1968: “the single spark that lit the prairie fire”

If life and living changed in Paris in May 1968 for the rest of the world, it took a little longer in Northern Ireland. Forty years opposing camps judge it separately as ‘liberty or illusion‘, and some a bit of both. Fascinating discursive interview of Paul Bew by Malachi O’Doherty… Bew expands reflectively on his reported comments at the John Hewett Summer School.

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  • Dewi

    Fascinating indeed – I wonder could things have ended up differently. Me, I think the Loyalist violence of 67 & 68 more catalytic than the Burntollet march – but might be wrong. Mr Bew never really said what he should have done differently though.

  • It was Sammy McNally what done it

    Very fair apraisal of events by Bew – no obvious self serving comments and no attempt to attribute blame – further reinforces the view that the events that unfolded(the Troubles), sparked at least in part by the march, reflected the poisoned history of relations between the 2 Non Iron communities and Britian and Ireland and were, to some extent at least, inevitable.

  • Steve

    Having read the Cain report on Berntolette it would seem that violent republicanism was not just innevitable but completely justified

  • Harry Flashman

    The night before unarmed Republican (yes, Republican rather than Civil Rights) demonstrators were attacked by Loyalists at Burntollet, unarmed Loyalist demonstrators were attacked in Guildhall Square in Derry, in neither incident did the RUC did very much to help.

    Only one incident got attention, any idea why this is?

  • Belfast Gonzo


    You might also find this discussion of how the left failed in Ireland in 68 worth reading. It’s led off by Eamonn McCann’s War and an Irish Town.

  • Sorry to have missed the previous bean-feast on this topic: I was engaged elsewhere, and off-line. However, with that apology, I find myself tending to the consensus therein, from the likes of Nevin and Garibaldy.

    My daughter’s degree is decades younger and more relevant than mine. She points out the curiosity of an “historical event”: that it only becomes significant when a quantum of recognised historiographers have cited it. This explains the anomalies such as that, immediately above, puzzling Harry Flashman @ 03:29 AM.

    Burntollet was one marker in the development of a crisis. It only achieves unique significance if it is given priority over all the other indicators. In other words, the story does not start at Burntollet — unless that is the chosen point-of-departure for one’s particular narrative.

    I remember the 60s: my alter ego (hereinafter “I”) was there.

    I was present at an earlier moment (and under instruction to stay silent: an English accent was not deemed helpful). Michael Farrell was there, with Bowes Egan the main protagonist from QUB’s Labour Group. So, I think, was “Irksome” Holmes. Bob Mitchell (of Trinity Fabians and chief ward-heeler for the Irish Labour Party in Dublin, North-Central Ward) was the parallel steersman. Sitting, glaring from a corner, was Bernadette Devlin.

    This occasion was an attempt to bring radical students in Dublin and Belfast into some kind of liaison. Rather grandly, the seventeen or so attending called ourselves the “Irish Association of Labour Student Organisations”. That never achieved any status as an “historical event” for a number of reasons.

    The main reason for its lack of significance is that nothing came from it. Nothing could: the distances between the two cities and traditions were too great. It was an event before its time, and therefore outside the narrative. Then, and perhaps even now, the distance between Belfast and Dublin was immeasurable. Similarly, any link between Burntollet/NICRA and les événements de Mai 1968 seems rather facile (it seems to stem from the imagination of Paul Arthur). Nor, at the other extreme, at that stage, did we have any heed of the irrelevancies (Garland, Goulding, MacGiolla) in Gardiner Place.

    Another reason is that such mind-meets do not fit the narrative then being constructed, and subsequently propagated with considerable success, by the International Socialist Trots (of whom “Useless” McCann was and is the main mouth-piece, and War and an Irish Town the early draft). McCann is on record as saying, explicitly, the 5 Oct 1968 Derry march was a

    “strategy … to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off a mass reaction against the authorities”

    The CND banner carried that day (and implying non-violence) suggests not everyone was part of that deliberate confrontation.

    Of course Bew is entitled to speculate about an alternative universe (and alternative narratives) where it was all done differently, humanely, better, and with less blood. Anyone who has not similarly and repeatedly thus reflected is a fool, a knave or worse. All the indications I read are that what actually happened was no accident: a lot of people, on all sides, intended and machinated for just what they got.

  • Following my previous post, Malcolm Redfellow @ 07:15 AM, I stand corrected.

    Daughter pontificates that the axiom about “historical events” being what attracts the persistent attention of historiographers derives from E.H.Carr’s What is History?, chapter 1:

    The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.

    No where more true than in Ireland.

  • “My daughter’s degree is decades younger and more relevant than mine. She points out the curiosity of an “historical event”: that it only becomes significant when a quantum of recognized historiographers have cited it. ”


    What a bright woman your daughter clearly is, and the reason she gives is why things like the homecoming of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the rise of al Quaeda and dare I say the explosive emergence of the PIRA came as a complete surprise to the British academic establishment and the ministers who look to them for advice. Only long after the bombs started going off did they begin to ask why.

    They were busy debating this and that in there ivory towers and far to seeped in class prejudice to notice the likes of Brendan Hughes and Bobby Storey raging about their predicament on a Belfast corner whilst sharing a woodbine; or a Tom Murphy and his mates from the local Gallic football club doing much the same whilst they changed into their kit for their next match.

  • Malcolm, can you date that encounter with the delightful Bernadette?

    I’ve always wondered why extreme socialists, both armchair and militant, imagined that ‘blue-collar’ Unionists and Nationalists would combine to generate an Irish version of Cuba.

    I was a QUB student from 1962-1966 during that brief thaw in ‘tribal’ relationships. I’d come out of an apartheid primary and secondary education system and organisations like the Glee Club had a far greater attraction for me than the rather narrow and partisan political ones. Many of the original members of the Corrymeela Community also had their roots in that ‘liberal’ era.

    Hume, in “Personal Views” p10, attempted to link the October 5 march to MLK thinking: don’t retaliate, let the world see who the real aggressor is. It’s my view that aggression has never limited itself to one of the ‘tribes’ and that it’s never taken too much provocation to set the tribes at each other’s throats. News reports from the 1860s might have mentioned different weapons but the sounds of stone clodding will have echoed down through the generations. [ref. A T Q Stewart – “The Narrow Ground”]

    Evidence given in 1869 to an enquiry about riots in Derry

    Later on in p28 he articulates his own confused soundbite: reform, reconciliation and reunification. How can you have reconciliation if you ignore the validity of one of the two constitutional aspirations?

  • Dewi

    Thanks Nevin – good stuff.

  • Nevin @ 03:00 PM:

    I came down from TCD in 1965, so the “IALSO” meeting was presumably that summer or autumn (I was back in Dublin for the last week of October: that would be my best guess).

    Looking at your dates, who knows? Our ways may have crossed in those halcyon days, but no with any Glee Club.

    Mick Hall @ 01:23 PM:

    I’m very reluctant to accept your reading that:

    the explosive emergence of the PIRA came as a complete surprise to the British academic establishment and the ministers who look to them for advice.

    I assume that generalisation extends back to the first Wilson Government, including the period (1964-67) when George Wigg was Wilson’s runner to the securocrats. Wigg was certainly no fall-guy for academic sweet-talk. Moreover, Ireland was, in the ’60s, still the fiefdom of Special Branch, which means the key individual was likely to have been Sir James Waddell, Deputy Under-Secretary at the Home Office, who ran the liaison with MI5. Waddell was apparently well-trusted by Downing Street, when MI5 were not. Waddell was despised by the likes of “Spycatcher” Peter Wright for insisting on legalities and proprieties; but he was effective and pragmatic, and nobody’s pawn.

    As for the “explosive emergence of PIRA”, Jack Lynch’s (12 Aug 1969) TV appearance preceded all that, when whatever weaponry the IRA held was allegedly on loan to the Welsh Nats. Since “Sunny Jim” Callaghan was Home Secretary at that point of time, the Home Office was in thrall to no egghead theoreticians. By then British intelligence was definitely engaged: indeed, the problem quickly became departmental rivalries at an internecine level.

    Conclusion: certainly until June 1970, when Heath took over, it wasn’t as you suggest. We are then into the Clockwork Orange period, and the shadowy manipulations of the likes of Airey Neave. Again, little evidence of ivory-tower abstraction there.

    However, is this relevant to our thread here?

  • Dewi

    Worth reading Nevin’s link – pretty depressing stuff to be honest. On the positive side, however, sectarian stife in the 3 Ulster counties in the South appears to be a thing of the past, despite the same number of generations of conflict.

  • Malcolm,
    Come on, you miss my point entirely, whilst the special branch you speak so highly of, and their Stormont and Westminister masters were listening to academic twaddle and shitting themselves over mockney revolutionaries at QUB. The young working class men and women who were raging about there situation and were to fight the British state for three decades were not even on their radar, or more likely were dismissed as ill educated Belfast corner boys and girls.

    This is the main reason why, when the internment roundup came it missed most of the main PIRA players completely, as those civil servants and their security gatherers were oblivious to there very existence.

    But hey, who not rewrite history and make the British state and its intelligence apparatus in Ireland appear infallible, as it seems to be all the fashion these days. Distorting history has always been part of the spoils as far as the British State and Ireland is concerned, thankfully there are still Irish men and women who are having none of it.

  • Harry Flashman

    Mick has a point and it is on display not only with regard to the British “establishment” (my I do hate that phrase but it’ll do) but with many of the contributors to this and the other thread. They will continually mention such and such a meeting at such and such a venue in 1968 or 69 in which some longwinded lefty, who no one but them remembers, droned on for hours about the need for socialist reform and then put forward the argument that the non-sectarian Left were the main instigators of what kicked off in 1969.

    They weren’t, they were an irrelevance to all but themselves and the geriatrics who now speak so fondly of their radical youth and who insist on rivet counting trainspotting with regard to who was the real force behind those events.

    The men and women who brought about the situation we are in today are, as Mick rightly points out, the Belfast and Derry corner boys, the off duty Specials, the Dungiven IRA men, the drunken peelers, the boys from the Old Brigade, the Sons of Ulster etc most of whose names haven’t reached down to us from the past.

    Nonetheless we can safely define the key actors; the non-sectarian reformist “Civil Rights”players, the “Pike in the Thatch” Republicans awaiting their main chance, the middle class, middle aged, middle of the road Unionist reformers, and of course the Last Ditch, Ulster Says No Surrender brigade. The reason we can define them is because they are still around and still pursuing the same agendas.

    The bloviating Lefties are still around of course but are still as irrelevant as they were back then.

  • Doctor Who


    “Having read the Cain report on Berntolette it would seem that violent republicanism was not just innevitable but completely justified ”

    As sweeping statements go this has to be the hoover jet powered vacum cleaner of sweeping statements. Please tell me just exactly what justified 30 years of murder.

  • “the non-sectarian reformist “Civil Rights”players”

    Harry, the CRM was a very broad church and I suspect the non-sectarian element was a relatively small one. The extreme socialists also would have been a small segment but their ‘in your face’ and violent roles attracted the reaction of the political and religious establishments, North and South, as well as the Paisleyites.

    Civil Rights protests and anti-authoritarianism were fashions of the times. I was on Belfast’s University Road one Wednesday afternoon in 1968. I watched students being lined up in advance of a march on the City Hall. It was all a bit of crack and I suspect most of those taking part had little knowledge of the inter-communal conflict so vividly described by Tony Stewart and couldn’t have cared less. The opposing Paisleyites had convinced themselves or had been persuaded that the student leaders were part of a conspiracy to advance the cause of a Cuban-style Ireland.

    Things went from bad to worse and in no time at all we had dropped into the familiar tramlines described in Stewart’s “The Narrow Ground”:

    At an early stage of the Ulster troubles, it became apparent that attitudes, words and actions which were familiar and recognisable to any student of Irish history, but which seemed hardly relevant to politics in the twentieth century, were coming back into fashion. This was not to be explained by the deliberate imitation of the past; it could be accounted for only by some mysterious form of transmission from generation to generation. In many ways it was a frightening revelation, a nightmarish illustration of the folk-memory of Jungian psychology. Men and women who had grown to maturity in a Northern Ireland at peace now saw for the first time the monsters which inhabited the depths of the community’s unconscious mind. It was as if a storm at sea had brought to the surface creatures thought to have been long extinct.

  • The bloviating Lefties,


    If Mick F has an award for best turn of phrase, the above has got my vote, Bloviating, just wonderful and a very apt description in some cases.

  • Mick Hall @ 12:08 AM:

    the special branch you speak so highly of, and their Stormont and Westminister masters were listening to academic twaddle and shitting themselves over mockney revolutionaries at QUB

    I did not, and do not speak highly of the British securocrats. I seriously doubt that anybody, least of all the great and the good (Mason? William Craig? Callaghan? Maudling?) who held sway over us, played a blind piece of notice to the motor-mouths at QUB — or anywhere else. Perhaps, more’s the pity.

    Harry Flashman @ 02:12 AM:

    Bear with me all, I’ll get to the point in a moment.

    Alistair Cooke had a good story: I think (indeed, I hope) it involved Judge Learned Hand.

    The great jurist dealt with a whole succession of pornography cases in a long career. Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court faced the problem of what could “deprave and corrupt” with a simple mantra: “I don’t know much about pornography, but I know it when I see it”. Learned Hand (if, indeed,it was he) adopted a similar pragmatism: whatever gave the Judge ‘a rise’ was pornography.

    It was then noticed that, as the Judge progressively aged, less and less material was deemed obscene.

    Now, back to the moment.

    I can never understand why individuals expend their time and talents merely to attempt taunt and trolling. Much of Harry Flashman @ 02:12 AM seems to spend the idle Australasian twilight trying to get a rise out of me. Fair enough: I recognise enough there to see myself:

    an irrelevance to all but themselves and the geriatrics who now speak so fondly of their radical youth and who insist on rivet counting trainspotting with regard to who was the real force behind those events.

    Nice try, Harry. End of story.

    However …

    In the original intention of this thread was the notion of “liberty or illusion”. I’m essentially with Nevin @ 09:25 AM here, and his quotation from ATQS is an absolute humdinger. I’ve been a passive spectator of all things Ulster for nearly half-a-century; and admit I am still little the wiser. Nor, I sense, are most others (academic, partisan, geriatric or whatever) any better at the “big picture”. Curiously, the pointillisme that is the arms-length view of Sluggerdom is often as good as it gets. And, yes, Harry’s broad-brush is part of the whole.

    So: to the bottom-line.

    First, the marchers and banner-carriers of the later ’60s were, generally, well-intentioned. Our anthem was We shall Overcome. We actually did believe that we could build a better world (and in the glowing ashes of Cuba Week, Hungary, Vietnam et ubique that seemed desirable and even easy). Most of us then went on to serve our communities with some distinction. Few totally discarded that idealism, which is why we are still suckers for the “good causes”.

    Second, there were small cadres of Fourth Internationalists who could put aside constant bickering to attempt parochial Permanent Revolution. One or two are still around, and still preaching to the unconverted (no names, no pack-drill). They were and are rectal agony, but they had and have an ovine following and undeserved reputations.

    Third, and most significant, were the thugs who lurk in the shadows of society and politics. The less dangerous of these found self-gratification as Mussolini did on balconies. The rest found ample opportunity to exercise their feral lusts in the Ulster badlands.

    Finally, the mystery. Why on earth did the good people of Northern Ireland, in all communities, tolerate it for so long? There was a better way, but we never encountered it. And, yes, sadly for Harry, it probably involved left versusright, with a space for decent liberals in between. At least that would have given a choice rather than a ghetto.

  • Finally, the mystery. Why on earth did the good people of Northern Ireland, in all communities, tolerate it for so long?


    As far as the Unionist community was concerned, could it have been because the State they gave their allegiance to, actively encourage it throughout all section of loyalism.

    As to the nationalist communities, I feel it is more complicated and is to do with a defeated and abandoned people, a [half] risen people, a feeling amongst the young in the very late 1960s early 70s that one did not have to take shit, just because your parents did, that sort of stuff.

  • Garibaldy


    In fact we know for certain that the Cabinet was indeed concerned with what was going on at QUB because the records are there to prove it.

    Harry’s narrative breaks down because most of the pike in the thatch men saw NICRA as a distraction and had little or nothing to do with it. And because like it or lump it, the lefists – both the republican movement and the PD – drove a lot of the developments in this era, even if not after. I’m surprised given the role that the republican movement played in the creation of NICRA and in civil rights agitation that you can dismiss Gardiner Place as irrelevant.

    And the notion that 1968 lit the bonfire and that some form of August 1969 was irrelevant afterwards as is now suggested by Bew and others is nonsense. Any more than the murder of Peter Ward made it inevitable either. There was more than enough time to implement sufficient reform in the first 8 months of 1969.

  • Two more quotes from Stewart which highlight the tramlines I referred to earlier:

    “To understand the full significance of any episode of sectarian conflict, you need to know the precise relationship of the locality in which it occured to the rest of the mosaic of settlement. But the chequerboard on which the game is played has a third dimension. What happens in each square derives a part of its significance, and perhaps all of it, from what happened there at some time in the past. Locality and history are welded together.”

    “In desperate situations, when the normal framework of social order breaks down, ordinary people are rarely as lacking in common sense as those who govern them; the instinct for self-preservation is too strong.

    Such a situation was created in Northern Ireland in 1969. Quite apart from the strong political passions involved, the population in both communities realized at an early stage of the troubles that the authorities were failing to contain the disturbances, and indeed that they did not understand their essential nature. The disarming of the police, and its temporary transformation from a law enforcement agency into a vulnerable and subordinate element of the ‘security forces’, was in itself a profound shock to society. For the time being, the state had lost the capacity to safeguard life and property, and, stripped of that protection, the civil population turned instinctively to the only source of wisdom applicable to the circumstances – the inherited folk-memory of what had been done in the past, both good and bad.”

  • It’s only when one reviews one’s previous efforts that deficiencies become glaring. I therefore accept much of the review above.

    I was unaware that QUB barm fed the [Westminster] Cabinet table. A citation, please, anyone?.

    I still do not accept that Gardiner Place made much contribution of worth to late-60s radicalism. Its brief moment was coming, as Mac Giolla wormed it towards a credible, then pliable, leftist position.

    Equally, Mac Stiofáin’s mob were and remained the larger faction; but had nothing to put into the intellectual debate. Trying to make sense of things in 1980, Tim Pat Coogan posed:

    How did the blackened, almost unarmed and certainly very largely discredited I.R.A. resurrect itself to become a national force moving the North of Ireland issue to the fore throughout all the dismaying events of the last decade?

    Over the next several pages (see chapter 16) Coogan tries to answer that rhetorical query. His two-ply answer amounts to (a) street-wise opportunism ably supported by (b) governmental bone-headedness. So: no great ideologies there, either.

    Neither or even both of those two factors fully comprehends what then transpired. Hence, my liking for Nevin @ 09:25 AM deploying ATQ Stewart (which, I just see, he has now supplemented). The implication there is we lived through an extended collective psychosis. Perhaps the whole thing was covertly sponsored by Big Pharm: there seemed to be a time when Valium and Smarties were equally sweeties of choice.

  • Garibaldy


    It was the Stormont cabinet I was referring to as Craig was the name I noticed. I don’t have my books on NI to hand, but there was a huge protest at Craig’s house around the issue of the ban on the Republican Clubs and the society set up in sympathy at QUB. There were other incidents involving students (including I think entry of the Parliament) and attempts by the education minister to hold discussions with them. As for the British Cabinet, things like Burntollet provoked a great deal of discussion between the two cabinets.

    As for Gardiner Place. Look at the origins of NICRA, and membership of it, and it is clear that the Goulding leadership was at the centre of it. Initially, the Provos were by far the smaller faction in much of the north, parts of Belfast, and in the island as a whole (around a third walked out of the SF Ard Fheis and a tiny number from the previous Amry Convention) though I would largely agree with your analysis of why they became so big in the succeeding decade.

    I think the last bit quoted by Nevin is wrong. Society did not go into shock at the disarming of the RUC. Though large segments of unionism may well have done so. But Stewart is mixing the two up. And I don’t think the collective psychosis argument is sufficient. For decades society had been organised on sectarian lines, and these were the consequences, rather than some psychotic break.

  • Harry Flashman

    Malcolm rest assured I do not spend my twilights trolling to wind you up, far from it, when I try winding you up it is invariably morning with me :-).

    To your main point however; the fact is that there were primordial, almost tectonic tensions in Northern Ireland, they were never far beneath the surface, bubbling up frequently and suddenly and just as suddenly stamped out, but the underlying rumblings never went away. It is a conceit of modern western man that such ancient hatreds could be discussed away by terribly sensible, educated chaps; one had only to look at Europe to see how all this old tribalistic and nationalsitic nonsense could be put behind us (we weren’t yet to witness the horrors of the Balkans or indeed the Caucasus back then).

    So it was in late 1960’s Ulster/Norn Iron/Six Counties. In the orgasmic eruption of Lefty hedonism that swept the western world it seemed so obvious that all that was needed was love, along with a bit of Guevara style radicalism, if a few others thought that a strict vegetarian diet of nuts and fruit juices combined with a disregard for shaving and personal hygiene generally might also assist the cause then so much the better.

    Unfortunately I am reminded of a story which is ongoing in the Indonesian island of Java (tapping into a volcano), a few, no doubt well meaning, individuals drilled down in an area of latent volcanic activity, they broke into a well of huge geothermal activity just a few metres below a seemingly placid surface. Out surged a mass of steam, mud and general awfulness that engulfed an entire region in slime and mud that will take generations to clean up.

    Should we blame the drillers? Well perhaps they should have known better, but perhaps the stinking mass would have erupted elsewhere without any assistance at all but at the end of the day in all honesty the blokes who shoved that drill bit down into the earth that day, stupid and naive though they may have been, are the least important element when it comes to analysing where it all went wrong.

    Unless of course some of them actually wanted to cause the eruption in the first place.

  • So we have come full circle have we, and the game afoot is to portray the long war and its lead in as nothing more than a sectarian conflict, remind me again, who first thought such nonsense up.

    As to Stewart’s quotes, to me they sound little more than gibberish, especially about the police; as a section of the RUC had been part of the security forces since the Statelets inception; and far from this coming as a shock to working class nationalists, having had a life time of unpleasant experiences with the B specials, they understood perfectly where this bunch of uniformed thugs loyalties lay.(and so did the UK State)

    As to the State being unable to protect its citizens, as is its duty under international law, the British government went one step further, when in an attempt to intimidate a whole section of the population, it had shot dead thirteen people on the streets of Derry. How does this act square with a sectarian war?

    Before we all get to intellectual in search of a fantom ideology, perhaps we should stick to the facts as they were.

  • Garibaldy


    I’m afraid that I have to strongly disagree with you as regarding the sectarian nature of the dispute here. It was not exclusively sectarian, but was fundamentally that. I think the fact that the whole thing has been happily recast as a search for equal rights for catholics supports this.

    For me, the fundamental question is this: is seeking to represent only protestants or catholics – and this was the language used much more in the past than recently, when nationalists and unionists have replaced them – sectarian (and therefore anti-progressive and anti-socialist)? I believe so. It reinforces the divisions by perpetuating them. Hence the problem with the GFA, positive though it has been.

    Moreover, the same people who spent a lot of time attacking soldiers were also far from averse to killing protestants when it suited – no clearer illustration of this than the actions of the Provisionals during the 1974-5 ceasefire when sectarian murders intensified. We should ask ourselves what positions the teenagers and people in their 20s responsibly for those incidents occupy now.

  • Garibaldy, perhaps we should also be asking what teenagers and those in their 20s are up to now. What are the chances of the fire re-igniting in the lead-up to 2016? IIRC the current UVF was established in 1966.

  • “How does this act square with a sectarian war?”

    Mick, if you read the Stewart link you’ll see that he refers to more than one conflict in existence at the same time.

  • Garibaldy

    I think the circumstances have changed so much that there is no chance of it relighting solely due to 2016.

  • spanishroomscrumpy


    In the orgasmic eruption of Lefty hedonism that swept the western world it seemed so obvious that all that was needed was love, along with a bit of Guevara style radicalism, if a few others thought that a strict vegetarian diet of nuts and fruit juices combined with a disregard for shaving and personal hygiene generally might also assist the cause then so much the better.

    Oh my word…what was it one of those unshaven hedonistic hippy types used to sing about — something about happiness and a warm gun — and did I just hear someone going pffft over the smoking end of his dingo-shooter, the long-haired stereotypes strewn at his feet?

    This smelly hippy leftie fixation is developing into a real theme, HF. I know we all find the villains we need (and if we don’t the Daily Heil is always there to help us, eh what?), but did one of them steal your girlfriend back in the day, or something?

  • Garibaldy, the constitutional question hasn’t been resolved and I suspect society is possibly more sectarian than it was in 1966. Also, the PSNI seems to have little control of many local communities and the current loyalist and republican godfathers could easily be swept aside by the next generation.

    Conflict may or may not arise re.2016 but I hope that London and Dublin have contingency plans in place.

  • Turgon

    No doubt some of the people who were involved in civil rights were motivated by completely laudable objectives. They undoubtedly had a very significant amount to complain about.

    The riots and early violence may well have been an expression of similar things to what was happening in other parts of the world.

    However, the murder campaigns in places like South Armagh and Fermanagh are much more an expression of ongoing sectarian hatreds. After all 5 people were murdered in Trillick on 9th February 1971. Such episodes were much more akin to and only 15 years after Sean South and his comrades had tried to murder policemen in Brookebourough and only 10 years after William Hunter had been murdered in South Armagh (the last person murdered in the Border campaign).

    Terrorists like South or the assorted Armagh and Tyrone / Fermanagh criminals of the troubles were no more motivated by socialist idealism or the spirit of 68 than the chair I am sitting on is. Their crimes were motivated by sectarian hatred. Though I am sure some of their fellow travellers may try to claim otherwise that merely shows their own brand of sectarianism.

  • Garibaldy


    Probably more sectarian, but (perhaps perversely) also less bitterness due to the GFA and commitment to the political process, with those in favour of promoting a united Ireland feeling more involved with the state..

  • Harry Flashman

    Mick, to simply describe the Northern Ireland “Troubles” as a catholic versus protestant religious war is of course nonsense, but equally it is nonsense to ignore the centuries old hatreds that simmered (and still simmer) beneath the surface of life in the Occupied Six/Wee Province*

    *[delete as appropriate].

    Just because the rather obvious facts on the ground didn’t quite fit in to the prevailing ideological dialogue doesn’t negate the reality of the facts.

    I’m sure there were many people in Yugoslavia in 1990 who were delighted that a couple of decades of fraternal, socialist rule had rendered all that genocidal nonsense of previous centuries obsolete.

  • I was on the cusp of foregoing this one, of a similar inclination to Mick Hall @ 04:25 PM:

    … we have come full circle have we, and the game afoot is to portray the long war and its lead in as nothing more than a sectarian conflict …

    Then, for some reason, I recalled Garibaldy @ 04:22 PM:

    Look at the origins of NICRA, and membership of it, and it is clear that the Goulding leadership was at the centre of it.

    There’s a lot, and a fair bit of sense in Garibaldy’s whole argument there. However, I have never bought into the adulation of Goulding as a great socialist thinker. His thesis essentially came down to an aperçu that it was all a dirty British plot to divide the decent Irish working class on religious grounds. That never got to me as particularly original or particularly profound or even particularly true.

    There were leftist (unlike Harry Flashman, I do not accept that term as an all-purpose automatic conclusive argument) and progressive movements north, south, before, during and after 1969. Their demands were, and remain, remarkably modest and unfulfilled: the establishment of a non-sectarian democracy. In passing, may I note that, at the founding of NICRA in January 1967, three Trades Unions were represented: all were British based (two years previously there had been fifteen at a previous, abortive, attempt to move things on). Therein is the missing ingredient: an organised, effective organisation based in the salariat (as the successor to the legendary “working classes”).

    Now, I accept that, were such a utopia to be achieved, north and south, the partition issue would already be dead. Which is why my priorities differ from many here.

    Let it also be remembered that PD, which as much as anyone came to recognise this, was denounced as “ultra-lefts” by the British Communist Party (who, furthermore, supported Callaghan over the August 1969 troop deployment).

    Now, the CP were not a totally irrelevant fringe: Andy Barr could be both chair of the CPI and (1974-5) president of the ICTU — sell the UK equivalent of that to the Daily Mail! CPI activists had been movers-and-shakers in the DHAC, in its 1967-69 pomp. Then there was the Committee to Oppose Repressive Enactments (CORE), which put more demonstrators on Dublin streets than DHAC could wish for, in large part because it found common cause with the women’s movement. There was the short-lived, “Defend the Picket” organisation which aimed to check anti-TU legislation. Notice a pattern developing here: unless the CPI and/or Gardiner Place could “control” the operation, they quickly lost interest. Deprived of a core of committed and experienced leaders, attempts at mass-organisation serially failed. That flightiness was the ultimate downfall of Gardiner Place and the CPI. The exception to that rule remains international issues (Vietnam, Cuba, Chile … all the way to Iraq) where common cause could be made with us trendy liberals, and even with An Roinn Gnóthai Eachtracha.

    So I reckon there are a few stones still to be turned here. What crawls out might not be to anyone’s liking.

  • What is being over looked by some here, is there was no real democratic tradition in the northern state and even less so amongst the northern nationalist working classes and this was one of the main reasons why the NICRM foundered.

    Thus once opposition to the northern state gained traction, it was inevitable that Stormont and its English masters would hit back in the most violent way, as the British and the northern unionist establishment new its Statelet was democratically non-reformable and still is to this day, as the Stormont administration proves.

    Once a section of the nationalist people realized marching up and down singing we shall not be moved only resulted in cut heads, a sizable minority amongst the youth, reached for the only viable organization that had historic roots in armed conflict, apart from the British and its armed militias. The IRA; it may have been better if they had not, but they saw no other viable alternative, which is in itself a totally indictment of the northern State.


    The cause of the conflict can only be regarded as sectarian if you accept that the war of independence was sectarian, which I am sure you do not. For the UK State behaved in much the same way in that war as they did in the long war, they co-opted their allies in the protestant community and their militias to fight on their side.

    Now the tan war was fought over ground on which Protestants were a minority, whereas the long war was fought on ground where Protestants were not only a majority but an active participant in their war against northern nationalism. If the war was fought on sectarian lines as you claim, it was because partition and the British state made it so.

  • Garibaldy


    Goulding may have used that characterisation a bit towards the start, but I don’t think it characterised his thinking, and as subsequent developments showed, his programme was a lot more sophisicated than that. I think his whole point was not to claim originality so much as to look at the lessons of Irish history and learn from them. The two lessons learnt were the nature of republicanism as anti-sectarian and socially progressive from the United Irishmen, and the importance of making the programme relevant to people, from the New Departure and the Land War, backed up by the failure of the Border Campaign. I think his talents lay in organisation and re-orienting people in that direction – the Wolfe Tone Societies and subsequently NICRA were the most important aspects of that in the 1960s, with SFWP for the 1970s. Allied to his rethinking was the goal of creating a political party as the vehicle for change rather than a movement, building both on Irish history (especially in the south after 1922) and Lenin.

    You’re absolutely correct to point to the role of the unions in NICRA, and they had been lobbying on the civil rights agenda for several years beforehand. Ditto the sensible elements of the CPI. But I think you’re being overly harsh on the control thing. I think that if you look not just at NCIRA but at agitations in the south, particularly on women’s issues, those organisations could play a role in alliance with others. I also think it’s forgotten now who many people continued to be mobilised by NICRA up until Bloody Sunday really, as attention has focused on explaining the violence.


    The way the state was founded was surely sectarian. But I do think there is a fundamental difference between the way the IRA acted in the tan war and the way the provisionals operated. Put simply, the Provos had a much greater capacity for sectarian murder, and a much more callous disregard for the lives of civilians. As well as the obvious difference of not representing the will of the people of Ireland.

    Anyway, regardless of how the state came into being or the behaviour of unionists and loyalists, I don’t think that it was ever justified to take the decision to engage in sectarian murders the way the Provos and the INLA and the IPLO often did. The responsibility to behave better than that was not negated by the force of history in my view. After all, the majority of people even in the areas where the Provos were strongest never supported that.

  • Turgon

    “If the war was fought on sectarian lines as you claim, it was because partition and the British state made it so.”

    More pathetic weasel worded nonsense. The IRA campaign was intensely and utterly sectarian. Once again the only option is to point out that a vast litany of utterly sectarian crimes were committed by the IRA which had nothing whatsoever with “ending British rule in Ireland.”

    Darkley: was killing Protestants at church the fault of the British state and partition? Kingsmills, killing working class Protestants? Blowing up Enniskillen war memorial? The sad litany goes on.

    The problem Mickhall is that your analysis is in itself utterly sectarian putting the ultimate blame for everything on the “Brits.”

    For loyalist apologists to try to claim that the likes of the Rising Sun or Loughlinisland or Sean Graham’s bookmakers massacres were at root the fault of the IRA would be revoltingly bigoted and sectarian. The problem is that your claims are simply the mirror image of such lies.

  • Turgon, there were so many players, so many loose alliances, that it’s probably impossible at times to identify who was responsible for generating a particular reaction. Also, individuals and groups may well have been driven more by perception than fact.

    I wonder if it would have made any difference had there been stronger leaders than O’Neill in the North and Lynch in the South. Each seems to have been hostage to their hard-liners.