2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of what is commonly accepted to be the start of the “Troubles”. In a few brief months in 1968 and 1969, Northern Ireland changed forever. A chain of events mobilised tens of thousands of young people, both Catholic and Protestant, in a mass movement which challenged the Unionist government and briefly posed the possibility of a revolutionary transformation of society.
Young people rejected the old ways of doing things, not just the misrule of the Unionist Party but also the deadening conservatism of the equally sectarian Nationalist Party. They turned to the left and the ideas of socialism, seeking a way forward in the struggle for civil rights, against sectarianism, and for a better life free from poverty and unemployment.
Now, it seems as if Northern Ireland has always been the same, a battleground of competing sectarian parties and paramilitary groups. The reality that the “Troubles” were not inevitable is largely forgotten. The sectarian forces which emerged victorious in the early 1970s have a vested interest in painting the past in sectarian colours.
It is vital that workers and young people who are opposed to sectarianism and capitalism and its innate exploitation learn about the events of the 1960s in Northern Ireland. Herald Books, in association with the Socialist Party, has published Common History, Common Struggle – written but not fully edited by Peter Hadden before his early death in 2010 – to counter the widely-accepted narratives of our past.
Peter Hadden wrote this book not as an end in itself, but because he had a profoundly optimistic perspective for the future. He believed that the unity of Protestants and Catholics was not just possible but offered the only way out of the nightmare of sectarianism and capitalism. Peter argues that the 1960s presented an opportunity for profound, positive change in Northern Ireland but that this opportunity was squandered by the leadership of the trade unions, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and other left forces. He was determined that future opportunities would not be lost because of the absence of leaders who are capable of taking the workers’ movement forward, and of seizing opportunities when presented.
There is no doubt that we will see united, mass movements of working-class people in the North in the years ahead. The twenty-five years of the so-called peace process have not resolved a single one of the issues which divide our communities, nor delivered the much promised “peace dividend”. The peace process has failed to deliver for working-class and young people, whatever their background. It has failed to overcome the underlying causes of conflict because, under capitalism, genuine peace and real economic advancement for working people is not possible.
Today, there is no doubt that the vast majority of workers and young people are opposed to Northern Ireland being dragged back to its more violent past. In each community, there are many who are consciously anti-sectarian and who see clearly the role of the sectarian politicians. This layer is inspired by developments elsewhere, just as in the 1960s the civil rights movement drew inspiration from across the globe.
Thousands of new activists will join the struggle for a democratic, socialist society where the needs of all are met and the rights of all guaranteed. The time is now to build a real alternative to sectarian politics. Reading Peter Hadden’s book will inform and inspire all who are prepared to engage in the historic struggle for a new society free of the evils of capitalism and the scourge of sectarianism.
Review by Ciaran Mulholland