Declassified file details how the RUC viewed the civil rights movement

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A declassified police file written 50 years ago shows what the RUC made of the internal politics of civil rights in the late 1960s, writes Kevin Mullan.

The intelligence memo requested by Derry-born Home Affairs Minister Robert Porter on July 4, 1969, was filed by RUC County Inspector David Johnston on behalf of the Inspector General Anthony Peacocke. It shows police were closely monitoring the power struggles within.

Johnston believed three elements vied for control, “the Nationalists, personified by Currie [Austin, Stormont East Tyrone MP]; The Derry moderates of the Action Committee; and the People’s Democracy Trotskyites.”

He discounted “Betty Sinclair & Co.” [the Communist Party] as a “reckonable force” but believed the “official Republican Movement...IRA, Sinn Féin and the Republican Clubs” were playing an active role.

Outlining the overall make-up of the movement at the staging post of summer 1969, Johnston argued that by that time the anti-sectarian appeals of its key players could be said to have fallen largely on the barren wayside.

“In composition the Movement was and is Catholic, but in the beginning a Protestant sprinkling of idealists and do-gooders presented a broader facade. This has now largely been shed, however, apart from an element of radical Socialists and Communists.

“At grass roots the Movement has now crystallised into the familiar ‘green’ composed of Republicans and Nationalists, but still, as I have said, containing a vociferous minority grouping of Trotskyites or Revolutionary Socialists,” he informed the ministry.

Though he characterised the People’s Democracy wing of the campaign as a “minority vociferous ginger group” Johnstone devoted a lot of time to the student radicals.

Intriguingly, he quoted liberally from the June 1969 edition of the ‘New Left Review’ in which Eamonn McCann, then of the Derry Labour Party, and Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman, all of People’s Democracy, outlined their positions.

He quoted Mr. McCann as stating: “Derry Citizens’ Action (DCAC) was elected by about 100 Derry middle class to steer the movement away from dangerous territory. There is a millionaire (Canavan the bookie) [Michael Canavan] among its leading members....and even though they have failed so far to channel in a safe direction they will always try to stop short of confrontation.”

Johnston quoted another section in which Mr. McCann called for a coalition between Republicans and Socialists.

“We cannot form a Bolshivick [sic] party overnight. Rather than set up councils, we must try a radical socialist front between Republicans and ourselves.”

The New Left Review item was characterised by antipathy towards the moderation of John Hume et al in the DCAC and a regard for radical republicanism.

For example, Mr. Farrell, the PD leader, stated: “The Republicans have been of great organisational assistance, both to PD marches and CR in the towns, where they have often provided the stewards and so on. Initially CR committees tended to be of the local bourgeoisie with a token gesture of workers....We have tried to swing the emphasis on to social and economic demands.”

Mr. McCann told the NLR: “The idea of revolution is implanted in the minds of the Irish by the glory of 1916 and its martyrs.....there is always a link to Connolly and to 1916.....We have to complete the national revolution.”

And Farrell stated: “The Border must go, but in the direction of a socialist republic and not just into a Republic which might at a future date become socialist.”

Both Devlin and Farrell were particularly hostile towards Austin Currie who had stood aside to let Devlin run as a unity candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election of 1969.

Devlin asserted “The people of Mid Ulster know a political opportunist when they see one and Austin Currie has a big X after his name.”

Farrell was equally scathing: “Nationalist MPs spoke on Bernadette’s platform, which was a grave embarrassment. These people are green tories.”

He continued: “Currie emphasises the unity of all Anti-Unionists which in practice means the unity of all Catholics against Protestants. We do not want reform of N. I. We want a revolution in Ireland.”

While identifying Currie, the DCAC, and the PD, as the three main rivals within the movement, Johnston reported that the Republican Movement was very active in the civil rights campaign.

Writing months before the IRA split he estimated republican HQ controlled two thirds of the executives of all local civil rights associations and that at top level five members of the 14 strong Executive Committee were known republicans, specifically mentioning Frank Gogarty and Fred Heatley of the Wolfe Tone Societies, and Vincent McDowell, a former member of the IRA in the last regard.

“The Republicans do not approve of P.D. despite the references by McCann and others to Connolly and a 32-County Socialist Republic,” he wrote.

He went on to quote from one of Republican GHQ’s confidential communications which sketched the attitude of the IRA, Sinn Féin and the Republican Clubs to civil rights.

GHQ felt it should work with other organisations to build a movement of “workers, farmers, self-employed and professional people within the Six Counties”, reported Johnston. The republican political documents proposed, however, that, as a tactic, no party political banners or tricolours be used at civil rights marches, it revealed.

Johnston anticpated the looming split between the so-called ‘Provisional’ and ‘Official’ IRAs later that year.

“The Republican Movement under Johnston [Roy, the Dublin Marxist and republican] has now become a Connollyite Socialist Movement of the Left. The ‘take-over’ may be said to be complete.”

He informed the ministry that their “hand will remain largely hidden” until the moment is right for the “final struggle for a 32 County Socialist Republic in the Connolly tradition”.

Johnston concluded by predicting the civil rights movement would last.

“My guess is that the Movement will survive and surmount its difficulties. All groups concerned know that it must survive if they are to further their own interests - and they will see that it does. It will continue to trouble us for some time to come. It would certainly not prosper to the same extent if Paisley would get the message that he is playing the game their way and that they thrive mainly on his reactions.”