Northern Ireland: Civil Rights and Political Wrongs
Organisation: Communist Party of Great Britain
Author:C. Desmond Greaves
Collections:The British Left on Ireland, Remembering 1969
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

6th April 2009

Here is a pamphlet, written by Desmond Greaves , dating from 1969 which gives the analysis of the Communist Party of Great Britain on the Northern Ireland issue. In this it is close to the Communist Party of Northern Ireland view on these matters (and in many respects the Sinn Féin, or rather what was to become Official Sinn Féin, view) and by extension follows a strongly ‘civil rights’ line. It’s a fairly short document which concludes by quoting from a CPNI manifesto in order to explain the differences between the various strands of Unionism extant at that time:

“Behind the smoke-screen of ‘personalities’ two distinct policies have appeared. On the one hand we have the O’Neillites - the political instrument of the monopolies in N. Ireland; and on the other hand the ‘Right-wingers’ - Craigites and Paisleyites, who reflect the fear within the Unionist ranks of losing privileges and sinecures which are maintained by political-religious sectarianism. BOTH ARE THE ENEMY OF THE WORKING PEOPLE…’

It continues;

Since its inception the Unionist Party has demonstrated its total opposition to the present demands of the Civil Rights Association. Events of the past few months have shown that both ‘rightists’ and the so-called ‘Moderate’ Unionists are still opposed to these just demands of the common people. It implicitly calls for British Government intervention and notes that ‘until recently it was pretended that Westminster had no power to intervene. Then it was tardily admitted that the Government of Ireland Act vested supreme authority in the Westminster Parliament’ (As a side note that fiction was convenient from the point of view of London across many decades - wbs). Members who wanted to discuss British responsibility were told however that there was a ‘convention’ that they did not do so; and the absurd position was reached where Mr. Gerard Fitt, the Member for Belfast West, was liable to be ruled out of order every time he asked a question about his own constituency… … Since the struggles in Derry and elsewhere the ‘convention’ has become somewhat battered.

It is fascinating to see how the analysis, positioned within a civil rights discourse, in a sense is one which becomes very clearly one that aligns with a metropolitan (in the sense of London as the centre) view. Note for example the following:

The effect of such an event […civil war] would be disastrous not only for N.I. But for the British labour movement. In many British cities there are large concentrations of Irish people. In some there are populations of Irish descent who still retain memories of the sectarian excesses of the past; and there are still prejudices left… …It is not a question of ‘doing good’ to Ireland. It is a vital interest of the British people that the Unionist bastion of reaction in these islands should be brought down. As long as NI sends Mps to Westminster it is in the best interests of the British Labour movement that these should be progressive not reactionary.

And this continues in a vein which seems to attempt to chart a course between outright support for unification or its opposite.

… From a longer term point of view it is in the best interests of the British people that democratic forces on both sides of the Irish Sea exercise power, rather than forces of reaction. The clearing of the ground that would enable the Irish people to go ahead and build up their own prosperity would be in the interests of all the inhabitants of these islands.

Indeed one can argue that this document exposes one of the great contradictions of the civil rights period which is that civil rights per se was not the single unambiguous objective of Nationalism (let alone Republicanism).

The root cause of the troubles in NI is the constitution that has been imposed on the area. It consists of an Act… Passed in… 1920. Many of the provisions have been repealed….but the basic principles have never been questioned, although they are an anachronism….it [NI] has no power over trade relations with any other country, not even the Irish Republic [sic]. Least of all has it the power to discuss with the Republic the vital question of reunification of the country… … What is wanted therefore is a revision of the constitution which would bring it up to date, reimpose the restrictions which have been evaded, but confer additional powers to enable the people to work out their own salvation in their own way.

And in a masterful balancing act it continues;

The British people have no right, and should not wish to have any right to insist that Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom. But they have the right to insist that while it does remain a part of the UK it shall be constitutionally compelled to afford the same level of civil liberties as exists in the rest of the UK and that it shall be free to leave the UK. … If these steps are taken the way will be cleared for further developments leading to the unity of Ireland and the ending of the dispute that has done so much harm in these islands. The defeat of Unionism will clear the way to collaboration in the building of socialism.

The Irish Left Archive [Remembering 1969] seeks to bring into the public domain documents and publications from 1969 with a left and Republican slant. Already there are a number of documents that have been donated or are on file, but if you have any material you think might be appropriate - and, in particular, Official and Provisional Sinn Féin publications would be welcome - please don’t hesitate to email me at Can I also take this opportunity to call again for any donations to the Archive - we’re adding trade union material and other materials of interest would include left-wing unionist publications from the last thirty years…

This text and these files are a resource for use freely by anyone who wants to for whatever purpose - that’s the whole point of the Archive (well that and the discussions). But if you do happen to use them we’d really appreciate if you mentioned that you found them at the Irish Left Online Document Archive…

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  • By: Starkadder Mon, 06 Apr 2009 17:48:54

    The British people have no right, and should not wish to have any right to insist that Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom..

    Bit unwise to say that, given there’s often a large majority on
    the UK Mainland in favour of withdrawing from NI-a group that was
    even larger before the IRA started attacking the mainland.

    Any thoughts on CDG’s Connolly bio? I’ve been meaning to have a
    look at a Connolly bio, and was wondering which one to look at.

    Reply on the CLR

  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 06 Apr 2009 19:18:27

    I like CDGs stuff anyhow, so I’m probably the wrong man to ask…

    Reply on the CLR

  • By: Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen Linken - eine Auswahl « Entdinglichung Thu, 09 Apr 2009 13:46:20

    […] Communist Party of Great Britain: Northern Ireland: Civil Rights and Political Wrongs […]

    Reply on the CLR

  • By: Starkadder Sat, 11 Apr 2009 16:33:15

    The Connolly Association, IIRC, was the group that came up with
    the “stages theory” adopted by the WP. Didn’t the Stages Theory call
    for a restorted Stormont as a prelude to a United Ireland?

    Reply on the CLR