Socialist Worker

“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

Flame: Black Workers paper of the SWP (Sep 1977)

Flame front page

Like many others with an interest in the history of the left, I have acquired many documents that have become rarities, yet are valuable to researchers. Taking a cue from great archival blogs such as Red Mole Rising, Big Flame and the Irish Left Archive, I have decided to start scanning some of these documents. My first try is a copy of the SWP’s newspaper aimed at black workers, Flame. Beginning in 1976, Flame, alongside the Woman’s Voice journal, was an attempt by the SWP to reach out to other social movements in the mid-to-late 1970s. In his autobiography, Tony Cliff described the paper as ‘completely ineffective in building IS/SWP membership among black workers’ and claimed that the ‘experience was completely negative’ (p. 152). By 1979, Cliff had managed to convince the party that both publications needed to be wound down.

The issue I have scanned was published the month following the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977, when anti-fascists and the police fought each other at a counter-demonstration against a planned ‘anti-mugging’ march by the National Front. There is a centre-spread of photos from the demonstration, most of which can be found in David Widgery’s Beating Time book. The issue also features articles on South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Notting Hill Carnival.

The scan of the issue (8 pages) can be found here: Flame Sep 1977

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ and the anti-fascist challenge to the Communist Party

On 13 August, 1977, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ occurred on the streets on south-east London – a confrontation between anti-fascist protestors, the police and (some) members of the National Front, who attempted to march through the borough. In many of the accounts of anti-fascism in Britain in the 1970s, this episode has been characterised as the point where the Socialist Workers Party became the leading group in the anti-fascist movement and overtook the traditional role of the Communist Party. The following post is based on a short extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s.

paul+trevor

By 1976-77, the Communist Party was at a crossroads over its anti-fascist strategy as the National Front (NF) moved to campaigning in the streets. At this time, the CPGB’s National Student Committee had removed ‘no platform’ as a slogan and acknowledged that the ‘real debate on racialism had been lost in this controversy over “No Platform”’.[i] In the immediate steps to combat the NF, the CPGB called for ‘a ban on all racist activity and strengthen the Race Relations Act against incitement to race hatred’ and to ‘develop the broadest united campaign of all anti-racist forces to resist racist activities’.[ii] However the CPGB’s Political Committee believed that there was still no ‘basis for forming some new, national anti-racialist organisation’ and the Party ‘should not try to form at this stage a national organisation… which presents the danger of being a grouping of Left wing organisations and another area of disruptive activity for ultra-Lefts’.[iii] By the end of 1976, it looked as if the Socialist Workers Party and the Asian Youth Movements were to provide the two forms of political organisation that would confront the National Front on the streets in the late 1970s, although as Anandi Ramamurthy has pointed out the white left and the AYMs disagreed over the centrality of the struggle against racism and the strategies to be pursued.[iv]

The CPGB had traditionally been the dominant anti-fascist force, but by the mid-1970s, they had been overtaken by the IS/SWP. By 1976, the economic crisis had stalled the IS/SWP’s efforts to revolutionise the union’s rank-and-file and ‘in an attempt to bolster its flagging industrial perspective, but without losing its foothold in the union camp’, the SWP launched the Right to Work campaign.[v] The IS/SWP’s concerns were now focused on the Right to Work and combating the NF, announcing that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’.[vi] This emphasis signalled a significant shift for the SWP, ‘away from established union and political structures and towards the young working class’.[vii] In relation to defining itself as an alternative to the CPGB, Ian Birchall explained that part of this was an appeal to the Communist Party’s heritage, which reflected two things, ‘the hunger marches… and anti-fascist activity, especially Cable Street’ and in the 1970s, the SWP ‘were the ones who were emulating the “golden age” of the CP’.[viii]

In his history of the IS/SWP, Birchall recognised the SWP’s strategy against the National Front was twofold. Firstly they emphasised that ‘racism and fascism were a product of a system of crisis’ and anti-racism ‘had to be combined with a critique of the system as a whole’.[ix] On the other hand, the NF’s marches were part of a fascist attempt to control the streets and build a mass organisation, so ‘organised fascism had to be confronted physically’.[x] The SWP criticised the CPGB for ‘[m]erely shouting ‘One race – the human race’ as those attracted to the NF were ‘fed up with rhetoric from politicians, they are impressed by action’.[xi] To prevent the building of a fascist mass movement required a strategy of ‘uncompromising opposition to any form of publicity, meeting or demonstration’ for the NF, which meant physically confronting the NF in the streets.[xii] The SWP were wary of police protection for fascist marches, but declared that ‘if five or ten thousand people assembled with the clear purpose of physically stopping a nazi march – then the police would probably not allow them to march’.[xiii] As the SWP stepped up their anti-fascist strategy of confronting the NF in the streets, they warned, ‘physical action will become the litmus test for distinguishing those who are seriously attempting to build a revolutionary alternative from those who are merely careerists and hacks’.[xiv] By August 1977, this ‘litmus test’ had come with the major street battle of the 1970s between the NF and the anti-fascist left, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’.

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ on August 13, 1977, when anti-fascist demonstrators clashed with the National Front and the police in the London borough of Lewisham was a turning point for both the CPGB and the SWP in the anti-fascist movement. Attempting to exploit the recent arrest of a number of young blacks, the NF called for an ‘anti-muggers’ march, to assemble near New Cross station in Lewisham.[xv] In response to this announcement, the anti-fascist movement in Lewisham called for a ban from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees and Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee. The Lewisham council appealed to Rees to ban the march under the 1936 Public Order Act, while McNee ‘suggested a three month ban on all marches’.[xvi] However the Morning Star stated that under the Act, Rees could have ordered a ‘one-off’ ban, claiming that the three month period proposed by McNee was a ‘red herring’ and it was only police practice to ban all marches.[xvii] However Commissioner McNee stated that ‘he was turning down calls to ban the NF march because to do so would be to give in to “mob rule”’.[xviii]

The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) was formed in January 1977, a broad-based alliance, including in its own words ‘conservatives and socialists, church people and trade unionists, blacks and whites’.[xix] Nigel Copsey has noted that at a national level, the CPGB ‘had done little to counter the National Front’, but its members ‘were often key figures in local anti-fascist committees’,[xx] which was the case with ALCARAF. With the refusal to ban the NF march, the Lewisham CPGB branch announced that ‘ALCARAF should encourage all Borough organisations…to support a counter-demonstration… calling for a peaceful, democratic, multiracial society based on social harmony’, as well as, ‘to reject fascism and end unemployment’.[xxi] ALCARAF and the CPGB urged a ‘powerful but peaceful demonstration’, which was scheduled to take place at a different time, away from the location of the NF’s march at Clifton Rise.[xxii] The SWP, on the other hand, announced its own demonstration at Clifton Rise, where the NF were meeting, with the notion of confronting the NF on the streets. The SWP recognised the ALCARAF march, but declared that ‘it will provide no substitute for confronting the fascists directly’.[xxiii] The Morning Star announced that, ‘it almost goes without saying that the Socialist Workers Party has prepared itself for the definitive game of cowboys and indians’.[xxiv]

On the day of the demonstration, around 4,000 people attended the ALCARAF march..[xxv] In the flyer handed out to marchers, the CPGB called for marchers not to attend the SWP demonstration, appealing for them to resist ‘violent confrontation with the National Front or the police’ and remain ‘united and disciplined’, asserting that organisations, such as the SWP, ‘who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence only damage the hard, patient work that has been put in over the years in the area by anti-racists and anti-fascists’.[xxvi] The SWP distributed its own leaflet amongst the ALCARAF march to join the demonstration at Clifton Rise. SWP District Secretary Ted Parker described the event in Dave Renton’s history of the Anti-Nazi League:

We knew one pivotal thing was to get as many people as possible from the first march up to Clifton Rise… The fascinating thing was that people wanted to march to Clifton Rise, but they just wouldn’t line up behind a Socialist Workers Party banner… Eventually, we found some members of some other groups like the IMG with a banner for some united campaign against racism and fascism. People agree to group behind that. It taught me a lesson for later – many people would support a united campaign, they didn’t all want just to line up behind the SWP.[xxvii]

Around 3,000-5,000 demonstrators congregated at this point, compared with 500-600 NF marches and ‘as police made snatch raids into the crowd…counter-demonstrators retaliated with bottles, bricks, and soft drink cans’.[xxviii] Fighting also broke out between police and counter-demonstrators on Lewisham High Street at the end of the NF march. By the end of the day, 110 people had been injured, including 56 policemen and 210 people detained, with 204 charged with offences.[xxix]

The following week’s Socialist Worker’s headline declared ‘We Stopped The Nazis…And We’ll Do It Again!’[xxx] Thousands of people – ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists’ – had come out to demonstrate against the National Front. The NF, ‘cowering behind massive police lines’, were ‘forced to abandon their march before it was half completed’.[xxxi] The SWP saw the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ as a major victory, when the ‘Nazi Front got the hammering of their lives’.[xxxii] Central London Organiser of the SWP, Jerry Fitzpatrick described Lewisham as ‘our Cable Street…it was our generation’s attempt to stop fascism. It was rugged, scrappy. It got bad publicity. But it was a real success. The NF had been stopped, and their ability to march through black areas had been completely smashed’.[xxxiii] The black SWP paper, Flame called Lewisham ‘the day that the Black youth gave the police a beating’ and declared, ‘For the black community it was a day of victory’.[xxxiv] The Socialist Worker reported that the ‘angriest anti-fascists were not those who had travelled many miles to take on the Nazis, but the local people, the blacks especially’.[xxxv] The paper quoted the father of one of the Lewisham 21 as saying, ‘I don’t agree with everything the Socialist Workers’ Party says but they were the only organisation to stand up for the rights of black people here’.[xxxvi]

For the Communist Party, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ demonstrated the need for widespread political pressure to ensure that the Public Order Act and the Race Relations Act were used effectively to ban provocative racist marches and in the case of this ban not being implemented, the need for a broad-based counter-demonstration, rather than street fighting. The Party was outraged at Police Commissioner McNee’s refusal to ban the NF march and asserted that instead of police mobilising ‘to carve a way for a few thousand supporters of the National Front’, the NF’s marches ‘must be stopped by police’.[xxxvii] If this did not occur, then ‘political, mass struggle… will be found to finish with the National Front and its like’ and ‘not the staging of ritual confrontations and street fights between the police and handfuls of protestors’.[xxxviii] The CPGB condemned the ‘crass adventurism’ of the SWP to assemble where the NF were marching.[xxxix] While Dave Cook acknowledged the ‘courage and determination’ of those who took part in the protest at Clifton Rise, the ensuring clashes ‘gave the capitalist press the chance to present that day as being a violent struggle between two sets of “extremists”’.[xl] What was needed for a successful anti-racist campaign was a broad-based movement including the labour and progressive movements, as well as the black communities, which had the potential to be isolated by the violent clashes of the SWP. As Dave Cook wrote, ‘The problem about street fighting is that only street-fighters are likely to apply, and it is this which can make it difficult to achieve the mobilisation of the labour movement’.[xli] Some members within the CPGB, particularly those involved in the militant anti-fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, defended the confrontational tactics against the NF, but this was more likely to be support for the local black community in Lewisham, than for their Trotskyist rivals. Tony Gilbert, one of the CPGB’s leading anti-racist activists and a former International Brigades volunteer, ‘commented on the courage of the young blacks’ after Lewisham at a National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) meeting, but stated that the main lesson of Lewisham was that ‘the presence of the Party must always be visible on any anti-fascist demo’.[xlii]

For the CPGB, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ signalled the end of a ‘primarily defensive phase’ against the NF, where ‘mobilisation reflected the intentions of the fascists’.[xliii] The need was not the ‘occasional dramatic “confrontation”’ with the NF, but a ‘detailed, systematic, painstaking’ campaign to ‘promote propaganda and education… to show the benefits of living in a peaceful multiracial society’.[xliv] For the SWP, Lewisham showed that it was clear that ‘many people outside the SWP were keen to oppose the National Front but wanted little to do with the SWP itself’.[xlv] As David Widgery wrote in Beating Time:

The black community, who had successfully defended their patch, had had a glimpse of a white anti-racist feeling which was much bigger and more militant than the liberal community-relations tea parties might suggest. A lot of ordinary people thought it was a Good Thing that the Little Hitlers had taken a bit of stick. Every racialist was made smaller.[xlvi]

lewisham-copy

[i] National Student Committee, ‘National Student Conference’, 17 February 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/06, LHASC.

[ii] Morning Star, 12 July 1976.

[iii] ‘Draft for Political Committee’, 1 July 1976, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, LHASC.

[iv] Anandi Ramamurthy 2013, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements, London: Pluto Press, p. 38.

[v] Ian Goodyer 2002, ‘The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism’, MA Thesis: Sheffield Hallam University, p. 24.

[vi] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin, 1976, in Alastair Mutch Papers, MSS.284, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[vii] Goodyer 2002, p. 25.

[viii] Email from Ian Birchall to the author, 22 May 2005.

[ix] Ian Birchall 1981, Building the “Smallest Mass Party in the World”: Socialist Wirkers Party 1951-1979, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1981/smallest/index.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, International Socialism, 1/93, November/December 1976, pp. 18-9.

[xii] ‘News from the Nazi Front’, International Socialism, 1/80, July/August 1975, p. 5.

[xiii] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, p. 19

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] David Renton 2006, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, p. 57; Nigel Copsey 2000, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan: Houndmills. p. 123.

A police campaign in the Lewisham area had arrested a number of young blacks, which became known as the ‘Lewisham 21’. During a demonstration in support of the Lewisham detainees in early July 1977, a number of demonstrators were attacked by NF members.

[xvi] Morning Star, 10 August 1977.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Morning Star, 11 August 1977.

[xix] All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism And Fascism, Why You Should Support ALCARAF, 1977, London: ALCARAF flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/05/04, Labour History Archive and Study Centre (hereafter LHASC).

[xx] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxi] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘National Front Provocation in Lewisham’, 9 July 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxii] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘ALCARAF Demonstration August 13th’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC; Copsey 2000, p. 126.

[xxiii] Socialist Worker, 13 August 1977.

[xxiv] Morning Star, 12 August 1977.

[xxv] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxvi] ‘A Message From Lewisham Communists to the ALCARAF Demonstration’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxvii] Renton 2006, p. 60.

[xxviii] The Guardian, 15 August 1977.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Cited in, Renton 2006, p. 72.

[xxxiv] Flame, September 1977.

[xxxv] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Morning Star, 15 August 1977.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Morning Star, 2 September 1977.

[xl] Morning Star, 26 August 1977.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Minutes of NRRC meeting, 19 September 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/06, LHASC.

[xliii] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, 1978, London: CPGB, p. 23.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Copsey 2000, p. 130.

[xlvi] David Widgery 1986, Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 49.

Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left

BxtiizZCMAAWqCI.png_large

Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.