Century of Endeavour

Papers based on the Book

(c) assorted publishers
(comments to rjtechne at iol dot ie)

I hope to present here some papers, based on conference proceedings and other literature, resulting from interactions arising from the book. They will presented in reverse chronological order. RJ 03/08/2008.

British Sociological Association, July 3-4, 2008

Civil Rights and the Republican Movement, an insider's view, 1963-72

Roy H W Johnston

The author is currently a scientific consultant with background initially in physics, which subsequently evolved into techno-economic and socio-technical analysis, mostly computer-based. He made some contribution as a political activist in the 1960s to the development of a non-violent political approach to the Irish republican aspiration to national unity, which contributed to the development of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland.

This paper was produced for a conference on July 3-4 2008, in Birkbeck College, London, organised by the British Sociological Association Theory Study Group on '1968 – Impact and Implications'.


This paper attempts to place the 1968 events in Northern Ireland in a context which includes the historic relationship between the Irish national independence movement with Marxist thinking and activist organisation in Britain and in Europe, over a period which included the two world wars and their aftermaths. The post-WW2 attempt by the Dublin student Left, following James Connolly's example, to re-introduce European Marxist thinking to the Labour movement, was not productive. The IRA and Sinn Fein (together known as the 'republican movement'), in the aftermath of the defeat of its 1950s armed campaign in Northern Ireland, was ripe in the 1960s for the development of an innovative political approach to Irish national unity, based on Marxist ideas.

The present writer attempted this task, which led to political republican activism in Northern Ireland in support of Civil Rights objectives, and to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The speed with which the situation developed in 1968-9 however took the republican leadership by surprise, and the development of armed repression by the B-Specials (Protestant paramilitary forces with Northern Ireland State sanction) triggered the re-emergence of the IRA in armed mode (the 'Provisionals'), initiating the quarter-century of mayhem which followed. The attempt made by the writer to use a Marxist model to support working-class unity across the religious divide, in a progressive national context, must be judged a failure, from which however some lessons may perhaps be learned.


James Connolly had attempted to develop a Marxist Left in Ireland from the 1890s, without much success, though he was in contact with the 2nd International. He was successful with James Larkin in developing mass trade unionism, and in founding a Labour Party to represent it politically (in 1907) in the projected Home Rule Parliament, then seen as being in reach. When the 1914 war broke out, Home Rule was postponed, and Connolly set about developing the idea of an armed uprising to take Ireland out of the imperialist war.

Arms had been illegally run in to Ireland at Larne in April 1914, from Germany, by a conspiracy, involving British Tory activists and Irish Protestant landed gentry supported by their dependents (the Orangemen), to arm a Protestant Ulster Volunteer movement against Home Rule, then on the constitutional agenda under the Liberals. The Irish Volunteers had come into existence on the fringe of the Home Rule movement, led by John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster, with a view to defending Ireland should there be a war. Guns were run in, also from Germany, to Dublin in June 1914, so that the country was awash with German arms. Connolly's 1914 aspiration was therefore realistic. (In the 1914 war plan, it was in German interest to see to it that Britain, as a potential enemy, was diverted by an internal civil war.)

When the war came, Redmond supported it, and the Irish Volunteers split, most joining the British Army on Redmond's call, on the promise of Home Rule afterwards. The remainder, under radical leadership with continuity of experience from Fenian times in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), came together with Connolly's trade-union-based Citizen Army, and the result was the 1916 Rising, followed by the war of independence, and Partition in 1921. The full complexity of this process can here only be hinted at, as background to the understanding of Marxism and the national question as it was addressed in subsequent decades.

After 1916, when Connolly was executed, the Labour party, led by Tom Johnson, stood aside from the 1918 election and subsequent war of independence, leaving the field dominated by Sinn Fein led by Eamon de Valera, who in turn stood aside after the war of independence from the Treaty negotiations, thus in effect setting up the situation for the civil war 1922-3, which was on the issue of the nature of the Treaty. The effects of this have dominated subsequent politics, marginalising Labour, politics being dominated by the two Civil War parties competing for the middle ground.

Thus in class terms we have politics dominated by a broad-based divided petty-bourgeoisie, with a marginalised proletariat, a relatively weak but emergent aspirant national bourgeoisie and a strong imperial-oriented unionist bourgeoisie, the latter centred in the North, supported by an elite Protestant proletariat, united in its opposition to jobs for Catholics, seen as a threat to their elite status.

The complexities of this partitioned situation have so far defeated all attempts by the emergent Marxist Left to develop a credible alliance of all-Ireland working people in support of national unity and independence, within which framework some form of economic democracy might be developed. Most left-minded people tend to regard the 'national question' as a diversion, and most national-minded people tend to regard leftist ideas as a diversion.

Thus when progressives after the 1939-45 war tried to develop rational Marxist policies with political appeal in the Irish context, they ran into various barriers generated by the foregoing complex background.

Definition of some problems facing a Marxist Left in Ireland

The 1940s student Left(1) had originated post-war in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) with a combination of British Marxist ex-servicemen, and Irish intellectuals from a liberal Protestant boarding-school, who had critical family backgrounds. There was prior moderate left-wing experience in TCD embedded in the Fabian Society, started in the 1930s by Owen Sheehy-Skeffington(2)(OS-S), a liberal socialist with Trotskyist connections. There was also influence from the Communist Party in Britain, via C Desmond Greaves(3)(CDG), who was in process of becoming their source of experience of the Irish situation.

The TCD student Left consisted of an aspirant Marxist group, the Promethean Society (PS), which was actively cultivating working-class contacts, as well as developing ideas and addressing issues in the 'officially recognised' TCD student societies, of which the Fabian Society was one.

The author, and the Promethean Society, became aware, though people who had been involved, of an earlier attempt made in the 1930s to develop a broad-based left-wing political approach to the all-Ireland Republic, culminating in 1934 in the 'Republican Congress'. They interpreted the failure of this as being due to European ultra-leftist interference, from the Comintern, based on a flawed class analysis, over-emphasising the role of the proletariat. They was also aware of the then marginal Trotskyist left, of which they tended to be dismissive, being visibly even more 'ultra-left', though in retrospect its critique of Stalinism turned out to be valid.

The PS combined with a group of ex-IRA wartime internees, who had become politicised during internment, and the remains of the pre-war CPI (dissolved in 1941 in the context of Irish neutrality) to form the 'Irish Workers League' (IWL) in 1948, in an attempt to develop Left politics in European Marxist mode, then uncritically Stalinist, while simultaneously attempting to take on board pre-Stalinist democratic Marxism via the legacy of Connolly and his writings. In retrospect the contradictory nature of this theoretical starting-point is evident.

Thus the combination of Partition, the Civil War, and the neutrality of the Irish Free State during the war, has left a legacy which differentiates Ireland seriously from the development of left-wing thought in Europe. The failure to take account of this, and of the ongoing crippling effects of Partition, prevented the IWL from becoming an effective force around which a broad national-minded Left might develop. The vacuum was filled by the 1950s IRA and its futile armed campaign.

The 1950s as a period for learning and exploration of options.

The Irish Workers League remained isolated during the 1950s(4), and the author distanced himself from it, increasingly after the Hungarian episode, seeking to re-establish the makings of a broad-based political republican left, under democratic Marxist influence, as an alternative to the doomed 1950s IRA armed campaign.

There were occasional contacts with the Left in Britain, primarily with the Greaves network and the Connolly Association, which was working on gaining support from the Irish in Britain for democratic reform in Northern Ireland(5). This tended increasingly to focus on the Special Powers Act of the Northern Ireland Government, and the campaign to release the interned prisoners consequent on the 1950s IRA campaign. The Connolly Association had originated in the 1930s under British Communist Party influence, but it had become an independent organisation with its own democratic constitution in the 1950s, dedicated to mobilising Irish emigrants and gaining support from the broad British Labour Movement for democratic reforms in Northern Ireland.

The author spent the years 1960 to 1963 in London(6), working with the Connolly Association, and getting a feel for the importance of the campaign for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland, as the basis for any progressive all-Ireland political development. He was nominally a member of the CPGB but found its Moscow-orientation increasingly alien.

Renascent political republicanism in the 60s

The foregoing experience bore fruit during the early 1960s, under the stimulus of the Wolfe Tone bicentenary events. Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) had been among the leaders of the 'United Irishmen' movement, promoting the idea of the Irish Republic in the 1790s, under French influence, aspiring to '..unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman..'. The Wolfe Tone bicentenary in 1963 became a focus for a creative attempt by Cathal Goulding, who had become the 'Chief of Staff' of the (then moribund) IRA, to initiate a broad-based left-republican revival in political mode. This initially took the form of a 'think tank' model, with 'Wolfe Tone Societies' in Dublin, Belfast and Cork. The problem of how to reconstruct the IRA and Sinn Fein into a unified political movement was addressed. An aspect of this was the formation of 'republican clubs' in the North (Sinn Fein being banned).

The author worked with Cathal Goulding by developing a series of seminars and study-groups within the framework of the then moribund IRA, with a view to developing a broad-based Marxist approach, in class terms, but not narrowly 'proletarian'; the concept was 'workers, working owner-managers and self-employed' and the aspiration was to seek common ground between the trade union movement and co-operative movement, the latter being conceived broadly in terms of suppliers, producers and consumers, rather than narrowly as dairy farmers supplying creameries, as it had earlier evolved.

Some spade-work was done in this direction, leading eventually to the setting up of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1966. This had support from the Communist Party of Northern Ireland, as well as from the actively politicising Republican Clubs, despite Sinn Fein still being illegal in the North. The objective was to legalise working for a United Irish Republic in political mode, and in this context the Civil Rights movement was seen as an opportunity. The Wolfe Tone Societies in Belfast and Dublin(7) were instrumental in setting up the inaugural NICRA meeting, which took place in the War Memorial Hall in Belfast in November 1966. It was addressed by a broad-based panel which included Kader Asmal, then the leader of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, who later became a Minister in the first post-apartheid Government in South Africa, under Nelson Mandela.

The speed with which the NICRA evolved however took the politicising republican leadership by surprise; they were obsessed with educating the movement to abandon abstentionism and go effectively political, isolating the purist traditionalist elements who subsequently became the Provisionals. The politicising leadership did not give the developing Northern situation the attention it deserved.

The 1968-9 crisis(8)

The Civil Rights movement, when it began to organise marches (the first was Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968), attracted support from the Queens University student Left, which was under European Left influence, primarily Trotskyist in orientation. Marches subsequently took place in Derry, Armagh and elsewhere, the October 5 march in Derry being the trigger for international attention, with Westminster MPs being present and at the receiving end of police violence. (The present writer at the time happened to be in the USA at a scientific conference, and he witnessed it on television.)

The Queens students, being relative novices to the scene, who had picked up left-wing ideas via the then active European network, attempted to develop the marches and demonstrations in 'class' mode, with ultra-leftist revolutionary slogans, despite the basically moderate 'civil rights' context. The famous Peoples Democracy march in January 1969, which culminated in the Burntollet ambush by the loyalist militias, followed a path through a sequence of Antrim Protestant towns, generating a loyalist backlash, which the NICRA had predicted and felt it could well do without. The NICRA at the time had called for a cessation of marches, after the mass-supported marches in 1968 had resulted in the promise of reforms by the Unionist Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill. The NICRA tactic had been to see what was delivered, and in the meantime to organise, in NICRA mode, locally.

The moderate objective of achieving civil rights to enable political republicanism to exist, developing left-wing and cross-community trade unions links etc, however was negated by the B-Specials (Protestant paramilitaries, having official 'part-time police' status, with State sanction) who carried out, in the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast, an armed pogrom in August 1969. This was in effect a successful right-wing armed provocation, triggering the rise of the Provisionals. It can be argued that the B-Specials pogrom was a deliberate provocative attempt to regenerate the IRA in armed mode, which they felt they could handle more effectively than political social-republicanism in a Civil Rights environment.

Those of the republicans who rejected the left orientation, and who believed in 'physical force as a principle' (the Provisionals), led the response in arms to the B-Specials provocation, and as a result political republicanism was neutered for 3 decades, not again emerging, after 'learning the hard way', until the 1990s processes culminated in the Good Friday Agreement, in which context political republicanism is again emerging.

Thus the effect of August 1969 was to support the re-invention of the IRA in its traditional purist violent mode, and cripple the politicising Left. The Provisionals voted to retain abstentionism (ie non-participation in parliament, this being regarded as an illegal British assembly) before they walked out of the January 1970 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (National Convention). This delayed fatally what remained of the republican politicising process. When this process did re-assert itself later, the movement reverted competitively to 'armed struggle', in which context the present writer resigned. The politicising movement however continued, with various left-wing flavours, initially as the 'official IRA' with 'Sinn Fein the Workers Party', and later the 'Workers Party', but has since gone into terminal decline. This process perhaps deserves analysis, with particular reference to the evolution of the 'official IRA'(9). It should be noted that in this context the cross-community window into Protestant radical thinking, which the present writer had identified, and hoped would develop via Betty Sinclair (who supported the NICRA marches in her personal capacity, while being Secretary of the Belfast Trades Council), also via Andy Barr and other Communist Party trade union activists, was closed off and became irrelevant, not only as a result of the Civil Rights having been in effect driven into the Catholic ghettoes by the Burntollet episode, but also due to the global influence of the Czechoslovak crisis and the quasi-imperial role of the USSR.


Thus on the whole the apparent link with the European 1968 events was of questionable relevance in the Irish context. The Irish scene has to be treated in a 'colonial to post-colonial transition' context, much more in common with Palestine or South Africa than any European model, though comparable situations are beginning to surface in post-Yugoslavia, in a mode which is much more complex, and will need increasing attention from Marxist scholarship.

RHWJ 18/06/2008

Notes and References

1. For more on the 1940s student left in TCD see the 1940s module in the political stream of the the hypertext support documentation for the author's book 'Century of Endeavour'; see overview of the book, and some reviews.

2. For some background on the interaction between OS-S and the student left, see the Skeffington background note in the 'left politics' appendix of the Century of Endeavour book.

3. Likewise for some Greaves background.

4. For some insight into the 1950s IWL, as seen by the author, see the 1950s module of the political channel in the hypertext.

5. The Greaves perspective in the 1950s is given by his journal.

6. The author's perspective in the early 1960s is partially on record in the hypertext.

7. The latter part of the 1960s, before 1969, can be seen from the author's perspective in the hypertext.

8. The author gives some account of what he and the movement did in 1969 in the hypertext.

9. See Irish Republicanism: the Authentic perspective by Derry Kelleher, a Wolfe Tone Society activist, self-published by him as 'Justice Books' in 2001, shortly before he died; there is I think a remaindered stock with Atholl in Belfast, and in Connolly Books in Dublin. Kelleher gives some activist insights into the evolution of the Workers Party in its declining period, after having supported the earlier politicising process with Goulding and the present writer. He needed a good editor, but the book is a useful source and deserves to be mined.

Note: the foregoing URLs are related to material hot-linked from the notes and references in the e-version of the author's 'Century of Endeavour' book, published by Tyndall/Lilliput (Dublin) in 2006; to order from the publisher the URL is http://www.lilliputpress.ie/listbook.html?oid=7260297

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