The Connolly Association was there at the start

John Murphy reminds us that the Connolly Association and the late Desmond Greaves were the first to come up with the idea of a civil rights campaign to undermine reactionary unionism - and that power sharing offers republicans the opportunity to develop creative ways of persuading key sections of unionism that a unitary state is in their best interests

BACK IN 1958 the Connolly Association of Britain argued the only way to unite Ireland was to divide Ulster Unionism and bring about political conditions where sections of unionism could realise the common interests they had with others in Ireland.

The CA also argued the way to divide Ulster unionism was through a campaign for civil rights in the six counties, so that there was equality of treatment and parity of esteem, to use the current buzz words, between the two divided northern communities.

It was the Connolly Association and the late C Desmond Greaves, editor of the Irish Democrat from 1948 to 1988, who thought up the idea of a civil rights campaign as the way to undermine Ulster unionism.

The Association launched that campaign in Britain in 1958, ten years before the civil rights campaign got going in the north itself. Over the following decade it won substantial sections of British Labour and trade union opinion to support it. That in turn put pressure on Harold Wilson's Labour government to pressurise Terence O'Neill's Stormont parliament to concede reforms when the northern civil rights movement got going there in 1968-9.

The Connolly Asssociation's central insight was that the unionism of most unionists was not based on love of Britain or the Crown, but on being top-dog over nationalists and Catholics, and enjoying the small privileges that went with that, in a northern economy that was racked by backwardness and unemployment. Rule out such top-dog- gery by means of civil rights, said the CA, and political conditions would be created in which the rational basis for the unionism of most unionists could be eroded in a generation.

That was why the Associa- tion and Irish Democrat opposed the call for the abolition of Stormont in 1971-72, for that would remove the local northern forum in which the process of dividing unionism and enabling some unionists to discover their Irishness could work itself out.

The CA launched the call for a Bill of Rights as an alternative to that. The Bill of Rights would be a middle way between leaving an unreformed Stormont in existence on the one hand and going for 'direct rule' from Britain on the other.

The CA's Bill of Rights was drafted by the late Desmond Greaves in consultation with Labour MP Arthur Latham and Lord Fenner Brockway and was proposed in the House of Commons and House of Lords on the same day, 12 May 1971, but the Tories voted to throw it out.

If passed, it would have imposed civil rights over the heads of Stormont and dismantled unionism's apparatus of discrimination. But it would have left the Stormont parliament there and encouraged it to get closer to the south - which is a very similar concept to the Good Friday agreement. It was a lost opportunity, but it showed the farsightedness of the CA's policy.

The Association realised that direct rule from London was no way to end partition. And after experiencing 35 years of the delights of British direct rule, most northerners now see the good sense of having a local executive and assembly in the six counties.

Ian Paisley and his followers are Irish poeple after all, even if they are alienated, reactionary and confused. If Paisley and Martin McGuinness go into government together early next year, as the St Andrews agreement envisages, it pro-vides the best possible condition for winning over sections of unionist/loyalist opinion to discovering the interests they have in common with their nationalist-Catholics fellow countrymen. It will take time, but it is inevitable.

Trust is bound to grow between them if they work together. The social class basis of the DUP and Sinn Fein has much in common. Many lower-income working-class and small farming people from each community vote for one or other of these two parties. That should help them work out common social and economic policies, whereas the SDLP and Official unionism are middle-class conservative through and through.

Sinn Fein and the DUP also share a healthy scepticism of the pretensions of the European Union. There should be plenty scope there for common positions and approaches, especially vis-a-vis Dublin.

Sinn Fein needs to continue 'love-bombing' Ulster union- ism. It needs to think out clever ways of developing common political positions, once they and the DUP have got used to being in government together.

It needs to be imaginative in reaching out to the unionist-Loyalist grassroots. Once they are power sharing in Stormont, Sinn Fein and the DUP may be able together to confront official Ireland in Dublin for good purposes, not bad.

And if the republicans want to hasten the Irish reunification process, they should also start taking seriously the development of solidarity work in this country, so that the British government is pressed to devolve more and more power to the six counties and encourage ever closer north-south coming-together, as part of the now inevitable process of total British withdrawal from Irish affairs altogether.

All this is the promise of the St Andrew Agreement. We live in exciting political times. The Connolly Association and Irish Democrat can be proud of being in at the start of it all nearly 50 years ago.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-01-29 18:11:12.
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