Extracts from 'The People's Democracy 1968-73' by Paul Arthur (1974)
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
PD MARCH: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Chronology] ['Burntollet']
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change
The following extracts have been contributed by the author. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
The People's Democracy 1968-73
This material is copyright Paul Arthur (1974) and is included on the
CAIN site with his permission. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of
this for other than your personal use without the express written permission
of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
From the inside cover:
I first met the author in the spring of 1970 when I was Professor of Politics at Sheffield and had the habit of taking my students on a field trip to 'Westminster and Whitehall,' the regulation said, which was always voted 'quite interesting but a bit boring,' until I got the Faculty to change the regulation, without particularly explaining why, to '...er some centre of regional government'; and so we went to Belfast. And my colleagues at the Queen's University arranged for one of their postgraduate students, a Mr. Paul Arthur, to act as a kind of political Thomas Cook's courier for us, steering us, with admirable knowledgeability and objectivity (which I distinguish at times from neutrality) around all points of the political spectrum. I myself held up the traditional tobacco-tin lid to the then Miss Bernadette Devlin, as she chain-smoked her way through a harangue at us; and saw to my surprise and good-mannered relief, all of my students, even the wildest, get to their feet when the Speaker of Stormont moved (for they had given us an official lunch, so startled was anyone at an educational visit to Stormont) the Loyal Toast in orange juice.
I gathered then that Paul Arthur was writing a M.S.Sc. thesis on the People's Democracy. It seemed to me an intellectually dangerous thing to be doing. It is just so very hard to be of scholarly objectivity about contemporary politics, particularly about - the point is obvious. It seemed to me perhaps more tolerant than wise of his supervisors. But when I saw the finished product, from which this book emerges, not merely did my doubts vanish, but I saw that Mr. Arthur had pulled off that most rare of achievements: a really convincing and important scholarly study of a contentious contemporary movement both by participating in it and observing it (in different proportion at different times, it is only fair to him to say) or by setting it in a wider, comparative context. Too often interesting and important political phenomena get well or badly reported by journalists, but then they simply vanish from public eye: the terrible daily paradox of so much effort by intelligent men going into something utterly ephemeral. Often long afterwards a scholar comes along looking for the trail, when it is cold; interviewing the actors in the events when they have already several times changed their roles; and expecting people to remember accurately what they would often rather forget or have already found a protective skin of re - remembering (I would say, rather than misremembering - that is recreating what one once did or said in light of where one now stands). Very rarely does someone with the equipment of a scholar stay with a new movement long enough to write a definitive account of its origins - and decline.
Paul Arthur has shown how a student movement, the People's Democracy, had some significant influence from the days of 1968 when it appeared both bright, new, strange, startling and (at least to someone outside the province) even heartening because it cut across old sectarian lines and showed that some of the younger generation were refusing to be stereotyped, until it collapsed back not just into the old sectarianism for that perhaps has to be accepted as the limits of manoeuvre for a long time hence, but into the blinkered, violent politics of the old sectarianism - oddly (again it seems from the outside) so little different on either side. The reader in Ireland needs no warning that 'P.D.' is but part of a broader Civil Rights movement. The reader from outside the province needs to remember that firmly. The author, though then a student himself, is far from uncritical of P.D's ability to make contact with ordinary people even in the early days, even in the Catholic community, among the Protestant majority. 'Student politics' is, indeed, in my opinion, to be characterised by most of the things its critics say of it: as a style of politics it is both too abstract and too passionate, too much in a hurry, too much committed to abstract ideas of 'the People but often too lacking in knowledge of or sympathies with the actual aspirations of ordinary people. Young, inexperienced, impatient and transitory: the professional politicians nightmare, not so much because of threat as of irrelevance and unreliability. But consider the professional politician. Consider the converse of the defects of 'the students.' How good it is to see a movement of some effect arise from people who might otherwise simply be busy 'getting their degree and getting out,' and who were (are?) one of the very few groups in Northern Ireland who refuse to accept the inevitability of the old divisions and the reading of history as an inevitable demonstration that the old thing as it is can never be changed.
The changes that there have been since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement and of Peoples Democracy show that the old institutional conservatism of the province has broken down. Many of the slogans of the past, on both sides, seem less and less descriptive of possible objectives.
Perhaps I overstress the political. For though no one can or should be without their own beliefs, or those long meditated prejudgments that are sometimes badly called (fixed and arbitrary) prejudice, yet Paul Arthur has simply written an astonishingly detailed, interesting and objective account of a movement as interesting to those involved in actual politics in Ireland as to those healthy parasites, of which I am one, who try to study politics in a scholarly way. Certainly Mr. Arthur has his biases. But he passes well, to my mind, the two great tests of political writing: that his account of the facts will be largely acceptable by those who differ from him in doctrine; and that he explains realistically the failure of some things that he would rather have seen succeed. 'The more one is conscious of one's political bias', wrote George Orwell, 'the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual objectivity.' Mr. Arthur is to be congratulated on writing one of the best books to arise from the present troubles.
'Contemporary history embarrasses a writer not only because he knows too much, but also because what he knows is too undigested, too unconnected, too atomic. It is only after close and prolonged reflection that we begin to see what was essential and what unimportant, to see why things happened as they did, and to write history instead of newspapers.
Armed with this stricture I approached this work with modest intentions. My purpose was to write a chronological account of the activities of the People's Democracy and to analyse it against a backcloth of international student radicalism; and, where that becomes superfluous, I have examined its influence in five very turbulent years of Irish politics. No doubt deeper reflection would have been an advantage but it is important to record the facts with the aid of oral evidence before they are allowed to become part of Ireland's ever-growing political mythology.
Another difficulty arises over my own involvement in PD. I was a member from the beginning in October 1968 until after Easter 1969 and was closely involved in some of the important decisions taken during that period; and some of those I write about were my contemporaries at university. I leave it to the reader to decide whether my involvement has clouded my judgment.
Originally this work studied PD's activities from 1968-70. I have added a short postscript to examine its development since 1971. It does not pretend to be detailed nor particularly analytical. I was concerned with general trends and PD had long since lost most of its influence. Its role had become that of providing a pseudo Marxist gloss to the Provisional Sinn Fein. It had become so far removed from its original student character that my five stage model may be no longer applicable.
Finally I have attempted to make the book a little less academic by excising as many footnotes as possible. These excisions should not interfere with the flow of the narrative and the missing references can be checked in a copy of the original thesis at the Queen's University of Belfast.
This book first saw the light of day as an academic thesis presented to the Faculty of Social Science at Queen's University Belfast for the award of a Master's degree. Whatever merit it may have is largely due to the detailed criticisms and invaluable advice I received from Dr Cornelius Q'Leary, Dr Roger Scott and Dr Robert Baxter, all of the Department of Political Science. I should also thank Professor J H Warrender of that Department. He encouraged my research interests and offered me the facilities to undertake this work.
Professor Bernard Crick and Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien were both kind enough to read the completed thesis and offer valuable new insights and criticisms. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to all of these men. Needless to say I accept full responsibility for any errors of fact or interpretation.
My thanks are due to the Queen's University Librarian and his staff, to Miss P Howard of the Linen Hall Library Belfast, to the staff of the Belfast Telegraph Library, and to Kevin Boyle who gave me the unlimited use of his private press cuttings and of his time. Similarly I am indebted to those whom I interviewed, notably Mrs Bernadette McAliskey MP and Mr John Hume MP.
I wish to thank the following authors or publishers for permission to quote from their work: Professor S M Lipset, editor of Student Politics; The Journal o/ Social Issues for articles by G Abcarian, R Flacks, A L Mauss, D R Schweitzer and J M Elden; Derek Birrell, Harvey Cox and Bob Overy, authors of Papers presented at the Conference on Conflict in Northern Ireland at Lancaster University in December 1971; The Lyric Players Theatre Belfast (Threshold); and New Left Review.
Finally I am particularly grateful to my wife for her encouragement and forebearance. I dedicate this book to her, and to my mother and father.
(i) The politics of the crystallized majority.
'The six north-eastern counties of Ireland were grouped together and given a parliament and government of their own not because anyone in the area wanted (let alone demanded) such an arrangement, but because the British Government thought that this was the only possible way of reconciling the rival aspirations of the two Irish parties-the Nationalist (and mainly Roman Catholic) majority, who demanded self-government for the whole country, and the Unionist (and mainly Protestant) minority, who wished Ireland to remain as it was, within the United Kingdom.
The constitutional vehicle for such inauspicious beginnings was the Government of Ireland Act which became law on December 23, 1920 and was to be brought into operation in June 1921. Its passing created conditions of turbulence which were to be endemic during the first fifty years of the State. Between 1920 and 1922 'nearly 300 people were killed, most of them in Belfast, in what amounted to civil war between Unionists and Catholics. In 1922 alone, 232 people were killed, nearly 1,000 were wounded while more than £3 million worth of property was destroyed. Serious sectarian rioting also broke out in 1933, 1935, 1964 and 1966.
Superficially Northern Ireland operated under the liberal democratic Westminster model of government. It had its own Parliament elected freely in single member constituencies, and had a government endorsed by free electors. But it was not a sovereign Parliament, a fact which was underlined by Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act.
'Notwithstanding the establishment of the Parliaments of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, or the Parliament of Ireland or anything contained in this Act, the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons, matters, and things in Ireland and every part thereof.'However, the sovereign Parliament did not devote much attention to Northern Ireland affairs:
'Although in theory the shadow of Westminster legislation loomed over Northern Ireland from the beginning, in practice the mother Parliament had devoted very little time to the affairs of the six counties - in one period of just over a year in 1934/35 the time spent was one hour and fifty minutes, and that seems, until very recently, to have been about the average.Richard Rose reinforces this point.
'In the five years preceding the disorder of 1969, the Commons devoted less than one sixth of one per cent of its time to discussions of Northern Ireland questions; most of this talk concerned matters of trade, not the matters that affected allegiance to the regime.'Consequently the governing party in Northen Ireland conducted their own affairs, largely unhampered by interference from Westminster, and were able to secure 'the compliance of Ulster Catholics, even though they could not obtain their support.'
Catholic compliance was. sullen and defiant. Its political mouthpiece, the anti-partitionist Nationalist party, did not begin to attend parliament regularly until 1927 (nor did it assume the mantle of official Opposition until 1965, although it had always been the largest opposition party).
For its part the governing Unionist party met Catholic complaints with indifference or antagonism as it strengthened its power base. The withdrawal of proportional representation from parliamentary elections in 1929 was considered to be directly political. It ensured that only those parties which took a firm line on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland were certain to succeed at general elections, and the Unionist Party as the historic guardian of Ulster and British sanctity could look forward to an indefinite period of untrammelled one-party rule.
Nationalist MPs were reduced to acting 'merely as an ombudsman for their Catholic constituents and had little interest in the legislative process'.They succeeded in securing passage of only one Bill, the Wild Birds Act of 1931. Over the years the two major parties withdrew to contest only those constituencies they felt sure they could win. As a result the Unionist Party never failed to win less than 34 seats in a 52 seat Parliament between 1929 and 1965 and 'the median figure for uncontested constituencies at all elections between 1929 and 1965 was 22'. 
This state of permanent one party rule in a competitive party system has been described by one observer, Arendt Lijphart, as 'majority dictatorship'. Perhaps a more helpful analysis for our purpose is the concept of a 'crystallized politics'. It has been described thus:
'A crystallized politics is the result of a group of voters which has developed as a unit, sharply divided from the rest of the social system and unable either to communicate with it or to understand its wants and needs. Its representatives are not forced to compromise because they are a majority of the legislature. They have no need to go elsewhere for programs and ideas, because the divided society has produced a political subsystem which produces in turn all the dynamics of the whole system in microcosm. Opposition becomes divided, transitional, plaintive and, above all, futile because there is no need for the legislative majority to attend to the interests of the opposing groups in the system. If leadership of this segment of the society is united fully behind a programme inimical to the interests of the remaining groups in the society, the whole system can come perilously close to a democratically sustained, but dictatorial, government.'This seems to be a useful description of the state of Northern Ireland politics between 1920 and 1968. But such a system has a basic flaw:
'. . . there can be little hope for tranquillity in the political system if the electoral system, functioning normally, produces a majority in the legislature which rests upon a strong and disciplined large voting segment which will come together on all issues because its internal identity is stronger than any issue confronting it'. What is likely to happen is that 'eventually the pressures of the minority would become too great'.There had been a measure of tranquillity until the late 1960's:
'. . . between the early 1920's and the late 1960's Ireland enjoyed a longer period of freedom from major internal disturbance than it had known since the first half of the eighteenth century'.The minority sunk into an attitude of sullen acceptance and the governing party tackled the underlying economic problems created by the Government of Ireland Act. F S L Lyons has noted:
'. . . so much effort and so much money went into the frantic race to keep up with Britain in the scale of social benefits paid out, that there were no resources left to put through those essential long-term reforms that ministers had set their hearts on in the first flush of enthusiasm. So in 1939, as in 1922, the province was still plagued by ill-health, poor housing, bad roads and inadequate schools.The development of a viable economy has always been a major problem for any Northern Ireland government. Ironically, as the one part of the United Kingdom which was not forced to introduce conscription, it benefitted greatly from the economic effects of World War II. One significant pointer to its war-time prosperity may be mentioned.
'. . . income per head, which had been less than three-fifths of that in Britain before the war, rose in Northern Ireland between 1939 and 1945 until it was three-quarters of the British figure . . .' As a result the War 'raised the Ulsterman's standard of living in the present and aroused his expectations of the future'.The post-war years saw the rise of the Welfare State in Britain -and its acceptance in Northern Ireland. The continuing battle to establish economic viability was not helped by the decline in the traditional industries of agriculture, textiles and shipbuilding. Yet progress must be recorded, particularly in the social welfare field.
While it is true that Northern Ireland was still the most deprived region of the United Kingdom in socio-economic terms on a comparison of incomes, unemployment rates and housing conditions, its record was considerably more healthy than that of the Irish Republic.'
Thus by the 1960's some economic progress was being made but the political divide seemed as irreconcilable as ever. As late as 1961 Lord Brookeborough, Prime Minister since 1943, could play down economic problems by raising the old battlecry: 'Ulster has only room for one party . . . recent economic issues should not divide Protestants'. Yet, as the decade progressed, there was evidence of a growing desire for change, especially after March 1963 when Capt Terence O'Neill succeeded Lord Brookeborough as Prime Minister.
To appreciate why change became possible it is necessary to examine O'Neillism, not only in the context of the Prime Minister's policies, but also in relation to the British Labour Party's general election victories of 1964 and 1966, and to the growth of a new middle class, Catholic as well as Protestant, containing ambitious and articulate men.
'Improving community relations was a major means by which Terence O'Neill sought full legitimation of the regime. He began by recognising the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, an organisation with headquarters in Dublin. He constantly stressed the need to close the rift in the community, in particular his speech to a joint Protestant-Catholic conference at Corrymeela on April 8, 1966. He acted on his words - albeit symbolically - by visiting Catholic schools and other institutions. His most daring action was to meet Mr Sean Lemass, Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, at Stormont on January 14, 1965. (O'Neill had not bothered to consult his parliamentary party before he undertook this historic meeting.) A month later the gesture was reciprocated when a series of inter-departmental discussions on matters of common interest got under way.
This aspect of his policy appeared to be working since the Nationalists agreed to accept the role of official Opposition in February 1965. Richard Rose produces further evidence to illustrate that 'O'Neill's "era of good feelings" was not a myth. Rose carried out a survey covering exactly the period in which Terence O'Neill had then been Prime Minister. Fifty-six per cent of Protestants and sixty-five per cent of Catholics felt that there had been a change for the better.
It should be noted however that improved community relations had very little effect upon political outlooks. 'Among Catholics who felt that community relations had improved only thirty-six per cent supported the Constitution, and forty-four per cent still favoured illegal demonstrations. Improvements in community relations were associated with a tendency for Protestants to reject Ultra tactics; these were endorsed by forty-six per cent of Protestants who thought relations had improved, by sixty-one per cent of those who thought they had remained the same, and by seventy-one per cent of the small group that thought they had worsened.'
Essentially the Prime Minister's problems were two-fold; he failed to bring his own extremists with him; and he could not win the trust of the minority. 'His clandestine encounters with Lemass and Lynch (both of whom outwitted him) and his furtive visits to clerical establishments, together with other similar gestures, were dismissed as stunts by the opposition, but received with increasing unease by many of his followers.'
The fear of the more extreme Unionist supporters manifested itself in the growth of Paisleyism and of the self-styled Ulster Volunteer Force, which took its name from the illegal army raised by Unionists in 1913 to fight against Irish Home Rule. Rioting between Catholics and Paisley's supporters in 1964 and again in 1966,26 and the murder of a young Catholic by the UVF in June 1966 underlined the threat of Protestant extremism to O'Neill's community relations effort. (As a result of the latter action the Prime Minister was forced to proscribe the UVF under the Special Powers Act on June 23, 1966, the first occasion on which this legislation had been invoked against a Protestant organisation.)
Within the Unionist Party O'Neill was treated with a measure of distrust:
'In 1966 and in 1967 there were two revolts within the Unionist Parliamentary Party which O'Neill put down by the expedient of broadcasting to the people and challenging his opponents to put their case. This they were not willing to do and both revolts ended in votes of confidence of specious unanimity for O'Neill. Although never publicly acknowledged, the reasons for the intra-party opposition to O'Neill were inferentially that he seemed to be going too far to cultivate the minority and the suspect Southern Government'. Following the riots of 1966, the pro-O'Neillite Belfast Telegraph reckoned that the Prime Minister could not be certain of the unequivocal support of eighteen of his thirty-six parliamentary colleagues.
Underlining the fears of the Party for O'Neill's creeping ecumenism was the constant worry of the effects of the British Labour Party's general election victories of 1964 and 1966. The Unionist Party has been described as a 'party of regional defence' whose 'strategic strength has lain in its capacity to represent and nurture an alliance between "Ulster" and the English Conservative party, or certainly a blocking section of it.'
The dilemma of the Unionists had been illustrated when Labour was last in power between 1945 and 1951:
'What happened was that at Westminster the Unionist representatives joined with the Conservative opposition in resisting the socialist legislation which established the welfare state, while at Stormont the Unionist party solemnly resolved to annex as much of this legislation as possible to its own purposes. 'Unionism need not have worried. The post-war Labour Government had too many other problems on its mind - even if it had the inclination - to scrutinize Northern Ireland affairs. In fact it appeared to strengthen the Union when it enacted the Ireland Act of 1949. An ominous note was struck, however, in the discussion of this piece of legislation. It 'received an unusual amount of opposition in the British House of Commons; sixty-three Labour MP's voted against it at committee stage.
Most of those Members belonged to the Friends of Ireland Group whose 'aim is to secure democratic Labour Government in Ireland, both North and South, with a view to attaining a united Ireland by common consent at the earliest possible moment.' (This group was not terribly effective although it produced some damaging propaganda,and embarrassed some Labour supporters in Northern Ireland.)
The post-1964 Labour Governments shared the same relationship with Unionism as their predecessors, that is, a Labour Cabinet too busy to be unduly concerned with Northern Ireland and a sizeable pressure group within the Labour party which was anti-Unionist. But there was one major exception. In 1964 Labour was returned to power with a tiny majority, and was 'particularly resentful at the influence of the twelve Ulster Unionists, without whom the Opposition would have presented a far less serious challenge at Division time . . . Whereas Ulster Unionists had gone into the Division lobbies to vote against a Rent Act that did not apply to Northern Ireland . . . it was impossible to raise discrimination on public bodies appointed by the Government of Northern Ireland or issues such as housing in Dungannon on the floor of the House of Commons.
The very first debate to be held on Northern Ireland on February 22, 1965 was a turning-point in Anglo-Northern Ireland relations. The Speaker refused to alter the convention whereby Ulster affairs were not discussed at Westminster, and, as a consequence, the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU) was established. This successor to the Friends of Ireland group was to act as a vigilant watchdog of Northern Ireland affairs within the Labour party.
Its numbers and spirit was improved by Labour's clear victory in the 1966 General Election and by Gerry Fitt's victory in West Belfast in that campaign. (Fitt's victory ensured that an alternative voice to Unionism could be heard at Westminster, a point underlined by his very forceful maiden speech calling for an enquiry into Northern Ireland affairs.)Three of its members visited Northern Ireland early in 1967 and published a report on April 29 which emphasised 'how near the surface violence lies in current political life' in Northern Ireland, and issued a plea for a Royal Commission.
By the middle of the '60s, therefore, it was becoming evident that political life in Northem Ireland was under change. The Unionist party, unsure of its Leader's reconciliation policy, was aware of the scrutinizing attitude of a Labour Government at Westminster. The stirrings of Protestant extremism and the tenuous position of Prime Minister O'Neill were signs that reforms would be resisted by 'loyalists.'
Nor could O'Neill count on the automatic support of the Catholic community. There were indications that Catholics had turned from their pre-occupation with the albatross of partition to a willing acceptance of their status as citizens of Northern Ireland, provided that they were granted equal status. One possible reason for this change of heart has been cited by 0 D Edwards in a discussion on the effects of the ecumenical movement:
'.... the Johannine translation of the concept of community from ideal to real terms seems to have been extremely important. It raised a very nasty problem for the Unionist leadership: their Catholic subjects instead of, as formerly, expecting them to behave with the perfidy and brutality of damnable heresiarchs, now began to demand that as members of a community they were entitled to expect the just rights of all members of that community. The very arguments that John XXIII himself had made so tellingly in the context of racial segregation had every relevance to religious apartheid.A more obvious reason was the failure of the last Irish Republican Army (IRA) campaign from December 1956 until February 1962. 'In all, there were about 300 major incidents, and six members of the RUC lost their lives.[ ]This abortive campaign highlighted the unwillingness of most anti-partitionists to achieve their ends through violence. (Also it had an important indirect influence on Ulster politics insofar as the IRA's activities kept the constitutional question to the forefront and thereby helped the Unionists to retain command of the Protestant vote.)
The major reason for their willingness to participate in the affairs of state lies in the paradox of O'Neillism. The Prime Minister's moderation lay in avoiding bigotry. It did not extend so far as to endorse change sufficient to dispel the Catholic sense of grievance. As we have seen, a section of his own party and the Protestant Ultras were not prepared to accept any concessions made to the Catholic minority. In its turn, that minority saw O'Neillism as a weakening in the politics of the crystallized majority and a period of rising political expectation.
We should remember that, although most Catholics considered themselves to be second-class citizens, they did benefit from the social welfare policies undertaken after World War II. For instance, the Education Act of 1947 opened up higher education to all those with the ability to take advantage of it; in the seventeen years following the Act there was an increase in pupils in grant aided schools from 213,211 to 295,855 an increase paralleled in the building and extension of many new schools. O'Neill's attempt at broadening the economic base also met with some success:
'. . . in the sixties the numbers in employment rose, housing output increased, the index of wages rose from 100 in 1960, to 118 in 1963, to 173 in 1968 (Digest of Statistics 1969 and Housing Returns 1969). An Education Act in 1968 gave more money to Catholic voluntary schools.'The Prime Minister laid great emphasis on improving the lot of the Catholic community:
'. . . he assumed that the reason why Catholics protested about justice and power was that they lacked houses and jobs. . . People who protest that the rules of the game are biased politically will be told that the game is not about political power but about economic well-being.'He did not realise that this policy could be self-defeating because it raised the problem of relative deprivation:
'A steady level of poverty favours the stabilization of social and cultural relations. But if economic conditions are changing then people are likely to feel more frustrated and insecure as they compare their lot with the one that has been held out to them as their legitimate condition and with other classes and countries that enjoy a higher standard of living.'Catholics looked no further than Britain and demanded equal rights as British citizens.
The change in Catholic attitudes was noted by one observer in 1966:
'Many Catholics exhibit a mere hopeless antagonism to the present situation but there are signs that this is changing to a more active self-respect. It is not ridiculous to envisage a Catholic civil rights movement in the not too far distant future.'The 'signs' which John Macrea detected can be seen in a number of instances. One was a visit to London in 1964 by a delegation of the anti-partitionist Nationalist Party to discuss discrimination with British party leaders. This was a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that Britain had a right and a duty to interfere in Northern Ireland affairs, if only to clean up the mess. In other words the Nationalists were beginning to think about reforming the system rather than insisting on talking only about the fundamental problem of the Constitution. (Incidentally, Jo Grimond was the only party leader prepared to meet them.) Its acceptance of the role of Official Opposition in February 1965 was a more positive step in this direction.
Another sign of changing attitudes was to be seen in the growth of effective pressure groups. The Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland (CSJ) was founded in Dungannon on January 17, 1964 'for the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community against the Catholic section of that community representing more than one-third of the population.' It produced pamphlets on such matters as allegations of gerrymandering in Derry and discrimination in employment, and publicized them as widely as possible.
The Working Committee on Civil Rights in Northern Ireland was another body founded in 1964 - in April - and composed of a group of students at Queen's University, Belfast. Its task was to investigate allegations of discrimination in Newry and Derry, but it did not publish a report - lack of finance was given as the reason - and it did not function after its initial investigation.
The organisation which severely tested the tranquillity of the political system operating under the crystallized majority was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). It had been founded in February 1967 with a constitution based on that of the National Council of Civil Liberties in England. Its membership covered a wide spectrum of political views, although it was predominantly Catholic. It eschewed the violence and the aims of the IRA and concentrated on non-violent direct action. Consequently its success 'stemmed partly from the fact that it concentrated less on issues of personal liberty. . . and more on pressing social problems like housing and employment. The target was less the Unionist Government than the Unionist controlled councils; Catholic resentment was organised, not for the traditional and seemingly unobtainable objective of Irish unity, but towards clear social goals.'
When it became clear to some Catholics that O'Neill could not,
or would not, rise above pious platitudes the embryonic NICRA
began to threaten action. But it was unsure of itself, since it
lacked a popular mandate. The more militant edge of political
agitation came from a small group of students at Queen's University,
(ii) Student activism
When the Prime Minister embarked on his 'Programme to Enlist the People (PEP) in January, 1967, he was intent on building the new Ulster' largely with the assistance of the younger generation's idealism:
'I have never shared for one moment the disapproving opinions which some people seem to hold about our younger generation. Irreverent, yes, questioning, certainly, but also full of energy and idealism which we do not harness often enough.'His words fell on deaf ears among the student activists, both Right and Left. The Right was concentrated in the Young Unionists, the vanguard of Loyalist intransigence:
'It is not possible to conceive the position of Irish Loyalists as anything other than a garrison, culturally and spiritually divorced from a numerically superior and relentlessly hostile populace.'The Left saw PEP as a patronising effort at community reconciliation.
Queen's University had one great advantage as a centre from which a civil rights campaign could be launched. It was 'the chief centre of non-sectarian education in the Provincewith the Catholic student population composing 22 per cent of the total in the early 1960's, about the percentage which one would expect to find, given the Catholic community's economic disabilities. Relations between students from the two communities are good, and there is considerable mixing in university societies and clubs.' Later we shall see that the University base had a long term disadvantage in that it was transitory and secular. This was a problem peculiar to student politics elsewhere.
It had no real tradition of radical dissent among its students and yet one should not be altogether surprised that a mass of students, and some teaching staff, were involved in the formative demonstrations which launched the civil rights campaign. There are a number of reasons why this should be so. We have mentioned the first already; down the years Queen's students had established their credentials as a bona fide non-sectarian group. Secondly the inception of the civil rights demonstrations beginning in late 1968 coincided with the tail-end of a series of student riots in the Western world, and for some time its form of protest was permissible because it was considered to be a student protest. Finally, the student group which played such an important part in the early civil rights campaign, the People's Democracy (PD), threw up leaders of calibre and tenacity.
Any examination of the People's Democracy entails a study of it in relation to the international student movement. We shall see that patently it belonged to the student milieu: that the vast bulk of its membership was student; that its meeting place was in a campus hall; that its student character was denoted in the fluidity of its membership; that it established some contact with other student bodies; and that its brand of activism was similar to that denoted by one observer in six other countries - Mexico, Colombia, Japan, India, Egypt and the USA.
At the outset it needs to be said that 'student politics' covers a multitude of activities and attitudes. We need to be more precise about what we mean by the term especially since many observers have tended to concentrate on it as a recent phenomenon. The fact is that it has existed in varying forms over a number of years in widely disparate political cultures. 'Many developing areas have highly articulated traditions of student participation in, and sometimes leadership of, political events. In Latin America students have participated in political affairs for generations and are expected to do so. They have well defined powers in the governing of universities. In many Asian and African countries, students were a leading force in the struggle for independence, and former student leaders often achieved political power in the post independence governments. Since independence, the student role in many of these countries has diminished substantially although governments must still take account of the student movement. Recent events in South Korea, Turkey, Japan, Indonesia, South Vietnam, and other countries graphically emphasize the importance of the students.'
Our concern is not with the developing areas, but rather the liberal-democratic societies of the Western world. 'By world standards, Northern Ireland is a relatively prosperous industrial nation. In short, it meets the two criteria usually employed to define Western nations: free elections and a modern, industrial economy.' In particular, we need to look at those countries lacking semi-legitimated student political activity such as the United States or Western Europe, where the student protest movement appears to have been a product of the 1960's. We discover, however, that in France and the United States there is some evidence of student political activity in the past. The French organized a national student strike in 1947 for reduction of university fees and increased government grants. It was a total success. ]In the United States, in the late 1930's 'the most important general left-liberal group,' the American Students' Union was reported to have involved over 200,000 students in peace strikes, 'a larger absolute figure than any peace or anti-war national demonstrations have secured in recent times.'
A further qualification needs to be made. We are not interested with those student movements which may be concerned only with 'campus' issues and which have relatively little interest or impact on the external political situation. 'Such movements have been called 'etudialist' because of their primary student orientation. They are often quite militant over issues of student welfare, fee increases and administrative harassment of students. They are occasionally interested in the broader issues of educational policy and reform, although generally student interests are confined to more limited areas.' Probably the best example of the granting of 'etudialist' demands was the Cordoba Manifesto of 1918 when Argentine students achieved a fair measure of what they called 'Cogobierno', that is a place in the governing of the university. Their success has been the model upon which 'etudialist' students have acted ever since.
The People's Democracy was not such an organisation, although we shall see that one of its off-shoots displayed a marginal interest in etudialist' matters. It belongs to that body of 'society-oriented student movements, which are concerned with societal issues -usually political, although occasionally social or cultural.' Superficially it can be compared to Japan's Zengakuren, a militant student organization adhering to extreme leftist views, insofar as its orientation has been value directed but 'it has switched its tactics on a number of occasions to meet the needs of the students and/or its political ideology.'
To understand the nature of student activism in Northern Ireland it is necessary to say when it happen - that is at the end of 1968. The academic year 1967-68 had witnessed a particularly eventful -and in some cases violent - upsurge of student militance in Europe. In Italy 'nineteen of the thirty-three state universities were affected and in thirteen of them the university buildings were occupied.'In Barcelona the authorities were forced to install a permanent university police, the policia Universitaria, on the campus in January 1968. France had its 'May-Days' and Czechoslovakian students were in the forefront in resisting the Russian invasion.
The events of that year had been described by a sympathetic, but critical, observer thus:
'1968 changed for ever the climate, and indeed the limits, of protests. It saw the baptism of new radicals, now isolated from the old Left by their revolutionary actions and the theory which had grown from them, which had been melded in the frustrating struggle for civil rights, against nuclear extinction, and against the war in Vietnam. Those struggles brought the participants face to face with the governing system whose total authority they challenged and fought. Armed with ideals (but not an ideology), strong on rhetoric and weak - deliberately so - on concrete proposals, they sallied forth to test their ideals on a larger canvas, to add to them the experience of those whose discontents were as yet inarticulate.'It was in this milieu, that the People's Democracy emerged. In its first few months of existence it was to reflect the militance of the European student movement - direct action, sit-ins, sit-downs, pickets, marches, spontaneity. Like its French counterparts'... the emphasis was on spontaneity: "Bourgeons d'abord; nous ferons la theorie du mouvement apres" was how Daniel Cohn-Bendit described it (roughly translated it means "let's give things a shove first: we'll compose the theory of the movement afterwards").
It belonged to what is known as the New Left which has been defined as 'a particular segment of young activists who were self-consciously radical ideologically, but disaffected from all "established radicalisms" and who self-consciously sought to provide political direction, theoretical coherence, and organizational continuity to the student movement. The central issue for the New Left has always been the problem of agency - that is, which classes and strata in the society are more disposed towards active opposition to the status-quo, what means of power can they exercise, and with what effect?'
We shall see, then, that PD was a movement of radical dissent, equipped with the militance of student activism, ideologically uncertain but composed of a melange of leftist ideals. Any study of its evolution must concentrate not only because it established it in the mainstream of student politics but also because it influenced its search for ideology. 'It was Daniel Cohn-Bendit who best understood that the only way to break through the doctrinal and organizational divisions was to fuse all radical groups in direct action with immediate aims. Being contagious, action would mobilize growing numbers of students ... The radical education of the mass of the students would be best obtained not by having them listen to leaders, but by involving them in radical action, in daily free assemblies, in deciding through collective debate what was to be done by who. The practice of direct democracy and action would produce a new type of self-organized vanguard, abolishing all authority and responsibility, abolishing all divisions into "leaders" and "led" submitting the theorists to the criticisms and control of the rank and file.'
Its evolution through activism can best be studied in three phases: the first from October 1968 until after the general election in February 1969 when it was an organization to be reckoned with; the second from March until October 1969 when it was in decline and searching for a role; and the third was from October 1969 onwards when it began its slow and ponderous attempt at building up an overtly revolutionary organization.
(iii) Incipiency 
By 1968 there was very little indication that Belfast undergraduates were part of the world-wide wave of student protest. There were a few demonstrations protesting at American involvement in South East Asia but it is clear that the vast majority of the student body were indifferent to them. For example, the largest anti-Vietnam march in Belfast attracted only about fifty participants. Bernadette Devlin had been disillusioned by her first encounter with student apathy: '. . . I'd been involved in a demonstration when we were asked to show solidarity with the foreign students at Queen's whose fees had been raised by 125 per cent by the Government. On that occasion we couldn't get fifty students on the streets to complain.'
The small clique of students who were self-consciously activist and socialist were centred around the 'Queen's University Independent Left' (QUB Labour Group). Essentially they were anti-partitionist although some of them belonged to the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), a social democratic party which accepted the union with Britain.These people - in particular Bowes Egan, Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann - were responsible for the 'Working Committee on Civil Rights in Northern Ireland' of April 1964, one of the first bodies to concern itself with demands for social justice within Northern Ireland. They personified the prescience, the tenacity, the idealism and the militance of the early civil rights campaign.
The same group also personified one aspect of the success of the Welfare State. They were part of that generation of Catholics which had taken advantage of the Education Act of 1947 which opened up higher education to those of ability. And they represented another facet of the 'student movement': 'Student political activity often contains an important non-student element, which sometimes provides direction and ideological sophistication to the movement. In most societies the student community consists not only of students currently enrolled in institutions of higher education, but also of ex-students or part-time students who wish to remain on the periphery of the student community . . . Part of the underground of the student population, those elements cannot be overlooked as they are often of crucial importance to student movements.'
Easily the most important member of that 'underground' was Michael Farrell. A cursory examination of his early political career is revealing. As an undergraduate Farrell had been chairman of the QUB Labour Group 1965-6, Vice-President of the Union of Students of Ireland 1965-6, External Relations Officer of QUB Students' Representative Council, Queen's Orator in two successive years, executive member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in 1967, and founder member and first chairman of the Irish Association of Labour Student Organisations (IALSO) 1966-7. Furthermore he had belonged to the Irish Workers' Group, a revolutionary socialist group named as a subversive organization by the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr William Craig, at Stormont on October 16, 1968. Finally he was the first chairman of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) founded in June 1968 after he had returned from the University of Strathclyde where he had been pursuing a postgraduate course in political science. His talents as an organiser, orator - some would say 'demagogue' - and agitator are unquestionable. More than anyone else he personifies the People's Democracy in all its phases.
During the early 1960's the QUB Labour Group concentrated on a programme of propaganda and education. Farrell and others weaved a thread through their contacts with NILP, the Young Socialist Alliance, the Irish Association of Labour Students Organisations and the Irish Workers' Group, the thread of student activism and promotion of a leftist anti-partitionist stance. Thus their activities within the NILP appeared to be conventional enough. They canvassed vigorously for NILP candidates in the General Election of 1965, but they used their other organisations to move NILP in a leftward and anti-partitionist direction. At Easter 1966, for example, Farrell represented the Labour Group at the National Association of Labour Students Organisations annual conference in Sheffield. 'Queen's submitted six motions, all of which were carried, including a long policy statement on Northern Ireland which condemned religious discrimination and sectarianism as the devices of the ruling classes to keep the working class divided and in subjection . . . The only solution to Ulster's problems was the union of the Catholic and Protestant working class in a united and militant Labour movement.'
The Ulster problem was brought to the attention of another militant New Left group, the London-based International Socialists  and in October 1966 one of its members, John Palmer, addressed South Belfast Young Socialists on 'The Crisis of the Labour Government.' (This cross-fertilisation of information and ideas, a familiar trait of the New Left, resulted in the International Socialists becoming involved in the civil rights issue from 1969 onwards by working with the People's Democracy in Belfast and Eamonn McCann in Derry.)
The desire for a united working class in Ulster appears to have been only the opening act in Farrell's intended scenario. He worked with others - in particular Cyril Toman - to establish closer links with socialists in the Republic. The Irish Association of Labour Student Organisations was the first fruit of this policy. It was what its name implied - a loose formation of socialists from the Irish universities, modelled on its British counterpart, NALSO. Farrell's view of the significance of IALSO can be seen in an extract from his (the chairman's) report to the first conference in 1967:
'IALSO by virtue of its all-Ireland character can play an important part in creating a single all-Ireland Socialist Party which is a vital prerequisite for the establishment of a workers' Republic as only a socialist party can unite the working class of both parts of Ireland in the struggle against their common capitalist master.'Within the NILP Farrell campaigned vigorously to establish some formal links with other Irish social-democratic parties, and, with the support of some of the more senior members of the executive, he played his part in starting 'The Council of Labour in Ireland.' It brought together the NILP, the Republican Labour Party and the Irish Labour Party from time to time to discuss matters of common interest. It was not an entirely harmonious body but its significance lies in the fact that some sort of respected socialist body with an all-Ireland character had been formed; and also in the fact that it was the Universities' branch of the Irish Labour Party which had proposed the motion for its formation at the southern end.This was the first example of Irish socialist students working in close liaison towards a common end.
The influence of the QUB Labour Group within the NILP did not stop at the formation of the Council of Labour in Ireland. At the 1967 Annual Conference the Labour Group were successful in having a motion accepted which called for a British Government Enquiry into Northern Ireland and urged co-operation with the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster.
Thus the Labour Group had used conventional political tactics to open up the Ulster problem. It had been instrumental in the formation of IALSO, had played a leading role in establishing the Council of Labour in Ireland and had persuaded the partitionist NILP to call for an enquiry into the administration of Ulster by the Unionists. Some of the leaders of the Labour Group had made contact with the more overtly revolutionary organisations, the Irish Workers' Group and the International Socialists.
These successes, however, could only be converted into reality by a mass movement. The student activists of the Labour Group quite naturally looked to students to supply the basis of such a movement. Their first real opportunity occurred in 1967. On 7 March 1967 Mr William Craig, the Minister of Home Affairs, made an order under the Special Powers Act proscribing Republican Clubs on the grounds that they were simply a front for the IRA. His move was widely interpreted as an attempt to appease extreme Protestants and was resisted immediately by some Queen's students with republican sympathies. On March 8 they set up a Republican Club and applied to the Student Representative Council for official recognition. On 10 March they held a protest march banned by the Academic Council, in which about eighty students took part. The following day Young Socialists joined the protest by parading through Belfast chanting 'Tories Out - North and South', 'Repeal the Special Powers Act,' 'Craig Must Go' and 'No Fascist Laws -No Fascist Bans.' (These slogans were to become familiar to the Belfast public at the latter end of 1968 when the People's Democracy campaign got under way.)
In May, the QUBSRC approved the Queen's Republican Club, but on 6 November the Academic Council refused to recognise it. As a consequence of this decision and in protest against the intransigence of the Home Affairs Minister they decided to march to the Unionist headquarters to protest against the ban. The march - on 15 November - was organised by a body calling itself the Students' Joint Action Committee Against Suppression of Civil Liberties, an amalgam of students from the political movements within the university and the SRC. It attracted considerable support among the student body:
'The students of Queen's University - not merely those belonging to this Republican Club - as represented on a joint action committee, have decided on the good old principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, to combine in the interests of civil liberty and in order to meet this arbitrary decision by the Minister of Home Affairs.'Between 1,500 and 2,000 students participated in an orderly march to Mr. Craig's home. (A late decision had been taken not to march to the Unionist headquarters because it entailed passing through Shaftesbury Square, an area which the Rev Ian Paisley considered to be loyalist territory. He held a meeting there to ensure that the students did not march through it.) At Mr Craig's home the marchers observed a silence, and handed in a protest against the ban on the Republican Clubs. Afterwards Mr Craig praised the students for their orderly conduct.
In itself the protest appeared to be uneventful and relatively unimportant. It demonstrated that Belfast students were not totally apathetic. But in retrospect one realizes its significance. Martin Wallace aptly makes the point: 'On the whole, the ban proved ineffectual but it had the effect of stirring up student opposition to the Unionist administration and to Craig himself and this was to prove an important factor when the civil rights campaign got under way.' Further, it created a machine, the Joint Action Committee, which could be used to organise more protests if need be, and it illustrated the point that undergraduates were willing to protest if their sense of justice was injured. But they were not willing to be led by any partisan politicians and they would insist that the organising committee would have to be a broad spectrum of student opinion. Given these prerequisites the student body indicated that it could be a strong and responsible pressure group.
The moderate behaviour of the student action also underlined two facets at the inception of a radical movement. 'In liberal democratic societies the establishment's response is typically an indulgent one at the inception of a radical movement, with emphasis upon co-optation and absorption.' The Minister of Home Affairs congratulatory remarks can be seen as an example of the establishment's indulgence. Secondly, 'There is typically a commitment within the movement in its earliest stages to work within the system, since the boundaries of "the system" (at least as they pertain to the particular movement) are not well defined.' The avoidance of Shaftesbury Square and the peaceful conduct of the demonstration indicated the students' deference to 'the system.'
That march was probably the first assertion of the 'mere active self-respect' which John Macrae detected in some Catholics. NICRA was to provide others during 1968.
At a conference in London in February 1968 at which Labour MPs and members of the Stormont Opposition were present, the civil rights movement decided to make 'a more open challenge of the Stormont Government, taking as their point of attack the discriminatory allocation of housing by Unionist-controlled local authorities.' Their first attack was made on 20 June when a Nationalist MP, Mr Austin Currie, occupied a house in the Co Tyrone village of Caledon, in protest against alleged discrimination in allocation. He was evicted after a few hours, but had the satisfaction of wide media coverage of the event.
This action was followed up by a protest march from Coalisland to Dungannon on 24 August, again to protest at alleged discrimination, and organised jointly by the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) and NICRA. It passed off peacefully but the marchers were prevented from reaching their final destination in Market Square, Dungannon. They held a meeting at the police barrier instead and thus 'had accepted the restriction which gave them the appearance of engaging in a sectarian agitation.'
Its partial success encouraged NICRA to hold another demonstration in Derry - seen by Catholics as epitomising the evils of Unionist rule with its high unemployment, gerrymandering and discrimination in public services - on 5 October. When the Minister of Home Affairs refused to accept the route proposed by NICRA on 3 October, some of the executive were in favour of calling off the march. But left-wingers in Derry would not countenance any change in plans, and persuaded the majority of the executive to go ahead with the march. The person who argued their case most cogently and was largely responsible for the initial organising was Eamonn McCann. Immediately he received the support of the QUB Labour Group, the Belfast Young Socialist Alliance, the NILP, Young Socialists, the James Connolly Republican Club in Derry, the Londonderry Labour Party and the Derry Housing Action Committee.
The march went ahead on October 5. It attracted about 2,000 people including six members of Parliament (three of whom were English observers) and forty members of the Young Socialist Alliance who had travelled from Belfast. It ended in a serious riot when the demonstrators attempted to break the ban. The police riot squad retaliated by hemming in the crowd in a narrow street and using their batons and two water cannons indiscriminately. In all, 77 civilians and 11 policemen were injured. Rioting spread to the Catholic west side of the city and spilled over into the next day. Subsequently there were vigorous criticisms of police behaviour that day. Among those arrested were four students.
The wheel was turning full circle. The violence at the setting up of the state, which had been replaced by a sullen apathy. by the Catholic minority, was creeping back into Northern Ireland politics. The activists were insistent on destroying the supposed tranquillity of the system and the key they were to use was the demand for civil rights and social justice.' The student movement was to be in the vanguard of this movement as it probed the boundaries of tolerance in the system.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
Last modified :