A chapter from Irish working class history

1969 - 'Civil Rights' movement needed socialist programme

By Peter Taaffe, Militant Irish Monthly, no 35, July-Aug 1975

[1975 note: We are printing here an extract from a large article on the history of the Irish working class, written by Peter Taaffe. This section deals with the possibilities for unity between Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland which developed with the events of 1969. The Civil Rights movement at bottom expressed the struggle of the Catholic working class against appalling conditions of slum housing and high unemployment.]

These conditions had been tolerated for decades by Catholic workers. A combination of naked terror in the form of the B Specials and police, the use of the 'Special Powers Act', internment, etc., and the pogroms which usually greeted any sign of Catholic resistance together with the timidity of the Labour movement all combined to 'keep Catholics in their place'.

The safety valve of unemployment was also drained away all the most vigorous elements who would normally lead such a resistance.

The partial closure of this escape route, with the onset of the economic crisis in Britain in 1966, was an important factor in feeding the increased mood of discontent amongst the Catholic working class. The Catholic youth, particularly the students, were influenced by the worldwide radicalisation taking place at the time. The profound changes wrought in Northern Ireland made it impossible for the British capitalists and their Unionist cohorts to rule in the same old way.

The softening in sectarian divisions was reflected in a survey in 1969 at Queen's University Belfast. Although 75% of the students were from Protestant backgrounds the survey revealed that 75% of the students favoured the demands for Civil Rights for the Catholic population. 'The wind always blows the tops of the tress first' wrote Trotsky. The mood amongst the students was a barometer of the processes at work in society as a whole.

Trade Unions

These sentiments were also reflected in the Labour and Trade Union Movement. In fact it was the Irish Congress of Trade Unions together with the Belfast Trades council and the Labour Party which had first taken up the demands for the abolition of all discriminatory measures against the Catholic population.

The Trade Unions in both parts of Ireland were the single strongest force in society. In the post-war period in particular, the trade unions had experienced an enormous growth in their numbers, influence and power. In 1923 their membership stood at 130,000 while today (1974) 560,000 workers are in unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

If the trade unions and the Labour Party had taken up the leadership of the Civil Rights struggle and given it a class character the subsequent history of Northern Ireland in he last 6 years could have been entirely different. But the Labour and trade union leadership allowed the Green Tories - well meaning but impotent liberals, parsons, etc., to take over the leadership of the struggle.

If the demand for Civil Rights for the Catholic population would have been combined with a socialist programme on jobs, housing, education linked to the idea of a socialist transformation of society the Protestant working class could have rallied to the Civil Rights campaign. The Special Powers Act, internment, etc., were not just directed against the Catholic population but was a reserve weapon for use against a combined movement of Catholic and Protestant workers as well as the Protestant population. 1932 had shown this as also had the imprisonment and internment of shop stewards and militants at various times in the last 50 years.

This was particularly the case during the Second World War. The Unionist regime had, correctly, always looked on the trade unions as a hostile force opposed to them. Former Unionist Prime Minister O'Neill recently wrote in the London Observer about his 'difficulty' in getting Craig to even recognise the trade unions! It was also Craig - champion of the Ulster Workers Strike (of May 1974) who informed a delegation of trade unionists to go jump in Belfast Lough!

If the labour movement had brought out these facts in a vigorous campaign at the time of the Civil Rights struggle their authority in the eyes of the Protestant workers as well as amongst the Catholic population would now be unchallenged! The Protestant workers, now that it is being applied against them - as Militant predicted - have increasingly protested against internment. They have also begun to realise that, just as much as the Catholic workers, they are victims of 50 years of Unionism. In the same way as the poor are 'better off' than destitute so the conditions of the Protestant workers were marginally superior to the Catholic working class.

And the politically advanced Catholic workers recognised this…"In Shankill 65% of the houses have no back entrance. 95% are without an inside toilet. 96% have no fixed bath. 95% are without water basins. 97.3% have no hot water. A recent survey showed that 55% of all people were not satisfied with their housing conditions. In the area only 405% earn between £19 and £25, the average wage for industrial workers in Britain [at the time]. Over tow thirds of heads of families earned less than £13 per week." [Citizens Press, organ of the barricaded Catholic areas, September 7th 1969.]

This admission was made barely pone month after the Catholic areas had experienced a bloody pogrom which left 13 workers dead. It is a further proof of the reservoir of support for class unity which existed at the time.


If in the period leading up to August 1969 the trade union and Labour leadership would have grasped the opportunities which existed, the Civil Rights movement would have been headed by the Labour movement. The pogroms of 1969 and the subsequent black events could have been averted.

But the Green Tory leadership of the Civil Rights campaign sought to limit the programme to 'equal rights' within the capitalist system. The Official Republican movement and the Communist Party of Ireland also restricted themselves to the call for 'democracy' and the enactment of a 'Bill of Rights' by the Westminster Parliament. They argued that Northern Ireland was at the 'democratic stage' of the 'anti-imperialist' struggle. Socialism, was for them, the music of the future. Yet how could the Protestant working class interpret the call for increased rights for Catholics in jobs, housing and the electoral field, within the framework of capitalism in any other way except as a direct challenge to its meagre standards?

The struggle from democratic rights for Catholic workers was an absolutely justified one in the conditions which existed in Northern Ireland. But to get support from the Protestant working class, without which no fundamental or lasting gains were possible, it was necessary to link Civil Rights demands with a programme capable of meeting the needs of the working class on jobs, housing, education, etc. This in turn would have to be combined with the idea of the socialist transformation of society.

Marxist programme

Only the Derry Labour Party Young Socialists together with the Marxists gathered around Militant advanced such a programme. They were denounced by the Green Tory Civil Rights leaders, like Hume and co. These leaders were not seriously interested in reaching the Protestant working class. Their programme reflected the desire of the Catholic capitalists who were not interested in challenging the basis of the society which had given rise to the Unionist sectarian monster. They wished to carve out for themselves a more favourable place in the Northern Ireland sun. The Civil Rights movement proved to be the vehicle by means of which they would achieve their ends.

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