War and an Irish Town

Against the Current, No. 223, March/April 2023

Joan McKiernan

War and an Irish Town
By Eamonn McCann
First publication Pluto Press, 1974. Chicago: Haymarket Books edition, 2018, $20 paperback.

“‘WE’RE GONNA WALK on this nation, we’re gonna walk on this racist power structure, and we’re gonna say to the whole damned government — “STICK ‘EM UP MOTHERFUCKERS.’”

WITH THIS QUOTE from a film of the Black Panthers, Eamonn McCann, launches the Haymarket edition of his classic study of Derry and the North of Ireland Troubles, War and an Irish Town, taking us back to those heady days when so much change not only seemed possible, but likely to happen.

This is an especially timely reissue when the question of a united Ireland is again on the table.

Those in Derry that 1968 night cheering the Black Panthers’ words shared a common goal: the fight against inequality and repression, whether on the streets of Derry or Chicago where Black activists were “then under murderous assault by the feds and local police forces across the US.”

In those years, from Vietnam to Yugoslavia, Chicago to Mexico and many other places, the world was filled with students, workers, communities fighting back. McCann argues that “Each upsurge of struggle sent out a flurry of sparks which helped ignite struggle elsewhere.”

He situates The Troubles in the North of Ireland in this time of international struggles. Those who were there for those struggles should read this latest edition, with a new introduction by the author, to reconsider what happened and why we did not win. Those who were too young at the time can read about those exciting times and what lessons can be learned for the future.

Background to the Long Conflict

“The Troubles” refer to the 30-year conflict which ended in 1998 after 3500 people were killed in a very small area, in what was the longest conflict in modern European history. To understand The Troubles, we need to look at the role of British imperialism.

While the English had been invading Ireland for centuries, it was with the plantation of Ulster from 1609 to 1690 that a permanent colony was established in the northeast section of Ireland. England brought settlers from Protestant Scotland as a defense against attacks by its Catholic enemies in Europe. Ireland was the backdoor to England, and so it was fortified against foreign enemies, whose numbers would be swollen with Irish freedom fighters.

This was the same period when England, was conquering and colonizing other areas around the world, such as Jamestown in 1619 and Plymouth, 1620-1691. The fate of the Indigenous people in these lands was similar — loss of life, land, language and culture.

The indigenous Irish, Catholics, were banished to the west of Ireland with restrictions on their language and religion and became dependent on tenant farming. Indigenous peoples in America fared much worse, killed outright, loss of all their land, banished to the west, consigned to concentration camps, and still fighting for their rights.

It took many uprisings in Ireland until in the early 20th century, the War for Independence was successful to a point in ousting the British from most of Ireland.

The Republican movement, consisting of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein, which led the struggle for independence, had to concede to the terms of the Treaty of 1921, which left the six northeastern counties with their Protestant majority in British hands. The island was partitioned, dividing the working class, political groups, everything.

The driving force of the colonization of Ireland as well as the Americas was the economic interest of British capitalism. Similarly, McCann points out, both Irish and British capitalists were content with partition as it benefitted the economic interests of both groups. But for the people living in the North, particularly Catholics, it was dismal.

The Unionists, who supported the union with Britain, built a “Protestant state for Protestant people.” Catholics faced discrimination in every aspect of society. But the Protestant working class did not do well either. With a divided class, the Protestant workers’ bosses were able to easily show you are doing better than they are, despite your own poverty and poor conditions.

While there were occasional, but tepid, efforts to raise the issue of rights for Catholics, their politicians focused on arguments for a united Ireland. It was not until the post-World War II British welfare state opened the educational route to middle-class professional opportunities for Catholics that challenges to the system began.

In the early 1960s, middle-class Catholics, doctors, teachers, nurses and other professionals, began to research the extent of inequality and raised the issue of civil rights. This led to marches, campaigns and open opposition to Stormont, the Protestant-dominated government in the North.

From Civil Rights to War

War and an Irish Town tells the story of the author’s experience growing up in Catholic Derry, the North’s second city, living under Protestant/unionist domination.

Eamonn McCann was already a socialist activist when civil rights campaigns started up and he and a few friends initiated the campaign in Derry. They organized the first major march in Derry on October 5, 1968, often cited as the day The Troubles started.

Because there were threats of loyalist counter marches, the government banned the planned march and the major civil rights organization also tried to get the march cancelled. So, it was left up to McCann and his group to organize the march.

When the marchers, about 400 in number, started off, they were brutally beaten by the police (pictured on the cover of the book). Three British Members of Parliament were in attendance and beaten.

All this was filmed by a crew from RTE, Irish national television. The brutality of the police was broadcast to the world. What is amazing is that people in the South, the 26-county Irish Republic, were astounded. “We did not know,” they said, though the South is just a few miles, or even less, away from the place where the attack took place.

Similarly, in Britain it was an article, “John Bull’s Other Island” by Mary Holland in the Observer (March 6, 1968), which revealed the intense level of discrimination and bigotry that existed in one section of the United Kingdom.

Now, over 50 years later young people in the South still don’t seem to know much about The Troubles. Partition has been very effective in separating people on this small island. When journalist Ed Moloney’s film on the Troubles, Voices from the Grave was shown on RTE, numerous viewers asked, “Is that what it was all about?”(1)

McCann’s reissued book will hopefully fill the gap that still exists on this important period in the history of struggle against inequality and repression. Other issues addressed in this edition include the outcome of the campaign around Bloody Sunday, the Good Friday peace agreement (GFA), and the issue of a United Ireland.

The campaign for civil rights was short-lived. It met with total opposition from the North’s government and the dominant unionist/protestant majority, which refused to allow any reforms.

In August 1969 the British government sent its troops into the North, basically to rescue the failing government there. The army’s brutal incursions into Catholic working-class areas led to the creation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provos). Initially a defense force protecting Catholic areas, it eventually became as McCann describes, “the most effective guerilla army of the twentieth century, they managed marvelously to frustrate the designs of British governments.”

One of the worst British army atrocities was Bloody Sunday, January 30,1972 when British paratroopers (commanded by the current British monarch) opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry. Despite 50 years of tribunals, campaigns and protests, McCann concludes, “The full truth about Bloody Sunday remains to be told.”

The pursuit of that truth will shortly be curtailed. The British government is about to pass a “Troubles Legacy and Reconciliation Bill” to limit criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints about Troubles-related deaths.(2)

The bill, already passed by the House of Commons, will provide effective amnesty for those accused of killing or maiming people during the Troubles, including the commanders of those paratroopers who killed 14 people on Bloody Sunday.

GFA and its Results

The Troubles officially ended with the signing of the peace agreement called the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) following cease-fires by the Provos and loyalist paramilitary groups, and negotiations among the Irish and British governments and all the major parties in the North, facilitated by the U.S. government.

The GFA’s main substance was to restore Stormont, the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland parliament, suspended under British direct rule, but on a power sharing basis. It set up a government which copper-fastened the sectarianism of the northern state.

The power sharing plan recognizes two groups — Nationalist and Unionist. A representative of each section would become first and deputy first minister. Only representatives of those two communities can participate in significant votes. There is no space for others, labor or greens or women.

And, of course, it provided that Northern Ireland “will remain part of the United Kingdom” until most of the people north and south, in separate referendums, decide otherwise.

McCann poses the question, why did the Provos settle for so little? Everything they had fought for, an end to Stormont and a united Ireland, was denied, but they got a seat in the new governing body. “The GFA was a poor return for the investment of pain endured and inflicted by members of the IRA.”

He points out that the civil rights demands had mostly been met by the time the GFA negotiations took place. “The IRA campaign had been fought under false colors,” referring to its focus on the demand for British withdrawal.

McCann also argues that the “peace process was a bottom-up phenomenon” since the working class “had no stomach for the continuation of the slaughter.”

I see little evidence for this view of events. On the contrary, the move to a peace process was driven by the leader of the IRA. In the early 1980s, in an interview for an oral history project, Republican leader Gerry Adams pointed to the electoral success of the Official Republican movement and explained to me that “that is where we should be.”

That goal of moving to politics was documented in Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA.(3) The stated IRA goal of a united Ireland had to be put aside; the GFA facilitated that.

McCann argues that the IRA lost the war, but won the peace, as they successfully entered the new government, which he concludes was pre-programmed to deadlock.

That is exactly what is happening now. While Sinn Fein is now the largest nationalist party and the largest party in the North, its representative Michelle O’Neil ought to be First Minister. However, the leading unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is refusing to take its seat as Deputy First Minister, leaving the North without a functioning administration.

Aside from the DUP’s objection to sharing power with the “shinners,”(4) they have an ongoing dispute over the handling of border customs. This flows from the Brexit decision by the UK, leaving a tangled mess over handling the border between the North of Ireland and the Irish Republic, which belongs to the European Union. Loyalist paramilitaries are protesting the plan to have custom stations in Belfast rather than on the land border with the Republic.

A United Ireland?

With the rise of the Provos as the central force of resistance against the British state, partition and a united Ireland became more important as a focus of the struggle. McCann argues that the inevitability of the rise of the Provos and the issue of the partition of Ireland is due to the “British ruling class and their agents in Ireland” who refused to agree to any civil rights reforms.

He explains that none of the civil rights campaigners, particularly on the left, wanted to raise partition. Any hint of challenging partition meant agreeing to join the southern state, an option that would be rejected by the dominant Unionist community, as well as by many Catholics at the time.

So, as with the civil rights demands, McCann describes the left folding into the mass of moderates in the civil rights movement. They did not distinguish themselves politically from middle class groups, but they were more militant in demanding a fair share of jobs and houses.

McCann explains that to Protestant workers, that meant a zero-sum game that meant Protestants should get less. He points out that no group campaigned for an increased share of the pie for all workers, calling for an increased number of jobs and houses for all.

Who Are Our Friends?

One important lesson McCann draws is that campaigners should understand who your friends are. He cites numerous examples of campaigns that held back their demands because it might upset powerful people or the “other” community.

No one raised any problem with American imperialism when Bill Clinton came to Belfast and was cheered on the Republican stronghold of the Falls Road.

Republican leaders always told us, don’t raise women’s demands. They must wait, as they would say “The fight for a united Ireland comes first.” It is a good thing that women did not wait.

The kowtowing of Irish politicians in the White House every St. Patrick’s Day is an annual embarrassment. Former IRA leader Gerry Adams wanted to go there even when Trump took over the presidency. McCann reports that he did not get invited.

One of the examples McCann cites is the occupation of the Derry Raytheon arms plant, which was producing arms used by Israel against Lebanon in 2006. McCann and others were arrested. But political organizations like Sinn Fein, which claim to be anti-imperialist, refused to participate because it might alienate American business interests.

McCann concludes that “in every struggle for liberty and justice, we are weakened when we shape our strategy to keep powerful interests onside.” Capitalism “is the source of all our woes,” and socialists need to focus on internationalism and organizing from below. Because “those who run the world in the interests of the rich are organized across countries and continents, so must opponents of capitalism be if we are to confront them in appropriate array.”

Today, the issue of a united Ireland is back on the agenda. And once again, it is being treated in the most spurious way, ignoring the facts of the North where most people want to stay in the UK citing the National Health Service and UK economic support as positive reasons for staying.(5)

The fight for a united Ireland can only be won in the context of an overall struggle for equality and liberation for all the people on the island, that would work to overthrow the capitalist system in the North and South.

In 1974 McCann discussed the failure of the left during the Troubles, insisting that “we need a movement without any illusions in any section of the bourgeois class.” He argued for a movement that would deal with the national question, discrimination, sectarianism, and the divided working class.

To do that, he looked to the working class. “Either British imperialism or the Irish working class will win. There is no other force in Ireland with a potential for power.” He concluded that his book was a contribution to the discussion of how to build the necessary revolutionary party to work for the overthrow of the parasitic capitalist class.

Over 50 years later, we still are discussing how we can build that revolutionary party. The lessons and experiences in this book are relevant and necessary for socialists today.

This new edition is timely given the challenges that we face, including the movement of so many into middle-class electoral politics, dropping the focus on workers’ power and class politics. Most stark is the current refusal by so many on the left to support the right of self-determination for the Ukrainian people in their struggle against the imperialist Russian onslaught.

That right to self-determination was widely supported and so important for many previous struggles, such as Vietnam, Yugoslavia, and Ireland. Authors of a recent article in Foreign Policy in Focus, concluded their examination of the left response to Vietnam and Ukraine, “As the left did in nearly all earlier cases of struggles for colonial liberation, so in this one too it should stand with the liberation movement.”(6)

Just as the left from around the world supported our shouts of Troops Out Now in Belfast and Derry, they should be joining the demand for Russian troops out of Ukraine. That right and the struggle against imperialism continues to be tested in so many areas of conflict today — such as Palestine, Ukraine, Yemen, Syria.

We need a renewed focus on capitalism as the cause of the increasing inequality, the ecological threat to the planet, indeed, all the disasters in the world. As McCann argues, there is no force other than the working class that can overthrow capitalism. A return to the goal of revolutionary socialism is sorely needed in the world today.


  1. Voices From the Grave, documentary (2010) IMDb.
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  2. A Bill to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles and promote reconciliation by establishing an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, limiting criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints, extending the prisoner release scheme in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, and providing for experiences to be recorded and preserved and for events to be studied and memorialized.
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  3. Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London, Penguin Books, 2007).
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  4. A common nickname for members of Sinn Fein.
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  5. Katy Howard and Ben Rosher, Political Attitudes in Northern Ireland in a Period of Transition (Research Update 142) June 2021.
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  6. Stephen R. Shalom and Dan LaBotz, “What are the Lessons of Vietnam for Ukraine Today?” Foreign Policy in Focus, January 23, 2023.
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March-April 2023, ATC 223

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