Chapter 4 – The Troubles Begin

The August, 1969 pogroms mark the real beginnings of the Troubles. They delivered a stunning blow to the working class movement. They prepared the way for the formation of new sectarian political and paramilitary forces which would dominate Northern Ireland for more than two decades.

The failure of the tiny IRA to defend Catholic areas of Belfast led to internal crisis and prepared for a split. This was helped on by a section of the southern Irish ruling class around the governing Fianna Fail party. These people were frightened in case what they saw as the socialist inspired protests in the North, would link up with social agitation already taking place on issues such as housing in the South.

Their answer was to apply their own version of the old British tactic of divide and rule. Catholic areas in the North had swung away from nationalism and old style republicanism. Behind the barricades, even after August ’69 it was socialist ideas which were being discussed.

To ‘correct’ this, agents of Fianna Fail bombarded the Catholic areas with propaganda giving their nationalist version of events. They also met secretly with IRA dissidents offering them money to buy arms – but on condition that ‘socialist’ policies be dropped and that there would be no IRA military activity in the South.

At the end of 1969, the IRA split into two wings. The Officials who backed the existing leadership and the dissidents who became known as the Provisionals. The Officials maintained a policy of support for civil rights and piecemeal reform in the North. The Provisionals adopted a more nationalist position, denouncing the ‘Marxism’ and atheism of their rivals who they labelled the ‘National Liberation Front’. The split was publicly confirmed by a Provisional walk out from the Sinn Fein Ard Fhéis (conference) in January, 1970. A trickle of new recruits began to join the IRA alter August’ 69. It was the crude methods of the British Army which would turn this trickle into a flood.

The role of the Army had been to try to contain the situation in August ’69. Then, as the British government could offer no solution other than propping up the Unionists and introducing piecemeal reform and as Catholics continued to struggle for their rights, it was a short step from containment to repression.

The first serious fighting between Catholics and the Army took place in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast at Easter, 1970. Then in July, no doubt encouraged by the election of a Conservative government with a hardnosed security policy to Westminster, troops sealed off the Catholic Lower Falls area and imposed a curfew for a whole weekend while they carried out a house to house arms search. By the Sunday evening four people were dead, hundreds of homes had been wrecked and the honeymoon between troops and Catholics was over -all this for the sake of the handful of weapons which were found.

An IRA campaign of bombings and attacks on soldiers began in earnest in 1971. It was on a small scale compared to what was to come, but it provoked a furious response among Protestants. The Unionist right wing demanded internment without trial. Eventually Edward Heath’ s Conservative government gave way and, on August 9th, 1971, 342 people were dragged from their homes and interned. Hundreds more were to join them in the bloody weeks to follow.

Internment led to widespread rioting. Catholic no-go areas were again established as barricades went up around many working class districts. A mass rent and rates strike was begun. Intimidation meant thousands fled their homes in the biggest population shift in Europe since the second world war. Many formerly mixed areas overnight became either predominantly Catholic or predominantly Protestant. Instead of halting the violence, internment was a milestone in its escalation. From the start of 1971, until August 8th, 34 people had been killed. From August 9th to the end of the year, the figure was 139 dead.

Six months after internment came an event which would have an equally dramatic effect. On Sunday January 30th, paratroopers opened fire on anti-internment marchers who were parading through the barricaded Bogside area of Derry. When the firing stopped 14 unarmed civilians were dead or dying.

Bloody Sunday, as it became known, was followed by strikes and mass protests North and South, including the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin. But it was the IRA, both the Officials and the Provisionals, who were boosted most by internment, Bloody Sunday and the day to day policy of harassment being carried out by the army.

Poverty, discrimination and now repression drove the Catholic youth to fight back. The labor movement did not attract them because it did not campaign on their behalf -in fact the NILP had a minister in the Unionist government which introduced internment. The mass civil rights protests had not produced results. And so the Catholic youth turned en masse to the IRA who seemed to offer a way to hit back. They joined the Provisionals despite, rather than because of the right wing ideas of its southern leaders. To most volunteers the attraction of the Provisionals was the gun – the precise ideas they could deal with later.

At this lime there were huge illusions that the IRA could succeed in driving out the Army, getting rid of Stormont and reunifying the country. Militant never shared this view. From the very beginning of the campaign Militant stood against the mood of support for the IRA among Catholic youth and warned that their methods would fail.

Methods of the IRA

The methods of the Provisionals and of the Officials, who for a period also conducted a more limited military campaign, were a dead end. Although described as a guerrilla war, this was no such thing. Guerrillaism is a method of struggle which can only be applied in backward rural societies.

When applied to a society as developed and urbanized as Northern Ireland, it becomes, not guerrillaism, but individual terrorism, that is, individual and – isolated military actions carried out by small groups against the state. There is no example anywhere of individual terrorism succeeding.

The only force capable of overthrowing a modem capitalist state is the working class using the methods of mass struggle, demonstrations, strikes, general strikes and ultimately an insurrection. The real answer to the problems facing the Catholic working class in the early 1970s was mass resistance, appealing to and as far as possible linking up with Protestant workers in common action.

Individual terrorism substitutes the actions of a relatively small number for action by the mass of people. Rather than mobilizing the population it turns them into spectators, with no role but to look on and applaud. It does not weaken the state, but rather gives it the excuse to introduce repressive laws and implement repressive methods which otherwise it would not have got away with. A clear example of this came in November 1974. That autumn the IRA had launched a bombing offensive in Britain, with bombs in Guildford, Woolwich and Coventry. Then on 21 November two no-warning bombs in Birmingham pubs killed 21 people, many of them teenagers. The anger and revulsion which followed was seized on by the Labour government who rushed the Prevention of Terrorism Act through parliament. This odious piece of legislation, which allowed the British government to exclude Irish people from England, Scotland and Wales, had cleared the House of Commons in just two days.

In the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, the methods practiced by the Provisionals were doubly foolish. The campaign was based on the minority Catholic community and completely repelled the Protestants. It divided and weakened the working class and in that sense it strengthened the position of the ruling class by holding back the only force which would stand against them.

It was also based on a fundamentally wrong analysis of the situation. The main demand was British withdrawal. Yet the British ruling class would have dearly loved to withdraw. That they could not do so was clown to Protestant opposition and the threat of civil war.

Every action by the Provisionals further enraged Protestants, reinforced their opposition to a united Ireland and so made it even more difficult for the British to withdraw. This was the bitter irony underlying the whole campaign.

Protestant Backlash

After internment a Protestant backlash began in earnest. Leaflets distributed in Protestant areas of Belfast, with the message; “We are loyalists, we are Queen’s men, our enemies are the forces of Romanism and Communism”[11], called for defense groups to be established. Soon an umbrella group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was formed with a membership of thousands – mainly drawn from the working class estates in and around Belfast. The UVF which had been re-formed also began to recruit.

In 1971 the Provisionals blew up a number of bars in Protestant areas. At the end of the year the loyalists replied with a bomb which destroyed McGurk’s bar on the edge of the Catholic New Lodge area of North Belfast, killing 15 people. This was an indication of what these newly formed loyalist organisations would be capable of.

Under growing pressure from hardliners the Unionist government at Stormont was demanding a more severe crackdown against the IRA. Bloody Sunday taught the British government that repression on its own was no answer. To give in to the Unionists would be to court complete disaster. So, in March, 1972, they unceremoniously closed clown the Stormont parliament and began direct rule from Westminster.

With Stormont gone and with unionist politicians sidelined, the UDA and UVF began a vicious murder campaign designed to terrorize the Catholic community. Catholics, picked up at random, were beaten and tortured before being killed and their bodies dumped. The Provisionals decided to retaliate opening a period of tit-for-tat sectarian killing. 486 people were killed in 1972; 322 of them, civilians. It was the blackest year of the Troubles.

The British government had no answer. With Stormont gone, they tried to negotiate with the Provisional Army Council. An IRA delegation, which included Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, was flown to London to meet William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and one of his ministers, Paul Channon. The IRA team listed their demands -(a) a declaration of intent to withdraw British forces from Irish soil by January 1st, 1975, (b) pending this the immediate withdrawal of British forces from sensitive areas, (c) a general amnesty for all political prisoners in both countries.

Despite their wish to withdraw, despite Edward Heath’s promise made earlier in parliament that “if at some future date, the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want unification and express that desire in the appropriate constitutional manner, I do not believe any British government would stand in the way”[12], there was no way the British government could even consider these demands at this time.

On the ground in Catholic working class areas there was only one side to British policy – repression. When negotiations with the IRA, including a brief ceasefire broke down, the state used brute force, including Centurion tanks, to smash its way through the barricades and end the no-go areas. House searches, beatings, arbitrary arrests, plus the more lethal methods of undercover troops were the order of the day. More limited action including internment was used also against Protestant opposition.

With the club of repression aimed at working class areas, the government offered the hand of appeasement and concession to the middle class politicians. From 1970, the former civil rights moderates had regrouped themselves into the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Despite its title this was a middle class Catholic party with a narrow sectarian appeal.

Under the guidance of Whitelaw, the government produced a series of discussion documents and held talks with political leaders. Eventually they came up with a proposal for a new local parliament in which the Official Unionist, SDLP and Alliance Parties would share government positions. As a concession to the SDLP to allow them to enter such a coalition, there was a proposal for an all Ireland body, a Council of Ireland. Elections to this proposed Assembly were held in June 1973. Together the SDLP with 19 seats, the pro-powersharing unionists around Faulkner with 22, and the middle class Alliance party with 8, had a majority. Eventually these parties agreed to form a government or Executive as it was called, dishing out the cabinet posts between them. In December, one month before it was to take charge, the entire Executive flew to a place called Sunningdale in England for four days of discussion with the British and Irish governments on the question of the Council of Ireland.

In light of the Downing Street Declaration issued by the British and Irish governments in December 1993, these discussions of exactly 20 years earlier have a modern ring.

The Council of Ireland was to be made up of representatives of the Northern Executive and the Dublin government and would deal with a range of issues such as health, tourism, roads, natural resources etc. There would be closer London – Dublin security co-operation. To appease the unionist delegation the Dublin government representatives gave a commitment that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the Northern majority. The British accepted that, if a majority of the Northern Ireland people wished to become part of a united Ireland they could do so.

Hailed at the time as a solution this was no such thing. To unite the political leaders of two sectarian blocs does not unite the communities. Instead of overcoming sectarianism this ‘powersharing’ tends to perpetuate it.

Nor was the idea of a Council of Ireland any solution to the national question. The fundamental problem of Protestant opposition to a united Ireland and Catholic resistance to the status quo was left untouched. It was seen by most working class Catholics for what it was; bait to draw the SDLP into government. Meanwhile Protestants were outraged, fearing that it could be the first step to a united Ireland.

Unfortunately for the newly installed Executive, a strike by British miners early in 1974 toppled the Heath government. A general election was unwelcome news for the new ministers at Stormont. Inevitably it turned into a referendum on powersharing and on Sunningdale. The result was a massive thumbs down – anti-Sunningdale candidates won 11 of the 12 seats with 51 % of the vote.

Protestant workers with UDA and other paramilitary connections set up a body called the Ulster Workers Council and began to prepare for a strike, aiming to do to the Executive what the miners had done to Heath. Paisley and the other anti-Sunningdale unionist politicians were lukewarm, but they were given an ultimatum by UWC leaders, that a strike would go ahead with or without them.

On 14 May, after the Assembly voted to accept Sunningdale, the UWC issued the strike call. At first there was little support. Even in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the vast majority stayed at work. But workers at the big Ballylumford power station near Larne came out. Within a day it was down to half capacity and there were power cuts.

UDA and UVF muscle was applied in estates and workplaces to ‘persuade’ workers not to go to work. For days this went unanswered by the trade unions and the stoppage eventually began to bite.

At the beginning of the second week the unions attempted back to work marches. TUC General Secretary, Len Murray, came over to take part. This initiative was much too little and much too late. Even if they had wanted to, it was by now very difficult for workers to get to the early morning starting points in East Belfast. Only a handful turned up.

Into the second week and real support began to develop for the stoppage. The idea of getting rid of this unpopular Executive took root in Protestant working class areas.

A last ditch attempt by the new Labour Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees to use troops to supply petrol only hardened the stoppage. On 28 May, Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, and his ill-fated Executive bowed to the inevitable and resigned.

Militant opposed this stoppage which struck terror into the Catholic community, further divided the working class, strengthened the position of sectarians in the workplaces, and weakened the trade union movement.

Nonetheless although carried out in a distorted and reactionary manner, the UWC stoppage had shown the power of the working class. It had (demonstrated the superiority of mass struggle over the, by comparison, feeble methods of the Provisionals. The stoppage also brought home the scale of the defeat suffered by the working class since 1969. The unions had been paralyzed by the UWC action.

NILP Loses Support

The NILP was by now a rump. From 105,759 votes in the 1970 general election (including the votes for a Derry Labour Party candidate who was not endorsed by the NILP), its support had fallen to 18,675 votes in the 1973 Assembly elections. Its leadership had moved further and further to the right, in the end to a quite sectarian position. For many of its remaining members the last straw came when prominent party members gave support to the UWC during the stoppage.

This prompted the left, including members of Militant, to set up a Labour and Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee, with the aim of resisting the sectarian degeneration of the party. This body eventually broke with the NILP and, under the banner ‘Labour and Trade Union Group’, continued to campaign for a socialist direction for the labour movement. The NILP gradually disappeared.


  1. Kennally, D.J., and Preston, E. Belfast, August 1971 – a case to be answered. London: I.L.P., 1971. p 15.
  2. The Independent (8 January 1994).