Eamonn McCann


The roots of revolt


From Socialist Review 114, November 1988, pp.17-21
Copyright © 1988 Socialist Review
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

On 5 October 1968 an apparently small and unimportant civil rights march took place in the city of Derry. The march led by small numbers of socialists and Republicans proved to be the spark that set Northern Ireland alight. Twenty years on Eamonn McCann, one of the leaders of the march, analyses the beginnings of the struggle and its consequences.

AS THE 5 October march approached, socialist thinking in Derry wasn’t as strong as has sometimes been made out. It is true that most of those involved in the local organisation of the march were socialists of one sort or another. But the politics were very vague and there was no coherent socialist organisation.

This is clear from an examination of the role of the Derry Labour Party.

It was the local branch of the stodgily respectable constitutionalist Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP): its official name was the Londonderry Labour Party (LLP). It had around a hundred members “on the books”.

The LLP had made an impact in the local government elections of 1967 in which it contested both the majority Catholic South Ward and the majority Protestant North and Waterside Wards and picked up almost 30 percent of the vote without winning any seats.

Its approach was to attack both Unionists and Nationalists for their sectarian bickering, which, so the argument ran, was detrimental to the general interests of Derry.

These middle of the road ideas sat uneasily with the street agitation on the housing issue which began to gather momentum from the beginning of 1968 and in which younger, more left wing members of the party quickly became involved. Moreover, the fact that Republicans were also involved in the street action alarmed both the local party leadership and the NILP hierarchy in Belfast.

In Derry a number of prominent moderate members dropped out. As a result the left came into the ascendancy in time to commit the party to the October march, but this leftism was based on radical activity, not on any clear set of socialist ideas.

This was paralleled by developments in the local Republican Movement. Republican morale had been hard hit by a disastrous showing in the 1966 Westminster election (just over 2,000 votes in a constituency with more than 25,000 Catholic electors). The 1967 Easter Rising Commemoration had attracted 37 people (including the platform party and two Special Branch men) to a meeting at Little Diamond. Meetings of members were drawing around a dozen. The Irish Republican Army was entirely moribund.

A handful of younger members eagerly seized on the new line being pushed by Dublin leaders like Cathal Goulding and Sean Garland which emphasised economic and civil liberty issues rather than the age old question of partition. At the beginning of 1968 they joined with housing activists, individual leftists and Labour Party members to form the Derry Housing Action Committee, which was to spearhead a campaign involving squatting and street meetings. A number of older Republicans disapproved of this move, arguing that it downgraded the national question.

Thus by the middle of 1968 a group, perhaps 30 strong, was cooperating loosely to highlight issues of discrimination and deprivation and the inability of the old sectarian parties to offer any remedy. The street protests, disruption of official events, etc, served not only to unnerve the Unionists but to alarm the Nationalist Party, whose leadership of anti-Unionist politics was under threat. What’s more, it also perturbed some elements in the parties that the street protestors belonged to.

It was this activist group which organised the 5 October civil tights march. The Belfast based executive of the Civil Rights Association (CRA), anxious for a respectable image, asked Nationalist councillor James Doherty and John Hume, a local factory manager, to sign the official notification of the march to the RUC, Northern Ireland’s police force. However, neither wanted anything to do with the venture.

The march was banned on 3 October by Northern Ireland’s home affairs minister, William Craig. This angered many in Derry, including many who had been wary of the march.

The Labour Party met that night and resolved to defy the ban – an important factor in forcing a very reluctant CRA not to back down.

The RUC trapped the march between two police lines in Duke Street and launched a mass assault. Many injured were hosed by water cannon as they fled. RUC men snarled sectarian insults of the “Fucking Fenian scum” variety as they wielded their batons.

Reports and pictures of RUC violence caused uproar in Dublin and London as well as nearer home. Within hours the Bogside had risen up in anger. By the next morning the most prominent half dozen of the organising group were being credited in Derry with having being instrumental in bringing about the most significant change in decades.



FOUR DAYS after the march, on 9 October, a new organisation was formed at a meeting in the City Hotel. This was the Citizens’ Action Committee (CAC), a 15 strong body which included: factory manager Ivan Cooper, chairman; John Hume, vice-chairman; millionaire bookmaker Michael Canavan, treasurer.

The first action of the CAC was to call off a further protest march which the 5 October organisers had announced for the following Saturday.

The CAC represented a takeover of civil rights activity in the town by the Catholic establishment.

The reason it succeeded so well in placing itself at the head of a movement which it had done nothing to build was that many of the left wingers who had been involved pre 5 October accepted the CAC takeover. A number of the most prominent became non-prominent members of the CAC.

This wasn’t a “sell out”. Rather there was no plausible alternative. The “original organisers” weren’t members of any grouping in which they could have worked out a common line on the CAC interventions. So it made “common sense” to “work from within” in the hope of outmanoeuvring or exposing the right wingers like Hume, Canavan, Doherty etc. But they weren’t even “working within” on an organised basis. So they were trapped as individuals inside the CAC, pushed forward to provide it with a left looking image when Hume etc. thought that tactically appropriate.

The CAC organised a number of tightly controlled demonstrations. The political flavour of these was apparent in a march on 2 November along the 5 October route, in which only the 15 members of the CAC marched, three abreast, while the masses lined the footpaths to applaud!

A fortnight later about 15,000 set out behind the CAC banner to march illegally on the same route again. This time the CAC had negotiated with the RUC in advance that four CAC members would “symbolically” breach a police cordon. The deal was that CAC stewards would ensure that none of the other 14,996 marchers would cause bother, in exchange for which four symbols were permitted their moment of mock belligerence.

An indication of the depth of the CAC leadership’s dishonesty, and of the left wing’s naivety, is that the two left wingers among the chosen four did not discover until years later that this deal had been done.

The CAC’s watchword was “anti-Unionist” unity. Anyone insisting on political debate within the anti-Unionist camp was denounced as a “wrecker”. This meant that there could be no clear breach with the Nationalist Party, no questioning of the social power of the Catholic Church, no attack on Lynch’s Fianna Fail government in Dublin.

Given these politics, “anti-Unionist unity” was a euphemism for Catholic unity. And insofar as the left hadn’t broken with the CAC it became established in the public mind as the more noisy and extreme wing of an essentially Catholic movement, with Hume and the others who were later to form the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the moderate leadership of the same movement.



ONE OF the mistakes made by the left was that we underestimated the depth of the sectarian division. In part this was wishful thinking. On the face of it there had seemed no shortage of evidence that religious hatreds were receding. Northern Ireland’s prime minister, Terence O’Neill, may have been an asinine and unconvincing reformer, but at least here was a Unionist saying that discrimination was wrong, which was new.

Taoiseach (the South’s prime minister) Lemass visited O’Neill at Stormont, the North’s parliament buildings, in January 1965. There was much talk of the “two traditions” coming together. “Reconciliation” was the buzzword. The Nationalist Party agreed to become the official opposition at Stormont.

In this general atmosphere it seemed sensible to interpret the modest advances being made by leftish politics as part of a deep rooted and inexorable process which it was the duty of socialists to push further and faster.

The broad argument was that since their side – Green and Orange Tories, North and South – were drifting together, our side – Catholic and Protestant workers, North and South – should come together against them in a realignment at last along the class divide.

Implicit in this was an assumption that the national question would not, and could not, arise again in traditional, stark, for or against partition, terms.

This ignored the extent to which Catholic workers continued, reasonably, to regard themselves as members of an oppressed community rather than a section of an exploited class.

The situation in Derry made the point sharply. The 1966 revision of the electoral register showed 14,125 Catholic voters and 1,474 Protestants in the eight seat South Ward; 4,380 Protestants and 3,173 Catholics in the eight seat North Ward; and 2,804 Protestants and 1,420 Catholics in the four seat Waterside Ward.

In round figure, sectarian head count terms, 20,192 Catholics could hope for eight councillors, 10,274 Protestants for 12. The Labour performance in 1967 showed that by no means all electors were thinking in such terms, but even so, it was a fact that Catholics were being treated with official contempt.

And since local government power was being used to ruthless sectarian effect in the allocation of houses and jobs (there wasn’t a single Catholic working in Derry Guildhall) this wasn’t a matter of Catholics feeling vaguely excluded from civic life, but of real hardship.

Moreover, there were powerful ideological forces binding the Catholics together as a community. The Catholic Church is not just a set of beliefs but a brilliantly organised institution reaching into almost every area of the life of “its” people and providing them with a sense of identity.

Once 5 October happened these factors operated to ensure that Catholics reacted as a community. There had, of course, been Protestant trade unionists, Labour Party members and students on the march.

But when people streamed back to the Bogside, bloodied from the batons and soaked by water cannon, and the first flimsy barricades were thrown across Rossville Street, a pattern of play was established which conformed exactly to the traditional shape of the struggle in the North.

In this situation socialists, even if we’d had coherent organisations and clear ideas, which we hadn’t, would have faced very formidable difficulties in trying to argue for an approach based on class rather than communal solidarity.



THE MAJOR difficulty we faced in trying to argue that Catholic workers should look to the working class movement was that the working class movement had held itself aloof from Catholic grievances. In his book, Have the Trade Unions Failed the North?, labour historian Andy Boyd provides a detailed and devastating account of the effect this had, particularly on issues where the vital interests of the Northern state were involved.

For example, Boyd reckons that the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was the only union body of its kind in all Europe to fail to condemn internment in 1971. Similarly, it made no condemnation of the Bloody Sunday massacre – in which six trade union members were among the 14 dead.

Evidence of the way it worked at local level in Derry in the late sixties comes from the minutes of Derry Trades Council. The council backed the campaign in 1965 to bring the second university to Derry, added its voice around the same time to demands that Derry be developed rather than a new town constructed at Craigavon, protested against the closure of one of the town’s rail links etc.

These were entirely respectable campaigns which drew support from the Churches, most of the business community, and, particularly in relation to the university, even a section of the local Unionist Party.

This “common-sense” perspective – an appeal for all sections of Derry society to come together for Derry’s sake – was the basis for the local Labour Party’s programme in the 1967 corporation poll.

The failure of all this campaigning helped fuel the frustration which spilled out onto the streets in 1968. At that point the inadequacy and irrelevance of the trades council were exposed.

In keeping with its moderation and distaste for “divisive” issues and actions, the council brusquely rejected all appeals from the left for support. In June 1968 it refused even to hear a deputation from the Housing Action Committee. “No useful purpose would be served by such a meeting,” it declared. The following month a letter from the Republican Clubs asking the council to protest against their proscription was “noted”. In August the council voted not to protest against the convictions on public order offences often Derry Housing Action Committee activists. Invited by the local organisers to co-sponsor the 5 October march, the council voted that it should be “left to individual trade unionists” whether to take part.

This trend was to continue. After internment in 1971 the council held a special meeting which echoed the line of the Northern Committee by “not taking sides”. No motion was passed.

On the day after Bloody Sunday, as six local trade unionists lay in the morgue at Altnagelvin Hospital, the trades council expressed sympathy with the relatives. It said nothing about the circumstances of their deaths.

Down in the Bogside, where young men and women were hurling themselves, stones in hand at the cops, the suggestion that we should “look to the organised working class movement” invited understandable derision.



SOME OF the “Marxist” theories fashionable in the sixties didn’t help. Throughout the West the long post-war boom had encouraged many to write off the working class and to look instead to oppressed groups – blacks, women, the Third World masses etc. – to provide the dynamic for a revolution which would liberate humanity. This trend was particularly marked in student circles. It played a large part in shaping the strategy of the Queen’s University based People’s Democracy (PD) which emerged in direct response to the RUC assault on the 5 October march.

The PD has since been blamed by the right and the reformist left for deliberately provoking sectarianism. It needs to be said that the PD leadership were the most determined anti-sectarians of the time. The Northern Catholics were an oppressed group and when they stormed the streets to combat their oppression they were entitled to the total support of all who claimed to oppose sectarian oppression.

What the PD, and those of us in Derry who became increasingly associated with the PD in the public mind, lacked was a political analysis which put the working class at the centre of the fight against oppression.

In the early stages of its existence the PD was scarcely an organisation at all. In tune with the spirit of sixties student revolutionism, its basic unit was the mass meeting. Anybody who turned up could vote. If the next meeting drew a different attendance, it could overturn all previous decisions.

Such an organisation can only be sustained on the basis of constant activity. And almost by definition it cannot formulate consistent strategy, much less arrive at an agreed analysis.

Since the PD had virtually no structure, almost any group anywhere could set itself up as the local “PD”. As marches, pickets, sit-downs etc erupted in Catholic working class areas all over the North in the weeks after 5 October, the PD emerged as the militant opposition to the Civil Rights Association.

In Derry the CAC roughly filled the role of the CRA, while our own loose left group substituted for a Derry PD.

But, organisationally and politically, the lines were not clearly drawn.

The PD is best remembered from the period for the “Burntollet march” from Belfast to Derry of 1-4 January 1969 in which the Derry leftists joined. The CRA, the CAC, the Nationalist Party and the Catholic Church opposed the march, wanting to “give O’Neill time” to deliver on reforms promised in November and December.

The march was modelled on Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery march in Mississippi in 1965. It was resolved at the outset that no matter what the provocation, no one would retaliate. The march was harassed and battered all the way across the North by large squads of Loyalists who mustered quite openly with cudgels and nailed sticks. Of the 80 or so marchers who set out, only a quarter arrived in Derry uninjured.

At Burntollet Bridge on the final day a large force of Loyalists, marshalled by off-duty members of the B Specials identified by armbands, launched a mass attack which scattered marchers across the fields and into a river. The accompanying RUC contingents joined in the attack. As word of this spread into Derry five miles away, hundreds of local people poured out in cars and commandeered buses to escort those who were straggling on.

Later that night large gangs of police invaded the Bogside, many of them drunk, beating people up, kicking doors, breaking windows with batons and bellowing sectarian songs. These facts were attested to in the report of the subsequent inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Cameron.



CATHOLIC OUTRAGE after Burntollet boosted the PD’s standing and credibility among anti-Unionist groups. This was reflected in the result of the 24 February Stormont general election called by O’Neill in a futile attempt to solidify the Unionist centre at the expense of the ultra-right.

The PD put up eight candidates and polled 25,000 votes, winning an average of a third of the poll where it stood against conservative nationalists, and mopping up most of the Catholic vote where it stood alone against Unionists. In Foyle in Derry the Labour Party with myself as candidate took 12 percent against Hume, who won handsomely, and Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer.

This was certainly a success for socialists, but it is far from clear that it was a success for socialism.

The socialists had emerged as the most militant fighters against Unionist sectarianism. But given the spontaneous nature of the socialists’ main organisational expression – the PD – and the absence of clear cut ideas, this militancy was as much a reflection of gut opposition to the Northern state as of commitment to a socialist solution.

The implications of this became clearer the following month when the Unionist MP for the Mid-Ulster Westminster seat died. It was a knife-edge, mainly rural constituency with a small Catholic majority and a call arose immediately for a “Unity” candidate and no “splitting the vote”. Bernadette Devlin won the nomination at a “Unity” convention, defeating the opportunist fraud Currie and a number of moderate claimants.

She went on to win 30,000 votes and a famous victory in April. In her victory speech she said with typical, enchanting candour: “There may not be 30,000 socialists in this constituency but it has a socialist MP anyway”, which perfectly encapsulated the undefinable nature of the left’s “advances”.

As events spiralled on towards August 1969 and the entry of British troops, the left continued to operate as the militant element within a civil rights movement aiming at winning full citizenship for Northern Catholics. Increasingly, the argument between Hume and the CRA etc. on the one hand and the PD and the Derry leftists on the other, came to be expressed as an argument about the wisdom and efficacy of the proffered strategies for achieving this.

Our strategy, being more urgent and street orientated and couched in rhetorically revolutionary terms, matched the mood of many young workers in Catholic ghetto areas. But matching a mood was almost all it was. We weren’t recruiting them to socialist politics. Indeed, we had nothing to recruit them to.

Within a year of the February 1969 poll the PD had effectively disappeared in areas where it had polled well: in Fermanagh, South Derry and South Down, for example. After all, the local “PDs” had scarcely been organisations at all. And as student militancy receded, as it tends always to do, the main base in Queen’s University eroded steadily away.

In Derry the Labour Party had begun a process of slow disintegration. The liberal business element which had been around in 1967 had long gone.

In Foyle a number of right wing trade unionists left to back Hume. And while the party did replenish its membership with new, younger recruits, many of these were very soon to begin looking to Republican guerrilla struggle rather than working class mass action as the way forward.

With no politically hard organisation and no clear orientation on the working class the left in the civil rights movement had surfed along on the tide of events. It was therefore quite unable to stand fast against the direction in which the tide was flowing. We were carried along by it.

This is not to argue that if we had all been hardened revolutionaries working clear-mindedly to build a revolutionary socialist party things would have worked out very differently.

The deep-rootedness of sectarianism, the extent to which people in places like the Bogside think “naturally” in communal rather than class terms, the fact that even mildly left wing politics had long been anathematised by the Catholic establishment, all this would have confronted even the most consistent Marxists with formidable obstacles.

If we had been able to point to an organised working class movement – the unions most importantly, and the Labour Party – with a clear record of fighting vigorously for an end to the oppression of Catholics, it might have been possible to point to the working class as the force which had the power to remedy the ills we were campaigning against.

But that wasn’t the case. The realistic possibility we did have, and didn’t take, was of recruiting relatively rapidly from the masses of angry, urgent working class youth whom we had helped bring onto the streets, and perhaps entering 1969 with a revolutionary socialist organisation a few hundred strong.

The task of building such an organisation remains.


Last updated on 16.8.2001