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Eamonn McCann

Worth fighting for

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eamonn McCann was involved in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 1960s and is an active socialist in Derry today. He talked to Phil Gasper about the political situation in Ireland and the aims of socialists there

How did you first become involved in politics?

I’ve been politically active for as long as I can remember. My father was a shop steward in the electricians’ union and was a member of Derry Trades Council for a quarter of a century. One of the earliest things I remember is a room full of men – usually men – smoking in our little house in the Bogside and discussing problems in the trade union movement.

If you grow up in a place like the Bogside you very quickly become aware of the political situation, because literally at the age of six or seven it’s clear, if you’ve been born into the Catholic community, that there’s something strange going on here. The Catholics are in a majority in the town but the Loyalists have a majority on the local council. That was a constant topic of conversation, along with discrimination against Catholics in jobs and in housing and so forth. Everybody in the Bogside was aware of that from the earliest time that they were capable of rational thought.

So that was my background in labour and civil rights politics. Then when I went to university in the early 1960s, CND and campaigns against militarism were emerging strongly, and the beginnings of what was to become the student revolt. I came into contact with revolutionary socialist ideas and with Trotskyism, and I’ve taken it from there.

You became a central figure to the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. What sparked that struggle?

The civil rights movement began as a reflection of frustration with the fact that constitutional, conventional politics didn’t seem to be providing any remedy for the situation. Anti-Unionist politics in the North were dominated by the Nationalist Party, which was a very conservative organisation.

A number of youngish people, particularly in Derry in the early stages, got together and began to talk about taking politics onto the streets. This was in mid-1967 and 1968 and it reflected something that was happening around the world. There had been the black civil rights movement in the United States which was very important.

Street protests were held simply demanding reform of the allocation of jobs and houses, and demanding a fairer system of electoral boundaries and so forth. When they were met with repression and with straightforward physical assaults by the police, developments began which led towards the emergence of the Provisional IRA and the fightback against the state. So beginning from very simple things, like we want a fair voting system and equal distribution of jobs and houses, very quickly – literally within months – a situation had arisen in which people were saying we’ve really got to take on the state.

This led speedily to discussion of the Republican tradition which had been dormant in the 1960s in all of Ireland. But once cops began attacking the civil rights marches, people’s thoughts began to turn to a physical confrontation with the state. It was in these conditions that the IRA eventually appeared.

Why was it so difficult for the state in Northern Ireland to grant even these very basic reforms?

The machinery of the state had developed over half a century. The police, the RUC,was an overwhelmingly Protestant and sectarian force. A lot of the grievances in the Catholic community were directed specifically against the RUC, and after the 1968 civil rights marches these grievances accumulated because the RUC was just physically battering people off the streets. In April 1969 the first person to die in the Troubles, Sammy Devenney in William Street in Derry, was beaten to death by the RUC.

The problem for the authorities was that, in order to buy off the civil rights demonstrators at that time, one of the things they’d have had to do was deal with the fact that the police were murdering people. This was something that the whole force was steeped in.

The media generally portrays the IRA as fanatics and psychopaths. What is the reality?

The IRA isn’t a group of fanatics and psychopaths. No group of psychopaths could maintain the degree of popular support which is necessary to sustain an armed struggle over a period of more than two decades.

It’s self evidently the case that the IRA represents a group of people who feel that they have no way of finding a remedy for the situation other than by insurrection. That says something about the nature of the Northern state. The IRA’s a military organisation of course, a clandestine organisation, but I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of its members are perfectly ordinary people, as are the people who support it, who vote for its political wing, Sinn Fein.

Why has the British government now started moving towards a possible deal with the IRA and Sinn Fein?

I think the British government is moving towards disengagement from Northern Ireland. The joint declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds back in December is a very confusing document in many ways. It’s a series of word games which tries to satisfy the two opposing sides.

But the British government does declare in the joint declaration in unambiguous terms that it has no long term selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland is constitutionally part of the United Kingdom. The British government doesn’t say this about any other part of the United Kingdom. It doesn’t say it about Yorkshire or Devon or Cornwall. It has been signalling more and more clearly over the past few years that there is no overwhelming desire to retain Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

The more far sighted sections of the British ruling class also perceive that it is possible to do business with the leadership of the Republican movement.

The fact is that there’s nothing in the politics of Republicanism which necessarily contradicts any vital interests of the British ruling class. The British ruling class thinks it can do business with the IRA. It also means that the type of deal which is likely to emerge will be designed to allow the two communities in the North of Ireland to live separately and at peace with one another. It’s not going to end sectarianism in the North of Ireland. It’s going to manage it, institutionalise it.

At a time of recession this will mean, for example, that there will be relatively little change economically for the Catholic working class, that if anything the Protestant working class will be worse off than now. It will mean that in terms of hospitals, jobs, houses, each community will be put in a position of comparing how it’s doing in relation to the other community. This is a recipe for continued sectarianism.

But the British ruling class could live with that. If they can get away with that and there’s a period of peace they could edge their way out of Northern Ireland and give the Dublin government some sort of role in the North representing the Catholic community, while they would continue in some sense to represent the Protestant community. But we’d be left with the sectarianism, the poverty, and with the endless possibility of renewed violence between the two communities.

Therefore I believe that the type of deal which is likely to emerge from the Reynolds-Major document, and whatever negotiations and manoeuvrings are going on between the authors of the document and the leadership of the Republican movement, will not be a deal that socialists could accept and will not guarantee lasting peace.

What is the path to genuine peace? How can the sectarian divide be overcome?

The sectarian divide in the North is of very long standing. It’s rooted very deeply in the history of Ireland – it goes back 400 years. The politics of Northern Ireland, the dominant political structures of Northern Ireland, have always been based upon the sectarian divide. So we mustn’t underestimate the depth of the division in Northern Ireland.

What we can say is that when we look at the history of the North of Ireland, when we look for the periods when sizeable numbers of Catholic and Protestant workers have detached themselves from their sectarian communities and joined arms together, this has happened only at times of heightened class struggle, has only happened as part of class struggle. Catholic and Protestant workers join together only when their identification of themselves as workers overrides their identification of themselves as either Catholics or Protestants. That only happens, of course, when they’re collectively involved in class struggle.

Working class people come together not when somebody convinces them intellectually that this is what decent people ought to do – they come together when they have something to fight together for. And therefore I see the solution to the Northern Ireland problem as lying in class struggle.

Having said that, it would be nonsense of course simply to appeal for working class unity and not to deal directly with the reasons for sectarianism. And the reasons for sectarianism have to do with the very existence of the Northern state. The leaders of the official labour movement in Ireland have for a long time talked about working class unity, but in the interests of forging this unity they have argued the national question should not be mentioned, the state shouldn’t be mentioned.

The worst single example of this was in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Fourteen Catholics were shot dead by members of the Parachute Regiment. By coincidence, three days later in Belfast there was the largest ever meeting of trade unionists held in the North of Ireland, with over 100 foreign delegates headed by Vic Feather, then the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress in Britain. They met all day to discuss specifically the role of the trade unions in the North and what the trade unions could do. They did not mention Bloody Sunday.

The argument put up was that to have mentioned Bloody Sunday would have been divisive, because Catholic and Protestant trade unionists would have taken a different view. But this is not an excuse. What they were saying was, ‘There’s a division here. We want unity, so let’s ignore the issue about which these people are divided’ – which is nonsense. Once you begin to ask yourself what should the trade union response be to the sectarian state and the discrimination against Catholics, the only answer is that you have to campaign against it, you’ve got to lead workers against it – that’s what the activists should be doing. Unfortunately, the trade union leaders didn’t want to do that. And the main reason they didn’t want to do that was not that the trade union movement was dominated by Orange bigots, but was the same reason that they won’t lead struggles in Britain. They don’t see their role as leading workers in struggle. They see their role as facilitating settlements of labour disputes, not winning labour disputes. And they certainly don’t see their role as intervening militantly around political issues such as discrimination in Northern Ireland.

I see the way forward as the building of a current within the trade union movement of rank and file resistance to the economic pressure that workers on both sides of the sectarian divide are put under in the North of Ireland, and the unashamed and explicit linking of that to opposition to the Northern state.

Protestant workers are under enormous pressure at the moment, and many of them are torn between ancient loyalty to the British state on the one. hand, and realisation that Britain no longer wants them, doesn’t reciprocate this loyalty, on the other. If the trade union movement were to give a militant lead on economic issues and in relation to the state, then many thousands of Protestant workers would respond to it.

Our problem is that the left is very, very weak in the North of Ireland. We’re going to have to build this type of struggle in the teeth of opposition from the union bureaucrats.

So there’s no easy solution. There’s nothing that I could say to end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland this year or next year. But I think I do know the road that we have to take in order to reach an end to sectarian violence, and that is the revolutionary socialist road.

Can you describe some examples of successfully building unity between Catholic and Protestant workers?

Well, for example, last October there was a spate of killings of Catholics in Belfast by Loyalist paramilitary organisations. One Catholic was killed as he went into the Shorts aircraft factory. In fact Shorts has an overwhelmingly Protestant workforce, but thousands of workers came out in protest against the killing. It wasn’t a very militant demonstration but they did come out and stood for a minute’s silence, overwhelmingly Protestants for a Catholic worker in a clear stand which took a bit of courage in east Belfast where Shorts factory is situated.

You can also see something similar in the struggle to defend the health service in Northern Ireland, which is not related directly to the Troubles, of course, but nevertheless there you can see thousands of people on the streets defending local hospitals, protesting against cutbacks in various health services, and so forth, and Catholics and Protestants come together.

The problem that we have is the gap between some of those types of expressions of solidarity on economic issues and the campaigns simply against violence and the killing of people. The problem is that there’s no large organisation with real credibility in the working class making the links between these things. There’s a real absence of political leadership on the left in the North of Ireland, so these little sparks of cross community proletarian militancy flare up and then die down again. But they do give us a glimpse of what is possible.

The SWM (Socialist Workers Movement) operates in both Northern Ireland and in the South. What are the connections between struggles in both these places?

One of the simplest connections between the struggles in both places is that Ireland is a small country and the communications media are common to both parts of Ireland, by and large. Therefore in Derry people would know and discuss what’s happened both in the parliament in Dublin and in London and what’s happening in the streets of Dublin and the streets of London. There’s also a connection because the trade union movement is organised on a 32 county basis.

But more important than that is the fact that one of the problems faced by people who are advocating British withdrawal from the North and the dismantling of the Northern state is that this comes across very commonly as a campaign to spread the Southern Irish state in the whole territory of Ireland. Now the South of Ireland in many respects is not a very attractive place.

So the only way really to convince people that you’re not talking about extending the edict of the Southern state over the whole island is to be seen to be involved in fighting against the Southern state as well. And that means the struggle against the Northern state should be linked to a militant working class struggle in the South of Ireland for a better society there.

When anybody looks over the border from the North into the South of Ireland, they can see big changes. In the last ten or 15 years there have been big strides made over the position of women and the rights of gays in Southern Ireland. And more and more people – particularly young people – are less and less in awe of the Catholic Church in the South of Ireland, and of authority generally. Our goal is to link up with those people, to make the call for a united Ireland something which involves all those things which are happening around abortion rights and gay rights, and economic advances for the working class, and the rest of it – therein lies the key to solving the Irish question.

How do you see the prospects for socialists in Ireland and in other parts of the world today? Are you optimistic about what can be achieved?

I’m certainly optimistic about what could be achieved, because the opportunities are there. Working class people know that they’ve been got at, they know they’re losing rights, they know that the prospects for their children to get a decent education and a decent job are worse than even a few years ago. And people are alarmed by this. There’s a lot of fear, alarm and anger in the working class of Ireland, the working class of Britain, the working class of Europe. This anger is a precious commodity.

The question is not whether this anger is going to be expressed. The question is what channel of expression is it going to find? If it doesn’t find a channel of expression to the left and in the class struggle to advance people, then it’s going to go to the right.

So I am absolutely optimistic about what could happen. There are real opportunities. But if the opportunities are missed then the dangers are at least as great. So I find it impossible to say whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, but I think we’ve got to try harder.

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