Revisiting People’s Democracy and the ‘Burntollet’ march

The January 1969 Belfast to Derry march, organised by People’s Democracy, modelled on the US civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

Last week I watched a video of a public meeting at the CP’s Dublin headquarters marking the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the civil rights movement onto the streets of Derry and the wider six counties.  One of the speakers was Tommy McKearney, someone whom I respect a great deal.  To my unpleasant surprise, however, Tommy wheeled out the old Stickies and CP attacks on “ultralefts” going destructively ahead with activities which unnecessarily provoked violent clashes instead of listening to the advice of more seasoned folk like Betty Sinclair.


It’s hard to know where to start in responding to this, so I’m linking to two articles on the People’s Democracy organisation, the civil rights movement and Burntollet.  One is by Matt Collins, from SWN/People Before Profit looking back on the events as a Marxist today and the other is by John McAnulty, a veteran of PD and the movement back then and an active Marxist still.  John agrees with much in the Matt Collins article, which defends PD, while also noting a few things Matt got wrong.

Before linking to these, I just want to say something about Betty Sinclair and the question of ‘experience’.  Tommy is dead wrong to say Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell, John McAnulty and the “ultralefts” should have listened to Betty Sinclair because she was older and more experienced.  This is because age and experience can cut either way.  Age and experience can lead to timidity and conservatism, and this is exactly what Betty Sinclair represented politically.

In New Zealand, the most important battle between the working class and the bosses and their state was the 1951 waterfront lockout, which went on for 151 days and ended with a crushing defeat for the wharfies and their allies.  Two completely different conclusions were drawn by people who went through that experience together.

A section of trade unionists and political activists involved drew the conclusion that it was a mistake to ever take on the capitalist state and spent the rest of their political lives arguing for the politics of timidity, often while still calling themselves “communists”.  They put much energy over the following decades into discouraging militant industrial action by workers, especially if there was a chance of the state getting involved.

Another section of trade unionists and political activists drew the conclusion that the challenge was now on to prepare the ground for a future confrontation with the state, one in which the balance of forces and the political terrain would be different and this time we would be able to win.

In the early 1960s, the CPNZ split in line with the Moscow/Peking split.  In New Zealand, however, the CPNZ went with Mao and China and a minority group set up the pro-Moscow Socialist Unity Party.  The SUPers were people who drew the conservative conclusions from 1951 and the CP were the folks who drew the more radical conclusions from 1951.  The SUP were the New Zealand equivalent of the Betty Sinclairs and they spent the rest of their existence putting out fires for the bosses and the capitalist state, while the CPNZ followed a course much more committed to workers’ struggles.  (I should say here that I was never a supporter of the CPNZ, for other reasons, but I always regarded them as working class fighters and the SUP as conservative union bureaucrats and followers of the Labour Party.)

Betty Sinclair did not know better than Michael Farrell and Bernadette Devlin and John McAnulty in 1968.  Her ‘experience’ had taught her political timidity and conservatism and always to avoid the radical option.  Her position, mirroring that of her organisation, was one of abject reformism in relation to the six-county state.  Tommy used to know stuff like this, so I’m sad to see him engaged in deciding to forget it.

Anyway, here is the Matt Collins article:

And here is the John McAnulty article:

People should also look at the excellent documentary made by Bernadette for the 1968 Committee in 1988, marking the 20th anniversary of the first major civil rights march in Derry.  As she points out in the doco, practice is the ultimate test for theory and PD were proven right when their Belfast to Derry march (the Burntollet march) was greeted on its arrival in Derry by thousands and thousands of people.  The masses endorsed the “ultraleftism” of PD and not the timid conservatism of Betty Sinclair.

The nonsense about PD “ultralefts” mucking up the civil rights movement is also effectively demolished by Daniel Finn in Field Day Review (2013) – see The Point of No Return? People’s Democracy and the Burntollet March.

Posted on November 12, 2018, in Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey, Civil rights movement, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Peter Graham October 1968.
    On the march itself (Derry October 1968) the only ones in a position to do any beating were the cops. When the crowd first tried to break the cordon it was viciously driven back, then some people spoke off a chair to the demonstrators (about 8oo of them, only half of them men capable of fighting the Police of which there was 500 ) Eddie Mactteer (Nationalist Party) was booed down and would not be listened to because earlier in the week he said “the nationalist Party would not participate as a party though members from the Party could participate as individuals, we want to keep the politicians out of the Civil Rights Affair.”

    Betty Sinclair, the N. I. C P. was also booed when she suggested we go home, the next speaker was Eamon Mc’Cann . He had absolute silence.

    • Mick, is all what you posted a direct quote from an article or letter by Peter Graham? It’s not clear whether he is saying this or you are paraphrasing him.

  2. Very disappointing from Tommy, and I hope he will clarify his remarks at some point, but its obvious what some in the audience took from it. The next comment is from someone – presumably a longtime CP member – who talks about ‘middle class toffs’ from Queen’s University who went out and marched with no mandate etc. etc. etc. Absolutely turgid rubbish, old-style, full-blown stalinism. Little difference between this line (blaming the new left ‘ultralefts’ for detonating the subsequent conflict, holding up Sinclair as the voice of reason) and the crap being churned out by those who can manage to make it into paid academic positions. The question from the man in the audience about whether this characterization would also apply to the Selma marchers is on target, and I’d like to hear Tommy and the others justifty the same perspective in a US context. Everything Tommy says about the long history and depth of violent sectarianism in the north of Ireland was true, to a much higher degree in the former slave states of the US South. You might want to post a link to Dan Finn’s excellent article on Burntollet from a few years back, which demolishes all of this.

    McAnulty’s piece is hobbled by the same small-mindedness and sectarianism that marks everything he writes these days. Collins’s uncontroversial point (not hidden, by the way, but stated explicitly) is that the historiography carried over the same blame-the-victims perspective that marked the Cameron report. What is controversial about that? Matt is obviously aware that some among the ex-left ended up writing history on behalf of the establishment – he mentions Patterson by name for crissakes. I wish John could find a way to try to get some bandwidth for his group (two members in the north?) without the incessant, tedious, obligatory swipes at the left.

  3. It’s kind of odd to see Tommy recycling the old CPNI line, a line that discredited them at the time. I guess he is very close to the CP these days and is, perhaps, ‘re-reading’ history. Thanks for the suggestion about the Daniel Finn article. I have now linked to it at the end of the post.

    • The CP gets off pretty lightly regarding its role in the civil rights movement. Mike Milotte does a good job, I think, of demonstrating that much of their (impressive) growth among industrial workers came during the Second World War, when they were engaged in social patriotism and the politics of the Popular Front. This meant that they softened or ditched any criticisms of Unionism in the shipyards, engineering, etc. It also meant that when agitation around civil rights arose from the mid-60s their working class membership was drawn almost exclusively from one side of the divide, and they were unable – or unwilling – to push a principled line on the developing crisis facing the Orange state. Seán Mitchell’s book on the OutDoor Relief riots has some good material on Betty Sinclair, which should be read alongside the less critical readings of her activism. I think the legacy of this approach, which the Officials pretty much adopted (without the base) is still obvious in the labour bureaucracy’s extremely cautious approach to sectarianism.

  4. I bought Seán’s book earlier this year, but haven’t got round to reading it yet. But I’m looking forward to getting into it.

  5. Sorry Philip about such a long time in replying.It’s from a letter written by Peter Graham to his comrade Sean Matgamna.

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