Political – Fluiding

Past – Present and Future Confluence

At midnight on July 31st 2007 the ‘Banner Campaign’, the British military support for the civil power on the streets and in the countryside of Northern Ireland, came to an end. It had been instituted in 1969 by the UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, on the advice of his Home Secretary, James Callaghan.

I recall seeing the scenes on television as the troops deployed in Belfast and Derry, were welcomed by the communities in Nationalist enclaves and districts under attack by Loyalist mobs while groups of people from previously mixed areas, displaced by pressure and violent intimidation, were shifting across the city.

Initially the Nationalist communities welcomed the intervention as a defensive barrier against the attacks in which homes were set on fire – Bombay Street was writ large in flames – and mass evacuation of whole streets ensued. There were many cases where the troops were greeted by the people who were under mob attack with tea, cakes etc.

However, the long dormant feelings engendered by decades of discrimination in jobs, housing, political and social rights surfaced. The collusion and active participation of the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and their auxiliaries, the B Specials, against civil rights demonstrations inflamed the situation. This fostered the creation of a new Republican movement, the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) with the avowed purpose of ending Partition by force.

Previously the IRA, later called the ‘Officials’, a remnant of the independence struggle which had ended with the creation of the two governments, the 26 county Irish Free State and the 6 county Northern Ireland which remained part of the UK, was a very weak organisation, mainly engaged in underground political activity and occasional destruction of border customs posts. They were accused of having failed to protect the Nationalist community and replaced by the quickly expanding ‘Provos’, a growing response to the inequalities, perceived and real, under which the Nationalist community lived.

So, if an explanation of the intensity of the violence and savagery of the 38 years of ‘Banner’ and for all the murder, mayhem and destruction is sought, it can largely be found in the way the ‘Six Counties’ were governed and politically structured and how the minority was treated as second and third class citizens.

The fact that successive British governments had simply ignored the discriminatory practices, leaving a Unionist majority government in control with a free hand to be openly partisan in their policies. Seemingly tolerant of the abuse of power they did nothing to convince the complaining sector of the electorate that their conditions could be altered politically.

I don't suggest that there were or are simple solutions to the complex relationships and antagonisms which history has determined between both communities. However, the obvious and blatant partisanship of unionist governments over almost 50 years exacerbated and deeply intensified the feelings of discontent within the Nationalist orientated population.

Moreover, resentments and fears were left over from the ‘Troubles’ of the 1920s within both communities. Some of these were kept alive by political organisations, such as the Orange Order, with their parades and outpourings of sectarian religious hatred, although this could be duplicated in sections of the other community.

I grew up in East Belfast from the 1920s to the early 1940s and was involved in the Trade Union and Labour Party activities, the main cross‑community organisations engaged in furthering the economic, social and political interests of all.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party, and the Northern Ireland Socialist Party affiliated to it, endeavoured to – and for a long time succeeded – in containing within its ranks members from both communities as they grappled with the social and economic problems of the Six Counties.

However, the issue of the Border was a continual irritant in that the minority members, residing primarily in Nationalist orientated areas, became very disenchanted as they failed to have the eradication of Partition as a central accepted tenet of party policy.

Consequently fragmentation developed, sometimes mushrooming at election times when candidates in addition to the main party nominees ran as Republican Labour, Irish Labour and other varieties so that eventually the Northern Ireland Labour Party lost its cross‑community composition.

Cross‑community contacts fell into disuse and a liaison committee between the Labour Party in the North and the Labour Party in the South was ended by the southern organisation. They felt they would make more progress on their own especially as they did not agree with the North’s support for the Spanish Republican cause in the civil war.

The strongly held view among the Catholic population that the existence of the Border was the main and sole reason for the inequalities from which they suffered got in the way of a united attack on the real deprivation of the working class population in both communities. The Irish TUC (Trade Union Congress) – now the Congress of Irish Unions – managed to maintain an Ireland affiliation with a Northern Committee to deal specifically with Six County issues.

During the World War Two years economic differences were to some extent obscured. Industries, funded or used to meet UK needs had not the same reluctance to take on the Catholic members of the community as other industrial establishments. Although conscription did not apply to Northern Ireland volunteers to the British forces, though numerically greater from Loyalist areas, also included recruits from the minority community.

Many others from all over Ireland also joined the British services and employment opportunities to those with skills or aptitude in many parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, irrespective of where in Ireland they were domiciled.

During the 1939‑1945 period, most of which I spent in Belfast, like the rest of the UK, political activity in respect of elections was suspended as far as the main political parties in Northern Ireland were concerned. This also applied to the Orange parades but of course public meetings did take place.

I recall one in the Hippodrome Picture House in Central Belfast on a Sunday evening in 1942 called by a coalition of organisations. I am not quite sure now of its composition, one of the speakers being Aneurin Bevan. There was a public demand for the opening of a ‘second front’ as the German armies were poised to engulf Moscow and Leningrad.

I also remember a Northern Ireland by‑election for the vacant Willowfield Constituency in East Belfast which was won by Harry Midgely, a former Labour Member for Dock Ward. He had set up a party called ‘Commonwealth’ (not connected to one with the same name in England) using a Union Flag as an emblem under which he drew support from Labour voters and some members of the party.

Midgely ultimately joined the Unionist Party and became a minister in its government. The Labour Party was wracked by a long‑standing feud between him and Jack Beattie who had held the Westminster West Belfast seat with Nationalist support as well as holding the Pottinger seat in the Stormont Parliament.

Beattie had been in and out of the party, promising each time to keep to the party policy in respect of Partition, only to break his commitment each time he had been re‑admitted so that eventually both he and Midgely were finally excluded.

In their personalities and stances, which had their origins in pre‑Partition days, they represented the difficulties experienced by Labour in Northern Ireland in trying to maintain a coherent cross‑community approach to the issues of the day.

The attitude of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in support of continuing as part of the UK and concentrating on the social issues on a cross‑community basis in the post‑war situation enabled them to to advance their Stormont representation from the late fifties on.

However, with the civil disorder which arose around the Civil Rights Movement and the establishment of the SDLP by John Hume finally institutionalised the opposition to the Unionist Government as effectively Catholic versus Protestant organisations. The former saw Partition as the cause of inequalities so that the other community consolidated their adherence to the Union, withdrawing their support from the struggling Northern Ireland Labour Party. The British Labour Party, influenced by diaspora members in Britain, mistakenly in my view, helped to bring this about by accepting the SDLP as a sister party and refusing to allow the formation of Labour Party branches in Northern Ireland.

I could, I suppose, speculate on a ‘What if?’ basis, what might have happened and would not have happened had a strong cross‑community social and economic unity been established among the working class organisations after Partition. But the water has flowed under the bridge and blood on the streets so we have to start afresh from where we are now.

Westminster and the three devolved administrations are on summer recess. The latter will reconvene early in September so during the break the various parties will doubtless be considering how they will deal with the knotty problems within their remit.

My reading of the situation is that they will be preoccupied very much about the relationship between themselves and the Westminster Parliament and what they would like it to be.

Gordon Brown, when he assumed the position of Prime Minister, announced that he thought a written constitution should be considered which no doubt in my view would be likely to spell out the limits of the devolved administrations.

However, I don’t think it would come forward as a formal document to be decided by referendum as agreement between the three assemblies and Westminster would be first tried then a piece of legislation to consolidate it.

Currently in the ‘One Wales’ document, the basis of the coalition government between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, there is a plan to place legislation at Westminster to increase their area of responsibility and to confer the ability to legislate upon Welsh matters. This will test out how far they can go constitutionally.

The Scottish position has become a bit more sharp since the Scots Nationalists, elected to be a minority government with some Green Party support, put forward an independence orientated document placing the integrity of the UK Union under pressure.

Northern Ireland, in a sense, has set out its position in the Good Friday (1998) Agreement as amended at Saint Andrew’s in 2006. The main part of the former was subject to a referendum in the Six Counties and to one in the Irish Republic. The Saint Andrew’s amendment was agreed by all the parties represented in the then still suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. All of it has been enshrined in Westminster legislation. I don’t anticipate any further changes except in respect of policing which is already catered for within the scope of the 1998 Agreement. It is a very contentious issue because of the turbulent history, well known and appreciated.

There is a lot of speculation at present on the possibility of Gordon Brown calling a snap general election in view of his strong showing in the polls.

Whether the election is held this autumn or spring, there could be a policy covering the idea of a constitutional document and one concerning a new European Treaty. If the government is successfully returned to power it could be argued in a new mandate that a separate referendum would not be required for either.

In respect of the question of an independent Scotland, if the Scots Nationalist representation at Westminster were reduced and likewise that of the Welsh Nationalists it would have an impact. On the other hand, if both improved their position it would strengthen the pressure on the Union.

However, it would be interesting to see how Sinn Féin approached an early Westminster contest. I think that they would seek to consolidate their position vis‑a‑vis the SDLP on the strength of their Stormont successes.

We have truly entered a new political era and strange and unexpected alliances and results which will test the abilities on all sides to steer through the difficult currents.

The tempo will quicken if there is indeed an autumn contest and much confusion in the ranks of all organised political groups.

An early election will put strains on all the contestants as the integrity of the UK Union will be examined.

In my view the Scots and Welsh Nationalists are not reading the lessons of history for the existing relationships are entirely different from those which which precipitated the drive for Irish independence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 21st August 2007.

Samuel H. Boyd