Northern Ireland: The Unsolved Problem
Organisation: Independent Labour Publications
Author:Alistair Graham
Collection:The British Left on Ireland
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

10th September 2012

This document is of particular interest because it comes from the Independent Labour Publications which is what the Independent Labour Party became when it merged with the British Labour Party in 1975. The ILP had a long and at times illustrious history positioned to the left of the BLP and once it was within the Labour Party it sought a role as a sort of lobbying group.

This document states that:

‘Nothern Ireland, The Unsolved Problem’ by Alistair Graham provides a descriptive introduction to the present risks in the province. Its purpose is to supply background information on the situation. It is not a statement of the collective view of the Independent Labour Party.

The Introduction argues that:

However it is hoped that any views expressed in it will be shared by many on the left who wish for a peaceful, and progressive, solution to the conflict; and that it will help towards an understanding of the complexity of the problem. There are no clear-cut answers to what has been happening in Northern Ireland. Confused or simplistic analysis is no less wrong when it is cloaked in Marxist jargon.

There is an overview of the ‘Road to Partition’ and later it provides an overview of the political forces extant in the North during that period. One notable aspect is the analysis of the Provisional IRA is as follows:

The Provisionals split away from the official wing of the republican movement at the end of 1969. Ostensibly, the cause of the split was disagreement over the Socialist, and increasingly Marxist, philosophy being adopted by the republican movement, together with its abandonment of physical force tactics in favour of political involvement. But, in fact, the split has its origins within Fianna Fáil (which was at the time Ireland’s governing party).

It continues:

Alarmed at the direction in which SF (the republican party) was moving during the sixties, elements within FF made contact with republicans, particularly in the Six Counties. An offer of money and arms was made, on doncidtion that activity was concentrated in the North, and that there was an abandonment of any political activity. As a result, the Provisional ‘Army Council’ was organised, its first press statement appearing on December 29, 1969. In January 1970, at Sinn Féin’s annual conference, Provisional supporters walked out and the break was complete.

The document dismisses approaches grounded in ‘British Imperialism’ as a means of explaining the conflict though it notes:

This is not to deny the continuing economic control exercised by British capitalism in Ireland, North and South, or the growing influence of British and multinational firms, but this hardly necessitates direct political or military control.

And it sets out a series of demands which include the following;

A Bill of Rights, on the lines suggested by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association A reconstituted police force, to replace the R.U.C. To eradicate the sectarian image of the police A drastic reappraisal of the Army’s role in NI, and its withdrawal from patrolling duties which have provoked much of the violence.

These demands are quite similar to those of Official Sinn Féin at that time. It would be interesting to assess how influential this document and those from other formations both external and internal to it were on Labour Party policy during this period.


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  • By: Phil Mon, 10 Sep 2012 07:44:02

    What’s the feeling these days about the “FF created the Provos” story?

    I was a big fan of ILP back then – they did a good line in left, but not like those headbangers, which I found attractive at the time. These days I think an anti-headbanger position generally ends up being anti-left (see: Euston, Unite Against Terror, etc), and may even be a way to adopt one on the quiet.

    Still, on the North of Ireland specifically “not like those headbangers” was an awfully attractive position for a while. I wrote a position paper myself in 1989 calling for the group I was in not to buy into the myth of the Provos, and I don’t much regret it.

    There is no revolutionary war of national liberation in Ireland; there is no hegemonic republican socialist party in the six counties; the Irish people are not united all but for the border; the Unionists are not likely to stand aside when asked; and the political parties of the Irish Republic have all but forgotten their irredentist past

    (Apparently, in the speech I was reacting to, “Adams assured the hall at Sheffield that the Unionists wouldn’t fight” (after a unilateral British withdrawal). Wish I’d taken a note of that bit.)

    Anyway, was there really that much difference between “insist on unification by consent, tell the Provos they’re wrong” and “back the Provos, who’ll be insisting on unification by consent before long”?

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  • By: Rory Mon, 10 Sep 2012 13:15:02

    In reply to Phil.

    I’d wonder to what extent the Provos were trying for a united Ireland rather than trying to smash the Orange state apparatus in the aftermath of Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday.

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  • By: Joe Mon, 10 Sep 2012 18:40:21

    “What’s the feeling these days about the “FF created the Provos” story?”
    My view on that is it’s way too simplistic. Elements of FF did help to create the Provos but they didn’t spin Ruairi Ó Brádaigh and the rest of them out of thin air. Ruairi and the rest of them and their beliefs were always there. Some in FF helped them along and encouraged them. A bigger question is how did the Provos become so successful. The reality of the northern state, violent repression of the civil rights protests, Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, the sack of the Falls etc etc and general repression in nationalist working class areas resulted in the success of the Provo movement.

    “Anyway, was there really that much difference between “insist on unification by consent, tell the Provos they’re wrong” and “back the Provos, who’ll be insisting on unification by consent before long”?”
    A huge difference in my view, Phil. If you did the former, you were right then and if the Provos had listened to you, people like those two children killed in Warrington would be alive today. And all the people killed by the Provos and the loyalists would be alive today. (Remember that when the Provos stopped killing, the loyalists did too.) And all the families of those dead people would not be as sad nor as bitter, in many cases, towards “the other side”. Seems like a pretty big thing to me.
    Whereas, if you took the latter position, you’d be a Provo, basically! Which, paradoxically, today, is a good thing. I want the people in working class nationalist communities to be Provos, as opposed to dissidents.

    “These days I think an anti-headbanger position generally ends up being anti-left.”
    I know what you mean and there are a lot of examples of it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We need solid leftists who are not headbangers.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 10 Sep 2012 18:50:14

    In reply to Joe.

    Broadly agree Joe.

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  • By: Phil Mon, 10 Sep 2012 21:45:08

    In reply to Joe.

    I do agree, and I don’t regret the bitter arguments I had with, well, just about everyone I knew on the Left, up to and including my own Mum and Dad. I do wish the debate hadn’t had such a through-the-looking-glass quality to it – you could put up a list of reasons not to support the Provos (there was no pre-revolutionary situation, there was no war of national liberation, the Nationalist working class wasn’t united behind SF, the Unionist working class, well, existed…) and none of them would ever get knocked down. The basic position seemed to be that we should support the Provos uncritically because (a) they were enemies of the British state (b) they were asking for support and (c) it was none of our business to criticise them – and (d) well, what else would you do?

    The whole thing was made much more difficult by the fact that this was an argument you could only have among comrades or behind closed doors – in public nobody supported the Provos, what with the whole enemies-of-the-state thing, and we all took much the same “SF are a legitimate political party and we need to understand the real grievances” kind of position.

    Talking about this stuff with workmates, say, was incredibly difficult. I once had a very long argument with, essentially, the whole of the rest of the office where I worked, about (a) whether Savage, Farrell and McCann were executed and (b) whether Michael Stone was a Republican provocateur (!). I said Yes to the first one and No to the second, along with one other person in both cases – not the same person, either.

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  • By: Phil Mon, 10 Sep 2012 21:52:03

    In reply to Joe.

    Meant to add – with the exception of a few up-the-RA types like Red Action (with whom you could have had a decent argument, ironically enough), the argument in favour of supporting the Provos was all about the organisation rather than anything it did. So when the GFA came round, the arguments against supporting the Provos evaporated and the argument in favour just got stronger. Which is what I meant by asking (rhetorically) what difference it made whether you supported unification by consent before the Provos got to it or afterwards – we’re all on the same page now, and saying “I was right before you were” seems a bit pointless now.

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  • By: The Weekly Archive Worker: Der Arme Teufel « Entdinglichung Thu, 13 Sep 2012 08:37:21

    […] Alistair Graham: Northern Ireland – The Unsolved Problem: From Civil Rights to Sectarianism […]

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  • By: Some interesting documents posted up in the Left Archive over Summer 2012 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Mon, 24 Sep 2012 03:59:42

    […] the UK, Northern Ireland – The Unsolved Problem, Alistair Graham, From Civil Rights to Sectarianism, issued by Independent Labour Publications (formerly the Independent Labour Party) dating from the […]

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  • By: Left Archive: Who is the Principal Enemy? Contradictions and Struggle in Northern Ireland, Independent Labour Party, 1972 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Mon, 18 Feb 2013 07:48:45

    […] This document was issued by the British Independent Labour Party in 1972. As was noted here… […]

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