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Understanding  Burntollet

Reply to “Burntollet: How the establishment whitewashed the Civil Rights Movement” (Matt Collins -

3 November 2018

The article by Matt Collins defending the early People’s Democracy and its decision to proceed with the Burntollet March in 1968 is very welcome. He has clearly done a great deal of research. It says much about the significance of the march that it continues to be the subject of a great deal of slander and abuse even to the present day.  Matt is absolutely right to push back against the victim blaming that exonerates unionism and the British state from responsibility for their repression of civil rights demands and for the rivers of blood that arose from that repression.

However there are a number of mistakes in analysis which remain of importance, not only in the historical analysis of Burntollet, but in understanding and acting in the current class struggle.

Matt makes 3 assertions:

The first is that the Civil Rights Association did not accept the O’Neill reforms and considered only a temporary truce.

The second is that the disagreement between People’s Democracy and the Civil Rights Association was a temporary spat and that the CRA then supported People’s Democracy and supported the march.

The third assertion is that the attacks on the Burntollet march today which are commonplace in historical reviews - the claims that an ultra left People’s Democracy in some way forced the loyalists to attack them and that this left provocation prevented a peaceful accommodation between unionism and the Civil Rights Association and doomed the North to the bloodbath of The Troubles – is the responsibility of an establishment at odds with the whole civil rights ethos.

All of these assertions are incorrect.

I accept Matt's anecdotal evidence that various members of the Civil Rights Association offered support to the March as it moved towards Derry. The fact is the March was widely popular and it would have been almost impossible to maintain opposition to it. The countervailing evidence of a major political division, is quite strong. The CRA had been established to lobby for change and avoid conflict. It was extremely difficult to get the organisation to sponsor the original Derry march on October 5th and there were constant battles around taking to the streets both before and after the Burntollet March. Alongside differences around tactics and strategy there were differences on basic policy. The CRA leadership believed that unionism could be persuaded to reform and that if not the British would force them to do so. In order to maintain the reformist strategy it was necessary to adopt a popular front around five demands that would be set in stone and could not be changed.

People’s Democracy from a very early stage believed in a revolutionary solution. This was borne out by events. The unionists fragmented and moved to the right rather than grant reforms. The British brought in a plethora of reforms, but it was in the context of saving partition and saving the Unionist government and in pursuit of that aim they unleashed a dirty war to suppress a mass mobilization by nationalist workers. The repression initially by the northern state and later directly by the British forces required new demands based on the need to defend the mass movement. This is the CRA refused to do and, following Bloody Sunday, withdrew from the streets, washing its hands of the ongoing struggle. When the struggle split over into armed conflict many of the reformists went further and began to blame the republicans and the left for the growing sectarianism.

The third assertion is that the slander of Burntollet was the work of a reactionary establishment. This is by far the weakest the section in the essay.  It does not recognise that many of the establishment historians actually began their careers in People’s Democracy and in the Civil Rights Movement. Rather than a foreign critique, many are rehashing the debates that occurred at the time when they broke from any revolutionary interpretation of events. In any case it does not require any deep historical research to find the Burntollet slander. In October 2018 it was a constant presence in the debate, asserted by former CRA officials, supporters of the Communist Party and by constitutional nationalists supporting the current corrupt political settlement.

How did Matt come to such a fundamental misinterpretation? The answer is that he commits a fundamental error of historiography. He looks back at the early civil rights history through the eyes of today and so interprets the Civil Rights Movement as an example of people power. No one in that time would have recognised that phrase. They would have seen themselves as part of a mass movement but would have been very aware that there were many differences that then that movement especially the gap between reform and revolution. Many would also have been aware that those differences were based on class with many middle class activists wedded to reform and the working class militants supporting revolution.

The fact is that those past differences live on today. The anniversary of Burntollet has been used to argue that the Good Friday Agreement rests on the foundation of the civil rights programme and that we should therefore support the colonial and sectarian society reinforced by that agreement in the complacent expectation that inevitable reform will move it forward. These sorts of conceptions were mistaken 50 years ago and they are mistaken today. They are current, not because of any inward truth, but because the forces that collaborated in the Burntollet attack were eventually successful. As on many other occasions in Irish history, the flame of revolution was extinguished. It will rise again.

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