Jul 16 2019




Communist, Republican, Trade Union Militant,

Scottish Internationalist, Glasgow Bear

 9th February 1941 – 2nd June 2019





Brian made a big impression upon whomever he met. Nigel Jeffrey, who encountered him on the picket line during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike wrote, “Brian Higgins stands out because he was 6′ 6″ plus… He was a big lad as broad as he was tall… There must have been half a dozen police went for this Brian Higgins and snatched him… He was shoving them off left, right and centre.” [1]

Or, as Dave Smith, co-author of Blacklisted, The Secret War Between Big Business and Union, [2] has written,  “Anyone who has heard Brian speak will remember his booming Glaswegian voice, disdain for union bureaucracy and his liberal use of industrial language.” [3]

And when I first met Brian, it seemed that my hand was numb for hours after his handshake!

It was as a trade union militant that Brian is best known. Dave states that, “It is undeniable that Brian was one of the leading rank and file industrial militants of his generation, who had a significant impact on trade unionism in the construction industry.” [4] This came at a high personal cost to Brian and his family. Following the exposure of the employer financed organisation, the Consulting Association, [5] responsible for blacklisting, Brian was found to be the most blacklisted worker in the UK construction industry. Brian called the blacklist “an economic, social and political prison”. [6] He very much features in Blacklisted.

Brian was targeted by the employers, particularly Laings; by gangsters hired by sub-contactors; by the state, including undercover police agent provocateur, Mark Jenner; [7] and by trade union bureaucrats, especially UCATT official, Dominic Hehir, in his infamous, but failed attempt to silence Brian through a High Court injunction.[8] Brian, once a member of the International Socialists, then SWP, also exposed the revolutionary pretensions of this organisation, the CPGB, Militant and the one-time Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

Brian wasn’t the first to write about the activities of the UK state, the trade union bureaucracy, and the failings of self-proclaimed revolutionary parties. One of Brian’s favourite books was The Key to My Cell[9] written by Des Warren, jailed for three years for his part in the 1972 Building Workers Strike. Des was to die early in 2004 at the age of 67, after contracting Parkinson’s Disease, following the use of the ‘liquid cosh’, which the authorities administered, whilst he was in prison on trumped up conspiracy charges. He was attacked by the state, abandoned by the incoming Labour government in 1974, and badly let down by UCATT trade union officials, who were still backed by the CPGB.

It was in the aftermath of this strike that Brian, who had to leave  Glasgow for England to find employment in 1972, eventually moved to Northampton. He  became a hod carrier, then a bricklayer. He joined UCATT, later becoming branch secretary. He also joined the rank and file Building Worker Group (BWG) and the International Socialists, predecessor to the SWP. Brian’s classic, Rank and File or Broad Left? A Short History of the Building Worker Group, describes the many militant struggles the BWG became involved in. [10] Brian was the BWG’s secretary. Although it was in another SWP context that I first met Brian in 1978, we immediately hit it off because of our shared rank and file activities. I was convenor of the Scottish Rank and File Teachers (SR&FT) at the time.

Brian’s forte was on the picket line. I had been the SR&F-led East of Scotland Action Committee’s ‘flying picker’ organiser during the mass unofficial strike of Scottish teachers from 1974-5. Significantly, we adopted the term ‘flying picket’ from the building workers’ actions of 1972, which had made a big public impact. However, the social difference between building workers and teachers is considerable, and Brian and I used to joke over our different approaches to picketing.

The BWG resorted to picketing, confident that any picket line would be almost always automatically honoured. And that was certainly the case when Brian was involved. There was no such historical respect for picketing amongst teachers, who had rarely ever been on strike before the 1970s, and there was the added issue that teachers are understandably unwilling to walk out on their students. So the reality of our teacher ‘flying pickets’, at the school gates during the 1974-5 unofficial action, was to persuade teachers going to work in the morning to organise school meetings later that day, then to take a vote on taking action, either after lunch or the following day, so arrangements could be made for the students. Our picket lines were usually quite genteel affairs!

But, although the BWG could fall back upon decades of working class solidarity amongst building workers, they faced other obstacles completely unknown to teachers. Cowboy sub-contractors would sometimes resort to gangsters to intimidate workers. [11] Brian told me of one workplace meeting where they had to physically throw out a paid disrupter, a decision he hastened to add that was taken after he moved a democratic vote to do so! In contrast, although teachers taking action sometimes faced parent hostility, the one group we always had almost 100% support from was the students, ever eager for a day off school!

Brian and I became much closer during the SWP leadership’s attempt to close down all Rank and File groups in 1982. In the majority of these groups, they had long pushed for party members to treat these as party fronts. However, the BWG and SR&FT had been built on open democratic and united front principles. Therefore, Brian and I both took a prominent part in resisting the attempt by SWP central committee to close us down. The majority of SR&FT were not in the SWP. Its spurious ‘Downturn Theory’ failed to persuade any of these members. This theory was, in effect, merely the left face of the ‘Dented Shield’ strategy. That was Labour’s accommodating response to the on-going employers’ offensive under Thatcher. Furthermore, the wider school organisation, which SR&FT had built, was central both to defending what had already been gained and to prevent the possible victimisation of union militants.

Those in SR&FT (by now including quite a number of SWP teachers, like myself, forced to resign from the party rather than submit to central committee orders) only had to face up to our former party comrades and a full-timer, who lurked about outside the meeting. However, Tony Cliff, the SWP leader, attended the BWG meeting in person. But BWG supporters were also not very impressed by the ‘Downturn Theory’. Cliff “was told the way to respond when the going got tough was not to sound the retreat, as there is absolutely no credibility in this. Rather, political and R&F Organisations should strive all the harder to strengthen their organisation and resolve and give a positive and definite alternative lead, with policies, to that of the craven capitulation and collaboration of the official trade union and labour movement. Otherwise you become part of this dungheap.” [12] Brian didn’t mince his words! Cliff only gained one (an SWP) vote at the BWG meeting. Brian was expelled from the SWP, but the BWG continued, soon to be thrown into a whole series of disputes, culminating in the 1985-6 Laings’ Lock-Out. [13]

However, I first met Brian in a very different context. In the later 1970s, there was a debate going on inside the SWP about how to react to the political issue of Scottish Devolution, now that the Labour government was committed to a referendum on the issue. The Glasgow branch politically dominated the SWP in Scotland. This branch, with its influential industrial shop stewards, was very firmly in the ‘No’ camp. They placed an economistic emphasis on all-British working class trade union solidarity. Cliff, though, was for ‘Yes’, on the grounds of another key aspect of SWP politics – anti-Toryism. Thatcher had become the Tory leader and was opposed to Scottish devolution. Cliff knew that he had a tough sell in Glasgow, and brought in the late Harry McShane, who had worked with the legendary John Maclean, to help him at a specially convened Scottish aggregate meeting – although to no avail. The Glasgow SWP shop stewards’ ‘No’ became the official line.

I was struggling to find a different approach. I eventually found this by seeing Scottish Devolution as a democratic demand for greater national self-determination in the context of the unionist, imperialist, monarchical and bureaucratic UK state. Furthermore, a republican approach would relate to, and politically connect the struggles for national self-determination in Scotland, Wales, and particularly Ireland, the cutting edge of opposition to the UK state. These politics formed the basis of the Republican Faction (RF) in the SWP.

And it was at an RF meeting in London where I first met Brian. Whilst he was not alone on the Left in seeing the political importance of Ireland, he was almost unique for somebody from his Irish-Scots background, in linking the situation in Ireland to Scotland. Many Irish-Scots thought, at the time, that Scottish devolution would bring about a second Stormont!

As anybody with any experience of the SWP knows, the formation of a faction, officially allowable only for a short period before the annual conference, is not designed to encourage meaningful debate, but is an indication to the leadership of a threat to be removed. Upon a faction has been declared, the central committee moves quickly to ensure that its unelected full-timers work overtime to minimise any faction’s influence. Primarily this means obstructing, as far as possible, faction delegates getting to the annual conference. This involves a lot of behind-the-scenes wire-pulling and rumour mongering.

However, in the wider SWP meetings, Brian was a not only a formidable figure but also the very epitome of the type of rank and file militant the SWP leadership claimed to promote. (Indeed not a few members thought that some of the late Phil Evans’ Socialist Worker cartoons used Brian as an inspiration!) Whilst the official line easily held within the party, it was harder for the central committee and full-timers to dismiss supporters of the RF, since some members had a wider base than the party, particularly in the Rank and File groups.

When three years later in 1982, Brian found himself once more in opposition to the SWP central committee, this time over the defence of Rank and File organisations, republicanism formed the political basis of his politics, “My experience has now led me to conclude that workers will have to adopt a ‘republican’ approach [i.e. act as free citizens and not loyal subjects] to succeed in an all out struggle, including building workers if they go into this, against the very British, Loyal and Bureaucratic Popular Front.” [14] Brian saw union sovereignty residing with the workplace members, and any action they took as being independent, not ‘unofficial’. Trade union full-timers use the ‘unofficial’ label to police their members. Brian promoted independent working class action, coupled to the most thoroughgoing democracy within the unions. This industrial republicanism formed the basis of his Rank and File politics.

In his pamphlet, Brian contrasted Rank and File to Broad Left politics. The latter mirrors the politics of the UK state. It claims union sovereignty lies in the annual general meeting, just as the UK state claims sovereignty lies in parliament. In reality, in trade unions, control lies in the hands of the general secretary and the union HQ, just as control in the UK state lies in the hands of the prime minister and his/her inner cabinet. And Broad Left politics looks to replace right wing union officials with left wing officials, just as the Labour Party seeks to replace right wing MPs with left wing MPs, both without any real challenge to the locus of real control.

Brian’s pamphlet provides abundant evidence to highlight the effect of the Broad Left approach within UCATT, where leading officials were backed by the CPGB/CPB. Indeed the corruption became so acute in UCATT there was even an internal investigation, the Hand Report (which Brian characteristically dismissed as the ‘Hand Job’!). [15] Despite the investigators being carefully selected (as with the UK government’s Widgery and Chilcot enquiries), its findings were still kept secret from the members such was the appalling story of corruption that was uncovered.

Another strong feature of Brian’s politics, which he emphasised, was that serious Rank and File organisation “will also take on board some of the more difficult social and political issues and adopt a principled working class united front position on these.” [16] Brian never held to the shallower economism, which informed the IS/SWP’s earlier support for Rank and File groups.

As a powerful example of this, Brian devotes a whole chapter of his pamphlet to the UCATT National Delegate Conference in Killarney from June 5th-9th 2000. Brian’s own Northampton branch had managed to get a motion to the conference supporting a united Irish Republic completely independent from the British state. The fact the conference was being held in Ireland for the first time (UCATT was an all-islands union) made it more difficult for the motion to be binned beforehand. But massive pressure was exerted behind-the-scenes to get the branch to remit the motion. Peter Cassels, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, was also brought in to divert delegates’ support to another anodyne motion on Ireland. Helen Jackson, Labour Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was flown in just before the debate for the same purpose – a very overt piece of state interference.

The debate went ahead. BWG member, John Jones, a close comrade and friend of Brian’s, moved the republican motion. After a good discussion, which included the UCATT convenor from Belfast’s Harland and Wolff (opposing naturally!) the motion received between 20-25% of the vote. Brian was very pleased and felt the holding of such a debate was in itself a considerable political breakthrough. He stated that the BWG would continue to champion “important political issues like ‘Ireland’ and do our best to support those struggling against state oppression.” [17]

By the time the commune organised the ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’ event in Edinburgh in January 2011, [18] Brian was much less mobile. He had to decline an invite to put the Rank and File argument, and I stood in, using my experience in SR&FT. However, the last part of my contribution was based, after we discussed it, upon Brian’s thinking in the BWG.  When I gave an account to Brian of this event, he was keen to know more about the social union approach advocated by Tommy McKearney, a former Irish republican hunger striker, speaking for the Independent Workers Union. Brian also supported the combined official and independent union approach, advocated by Alberto Durango, of the Latin American Workers Association, centrally involved in the Justice for Cleaners campaign in London. They had to do this when the UNITE officials, with the backing of the local Broad Left, turned on these workers, once their actions took on a more militant (and successful) tone.  Those cleaners without papers, the ‘illegals’, were threatened with deportation. [19]

Although Brian was most at home in workplaces and in his local community, political arenas far removed from these, did not at all faze him. On the strength of Brian’s campaigning against the blacklist, he was invited to the European Parliament as one of two Blacklist Support Group representatives. In this he also received the support of Aberdeen branch of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee. [20] He had contact with one of its leading members during its heyday .[21]

“The European parliament voted in favour of an amendment to the draft data protection regulation that would make blacklisting on the basis of trade union activity a breach of EU law.” Not surprisingly, though, “The Council of Ministers {the real locus of EU power} has still to address the proposal.” [22] And, in the event of this ever having been passed, Brian would have treated such a law, in the same manner as he treated the health and safety laws. Building site safety was one of Brian’s prime concerns ,[23] and he always knew that dependence on the law alone would never deter the employers. Industrial action would still have to taken to force them to comply.

Despite eventually receiving a modest financial compensation for the decades Brian and his family had faced as the consequences of the blacklist, he was still involved in the last months of his life in exposing trade union officials’ complicity in blacklisting. UCATT officials had desperately tried to prevent the issue going to court. This would expose this practice. So, unless UCATT members accepted the compensation package agreed behind-the-scenes by the union and employers, they would no longer receive any legal backing. For Brian the issue was never mainly about the money lost, but about ending blacklisting altogether. For this to happen the cancer of union officials’ collusion would need to be ended.

“Brian found strong evidence of collaboration between the employers and a UCATT official in his own blacklisting. That official cited in a redacted document was Jerry Swain. Subsequently, Len McCluskey arranged for UCATT to be taken over by UNITE. In the process, Swain was appointed as a full-timer. Brian, the rank and file Building Worker Group and other union members have tried to raise this issue with McCluskey. McCluskey continually brushes the issue under the carpet.” [24]

In his obituary, Dave Smith wrote that, “Brian was one of the blacklisted construction workers who signed the Open Letter to Unite calling for an investigation to be set up. It is now too late for Brian, but we hope that the UNITE EC will set up the investigation into possible collusion ASAP.” [25] But McCluskey is one of those left-talking, right walking, Broad Left officials who Brian had no confidence in. He did not see McCluskey’s trade union empire building as any step towards ‘One Big Union’, more towards “one big fat pay cheque” for the already highest paid union bureaucrat in these islands.

And if there is indeed to be any enquiry, Brian highlighted the terms on which it would need to be set up. No dependence on “the dreadful performances of union legal firms,” which do exactly what is required if them by the union bureaucrat paymasters. UCATT general secretaries were past masters in this, as Brian had found out personally whilst facing a High Court injunction. Instead, “To have any credibility these will have to be done by independent legal experts and blacklisted members must also have a say in this.” [26]

Brian and I continued to work together, politically and industrially, until the end of his life. After the successful defence of the SR&FT and BWG in 1982, I was invited to speak at some of their meetings in London. These were usually followed by lively socials, on one occasion upstairs in a bar near Kings Cross, with a full Irish republican band! I was able to reciprocate in 1996, by bringing Brian to Edinburgh, following my participation in the local Liverpool Dockers Supporters’ Group. A large and packed meeting was organised in Edinburgh’s grandiose Assembly Rooms. Brian was one of the platform party, along with a Liverpool docker, Women on the Waterfront (WotW) speakers and others. Brian made a bravura contribution, especially appreciated by the WotW speakers.

The initially Broad Left backed, T&GWU general secretary, Bill Morris would have had flea the flea in his ear after Brain’s withering criticism. Morris constantly tried to undermine the Liverpool dockers. The T&GWU, with its 500 Liverpool docker members, was the only union in the International Dockers Alliance not to provide official support. [27] Despite Morris’s Jamaican background, Brian held no illusions that having a black general secretary would make much difference to union members, and that would have gone for women or gay general secretaries too. The issue wasn’t who was at the top, but who controlled the union – the officials or the members. Once New Labour had been elected in 1997 Morris stepped up his attempts to isolate the dockers.  He got his reward, being knighted in 2003 and made a lord in 2006. [28]

With Brian living in Northampton and myself in Edinburgh, there were few chances to become involved in shared actions. I did join Brian on an evening picket line at Wapping in July 1986. However this turned out to be one of the quiet nights! In 1999, on one of Brian’s visits to Glasgow he came across to Edinburgh to distribute leaflets on the new building site for the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. This job was being run by Bovis, which had backed the blacklisting Consulting Association. Brian had also come into conflict with Bovis over the lack of construction site safety in Milton Keynes in 1997. [29]

The Holyrood building site had a fenced off section with portakabins, where a largely migrant workforce, many from Eastern Europe, stayed. We were able to get into the canteen. Brian spoke to the two workers present, one whom told us there was a union, but most site members did not know they were members! The union had signed a subscription check-off deal with the employer in return for the union’s assistance in keeping the site dispute free! Brian’s leaflet made the case for site self-organisation and how to deal with health and safety concerns. He realised, though, that new leaflets would need to be produced in other languages.

Brian had some sharp words for those self-proclaimed revolutionary parties with their ‘internationals’, and well-financed unions like the T&GWU (the forerunner of UNITE) affiliated to international federations (the ITWF and IUF). They could easily have produced leaflets in several languages. But serious organising amongst migrant workers, with and without papers, would have meant defying both the anti-trade union and anti-immigration laws.

The political chasm between Brian’s approach and those of the Right and Broad Left became clear during the Lindsey Refinery dispute in Lincolnshire in 2009. Here the employers resorted to an imported labour force, entirely made up of Italian workers, who were kept in isolation. There were wildcat strikes by resident oil workers to get more jobs, but no real attempt was made to link with the migrant workers. They were increasingly seen as the ‘enemy’. Strikers, encouraged by then UNITE general secretary, Derek Simpson, resorted to the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’. The Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, had made this old fascist slogan ‘respectable’. [30] The disgusting term ‘social dumping’ was also used to attack the migrant workers, as if they were garbage.

Back in June 1981, prominent members of the French Communist Party had led a physical attack on a migrant worker sanctuary in Paris. This provided the initial breakthrough for the far right in the city’s Red Belt. [31] Similarly, there has been a continuous political descent, involving a section of the British Left, some of whom became involved in No2EU, and union officials, including those from UNITE, which has contributed to the growth of the right populism of UKIP, the Brexit Party and Tory Right. ‘British jobs for British workers’ remains the underlying theme for Left Brexiters. UNITE members have recently taken the shameful ‘social dumping’ slur into the Labour Party .[32]

Brian, although by now largely immobile, took great heart from the rank and file, Grassroots Left candidate, Ian Allinson standing against Len McCluskey in the UNITE general secretary election in 2018. Ian had issued a statement attacking McCluskey and the right wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, for their capitulation to anti-migrant politics. [33] When I told Brian, that amongst the founders of the First International in 1864, was bricklayer, George Howell, [34] who had joined to organise workers internationally, and to prevent cross-border scabbing, he was very pleased that his own approach solidarity action had such august beginnings!

Brian was also more sanguine than most about the role of the Labour Left, following Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election victory. He thought as long as prominent trade union officials, like McCluskey, played a central role, then such bureaucrats would limit any potential. This could already be seen in their support for Trident. In return, McCluskey would police his members to enable Labour to hold on to office, in the face of any challenges from below. This was the pattern, during the 1974-9 Labour government, when two major Broad Left-backed general secretaries, Hugh Scanlon of the AEU, and Jack Jones of the T&GWU, used their influence to promote the Social Contract and to break independent working class resistance.

Today, Broad Left, Len McCluskey and the more right wing, Tim Roache (GMB general secretary) are looking for a Labour government to at last bring union officials in from the cold. They want a return, not so much to beer and sandwiches at ‘No. 10’ in the 1970s, but today more canapes and prosecco. Their current infighting is as much to see who would have the greater influence in any future Labour government, than any real Left/Right divide. And McCluskey’s current commitment to a Left Labour leadership could be dropped as easily as it was taken up, if that is what us needed to enhance his influence. Jerry Hicks, an earlier rank and file UNITE general secretary candidate, has reminded us that McCluskey once backed Ed Miliband (ensuring his election) over John McDonnell for party leader. [35]

However, Brian did not confine his continued campaigning just to industrial concerns, after he had been incapacitated by the effect of injuries and botched operations. Events in Ireland and Scotland continued to inspire him. He had only once been to Ireland (to the UCATT conference in Killarney), but he been a regular returnee to Glasgow both to see his wider family, and to attend major Celtic games (having Tony Higgins, former secretary of the Scottish Professional Footballers’ Association as his brother, helped!). This was before the fall-off in his visits to the city, due to an inability to travel through growing ill health.

We still  met up in Glasgow, and sometimes Edinburgh, until Brian could no longer travel. But I continued to visited and stay with Brian and his wife Helen at his home in Northampton. Helen’s hospitality was prodigious, and I rarely needed to have a meal on my drive back to Edinburgh after Helen’s formidable breakfasts, although I was always given a pack lunch anyway! Brian and I also regularly corresponded. He contributed to the Republican Communist Network’s  Emancipation & Liberation blog. [36]

In the early 1990s, whilst still mobile, Brian was involved with others, including myself, in the Scottish Republican Forum (SRF). The SRF was organised to take the republican case for Scottish independence to the Left, at a time when, whatever its political affiliation, it was still overwhelmingly committed to a ‘British road to socialism’. We organised meetings and published pamphlets to promote discussion. Brian wrote an article Settled in England, [37] which is the only piece of writing in which he provides any wider autobiographical information. Unfortunately, Brian never got to write his full story, unlike Dave Douglass, a leading militant in the NUM. Dave has written his own superb three volumes autobiography, a classic piece of working class writing. [38] Brian’s autobiography would have been another.

However, Brian’s involvement in the SRF also followed the major contribution he made in shifting my own politics over the ‘National Question’. In the SWP’s Republican Faction, we had both supported a Federal Republic of England, Scotland and Wales and an independent United Ireland. However, it had become clear that federalism had a long pedigree in the UK and British Empire, and that was as a last ditch option to keep the state together.

My own experience as chair of the Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation, between 1987-91, had shown me the success of working on ‘internationalism from below’ principles. Independent action was organised first in Scotland, and then taken to England and Wales. (The Tories were smart enough not to try to impose the poll tax in Northern Ireland, in the context of on-going resistance to British repression.)    The anti-poll tax unions defied the state, the Labour Party and trade union officials. Such an approach did not reflect the organisational nature of the top down unionist and bureaucratic British state, accepted by the Brit Left, the Labour Party and most trade unions. This new challenge form below was the beginning of the shift of the majority of the Left in Scotland, away from the British road to nowhere. Amazingly, even after  the 2016 Brexit vote, and Trump’s ‘Brexit plus, plus, plus’ presidential electoral victory, many on the Brit Left continue to tail Right populism.

Back in 1989 though, Brian raised another point, which affected my thinking. He said that the Irish experience of oppression and repression, at the hands of the UK state, was not necessarily something unique, justifying socialist support only for Irish independence and national unity. The suppression of democracy, by whatever means the British ruling class and state deemed necessary, was something that people in Scotland and Wales could well face, if their demands for greater self-determination became more serious. With the Brexit vote in the subsequent gallop to the Right, and with reactionary unionism on the rise, [39] highlighted by the Tory/DUP alliance, such a prospect is daily becoming more real.

It was my anti-poll tax campaigning and Brian’s arguments that persuaded me see the greater relevance of James Connolly’s socialist republican ‘break up of the UK and British Empire’ strategy, and of John Maclean’s early appreciation of this political approach. Brian, with his Irish-Scots (like James Connolly) and Glasgow (like John Maclean) background found this a very easy political step to make. When I published  From Davitt to Connolly in 2010 to provide the historical evidence for this distinct political approach, I wrote a dedication to Brian Higgins – “A Glasgow bear, Celtic mad, Irish-Scottish migrant worker, bolshie brickie, blacklisted militant, republican, internationalist and communist, whose political activity has followed the great tradition of ‘internationalism from below’ established by Michael Davitt, James Connolly and John Maclean.” [40] Brian thanked me. I only wish he had lived to see my second planned volume, From Connolly to Maclean.

Brian took great heart from the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign from 2012-4, and was constantly asking me to update him on the activities of the Radical Independence Campaign, which I became very involved in. [41] He was particularly pleased that working class Glasgow voted for Scottish independence, and the major contribution, the Irish-Scots, once very opposed, had made to this.

Thus it was through rank and file and republican politics that I got to know Brian well and we worked together for forty years. However, when I attended his funeral in Northampton on June 21st, I realised that I had only fully appreciated these two aspects of his life, but there was considerably more to Brian.  Brian’s close family – his wife, Helen, his daughters Monica and Noelle, and his grandchildren Connor, Dylan and Iris – and his wider extended family, were very important in each others’ lives, whether they still live in Glasgow or now in England.

Those of the Higgins family born in Glasgow, even if they have now long lived in England, are still very much Glaswegians, but fully integrated into their communities.  Although their children born in England have local English accents, the reception, held in the Northampton social club, after Brian’s funeral, echoed to Scottish, Irish (and, of course, Celtic) songs, sung by all family members, wherever they were born. And those English neighbours (white and Asian) who attended, lapped up this ‘little bit of Glasgow’ in Northampton. And several of these neighbours, now in their thirties or forties, told us of Brian taking them fishing or other exploits when they were children – ‘the pied piper of Northampton’!

The music chosen for the funeral very much conveyed Brian’s Irish and Scottish roots – The Fields of Athenry by the Dubliners and Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man by the Corries; his wider internationalism – Three Little Birds by Bob Marley; and finally his world vision – Revolution by the Beatles.

Kenny Irvine, another close BWG comrade and mad Celtic supporter, made us all laugh, at the reception, when he pointed out that the funeral had been held in Wellingborough. Brian had finally defied his ban from the town, imposed by the police and courts, following the picket described by Nigel Jeffrey! [42]

Brian was somebody who linked family, community, trade unionism and his wider politics together. He was a living example of all that is best in the working class and will be sorely missed.

Allan Armstrong, 14.7.19




 [1]          David Bell, The Dirty Thirty – Heroes of the Miners’  Strike, pp. 78-9 (Five Leaves, 2009, Nottingham)

 [2]          Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted, The Secret War Between Big Business and Union (New  Internationalist Publications, 2015, Oxford) and

Brian Higgins, Blacklisted         (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2015/04/09/blacklisted/)

 [3]       https://www.union-news.co.uk/bsg-pays-tribute-to-the-late-brian-higgins-the-most-blacklisted-building-worker-in-the-uk/

 [4]       ibid.

 [5]       https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consulting_Association

 [6]       http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/08/19/major-gains-for-low-paid-at-heron-tower-dispute/Brian Higgins and the Anti-Blacklist Success at Brussels

  [7]       http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2014/03/24/undercover-but-within-sites-police-infiltration-of-trade- unions/

 [8]       https://libcom.org/library/chapter-5-high-court-writ-served-injunction-threatened

 [9]       Des Warren, The Key To My Cell (Living History Library,  2007, Liverpool)

 [10]      http://marx.libcom.org/library/rank-file-or-broad-left

 [11]        http://libcom.org/library/chapter-1-rank-file-constructionTony Cliff told to F*** Off!

 [12]      http://libcom.org/library/chapter-1-rank-file-construction – Tony Cliff told to F*** Off!

 [13]       http://libcom.org/library/chapter-1-rank-file-construction –   Laings Lock Out Committee

 [14]      https://libcom.org/library/chapter-1-rank-file-construction Republican

 [15]      https://libcom.org/library/chapter-4-main-unions-constructionCorruption in UCATT

 [16]       https://libcom.org/library/chapter-1-rank-file-construction Capital R&F, United Front Independence

 [17]      http://libcom.org/library/chapter-7-ucatt-national-delegate-conference-killarney-june-5th-–-9th-2000

[18]        http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/02/11/report-of-the-third-global-commune-event/

 [19]      ibid.

 [20]      http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2010/09/06/brian-higgins-anti-blacklist-campaign/Motion passed by  Aberdeen branch of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee

  [21]        http://libcom.org/library/chapter-3-broad-left-construction-popular-frontOffshore Industry Liaison Committee OILC)

[22]        Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, op. cit. p. 178

[23]      https://libcom.org/library/chapter-3-broad-left-construction-popular-frontConstruction Safety Campaign

[24]      http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2019/02/08/a-statement-on-behalf-of-brian-higgins-blacklisted-building-worker/

 [25]        https://www.union-news.co.uk/bsg-pays-tribute-to-the-late-brian-higgins-the-most-blacklisted-building-worker-in-the-uk/

[26]      http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2013/01/01/collusion-and-betrayal/

[27]      Pauline Bradley, A Brief History of the London Support   Groupin Another World Is Possible – How the Liverpool   Dockers Launched a Global Movement, edited by Pauline        Bradley and Chris Knight p27 (Radical Anthropology Group, 2004, London)

[28]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Morris,_Baron_Morris_of_Handsworth#


[29]      http://libcom.org/library/chapter-6-struggle-continues –  1997 UCATT PAYE campaign

[30]      http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2009/03/20/browns-appeal-to-british-chauvinism/

[31]      https://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/07/21/frances-cgt-union-doing-the-immigration-polices-dirty-work/

[32]      https://www.theredroar.com/2018/01/unite-at-odds-with-labour-leader-over-single-market-membership/

[33]        http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2017/01/03/grassroots-unite-leadership-candidate-attacks-mccluskeys-and-coynes-capitulation-to-anti-migrant-politics/

[34]      https://spartacus-educational.com/TUhowell.htm

[35]      http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/01/23/union-leader-slams-ed-miliband-but-who-put-him-there-in-the- first-place/

[36]      http://republicancommunist.org/blog/

[37]      Brian Higgins, Settled in England in White Setters or Jockbrits – Who is to Blame? (Scottish Republican Forum, 1995, Edinburgh)

[38]      Dave Douglass, Vol. 1 – Gordies Wa Mental, Vol. 2. The Wheels Still in a Spin, Vol. 3 – Ghost Dancers(Christie Books, 2008, 2009, 2010, online)

[39]      https://allanarmstrong831930095.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/national-populism.pdf. pp. 67-75

[40]        Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly –   ‘Internationalism from Below’ and the challenge to the UK  state and British Empire from 1879 – 1895(Intfrobel       Publications, 2010, Edinburgh)

[41]      https://radicalindyedinburgh.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-story-of-edinburgh-ric.html

[42]      see reference 1




Brian’s last political statement, 8.2.19

Brian Higgins, a militant in the building industry, first in UCATT and later in UNITE, has been taken into hospital. Brian has been the most blacklisted worker in the UK. For many years before he would have retired, he was unable to get work. This put immense pressure both on Brian and his family, particularly his ever-supportive wife, Helen. Following the public exposure of the blacklist in the building industry, Brian found strong evidence of collaboration between the employers and a UCATT official in his blacklisting. That official cited in a redacted document was Jerry Swain.

Subsequently, Len McCluskey arranged for UCATT to be taken over by UNITE. In the process, Swain was appointed as a full-timer. Brian, the rank and file Building Worker Group and other union members have tried to raise this issue with McCluskey. McCluskey continually brushes the issue under the carpet.

Brian thanks all those who have supported his cause, and the cause of other blacklisted workers. This support has come from many including the Building Worker Group, activists in Grassroots Unite, the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers {successor to SR&FT} and the Emancipation & Liberation blog. Until our trade unions have kicked out all those who collaborate with the employers, then our fight for justice, improved pay and conditions and safety at work will be undermined. Despite Brian’s current incapacitation the struggle goes on, and Brian’s supporters will continue to raise these issues.



Other contributions from Brian on the

Emancipation & Liberation blog













The First Shoots of a New Industrial Fightback?


Brian Higgins Anti-Blacklist Campaign


Campaign To Fight The Blacklist And To Support Brian Higgins


Other obituaries

Dave Smith, the Blacklist Support Group


Paul Lynch, Northampton Chronicle


Marcus Barnett, Morning Star





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Oct 11 2014

AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 18th REFERENDUM VOTE – A socialist republican response

In the aftermath of the September 18th Scottish independence referendum, Allan Armstrong(RCN) updates his  earlier piece (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2014/09/03/up-to-and-beyond-the-september-18th-independence-referendum-a-socialist-republican-perspective/).


A Movement-in-the-making

The campaign for Scottish independence has been the largest movement for popular democracy seen in these islands since the Irish War of Independence. In terms of electoral participation it was unprecedented. Voter registration was 97% and voter turnout was 85%.

The ‘Yes’ alliance faced the biggest ruling class offensive, backed by the UK state, since the Miners’ Strike. Only this time it brought together the combined Tory/Lib-Dem/Labour ‘Better Together’ ‘No’ alliance, UKIP, Ulster unionists, the Orange Order, other Loyalists, British fascists, the BBC, the Pope and the Free Presbyterian Church, and the US and Chinese governments!

Continue reading “AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 18th REFERENDUM VOTE – A socialist republican response”

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Dec 17 2011


Allan Armstrong gives his personal reflections on The Provisional IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament, (by Tommy McKearney, with an Introduction by Paul Stewart)

I first met Tommy McKearney in the preparations for the initial Republican Socialist Convention, which was held in Scotland. He was due to pick me up from the Dublin Monaghan bus. I described myself over the phone – “Late fifties, with short grey hair.” Tommy laughed and said, “A lot like me then.”

When I opened the front cover of his new book, there was photo of Tommy in 1975 with long hair and a droopy moustache. His appearance then was not too different to mine at the time. Tommy, like myself, had also been drawn into political activity – part of that worldwide post-‘68 generation. Unlike many, we have both remained committed to socialist politics.

However, during my own political activity as a trade union militant and political activist, over more than 40 years in Scotland, I have never faced anything worse than minor inconvenience and mild harassment – often from union officials and the Left! In contrast, Tommy, who became an active IRA member, was arrested, ill treated, then convicted in a Diplock court on the uncorroborated word of an RUC officer, and imprisoned for 16 years of a 20 year long sentence in Long Kesh. During this time he spent a period of 53 days on a hunger strike that brought him within hours of death.

Tommy’s book explains better than any other I have read, why the situation in Northern Ireland – or ‘the Six Counties’ – has been and remains so different from those other parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. In the process, the book also helps us to understand why the course of activists’ lives, on either side of the Irish Sea, has usually been so different; and why those from ‘the Six Counties’ have experienced degrees of repression unknown to most of us living on this side of the water.

So, whilst Tommy’s book is written from that shared international experience of being a socialist (red), it explains very clearly the political impact of the national differences between living in Northern Ireland (orange) and the rest of the UK, which in my case means Scotland (blue).

Back in 1970, as a young student and socialist, these differences were not that clear to me. I was mesmerised when Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey today) spoke to a large audience at Aberdeen University, giving her account of the Battle of the Bogside and the setting up of ‘Free Derry’. She easily demolished the arguments of those (including a Young Ulster Unionist invited for balance!), who were opposed to the actions taken by the Peoples Democracy wing of the Civil Rights Movement, of which she was then a member.

As young ‘68ers, many of us students had already taken the radical wing of the American Civil Rights Movement to heart. We loved the new wave of Black music. One or two even went for Afro haircuts!  However, the young protestors from Northern Ireland seemed even more familiar. They dressed the same way, listened to an even wider range of shared music (including traditional music, which, in Scotland, often took its lead from the resurgence in Ireland), and held the same disdain for the British Establishment.  Yet, not only those young people in Britain and Northern Ireland, but also those protesting in Chicago, Detroit, Mexico City, Paris, Prague and beyond, all seemed to be part of one common struggle.  Any still remaining national differences seemed insignificant as international revolution beckoned.

In January 1972, we got the first real inkling that things were different in Northern Ireland, at least compared to the rest of the UK. Fourteen people were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment during a civil rights march held on a Sunday afternoon in Derry.  It would still be a number of years before Kevin Gately (1974) and Blair Peach (1979) were to be bludgeoned to death by the police on demonstrations in London – but even these events were seen as exceptional. Meanwhile, in contrast, killings by the British army, UDR and Loyalist death squads had become almost routine in ‘the Six Counties’.

We were certainly outraged over Bloody Sunday. We cheered Bernadette when she mauled Reginald Maudling, the Tory Home Minister, as he lied in Westminster about the role of the British troops in Derry. However, after one last major march in Newry, on the following weekend (which attracted many from the South for the first time), the Civil Rights Movement just seemed to peter out.

How could protestors deal with the sheer brutality of the British state, its continued support for the Ulster Unionist leaders of the Stormont regime and, before long, its clandestine backing for Loyalist death squads too?  Even in the American South, as Tommy points out, “The US federal government made some serious attempts to redress {the} underlying grievances” (p. 50), which had held black people there in subjection for so long.

After Bloody Sunday, new images appeared on our TV screens. We tried to take in the appearance of those people wearing forms of dress unfamiliar to us – men in military attire with balaclavas or black berets. These people didn’t just throw stones and petrol bombs. They had guns and real bombs. They were the IRA. Republicans didn’t even call the place ‘Northern Ireland’. It was the ‘Six Counties’ – a name which revealed another struggle, much older than that shared by the world’s youthful ‘68ers. But was an armed response the only possible reply to UK state repression and Stormont intransigence?

As regular visitor to Ireland, including the North, I never knowingly met IRA members. However, I did come across RUC police stations built like small fortresses. I was stopped at British army-manned checkpoints (many later remotely-controlled from helicopter-supplied hilltop bases). I was forced to turn my car back when I found Border roads that had been rendered unusable by British army-made craters. I soon understood that Northern Ireland certainly was not “as British as Finchley” as Thatcher was later to claim – before she found that Brighton was nearly as Irish as Belfast!

Watching Brian Friel’s play, The Freedom of the City (1973), helped me understand that necessary moment of transition from the Civil Rights Movement to the Republican Movement. Michael, the earnest young civil rights protestor, believes the British army is making a big mistake, as they point their rifles at him, before shooting him dead; unlike Skinner, the young ne’er-do-well, who had up to this point survived on a mixture of quick wits and cynicism, but who now understands what is about to happen to him, and appreciates that an altogether more serious response is needed in the face of what they are up against; whilst the older Lily, drawing on her longer experience of the existing order, realises that they have transgressed and upset the ‘natural order of things’ and, as a result, are going to pay the ultimate price.

This play is not about just any British city council, calling upon the ‘boys in blue’ to get them out ‘a spot of bother’ with the locals. It is about Londonderry City Council, that beachhead of the local Unionist and Orange order, located on the furthest land frontier of the UK state. These locals are not even fully recognised by the authorities as belonging to the same country. This explains the presence not only of the hated RUC and B Specials, but also of the British army, ready to kill to uphold the existing order.

Therefore, as Tommy shows, specific national histories have to be taken into account. “Unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had a quasi-colonial tradition where one section of the community {Unionist} participated enthusiastically in policing the other {Nationalist} (p. 49).  In the ‘Deep South’ of the USA some Dixie Democrats might well have been members of, or enjoyed close relations with the racist Ku Klux Klan. In Northern Ireland, however, the relationship between Unionist politicians and the sectarian Orange Order was even closer.

Both the southern states and Stormont could also draw upon armed police and militias. However, unlike those US federal forces, which had come to put a check on the segregationist South, the British army, when it arrived in 1969, came to bolster the local Orange state. Any covering rhetoric was just that, as Callaghan, Labour Home Secretary, revealed his tactics – “talk Green, act Orange” (p. 61).

Tommy highlights the mindset of the British ruling class, still wedded to the maintenance of an imperial order. This led to their “very calculated determination to protect its western flank by maintaining a physical military presence in Ireland… They were then, in the midst of an ongoing cold war with the Soviet Union” (p. 59-60).

However, as well as these undoubted strategic worries, the British ruling class faced mounting political opposition closer to home. They were confronted by rising national movements in the UK – not only in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland and Wales. Douglas Hurd, then Tory MP, later Northern Ireland Secretary (1984-5), wrote Scotch on the Rocks, in 1971. This novel showed his concerns about the spread of new national challenges to the UK – in this case, Scotland. Perhaps, in contrast to the more determined efforts of the US ruling class in the southern states, the British ruling class’s unwillingness to seriously reform its troubled ‘Ulster’ political slum, reflected a growing uncertainty and an element of paranoia. The sun was setting upon the British Empire. Worrying shadows were being cast over the UK itself.

This aspect of British ruling class thinking would not be so apparent to others at the time, particularly anyone in ‘the Six Counties’. For the ruling class’s strategy in Northern Ireland diverged [1] from that in Scotland and Wales, because they faced different problems there. However, once the perceived threat from the USSR had evaporated after 1989, the underlying national threats to the UK state emerged as the central concern of the British ruling class.

They began to devise a common strategy to bolster the US/British imperial alliance, and to create the conditions to maximise corporate profitability throughout these islands – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  This strategy, perfected under New Labour, involved the ‘Peace (or pacification) Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’. Furthermore, the TUC, ICTU, STUC and WTUC leaderships, drawn by ‘social partnerships’ into cooperation with the state and the employers, gave this strategy a breadth of political support not enjoyed by any previous ruling class attempts to maintain the Union or Partition.

Tommy provides a very clear rebuttal to those pro-British historical revisionists and a reminder that, back in 1968, there was no predetermined Republican plan to become involved in an armed insurgency – the memory of the IRA’s failed Borders Campaign (1956-62) was still too bitter. The struggle that emerged in Northern Ireland was originally for civil rights within the UK. However, the total intransigence of the Ulster Unionists, and the willingness of the British state to give its militarily backing to the Stormont regime, explains the turn to guns and bombs.

After the Loyalists launched their pogroms in the summer of 1969  (involving the B Specials), citizen defence groups emerged in the Nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. They looked for whatever arms they could get, which meant they were illegally acquired, to defend themselves against the hugely better-armed Orange state and Loyalist gangs often using legally held guns. “One of the first groups to organise for the defence of Catholic Belfast was the Catholic Ex-Service Men’s Association, which was composed of former members of Britain’s armed forces” (p. 68). The Provisional IRA only emerged in December 1969. “When the British Army began shooting petrol bombers, the Provisional IRA began to shoot British soldiers. When the RUC or the British army raided Catholic houses, the IRA bombed British or Unionist-owned businesses’ (p. 112).

Initially the organisation of the insurgency fell upon the IRA’s Belfast Brigade. But “gradually, the British began to impose their strength on IRA districts… foot patrols soon learned the pattern of streets and roadways. More damaging still… was the accumulation of information and knowledge that was being gathered by the British Army and RUC… It became an unpleasant shock to both the IRA in Belfast and to the leadership of the movement overall, when they realised that its largest and most hard-hitting brigade was vulnerable” (p. 115).

Thus, the armed struggle became more focussed on the rural areas where, after “the IRA units gradually acquired the ability to destroy British Army road vehicles… the British used … the UDR (as the B Specials became), supported by the RUC reserve to gather intelligence and to act as a lightly armed counter-insurgent militia” (p. 117).

The UDR often had contacts and overlapping membership with the fascist Loyalist [2] death squads to whom they could pass on information, and offer a degree of protection for their illicit operations. It is not uncommon for reactionary regimes to resort to fascists when required; but usually their services are dispensed with once the particular ‘emergency’ has subsided. The B Specials had been a permanent feature of the Northern Ireland set-up.

Tommy describes vividly the insidious way that the Orange state was able to use these forces to penetrate rural working class communities. “Operating in their own areas… this force performed a function that was vital in every counter-insurgency strategy across the world. That is its members provided a constant on-the-ground presence of men familiar with their native districts who monitored events, responded quickly to incidents, and manned checkpoints at key locations” (p. 111). “They had dual military and civilian roles… Employed as school bus-drivers, postmen, refuse collectors and every other position in the workforce {which Unionist sectarian employment practice very much contributed to} they had a perfect ‘cover’ for travelling covertly through Republican districts” (p. 117-8). “The B Specials were often trusted to store personal weapons in their homes so that they could mobilise at short notice” (p. 50). “Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Provisional IRA responded by proactively targeting UDR members and RUC reservists, whether in or out of uniform” (p.118).

Yet, when it came to those local forces of Unionist law and order, as Tommy points out, “Strenuous efforts have been made over the years to portray {them} as well-meaning part-timers doing their best to protect society insinuating that any attack on their members was motivated purely by sectarianism” (p. 117).

One of the most unpleasant aspects of British counter-insurgency strategy was the attempt to portray this conflict – whether between Loyalist and Republican, Unionist and Nationalist, or Protestant and Catholic – as one between “two warring tribes”. This was used to justify the deployment of British troops “to keep the peace”. Yet, at the same time, British security agencies were clandestinely arming and directing one ‘tribe’, in the form of the Loyalist death squads, in order to intimidate the Nationalists (potential Republican supporters) and to break the real opposition they faced.

This opposition extended way beyond the IRA to the very real ‘communities of resistance’ found amongst the Nationalist working class.  These had originated in the ‘No Go’ areas established at the time Internment was first introduced in 1971. Photographs of working class women banging dustbin lids, to warn of British army patrols, became their iconic image. Although ‘Operation Motorman’ put an end to the ‘No Go’ areas, in July 1972, ‘communities of resistance’ persisted.

The fact that Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, and others in Peoples Democracy, made that transition from the politics of Civil Rights to Republicanism was reassuring for many socialists over here. Furthermore, Bernadette, over both phases of her political activity, retained a strong socialist commitment, which meant that she remained a critical voice. We were reminded of the high cost of such commitment when, in 1981, Bernadette was shot by the UDA seven times at her Coalisland home, with British soldiers waiting not far away.

One of the major strengths of Tommy’s book is how he shows that the war of attrition, which sometimes became derailed into murderous dead-end actions, could have developed in other ways. In the early stage, “for approximately three years… {the IRA} offered training in the use of arms to the local defence committees (p. 75). By late 1972… the Provisional IRA leadership decided to cease providing training for defence to non-members… In the short term this had some merit. In the long term, though, it deprived the organisation (and the Catholic population) of the means and the concept of a broad ground-level defence against Loyalist attack. To a large extent, deciding to tighten control over the armed insurrection illustrated a fundamental dilemma… the Provisional IRA… needed popular support yet felt uneasy about placing unregulated trust in the masses. This was and remains an unfortunate feature of insurrectionary Irish Republicanism” (p. 78).

This weakness became even more apparent in the context of the 1981 Hunger Strikes. “The Anti H-Block campaign drew a broad cross-section of left wing and working class people behind its cause. Very few radical elements of Irish society remained outside the movement and for a period a real opportunity existed to forge a new and dynamic anti-establishment mass movement. Fear of losing control, and a limited understanding of the nature and power of a mass mobilisation of people, led the IRA leadership to impose its authority on the movement with unfortunate consequences” (p. 153). “The Republican leadership recognised the power of mass popular actions but instead of creating a broad revolutionary movement from what they had helped to create, opted instead for a parliamentary path… The strategy was successful from a Provisional IRA point of view, leading eventually to the basis for the nascent New Sinn Fein” (p. 152)  – where ‘New’ has a similar connotation to the prefix placed before Blair’s Labour Party.

And it was in this context that Tommy became involved, with others in Long Kesh, with the Communist Republican Prisoners, and later the League of Communist Republicans. “Unlike those pushing for acceptance of a purely parliamentary strategy, this group of prisoners were firmly to the left of the movement and Marxist for the most part. They argued that it was imperative that the IRA put in place a strategy that would allow it to win significant support in the South and that its politics and strategy would also allow it to make a significant impact on a strategically important section of the British working-class and radical population” (p. 166).

Yet, perhaps this very notion of a ‘British working class’ also needs to be questioned. ‘Britishness’ is an imperially created identity, which has so often helped to imbue workers in these islands with ruling class ideas. Nowhere is this more obvious than in ‘the Six Counties’ itself, where the notion of being ‘Ulster-British’ was such a powerful pull on Protestant workers. The notion of being both Scottish and British exerted a strong pull on Loyalists over here too. And, of course, this British identity came along with support for the Crown, the Union, the Empire and the British armed forces.

However, when the Communist Republicans were first writing in Long Kesh, it is understandable why they could not see beyond this notion of a “British working class”. It was the Tories’ attempt to introduce the poll tax in Scotland that led to a significant increase in the hostility to the idea of a British identity amongst Scots. The successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign, initiated in Scotland, showed the potential for joint campaigns, organised on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’, bringing in, not British, but Scottish, Welsh and English workers. The Tories were smart enough not to extend this tax to ‘Northern Ireland’. However, once the British and Irish ruling classes had developed their shared ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’ strategy by 1997, to maintain their control over these islands, it became much clearer that any republican socialist ‘internationalism from below’ response should bring in Ireland too.

Later, Tommy draws readers’ attention to Bernadette McAliskey’s astute observation about the outcome of the ‘Peace Process’.  “She said that it was reminiscent of the Tudor policy of ‘surrender and regrant, in sixteenth century Ireland, when English power was being imposed across the entire island. The Provisional IRA leadership had achieved a certain status by surrendering its old programme and being allocated a place within the British system in Ireland. The era of New Sinn Fein had arrived” (pp.181-2).

Thus, Tommy’s outlining of the Communist Republicans’ viewpoint in the chapter, The Road Less Travelled – The Left Alternative (pp.164-71), provides a very necessary corrective to both those revisionist historians’ accounts and the ‘establishment Republican’/‘New Sinn Fein’ view of events. Tommy highlights the political consequences of  ‘the road not taken’. “Sinn Fein now holds 14 seats in the Dail but has not managed to fundamentally challenge the status quo. North of the border, they are partners with the DUP in the administration of Northern Ireland, having accepted Partition and the implications involved in this, including adapting to the neo-liberal consensus that reigns in Stormont” (pp. 170-1).

However, when appraising the course eventually taken by the Republican struggle, after it was eventually brought securely under the wing of ‘New Sinn Fein’, it is perhaps worth remembering the words which Victor Serge applied to Bolshevism.  “To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”

Another strength of Tommy’s analysis is that, although very critical of the direction taken by the Provisional IRA, and now ‘New Sinn Fein’, he does not fall back on dissident Republican “mantras about ‘betrayal’ and the ‘right of the Irish people’” (p. 213). Neither does he turn his back on his the long years involved in the Republican struggle. “It broke the foundations of Orange state sectarianism – anti-Catholic discrimination in housing, welfare, the economy and politics. This was a transformative war” (p.202).

But Tommy’s excellent analysis of the nature of this transformation is very revealing. “Something that has not changed, though, is the sectarian division of the Northern Irish working class… The Orange state may have been brought to an end, but in its place is a {new} sectarian entity. This outcome has benefited a significant section of a Catholic middle class born out of the ashes of the Orange state” (p. 189). The new Stormont constitutionally entrenches the position of two ‘communities’ by ensuring that the votes of  “representatives of parties who decline to register as either ‘Unionist’ or ‘nationalist’… do not count when it comes to deciding if cross-community consent has been obtained” (p. 190). Furthermore, “the Northern Ireland assembly has about the same relationship with the House of Commons in London as the management in Tesco in Belfast has with the head office in the UK” (p. 193).

Thus, “if ever the Marxist dialectic of one contradiction giving way to a fresh contradiction was evident in any situation, it is surely visible in the Good Friday Agreement” (p. 190). Whereas the British ruling class once depended upon Ulster Unionists and their Orange state to directly defend its imperial interests, today they have positioned the UK state as ‘honest broker’ between the Unionists and the Nationalists, providing each, in the new Stormont, with a forum to raise their concerns, and to mediate between their claims. The British still call the shots and – if it proves necessary again – they will also still fire the shots. And, whereas in the past, there was always some American questioning of the British role in Ireland, the current strategy of the UK state enjoys the full support of US imperialism.

Tommy finishes his book with a call to launch, A New Republic and a Relevant Republicanism (pp. 207-14). There is a great deal of thought provoking material in this chapter. One doesn’t have to agree with all Tommy’s analysis or proposals, which by their nature are still tentative. What is clear though is that Tommy locates Republicanism within a clear class perspective, with a life beyond its main organisations.  Tommy shows that, depending on the available obstacles or opportunities, Republicanism’s largely working class base has usually taken a fairly pragmatic attitude towards support for a physical force or a political road.

This particular divide, though, has always led to splits within Republican organisations – whether during the Irish Civil War in 1922; as a result of Fianna Fail’s acceptance of the Irish Dail in 1926; the Provisional/Official split in 1969; or between what Tommy calls ‘establishment Republicanism’ (‘New Sinn Fen) and ‘anti-establishment physical force Republicanism’ (1986 onwards).  Attempts to prioritise the working class’s own economic and social issues, whilst keeping firmly to a socialist republican path, have been less successful. However, “as the Provisional IRA military machine has passed into history and the political party that it generated {‘New Sinn Fein’} has drifted into centrism” Tommy sees a real opportunity to create a viable new socialist republicanism, which takes forward the issues the Communist Republican prisoners first raised in Long Kesh.

What I found most satisfying reading this book, as somebody who has been interested in events in Ireland since 1969, is that Tommy has come through his experiences still very much committed to the working class and to socialist republicanism.  This is demonstrated in his current work for the Independent Workers Union, which challenges the ICTU member unions’ backing for ‘social partnership’; and by his commitment to wider political debate, whether in, for example, Fourthwrite and Red Banner, or by attending discussion and debating forums throughout these islands.

Tommy addressed the first Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh (November 29th 2008), organised by the SSP’s International Committee on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis. He also spoke to the third Global Commune Event (January 29th, 2011), organised by the Republican Communist Network, where he addressed the question – ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’

This latter event also involved Paul Stewart, who wrote the Introduction to Tommy’s book. Paul is from a Northern Irish Protestant background and is a politically engaged academic living in Scotland, researching workers’ struggles.  He has given his professional help to the Independent Workers Union, and has helped it in its embrace of social (trade) unionism – which may well turn out to be for the beginning of the twenty first century, what industrial (trade) unionism was for the beginning of the twentieth.

I also had the privilege of seeing Tommy speak to another meeting, this time in Derry. This was organised to celebrate the centenary of James Connolly’s return to Ireland from the USA in June 1910. Bernadette McAliskey, the person who first inspired my interest in the struggle in Ireland, also addressed this meeting. Connolly was born in my home city of Edinburgh. The British army shot him in Dublin for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916. Connolly was the first socialist to challenge ‘the British road to socialism’. He advocated an ‘internationalism from below’ break-up of the UK and British Empire strategy. In this regard, he also inspired that other great Scottish socialist republican and communist – John Maclean from Glasgow, who extended Connolly’s notion of the break of the UK to cover Scotland, after his visit to Dublin in 1919, shortly after the Limerick Soviet.

When people like Bernadette and Tommy remain committed to socialist republicanism, despite all the trials and tribulations they have faced over more than 40 years, we can be a lot more confident about the future.  Tommy’s book addresses the issues faced by socialist republicans in a serious and engaging way. Get a copy, read it, get others to buy it (or, if they can’t afford one, pass yours round) and discuss it.

17 December 2011

[1] see Allan Armstrong:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2015/10/03/the-making-and-the-breaking-of-the-uk-state/ (sections v-viii)

[2] see Chris Ford:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2002/08/05/british-nationalism-and-the-rise-of-fascism/

Tommy McKearney’s book, published by Pluto Press, is available from Word Power Books. The Edinburgh book launch was held on August 20th, 2011.

see:-  http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/08/26/tommy-mckearneys-new-book-the-ira-from-insurrection-to-parliament/

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Aug 26 2011

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

Tommy McKearney, former Provisional IRA member and hunger striker, now an organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland,  has spoken at the first Republican Socialist Convention organised the the SSP’s International Committee, and at the third Global Commune event – Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose (organised jointly the the RCN and the commune).Tommy has recently undertaken a tour to launch his new book – ‘The IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’ (published by Pluto Press, with an introduction by Paul Stewart). He spoke to an audience of over 300 in Dublin, 150 in Belfast, 60 at Free Hetherington, and 40 at Word Power Bookshop in Edinburgh This week he is going on to speak in Cork and Monaghan). 1300 copies of his book have already been sold. Tommy has written up the talk he gave at Word Power bookshop, which can be found at:-
Brian Garvey from the Independent Workers Union also sang at the Edinburgh book launch. The words of his song are printed below.



Come my dear, come hold me now
The night is cold I’m not sleeping
Let the thundering sky, pass us on by
And leave us in peace one more time

If this is new to you
Let me walk you through
The streets and fields of my rising
By Derry’s walls, Short Strand and the Falls
Where the red paint of war is still drying


I send this letter out to the world
On the back of a cigarette paper
It’s a call to your humanity
While in here we struggle for ours

The night was dark, the moon was down
By a window he feared for his mother
He saw a flame in the sky, saw his neighbours run by
As the shadows descended on childhood

That boy I knew, in second hand shoes
By the barricades knew the risk he was taking
For they cut him down
Left him there on the ground
Afraid of the new world he was making


For a moment you know, the smoke did clear
The helicopters ceased of their buzzing
We stood on the shore of a brave new world
And I held you there close to my heart

Are we on the dawn of a brave new world
It’s hard to know what a young mind is learning
But streets are on fire, burning with desire
For a world that’s been too long in turning


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Jan 17 2011

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose? – Global Commune Event

3rd Global Commune Event

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Registration 10. 30 for 11. 00 – 16.30

Out of the Blue Centre,
Dalmeny Street,

In both the UK and Ireland today, the overwhelming majority of trade union leaders have signed up to social partnerships. These effectively reduce unions to a free personnel management service for the employers. However, the traditional Broad Left response of electing alternative leaders has shown itself unable to counter social partnerships. Indeed many current union leaders, who now accept social partnership, were themselves earlier Broad Left members. The third Global Commune event, jointly sponsored by the Republican Communist Network and the commune, asks the question – Trade unions – Are they fit for purpose? A number of different approaches to organising workers will be discussed in workshops over the day.


£5 for full-time employed
£2 for others

First session 11.00 – 12. 30

Panel followed by workshop sessions and follow up plenary

1. Working within trade unions – the rank and file perspective – Allan Armstrong

Allan is a member of the Republican Communist Network and the commune group. He was the convenor of Lothian Rank & File Teachers and involved in the three month long independent industrial action of Scottish teachers in the mid-70’s. He later became the Chair of the first regional Anti-Poll Tax Union, which was formed in Lothian.

2. Working with the IWW – Alberto Durango

Alberto is a member of the Latin American Workers Association, UNITE and the IWW. He is worker from Colombia who has been centrally involved in the campaigns of migrant workers cleaner in London. This culminated in an attempt to victimise him by the Swiss bank, UBS, which prompted a solidarity campaign. UNITE union officials tried to sabotage this, so Alberto has looked to the IWW (which comes from an industrial unionist tradition) to organise cleaners.

3. Building the Independent Workers Union – Tommy McKearney

Tommy is an organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland. He is also the editor of Fourthwrite, a journal designed to promote debate amongst communists, socialists and republicans. Ireland was the first place in these islands where a government/employer/trade union social partnership was formed. The IWU was created to organise workers opposing social partnership.

4. Supporting workers from outside – an autonomist perspective – Mike Vallance

Mike comes from an autonomist tradition, writes for Counterinformation and is involved in the Autonomous Centre for Edinburgh (ACE). Mike was a dedicated activist in the anti-poll tax struggle. ACE has recently been providing support to the street cleaners employed by Edinburgh City Council. They have been involved in a longstanding dispute, hamstrung by local UNITE officials.

How do communists organise in trade unions? – Stuart King

Stuart is a member of Permanent Revolution. He will be drawing on the experience of the Minority Movement in the early Communist Party to show possible lessons for today.

Second Session 1.30 – 15.00

Community unionism – Should trade union membership be confined to employed workers? Patricia Campbell and Paul Stewart

Patricia is a member of the IWU and has been centrally involved in health workers struggles in Belfast. She has also been to Palestine to examine the health implications of the Israeli occupation. Paul is co-author of We Sell Our Time No More – Workers Struggles Against Lean Production in the British Car Industry. He has produced a short film, which will be shown. This shows examples of union organisation in the community, particularly in Japan.


15.00 – 15.15 – break

Third Session 15.15 – 16.30

Repeat workshops followed by plenary

There will be a chance to continue the discussion informally afterwards.

Further information can be had by contacting Allan Armstrong at:-


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