Ireland and H-Blocks

Bulletin, March 1981
Lynn Walsh replies to Aberystwyth comrades

[This article is taken from the internal bulletin of Militant comrades in Britain. As this was written in the period when they were operating inside the British Labour Party, some obvious codes were used to sidestep the existence of the Militant organisation.

The Editorial Board refers to the Executive Committee of Militant, supporters in Aberystwyth means the local comrades/members; 'the tendency' refers to the Militant organisation, etc.]

Last year, at the time the tendency began to take up the issue of the H-Block prisoners with renewed urgency, supporters in Aberystwyth wrote in reporting a number of 'doubts and queries' raised by sympathisers. We believe that the comrades raised a number of important points which were also discussed in other areas, and were are therefore reproducing our reply to their letter.

Although written last August [1980] (that is, before the hunger strike in December, and the uneasy compromise which brought an end to the strike) the main points of the letter remain relevant.

The Aberystwyth comrades wrote that they had received a great deal of support in the Labour movement for our policies in general, but "the question of H-Block and 'political prisoners' has presented difficulties."

"Comrades are quite clear," they continued, "that the responsibility for the violence in Northern Ireland rests with British Imperialism. As such most of the prisoners in Long Kesh and Armagh (if not all) can be regarded as 'political prisoners'.

"Doubts exist, however, as to whether and exactly how we should demand their release. We note that the articles in the paper make it clear that we do not favour the release of sectarian assassins and that we wish a Labour movement enquiry to determine who is a political prisoner and who should be released.

"However, what is our position? Do we consider that those who have shot soldiers should be released? Do we consider that those who can be shown to have been members of the provos should be released? Do we consider that bombers should be released?

"We cannot simply say that it is up to an enquiry to decide. We cannot even say: 'We are against the release of sectarian killers such as the Shankill butchers..' because the next question is 'And what about the bombers and those who have shot soldiers? What about those who have advocated such policies, do we wish them to be released too?'

"These are the questions that have been raised with our comrades by those around us in the movement."

The Aberystwyth comrades also raise the question of terrorism in Wales.

"The Editorial Board will be aware that the last year has seen the founding of a Welsh republican group together with several acts of arson against holiday homes in Wales. Although not claiming responsibility, we believe the above group to be not unsympathetic to these events!

"As such, the question of terrorism assumes a great importance in an area like ours where the special Prevention of Terrorism Act has been used recently against many who have no connection with such acts.

"The question has been posed to us in the local movement: 'Would you regard the arsonists as political prisoners? Would you call for their release or for special category status?'

"We are eager to receive the views of the EB. The discussion that would follow would raise the political level of all those involved, with the possibility of a public meeting on the subject which would attract a good attendance in our area."

Dear comrades,

The EB has discussed your letter (5 July 1980), which we fell raised important points. The question of prisoners in Northern Ireland is one of the most difficult issues that we have to raise in the labour movement at the present time, and the difficulties which you have encountered, will undoubtedly face cdes in other areas.

Our tendency has a proud and consistent record on Northern Ireland. From the time they were sent in August, 1969, we opposed the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland. In the labour movement we have consistently opposed the policies of the British ruling class in Ireland, making it clear that they are responsible for centuries of exploitation and oppression, and for 'divide and rule' policies which created and exploited sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. While others 'wrote off' the working class of Northern Ireland as hopelessly sectarian, we have worked, with the limited resources at our disposal, for class unity and socialist policies which alone can provide a way forward.

At the same time, we have always implacably opposed the terrorist methods of the Provisional IRA. From the moment that the Provisional IRA launched its military campaign we clearly explained that the methods of individual terrorism based on a minority would never succeed in forcing the British state out of Ireland. We warned that, on the contrary, it would play into the hands of the state, allowing the ruling class to strengthen their instruments of repression; and by provoking outrage at bombings and killings, the Provo's tactics would create a climate of acceptance, including within the labour movement, for the repressive policies of British imperialism.

It is the horror and outrage at the methods of the Provos, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of ordinary workers and their wives and children, which has made it possible for the state to subject the prisoners to the inhuman regime that has been established in the Maze, Armagh, and the other Northern Ireland prisons. The methods of the Provos have themselves made it extremely difficult before now to take up this issue.

Reaction against the Provisionals with the labour movement has also been reinforced by the sects who abandoned any semblance of a Marxist position and took up the Irish issue as the self-appointed champions of the Provisional IRA.

Nevertheless, we must take up he conditions of prisoners in Northern Ireland and mobilise opposition in the labour movement to their torture and inhuman treatment. We are not campaigning against the brutal conditions in the H-Blocks for sentimental reasons. We have an international duty on this question; and we have to mobilise the movement against the perfection of techniques - and the habituation of the public repressive methods - which may be used against the labour movement, and especially against the Marxists in the future.

The growing mood of protest in the labour movement in Britain in the recent period against the treatment of the prisoners in the Maze and Armagh has made it possible to raise this issue in an effective way. But at this stage, we have attempted to start a campaign of protest and pressure by the labour movement, not on the basis of a rounded-out programme on Northern Ireland and prisoners, but on the basis of a number of limited, immediate demands.

What we are calling for in relation to the Northern Ireland prisoners are the minimum rights that all prisoners should be allowed, in conjunction with this, we are also calling for the scrapping of the non-jury 'Diplock' courts and the closure of the special interrogation centres - two 'institutions' which together play a major part in putting prisoners inside in the first place.

The demand for the recognition of political prisoners, or even of a return to the government's 'special category' status for republican and loyalist prisoners, is not included in the demands of the present campaign.

Not even the Provisionals themselves, because of their weakness and isolation from even the Catholic working class in the North are openly calling for political or 'special category' status for their prisoners at the present time, though such an unspoken demand undoubtedly lies behind their campaign. The main emphasis of our campaign at this stage is that, whatever crime these prisoners have committed, or are alleged to have committed, there is no justification whatsoever for the brutal way they are currently being treated.

Even the minimum of capitalist democracy - as embodied in the various international agreements on human rights, which of course will never be consistently upheld in capitalist society- are being systematically violated in Northern Ireland, the labour movement should in no way condone or accept these methods, which is being used not for normal judicial punishment, but as part and parcel of an overall policy of repression.

At the same time, we have to call for the labour movement , through some form of commission of enquiry of its own, to review the cases of the prisoners. In the first place, the movement should insist on reviewing the way in which prisoners were convicted. As is well known, most of them are in jail as a result of 'trial in a non-jury court, where they were mostly convicted on the basis of confessions extracted by extreme pressure or outright torture, and backed up - if at all- by the uncorroborated evidence of policemen and anonymous informers. There is strong evidence to suggest that some of the prisoners were framed.

Even in relation to the prisoners convicted for bombings, etc. in British courts with juries, there is evidence which suggests the possibility of false convictions and frame-ups. These immediate, partial demands in relation to prisoners' rights are the basis of the present campaign which is aimed at bringing the situation home to the rank and file of the labour movement and mobilising pressure against the government on this issue.

While campaigning on these partial demands, comrades should also use every opportunity to explain our programme and perspectives in relation to Northern Ireland.

From the point of view of a rounded-out Marxist standpoint, it has to be recognised that the imprisoned republicans ( and loyalists) are in reality political prisoners. We are fundamentally opposed to sectarian assassinations, to bombings, and to the shooting of soldiers.

Nevertheless, it has to be recognised that the conflict arises from a national and social conflict that has been going on in Ireland for several hundred years. Despite their confused aims and indefensible methods, the Republicans are in jail as a result of what they believe to be a struggle against British Imperialism. The actual result as we predicted, has not been an undermining of imperialism, but a strengthening of the hand of the state. Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the ultimate responsibility that British Imperialism carries for the conflict which has produced the renewed 'troubles' in the North since 1969.

The political character of the prisoners is even recognised in practice by the British ruling class which has jailed the prisoners under exception 'emergency' laws introduced to deal with the 'troubles', and has throughout manipulated sentencing and the prison regimes as part and parcel of its overall policy in Northern Ireland.

In the future, moreover, there is little doubt that - whatever the prisoners' crimes and despite the government's present moralistic stance - the state would be prepared to release prisoners, either individually or under some kind of amnesty, if it suited the ruling class to reach a settlement. This is what happened in Kenya, Cyprus, and other former colonies, following the terrorist struggles of the Mau Mau, Eoka, and similar guerrilla movements.

As we have made clear in the resolutions and campaign statements, however, we would not support the release of vicious sectarian murderers. There have undoubtedly been psychopathic types on both sides who have seen the conflict as presenting them with opportunities for sadistic killings, the Loyalist 'Shankill butchers' and the Republicans responsible for the Bessbrook murders being two of the most notorious examples.

We must also recognise, moreover, that among the politically motivated prisoners who may in future be released as a result of labour movement pressure and an amnesty there will be reactionary elements who will pose a physical threat to the labour movement and particularly the Marxists. But the movement would have to organise its own defence against any such threat. We cannot for a moment accept that it is the ruling class's prerogative to decide on this issue, or for us in any way to rely on the capitalist state for protection in this respect.

If there is no sympathy in the labour movement for the demand for political status for Provo prisoners, it is because the Provisional IRA has alienated all support by its terrorist methods. Commenting to Engels on the Fenian's attempt in 1867 to blast a way out of London's old Clerkenwell prison for a number of Fenian leaders, with an explosion which killed several people and injured 120, Marx said that it was a ;very stupid thing': 'The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party.'

That was the actual result of the Fenian's relatively minor dynamiting exploits. The reaction of the majority of workers' the Provos terrorist tactics over the last decade has been much stronger, with the most reactionary consequences as far as wining support for a socialist solution in Ireland.

The problems created are clear in relation to the prisoners. Formally, it would be quite correct for us to demand political status for the Republican prisoners. But an abstractly correct demand is worthless if it in practice it will not get a positive response within the labour movement. In fact to raise a demand at the wrong time, under the wrong conditions, can actually set the movement back. The release of political prisoners is a part of our programme; but whether or non it can be taken up as a major campaigning issue depends on the conditions.

Through their sectarian policies and terrorist methods the Provos - and the Loyalists, on the other side - have made it possible to campaign at this stage for recognition of the prisoners' political status. It is precisely the weakness of the Provos and their lack of working class support which has forced them, under the intense pressure of the prison regime and out of desperation, to adopt the current tactics in the Maze and Armagh, the so-called 'blanket' or 'dirty' protest.

It goes without saying, of course, that while taking up these particular demands we will continue to put forward our general perspectives and programme, explaining that it is only the working class, by forging class unity through the trade unions and a new party of Labour in the North, which can resolve the deep-rooted national and class conflicts of the six counties.

You also raise the question of the Welsh republicans and the use of arson in Wales. The campaign of this tiny minority is on a small scale and the tactics of these people are at present relatively mild compared to those of the Provisionals. There is no comparison between the present situation in Wales and the position in Northern Ireland, either historically or at the present time. If the so-called Welsh republicans grow and begin to use individual terrorism on a bigger scale, the labour movement would have to take up the question of repression. But at this stage, there is no question of our taking in the defence of these people.

The main emphasis of our propaganda on this must be vigorous opposition to the terrorist methods of the Welsh republicans. They will not solve a single problem of people in Wales, and their methods will play into the hands of the capitalist class. Above all, we must hammer it home that it is only bold, mass action by the labour movement on the basis of socialist policies which can take us forward and such action would immediately sweep the ground from under the feet of the Welsh republicans, Plaid Cymru, Welsh Language Society and so on.

I hope this clarifies and answers the points raised in your letter.

Lynn Walsh for the EC.
August 1980.

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This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
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