Irish terrorism

A forgotten ‘suspect community’? Remembering the experiences of the Irish in Britain in the 1970s-80s

Two events this week have brought back the conflict in Northern Ireland to the attention of many, nearly twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement – the death of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the terrorist attack at Westminster.

Firstly McGuinness’ death demonstrated that while many had accepted the outcomes of the peace process and shift by McGuinness and Sinn Fein away from the armalite to the ballot box, just as many still saw McGuinness as one of the public faces of Sinn Fein at a time when the Provisional IRA still conducted a campaign of armed struggle. The UK tabloids typified this approach, with the Daily Mail putting pictures of the bombings at Guildford and Enniskillen on its front page, while The Sun blazoned the headline, ‘UNFORGIVEN’. From the varied response to McGuinness’ death, it seems that the memory of ‘The Troubles’, especially the actions of the IRA, has not faded from British consciousness.

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A contrast between the UK and Irish tabloids

Secondly in the wake of the attack at Westminster on Wednesday, a meme has been circulated online that suggests that even though the IRA planted bombs in London, the Irish population at large in Britain were not persecuted and that the British public ‘knew’ that any IRA bombings were the result of a few individuals. The intent of this meme is to argue that the British should not blame the Muslim community for the attack at Westminster and realise that it was the actions of a small minority. However this ignores the fact that the Irish community in Britain faced heavy discrimination in the 1970s and 1980s and were heavily policed in the wake of Republican attacks, such as the Guildford and Birmingham bombings in 1974.

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The offending tweet.

As I have written elsewhere, after these two attacks in late 1974, the Labour government quickly introduced the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974. The Prevention of Terrorism Act gave the police and the security services wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention to counter terrorism extending from Northern Ireland, including arrest without warrant, detention without charge for up to five days and exclusion of people travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. These powers were further extended in 1976, 1984 and 1989. The authorities used these Acts to intimidate the Irish community in Britain and their over-zealousness resulted in a number of wrongful convictions, such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Alongside these wrongful convictions, many would have suffered wrongful arrest or detention, or police harassment that have gone unrecorded. It could be argued that the Irish population in Britain was considered a ‘suspect community’.

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The Birmingham Six at the time of their arrest.

The notion of the ‘suspect community’ was first developed by Paddy Hillyard in the early 1990s to describe the suspicion placed upon the entire Irish community in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s by the Prevention of Terrorism Acts. Hillyard argued that the Prevention of Terrorism legislation had, in practice, placed the Irish communists under suspicion ‘because they are Irish’, rather than a specific offence – because ‘they belong[ed] to a suspect community’. This form of ‘institutionalised racism’ was based on pressuring the Irish community into providing information on others within the same community and placing everyone within the minority community under suspicion. Hillyard explained:

To begin with, it appears to be commonplace for the police to try and pick up anyone who is related to, is friends with or has been connected with – however tenuously – someone who is suspected of a serious crime or has been charged with one. After this group has been arrested and interrogated, the police then focus on people related to, or connected with them, and the process continues. This pyramid method of police investigation draws into the net a wide range of people and the main thread which links them all is the fact that most are Irish or are married to someone who is Irish.

The concept of the ‘suspect community’ is not limited to describing the methods of policing enforced upon a certain community grouping, but also encompasses how formal public suspicion by the authorities could be transferred to a public suspicion. Hillyard claimed that the public ‘played an important role in the construction of suspicion’ and in the case of the Irish community, this had resulted in ‘some [non-Irish] members of the public… report[ing] an Irish person’s presence to the police.’ This suspicion was reinforced by the press which promoted ‘the view that all Irish people are suspect.’

In the twenty-first century, scholars have used the concept of the ‘suspect community’ to describe how Britain’s Muslim communities have been perceived in the era of the ‘war on terror’. It has been employed to show the continuities in British national security policy and how this affects perceptions of minority communities by broader civil society. Christina Pantazis and Simon Pemberton define the ‘suspect community’ as:

a sub-group of the population that is singled out for state attention as being ‘problematic’. Specifically in terms of policing, individuals may be targeted, not necessarily as a result of suspected wrong doing, but simply because of their presumed membership to that sub-group.

Even though there are differences in how the Irish were treated in the past and how Muslims are treated in the present with regards to counter-terrorism and national security, but there are also continuities. Making anti-racist statements against the racist backlash faced by Britain’s Muslim communities does not need to erase the discriminatory treatment faced by Britain’s Irish communities a few decades ago. The reaction to the death of leading Republican Martin McGuinness, who renounced the armed struggle and embraced parliamentary politics, shows that the memory of Irish Republican violence has not gone away, but at the same time, we need to remember how the majority of Irish people in Britain were treated (and how they felt) in the wake of this violence.

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New policy paper at History & Policy: Brexit and the history of policing the Irish border

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This is just a quick note to let you all know that History and Policy have just published a policy paper by me on the history of policing the Irish border and the possible impact of Brexit upon how this border operates. It is based on this earlier blog post.

Policing the Northern Irish border in the 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

With the debate about ‘Brexit’ heating up in the final week before the Referendum, there has been more and more debate about what would happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the British, Northern Irish and Irish authorities were also concerned about this border, and how travel across it would be monitored. The British were most concerned about potential terrorists crossing the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland and Northern Irish terror suspects fleeing to the South. Throughout the 1970s, the British, as well as their local counterparts, attempted a series of different tactics to prevent border crossings, starting with an explicitly militarised approach to the experimentation with a more traditional immigration control system. As Vicki Conway wrote, it was not until the Anglo-Irish Agreements in the mid-1980s that the Irish border was effectively controlled from both the British and Irish sides.

Since partition in the 1920s, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (the Republic of Ireland after 1949) had been porous, with relatively free movement on both sides of the border. Before the outbreak of the conflict in August 1969, the only republican activity seen across the border area in the post-war era was the short-lived ‘border campaigns’ of the Irish Republican Army in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soon after it began, the border area became a focal point of the conflict – for the movement of republican fighters between the North and the South, and for attacks by Republicans upon the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary patrols situated at the border. A 1971 report outlined the problem as such:

The security problem in Northern Ireland is influenced by the relative ease with which men with subversive intent, with or without arms, ammunition or explosives, can enter Northern Ireland; and wanted men can escape. The movement occurs over the land border with Eire; though normal sea and air points of entry into Northern Ireland; and by illegal movement by sea and air.[1]

In August 1970, a car bomb killed two RUC members at Crossmaglen, which resulted in a partial closure of the border, blocking ‘unapproved roads in South Armagh, Castlederg Salient and Londonderry [sic[ Salient’.[2] According to a 1971 report on the border closure, 51 roads were closed, using spikes, but over the next two months, there were 83 recorded incidents of the blocks being removed from 29 different roads.[3] The report found that:

Resistance to the blocks was so determined and the result so ineffective that it was decided to abandon the operation. Spikes and other blocks were gradually removed during the period Oct – Dec 1970, and the sites tidied up.

As the violence in Northern Ireland increased over the next few years, various sections of the British and Northern Irish authorities attempted to devise ways of preventing Republican fighters from crossing the border, or from attacking border patrols inside Northern Ireland. The British Army attempted to transform the border into a militarised checkpoint, relying on a combination of blocking off ‘unapproved’ roads and vehicle/personnel checks at others. Central to this was an emphasis on vehicle and identification checks. However there were several problems that the Army and the RUC encountered when trying to enforce this policy.

Firstly, they found that there was too much border to guard at one time. A 1973 Home Office report stated:

There are 303 miles of the border. There are 20 approved roads, 187 approved roads and 17 concession routes… The facilities for crossing the border are much greater than the number of cross-border roads. In particular there are 30 miles of water, numerous lanes and smugglers’ pads and border lands which are easily negotiable on foot.[4]

The Northern Ireland Office found that if the entire border was to be guarded, the burden would fall to the RUC and proposed ‘strict control along a limited sector only’, based on where the border was most likely to be traversed by ‘subversive’ elements.[5] Stormont’s Government Security Unit proposed in March 1972 that there were two solutions patrolling the entire border. The first option was a ‘sealing’ of the border, while the second was a partial prevention of entry, particularly along ‘unapproved’ roads.

‘Sealing’ the border was seen as the ‘nuclear’ option as it entailed converting the entire border into ‘a militarized frontier, with a continuous glacis, minefield or other impenetrable barrier under constant surveillance’.[6] ‘The only points of entry’, the Unit then proposed, ‘would then be by the way of the 20 approved crossings, with 100% checks on all persons, vehicles and loads’.[7] This was an extreme option and the Unit warned:

It may be necessary to bring home to members of Parliament and the public what the ‘sealing’ of the Border really implies. Any measures on the lines of those described would be enormously costly in time, money and manpower; they would involve a dislocation of all legitimate cross-Border activities; they would have to be supported by a defensive blockade of the entire coastline; and their political and economic implications would be entirely unacceptable within the context of [the] EEC.[8]

More favourable was the partial prevention of entry, which would mean the blocking of some more difficult to police roads and the interception of vehicles on the remaining roads. However this still presented problems, with the Unit stating that any road closures would need to be weighed against ‘the hardship likely to be caused, the resistance to be encountered and the tying down of manpower to ensure that closures remain effective.’[9] The Unit warned that partial closures still required a large amount of manpower to guard both the closed and open routes. Furthermore, it was warned that ‘[p]ermanent check-points at vehicle crossings [would] also present shop window targets’ for attacks by Republican fighters.[10]

With the focus on intercepting vehicles crossing the border and the use of checkpoints, there was also disagreement over how these interceptions would function. At first, there was a push for compulsory ID checks on all of those who crossed the border, but it was acknowledged that this was ‘a valuable aid to the identification of drivers, but that this did not help in relation to passengers’,[11] as non-drivers in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were not required to hold identification papers at all times. Adding to this was confusion amongst the different agencies over whether Republic of Ireland driver’s licenses had photographs or not.[12]

A proposed alternative to the checking of driver’s licenses was the checking of vehicle registration papers. However it was deemed that this raised too many obstacles, particularly as numerous vehicles crossing the border (delivery trucks, hire cars, etc) would not necessarily have these registration papers in the vehicle. Furthermore, it was mentioned that there was ‘a well-founded objection to keeping registration books in cars because both can be stolen together.’[13]

To get around these specific problems, it was floated whether all people living or working within a designated border zone could be issued with a special vehicle permit.[14] In the same document, it was suggested ‘if there is a case on security grounds for imposing this requirement, it should be applied over the whole province and not only in a specified border area.’[15] However with both suggestions, it was felt that this would be an onerous requirement and that permits could not quickly issued. The conclusion to these proposed checks was that ‘[t]he imposition of a requirement to carry vehicle documents would not necessarily bring about any substantial improvement in border security’ and that ‘[e]nforcement would present considerable difficulties’.[16]

Alongside the push for a greater insistence on documentation for those crossing the border, the Army also pushed for greater powers of search and seizure of suspected vehicles. As a 1973 Home Office document stated, ‘’[t]he army would like a clear power to seize vehicles so that they could be removed for close scrutiny’, and called for an expansion of the Special Powers Act 1922 to cover this demand.[17] While the requirements for compulsory carriage of documents were not followed through, greater powers of search and seizure were incorporated into the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

After much deliberation, it was debated whether the intense scrutiny placed upon cross-border travelling had brought many tangible benefits, particularly considering the amount of manpower involved. For example, one report stated:

In the first four months of 1971, over 200,000 cars have been searched in Northern Ireland and in only about 10 have wanted men, arms or explosives been found; some 25 or more evaded road checks.[18]

However the report also qualified that there were some gains to this approach, adding:

Nevertheless the security dividend from a tighter control of the border area must not be underestimated: a reduction in cross-border explosive attacks and the interception of wanted or wounded men escaping from Belfast are typical potential gains. (My emphasis)

After 1972 (the deadliest year in the 30 year conflict), the Provisional IRA shifted tactics to attacking targets on the British mainland, while Loyalists targeted civilians in the Republic of Ireland. Although there were two bombings at the Old Bailey in 1972, it was not until the following year that the British mainland campaign began in earnest, with retaliation by Loyalists through the bombing of civilian areas in the South. At the same time, the British authorities believed there was an increase in the number of incidents in Northern Ireland perpetrated by Republicans crossing the border from the Republic. The British Army estimated that ‘terrorists based in the Republic have been responsible for at least 497 incidents in 1973’.[19] The spread of the conflict from Northern Ireland to Britain and the Republic of Ireland worried the British and Irish authorities, although there was little Anglo-Irish co-operation at this stage.

The bombing of two Birmingham pubs in October 1974 led to the newly installed Wilson government to rush through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974. As well as extended powers of detention for those suspected of terrorism offences in Britain, the Act also gave powers to regulate the travel of people from Northern Ireland to England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) and exclude/deport those suspected of being involved in terrorism offences (related to the conflict in Northern Ireland – the PTA did not extend to the other forms of international terrorism on the rise in the 1970s). In 1976, the Act was amended to cover people travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, but crucially neither act dealt with suspects travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The British authorities still relied on policing the border though a series of checkpoints.

In the same year, the Northern Ireland Office warned that policing the border in this manner was still involved massive amount of manpower, with a report stating:

Since 1971 nearly 20% of regular Army manpower in the Province has been devoted to maintaining the integrity of the Border areas and the Border itself. Experience has shown that because of the length and nature of the Border, the Army, no matter how many men they deploy cannot ensure total security.[20]

Furthermore, the report argued that border area was not topographically ideal for surveillance and certain technologies, such as radar and unattended ground censors, had limited success in helping the authorities detect subversives crossing the border.[21]

To overcome this, the report revisited the idea of laying mines, erecting wires or some other kind of immovable physical obstacle across the border to restrict illegal crossings. However it was felt that the use of either mines and wires had ‘an unpleasant “East German” connotation and would be indicative of a siege mentality’, with the added problems that ‘[m]ines would be dangerous and wire would be unsightly’.[22]

In 1977-78, Lord Shackleton undertook a review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1976 and despite suggesting that exclusion orders be subject to periodic review,[23] there was little revision on the issue of cross-border terrorism and subversion. At the same time, the temporary provisions of the 1976 Act were up for renewal. At this point, the Home Office briefly considered whether the transformation of the checkpoint system into a more formal border control system across the Irish border would help in the fight against Republican (and Loyalist) violence. However it was soon concluded that, like the checkpoint system, control of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would still require a large amount of manpower.[24] A report prepared by the Home Office stated categorically, ‘A system of full immigration control would be costly, most difficult to administer, and of limited effectiveness’.[25]

Although the conflict in Northern Ireland has, for the most part, ended, it would be wise heed this warning about the difficulty of implementing an immigration control system between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, there have been no immigration restrictions between the UK and Ireland and the only controls have been applied have been the exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (which were made redundant in 2000 by the Terrorism Act). To establish a new border control system at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be a blow to the peace settlement forged in 1998, and to wider Anglo-Irish relations.

British Army base in South Armagh

British Army base in South Armagh

[1] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders: Preliminary Report’, 17 May, 1971, p. 1, CJ 4/424, National Archives, London.

[2] ‘History of the Partial Closure of the Border in 1970’, 17 May, 1971, CJ 4/424, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control: Vehicle Documentation’, p. 1, 1 February, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[5] Letter from Northern Ireland Office to Northern Ireland Command, 30 March, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[6] Government Security Unit, ‘Control of the Border’, p. 1, 30 March, 1972, CJ 4/424, NA.

[7] Ibid,

[8] Ibid, p. 2.

[9] Ibid, p. 2.

[10] Ibid, p. 2.

[11] Central Secretariat (Stormont), ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, 13 November 1972, p. 4, CJ 4/424, NA.

[12] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Central Secretariat, ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, p. 6.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 10.

[17] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 7.

[18] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders’, p. 1.

[19] Lt. Colonel Reynolds, ‘Border Security’, 30 January, 1974, p. 1, CJ4/810, NA.

[20] Northern Ireland Office, ‘’Picquets and Unmanned Devices on the Border’, 2 December, 1976, p. 1, CJ 4/1758, NA.

[21] Ibid., p. 4.

[22] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[23] Lord Shackleton, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts of 1974 and 1976 (London: HMSO 1978) pp. 39-41.

[24] ‘Difficulties Over Proposal for Immigration Control Between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland’, n.d., HO 344/336, NA.

[25] Ibid.

“Don’t Let Them Die!”: The British Far Left and the Armagh Women’s Prisoner Protest

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As mentioned here, a former student and I are writing about the expressions of solidarity between the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain and the women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol in Northern Ireland who were seeking political prisoner status. While we work on a large and unwieldy draft, I thought I would post some stuff on the relationship between the British far left and the women in Armagh, as well as the wider anti-H-Block movement. This is still a work-in-progress so any feedback is most welcome!

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The anti-H-Block campaign that began in Northern Ireland, quickly spanning to the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, was the first real opportunity to build a (pro-Republican) mass social movement since the anti-internment marches of the early 1970s. Culminating in two series of hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981, the anti-H-Block campaign brought together the various Republican groups that existed in Northern Ireland, as well as wider support from the labour movement, the far left, the women’s liberation movement and various faith-based and human rights groups in both Ireland and Britain. While the hunger strikes are seen as a turning point in ‘the Troubles’, F. Stuart Ross has argued that just as much happened within the popular anti-H-Block movement ‘outside the prisons’ (his emphasis).[1]

By the late 1970s, many in Britain had begun to think of ‘the Troubles’ as a distant and external issue, despite the regular threats of bombings in London and other cities in England. However the anti-H-Block campaign created new bonds of solidarity, especially as the hunger strikes got underway in late 1980 and then again in early 1981. Although most of those who went on hunger strike were men belonging to the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) at Long Kesh, three IRA women (Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle) incarcerated at Armagh Women’s Goal also participated in the first hunger strike in the final months of 1980. The involvement of these three Republican women drew a substantial amount of solidarity with sections of the far left in Britain.

This post will explore how the far left in Britain demonstrated their solidarity with the three women in Armagh Women’s Goal on hunger strike in 1980 and their wider engagement with the anti-H-Block movement. It will also examine how other women imprisoned in Armagh who were involved in ‘dirty protests’ against the policy of criminalization were perceived by the various groups of the British left, especially looking at the massive amounts of sympathy expressed for the sick inmate Pauline McLaughlin in the left-wing press. While overshadowed by the death of ten hunger strikers in 1981, which generated worldwide outrage at the British Government, the three female hunger strikers at Armagh had a significant impact on how British socialists viewed women within the Irish Republican struggle.

The British left and Irish Republicanism before the H-Block campaign

Since the partition of Ireland at the end of the Anglo-Irish War, which occurred almost simultaneously with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the British far left has generally supported the reunification of Ireland and since 1969, the removal of Britain’s military and political presence in Northern Ireland. This support for a free and united Ireland stemmed from the position of the Communist International to support for the national liberation struggles of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples across the globe, and the Leninist assumption that revolutions in the colonial sphere would help spark revolutions in the West. Specifically for the British working class, Lenin argued in 1914 that ‘[t]he English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke.’[2] The CPGB had a substantial Irish membership and had close links to the communist movement in Ireland,[3] with C. Desmond Greaves helping to establish the Connolly Association in 1938.

In the era of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the CPGB believed that the Irish Free State would gain full independence similar to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (which did occur in 1949), but accepted the idea that British rule in Northern Ireland was a form of neo-colonialism to be challenged by the Northern Irish population (especially the labour movement). However, unlike its support for the insurgent national liberation movements that emerged in the British colonies, such as in Malaya, Kenya and Nigeria, the CPGB chose to support the united Irish labour movement, rather than Sinn Fein or the Irish Republican Army. Before the advent of ‘the Troubles’ in 1969, the Party called for the remaining British troops stationed in the North to be removed, but believed that this could done peacefully. In some instances, the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as more akin to the political landscape in Scotland or Wales, and thus requiring a strategy of devolution, rather than the strategy of insurgent national liberation seen in many other colonies. For example, in the 1958 version of The British Road to Socialism, the Party stated:

The withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland is necessary to end the enforced partition of Ireland, and leave the Irish people free to establish their united Republic.[4]

Supporting the push for civil rights for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, as well as an end to ‘police state’ present in the North, the Party were sympathetic to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, but were completely caught by surprise, like many of the British left, by the events of 1968-69, which saw British troops intervene.

The main Trotskyist group of the period between the 1950s and the late 1960s was the Socialist Labour League (SLL), led by Gerry Healy. Like the CPGB, the SLL (and its predecessor, The Club) believed that the force for change in Ireland was the Irish labour movement and were very sceptical of the IRA as existed before the British intervention in 1969. In late 1958, Healy’s group admonished Irish socialists for the divorce of socialism from the national struggle and opined:

The day must come when Irishmen who hold these aims will form an Irish socialist party that can play a vital part in the national and social struggle.[5]

Meanwhile, the IRA was dismissed as having ‘neither ideals nor courage’.[6]

The beginning of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland coincided with the explosion of the far left in Britain, with the radicalism of 1968 seeing the emergence of the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, both Trotskyist groups that had broken away from being entrist factions within the Labour Party. For many on the left in Britain, the landing of British troops in Derry in August 1969 was initially welcomed as bulwark against the sectarian violence of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the paramilitary police organisation known as the ‘B Specials’, with the International Socialists stating that ‘[o]nly the intervention of British troops stopped the pogrom.’[7] However this intervention was believed to be a temporary measure and that the deepening of the crisis of Northern Ireland gave rise to opportunities for the left to exploit. For example, The Black Dwarf, the newspaper of a broad-based collective including the IMG, praised the people of Bogside for having ‘taken their lives into their own hands’ and while applauding that this had been done by urban struggle and supposedly not using the IRA, the paper called for the people of Ulster to ‘turn the civil war into a revolutionary war’.[8] John Cunningham shows that the Militant were sceptical of the deployment of British troops and instead called for ‘joint defence committees’ run by the labour movement, although Militant’s presence on both sides of the Irish border was minimal at this stage.[9]

However this view soon shifted as the British military presence was seen as an imperialist and invading force, linked to reinforcing Stormont and the structures of the loyalist state. The rising stature of the (Provisional) IRA after 1970 as the vanguard of resistance against the British occupation split the British left. Taking their cues from Leon Trotsky’s opposition to the anarchist terror of the Narodniks in late nineteenth century Russia, Militant argued that the IRA’s terror campaign against the British were adventurist and counter-productive.[10] Both the Communist Party of Great Britain (through the lens of the Communist Party of Ireland)[11] and the International Socialists viewed the leadership of the IRA within the Republican movement signified a failure of the left to convince the working class in Northern Ireland of a socialist solution to ‘the Troubles’. As Eamonn McCann, a founding member of the Belfast-based People’s Democracy, wrote for International Socialism journal in 1972, ‘The Provisionals filled the vacuum created by the effective absence of the Left and the irrelevance of the right.’[12] The most supportive group in Britain towards the IRA (both the Provisional and Official wings) was the International Marxist Group, who had political reservations about the IRA’s programme, but defended the organisations as an anti-imperialist force engaged in a guerrilla war with the British. As an editorial for the IMG’s The Red Mole proposed in 1972:

Both wings of the IRA have the military capacity and the support amongst the people needed to make the occupation of [Free Derry and Free Belfast] a very difficult problem for the British. The IRA does not need to force the British Army out at gunpoint, all they need to do is deny the British any peace…[13]

As the conflict in Northern Ireland became a violent stalemate in the mid-1970s, the British left focused their activities for peace in the region through the Troops Out Movement (TOM), which was established in 1974 by the IMG, the CPGB, the libertarian group Big Flame and the Anti-Internment League. Jacob Murphy has argued that ‘TOM was the leading organisation in the British Left campaign for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland.’[14] With the experience of the IMG in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), the TOM with devised on the model of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the hope that a focus on the casualties of the conflict ‘would provoke an identical crisis whereby the British public would demand the withdrawal of troops.[15] However there were divisions inside the movement over how the withdrawal of troops would happen – it raised questions of whether the withdrawal would be immediate or a gradual process – and this led to accusations of ‘reformism’ by some of the smaller tendencies within TOM, namely the Revolutionary Communist Group and Workers’ Fight (both of whom had split from the IS previously).[16] The TOM went into a temporary decline in April 1977, when the IMG and Big Flame sought to split the organisation’s leadership, but like the rest of the British far left, after the anti-H-Block campaign, a restructured TOM was rejuvenated for the early 1980s.[17]

The response by the British left to the Armagh protests

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The left wing press – the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge

As mentioned above, the anti-H-Block campaign regalvanised support for the Irish Republican movement in Britain, particularly as the Thatcher government took a hardline on making any concessions to the Republicans, and the 1980 hunger strikes attracted much attention from the British left. However the various groups on the British left were divided over their attitude towards the hunger strikers. The Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group all supported the hunger strikers and their demands for political prisoner status, with both the Morning Star and Socialist Worker demanding ‘Don’t let the hunger strikers die’.[18]

However Militant were more apprehensive in their approach, explicitly stating that their support was on ‘the basis of humanitarian grounds and not particular support for the IRA.’[19] In the organisation’s internal bulletin, some members questioned whether these ‘sectarian assassins’ could be called ‘political prisoners’ and stated that the ‘methods of the Provos have themselves made it extremely difficult before now to take up this issue.’[20] John Cunningham has shown that Militant argued that any concessions made to political prisoners ‘should be extended to all prisoners on a human rights basis’ and the review of those sentenced in the no-jury Diplock courts ‘should be adjudicated by the labour movement’.[21]

While there was considerable focus on the hunger strike by the seven men in Long Kesh, the newspapers of the CPGB, SWP and IMG all gave significant coverage to the Armagh women in their ‘dirty protest’ campaign and the eventual hunger strike. The Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge all announced the commencement of the hunger strike by the three women prisoners. The Morning Star called it ‘a sharp new twist’ in the hunger strike protests,[22] while Socialist Worker, writing in late November 1980, mentioned that ‘three to five of the 28 women will join the strike’, but also noted that ‘Sinn Fein still hopes to persuade them not to go on strike’.[23] The reason for this, the paper gave, was that ‘[i]t is not expected that they could endure a hunger strike for very long.’[24] Socialist Challenge announced the commencement of the hunger strike by the Armagh prisoners with the headline ‘NOW IT’S TEN WHO FACE DEATH’ and called for mass demonstrations by the labour movement in Britain in support of the hunger strikers, warning that ‘silence could well prove fatal for Mairead Farrell and her comrades’.[25]

These newspapers sought to humanise the women involved in the hunger strike, especially as Mairead Nugent’s mother, Margaret, toured the UK to raise awareness about the strike and gave interviews to both the Morning Star and Socialist Worker. In the interview with Margaret Nugent, Socialist Worker emphasised the terrible conditions faced by her daughter and the other women at Armagh, writing that Mairead was ‘[w]ithout anything to do but stare at the walls around her, walls that since February she has smeared with her excrement and with her menstrual blood.’[26] It continued:

Mairead does not do this because her conditions have driven her insane, though they might have done.

She does it because the alternative is to leave her own dirt on the floor where she sleeps. And that is her only choice, if you call it ‘choice’ at all. Like another 31 Republican women prisoners in Armagh jail, Mairead is denied access to toilet and washing facilities because she refused to classed as a ‘criminal’.[27]

Both newspapers conveyed Margaret Nugent’s message that Mairead and the other two on hunger strike at Armagh were determined to continue with their strike and that they entered into this on their own terms. They were neither ‘dupes’ of the IRA leadership, nor ‘weak’ women who were likely to break, as suggested by some within the Republican movement. The Morning Star quoted Margaret as saying:

They have made their decision. It is their choice. It is not up to us.

I just cannot imagine what they will look like after 40 days of hunger strike – but it is a choice I know they are determined to follow through…

I know my daughter is determined to win or die.[28]

The Socialist Worker stated that Margaret didn’t try to change Mairead’s mind, because she respected her too much for that and ultimately, the ‘hunger strike… is the last hope the Republican prisoners have.’[29]

Socialist Challenge reminded its readers that for the hunger strikes and the anti-H-Block movement to work, there needed a large mobilisation of people in sympathy with those on strike ready to challenge the position of the government. In early December, the newspaper warned that first hunger striker could die before Christmas and called for the fight for political status to be ‘stepped up’ before this occurred. To reiterate this point, the paper quoted the latest statement from the Armagh women:

Mobilise your resources and use every possible means to pressurise the British government into conceding our just demands before death and all its stark reality intervenes here.[30]

In the last edition before the Christmas of 1980, the newspaper warned that ‘it now seems certain that a number of Irish political prisoners will die an agonising death over Xmas’ and called for the Labour Party and its supporters to speak out against this.[31] In the event of any death, the newspaper declared that the national Ad Hoc Irish Hunger Strike Committee would hold a picket outside Downing St, with regional demonstrations in Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff to follow.[32]

However the 1980 strike was called off before any deaths and in the aftermath, Socialist Challenge portrayed it as a temporary relief from the deadlock of the strike and in the words of People’s Democracy, a ‘limited victory’. But referring to a statement from Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, acknowledged that not much had changed from before the strike and warned of the ‘possibility of another hunger strike’. At the same time, the newspaper pointed to ‘unquestionable victories’ in the campaign, such as the emphasis on mass action, the thousands of people mobilised against the H-Block conditions and the enduring pressure applied by the community in both Ireland and the UK against the British government.[33]

The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Review

While the CPGB, SWP and IMG all covered the hunger strike in their newspapers, only the SWP also discussed the strikes in the monthly journal, Socialist Review. The CPGB’s other publications, the fortnightly Comment and the monthly Marxism Today had no coverage of these strikes or the wider anti-H-Block movement. As an example of this lack of interest, Socialist Review reported that at the 1980 National Union of Students Conference that a SWP call for a collection to be held at the conference for the Armagh women’s campaign was opposed by a Eurocommunist member of the CPGB, ‘to the amazement of even many CP members’.[34]

In the pages of Socialist Review, the SWP’s Irish correspondent, Shaun Docherty, emphasised the importance of the ‘propaganda war’ being fought between the hunger strikers and the British government and the fact that ‘[t]he extent to which their struggle will be successful depends on the response to their tremendous sacrifice’.[35] As Socialist Challenge maintained, Docherty said that the hunger strike campaign needed support from the labour movement in Britain to put pressure on the Labour Party to challenge the Thatcher government. Writing in November 1980, Docherty stated:

It is the job of socialists in this country to build a mass campaign of support for the demands of the hunger strikers that will put enough pressure on the government to make it concede on all issues [regarding political status]…

[W]e must seek to transform this support into a movement that will force the government to concede.[36]

In the months after the strike ended, Chris Harman wrote that the anti-H-Block campaign had challenged the centrality of militarism to the Republican struggle, but acknowledged that ‘[t]he “left” still tolerate the subordination of everything to the military struggle’.[37] As Kieren Allen from the SWP’s Irish sister organisation, the Socialist Workers Movement, wrote, ‘The Provos are clearly seen as the fighters against British imperialism and the most consistent agitators for a united Ireland.’[38] Of the British far left political organisations, the SWP was probably the most influential of the groups that covered the hunger strikes, especially compared with the CPGB, IMG and Militant (although the much smaller Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency also gave considerable coverage to the strike and the wider Irish Republican struggle). However within the party’s coverage of the strike, there was little outside of the pages of Socialist Worker that mentioned the female hunger strikers in Armagh. It is not that the SWP focused on the hunger striking men at Long Kesh, but the women were not explicitly mentioned either – the strikers were only discussed as an entity that did not differentiate between the two groups.

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The Troops Out Movement

A newly restructured TOM was revived by the anti-H-Block campaign and the TOM was part of the campaign in Britain to mobilise people against the continued ‘criminalisation’ policy of the British government. Troops Out, the journal of the TOM, consistently featured stories on the Armagh women as they began their dirty protest in January 1980 and gave coverage to campaigns by various women’s liberation groups, primarily the Belfast-based Women Against Imperialism. The journal continually reported on the 33 women who were involved in the protest inside Armagh Gaol, giving details about the unsanitary conditions faced by these women and how these changed as months went by. At the beginning of 1980, the journal described the conditions as such:

The wing the women are held in is the largest block in the prison, with three stories, and on the Governor’s orders, only one orderly is detailed to clean it. So it is filthy. The women themselves have been on 21-hour lock up, so they have only three hours to clean themselves, their clothes, and their cells. There are two baths for the 33, the washroom has no hot water and regularly flood, there are no mops and one brush, Wing dirt gets walked into cells landing bins are not emptied. The place is maggot-infested.

The warders have cut down even more on toilet visits – twice a day only, and women are allowed only two sanitary towels daily, regardless of need. They have had to relieve themselves in the cells.[39]

In early February 1980, the journal reported a mass attack by prisoner guards on the women, with assistance from riot officers from Long Kesh, and ‘[a]fter this [incident], no-one was allowed to wash or use the toilets’.[40] In May 1980, the journal recounted the more severe conditions that followed as the prisoners stepped up their protest and the wardens sought to punish them:

The women had to dump their chamber pots through the spyholes and the windows of the cells. These were then blocked up by the warders, since when the women have had to smear excreta and empty urine in the cells themselves, or in the corridors during their one-hour exercise period.[41]

To protest these conditions and the violence experienced by the prisoners, the journal publicised the work done by Women Against Imperialism and the large demonstration held on International Women’s Day 1980 in Belfast in solidarity with the prisoners, as well as subsequent speeches.

The journal dedicated significant space to these mobilisations by Republican women and the August/September 1980 dedicated a page to the campaigning by former Armagh prisoner Rose McAllister in London, containing an excerpt of a speech given at Caxton House the previous month. McAllister concluded her speech by emphasising:

There isn’t one girl or one woman on protest there who’s a masochist, who enjoys that protest or enjoys living in filth and dirt for five months as it stands now. They don’t enjoy it, but they’re doing it and they’re doing it for one reason and one reason only. And everyone in this room should understand the urgency of this, they’re doing it because they’re political prisoners. They’re prisoners of war that’s going on the North of Ireland that the British public are being duped about.[42]

While the coverage of the dirty protest by the Armagh prisoners was extensive, once the hunger strike began, the three women subsumed by the wider reporting on the two strikes at Long Kesh and Armagh. The December 1980 issue of the Troops Out journal featured an article profiling each of the men on hunger strike, however the women did not get this in-depth treatment.

The Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency

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The Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (RCT) were two breakaway groups from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, with the RCG forming first in 1975, and then the RCT in 1978. John Callaghan argued that both of these groups differentiated themselves from the rest of the left for their uncritical support for the IRA and the INLA.[43] The RCG had a ‘Third Worldist’ position and endorsed the theory of a labour aristocracy, which purported that Western workers directly benefitted from the exploitation of people in the developing countries, and therefore the RCG’s political activism was primarily organised around anti-imperialist issues, such as solidarity with Irish Republicanism, the anti-Apartheid movement[44] and anti-deportation campaigns.[45] This was reflected in the title of their newspaper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

The RCG were part of the TOM and gave significant coverage to the anti-H-Block campaign in their newspaper. The newspaper had a special section of the newspaper dedicated to the RCG’s campaign, Hands off Ireland!, which often featured the prisons struggle and the newspaper had a special prisons correspondent. In July 1980, the newspaper highlighted that the prison authorities were ‘increasing efforts… to force these prisoners to give up the rights associated with special category status and hence in effect to withdraw political status from them’, and part of this was removing inmates who had been granted special category status before 1974, such as Marian Price.[46] The RCG concluded that the ‘release of Marian price at this was designed not only to ensure that she did not die in prison… but also to distract public attention from the worsening conditions of the protesting prisoners in Armagh.’[47] The following issue reprinted a statement published in An Phoblacht, celebrating those on protest in Armagh with this statement:

In the face of long periods confined to their cells, and the denial of basic facilities, such as adequate medical facilities, the courageous prisoners have refused to bend the knee to foreign rule and are an example of Republican resistance even when in the clutches of the enemy.

WE SALUTE THEM![48]

On the other hand, the RCT started its own campaign, Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act, in 1979, which sought to bring other anti-H-Block groups in Britain under the leadership of the RCT. A flyer for its initial run of demonstrations to support this campaign claimed support from a variety of left-wing groups and social movements, but the RCT did little to foster good relationships with others. In one pamphlet, the RCT claimed:

The left always tries to downplay the question of national oppression. In this way it tries to turn the Irish War into a trade union issue or a matter if human rights and civil liberties.[49]

The RCT were particularly critical of any left-wing condemnation of the IRA’s terrorism, declaring, ‘The left is ready to denounce the violence of the oppressed – especially when it is conducted in the heartlands of the oppressor, in Britain itself.’[50] This, the Tendency argued, left them with ‘no role to play on Ireland other than a pressure group on the Liberal and Labour Parties’.[51]

In contrast to this, the RCT’s Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act campaign called for two things – mass demonstrations against the PTA and in support of the H-Block prisoners, and for rank-and-file trade unionists to campaign inside the Trades Union Congress to take a decisive stance against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. At the beginning of the hunger strike in Long Kesh in October 1980, the RCT called for a march from Hackney Town Hall to Stoke Newington in support of the hunger strike, with four slogans daubed on the flyer:

TROOPS OUT OF IRELAND NOW!

SELF-DETERMINATION FOR THE IRISH PEOPLE!

SMASH THE PREVENTION OF TERRORISM ACT!

PRISONER OF WAR STATUS FOR IRISH ANTI-IMPERIALIST PRISONERS![52]

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The other tactic of the Smash the PTA campaign was to call for rank-and-file trade unionists to put pressure on the TUC and the Labour Party to challenge the existence of British troops in Northern Ireland. As the 1981 hunger strikes began, the campaign published a pamphlet asking for agitation on this issue at the forthcoming TUC Congress. The first of the five points of the proposed motion included in the campaign’s pamphlet stated:

This branch/union/trades council

  • deplores the failure of the official labour movement to support the demands for political status of republican prisoners of war in the Six Counties of Ireland.[53]

The pamphlet then ended with the plea, ‘Don’t let the prisoners in H-Blocks and Armagh struggle in vain! Fight for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Ireland!’[54]

This rank-and-file pressure was part of the RCT’s broader slogan on the ‘Irish War’, which was ‘Bring the War to Britain’. On one hand, it was ‘a call to make the Irish War an issue in the British labour movement’. But it also, as the Tendency recognised, ‘implie[d] support for a violent attack on the British state – not only in the Six Counties – but in Britain itself.’[55] With its origins in the Leninist idea of converting an imperialist war into a civil war[56] and the early Irish Communists inside the CPGB,[57] the RCT’s slogan also echoed the slogan of the US leftist terror group the Weathermen Underground, whose slogan was ‘Bring the War Home’.[58] However, despite the revolutionary rhetoric of the RCT, its influence upon the anti-H-Block movement was limited by its sectarianism. Although many outside the two groups could not differentiate between them, the approach of the RCG and its emphasis on the prisoners fit more with the wider currents within the Irish Republican movement in the early 1980s. On the other hand, the revolutionary and violent rhetoric of the RCT came at a time when the IRA were moving away from pursuing a primarily militarist strategy – inspired by the anti-H-Block movement and the hunger strikes.

The case of Pauline McLaughlin

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While attention was given to the dirty protest by the 33 women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the three hunger strikers by sections of the British left, within this coverage by these groups, another prisoner was also highlighted – the young Pauline McLaughlin. McLaughlin was a young illiterate woman who was imprisoned in Armagh serving an ‘indefinite’ sentence,[59] but also suffering from mental health issues. Sentenced before 1976, McLaughlin qualified for special prisoner status, but was denied this. She originally joined the protest movement inside the Northern Irish prisons to gain this special status, but became ill and according to some sources, ‘blackmailed by the prison doctor to end her action’.[60] Since that time, McLaughlin had suffered from stomach problems and was unable to digest food, which caused her to rapidly lose weight. Shuffled between prison hospital and Armagh, McLaughlin’s condition was viewed as potentially fatal and there were calls by the anti-H-Block movement for her to be released on compassionate grounds. However the Thatcher government refused to do so, with Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins claiming that her condition was ‘not at present critical’.[61] Atkins continued:

While Miss McLaughlin’s health does give cause for serious concern, it is considered in the light of all the advice available that there are insufficient grounds for taking the exceptional course of releasing her on licence from the indeterminate sentence and using the Royal Prerogative to remit the balance of the fixed terms.[62]

The Morning Star dedicated a significant portion of an issue to highlight the case of McLaughlin, declaring, ‘Every day she remains in the prison her life is in danger – a senior consultant from a Northern Ireland hospital has diagnosed a psychogenic vomiting complaint.[63] The newspaper quoted government minister, Michael Allison, as saying, ‘If there is inescapable evidence that the condition is not self-induced we would respond by releasing her on medical grounds… But it may be that she is manipulating her illness.’ The newspaper then asked what ‘inescapable evidence’ did Allison need, writing:

That final, fatal cardiac crisis? Or have they rather been gambling with her life, refusing to free her while the H-Block crisis was nearing the climax, fearing that if they did that the government might appear weak?

Socialist Challenge claimed that the McLaughlin case ‘graphically illustrates the barbarity of Armagh’ and that ‘Pauline’s treatment is typical of that perpetuated by the British on Irish political prisoners’.[64]

Numerous demonstrations and political actions were called upon to highlight McLaughlin’s case, with pickets outside Whitehall and Downing St, emergency resolutions of various organisations being sent to the Northern Ireland Office and various protests against the doctors on staff at Armagh Goal. These actions were co-ordinated by the Armagh Co-Ordinating Committee, run out of a feminist collective space (A Woman’s Place on William IV Street) in London. These protests were given significant coverage in the Morning Star, particularly when actor Frances de la Tour attended a demonstration outside of Downing Street in December 1980.[65] Pickets were also established outside the General Medical Council offices to condemn the role that GMC members played in the inadequate treatment experienced by women in Armagh Gaol.[66]

In January 1981, McLaughlin was eventually released from prison on medical grounds, although it is most likely that the campaign for her release, in amidst the wider anti-H-Block campaign and the hunger strikes, contributed to this outcome. Some of the press in Ireland suggested that McLaughlin was released at a time when the British government were in talks with Sinn Fein over the continuation of the ‘dirty protest’, but Ann Rossiter argues that the grassroots movement that campaigned for McLaughlin’s release succeeded ‘in embarrassing the British government and pinpointing the plight of the women prisoners at the heart of the establishment.’[67] While the left wing press did highlight the plight of McLaughlin, the campaign on the streets was led by feminists in Britain and Ireland.

Conclusion

Most of the British left recognised that the anti-H-Block campaign had revitalised the Irish Republican movement on both sides of the Irish Sea and that despite the inability of the campaign to obtain political status for those imprisoned, a grassroots political mass movement had emerged that offered an alternative to the terror campaign waged by the IRA and the INLA. In Northern Ireland, the initial benefactors of this movement was the reformed People’s Democracy, whose members held important roles in the National H-Block/Armagh Committee, while in Britain, the campaign revived the influence of the Troops Out Movement. The gains made by PD eventually convinced Sinn Fein that their policy of abstentionism had not reached the masses in the same way that the anti-H-Block campaign had and led to the eventual acceptance by SF of gaining power by the ballot box – combined with the sustained terror campaign of the IRA.[68] Besides the RCT and RCG (and later Red Action),[69] the British left preferred the path of the mass political movement rather than the IRA’s terror strategy and expressed solidarity with those in the anti-H-Block campaign. However the British left had to accept that although alternative sites of Republicanism had been built in the early 1980s, the militarism of Sinn Fein and the IRA still dominated the Republican movement.

The ‘dirty protest’ by the women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the hunger strike by Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle brought attention to the experiences of Irish women involved in the Republican struggle in both Ireland and Britain. The British far left press followed these protests and the strike, with the pages of the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge all covering the developments in Armagh and the campaigns outside – although these campaigns were, at the local level, mostly led by women’s liberation groups, rather than the left-wing parties. Organisationally, the left still deferred much of its campaigning to the Troops Out Movement, which operated as a broad left campaign that reached beyond the traditional audience of the various far left groups. Particular emphasis was given to the plight of inmate Pauline McLaughlin who was not part of the hunger strike, but still suffered from illness due to a lack of food being eaten.

While the CPGB, the SWP and the IMG all broadly supported the anti-H-Block campaign and the women’s hunger strike, Militant was much more ambivalent and supported the campaign for political status purely as a human rights issue, even though the rest of the left acknowledged that the wider issue of the British occupation of Northern Ireland was an integral part of the women prisoner’s campaign. On the other side of the fence, the RCG and the RCT called for ‘direct action’ by British activists in solidarity with those in prison in Long Kesh and Armagh. The RCG maintained a focus on prisoner solidarity and highlighted the issue in their weekly paper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, while the RCT called rank-and-file trade unionists to compel the TUC to explicitly support the Irish Republican cause, as well as promoting the slogan ‘Bring the War to Britain’ (even the slogan was not widely received amongst other activists and left-wing organisations.

In conclusion, it seems that the issue of the women’s protests in Armagh were given much needed publicity in Britain by the left-wing press, but much of the grassroots campaigning was left to various feminist groups, such as the Armagh Co-Ordinating Group and Women Against Imperialism, who launched significant demonstrations in London, Belfast and Dublin between 1979 and 1981.[70] Many of these women were part of the various left-wing groups or the TOM, but organised around this issue as feminists or as Republicans (or even Republican feminists). While an intersectional solidarity was expressed with the women in Armagh, the British far left acceded much of this to the women’s liberation movement.

armagh

Thanks to Rob Marsden, Fidelma Breen, Adrian Kerr, Sarah Grimes, Jacob Murphy, Alastair Renwick, Di Parkin, John Cunningham, Helen Yaffe, Toby Harb, Jim Monaghan, Lindsey Cole and Brodie Nugent for their assistance in providing material for this post. 

[1] F. Stuart Ross, Smashing H-Block: The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign Against Criminalization, 1976-1982 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011) p. 5.

[2] V.I. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch08.htm.

[3] Kevin Morgam, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991 (London: River Orams Press 2007) pp. 196-202.

[4] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1958) p. 24.

[5] Special Correspondent, ‘Ireland’s Workers Needs a Party Based on Connolly’s Teachings’, The Newsletter, 2/81 (13 December, 1958) p. 6.

[6] Special Correspondent, ‘Ireland’s Workers Needs a Party Based on Connolly’s Teachings’, p. 5.

[7] ‘Ireland’, International Socialism, 1/40 (October/November 1969) p. 2.

[8] ‘Ulster: Turn the Civil War into a Revolutionary War’, Black Dwarf, 14/21 (30 August, 1969) p. 8.

[9] John Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland, c.1969-89’, in Laurence Marley (ed.), The British Labour Party and Twentieth-Century Ireland: The cause of Ireland, the cause of Labour (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015) p. 201.

[10] Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland, c.1969-89’, p. 200.

[11] In 1973, Marxism Today ran an article by the CPI’s Dublin Area Secretary, Tom Redmond, which argued, ‘Wherever working class leadership is absent the tactics, strategies and content adopted are those of the middle class.’ Redmond further claimed that the ‘social composition of the Provisionals was more middle class [than the Official IRA] and mainly rural’. Tom Redmond, ‘The Forces in the Irish National Liberation Struggle’, Marxism Today (June 1973) pp. 169-170.

[12] Eamonn McCann, ‘After 5 October 1968’, International Socialism, 1/51 (1972) p. 11.

[13] The Red Mole, 48 (7 August, 1972) p. 1.

[14] Jacob Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”: The Troops Out Movement Campaign for the Withdrawal of the British Army from Northern Ireland, 1973-77’, unpublished MA thesis, Newcastle University (2014) p. 4.

[15] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, p. 13.

[16] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, p. 40.

The situation in Ireland was one of the major areas of disagreement between the IS and those who formed Workers’ Fight. See: Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (London: Bookmarks 2011) pp. 322-325.

[17] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, pp. 41-42.

[18] Morning Star, 17 December, 1980; Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[19] ‘H Blocks – Only the Labour Movement has the Solution’, Socialist Youth (February 1981) p. 2.

[20] Militant, Internal Bulletin (March 1981) pp. 6-7.

[21] Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland’, p. 208.

[22] Morning Star, 17 November, 1980.

[23] Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[24] Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[25] Socialist Challenge, 3 December, 1980.

[26] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[27] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[28] Morning Star, 9 December, 1980.

[29] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[30] Socialist Challenge, 10 December, 1980.

[31] Socialist Challenge, 17 December, 1980.

[32] Socialist Challenge, 17 December, 1980.

[33] Socialist Challenge, 1 January, 1981.

[34] ‘Left Advance Left Behind’, Socialist Review (May 1980) p.

[35] Shaun Docherty, ‘Ireland: Bitter Climax’, Socialist Review (December 1980) p. 4.

[36] Shaun Docherty, ‘Don’t Let Them Die!’, Socialist Review (November 1980) p. 22.

[37] Chris Harman, ‘Ireland: After the Hunger Strike’, Socialist Review (January 1981) pp. 20-21.

[38] Kieren Allen, ‘Who’s Who on the Irish Left’, Socialist Review (January 1981) p. 23.

[39] ‘Attacks on Women Prisoners’, Troops Out (March 1980) p. 3.

[40] ‘Attacks on Women Prisoners’, p. 3.

[41] ‘Armagh Conditions Exposed’, Troops Out (May 1980) p. 12.

[42] ‘Rose McAllister Speaks Out Armagh Prison’, Troops Out (August/September 1980) p. 5.

[43] John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) p. 145.

[44] See: Gavin Brown & Helen Yaffe, ‘Practices of Solidarity: Opposing Apartheid in the Centre of London’, Antipode, 46/1 (January 2014) pp. 34-52.

As Brown and Yaffe mention elsewhere, the RCG portrayed the areas that it worked in as part of a global struggle, as demonstrated by the slogan, ‘Brixton, Belfast, Soweto – One Struggle! One Fight!’ Gavin Brown & Helen Yaffe, Non-Stop Against Apartheid: Practicing Solidarity Outside the South African Embassy’, Social Movement Studies, 12/2 (2013) p. 232.

[45] Eddie Abrahams, ‘Citizenship and Rights: The Deportation of Viraj Mendis’, Critical Social Policy, 9/26 (September 1989) pp. 107-111; Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2013) p. 105; p. 118.

[46] ‘Marian Price Freed’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (July/August 1980) p.

Marian Price was one of two sisters given life sentences in 1973 for terrorism offences. Imprisoned in England, the two sisters, along with two men, went on hunger strike, but were force-fed by the prison authorities. The strike lasted 200 days, before the Price sisters were transferred to Armagh. George Sweeney, ‘Self-Immolative Martyrdom: Explaining the Irish Hunger Strike Tradition’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 93/271 (Autumn 2004) p. 342.

[47] Marian Price Freed’, p.

[48] ‘Armagh Goal’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (September/October 1980) p. 12.

[49] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat (London: RCT pamphlet, 1980) p. 15.

[50] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 17.

[51] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 17.

[52] RCT, ‘Demonstration in Support of the H-Block Prisoners’, October 1980, RCT flyer.

[53] Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign, TUC Hands off Ireland! (London: RCT pamphlet, 1981) p. 15.

[54] Smash the PTA Campaign, TUC Hands off Ireland! p. 15.

[55] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 23.

[56] V.I. Lenin, ‘The War and Russian Social-Democracy’, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/sep/28.htm

[57] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, pp. 21-22.

[58] See: Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

[59] ‘Pauline McLaughlin’, Troops Out (December 1980) p. 7.

[60] Socialist Challenge, 13 November, 1980.

[61] Hansard, 9 December, 1980, col. 345w.

[62] Hansard, 9 December, 1980, col. 346w.

[63] Morning Star, 23 December, 1980.

[64] Socialist Challenge, 13 November, 1980.

[65] Morning Star, 12 December, 1980.

[66] Morning Star, 5 November, 1980.

[67] Ann Rossiter, ‘“Not Our Cup of Tea”: Nation, Empire and the Irish Question in English Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s’, unpublished PhD thesis, London South Bank University (2005) p. 225.

[68] Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament (London: Pluto Press 2011) pp. 157-163.

[69] Mark Hayes, ‘Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Some Observations Regarding Ideological Apostasy and the Discourse of Proletarian Resistance’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014) pp. 242-243.

[70] See: Christina Loughran, ‘Armagh and Feminist Strategy: Campaigns around Republican Women Prisoners in Armagh Jail’, Feminist Review, 23 (1986) pp. 59-79

Appeal for primary source material on British/Irish left & female hunger strikers at Armagh 1980

women against

Recently the Irish Times has started running a series of articles on the history of the 1980-81 hunger strikes in the lead up to a symposium being held on the subject in London in June 2016. One of the articles by Maria Power discussed the hunger strike undertaken by three republican women in Armagh Prison in late 1980, whose contribution to the hunger strikes has been overlooked by many.

Coincidentally a former student of mine and I are beginning a small project to look at how the British and Irish left, as well as the women’s liberation movement in both countries, expressed solidarity with these striking women. This will be included in a special journal issue on the British left and Ireland currently being put together by Matt Worley and I. The abstract of our article is here:

Intersectional Solidarity: The female prisoners of Armagh, women’s liberation and the left in Britain and Ireland

In 1980, the Republican women prisoners held in Armagh prison in Northern Ireland joined the dirty protest being waged by the male members of the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army in Maze Prison. This eventually evolved into a 53-day hunger strike conducted by Republican prisoners in October 1980, which was shortly followed by the more infamous hunger strike in 1981 that claimed the lives of 10 strikers. Overshadowed by the fatalities of the 1981 strike, the 1980 strike involved three IRA women in Armagh, who challenged the traditional nationalist notion of the strong male warrior fighting for a united Ireland. Both the blanket/dirty protests and the two hunger strikes generated sympathy and solidarity across the globe, including with the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain and Ireland. The various groups of the left, the women’s liberation movement and the republican movement all claimed that the women involved represented their competing ideals and agendas and these movements sought to weave their actions into their narratives. At the same time, many within these movements were also highly critical of these women and their links to the Republican movement. This article will look at how the left and the women’s liberation movement in both Britain and Ireland looked to portray these women within their narratives and how the solidarity expressed became intersectional, imbued with contesting connotations of liberation from British imperialism, monopoly capitalism and patriarchy.

Stop strip searches

Part of this project has been locating the various publications of the various leftist and feminist groups in both Britain and Ireland. Last month, the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog posted an appeal for primary source material, which was very fruitful. However we’re still looking for more material, so here is the appeal again:

My former student and I are writing an article on the British and Irish left and the female hunger strikers at Armargh in 1980. We have (or are getting) material from the CPGB (Morning Star), the SWP (Socialist Worker and Socialist Review), the IMG (Socialist Challenge), the IRSP (the Hunger Strike Bulletin posted at Irish Left Archive) and Women Against Imperialism (a WAI report from 1980). We are also interested in material from the British and Irish women’s liberation movements and have got material from Spare Rib, the IMG’s Socialist Woman and the SWP’s Women’s Voice.

If anyone has access to material of any other British or Irish left-wing papers/journals from the period, would they be able to check whether there was anything on the strike (lasting from Oct-Dec 1980) or their ‘dirty protest’ (which began in Feb 1980)?

We’d be particularly interested in anything from Militant (or its Irish group), the Communist Party of Ireland or SF-WP, but would welcome any primary source material dealing with the topic.

If anyone has material, please contact me at: hatfulofhistory@gmail.com

P79

I would like to thank everyone who has helped us find material so far, and hope that people can help us find more!

Thanks to the Bloody Sunday Trust for the archival pictures.

Removing the barriers to deportation from the UK: Lord Carrington and counter-terrorist efforts in the early 1980s

A story has appeared in The Guardian today that the UK Appeals Court has ruled that it is legal for foreign convicted criminals to be deported without their chance to appeal from the United Kingdom. The right to appeal before deportation was originally enshrined in the Immigrants Appeals Act 1969 and was long considered a problem by the Conservatives to an effective border control system. The following post is based on my research into the UK border control system and counter-terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s and the efforts by Lord Carrington in 1980 to speed up the deportation process for those suspected on being involved in terrorist activities.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

In 1980, the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington requested, upon the urging of the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, that the FCO explore measures using the border control system to prevent Middle Eastern and North African terrorism in the UK and the possibility of expanding the widespread interviewing and security checks to a greater number of countries known to be involved in terrorist activities. The catalyst for this request was the siege at the Iranian Embassy by dissident Iranians (who entered the UK on false Iraqi passports) and explosion at the Queens Garden Hotel in Bayswater (near the Iranian Embassy) which killed one Iranian, both occurring in May 1980. The request by the Foreign Secretary asked the following questions:

in what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation?[1]

One of the questions that arose out of this discussion of monitoring potential terrorists in the UK concerned what could be done to visitors from the Middle East and North Africa who had been granted leave, but were considered ‘undesirable’ to remain in the country. In several internal documents, FCO and Home Office staff voiced their frustration with the delays involved in deporting someone from the UK, as the Immigrants Appeals Act 1969 allowed the deportee to appeal the decision to deport them. As one report explained:

The power to deport on security grounds has been used very rarely and has proved cumbersome and difficult to operate… The Security Service have gained the impression that Ministers would be reluctant to utilize this procedure.[2]

Douglas Hurd wrote to the Minister for Immigration, Timothy Raisom that it was ‘desirable… to try to limit the extent to which foreign officials, who are found to be using this country as a base for involvement with terrorist activities, are able to exploit legal procedures to delay their deportation’.[3] Hurd warned that ‘[a]ny delay in removing them increases the risk that their government may take action harmful to UK interests or UK citizens as a way of putting pressure on HM Government’ not to deport them, and identified the ‘advisory procedure’ rule (‘whereby a person may make representations against his deportation in a case where he has no statutory right of appeal’) as a significant cause for this delay.[4] Hurd suggested to Raisom that a way around this delay was to make an amendment to the Immigration Rules that only allowed non-patrials to make representations against deportation ‘after they had been removed from this country’.[5] In an earlier draft of the same letter to Raisom, Hurd noted that changing the Immigration Rules would not ‘be too controversially received in this country’ if it was to be ‘restricted to those cases in which the deportations were ordered on grounds of national security’, but did note that any further amendments to right of appeal against deportation would require a legislative change to the Immigration Act 1971, nor could the government ‘prevent such people resorting to Habeas Corpus and the Prerogative Orders.’[6]

Another report reiterated the thinking that the public would be more willing to accept the deportation of foreign nationals and limitations put on appealing these deportations if it was emphasised that they were in the name of national security and focused on a minority national group. The report stated:

It may be that difficulties [with the deportation process] have been over-emphasised and that where intelligence suspicions concern terrorism, particularly by Arab nationals, public opinion would be less critical of the exercise of the security provisions and Ministers would readily consider exercising them. The real constraint however seems likely to remain the availability of intelligence about an individual to justify action.[7]

A similar report enthused that the authorities could deport foreign officials from countries such as Iraq, Iran and Libya (including diplomats) by declaring them persona non grata if there was a suspicion that they would be involved in terrorist activities. The report advised the government ‘could declare a person p n g if we found out that he had links with organs of state terrorism and… [it] would be a punishment to those concerned and would also have a deterrent effect.’[8] The benefit of this, the report continued, was that ‘[n]o reason need be given for declaring a person p n g so the risk of compromising our sources of information would be lessened.’[9] A letter to Hurd’s Chief Clerk from the Maritime, Aviation and Environment Department claimed that the power to declare a foreign official or diplomat persona non grata was ‘clear, straightforward and unilateral’ and was granted under Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, but warned that this might result in retaliatory actions against UK representatives in other countries.[10]

This discussion reached the top levels of the government, with Peter Carrington imploring Willie Whitelaw to ‘consider more extensive use of your existing powers under section 15(3) of the Immigration Act 1971’, and argued that the it was view of the FCI that ‘these powers could be a useful weapon against suspected terrorists as well as other undesirables’. Carrington also suggested that Whitelaw proceed with limiting the legal procedures that can delay the deportation of a foreign national, ‘once this has been ordered in the interests of national security as conducive to the public good.’[11] This was tied to Carrington’s private concerns that the ‘entry clearance system cannot be a fully effective barrier’, particularly if the sponsors of state terrorism were ‘intent on getting a terrorist into this country… or chooses to employ someone already here’.[12] A letter from the FCO to Gerald Hayden Phillips, Assistant Secretary in the Home Office, stated that Carrington was ‘inclined to think there would be more substance in changing the immigration rules so that the Home Secretary could swiftly deport suspected terrorists without running into the Agee/Hosenball difficulties[13] and in extending the Prevention of Terrorism Act.’[14] Whitelaw’s response was that for the Immigration Act to be effective in deporting suspected terrorists without appeal, ‘the legislation would have to be in sweeping terms, giving the Home Secretary the right to deport instantly without right to appeal’ – a legislative move that he described as ‘highly controversial’.[15]

The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 only covered terrorism offences related to the political situation in Northern Ireland, and there was discussion, prompted by Carrington, into whether the Act could be extended to cover all forms of terrorism – particularly the powers of detention and exclusion. A report outlined that the advantage of the exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was that they ‘were quick and it obviates the necessity for going through the appeals procedure which accompanies deportation under the Immigration Act’, but warned that these orders were of ‘little practical use… unless the power under the Act to make an exclusion order from this country on the authority of the Home Secretary is extended to cover any terrorist.’[16] This, the report noted, would need legislation to amend the Act, which would be a difficult task for the government. Willie Whitelaw, in a letter to Carrington, made a similar claim, stating that amending the Act ‘would be a focus for criticism unless this was done in the context of a dramatic increase in the level of international terrorist incidents in Great Britain.’[17] Whitelaw suggested that the only change ‘which might be made overnight’ related to the ‘extension of the power to arrest and detain suspect terrorists’, but cautioned that ‘[a]ny extension of the power to exclude… would require amending legislation.’[18]

In 1983, a report by Lord Jellicoe into the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 recognised that Middle Eastern terrorism was an increasing threat to the UK, writing ‘[m]any fear that London… could become a battleground for warring Middle East terrorist factions’, and recommended extending the powers of arrest and detention at ports under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to ‘suspected international terrorists of any group, cause or nationality’.[19] The subsequent amendments in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) 1984 was the first legislative step for the UK authorities to create a generalised counter-terrorist response, rather than a focus on Irish terrorism with other forms of terrorism as a side concern.

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

[1] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, 4 July, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[2] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventive Action’, n.d., p. 5, FCO 50/685, NA.

[3] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [second version], n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[4] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [second version].

[5] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [second version].

[6] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [first version], n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[7] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 5.

[8] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 6.

[9] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 6.

[10] Letter from M St E Burton to Mr Adams, 20 November, 1980, p. 5, FCO 50/686, NA.

[11] Letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Home Secretary, 5 December 1980, p. 4, FCO 50/686, NA.

[12] Letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Home Secretary, 5 December 1980, p. 4.

[13] Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball were two American nationals who were deported after a very lengthy process from the UK in the mid-1970s. Philip Agee was a CIA officer based in the UK, who was suspected by the US authorities (who allegedly put pressure on Merlyn Rees and James Callaghan to deport Agee) of exposing CIA activities in the Caribbean. Hosenball was a journalist who had written a piece for Time Out magazine on the UK security services. There was considerable public support for both men to remain in the country, but were eventually deported in 1977. See: R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Hosenball [1977] 1 W.L.R. 766; [1977] 3 All E.R. 452; Duncan Campbell, ‘Official Secrecy and British Libertarianism’, Socialist Register (1979) pp. 75-88; Duncan Campbell, ‘The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold’, The Guardian (10 January, 2007),

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jan/10/usa.duncancampbell (accessed 17 April, 2013)

[14] Letter from M St E Burton to G.H. Phillips, 26 August, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[15] Letter from Willie Whitelaw to Peter Carrington, 6 November, 1980, FCO 50/686, NA.

[16] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 7.

[17] Letter from Willie Whitelaw to Peter Carrington.

[18] Letter from Willie Whitelaw to Peter Carrington.

[19] Rt. Hon. Earl Jellicoe, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 (London: HMSO, 1983) p. 27.

Crime, Masculinity and the Post-War Era in Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire

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WARNING: CONTAINS POTENTIAL SPOILERS

 

I have recently finished watching the entire five series of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the era of prohibition, spanning the decade until 1932. Earlier this year, I also watched both series of the UK drama Peaky Blinders, which was set in Birmingham at the end of the First World War. Both series are about the rise of criminal gangs in the post-war era and have many overlapping themes. I think these overlapping themes are worth exploring and here are some preliminary thoughts about them.

The reintegration of ‘damaged’ men at the end of the war

Both series focus heavily on the plight of the returned soldier at the end of the First World War. In Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy Darmody is the protégé of the Treasurer and crime boss of Atlantic City, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson and has returned from the Western front after dropping out of Princeton University. Rather than resume his studies, Darmody becomes Thompson’s driver and right-hand man, convinced by the brutality of the war that there is no social good and that crime is the only path open for him now. At the end of the first series and at the beginning of the second, Jimmy joins forces with several others to attempt to remove Thompson from power. This is partly driven by Jimmy’s disdain for those older men who encouraged him (and other young men) to fight in the war, but left those who returned with little reward. Darmody also suffers from the guilt of surviving the war, which leads him to befriend another former soldier, Richard Harrow, a sniper with a disfigured face. Both Darmody and Harrow use the skills they learnt in the war to become ruthless criminals in the post-war era.

In Peaky Blinders, brothers Tommy and Arthur Shelby had fought on the Western front and the younger brother, Tommy, had earned commendations for his actions during the war. Back in Birmingham in 1919, the Shelbies, along with many other young men, use their military experience to commit criminal acts, or in the case of Freddie Thorne, to agitate for a communist revolution. It seems that Tommy Shelby had become been the leader of many of the local men in France and they still looked to him as a leader in the peacetime. The Shelbies are able to exploit this as they seek to expand their criminal empire. Both Tommy and Arthur, as well several others, suffer from flashbacks and remain traumatised by their wartime memories. The worst of these is suffered by Danny ‘Whizz-Bang’ Owens, who has repeated hallucinations that he is back in the trenches, leading to him to stab to death a local bystander during one episode.

Both series depict the trauma experienced by soldiers during the First World War is a reason for their inability to reintegrate into society in the post-war era and serves as a partial explanation for their criminal behaviour.

Patriarchal figures and the attempts to build a ‘family’

In both series, the patriarchal figure in the criminal ‘family’, Nucky Thompson and Tommy Shelby, are obsessed with the idea of family and go to extreme lengths to maintain their families. In Boardwalk Empire, we learn that Thompson’s wife and child had died a long time ago, so Thompson lives vicariously through the large family of his brother, Eli, who begins the series as the local sheriff. Thompson eventually marries an Irish woman (whose husband is killed by Eli and other police officers), Margaret Schroeder and adopts her two children as his own. However Thompson’s criminality means that both of these families are driven away, with Margaret separating Thompson and living on her own in New York, while Eli’s family suffers from his exile to Chicago after killing a FBI agent.

In Peaky Blinders, Tommy is obsessed with keeping the family together, but his ambition also provides tensions between family members, particularly as his siblings feel that he puts the idea of ‘family’ above their well-being. Tommy’s younger sister, Ada marries Freddie, the communist activist, and eventually runs away to London to escape Tommy’s grip. On the other hand, Tommy’s younger brother John is convinced to marry the daughter from another crime family to help Tommy’s criminal ambitions.

Both Nucky and Tommy try to argue that their actions were for the good of their family and to provide a legacy. However both series show that this idea of ‘family’ is warped by their criminality and each time they attempt to secure their family’s future, their actions negatively impact on those around them.

Crime as social mobility

At the heart of both series is that the idea that crime can bring some form of social mobility, generating extraordinary wealth, but it cannot bring legitimacy. In the first series of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby’s plan is to takeover the bookmakers’ operations at racetracks across the south and west of England and then transform these into a legitimate bookmaking business. In the second series, it shows that this does not quench Tommy’s ambition and he is keen to seize the business of other bookmakers in London and across the north of England.

In Boardwalk Empire, Thompson and his brother already occupy positions of power within Atlantic City and are economic and political kingmakers, but while extremely wealthy and powerful, Thompson is plagued by feelings of illegitimacy. For Thompson, his continued involvement in the bootlegging business brings him into contact with the criminal elements of society, which he detests. In the final series, he campaigns for an end to prohibition (which had brought him enormous wealth over the previous decade) in the belief that this would bring him legitimacy and confirm his role at the high end of society. However even as he campaigns for this, he finds that many businessmen are unwilling to associate with him because of his criminal associations.

Like many other cinematic and televisual depictions of organised crime, both series become morality tales of how crime can bring people almost to the top, but their criminality (and ambition) will always make them fall in the end – although we are yet to see what happens in the third series of Peaky Blinders.

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The Irish as ‘outsiders’

In the inter-war period, the Irish in Britain and the United States were still viewed by many with suspicion and those of Irish descent were often associated with criminality and deviance. This is explicit in Peaky Blinders where the authorities bring in a Protestant Chief Inspector from Belfast to investigate the criminal and subversive behaviour of the Irish community in Birmingham, specifically looking for a weapon before it falls into the hands of the Irish Republican Army (or the communists). For the Shelbies, this suspicion of the Irish in England convinces them that the only way to move up the social ladder is to become involved criminal enterprises.

For Thompson and his brother, they cynically tap into the divisions between Anglo and Irish American society to gain favour with those in the Irish-American community in Atlantic City. This involves obtaining money and votes from the community when needed. Thompson also makes overtures to the IRA in Ireland to obtain whiskey in exchange for weapons and uses a shared Irish heritage to try to convince the IRA leadership to accept this deal.

The plight of the Irish in America is also portrayed in Boardwalk Empire through the character of Margaret Schroeder (later Thompson), a migrant from Ireland. Margaret occupies a range of professions during her life in America and lives close to the poverty line while married to her first husband in Atlantic City. She escapes this by marrying Nucky Thompson, but once she leaves him and moves to New York, she once again struggles to keep herself and her children housed until she strikes a deal with gangster, Arnold Rothstein.

The changing role of women in Western society

Following from this, we also see the changing role of women in Britain and America after the First World War. The first series of Boardwalk Empire takes place in 1920 when the debate over whether to give women the vote in the US was raging. Thompson is in favour of giving women the vote as he believes that they will vote for him, as he is running for re-election as Treasurer. To ensure this support, Thompson speaks at the local chapter of the Women’s Temperance Movement and uses this as a platform to call for the vote for women and his re-election. For the women of the Temperance Movement, 1920 was a victorious year, gaining the right to vote as well as seeing the prohibition of alcohol.

In Peaky Blinders, the changing role of women is demonstrated through the character of Aunt Polly. While the Shelby boys were away during the war, Polly looked after the family business and raised the remaining Shelby children (including John and Ada). When the war ended, Tommy (and to a lesser extent, Arthur) came back to Birmingham to take over the business from Polly. Polly resents that after running the business for the duration of the war, she is now supposed to go back to her pre-war role – a situation that was commonly experienced by working class women across Britain in the years after the First World War.

Political extremism in the post-war era

Both Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire depict the great political upheaval that occurred at the end of the war and these crime dramas play out against a background of political violence and extremism. In Peaky Blinders, the ‘threat’ of communism and Irish republicanism is ever present and intermingle with each other and the criminal underworld in Birmingham. Tommy Shelby negotiates with both political movements in his plans to take over the bookmaking business of his rival Billy Kimber.

In Boardwalk Empire, the spectre of communism and the ‘red scare’ is conspicuously absent, but Irish republicanism does feature, as mentioned above. The threat of the Ku Klux Klan is depicted in several episodes and is shown as a nuisance to Thompson’s business, who helps Albert ‘Chalky’ White take revenge on the KKK in return to White’s loyalty in the bootlegging business. In the last two series, the Pan-Africanist organisation of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, is featured heavily as Dr. Valentin Narcisse emerges as a rival to ‘Chalky’ White, selling heroin out of an establishment in Harlem.

In both series, the authorities (the Special Branch in Peaky Blinders and the fledgling FBI in Boardwalk Empire) are more concerned with the political threats than the criminal activities of Shelby and Thompson. However individual agents, namely CI Chester Campbell in Peaky Blinders and Agent Jim Tolliver in Boardwalk Empire, press that the focus should be on Tommy Shelby and Nucky Thompson, rather than the IRA or the UNIA. In the end , these become personal vendettas that are blown apart by the changing political situation in both Britain and the USA during the inter-war period.

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These are just some initial thoughts and hopefully I will have time to flesh these out in the near future. As usual, any comments or queries are most welcome. And if you know of any scholarly work looking at these two series, please let me know.