…to resist, to join together, occasionally to win…

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.”

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

Howard Zinn, concluding his acceptance speech for Le prix des Amis du Monde diplomatique (a literary award given by the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatique), 1st December 2003.

If you aren’t familiar with Zinn’s writing on history, the quote above should be enough to make you curious.

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The earlier prehistory of the civil rights campaign: more IRA than NICRA?

Far from dismissing the involvement of the IRA and Sinn Féin in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967, is it time to acknowledge, instead, that it drew its roots and methods more from prisoner release organisations of 1960-62 than any of the individuals and organisation that subsequently coalesced with them to form NICRA itself. Ironically, is it time to admit that the NICRA owed even more to the IRA than is generally accepted.

The issue of the background to the civil rights movements in the north still appears to be the focus of some debate. While Bob Purdie’s Politics in the Streets (published in 1990) is quite explicit in tracing some roots of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association back into the Wolfe Tone Society and the IRA, earlier accounts, such as that of Fred Heatley (published in Fortnight in March 1974) pretty much cover the same ground. Neither makes an attempt to conceal the involvement of republicans. However, most accounts of the emerging civil rights campaign start in either 1962 or 1963, bookended by the formal declaration that the IRA’s border campaign was over in 1962. This means they don’t explore any synergies between the post-1967 NICRA and events less than five years beforehand, but probably reflect the history starting from when groups like the trade unions and some on the left became involved.

A useful reference point, and perspective, on the emergence and evolution of the civil rights campaign is given here by Niall Ó Dochartaigh which looks at its transition from protest through violence by considering the NICRA as a social movement (if you don’t read anything else below – do click on the article and read it).

As Ó Dochartaigh points out, methodologically, the NICRA, which people generally associate with marches and protests, didn’t really engage in those kind of tactics until August 1968 (it had been founded in January 1967). The Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) had been involved in street protests earlier in 1968, while the first protests (at Caledon) and NICRA march, from Coalisland to Dungannon, included the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) and others.

The founders and early membership of the NICRA aren’t really disputed by anyone. It included groups and individuals like the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) which had been formed in January 1964 building on the Dungannon-based Homeless Citizens League (HCL) that had been founded in 1963. The McCluskey’s and others involved in CSJ had mainly followed a reformist route to pressure the authorities into the desired changes through campaigns such as letter writing to senior British politicians. The likes of DHAC coalesced, at least in part, with the NICRA.

A major component of NICRA was the Wolfe Tone Society (WTS), founded in 1963. By the time the NICRA was formed in 1967, the Wolfe Tone Society was into its second incarnation. Its early members were a patchwork of former IRA leaders, current IRA and Sinn Féin activists, trade unionists, arts and Irish language people and socialists. By April 1964, the secretary was Roy Johnston, who had spent 1960-63 in England where he had been active in the Connolly Association as was another WTS figure, Anthony Coughlan. Rightly or wrongly, the Connolly Association was then regarded as a creature of the Stalinist CPGB, the Communist Party of Great Britain (by the CPGB). Johnston had helped found the current Irish communist party (the Irish Workers League) in 1948 and been a member of CPGB while in England. Prominent British communist Desmond Greaves was also heavily involved in both and believed himself to be influential in Irish politics too. Collectively they like to see their arrival on the political scene in 1963 and the dissemination of Greaves analysis (particularly by Johnston) as the point of origin of NICRA.

In terms of their impact on any sentimental appeal of communism in Ireland, a watershed moment for the Irish Workers League, the Communist Party of Great Britain and others had been the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, which had been defended by contemporary Stalinist organisations (including Greaves) and was still fresh in the mind in the early 1960s. This made it difficult to cross-pollinate their ideas with Irish nationalist and republican sensibilities.

The Wolfe Tone Society had been formed by amalgamating the local Wolfe Tone Societies that had been created in 1962 to co-ordinate commemorations, in 1963, of the bicentenary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. This was part of the IRA’s post-border campaign horizon-scanning under Cathal Goulding. The local branches had been organised under a directorate and membership had been sought from the trade unions and cultural organisations. The language was careful, stressing the shared heritage of the United Irishmen. But the events were unapologetic in their cultural reference points with participation by the likes of the GAA and Gaelic League.

The early Belfast delegates to the Wolfe Tone Society represented a range of socialist and republican opinion, like former IRA Adjutant General Liam Burke, communist Jack Bennett, trade unionist Fred Heatley and Sean Caughey, the leader of Sinn Féin in Belfast. The influence of Greaves on Johnston and Coughlan would have emphasised some of the reformist aspects of their Connolly Association background. In Britain, by 1964, the Connolly Association believed that Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gave Westminster the power to end the discriminatory and repressive measures used by the northern government. With that in mind, the association helped form the ‘Campaign for Democracy in Ulster’ with support from (mainly Labour) backbench MPs and others in January 1965.

The likes of Sean Caughey provides a direct link back into earlier, albeit smaller scale, social movements. It also takes the roots of NICRA further back beyond the histories written by the likes of Heatley or Purdie, or the involvement of Johnston and Coughlan. While they all acknowledge republican involvement, they don’t trace the roots of NICRA further back into the prisoner release organisations of the IRA’s border campaign that ended in 1962 (while Purdie does, he mistakenly dates their formation to 1962). While Caughey was one of those centrally involved in the Wolfe Tone Society, he left Sinn Féin in 1965 and formed the Irish Union, one of a number of small, short-lived, parties that emerged in the mid-1960s.

[Photo’s from Joe Baker’s Belfast in the 1960s. Thanks to Feargal Caughey for reminding me about it!]

The Belfast Council for Civil Liberties (BCCL) had been formed back in January 1960, involving republican figures like Leo Wilson, who was secretary in 1960. The Belfast Council for Civil Liberties mounted a campaign to have internees and political prisoners of the Unionist government freed. Wilson outlined the ethos of the BCCL: “This Council is not concerned with political or sectarian issues. Its aims are the protection of fundamental human rights, as set out in the United Nations Charter. We regard interment or arbitrary arrest as a denial of these rights, and we are opposed to unjust or undemocratic practices, no matter from what source they may originate.

The BCCL wasn’t exactly a novel concept. In the late 1940s there had been two, co-existent organisations, the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA) and the Republican Prisoners’ Release Association (RPRA). Both were simply the latest incarnation of two distinct missions, one of which (IRPWA) supported prisoners and their dependents, the other (RPRA) mounted publicity campaigns and lobbied to secure their release. The release of the last prisoners from Crumlin Road Jail in 1950 saw, of necessity, the winding down of both organisations which were reformed on an ad hoc basis as circumstances required throughout the 1950s.

By the summer of 1960 BCCL was being referred to as the ‘Northern Ireland’ Council for Civil Liberties. It continued to campaign for the release of prisoners and highlighted human rights abuses, stating that should be brought to the United Nations. By 1962, Caughey was NICCL secretary. The NICCL continually flagged prisoner issues and the suppression of public protests. It was present at pickets and public attempts to challenge the banning of marches and public meetings. The profile of activity of NICCL more closely resembles the NICRA than any of the intervening organisations.

The NICCL agenda seems to be well reflected in the objectives of the NICRA at the time of its formation: (1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens. (2) To protect the rights of the individual. (3) To highlight all possible abuses of power. (4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association. (5) To inform the public of their lawful rights (see Bob Purdie, Politics on the Streets, 1990, p.133). Issues raised by NICRA such as ‘one man, one vote’ and housing, while implicit in its objectives in 1967, came more clearly to prominence in 1968 and later.

Suffrage issues like ‘one man, one vote’ had been raised by the Nationalist Party back in the 1930s and 1940s and Northern Ireland Labour Party by the 1940s and sporadically through the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1965, at a Belfast meeting to plan for the 1966 Easter Rising anniversary, Tomas MacGiolla had signalled that it was to be a social issue that Sinn Féin would take up. Yet it wasn’t explicitly listed as an initial objective of the NICRA.

The NICRA demand for freedom of speech, assembly and association had equally deep roots and resonated with long-term conflicts between republicans, (occasionally) socialists, and, the Unionist government over repression and political control since the 1920s. Arguably, with Belfast’s long history of sectarian violence, the deep history of repression and political control, as evidenced by recurrent street violence, went back much further than issues of suffrage. The NICCL also links the NICRA back into a longer continuum of social movements protesting the detention or internment of political prisoners and engaging in the type of street protests that were to become a feature of the NICRA campaigns by late 1968.

The repression and political control was experience by republicans during 1964 (including those in WTS) when it protested the RUC’s removal of a tricolour from its Divis Street election headquarters and in the subsequent violence and protests, and, again in 1966 when it was in conflict with Unionists over the 1916 commemorations. The 1964 electoral campaign, riots and attempts at repression drew both a violent response in 1965 (by a breakaway group calling itself the Irish Freedom Fighters) and then a much more violent Unionist response in 1966.

Ó Dochartaigh asserts that, reading the history of the civil rights campaign and the interplay between peaceful protest and violence “…the concept of continuum emphasizes the links between these different phases, a more systematic exploration of the continuities in goals and aims that run through these different phases of contention might enrich our understanding of this process of change. In the course of the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland demands relating to discrimination and the restricted suffrage were superseded by the issues of repression and unionist political control. But these latter two issues had provided the deep underlying motivation for many of the movement’s founders, before the dramatic confrontations that brought them to the centre of debate.

The problem with a ‘concept of continuum’, in any context, is determining what to accept as the appropriate starting point. Clearly, cycles of violence were present in the period leading up to the foundation of the NICRA, such as 1964-66. However, the roots of the NICRA clearly extended back past that cycle, in the form of the early Wolfe Tone Societies and earlier, in BCCL/NICCL with continuity provided by the involvement of members of the republican movement. Unlike the later participants in the NICRA or IWL/CPGB and trade unionists that began to join the embryonic campaign from 1962-63 onwards, the republicans brought a deep background in organising street protests and marches and having to confront the open, and often violent, repression of the Unionist government.

There maybe lies one fallacy in minimising republican involvement in NICRA. The polices and practices NICRA sought to address hadn’t somehow emerged, fully formed, in the late 1960s. Instead, they had been central to the methodologies of Unionist governance. The fact that, from around 1963, other organisations took a greater interest in attempting to promote change, shouldn’t obscure the much deeper history of the injustices and resistance to them that NICRA sought to address.

75th Anniversary of Crumlin Road Jail Escape

Monday 15th January 2018 will be the 75th anniversary of the escape from Crumlin Road Jail by Pat Donnelly, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Jimmy Steele.

The escape provided one of the few iconic images of the IRA campaign of the 1940s, with the famous wanted poster. It was initially published in the local press on the day following the escape (see below).

The poster contains a couple of errors. Jimmy Steele was born in 1907, not 1909. Similarly, Hugh McAteer was born in 1916, not 1917. I managed to perpetuate this error last year by incorrectly noting the centenary of his birth (his daughter Máire has since put me right – he was born in Derry on 13th August 1916). McAteer wrote an account of the escape, which I’d previously posted up here.

You can read an account based on the escape report and other memoirs here.

You can find out more about the escape here and listen to the Men With No Property’s recording of ‘Steele and McAteers Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail’ (am not sure who wrote it, but one candidate would be Arthur Corr, who was an orderly in A wing at the time of the escape and wrote the balled ‘Tom Williams’).

Winnie Carney at the GPO, via #Herstory

Last night, the image of Winifred Carney was one of those projected onto the GPO as part of #Herstory, to coincide with Nollaig na mBan (literary, ‘the women’s Christmas’, the traditional Irish name for the Christian feast of the Epiphany in Ireland).

You can check out more text and images via the Herstory social media and website.

Carney, born in Bangor but brought in Belfast, was a trade unionist, suffragist and republican activist. Living at Carlisle Circus, she was active in the textile unions, Gaelic League and nationalist organizations and was prominent in highlighting the dreadful conditions faced by workers in Belfast, particularly women and children.

She worked closely with James Connolly, particularly throughout the Easter Rising where she was the first woman into the GPO and last to leave. The other Belfast republicans active in Dublin during the Rising was mainly women (eg see Nora Connolly’s account here). Afterwards she stood for election for Sinn Féin and continued to be active in the likes of the TGWU and, later, the NILP. She married George McBride in 1928 (below, with Carney, image held by District Trades Union Council), who had been in the UVF and Orange Order but was by then a committed socialist.

Carney died in 1943, ages only 56, and is buried in Milltown.