The divided opposition
THE CHARACTER of the opposition has changed very much since the General Election. Prior to then the Nationalists controlled the predominantly Catholic rural areas and in Belfast Labour was the main opposition party. But now the position is very much different.
The Labour Party
The Labour Party survived on the perilous support of the Paisleyite and Catholic workers. Before 1965 Labour had held four seats. All four MPs had been Methodist lay preachers. In the 1965 election the Labour Party had lost two seats to moderate Unionists. In 1969 they were further debilitated. In Woodvale, which had been a Labour seat, the extreme Paisleyite militant John McQuade dramatically increased his lead over Labour to 6,791 from 3,351. In Shankill Labour, which had run the Paisleyite Desmond Boal very close in 1965, came only third. Their proportion of the vote was halved.
The Labour Party lost almost all support from the Protestant working class with the increasing success of Unionist fascism in Belfast. But Labour lost, not only the poor Protestant workers' vote, it lost the increasingly prosperous Protestant, skilled workers' vote also. In Victoria, the Unionist O'Neillite M.P., Roy Bradford, increased his majority over Labour from 423 to a huge 6,227, despite the participation of Major Bunting as a Protestant Unionist candidate. Labour had, in fact, hoped to gain a seat from the Unionists in Victoria, but the Protestant vote (and a section of the Catholic vote) polarised between Liberal-Conservatism and Fascism.
The only Protestant Labour candidate to hold his seat was Simpson in the predominantly Catholic Old Park constituency. The other Labour victory was over Republican Labour. Paddy Devlin, a prominent Catholic C.R.A. man, beat the reluctant, aging Harry Diamond in a close and bitter contest.
Labour lost the Protestant vote which it had been desperately trying to hold.
In the election campaign they had gone out of their way to overstress the privilege of the connection with Britain. British standards and British rights had been their slogan. They consciously aimed at holding the Protestant vote rather than gaining any Catholic votes. The party executive was conservative and mainly Protestant. They allowed almost any compromise with Unionism rather than risk expose the party's flank to Constitutional argument. This had been particularly evident in Belfast Corporation where Labour is fairly strong. Councillors are allowed almost complete freedom from the party whip. A notorious example of this was the famous dispute over the opening of playgrounds on the Sabbath. Two Labour Councillors voted in favour of their continued closure and were not disciplined by the party.
In this way the only non-Catholic opposition party was gravely shaken. The M.P.s who survived were both estranged from the party executive. Simpson reluctantly accepted that his vote was a pro-civil rights one and Devlin had used the party ticket merely to ensure his election in a strong working-class area. The depth of the estrangement of the Labour M.P.s from the executive was shown during the August pogrom when the Labour party's vaccilating attitude on what had happened so gravely embarrassed Paddy Devlin with his constituents that he threatened resignation.
The Nationalists were not wiped out. They retained six seats, one of which was not contested. In the other constituencies they nearly lost a seat to People's Democracy and in others lost a considerable portion of their vote to them. But from the inception of the C.R.A. as a radical anti-Unionist, street organisation they were always in serious danger on two counts. The first was that the clear lack of talent and leadership in the moribund, clericalist, petty bourgeois party would be exposed. This happened when the only significant urban vote west of the Bann rejected the Nationalists. The Derry Nationalists lost Gormley and McAteer. Only Austin Currie remained with enough talent to lead the party and he was unacceptable to the party executive.
The second danger lay in the direct challenge to the Nationalists from the C.R.A. Before the election the decisions of the National Executive of the Nationalist Party had had great significance. This was shown by the effect of their withdrawal from Stormont as official opposition and the importance for the C.R.A. of Nationalist support for their demands. When Hume and Cooper were elected, the Nationalist Party did not cease to function as a machine, but it lost nearly all its influence. Local C.R.A.s became compromise amalgamations of the Nationalist party, the People's Democracy, Republicans and some representatives of Labour. The Nationalist Party Executive has met only a few times since February and the chief Nationalist M.P., Austin Currie, operates almost totally on a local basis in Dungannon.
The New M.P.s
The new M.P.s had nothing very much in common. Hume, Cooper, Devlin and Kennedy owed their election to the success of the C.R.A. They had not been terribly influential figures before they received publicity from the confrontations with the government which took place at every turn of the C.R.A. Hume and Cooper had defected from the Labour Party and won on an open C.R.A. ticket.They received the backing of the Derry Citizens Defence Committee, while the official Labour Party candidate Eamonn McCann was outflanked.
People such as Simpson or Carron recognised the dominance of the C.R A. but had no wish or capability to do anything except acquiesce in decisions taken jointly by all opposition M.P.s.
Currie had engaged fitfully in a squatting campaign prior to October 5. He had pushed the Nationalist party towards support for the C.R.A. and had a powerful organisation in the heart of the most gerrymandered area of the North. He felt he had a natural right to lead any new party which might be formed. Gerry Fitt was, of course, an old hand. He had a group of Belfast Councillors under his control, a seat in Westminster and had led the first march in Derry when he had been batoned. He could not be left out of the picture. Neither could Paddy Devlin who was one of the most able of the opposition. He was, of course, comparatively new to Stormont and some of the opposition unfairly considered him to be a careerist. Paddy O'Hanlon had been briefly associated with P.D. He did not, however, show more radical tendencies than any of the others.
The group was united on the basis of certain demands and little else. Austin Currie was always vociferous in calling for a united party, but it was probably never a likelihood.
Since the General Election the main task of the opposition has been to filibuster the Public Order Bill. This campaign has shown the immensely complex position the opposition M.P.s are in. Their allegiance is primarily to their local C.R.A. Thus they have used Stormont merely as a platform and have frequently walked out and have broken parliamentary procedure in almost every conceivable manner. A clear example of this ambivalence was in the second week in August. The opposition successfully demanded the recall of Stormont, but when it met, they walked out immediately in protest at the mobilisation of the B Specials. Before August, the struggle for control of the local defence Committees was pretty intense. The M.P.s had influence through exposure on the mass media. But people such as Paddy Doherty or Sean Keenan would have had at least as much influence as either Hume of Cooper. Local Defence Committees became the chief organisation in the North in the last two months. They are controlled by Republicans in Derry and Belfast. Republicans did not playa public role in the C.R.A., but now their strong local contacts mean that they are very much in power. Most opposition M.P.s acquiesce in this. Gerry Fitt, for instance, liaises between the authorities and the Dock residents. During the pogrom, a clear split emerged between the P.D., the Republicans and the parliamentary opposition.
Sinn Fein and The Peoples Democracy
Sinn Fein had always been extremely hostile to P.D. The ideologists of the Wolfe Tone Society disagreed fundamentally with P.D.'s line. They saw the C.R A. as a means of destroying sectarianism by attracting Protestant moderate and middle class support. P.D. hoped to effect the same change by radicalising the Catholic working class. Perhaps they were both wrong, but the dispute became more fundamental and bitter in August.
At first in Free Belfast, P.D. had a good deal of influence They composed the first news sheets for the beseiged areas They were also in semi-control of the content on Radio Free Belfast. Then the Commissars from the South arrived and began to attack P.D. which had been calling for the abolition of Stormont. P.D. reasoned that with the imposition of direct rule from Westminster the whole Unionist machine would collapse when the easy flow of patronage dried up. Sinn Fein wasn't pleased. They denounced this line as Left Wing Adventurism and Fr. Murphy and Major General Dyball of the British Army conferring with people in The Falls Road instead called for the implementation of Article 75 of the Westminster Act and for the formation of a progressive bourgeois coalition government. The P.D. line was much more attractive and comprehensible to the people of Belfast, but Sinn Fein which had better organisation and a group disciplined to obey orders, won out.
The priest in politics
The priest reappeared in politics in Belfast. The priest provided a visible leader for a community which was often higWy confuscd and nervous. The clergy wanted the barricades down as quickly as possible. The unannounced visit of Dr. Philbin split the people even further.He was abused and was visibly affected by the hostility shown to him by a few people. This dispute over the role of the priest split local defence com mittees down the centre. By all accounts the decision to acquiesce in the fait accompli after Dr. Philbin's visit was a deeply disputed one.
In other areas outside big urban centres the Catholic organisation has gone to ground. They are given no opportunity to meet and the Catholic population concentrate on avoiding a situation similar to Belfast in August. They know, furthermore, that any such march in Derry will definitely be opposed by guns from now on. So to a large extent the C.R.A. is redundant.
P.D. are emerging from the last two months in better shape than the rest of the opposition. They have cut themselves off from their student base just before the beginning of term in Queens. P.D. is now run by an executive committee. This was selfelected a few weeks ago, but will eventually be elected by the constitutionalised branches which P.D. is setting up all over the North. P.D. may also capitalise on the disillusionment felt by many Catholics in the I.R.A. This is felt particularly in areas like Ardoyne where the people feel they were deserted by the I.R.A. and felt by some republicans themselves in Divis Street who resented Southerners giving orders when they were fighting for their lives.
Unprepared to face fascist mobilisation
In general, the position of the opposition is gloomy. On the one hand they are hopelessly ill-prepared in the face of what Currie, Cooper and O'Hanlon claim is large-scale fascist mobilisation. On the other hand, they are completely helpless in their old role. Reforms now appear to be a matter of negotiation between Stormont and Westminster and not between the organised people and Stormont. The role of defending the Catholic population and safeguarding its interest has been forceably seized by the British army. Any remaining status Citizens Defence Committees have is due only to the indulgence of the army.
Opposition overcome by events
In the last year the opposition has been as hopelessly divided as the Unionists. But the Unionists have the full force of the State to bide them over. They have the backing of a large middle class and an indulgent British government. The opposition has been overcome by the momentum of events which they set in motion. They have neither the resources or organisation. The opposition represents divergent class and economic interests and its attempt to unite them by attacking the Unionist State in the last year has finally eliminated any hope of a non-sectarian movement in the North in the near future.