The day the troubles began. (BBC Spotlight Monday 6th October)
The victor writes the history – but only after final victory.
20 October 2008
With its stock footage of revolution across the world and frank interviews with many of those involved in the events in Derry on October 5th 1968 this programme presented a fresh-faced picture of radicalism. It was in reality, as with the vast majority of media coverage of the troubles, a determined attempt at revisionism, blaming the victims of imperialism and sectarianism for the crimes of their oppressors. The attempt failed because it was presented too shyly. The producers had no choice but to be shy. Even given the decay in political consciousness among many former republicans and revolutionary socialists, any attempt to present openly the unionist case for the police violence on October 5th would have led to uproar. Even in the absence of opposition the new settlement in the North of Ireland has decayed. The stench of that decay makes it impossible to bury 1968 and the hope of a new society that it brought to many.
The framework for the programme was based on a new book by Dr. Simon Prince “Northern Ireland's '68: Civil Rights, Global Revolt and the Origins of the Troubles”.
Although not presented directly, his thesis is a reactionary one. It acknowledges that the events of ’68 were part of a wider global pattern and an attempt to build a new socialist movement. It ignores the political and programmatic links between the sections of the new left in favour of tactical and strategic similarities. Central to the thesis is the distinction between ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-violent’, with the non-violent element determined to trick the state and right wing forces into attacking them. The new force of television amplified these tiny forces.
Dr Prince goes on to argue that it was ill-judged provocation by the left that unleashed a hidden sectarian violence.
The Simon Prince thesis, as presented by the program, appears to be a sophisticated rehash of the old reactionary view, adopted by the unionists, that the civil rights movement, and the liberation movements springing up across the globe, were conspiracies and provocations.
Prince draws a distinction between peaceful protest and non-violent protest. The civil rights movement was peaceful, radical socialist groups like People's Democracy were non-violent but not peaceful.
The civil rights movement was the product of a long history of reformism and lobbying. A violent response from the state and it's loyalist irregulars led to it's moving to close down street protests and mass mobilization.
The radicals had expected a violent response and sought to deepen the mass and class action and lead it towards revolution.
The reformist as reactionary
One of the ironies of the thesis is the convergence between the views of the unionists and of the Stalinist and reformist core of the civil rights movement. At the time the Communist Party and what was to become the Workers Party based their attacks on the radicals on the argument that they had an alternative reformist strategy that would defeat unionism. Prince draws heavily on the archives of the Connolly Association and the preface to his book is written by former Workers Party ideologue turned Unionist peer, Lord Bew.
The irony lies in the fact that the radicals were defeated and we now live in a Unionist future that is enthusiastically supported by those who claimed to have an alternative scenario based on reform.
Prince goes on to argue that the socialist radicals were tiny organizations without support. They were linked to other groups across the globe through tactics and strategy rather than political program. Their influence was magnified by the new power of television and, in the North of Ireland, their provocation uncovered what Prince appears to believe was a dying sectarianism. This led directly to the troubles.
This reactionary thesis is applied in the program to hint that October 5th 1968 in Derry was a conspiracy by the socialists to provoke the RUC into attacking them. Prince's views are interspersed with participants giving accounts of the day and the events leading to it. These in turn are interspersed with counterpositions from unionists hinting at conspiracy.
A failed thesis
The tone of the program is not to prove conspiracy but rather to raise a doubt. In this it fails absolutely for a whole series of reasons.
The central assumption of the reformist argument lies in the existence of a moderate unionism. A leading civil servant of the time, Ken Bloomfield, testifies on the program to the unity of the Stormont government in ordering RUC action and repressing the civil rights movement. No moderate unionist voice there! In the decades since we have been waiting for a moderate unionism to emerge. Unionism never progressed beyond sectarian conspiracy, and we ended with a rabid DUP government.
An even simpler reason is that we can see the events of the day unfolding on screen. They show a build up of police reserves, a police ambush and a punitive attack with the demonstrators captured between two RUC lines
A third element is the voices of the socialist radicals themselves. Many have moved away from their youthful belief in revolution, but, simply recounting their experiences, echoed by so many voices from across the world, they bring again that shining beacon of hope, of the possibility of a socialist future, that illuminated our lives then.
That hope is now discounted and despised, yet the tawdry settlement that replaced it, having crushed all opposition, is still unable to agree an account that explains the start of the troubles. With this sort of fundamental flaw the current settlement will eventually, through its own contradictions, prove itself a mirage. It will be the task of the working class to prove the hopes of 1968 the true reality.