Nov 13 2017

Review: Struggle or Starve: Working Class Unity in Belfast’s Outdoor Relief Riots

Tommy McKearney reviews Struggle or Starve: Working Class Unity in Belfast’s Outdoor Relief Riots

by Sean Mitchell.

 

 

 STRUGGLE OR STARVE: WORKING CLASS UNITY IN BELFAST’S OUTDOOR RELIEF RIOTS 

Struggle or Starve by Séan Mitchell is an important book that deserves the widest readership among those interested in promoting progressive politics in the North of Ireland. The author provides the reader with a detailed, and even inspirational, account of a rare period in Belfast’s history when the working class was united around a campaign to address matters of immediate need. More than that, through, his analysisraises questions about events of that period which still have relevance today. How possible is it to overcome sectarianism through shared struggle and can this be done within the context of a political unit as fundamentally flawed as Northern Ireland?

While the central theme of Mitchell’s book focuses on the Out Door Relief campaign of 1932, it puts this struggle in the context of a six county statelet that was little more than a decade old. The author makes no bones about the reactionary ,authoritarian and sectarian nature of the Northern Ireland government of the time, supported ultimately by the imperial parliament in London. To his credit, he avoids the clichéd and misleading trap of ascribing the nature of the state and its failings to flawed personality or character defects among the indigenous population. The book examines the nature and composition of northern Irish society and its ruling elite at this time.

Without excusing murderous anti-Catholic violence of the 1920s, the author points to the dire underlying economic conditions that not only drove many to commit such barbarity but allowed an unscrupulous ruling class to exploit the unhappy situation.

No matter how familiar we are with the history of the northern state, it is still sobering to read of just how deeply sectarian it was and how widespread was this poison throughout the six-counties. Virulent bigotry typified much of unionism. From its Prime Minister James Craig, who infamously said that Catholics ;. . . breed like bloody rabbits. . . ’ to the working class Ulster Protestant Association, which according to an RUC inspector had the sole aim of exterminating Catholics by any means, the problem was widespread.

These atavistic prejudices seem to defy logic until contextualised by a commentator such as the historian John Gray who is quoted by Mitchell as saying that for Belfast’s capitalist ruling class, self interest and Unionist politics were inextricably linked. To protect and maintain their holdings and position of privilege, employers encouraged sectarian divisions in order to divide working class communities and thus weaken trade union activity. Keep in mind too that in the early years of the northern state, the ruling capitalist class (a group virtually indistinguishable then from the government of Northern Ireland) feared that the example of Bolshevik Russia would inspire Belfast’s workers to take similar action.

Sectarian divisions within the working class inevitably resulted in a weakened and emasculate organised labour movement with the unavoidable consequence of diminished bargaining power. Unsurprisingly the outcome of this situation was that the working class in Belfast experienced worse living conditions than almost anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Consequently the northern state felt little need to provide adequate welfare protection for the unemployed and the poor.

In fact, so complacent was the northern ruling class by the end of the 1920s, that it had allowed harsh 19th century poor law provisions to remain in place after they had been abandoned in both Britain and southern Ireland. Those tasked with administering relief to the needy – the Belfast Board of Guardians – saw their primary responsibility as being to discourage, as far as was possible, the distribution of assistance. Elected by the city’s rate payers, board members endeavoured to curtail expenditure by forcing the destitute to seek employment regardless of whether work was availability or adequately remunerated. Their heartless attitude towards the poor found full expression when it came to administration of Out Door Relief (ODR), a facility designed to cope with widespread poverty outside the walls of workhouses.

While the plight of the North’s poor had long been dire, they had tended to suffer misery in silence in the face of an indifferent ruling elite. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was to change that, for a time at least. So great was the impact of the depression that by 1932, unemployment and poverty was widespread across every section of Belfast’s working class. There was an acute need for assistance to relieve hunger and hypothermia in the city but little was provided by the state or its proxies on the Board of Guardians.

The ruling class believed it had little tofear, having ruthlessly imposed its authority a decade earlier and protected as they were by an authoritarian legal system, an armed police force and a divided working class. Nevertheless and in spite of this, a small group of communists, organised around the Revolutionary Communist Group, set about mobilising working people in order to demand an improvement in their conditions.

Struggle or Starve describes how under the inspired leadership of Tommy Geehan, this tiny band of revolutionaries organised the impoverished population, bringing together Catholic and Protestant workers in a heroic battle to combat poverty, misery and destitution.

The author provides us with a detailed and fascinating account of the events that culminated in a strike against the punitive conditions imposed on those forced to do backbreaking work on the ODR scheme. Attempts by heavily armed police to crush the strike led to two days of riots in both Protestant and Catholic areas. To the astonishment, not to mention alarm, of the Unionist government, the working class displayed an unexpected degree of unity. Faced with the prospect of losing control of the state, the authorities conceded to most of the strikers’ demands. It was a major victory for the working people of Belfast City.

Having gained such a significant advance over a relatively short period of time, it might have been expected that the Revolutionary Communist Group and its charismatic leader Tommy Geehan would have been able to build upon their success. Nevertheless, they were unable to do so and before three years had passed, Belfast was again experiencing inter-communal rioting, houses were being burned in working class districts and blood was being shed on the streets. Tragically, this type of violent division has all too often been the norm in the decades since.

Séan Mitchell searches for answers to this heartbreaking reality. He points to the fact that the communist cadre was tiny and exercised little influence within the trade union movement or civic society in general. Organisations such as the Orange Order or the AOH held infinitely greater sway within Belfast’s working class. With the immediate issue of ODR payments apparently addressed, the RCG struggled to maintain an ongoing impact. Its organisational difficulties were compounded by the political climate of the time with both the Catholic Church and Orange institutions bitterly hostile to even moderately left-wing parties never mind an avowedly Communist group. The author also critically examines the IRA of the time and highlights the emergence of the Republican Congress, composed largely of former members of the IRA and communists.

While the book cannot be challenged asit deals with the history of the period, the author’s analysis of the failure of the RCG is, by necessity, an opinion although one that is not necessarily wrong. Whether the outcome for Geehan and his comrades might have been different had other policies been followed (or could have been followed) remains a subject for discussion and debate. Would the group have fared better had it not followed the Comintern lead? Was its absolutist rejection of right-wing social democracy a mistake or its later adoption of broad front tactics detrimental? Was the buildingof a Workers’ Republic in Ireland remotely realistic without significant input from those who defined themselves first and foremost as republican? Was it possible under any circumstances to definitively overcome sectarianism within a political entity built upon and designed to perpetuate it?

Those were complex questions then and are subjects that are still relevant today. Over eight decades have passed since those heady days when for a brief time so much seemed possible and yet still we seem as far as ever from overcoming sectarianism.

Nevertheless, there have been important material changes in the North of Ireland in the intervening period and this cannot be overlooked when reflecting on the events recounted by Séan Mitchell. As a result of industrial decline, the North’s once powerful unionist bourgeoisie is no more and consequently the basis on which many discriminatory employment practices existed has been eroded. Moreover, one beneficial outcome of the conflict of the last decades of the 20th-century has been to make it virtually impossible to sustain the previous system of sectarian privilege within the public sector. Finally, Britain’s retreat from empire, coupled with contemporary technology has made Northern Ireland of little strategic value to London. However, unemployment, underemployment and poorly paid employment are problems experienced equally by the North’s working class while the local middle-class is becoming ever more evenly balanced between the so-called ‘two traditions’.

In other words, while old attitudes may seem depressingly resilient, the underlying infrastructure has changed. In light of this, it is important that we read Séan Mitchell’s book. It offers encouragement by providing clear evidence that working class division can be overcome through organised struggle around shared concerns. At the same time, it dispels cosy illusions as it illustrates the extent and nature of the sectarianism that preceded, and in turn re-emerged in the aftermath of the ODR campaign. Struggle or Starve encourages us to draw lessons from the past so that we may be better informed and equipped to address the needs of the future. Best of all though, this book provides a rich but readable text to stimulate the necessary discussion, debate and deliberations that socialists and republicans must have.

This review was first posted at:-

http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/247/238

 

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also see:

RED, ORANGE AND BLUE

Tommy McKearney’s new book – ‘The IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’

 

Report of the Third Global Commune Event

 

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Nov 26 2012

CRUEL BRITANNIA – SECRET HISTORY OF TORTURE

Tommy McKearney, former republican hunger striker and now activist with the Independent Workers Union in Ireland, has written the following review of  Ian Cobain’s book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture on his blog. 

Britain’s public and its government are currently devoting significant attention to the behaviour of the nation’s broadcast and print media. Both Parliament and the people are, understandably, concerned to ensure that the powerful Murdoch News Corporation and the equally influential BBC are conducting their affairs properly and with decency. The British people are entitled to know, and indeed demand, that newsgathering is done using correct procedures and that information relating to matters of public concern will be disseminated, whether or not it causes embarrassment to those in positions of power.

Ian Cobain

It would appear, however, that this commendable degree of scrutiny over Britain’s media does not extend to the country’s military and intelligence gathering services. Ian Cobain’s excellent new book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, reveals with a well researched investigation, that Britain’s secret services supported by the military and authorised by successive governments have systematically used torture against enemy personnel and insurgents over many decades.

While Cobain has done an admirable job in providing ample evidence to support his assertion that torture was and continues to be a pillar of British security policy, this is not the most remarkable aspect of his book. It would be strange indeed if, having used torture in every field of conflict the UK has been engaged in since World War II, that there was an absence of such evidence. Cobain does indeed detail at length the sorry history of Britain’s use of torture but what his book also reveals is the astonishing lengths that British governments go to in order to deny and cover-up that which is so well known to its many victims (and the UK’s allies) across four continents.

Continue reading “CRUEL BRITANNIA – SECRET HISTORY OF TORTURE”

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Aug 19 2012

THE POLITICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MERGER OF IRISH PHYSICAL FORCE REPUBLICANS

We are posting two articles on the recently agreed merger between three  of the physical force Republican groups. The first is by Tommy McKearney, former IRA hunger striker, and now in  the Independent Workers Union . The second is by John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy (Ireland).  John was a Peoples Democracy councillor on Belfast City council, during the Hunger Strikes .

 THE MERGER OF PHYSICAL FORCE REPUBLICANS

Organisations with strong centralised and hierarchal structures, especially the conviction driven, are usually prone to splitting or the breaking away of factions. Often this occurs at periods of significant political development or societal transformation when direction-changing decisions are required. This happens in religion, in sport and with unending regularity in the world of militant Irish republicanism. Three of the largest parties in the present Irish parliament, for example, had their origins in bitter divisions within the country’s republican milieu. Such a history, therefore, makes the news of a merging of certain forces within the present day republican underground, an interesting and indeed surprising development.

A small number of journalists were briefed on Thursday 26th July that three strands of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘physical force’ element of Irish republicanism had amalgamated. The Real IRA (best known to British readers for carrying out the 1998 Omagh bombing), a vigilante group called Republican Action Against Drugs and a low profile group of armed republicans still calling themselves ‘the IRA’ have united under the, hardly original, title of the Irish Republican Army. In its communiqué to the press, the group repeated its commitment to militarism when it spoke of the ‘… necessity of armed struggle in the pursuit of Irish freedom …’

In spite of its newsworthiness, this development should be kept in perspective. In the first instance, this new IRA group will be confronted with a challenge experienced by every revolutionary organisation; that of maintaining security and secrecy in the face of energetic surveillance by the state. There is little doubt that this merger will simplify MI5’s task of monitoring and foiling the new group’s activities.

Secondly, there are two other bodies, still calling themselves the IRA that remains outside this merger. Therefore the fractious and divided nature of armed Irish republicanism remains as poisonous and debilitating as ever. The particular school of Irish republicanism represented in this new group is often more certain of what it opposes rather than what it stands for. This makes it difficult for them to build the type of broad support base necessary to influence the political process.

Most pertinent of all, though, is the fact that the new formation is unlikely to change significantly the balance of forces within Northern Ireland. Trying to estimate membership strength for the various militant groups is difficult because the level and depth of support can fluctuate widely depending on the time and circumstances. One of the anomalies of the current situation is that while Sinn Fein voters are strongly opposed to further armed action, many are unwilling for historical reasons to cooperate with the authorities. Acceptance for all aspects of policing remains ambiguous within most republican circles.

Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to any resumption of the violent battle of the final quarter century of the 20thcentury. Every election since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has returned, from within the wider republican constituency, an overwhelming majority in favour of ending armed conflict and an equally strong rejection of those indicating any intention of recommencing insurrection. While there is no mechanical correlation between electoral support and ability or capacity to carry out direct action, the presiding officer’s count provides its own message. When people are unwilling to vote in secret for an insurrectionist candidate, they are unlikely to endure the unavoidable hardships and risks of war against the state. In practical terms there is insufficient water in which armed radicals can swim in Northern Ireland of the present day.

This low-key assessment notwithstanding; there is a message to be taken from a coming together of previously separate entities. It is rare for divisions in republican Ireland to be repaired or for groups to coalesce in this fashion. The significance of what has happened may not lie, therefore, in the new group’s potential for increased military capacity (and that is questionable hypothesis by any assessment) but in the fact that there is a new strategy in play and the process is towards unity rather than remaining separate.

Bear in mind that all is not well in Northern Ireland. Global recession is embedding economic and social hardship in areas that have experienced little improvement in their level of material prosperity over the last two decades. Sectarian divisions remain at a toxic level, especially in working class districts. Local devolved government performs a basic function of any parliament in that it is a substitute for civil war, yet it hardly makes any other obvious difference in the population’s day to day lives. Ominously, this new IRA is concentrated in the very areas where deprivation is most acute.

There is, in a nutshell, a space for dissenting voices to question the status quo and Irish republicanism is, after all, more a response to material conditions than it is an aspiration to a form of government. Five years ago a sense of estrangement manifested itself in France with youths burning property in the suburbs. Last year something similar happened in Britain when rioting broke out across urban centres.

Protest in Ireland sometimes follows an indigenous pattern and therein lurks the one great unknown factor in this latest ‘new departure’. Is this a huddling of desperate men determined to hang together rather than hang separately or is it an indication, even subconsciously, of a societal change that is encouraging direction-changing decisions?

Tommy McKearney

http://www.tommymckearney.com/blog/untitled.html

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A NEW IRA?

Another signpost in the decay of the Irish settlement

The announcement that a number of disparate republican organizations had regrouped under the banner of the Irish Republican Army drew a storm of condemnation from the great and the good in Ireland and Britain.

Much of the criticism is justified. Essentially the IRA want to take up armed action from where it left off. They do not accept that a militarist ideology was bound to fail and that it was the insufficiency of militarism and of the politics of revolutionary nationalism that led directly to the capitulation of the Provos and their participation in the local administration.

One must also add that the participating groups draw upon the tactics of the Provisional IRA when they were already in decline – the real IRA are linked to the Omagh atrocity and RAAD try to gain popularity by a local police function that includes shootings and killings of those they identify as anti-social.

This was always the fatal flaw of republicanism. The physical force at the centre of their methodology was always cutting away the possibility of mass and class action on which revolutionary change would have to be based.

There is another side to the coin.

As the republicans themselves point out, the Northern settlement is a phony one. The new Northern state resembles nothing more than the old sectarian state. The triumph of the Royal handshake, followed by the triumph of the Orange marchers, has created a burning resentment among former supporters of Sinn Fein. Only the most loyal of Sinn Fein apparatchiks now talk of progress to a united Ireland.

In a colonial, sectarian, partitioned statelet there is, of necessity, an IRA. In a period of austerity where the diplomatic sectarianism that pervades society could turn to conflict, it is not impossible that the IRA will grow.

It will not be enough to point to the failures of the past 40 years. It will not be enough to point to the lack of perspective today.

The only thing that will be enough is an alternative – a socialist movement able to represent the anger of the oppressed, able to present a root and branch rejection of the sectarian society imposed on us, a movement that, unlike the actually existing movement today, is not content to play the role of the loyal opposition or draw an equals sign between the Orange bigots and their victims.

 

John McAnulty, Socialist Democracy (Ireland), 11.8.12

 

http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/RecentArticles/RecentANewIRA.html


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