Who's Wrecking Civil Rights?
Author:Eamonn McCann
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

14th April 2008

So, here from August 1969 is a leaflet by Eamonn McCann. It stands at a point just before the Battle of the Bogside, and as was noted to me by the person who donated a copy:

..it was notable for its lack of enhusiasm about this prospect, and not at all like the celebratory accounts that you will hear in retrospect. It bears comparison with an interview from New Left Review from 1969 where McCann is again much more worried about where things are going than Mike Farrell and the others.

This person suggested that:

It reflects the divisions within the broad civil rights camp as well and the fact that… Despite attempts to paint it as essentially non-sectarian, the CR movement was essentially a mass Catholic movement once it picked up pace after August 1968 and probably could never have been anything else, because as McCann notes it was based on the unity of ALL Catholics against the state.

That’s certainly an analysis which chimes with the facts on the ground, rather than the aspirations of those who have tended to write up the subsequent histories.

What is also striking is how rapidly, from McCann’s account, ‘politics’ by which we mean our sort of politics was sidelined by the dynamic on the ground. In a passage which will be familiar in its outline of that dynamic to all who have tried to inject leftwing thinking into various contexts he [McCann] notes that:

Any attempts to put forward our own position within the movement is howled down: we are told that we are ‘introducing politics’ etc. In Derry we have finished up participating in the ‘Defence Association’ locking ourselves inside the Catholic area. Probably it is necessary. One must make some attempt to avoid a Catholic versus Protestant fight.

There’s a certain rough honesty about his use of the word ‘probably’.

He continues:

… A member of the Citizens Action Committee, delivered an impassioned speech in the course of which he said: “I don’t believe they will attack us, because they know that for three-hundred and sixty four days of the year we outnumber them’. That, to my mind, was one of the most nauseating things I have ever hard said on a public platform. But everybody cheered. Everybody seemed to think it was quite a reasonable thing to say.

It’s a protean force, nationalism - of whatever hue.

We are likely to hear more of this sort of thing. We will hear more of it because in the coming months socialists should ceaselessly and systematically criticize the conduct of the Civil rights Campaign and make it clear that recent events have in no way deflected us from pursuing our prime objective - that of uniting the Catholic and Protestant working class on a socialist programme. Everything else is secondary to this.

Rud eile, to quote Splintered Sunrise, this somewhat puts Eoghan Harris’s rose tinted view of 1968-1969 (expressed once more in Hot Press recently) and the centrality of the CR campaign into perspective. Because the CR campaign itself represented in microcosm the splits and fissures within Nationalism in Northern Ireland that would subsequently rupture entirely.

The dichotomy between what McCann and others sought to achieve, and what was actually achievable, not to mention what forms all these energies would be channeled into, is crucial to an understanding of the period.


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  • By: ejh Mon, 14 Apr 2008 07:45:19

    I surely have that NLR interview somewhere and could dig it out if required.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 14 Apr 2008 07:52:50

    ejh, that would be great, very much appreciated. As a point of comparison it’d serve us well…

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 14 Apr 2008 07:55:41

    Okay, wordpress up to its usual antics. I’m not seeing my response in the right-hand column… once more, ejh very much appreciated if you could do so in order that we could make a comparison. Indeed if you want to contextualise it with some words…

    (the CLR, always scrounging for contributions!)… 🙂

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 14 Apr 2008 09:34:53

    Impressive leaflet. Very pleased to see it. Although NICRA as a whole remained more diverse than the Catholic bourgeois lobbying group Hume et al se up and that is denounced here.

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Mon, 14 Apr 2008 10:34:32

    I would position it in the Left viewpoint that is uncomfortable with Nationalism of any sort including the nationalism of the oppressed ( and by any definition the Northern Nationalists were oppressed.)
    The reality is that the mass of Northern Nationalist saw the end of their problems as a United Ireland.”A Ntion once again” was more popular than “We shall overcome”
    The number counting might be a bit blunt but it was the Unionists that did it first by seizing the maximum amount of territory that they could control.
    It was a sectarian state and there were real advantages in being part of the majority.
    The marginalisation of the Left, first Peoples Democracy and its allies such as McCann and later the Officials, stems from avoidance of recognising that it was a struggle for National Unity.

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 14 Apr 2008 10:58:27

    The civil rights movement was not intended as a struggle for unity, but for democratisation. They are two different things, though one would facilitate the other. Should the civil rights movement have ignored the discrimination practised against working-class unionists?

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Mon, 14 Apr 2008 13:56:05

    I would sya that the real axis should be unity of he workingclass North and South. This would mean an acceptance of the centrality of the National Struggle.
    Every time there is a minor strike involving both Catholics and Protestants it is hailed as the big breakthrough.Allied to this a simplistic assertion that sectarianism is just a bourgeois plot to divide the workers.I would hazard a guess that differentials in pay and status are much more effective.
    As regards intentions leaderships can have many of them, but the reality is that the Civil Rights struggle was seen as a defensive struggle that could be victorious only in the context of National Unity.As a friend of mine said the Civil Rights demands were Natuional strggle demands posed in a defensive manner.
    There was at least one sitdown where the mass of protesters sang a “Nation once again” in spite of attempts of the “leadership” to drown it out with “we shall overcome”.
    The Provos arose like the Black Panters/Malcolm X because the real movement of the masses involved went beyond the limits.
    The awful answer to attempts at involving significant number of Protestants is that they preferred their relative povery to equality with Catholics. Just like the Poor Whites in Alabama.
    The Officials had their great plan of first a normal bourgeois democratic North, then Unity, then a “normal” class struggle and the Socialism.They never forgave the Provos for disrupting the plan. The reality is that the Catholic workingclass masses responded to State violence by creating/joining the Provos.
    There is a certain foolishness in thinking that a sustained struggle againts the Catholic Bourgeoisie as represented by Hume would have
    lifted the blinkers from the eyes of Protestant workers.
    The fact of the matter is that Hume was much more successful in reaching out to a layer of the Protestant Bourgeoisie (Faulkner) than McCann, Farrell and people like me.
    Burntullet exposed the reality of sectarianism by by viewpoint. According to others it allowed Paisley to destroy O’Neill.
    Sorry for rambling. My starting point is 32 counties and Idont see how the North will ever be anything but a secarian backwater outside of that context.
    A slightly positive note is that the struggle for secularism in the South which was seen as a key struggle by Farrell and Co has made strides that I would have regarded as Utopian when I joined the UCD Labour Party in 1967.Does anyone remember their march to Dublin with condoms?

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 14 Apr 2008 14:17:30


    I couldn’t agree more that workers’ unity should be the main axis. Alas, nationalism – as represented by either the SDLP or the Provos – is about a pan-class sectarian alliance, just as unionism is. I agree too that it’s far too simplistic to say that the bourgeoisie keeps workers divided. Unfortunately, workers keep workers divided. Nevertheless, sectarian division serves only the interests of the bourgeoisie of all hues.

    I think the creation of some form of Provos was inevitable given the tensions within the movement (and without given that people like Cahill had no involvement any more, never mind those in FF who helped foster the split) but agree that it was the reaction of unionism that turned it into a large organisation. In the same way that the blame for the emergence of the Troubles lies squarely at the door of the Stormont and London governments. But the Provos do not represent progressive politics, any more than the mass loyalist organisations of the 1970s (who swarfed them) did.

    Without a struggle for civil rights, and socialism, the push for unity will remain embedded in a sectarian struggle. And while conducted along these lines, will push working class unity further away. I still don’t agree though that the demand for equality was a national demand made in a defensive mode. As we are seeing now, legal and political equality within NI is possible, and does not lead inevitably towards unity. In fact, from the persecptive of today, it looks very much like the impetus behind nationalism of the last 40 years was equality, with the national question a distant second behind being equal to – or getting even with – themmuns.

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Mon, 14 Apr 2008 15:04:23

    Interesting “As we are seeing now, legal and political equality within NI is possible, and does not lead inevitably towards unity”.
    The question is posed now whether the national struggle is a distraction or has it been “solved” by the Belfast agreement.
    If this is so then purely class issues come to the fore.
    I still tend to see the national struggle as key to progress but because of various factors currently in abeyance.
    I sometimes wonder if the North had been swamped by a EU type input of resources hwere prosperity was unleashed so to speak would nationalism had become something tame like the Scots Nats.
    I suppose the trouble all Lefties have is a failure to relook at positions in the face on new realities and I would not be innocent here.
    Mind you as the world economic climate darkens some old nostrums could become relevant again.
    I would say anyway that legal and political equality is not the sum.
    Oh FF and the split. Splits can be encoyuraged but there was a real difference. FF might have helped but they did not get ownership. In fact I think the current enticement is more like ownership that the early FF involvment.
    To take Blaney. For all his faults this bourgeois nationalist walked away from the gravy train because he had principles.

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 14 Apr 2008 15:45:54

    I think the national question is neither a distraction nor has it been solved. But what has happened is that virtually the whole of the population of NI – including the most extreme nationalists – have been happy to park it. Partly due to exhaustion, partly due to ambition, and partly due to the fact that the sectarian dynamic of society and politics can happily trundle along nicely. In the sense that no, or at most tolerable, ground has been given to them, the parking can be seen not only as palatable, but as a good thing because it lets people live peaceably. I agree legal and political equality is not the sum, but it has been more than enough for the overwhelming majority, especially of nationalists. I think that might tell us about the nature of the last 40 years, but I may be wrong.

    I do think the end of violence and the emergence of a centre-right government of all the sectarians (I do not say a ministry of all the talents 🙂 ) does open space for class politics. Alas, it may well be 30 years too late given the current ideological climate. So instead of building a strong socialist voice as might once have been possible or even likely, the most the Left can hope for in the short term is to pull a fair bit of weight within a united community group dominated by Alliance.

    I think FF got what it wanted in the south for a long time, but in the north, which had its own dynamics, the thing evolved in a way much less to their liking. But as I say some form of split was inevitable with or without them.

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  • By: NollaigO Mon, 14 Apr 2008 18:22:49

    Here’s the NLR interview:


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  • By: Mick Thu, 07 Apr 2011 11:48:08

    Can anyone tell me if this was published as a stand-alone leaflet or as part of a newsletter or something? Reference is made at one point to a previous issue of ‘Ramparts’- any ideas what that was? Also, was this published by an organisation (like the Young Socialists) or is it just a McCann thing?

    Any help greatly appreciated.

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