Revolutionary Communist Tendency

A platform for working class unity? The Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front and the 1987 election

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One of the most controversial groups on the British far left was the Revolutionary Communist Party. After its dissolution in the late 1990s, many of its leading members, including its leader Frank Furedi, went on to found the online libertarian/contrarian magazine, Spiked. Since the inception of the RCP in the late 1970s (originally the Revolutionary Communist Tendency until 1981), it has been regarded by many other groups on the left as sectarian and controversialist, with some arguing that the RCP indulged in cult-like behaviour.

The RCP broke away from the Revolutionary Communist Group in the late 1970s, particularly over their approach to South Africa and the role of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party, although wider disagreements emerged. The RCG had originally broken from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, before the IS became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. Both the RCT and the RCG campaigned strongly around the issue of Irish Republicanism and British imperialism in Northern Ireland, as well as around issues such as anti-racism. The RCT/RCP formed several front groups around single issues during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the most prominent being the Irish Freedom Movement and Workers Against Racism.

Being known by other left groups as promoting an ‘ultra left’ agenda, the RCP stood out from the rest of the left at this stage, even amongst the other Trotskyist and Leninist groups that were around during the 1980s. As well as disagreeing with several groups over the Falklands War and the Miners’ Strike, the RCP argued that the Labour no longer represented the British working class and admonished the rest of the British far left for calling for a vote for Labour in general elections. This led in 1987 to the formation of the Red Front, an electoral vehicle to challenge the hegemony of the Labour Party.

The Red Front manifesto

In early 1987, the RCP published a lengthy manifesto, The Red Front: A Platform for Working Class Unity, proposing an left-wing electoral alliance as an alternative to Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, led by the RCP. The RCP, the manifesto stated, was formed ‘in response to the urgent need to build a new party to advance the interests of the working class’ that was ‘not merely… within the framework of parliament and of British capitalism’. The ‘immediate objective’ of the RCP was ‘to build a revolutionary working class party in Britain’. The aim of the RCP and the Red Front was ‘not to win seats in parliament’, but instead ‘to rally a core of activists around a platform that can lead the struggle against the capitalist system before, during and after the election.’ The working class needed to be convinced, in the eyes of the RCP, that the only way to challenge the capitalist system was ‘not through elections and politicians, council grans or government quangos, but through the direct action of the working class itself.’ With a sense of grandeur, the party announced, ‘[w]hichever party wins the election, the future of the working class depends upon the success of this project.’

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The RCP lamented that the British left ‘cannot resist calling for a vote to put Kinnock in power’ and that overall, it was ‘axiomatic [for the left] to vote Labour’. Even though ‘[f]ew Labour supporters really believe[d] that a Labour government would bring significant advantages for the working class’. The RCP criticised the position of the British far left groups who saw Labour as the lesser of two evils between Thatcher and Kinnock, stating ‘[s]upporting Labour on the grounds that it is the lesser evil means abandoning working class politics’. The manifesto questioned whether Labour was really the lesser evil and remarked that it was ‘difficult to imagine that a Kinnock government could be as bad as the Thatcher regime.’

The RCP lambasted the SWP in particular for trying to ‘give pessimism the stamp of revolutionary approval’ for arguing that the left was in retreat after the Miners’ Strike and calling for a vote for Labour in 1987. In Socialist Review in June 1987, Donny Gluckstein argued that ‘People vote Labour because they are working class and identify the party with that class’. Gluckstein then reasoned:

So the Labour Party’s vote must be understood as a partial rejection of capitalist ideas. Despite Kinnock’s right wing stance and the record of previous Labour governments, workers do not vote Labour because they want worse social services, lower wages or higher unemployment. They want improvements in these spheres… They vote Labour because, through its rhetoric and its history of organisational links with the trade unions, it is seen as a party of the working class.

 For this reason, the SWP proposed calling for a vote for Labour, while building its own membership as a revolutionary alternative. The RCP also saw themselves as an alternative to Labour and ‘recognise[d] that at present our influence is limited’, but put forward the Red Front as an electoral vehicle to challenge Labour at the voting booth. They presented the Red Front as an exercise in tactical unity across the British left, stating:

We believe that there are thousands of activists just as concerned as we are about the future of the working class. We do not expect them to agree with the full programme of the RCP. Nor we do expect those with long associations with the Labour Party to change their views overnight. What we propose is a way of giving the working class a voice in the political struggle around the general election.

Arguing that the case for the Red Front was ‘overwhelming’, the RCP suggested that even ‘those who reject the revolutionary communist analysis of Labour should seriously examine our proposal’ and should concede that ‘a successful campaign for workers’ interests will put more pressure on the Labour Party than the continuation of the current inertia’.

While condemning many on the British left for their critical support of the Labour Party electorally, the RCP attempted to portray the Red Front as a viable vehicle to unify the fractured left. The manifesto asserted:

The Red Front will be simply an agreement of individuals and organisations to fight together around a set of basic demands… Anybody who committed to the interests of the working class should support it.

The RCP saw the Red Front as an ‘electoral bloc’ where there was an agreed basic platform, but with each organisation, including the RCP, putting forward their own wider programme. The ‘basic’ demands of the Red Front were:

  • Work or full pay
  • Defend union rights
  • Equal rights for all
  • Stop the war drive

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However the expanded explanations of these demands in the Red Front manifesto reflected the world-view of the RCP and while some of their ultra-left policies may have resonated with the rest of the far left, there were other points that highlighted the significant differences between the RCP and its rivals.

The RCP did not offer any economic policies in the manifesto because they believed ‘there are no economic solutions to the problems facing the majority of people in Britain’. While wanting to end unemployment and poverty’, the RCP stated ‘we are certain that these objectives can be achieved only through a wide-ranging political struggle against the capitalist order’.

The RCP emphasised more strongly the fight against the trade union bureaucracy, which they accused of ‘class collaboration’ and narrow defensism. In the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike and the Wapping Printers Strike, the RCP saw the trade unions, particularly the Trades Union Congress, as unwilling to take radical action and having a ‘bureaucratic strangehold’ on the labour movement that dissipated the energies of striking workers. Like many on the Trotskyist left, especially the SWP, the RCP emphasised the rank-and-file membership of the trade unions, writing:

Unless we turn our unions into organisations whicb are accountable to the rank and file – organisations which can effectively defend their members’ interests – nothing will stop the spread of scab unionism.

Proclaiming that ‘[t]he RCP has played an active role in the trade unions and in strikes ever since the foundation of the party’, the manifesto made the following policy statement as a basic demand of the Red Front:

We stand for the repeal of all laws that restrict the rights of workers to take action in defence of working class interests. We reject all restrictions on striking, picketing and solidarity action. We reject all state intervention in strike ballots, union elections or any other labour movement activity.

One of the defining features of the RCP, which is greatly demonstrated by its eventual transition into Living Marxism and Spiked, was its libertarianism. In the Red Front manifesto, it emphasised its resistance to state interventions of any kind and the rejection of what it saw as ‘reactionary moralism’. While rightly criticising the social conservatism and ‘law and order’ agendas of the Thatcher, the RCP sometimes strayed into dismissing concerns of others. For example, on the issue of women’s rights, the manifesto stated:

Politicians, the press and television now take an inordinate interest in child abuse and in rape. This is partly to indulge a prurient public opinion, but it serves a much wider purpose. It encourages a climate of tension and anxiety which leads people to distrust one another and instead put their faith in the authorities.

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Red Front manifesto was its attitude towards HIV/AIDS. While many gay rights groups were concerned about the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, the RCP stated, ‘The dangers from Aids have in fact been grossly exaggerated’, adding ‘The principal threat to homosexuals in Britain today is not from Aids, but from the safe sex campaign.’ The manifesto expanded upon this by arguing that ‘safe sex will not save lives as long as homosexuals remain oppressed’, dismissing the safe sex message as ‘divisive moralism and phoney public health propaganda of the establishment’. Instead the RCP proclaimed:

the Aids panic is neither a moral nor a public health problem. It is a political challenge to the workers’ movement. It is impossible to deal with Aids in a technical way because of the position of homosexuals as an oppressed section of society.

Lucy Robinson has shown that the RCP’s line on AIDS was met with ‘particular suspicion’ by gay rights groups, which saw the RCP’s approach as the ‘antithesis of AIDS activists’ universalising model’. Thus the gay rights movement ‘became increasingly resistant to the RCP’s interventions’.

The other organisations

Despite the Red Front’s call for unity, the only two organisations to put forward their support for the Red Front were Red Action and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which both, like the RCP, emerged from splits with the SWP. Red Action was predominantly known for its role in Anti-Fascist Action and its support for militant Irish Republicanism. In June 1987, the Red Action newspaper made a front-page statement of their support for the Red Front on the grounds that they ‘always supported the idea of trying to build the greatest possible unity between all far left groups, and will always support all initiatives which aim at this.’ Acknowledging that the Red Front was ‘a very new and embryonic movement’, and ‘obviously limited in what it can hope to achieve’ at the election, Red Action still stated:

we believe that such an initiative, if it is given the sort of support it deserves, has the potential to grow into something which could in the not to [sic] distant future start to achieve a decent impact…

VOTE TO SUPPORT A WORKING CLASS FIGHTBACK VOTE RED FRONT

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The other group to support for the Red Front was the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which had split from the SWP in the early 1980s. Regarding themselves as an ‘external faction’, they championed the programme of the International Socialists in the 1970s and felt that the current SWP was ‘ultra left’ and ‘isolationist’. The RDG welcomed the Red Front’s appeal for unity, decrying a similar call by the SWP the previous year. They qualified their support by saying, ‘[i]f the Red Front is to be the foundation for genuine left unity we believe certain points need open discussion by those “left wing organisations and individuals”, and called for a joint meeting of any interested groups. This, the RDG argued, ‘should answer any criticism that the Red Front is just a front for the RCP.’ While agreeing with the four main points of the Red Front manifesto, the RDG quipped that ‘contrary to the RCP’s view, the demands can’t just be plucked out of thin air with the aim of appealing to as many people as possible’. To form a platform that would attempt to unify the left, the RDG proposed a ‘Workers’ Platform’ that would be open to discussion. 

The RDG published an open letter to the RCP in their journal Republican Worker that they asked to be printed in the RCP journal The Next Step. This letter welcomed the call for unity and as mentioned above, stressed the need for joint meetings to determine a united platform. Following this, it also stated:

We must be sure that our rights are protected in the event of any political dispute. In this respect our differences such as they may be, be publicly recognised by being given reasonable space to explain them in The Next Step. With such as safeguard we for our part will recognise the need to give away to the majority if unity is to be maintained.

This reflected the concern that the RDG had about democracy within the organisations of the far left, developed from their days as members within the SWP during a period of upheaval and disruption. But despite their friction with the SWP in the 1980s, the RDG also proposed to the RCP:

As the SWP is the largest and most influential group on the revolutionary left, we would place particular emphasis on involving them in the discussion on the united front/Red Front.

Steve Freeman of the RDG had a letter published in The Next Step on the issue of unity under the banner of the Red Front. The RDG clarified that they had not joined the Red Front, but had ‘called for a vote for Red Front candidates’. Freeman characterised the Red Front as contradictory, writing:

Insofar as it is an opening up of a genuine unity approach, attempting to address real problems of our movement, we welcome it. Insofar as its only real purpose is to promote the RCP we criticise and reject it.

 The RDG felt that the Red Front could not ‘provide a real answer to the problems faced by our movement’ as it dismissed the United Front approach, a tactic which had first been proposed by the Communist International in the 1920s to build links between revolutionary communists and social democrats. Freeman claimed:

The United Front stems from the needs of the class not from the needs of any political grouping to recruit more members… The United Front tactic provides a method of approaching the working class and its advanced sections. Even a small organisation can adopt, although size will influence how it can be put into practice. This is why we urge Marxists in the RCP, SWP, WRP, etc, to fight for this policy. We hope that The Red Front initiative will be a positive part of that debate.

However the RCP rejected the notion of the United Front. Frank Furedi, writing under the pseudonym of Linda Ryan, replied in The Next Step (after the 1987 election) that the tactic did not ‘tackle the real conditions of today’ and urged that it made ‘no sense to try to impose classical schemas on the situation we face in the aftermath of the 1987 election’. Mass work amongst the trade unions was deemed to be ‘not an achievable task for today’, with Ryan/Furedi stating instead:

Our immediate job is more modest, but crucially important. It is to organise a core movement, made up of the existing anti-capitalist forces.

 The Red Front tactic is designed to deal with this problem… The Red Front initiative offers an opportunity to pull them together around an agreed agenda, to fight as a coherent force on the central issues facing the working class in the late eighties.

 Most of the rest of the far left ignored the Red Front. Of the few that noticed it, Workers’ Power called the Red Front manifesto as ‘an ultra-left and sectarian position on social democracy with an opportunist stance on questions of platform and programme.’ The Spartacist League in their newspaper Workers’ Hammer wrote that the RCP’s ‘supposed “Red Front”’ was ‘sub-reformist piffle’ that was ‘[v]irulently anti-Soviet and unsavoury at best’.

The Greenwich by-election and the Red Front candidates

 The first announcement of the Red Front seems to be in The Next Step in early February 1987. In an article titled ‘We Can’t Win with Kinnock’, the RCP announced:

The Revolutionary Communist Party is campaigning for support for The Red Front – a platform for working class unity – as a way to fill the gap left by Labour. We want The Red Front to be an electoral bloc that can bring together left-wing groups and individuals around basic working class demands…

 The article outlined these basic demands which were replicated in the manifesto and in other RCP literature.

In the same month, the RCP’s Kate Marshall stood as a candidate in the Greenwich by-election ‘as an alternative to Labour’. She received 91 votes. The following week, The Next Step argued that this by-election brought home the need for the Red Front. The RCP suggested there was a groundswell of discontent amongst the British working class towards Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party that the Red Front could try to tap into, writing:

While canvassing local estates, we met many Labour supporters who were unhappy about Kinnock’s project of presenting his party as a harmless and inoffensive body. Others had seen enough of what Labour would do for working class people in the years they had suffered under a Labour council.

 However they argued that ‘once the SDP bandwagon got rolling’, most Labour supporters voted for Deidre Wood, the Labour candidate, ‘for no other reason than a desire to keep out the openly pro-capitalist candidates’. The RCP concluded that despite the low vote, ‘there were some encouraging signs beneath the surface of the RCP campaign’, claiming that the ‘level of anti-Labour feeling among left-wing people was at a new high’. This indicated, the RCP believed, ‘the possibility of building support for The Red Front, as a bloc of left-wingers who want to put fighting for the working class before supporting the Labour Party’.

An editorial in the same issue of The Next Step outlined the way forward for The Red Front in the lead up to the 1987 general election:

We cannot promise you election-winning parties like the one the SDP held last week. But we can promise you that if we don’t start speaking up for our class now, the red-baiters will seriously set back the prospects for real change.

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The Red Front put up 14 candidates for the general election, announced in The Next Step in May 1987 with the declaration, ‘The only candidates speaking out clearly for our class are those standing for The Red Front’. On election day, the most votes attracted by a Red Front candidate was by Dave Hallsworth in Knowsley North with 538 (1.37% of the vote). This was actually a decrease from the 664 votes that Hallsworth received in a by-election in the same ward in November 1986.

The Next Step featured several articles dissecting the Red Front’s performance at the election. Although ‘modest’, Frank Furedi (under the pseudonym Frank Richards) argued that the RCP had ‘made an important intervention in the election campaign’ as the Red Front ‘provided the only organised expression of the independent interests of the working class.’ Furedi/Richards claimed that there was ‘insufficient time… to gain wide support’ before the election and that they ‘underestimated the intense fear of isolation that prevails among people who want a revolutionary change.’ He also complained that the other left groups that supported the Red Front lacked resources and thus ‘the RCP had to carry The Red Front more or less on our own’.

The experience of the Red Front at the election gave the RCP both optimism and pessimism. Looking somewhat positively, Furedi/Richards wrote:

The RCP now has an enormous responsibility. Most of the left, including those who consider themselves revolutionary, have abandoned the political arena to Labour…

The fight for The Red Front is the party’s most important initiative up to now. It provides a framework for bringing together anti-capitalists and maximising their influence. The Red Front is even more important now. Without a clear national focus through which to organise the action of anti-capitalists, the various struggles take on by workers will remain isolated and ineffective.

But at the same time, there was acceptance of the problems facing the Red Front, with Furedi/Richards acknowledging that ‘[a]t present The Red Front has no real existence: it is still a perspective waiting to be implemented.’ Another article stated that despite the calls for unity, ‘The Red Front is not at this stage an attempt to build a mass movement.’ Its purpose after the election, as the RCP saw it, was ‘to provide an organisational framework for those who are already prepared to fight back.’ Unity was to come through action, rather than through a common programme, with the ‘most immediate aim’ of the Red Front being ‘to create the conditions in which those who want to fight back have the means to do so.’

In 1986, the RCP started the journal Confrontation, which was somewhat similar in style to the CPGB’s Marxism Today or possibly the SWP’s International Socialism. In the second issue, Furedi, writing as Linda Ryan, looked over the strategy of the Red Front. Criticising the British left for having ‘made a virtue of not fighting back’ against the Labour Party, Ryan/Furedi proposed that the left had long regarded ‘beyond question that it should support the Labour Party in elections’. This had led some on the left, such as the aforementioned RDG to suggest the tactic of the United Front, building links between the Labour Party and far left groups. Returning to the arguments that the RCP had with the RDG, Ryan/Furedi stated that because ‘revolutionaries are a numerically insignificant minority’ in 1987 and thus there was an ‘absence of a vanguard in the working class today’, the United Front approach was ‘quite inappropriate’.

The Red Front was the way forward according to the RCP as it was ‘an attempt to forge an alternative political focus to Labour’. The British left would ‘have to learn to work independently if it is to influence events’, supposedly through vehicles such as the Red Front, or as Ryan/Furedi claimed, ‘[t]he alternative is another 65 years in the wilderness’. The article concluded:

The future of the British working class depends on a fundamental re-orientation proposed by the Revolutionary Communist Party. At a time when the employers stand ready to launch a new offensive the labour movement will pay a heavy price for lack of solid organisation and clear direction. Only by getting Labour off our backs will we succeed in advancing the historic destiny of the working class.

Aftermath

Despite initial enthusiasm for the Red Front, the electoral bloc did not last. Red Action and the RDG seemed to quickly forget about their support for the Red Front. In his satirical look at the British far left, John Sullivan wrote about the RDG’s dalliance with the RCP:

It caused some surprise when they supported the RCP’s Red Front in the 1987 General Election, but the minimalism of the programme appealed to their nostalgia for the SWP of the 1970s. They seemed, when we spoke to them, a little shamefaced about that episode, and admitted that the RCP are a ‘rum lot’, hardly a convincing Marxist analysis.

The RCP also dropped the Red Front as the late 1980s wore on. When the 1992 election campaign began, the RCP fielded eight candidates (plus a separate Workers Against Racism candidate in Holborn and St Pancras). Kenan Malik was the only candidate to stand in both the 1987 and 1992 elections for the Red Front and the RCP.

The RCP wound up in 1996. Many of those who were part of the RCP continued to contribute to LM, formerly Living Marxism journal. After being wound up in 2000, Furedi and a number of former RCP members helped create Spiked Online. The Red Front was ignored by most of those on the British left and seems to have left little in the historical memory of the post-RCP incarnations. For an organisation that prided itself on its difference from the rest of the left, the Red Front seemed to be an odd attempt at unity, and was possibly one of the many catalysts that pushed the RCP towards further individualism and definitively breaking with the leftist milieu that existed in the 1980s-90s.

Why is the Red Front worth revisiting historically? The RCP, for better or worse, was one of the most infamous left-wing groups in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s and their influence has reverberated far beyond their relative size in the two decades since dissolving. The Red Front was an episode in the RCP’s history when the group attempted to break out of its contrarian persona and whether sincere or not, tried to build links with other leftist groups and activists. Initiatives to build unity across the British far left have occurred throughout the twentieth century (and even into the twenty-first), usually in times of ascendency, and have almost always failed. The Red Front is an interesting example of this at a time when the British left was in retreat in the face of Thatcherism. More needs to be researched and written about the groups on the fringes of the far left and this case study is a beginning to undertake this research.

An activist account of the RCP written by Michael Fitzpatrick is included in our forthcoming edited volume, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, out next month through Manchester University Press.

Thanks to James H, Kieron S. and David M. for their assistance in sourcing primary sources for this post.

 

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Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

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Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.

“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

 SW Armagh

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