|Organisation:||International Marxist Group|
|Collection:||The British Left on Ireland|
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The pamphlet was issued by the British Trotskyist group, the International Marxist Group . In some respects the IMG was one of the more visibly active groups during the 1960s and early 1970s, not least due to involvement and later control of Red Mole. Notable members included Tariq Ali… But all that is, in a sense, a different if interesting history. In terms of Ireland the IMG was supportive of a strongly activist approach. And this is reflected in the dedication of this pamphlet to Peter Graham, of the socialist Republican paramilitary group Saor Eire [incidentally, isn’t there an argument as to whether capitals should have ‘fada’s’?] who was assassinated in October 1971, “…a good friend and a dedicated comrade… Those who murdered him have only succeeded in strengthening Irish Trotskyism, and have made the Fourth International more determined than ever to contribute to the victory of the Irish revolution”.
A footnote on the Introduction page notes that:
“I have, throughout this pamphlet, used the device common to writer sympathetic to the Irish struggle, and refrained in most instances from using the ‘legal’ names of the two Irish states. Thus “Northern Ireland” is usually called “The Six Counties”, “the North”, or “The North East”. ‘The Republic of Ireland’ is usually called ‘The 26 Counties’, ‘The South’, or ‘The Free State’. I must apologise to readers who are unfamiliar with irish politics for any confusion this may cause, but responsibility is entirely that of British Imperialism, and its Irish collaborators.
Intriguingly, Purdie later resiled from his position of unstinting support for Republicanism as expressed in this leaflet.
There’s a forward by Gery Lawless of Saor Eire, which argues that:
British imperialism has recognised that the struggle in northern Ireland has transcended the civil rights stage and has become a struggle for liberation, and the British press, which once gave half-hearted support to the civil rights movement, has now come to the defence of British imperialism What is at stake is the continue existence of the State of Northern ireland, and therefore the continued denial to the Irish people of their right to so self-determination.
By and large this fact is recognised by the imperialist forces in both Britain and ireland. It is not recognised by the majority of groups in Britain which claim to be socialist. The objective reason for this is the weight of imperialist ideas which has long acted as a millstone round the neck of the British left in relation to Ireland.
“The experience which Scottish Marxists have gained of the national question in their own country aids them in the task of explaining to the more backward English movement the dynamics of the Irish revolutions. The lack of such an understanding on the part of British, and particularly English socialists prevents them from playing a meaningful role in solidarity with the Irish struggle.”
The book itself is self-explanatory in that it seeks to give an overview of Ireland from the perspective of the IMG. It covers in eight chapters “Civil Rights to Civil War” through to “The Coming Irish Revolution”.
It notes under the heading “Radicals and Moderates” that ‘the Civil Rights movement, conceived as no-violent, had violence thrust upon it’.
An important factor which led to this was the internal struggle which went on within the Civil Rights movement between the ‘radicals’ and the ‘moderates’. Indeed while the moderates initiated the movement, the important actions which changed the situation were the responsibility of the radicals and occurred against the wishes of the moderates.
I won’t analyse the entirety of the book, but I think it’s worth noting that the account of August 1969 is interesting. For example… Regarding the attack on the Falls notes that ‘despite six dead, hundreds of injured and the burning out of whole streets of houses, the defenders of the Falls held out’. This then continues:
The peace that was achieved was an armed peace. The inhabitants of Bogside and Falls had shown their ability to hold off the RUC and the Orangemen, they would, undoubtedly, have shown their mettle against the British Army had the need arisen.
They [the British] could not… Rely on the armed vanguard of the Catholics, the IRA, standing by if they took on the UVF (in fact the “Official” IRA had a position of attempting to woo the Protestants, and might even support Protestant resistance to the Army).
It further continues as it deals with the Falls Curfew…
The British Army had been met by the determined resistance of the Official IRA, who fought a sixteen hour gun-battle with them, resisting from street to street…. The battle of the Falls confirmed the most important change in Irish politics since the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the emergence of the IRA once more as an armed force, in conflict with British domination of their country, but this time linked indissolubly with the people of the Catholic ghettoes. The disillusion in the British Army on the aprt of the Catholic population turned to hatred, the resistance which the growth of the IRA implied turned to attack, as a new force the Provisional IRA entered the conflict…
Lest this seem to be a perspective which reifies the Provisional IRA over the Official IRA the chapter on Republicanism is quite even-handed. It also includes a page on Saor Éire.
Chapter 6 has a good overview of left parties during this period, albeit it is rather unkind about the CPI M-L (although hardly less so in Chapter 7 about the Labour Party).
Still, at this remove it is hard to entirely take seriously the conclusion on page 68 that…
To sum up, none of the formulas which have been tried have succeeded in denting the counter revolutionary consciousness of the protestant workers, and other proposed strategies have major flaws in them. To fight the Irish revolution in the face of the hostility of these workers would be terrible and costly, but it may be necessary; and it could be weighted against the implications of allowing the Six County state to go on for another fifty years.
Anyhow, it’s a readable addition to the Archive. I’ll be interested in people’s thoughts on it. I’m also promised an introductory piece to this document by one who knew Bob Purdie which I will add as soon as it arrives.
Bob Purdie himself wrote the following which provides further context. Many thanks to Bob for this.
On Ireland Unfree
I am disconcerted to discover that a pamphlet I wrote thirty-six years ago, which has been thoroughly falsified by history, and which I publicly repudiated in 1980, is still being taken seriously. I suppose I could complain about breach of copyright, but I believe in common ownership, so I’ll let it pass.
Ireland Unfree was written at a time when Unionist misgovernment in Northern Ireland had brought about a breakdown of political institutions, and the British government and Army were complicit in the mistreatment of innocent people. I thought these things justified the IRA campaign, but I was wrong. I had the delusion that a British withdrawal would lead to a united Ireland, but it became evident, quite quickly, that the IRA campaign had aroused the fear and resentment of Northern Ireland Protestants, giving an immense boost to the Paisleyites and the Loyalist paramilitaries. And it also made the people in the Republic prefer the security of their own state to the chaos they saw in the North. It made Irish unity more remote, after a decade in which the organic links between the two parts of Ireland had been growing stronger.
I was the first to propose the idea of a Troops Out Movement. When the TOM was criticised, on the basis that its demands would lead to a bloodbath, I conscientiously set out to refute that argument. I found that I could not do so, I also realised that the sectarian civil war that had almost got out of control in August 1969, was being restrained by the British presence and that Catholic areas of the North could not be defended by the IRA. The fact that the IRA chose to stay in the background during Operation Motorman showed that they were not capable of defeating the British Army. They were an offensive, not a defensive force. They were able to make things worse, but not to make the position of Catholics better.
Then I saw that the moral balance was tipping against the Provisionals as their war became more brutal and its targets widened. It became evident that they were not simply demanding a British withdrawal, but wanted the British Army to disband and disarm the RUC and the UDR before leaving. Since this would meet with resistance, it would require the deployment of extra troops and it contradicted the claim that a British withdrawal was the answer to the problem of sectarian division in the North.
I came to understand that the solution was not war, but peace. A peace that could only come from compromise and agreement. There had to be an admission that there were two communities with rights to be respected. That their ultimate constitutional aspirations could not be pursued without bringing ruin on both. Many years before it was signed, I favoured the main lines of the Good Friday Agreement – Nationalists to be guaranteed equality and cultural recognition within Northern Ireland, Unionists reassured that they would not be coerced into a united Ireland against their will.
I moved to Belfast in the summer of 1980, to research my PhD thesis on the origins of the civil rights movement. This was just before the Hunger Strikes started, and I lived on the Lower Ormeau Road. What I learned confirmed and deepened my commitment to the politics of peace. I worked with the late Paddy Devlin and others to promote democratic socialist politics and I was influenced by the writings and personal example of Frank Wright of Queen’s University.
Frank told me that he had been influenced by Ireland Unfree, but he soon saw through its oversimplifications. I found his writings on the Protestant working class and his analysis of the conflict persuasive. He showed that Ulster had developed as a frontier society, divided between “settlers”, loyal to the British Crown, and “natives” who aspired to an independent Ireland. An ultra-loyal minority of “settlers” was constantly able to provoke the “natives” into violence. This united the “settlers” against the “natives” in attempting to make the colonial power take punitive action. Attack and retaliation endlessly reproduced each other as each community fed on its own grievances. This cycle could not be broken by violence, but only by replacing fear and hatred with reconciliation. And Frank’s example also led me, some years after his death, to Christianity and involvement with the Corrymeela Community.
My own research on the origins of the civil rights movement proved that the IRA campaign was not the only possible response to the crisis of 1968-9, and that an alternative, the non-violent techniques of Martin Luther King had not been understood and implemented by that movement.
My academic work led me to my job in Ruskin College in 1988 and for twenty years I challenged my students to think critically and to constantly re-examine their own assumptions. That, after all, is what I have always tried to do myself. During my time in Oxford the political stage was cleared of Margaret Thatcher, the Poll Tax, Apartheid in South Africa, and Stalinist tyranny. I celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, because it offered the freedom to find new ways towards human equality and progress. Towards realising the socialist values that have motivated me during fifty years of political involvement.
A year ago I moved back to Scotland, to retirement in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy. From the window of my study I can see the water tower of the factory in which I was shop stewards convener when I left for London in 1968. It gives me sense of completion, but my political journey is not over. As a member of the Scottish National Party I am looking forward to taking part in the campaign to unseat Gordon Brown as the MP for this constituency, and then going on to win Scottish independence. I still have a rebel heart.
Bob Purdie, June 2009