The North in crisis-The people's democracy
ON OCTOBER THE 9TH students of Queen's University Belfast staged a sit down outside the Guildhall in Derry to protest against the police brutality of October the 5th. This was in effect the beginning of the Peoples' Democracy as a loosly-knit movement. The Government showed immediate concern by sending two senior Civil Servants to a mass meeting of the students. It was evident that the Government was not happy about the nonsectarian stance of the students. Perhaps they also feared, with a certain amount of justification, the famed unpredictability of the students and their radical tendencies. Many leaders of the P.D., including such people as Michael Farrell, Cyral Toman, Rory McShane and Fergus Keogh had been earlier connected with the Irish Workers' Group.
In theearly 1960s they had consistently advocated a workj.ng class communist stance. On its demise it had been superseded in Balfast by another group which had attracted about thirty Catholic and Protestant workers in the fight against capitalism.Former members of these
groups easily dominated the earlier meetings of the Peoples' Democracy due to the evident superiority of their socialist position and their skill in handling difficult procedural and tactical problems that constantly cropped up. They gradually gained strength by attracting other socialist organisations to their side. These included the Republican Club, the Radical Students' Socialist Federation, the Labour Party and the Socialist Society. They also made it clear that the meetings should not be strictly confined to the University.
P.D. had two immediate reverberations in Ulster. It provided a platform for radical Marxists and gave direction to a student protest which, as a broad-based, liberal, " spontaneous" one would probably have petered out in a few weeks. However, its strong left tendencies cost it the kind of mass support which a more moderate movement could have had.
Hitherto a nationalist inclinedgroup had dominated college politics. They had formed a successful New Ireland Society which provided a useful platform for the P.D. at the beginning of term. The events of last year when very many universities went rapidly towards radical socialism were used to push recalcitrant Northern students away from sectarianism.
The lack of organisation, however, arising from the P,D.'s obsessive fear of bureaucracy has meant that virtually anybody can issue statements or undertake action in its name, There has never been a constitution, a committee, an official spokesman or anything smacking of institution. Meetings are called by anybody and attended by anybody. At about 10 o'clock they are usually filled with the efflux from the nearby University bar.
The value of such a " structure" to the leaders can be seen for example in their manipulation of the assembly when dealing with questions such as the march to Stormont along the militantly Protestant Newtownards Road. The activists proposed this march during a large P.D. meeting and their proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. At a later meeting attended by less people the proposal was also rejected. Finally at a third, even smaller meeting, called to reconsider the proposal and mainly attended by those in favour of the march the proposal was accepted. This way the movement has qeen kept active and radical. The voice of the half-hearted being easily put aside.
P.D. has maintained constant pressure on the Civil Rights Association to adopt a more radical active programme. When the Civil Rights Association drew back for fear of the political consequences of certain actions, P.D, did not. When the sheer danger of trespassing on Paisleyite territory appalled the C.R,A., the P.D, went ahead. They took over the Belfast to Derry March which the C.R.A. had called off because of O'Neill's November reform promises. The compromising behaviour of the police all along the route, but particularly during the Burntollet attack left little doubt as to the position of the Government. The courage of the marchers epitomised in the person of Michael Farrell and their viewpoint as expressed by Eamonn McCann won the P.D. wide admiration and support.
From that on the P.D. had to be taken seriously. Taking advantage of its popularity, it set up a wide network of local groups which in effect fulfil the role of opposition to the local Civil Rights Association branches. These have been formed wherever the C.R.A. is least strong. For example, in Armagh and Omagh P.D. branches have enough strength to assume control of the C.R.A. In places such as Lurgan, however, where there is a militant C.R.A. relations with the Peoples Democracy have been co-operative. P .D. at this juncture has enormous potential and at the same time enormous organisational difficulties. If it de-centralises its decisionmaking processes, it can become a radical party based largely on the Catholic working class which utilises the radicalism and tactical mobility of the students. If it does not, it will probably disintegrate into a series of local organisations divorced from the student body.
Its success in the February elections seriously shook the Conservatives in the Civil Rights Movement. Two P.D. candidates polled one third of the votes when they ran against Nationalists. Elsewhere P.D. candidates won all the Catholic vote, showing that Catholics were I no longer afraid of the red spectre.
After the elections, the conflict between P.D. and C.R.A. came to a head. At the January AGM Farrell, McCann, Toman and Kevin Boyle had been elected to the executive. Frank Gogarty and Vincent McDowell, who had been elected Chairman and Vice-Chairman, were known to be "soft on the P,D." The last straw for the anti-P.D. element was a proposal that the C,R.A. should jointly sponsor with the P.D. a march to Stormont through the Newtownards Road planned for March. Indignant at the implied recognition of status, afraid of the provocation involved and generally fed-up at being foisted with P.D. ideas, a section of the executive strongly opposed the C.R.A.'s involvement. Gogarty's casting vote swung the matter in favour of the march and five members resigned from the executive. These included ex-chairman Betty Sinclair, leader of the Northern Ireland Communist Party, and Secretary John McInerny. In Omagh a further eight members resigned. The walk-out had been intended as a protest against the strength of the P.D. but because of the leadership of Gogarty and McDowell the relationship between the P.D. and the C,R.A. was not affected. These two because of their radical republicanism have been able to play ball between the most divergent elements in the association.
Meanwhile the argument continues, but in hushed tones. Betty Sinclair stoutly maintaines that the P.D. has pushed the Protestants far too hard and precipated sectaranism. This is broadly the line Above: A man calls for cover as he searches for a sniper in Belfast taken by Sinn Fein supporters.
Moderates such as Hume and Cooper believe that many out or at any rate, not opposed by people such as Eamonn McCann.
P.D. with a great deal of justification maintaines that the C.R.A. and the U,V.F. are more to blame. They critise the C.R.A. for taking the movement off the streets, thus leaving demonstrations in July and August with no basis other than a sectarian one. They also attack the C.R.A. for allowing Paisley a free hand in Belfast. They claim that the cowardly removal of radical politics from the platform opened the flood gates.
But now apres Ie deluge, how will the two major components of the Civil Rights movement stand in relation to each other? While McCann and Bernadette manned the barricades, Hume and Cooper found themselves in the strange no-maD's land between the militants and the R.U.C. While the C.R.A. are proposing a campaign of civil disobedience, defiance of the ban on demonstrations and the setting up of Citizens' Defence Associations, Farrell and Toman have, temporarily at least, fled the province in despair.