Saturday, 25 May 2019



MAY 2019

Unfinished Business : The Politics of 'Dissident' Irish Republicanism

A Review

“Unfinished Business” by Marisa McGlinchey  was published in early 2019 and is about the politics of dissident Irish Republicanism. In her own words it
“ — seeks to delve into the psyche of radical republicanism through the actual voices of republican activists”.

The author is influenced by the Social Movement Theory  and the work of Donatella Della Porta and identifies the significance of the following on radical republicanism;

-family background -ideological changes in the Provos-a sense of betrayal and -a belief in the continuity of the struggle

She had interviewed a wide spectrum of opinion within the dissident world and carried out  wide ranging research and reading on the activities of dissidents and the work of other academic writers.

For a number of the activists interviewed it is clear they were strongly influenced by their family background.Some Republicans can trace their family republicanism even back to the 19th century. Others can recall  that, when young, the raids by the police on their homes and the way they were treated by the authorities both north and south left a lasting impression. 

While now  in 2019 it may be all right to call oneself a republican it was not always so. Following defeat in the civil war in 1922 many republicans were forced to emigrate because of  poverty unemployment and repression. 

Certainly in the North and South there was continued repression by the newly formed Stormont Government and the new Free State government. Republicans stuck out like sore thumbs as their homes were regularly raided and they were arrested for selling the Easter Lily. There were no soft jobs, cushy salaries or career prospects for republicans then. Also they were few and far between numerically. In some districts one could count the number of republicans on one hand. Many were forced to emigrate so it should be no surprise that their descendants  in the USA would carry banners proclaiming “England Out of Ireland”

In the North the betrayal of partition left a demoralised, defeated and cowed minority  Most northern nationalists ignored republicans  and mostly supported  those nationalists backed by the Catholic Church and the local gombeen men. Resistance was futile.

At least it was if you listened to the Catholic Church.Hell was not hot enough for the Fenians in the mid 19th century. One hundred years on, In the late nineteen sixties a University friend of mine was also threatened with Hell by a Catholic priest. His ‘crime’ was selling copies on the “United Irishman"-the paper of the then united Republican Movement. This was a crime because it was banned under the notorious Special Powers Act. Suffering was not to be resisted but rather endured and offered up for the repose of the holy souls!!! 

Such was the almost total grip that religion had on the thoughts and actions of the vast majority of Ireland’s population. And in the front ranks of those who imposed this stifling orthodoxy on the people were the catholic lay organisations like the Hibernians and the Irish National Foresters. They were the other side of the coin to the  Orange Order and the Black Preceptory.

Up to the late 1960s rural nationalist areas were strongholds of nationalism. Republicans were few and far between. Going back to the period after 1916 there had been many clashes between Republicans and Hibernians in which the republicans usually came of worst.When in the early 1960s the release of those who took part in Operation Harvest (1956-1962) occurred there were no wild celebrations or car honking. They slipped back into  their communities not as heroes but as almost outcasts looking forward to unemployment or low paid labouring jobs working for monied gombeen nationalists.

 Those experiences  tended to re-enforce their separateness from nationalism and their own sense of worth. At least in their eyes they had fought for something worthwhile. And they hung on to what they perceived to be the traditional republican values. They had raised the flag of resistance. It was up to another generation to once more raise the standard. Like the Phoenix they would raise again.

And when in 1969 the North was in flames Irish Republicanism had a revival.  And with that revival came the inevitable split between those who wished to adapt to the new situation and those who stuck to a rigid interpretation of what Republicanism was.-the sticky-provo split

 Republicanism itself, like the Catholic Church had its own ideological hangups. Sacred scripture never to be  questioned, never even to be discussed - Abstentionism-armed force-disdain of ‘politics’ and an almost cult-like devotion to suffering-hunger strikes torture, years rotting in jails,  deaths by British terror gangs, volunteers mowed down in ambushes! This is not to denigrate the sacrifices made  over two hundred years but to question their effectiveness. To endure is not to succeed.What really has been the fruits from these sacrifices?

Today Irish Republicanism, as exemplified by the “dissidents” and their predecessors - Provisional Sinn Fein,have achieved absolutely nothing.   Britain still controls the northern part of the island while the South is in hock to international corporations, banks and financial houses.
 As James Connolly once wrote “Lets Whoop it up for liberty.”

The  Homeless die on the streets-children go to schools hungry, suicides ravages working class communities, as in despair many succumb to the death drugs peddled  by international criminal gangs. The health services are in dire straits and welfare cuts are sucking the life out of many families.

 All the major political parties in Ireland accept the neo-liberal free enterprise economy. In plain language they support capitalism. The leading nationalist parties in the North are quiet happy for Ireland to be re-united under the capitalist system-as indeed would Britain and the European Union. That poses no threat to stability of that system. 

Sinn Fein itself,  despite occasionally radical posturing, helped restore Stormont, has facilitated Tory Welfare cuts for the north of Ireland, its leaders have rung the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and they have agreed a system of administration that 1) sectarianised the struggle for unity and  2) debased the fundamental ideals underpinning Irish Republicanism. 

It is no wonder there was dissent. Practically every ideological position held by the leadership of  Provisional movement was ditched. The only one they retained was abstention from Westminster to retain some semblance of their former republican positions.

So when Marissa McGlinchey  identifies the strong sense of betrayal felt by the ‘Dissidents’  she strikes a cord. However one should not be surprised at the betrayals. Both Republican and Socialist organisations have endured many splits and divisions. It is part and parcel of political struggle.  However to personalise that sense of betrayal  as many dissidents have done around the personality of Gerry Adams is to make a fundamental mistake. While individuals can and do make a difference the fundamental driving force in history is the class struggle. It is the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. 

Much of todays politics is based around personalities all wanting their day in the sun. Few push policies that would actually make a difference. It is all soundbites and photo opportunities! That is because almost without exception those who stand for elections in both parts of Ireland accept the status quo.They have no concept of class struggle or a perspective of building a mass movement to change things.

And in the absence of an alternative many working class youth, particularly if growing up in areas of deprivation and poverty, can be easy seduced by the opposite side of electoralism-militarism.

The leadership of the Provisional Movement always made it clear from their foundation that they were “anti-communist” that there were no “marxists” in their movement and indeed time has borne out that position. They never posed a threat  to the system. They only wanted their share of power and saw the struggle for a united Ireland as the way to that.  So they mobilised nationalists in armed struggle to fight for in essence a capitalist Ireland.  

Those volunteers who thought that the struggle was for a socialist Ireland were fooled and betrayed. Once power beckoned then their struggle was really for “equality”. That has become the mantra of today’s Sinn Fein’s leadership. It now seems all those deaths all those years of imprisonment all that pain was actually for marriage equality and an Irish Language Act!

That  mantra” equality” is in essence a total acceptance of the status quo. Make us all equal under capitalism. Formal equality under the law challenges nothing. Exploitation  can continue , poverty can continue .After all the legal system in the British Isles is based fundamentally on defence of the right to private property, i.e., those lands and properties stolen by the robber baron during the Middle Ages and legalised by Acts of Parliament controlled by those same robber barons and their friends in the Church.

Has the law brought any justice for the relatives of innocent victims of the “trouble”. There is no equality before the law son long as the British State covers up the crimes of the agents.  

What was actually achieved by Stormont since the Good Friday Agreement?During their time in power Sinn Fein and the DUP participated in a sectarian carve up while scandal after scandal unfolded during their watch.
 Remember these?

 -the Red Sky Housing maintenance scheme of Nelson
 -the sale of £1.2 billion of Nama Property,
 -the awarding of £700,000 for research carried out by A Sinn Fein controlled firm(Did anyone ever see the research?) ;
-the Speaker’s involvement in awarding £1.7million of Social  Investment funds to a group he was a lobbyist for;
-the Casement Park debacle; 
-the sale of land reserved for social housing to property speculators; 
-the sale of the old High Court for a £1 to another property speculator who also sat on the Policing Board;
-the RHI enquiry
-the list goes on.

There were supposed to be benefits to flow from the Peace process (or pacification process). There were. For the supporters and followers of those who adhered to Sinn Fein/DUP and IRA(p) /UVF/RHC. Hence the divvying up of money from both the Executive when it functioned, and the Belfast City Council. 

That that system is no longer sustainable and has collapsed, is in spite of Sinn Fein’s attempts to save it in the 1918 agreement they thought they had agreed with the DUP, does not reflect well on the current Sinn Fein leadership. 
It may well be that eventually the DUP and Sinn Fein will eventually cobble together some sort of deal that restores Stormont .But you can be sure any fruits of that deal will not fall far from the tables of both those parties.

 Working class areas that had historically been poverty  stricken have seen  little change. Those are the areas where dissidents and loyalists have their strongest support. Membership of armed groups gives a sense of purpose and meaning to lives. The state we live doesn't .

It is clear from the views expressed in “Unfinished Business“ that there is a clear historical rational for the existence of the “dissidents”. The partition of Ireland and the denial of sovereignty  is the underlying reason for their existence. So long as Ireland is divided there will always be people who will resist that division. Neither Brexit not the absence or presence of a Stormont administration  will impact on that fact.Of course the armed groups will use those issues to recruit people to their organisations. 
However the multiplicity of organisations,  often set up because of personality conflicts,  weakens the case for the “dissidents”

While it is understandable that McGlinchey concentrates on the emergence of the Dissidents from the 1980s it is clear that the roots of dissent were always there within Republicanism. 
One need only mention

The Invincibles,  Saor Eire,        Saor Uladh.         

Then there was  the emergence of the Provos and the Officials in the early 1970s. The split from the Officials that saw the emergence of the IRSP/iNLA.
The brief life of the IPLO from the INLA. The Democratic Left from the Officials/Workers Party.  The Official Republican Movement (ORM )from the Workers Party. 

The list goes on.

Saor Uladh seems to have been the first to  advocate a Nine County Ulster Dail, an idea  later put forward by the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership under Ruari O’Bradaigh and Daithi O’Connell in the early seventies and then ditched by the emerging Adams leadership in the late seventies/early eighties. Interestingly the first dissident split from the Provos in 1986 saw the newly emergent Republican Sinn Fein adopt the idea of an Ulster Dail.

At the roots of the emergence of splits was ideology. One writer has said that

“ The fractious and heterogeneous nature of the republican movement has  been an enduring characteristic throughout the last century.”(unknown)

Prior to 1916 there were severe disagreements with the broad church of republicanism. James Connolly had bitterly acted Arthur Griffith”s Sinn Fein policy and had also attacked the physical force policy of the “mountainy men”. He had his own Citizen Army based on the Dublin working class and with very different perspectives to those in the IRB with whom he formed an alliance that resulted in the 1916 Rising. 

Those who spearheaded the guerrilla campaign that forced the British to the negotiating table split over the Treaty and waged civil war. De Valera and Fianna Fail split from the defeated remnants of the Republican side in the Civil War taking the majority in 1925. Those who were left maintained the existence of the IRA  although it forbade volunteers to join Sinn Fein. 

However the emergence of the great Depression following the collapse of the Stock Markets  began a process of radicalising the IRA. By 1931 they had intervened in a number of strikes developed a political programme called SaorEire and campaigned against paying annuities to the British State. IRA members also worked in the “Friends of the Soviet Union” from which they expelled members of the Communist Party when both sides had a falling-out. However this radicalisation period came to an abrupt end. Following the introduction of repressive legislation by the Free State authorities and widespread condemnation by the Catholic Church,  the Saor Eire programme was dropped. 

Faced with this capitulation left wing members of the IRA including  Peadar O'Donnell, Frank Ryan and George Gilmore left to build a new organisation called Republican Congress. However Moss Twomey the leader  the IRA, ordered IRA members to have nothing to do with the new organisation. Needless to say the Republican Congress itself split as most as soon as it was formed between those who wanted a broad front for “the Republic” and those more left wing who wanted a “ Socialist Republic ” to appeal to the industrial working class in the North. The remnants of the Congress regrouped around the defence of the Spanish Republic and opposed the rising fascist tide. But it was the end of any left wing in the IRA for thirty years.

The IRA was now under the control  of conservative indeed reactionary  nationalists who had no problem trying to work with Nazi Germany during the 2nd world War.  The new IRA leader Sean Russell launched a bombing campaign in England that was ultimately a disaster.The Fianna Fail Government had declared a policy of neutrality and so cracked down viciously on the IRA

More splits followed including the debacle of the Stephen Hayes affair,  leading to the formation of Clann na Poblacht under the control of a former Chief of Staff of the IRA  Sean McBride a son of the one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising

 In the 1950s  there were at least two if not more, break aways from the IRA before  Operation  Harvest. In the sixties there was a breakaway in Cork and then in the late sixties the emergence of the Officials and the Provos. That split had clear idealogical reasons. The officials argued for the democratisation of the North and the creation of a strong left wing alliance. They supported the tactical use of force in limited circumstances.The emergent Provos in 1970 wanted the abolition of Stormont, the ditching of  left wing ideas and  an armed campaign. 

Then the officials split in 1974 for the IRSP/INLA to emerge. In the 1980s there was the short-lived PLO followed by the formation of Republican Sinn Fein. In the 1990s the IRSP was convulsed by yet another split that almost saw its demise.  Then the Real IRA was formed only to disappear in the early 2000s to reappear under various names including ONH and now the New IRA.

So splits divisions and dissent are not unusual. What is unusual about the modern day emergence of the “dissidents” or in McGlinchey’s name, with which this writer strongly disagrees “radical republicans” is that they are entirely from the ranks of the provisionals. The provisional IRA waged a campaign armed resistance to the partition of Ireland for the best part of thirty years. Their volunteers spent many years in jails, endured torture, hunger strikes, and, eventually for many, disillusionment with the products of their many years of struggle-acceptance of a new Stormont and  for equality. Was this what so many died for?Having loyally followed their leadership through many twists and turns sections at different times walked away following the  GFA, then the St Andrews Agreement, decommissioning and then acceptance of policing.

Other Republicans warned the they were locked into a sectarian set up. Both the RSF and the IRSP, from differing perspectives,  rejected the Fruits of the Good Friday Agreement
.-RSF from the traditional republican position of rejection of any parliament and adherence to the abstentionist position to all parliaments except that of the First Dail. (which no longer exists except as a metaphysical concept)

-The IRSP, both from a class perspective and a rejection  of an internal settlement that retained the Unionist veto. 

However although the IRSP accepted, that the majority of people in Ireland wanted peace and so voted for the various proposals put forward during the whole peace pacification process, they, the IRSP, did not accepted the premises on which that pacification process was built upon. They clearly identified it as a sectarian carve up.

These differing perspectives also show up what has always been the case-a clash between what are called “traditional republican “ values and a socialist or marxist perspective.
This writer has argued in the past that the  decision to commit the Republican Movement to a struggle for a Socialist Republic in the latter part of the 1960s by its leadership was a mistake. 

Suddenly Tom├ís Mac Giolla,-who spoke about the pernicious influence of “foreign dances” was converted to socialism seven years later. In so doing the way was made open for ant-socialist elements to  start mobilise against what was in essence a top down decision. Nothing was done to prepare the membership for this change. You cannot turn a traditional organisation  with all the divisions and tendencies that existed historically, which the RM was in the sixties, into a socialist organisation over night. Especially not when both the political and military sides are controlled by the leadership of the Military. Armed organisations are rarely noted for their democratic tendencies. Military discipline requires both loyalty and obedience. The leadership knows best!

Those small republican organisations that retain both military and political organisations know only too well who literally calls the shots. Making occasionally nods to the writings of Ta Power, without putting in place the mechanisms to implement his writings, is just playing with politics.  Without democratic accountability  corruption can creep in. 

It is clear that those groups still committed to the use of force have little support and that they know it. It is also clear that they recognise they will not force the British Government to the negotiating table. So what is their justification for continuing armed struggle that will only create more victims and send young people to years in jail? To continue a tradition? To pass on the flame of resistance?  

We have only recently had local Government elections in the North. No dissidents  stood on a political programme. Standing as independents is not the same as standing for a clear political programme or party. Independents can and do help people and are well meaning. But you cannot build a mass movement nor even a party on the basis of well meaning help for “my community”. To stand as an independent why paying lip service to the ideals of Connolly, Mellows and Ta Power is a nonsense and also leaves the way open for other opportunist ‘leftists’ it'sto pose as defenders of the working class.

The working class in Ireland north and south are under immense pressure from  capitalism.  Irish Republicanism has always attracted to its ranks  some of the best of each generation not because of its ideological strait-jacks but because of its underlying commitment to liberty equality and fraternity. 

Those concepts have much more relevance to the modern world than commitments to failed practices and  policies as outlined in Marisa McGlinchey’s book. Why continue to do what has manifestly failed repeatedly in the past.

Now in the 21st century planet earth is on the verge of destroying itself due to the senseless plundering of its resources by rampant capitalism. There are many opportunities to resist this by political action. 
Paying lip service to “radical” ideals while failing to challenge the status quo is not the way forward.

It is time to lay down the gun and build a mass movement to take back  not merely Ireland but the earth. 


Friday, 4 January 2019



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 .

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.