagh, Down, Tyrone and Derry.
Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation campaign was organised to abolish laws that discriminated against Catholics.His mass campaign frightened the British Government into acceding to his demands because they thought Ireland would be ungovernable if they resisted. Correspondingly this frightened the protestants and caused a reaction to O’Connell’s manifestations of catholic power.
The violence that occurred was described as
“in some places amounted almost to a civil war” (Belfast Newsletter 14 July 1829) By the 1830s the Ribbon Society had 53 companies in Belfast and even as late as 1840s had over 1,000 men in the town.
However O’Connell’s Repeal campaign to repeal the Union between Britain and Ireland whilst mobilising millions failed in the face of British intransigence and petered out in an embarrassing attempt at armed rebellion by more advanced republicans in the midst of the famine.
In the aftermath of the “Famine”and the starvation of millions and the migration of at least another million the land question became a central issue
In the North the population was still predominantly rural-less than 15% of the population resided in towns of 2000 or more residents. In rural areas the northern tenant right associations were more moderate than the emerging land league in the South which called for the abolition of landlordism itself. It is worth noting that only 804 landlords held 80% of the land in Ulster. Never the less, these same landlords in their political life held the allegiance of the vast majority of the rural protestant population.During the life of the Land league which used mass agitation, parliamentary pressure and occasional violence against landlords and their agents, the Orange Order was utilised to try to break boycotts of Landlords. Only recently pro-British elements from the North were utilised by banks to evict a family from their farm in County Roscommon.- the more things change?
Rather than concede Home Rule to Ireland British Tories formed an unholy alliance with Northern Unionism to resist change. Not only did they encourage mutiny in the British Army itself but advocated the partition Ireland. James Connolly predicted that such an outcome would create a carnival of reaction in both parts of Ireland. As indeed proved to be the case. The resulting settlement saw two essentially sectarian states. Northern Nationalists were essentially imprisoned in the North under Unionism which openly encouraged discrimination, pogroms and severe repressive measures to ensure Northern nationalists knew their place-at the back of the bus. There were pogroms in the 1920’s and in the 1930’s. There was the tricolour incident in 1964 and the establishment of the UVF in 1966 to oppose liberalisation. Back to the “protestant parliament for a protestant people” !
Meanwhile in the South both sections of the Southern Bourgoise knelt at the altar of the Roman Catholic Church. The defeats suffered by both progressive republicans and socialist within the working class movements north and south during the struggles for independence sapped the energy from those movements. Despite odd moments when some spirit was shown during the dark years from the twenties to the fifties conservatism and servility was the order of the day. During the life of the First Stormont Parliament before its dissolution in 1972 Northern nationalists succeed only once in having any legislation passed and that was on wild life. Nationalism was under the control of the catholic church. Sad to say despite the genuine efforts of many during those dark days to mobilise and energise progressive movements, little progress was made. There was a general acceptance that the back of the bus was ok- at least we had a seat!
Many of those associated with the Labour movement were content with this. It was alright to use repressive laws agains those nasty republicans but lay of the labour movement! They saw no connection between the class struggle and the national struggle.
During the Second World War the Communist Party of Northern Ireland had a newspaper, Unity. Its edition of March 13th 1943 argued not for the abolishment of the Special Powers Act (SPA) but its replacement with the British Emergency Powers Act as a ‘fairer’ method of repression.The SPA was used almost exclusively against Irish Republicans and was much admired by the Apartheid South African Government. This was against a background of state repression of those workers who put the interests of the working class first. A plumber called Pat McKevitt was arrested and detained on 29th December 1942. A Release Committee was established and appeals made to a wide section of organisations. One of those organisations was the Belfast and District Trades Council.
The Belfast Telegraph carried a report of the meeting to discuss this appeal .
“Miss Betty Sinclair moving that the deputation be not received said she understood the authorities intended to send McKevitt back over the border. The Trotskyist movement were against the war effort and its politics were not of the working class.” Miss Sinclair knew before McKevitt, his wife or his solicitor that he was to be deported.Who told her?
Of course the republican movement itself did not exactly cover itself with glory during the fifty years of the First Stormont Parliament. It flirted with fascism for a brief period, it refused to allow its members to participate in workers struggle during the thirties (except for a brief period) and totally ignored the Unemployed Workers movement in Dublin during the fifties. Operation Harvest during the latter part of the fifties and early sixties made no effort to appeal to class conscious workers. The then IRA was stuck in a militaristic mindset.
The turn to the left in the late sixties by the republican movement coincided with a growing anti-imperialist and left wing swing world wide. The emergence of the civil rights movements was not just a spontaneous movement that arose from nowhere. It was the culmination of steady work by many activists in different parts over many years and from all and no political backgrounds and also influenced by the civil rights movement in the USA and agitators like Martin Luther King. It did not and does not belong to any particular party-neither to the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Communist Party, Official Sinn Fein nor Peoples Democracy. It was for a brief moment in history a mass movement that started to change society.
In the Southern states of the USA Blacks were discriminated against to prevent them from voting. King organised three Selma to Montgomery. The first was
attacked by state troopers with tear gas and billy clubs(sound familiar?) and was known as “Bloody Sunday”. The final march took over three days and was protected by Federal agents. The route of that march is now designated as a USA National Historic Trail.
The question that all those who criticised the Long March to Derry as “coat -trailing” “provocative” “ sectarian”and “ultra left” etc etc should ask themselves is, ‘do these words not equally apply to those who organised Selma to Montgomery including Martin Luther King. Were these three marches going through white areas not racist, ultra leftist, provocative coat-trailing?’
It is worth pointing out that during all the period of the Marches blacks were being killed by white supremacists.
When O’Neill made his “Ulster at the Crossroads” Speech in early December 1968 just over a week after Paisley and Bunting’s thugs had occupied the centre of Armagh his plea was crouched in moderate terms but with the threat of force behind it
“In Londonderry and other places recently a minority of agitators determined to subvert lawful authority played a part in setting light to highly inflammable
material. But the tinder for that fire in the form of grievances real or imaginary had been piling up for years.”
“we must tackle root causes if this agitation is to be contained. We must be able to say to the moderates of both sides: Come with us into a new era of co-operation and leave the extremists to the law.
But this I also say to all Protestant or Roman Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist:- Disorder must now cease. We are taking the necessary measures to strengthen our Police Forces. Determined as we are to act with absolute fairness we will also be resolute in restoring respect for the laws of the land.”
I ask you now with all sincerity to call your people off the streets and allow an atmosphere favourable to change to develop. You are Ulstermen yourselves. You know we are all of us stubborn people who will not be pushed too far. I believe that most of you want change, not revolution. Your voice has been heard and clearly heard. Your duty now is to play your part in taking the heat out of the situation before blood is shed.
Naturally the so called centre ground rallied to the cause. The media backed his call as did voices within nationalism. For example the leader of the then Nationalist Party accepted the reforms on the basis that half a loaf was better than no bread. But it was because of that attitude over the years that nationalism itself had been repressed.They had been bought off by crumbs from the table.What Eddie Mc Ateer did not realise was that the younger generation were no longer prepared to accept second class citizenship.
O’Neill believed if they treated catholics as equals they would stopped having 12 or thirteen children and behave like “good protestants”. Visiting a convent and patronising Catholics is not political leadership. Ulster Unionism whether under the UUP or the DUP has never accepted nationalists as equal citizenships within the northern state. Yes, it was a cold house for nationalists but we still await an apology for 50 years of discrimination, repressive laws and sectarianism from the leaders of Unionism. Since Burntollet nothing has changed in Unionism.
Unemployment,emigration, discrimination, the British National Anthem in the cinema, the signing of a oath to the British monarch to become a teacher, the mocking of Irish culture, the anti-popery tirades from papers and pulpits and the yearly ‘Croppy lie down’ parades from ‘kick the Pope’ bands and the dominant Orange culture that existed 50 years ago, all added in small and diverse ways to create, within many young people, a desire for radical change.
This combined with the youth culture of the sixties and the spirit of rebellion around the world created a rebellious streak in many. (Do we notice too much change today?)
Hence the decision to go ahead with the Long March To Derry. For us it would be a test of the so called moderate position. Would or could the RUC protect our democratic right to protest? Of course there was opposition.
Tommy McKearney, an ex ira volunteer and now a political activist speaks approvingly of Betty Sinclair’s opposition to the so called ‘ultra lefts’-meaning Peoples Democracy , and Tommy says we should have worked ‘sedately’ to build a ‘broad base’ for reforms in her words! This is the same person who supported more ‘moderate’ repression during the war and supported the deportation of working class activists. As a former Sinn Fein activists wrote recently
“Her ‘experience’ had taught her political timidity and conservatism and always to avoid the radical option. Her position, mirroring that of her organisation, was one of abject reformism in relation to the six-county state. Tommy used to know stuff like this, so I’m sad to see him engaged in deciding to forget it.”
Retrospectively,Tommy, a man who has many fine qualities and for whom I have great admiration, has accepted the Communist Party line on the whole civil rights struggle. He even suggests, mistakenly in this writers opinion, that the Provisional IRA favoured reforms up until Bloody Sunday. My clear recollection of that period is that Provos bitterly attacked the Civil rights struggle as reformist and it was national rights not civil rights they were after . How could it have been otherwise when their leadership was bitterly attacking the Goulding Official IRA for been “communist”and for advocating setting up a National Liberation Front.
The first edition of Republican News carried the following
“It is the duty of every republican to assist in the build up of a strong movement of resistance to British interference in Irish Affairs. There must be an effective well co-ordinated disciplined national struggle for freedom and National re-unification.”
This hardly sounds like a reformist strategy nor did the sound of 153 bombs exploding during 1970 sound like a solid endorsement of the civil rights strategy of non violence. However it is clear that it was the initial violence of the Unionist state, its loyalist allies and the armed actions of the British army that drove the civil rights movement of the streets. Bloody Sunday was the final straw.
Indeed is it not an historic irony that the two biggest opponents of the civil rights struggle were those who went on to establish the Democratic Unionist Party and Provisional Sinn Fein and who eventually established a British sectarian administration at Stormont better remembered for its sectarianism and ‘jobs for the boys’ approach.
Another critic of the PD decision to go ahead with the march was Kevin McCorry a civil rights activist, quoted approvingly by Deaglan de Breadun (Irish News 18/6/18), speaking at the same meeting as Tommy McKearney in November 2018 in Dublin
“the political effects were disastrous” because it sharpened the polarisation between the two communities.
The evidence for this is very thin on the ground. From the start Unionist politicians whipped up their supporters against the implementation of democratic rights. Marches were opposed before January 1st 1969 . Thugs roamed the streets in opposition to democratic rights. A bomb blew up a republican monument in Toome on the 2nd of January 1969. On the contrary the evidence is clear that on the issue of civil rights Unionism was unbending. As indeed they still are today on the issues of equality.
As a result of the events from, in particular October the 5th 1968, but also because of the activities of many great activists before then-the Unionist hierarchy under Terence O’Neill in mid December made his “ At the Cross roads speech” in which he appealed for a halt to the civil rights campaign. Moderate nationalism and members of the CPNI wanted to accede to O’Neills call to get of the streets.
But as Bernadette Devlin said,
“Our function in marching from Belfast to Derry's to break the truce,to relaunch the civil rights movements mass movement and to show people that O’Neill was,in fact,offering them nothing. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it so that we could sweep it up”
Before the march itself PD pointed out that both the entire civil rights movement and the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson had condemned the November 68 reforms announced by O’Neill as inadequate.
“-we are demanding not privileges but rights and that in marching to Derry we are merely exercising another fundamental democratic right”
When the leadership of PD decided to go ahead with the Burntollet march we had no faith in the “good intentions” of Unionism. We were right then. When we were physically attacked by 200 loyalists b”specials and right wing reactionaries there was no condemnation of the attackers from Unionism - part of whose leadership helped organise that attack. Instead we-the victims of a vicious sectarian attack on 18 to 24 year old students marching for equal rights were condemned — the start of a culture of blaming the victims.
In the 50 years since the Burntollet ambush Unionism of what ever variety has continued to act as if nothing has changed from the 1920s. “Fenians” are “rascals rogues or ruffians” who need to be “house trained” or worse.
Unionism never had any intention of dismantling the sectarian nature of the state in 1968. The ultimate responsibility for the so called ‘troubles’ lies with those who had authority over the six counties. Many organisations and individuals participated in many of the events since October 1968. Mistakes were made. Many people died.
But this writer is clear -the Long March to Derry was no mistake. It was the right thing to do. Passivity in the face of injustice and tyranny is no virtue.
In 1968 it was time to call out Northern Ireland for what it was- a sectarian state that was incapable of reform. Burntollet exposed that clearly.