How did British Libertarian Communists understand the conflict in the north of Ireland, and face up to events there? Did they support specific campaigns for withdrawing British troops out of Ireland?

Firstly a few words on organisations within this Platformist tradition in the UK in the 1970’s: the larger part of those anarchists and libertarians who came together using the Platform in Britain first coalesced in 1971 in the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists, publishing the paper Libertarian Struggle. This tendency evolved into the Anarchist Workers’ Association in 1975 publishing Anarchist Worker. This in turn renamed itself the Libertarian Communist Group or LCG two years later, publishing Libertarian Communist. In 1980 the majority of the LCG joined Big Flame, a libertarian Marxist organisation of diverse politics. This merger left the field open for the emergence of the Anarchist Communist Federation, now renamed as the Anarchist Federation, which publishes the magazine Organise and has members in both Britain and Ireland. Ireland briefly had its own Anarchist Workers’ Association, but its enduring organisation is the Workers Solidarity Movement, founded in 1984 which has published Workers Solidarity and the occasional journal Red and Black Revolution. There are former members or sympathisers of the Anarchist Workers’ Association or LCG in the Workers Solidarity Movement and the Anarchist Federation.

The immediate cause of recent conflict in the six counties of northern Ireland was the insurrection of the Civil Rights Movement, and their subsequent repression from 1968 onwards. The Civil Rights Movement contested the discriminatory and sectarian practices of state bodies in the six counties of northern Ireland, attempting to use peaceful protest. Their demands included everyday democratic demands- the sort of demands that were being made by labour in early Victorian Britain over a hundred years earlier- for fair electoral boundaries; demands for community parity: fair distribution of housing, and calling for new laws against discrimination; and demands against state repression: for the repeal of the local Special Powers Act and for abolition of the repressive B-Special police gangs. Together these amounted to a programme for more or near equal recognition for the nationalist or Catholic people in the six counties and ending discrimination by the statelet which had acted hitherto as a Protestant State for a Protestant People.

The reaction to these demands was repression: the police and reactionaries of the Ian Paisley type smashed a march to Derry. Terrence O’Neil, the Prime Minister of the Six County statelet sanctioned this violence, saying “we have heard sufficient for now about civil rights”. In 1969 loyalist marchers in Derry threw pennies from the City walls at people in the Bogside, stones were returned, police ran into the Bogside, and the Bogsiders threw them out. British troops were then sent to help out. The IRA- the Irish Republican Army- had hitherto been moribund,[2] and thus it was that the British and Six County state that re-introduced the gun into everyday life beginning the period of ‘The Troubles’. Within a short time the events of Bloody Sunday on 31st January 1972,[3] when British paratroops killed thirteen demonstrators on a march in Derry, and the practices of counter-insurgency forces targeting republicans in alliance with loyalists provoked a reaction that culminated in the rapid re-development of the Irish Republican Army and in the UK in the formation of the Troops Out Movement, founded in 1973, with two key demands: Troops Out Now! And Self Determination for the Irish people as a whole![4]

The Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists debated policy towards Ireland from its beginnings. A policy document calling for a united workers’ Ireland, support for armed struggle and non-recognition of the existing states was circulated before its founding conference of November 1971.[5] Conference minutes record that the debate on this document was vigorous and informative, but resulted in no agreement. In the 1970’s organisations had neither websites, nor electronic mailing lists/e-mail to facilitate communication. It was not easy to create norms of informed, tolerant and structured discussion, into a new political tendency with little experience, little inherited wisdom, and diverse political references. From the 70’s to the mid 1990’s the IRA attempted to carry the war to Britain, bombing various targets: bombings of pubs produced vicious criticisms, the bombing of Margaret Thatcher in her Brighton hotel some years later did not draw forth a similar reaction. In December 1973[6] a letter writer asked Libertarian Struggle why there was support for Irish Republicansvi , citing their racism, sexism and their condemnation of atheistic Marxism. An editorial reply said that demands for release of Irish political prisoners, for an end to internment, and for troops out were agreed policy, but not support for the IRA. In the next issue of the paper, Briege McKeown wrote to call for contacts with Republicans, for pressure on Labour MPs and for campaigns for prisoners and against harassment; with work aimed not at students or activists but towards “the working man”.[7] An editor’s note stated that the article was not the agreed policy of the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists’ and called for other contributions.

In Libertarian Struggle in November 1974, an editorial published after the bombing in Guildford condemned it as “a cold blooded act of barbarism”.[9] In January 1976 one contribution characterised the Provisional Irish Republican Army as bourgeois. It also noted that members of the IS, (the International Socialists) were being withdrawn from the Troops Out Movement to prevent their ideological contamination.[10] A letter published in March 1976 from another Irish contributor, one Alan MacSimoin argued the Provisional IRA are “a working class group with a bourgeois or bourgeois inclined leadership”.[11]

Internal debate on Ireland came to a head in 1976 at a time when the Anarchists Workers Association had grown to a membership of 100, with a larger number of peripheral contacts. A majority at conference agreed a new policy in February 1976 that was motivated in an article entitled Ireland: An Alternative Approach, published in the newspaper of the Anarchist Workers’ Association, in May 1976. It explained the new policy in the following terms: “the independence of Southern Ireland is only formal” and “we do not recognise Northern Ireland as an imperialist situation”.[12] “[T]he nature of capitalism has changed: it is now an international finance system, no longer recognising the boundaries of nations”. Classic cases of imperialism were defined as “where there is no native bourgeoisie, in other words where industrialised countries are simply removing the raw materials of non-industrialised countries.” in contrast in northern and southern Ireland there were subsidiary companies from various countries, and the Northern Irish bourgeoisie were willing members of the club.

The Alternative position had a particular viewpoint on relations between economic and political realities: “Political control derives from economic control, the political control is, in any case, only formally exercised from Westminster. Changing the formal holders of power in Northern Ireland would not change the nature of that control”.[13] The discrimination suffered by nationalist was seen as an economic fact of life: “Keeping the Catholic population in an inferior position with regard to job and housing facilities is part of the economic structure of Ulster. The Catholics make up a permanent pool of unemployed, which helps to maintain the profit levels of the bosses. Also there is a real potential of a socialist upsurge coming out of the sectarian politics of republicanism. For both these reasons, it was inevitable that the troops would eventually be used against the Catholics. However the troops are not responsible for the divisions within the Ulster working class- these divisions existed long before the British Army went in. It has been said that British involvement is the ‘tie-breaker’ in the Northern Ireland crisis. We have seen that British involvement will never realistically end until capitalism collapses”. The Alternative Approach position did look for troops to be withdrawn, but did not press for this “now”. It argued that the withdrawal of troops would be meaningful only if achieved by working class action in Britain and Northern Ireland. “At the moment, pulling the troops out would be meaningless”.[14]

Whilst the militaristic and discriminatory role of the Six County state and its forces was downplayed in the “Alternative Approach”, the progressive nature of the British state was noted: “Looking at the Constitution of Eire and welfare facilities there, it is not surprising that Protestant workers feel better off as they are”. Further those opposing British policy were told off: “We reject all para-military groups as nationalistic, elitist and divisive” Echoes of this theme recur, in the magazine of the Anarchist Communist Federation eighteen years later.[15] “Much of the left has acted as a cheerleader for the reactionary and often racist nationalism espoused by the pseudo-socialist IRA. This attitude has further alienated working class Protestants and driven them towards the Six County right and political Neanderthals of loyalism”. In this view both loyalism and republicanism are equated. This begs the question : should those who suffer discrimination and oppression have the right to defend themselves? should they wait for a comprehensive revolution? The policy of the Federation agreed in 1990 said, “As anarchist communists we see that nationalistic and hierarchical resistance can merely unite a capitalist Ireland. Both the “stages theory” and the idea of “self-determination” would lead to such an outcome, neither benefiting the Irish Working class, nor advancing the international fight against capitalism.[16] One thread connecting these statements is antipathy to republicanism, neglecting the rights of an oppressed minority to defend their interests.

In the next issue of Anarchist Worker the LCG tendency- the then minority of the AWA who subsequently formed the tendency that became the Libertarian Communist Group, or LCG, recorded their opposition to the Alternative Approach position, in an article headlined ‘Ireland: Abstention is no alternative’.[17] They pointed to the wider historical, state and military context: British troops acted partially- they did not act against the mass of legally held arms in the hands of pro-unionists but did intimidate and threaten nationalists, criminalising nationalists and republicans; thus there were vigorous searches of nationalist areas, but this policy was not inflicted on loyalists. It noted the killings by the British Army on Bloody Sunday, and the Army’s refusal to act to break the strike of the Ulster Workers’ Council in 1974. It called for the removal of British troops (now) that were supporting a sectarian Unionist/Six County/Loyalist statelet, ‘Self determination for the Irish people as a whole’ and ‘Troops Out Now’ — the demands of the Troops Out Movement. Such points were made to critique the “Alternative Approach” whose policy paid inadequate attention to the impact of state structures on the nationalist population,[18] failed to properly consider the inter-relation between the economic and the political, and how political factors also worked to determine economic realities. For example — that the unequal levels of unemployment amongst nationalists was determined by the action of the Six County state directing job creation towards Loyalist areas and away from nationalist areas. Whilst the historical roots of the Six County state were not addressed in this article for reasons of space,[19] a letter in the same issue of the paper did broaden the argument. It concluded: “The general influence of capital in a any part of the world is not a guide to anything, just as knowledge of the average annual rainfall doesn’t tell you whether you’ll need an umbrella or a bottle of suntan lotion. Only by studying the unique features of the particular situation and then relating them to general trends can you arrive at any developing analysis. The real things in the six counties that we must take into account are the following: (1) The protestant ascendancy is based upon the subjugation of the catholic population by the armed forces of Stormont[20] and of the British state. (2) Whilst the real division (actual preferential treatment in housing, jobs, etc.) divides protestant from catholic, class based politics is crippled. (3) Therefore class politics can only develop if the ascendancy is ended. The troops must be brought out before class politics can start, -NOT the other way round.”

The LCG perspective did not see Troops Out as a cure-all. Rather it was a step that could and should be usefully advanced in Britain, given a context in which British troops were responsible for a large part of the violence in the six counties.[21] Weakening a sectarian Six County statelet was a step worth making, towards reducing the violence suffered by the nationalist community. Greater equality was not of itself revolutionary but the destruction of a sectarian statelet might facilitate further change in Ireland. It would also be in the interests of British workers to hamper and prevent British armed forces perfecting repressive technologies and systems that would almost certainly be used against themselves- and this did prove to the case, as techniques and weapons first used in Ireland were deployed in Britain in the course of the Great Miners’ strike of 1984–5.

The general position of this LCG tendency on national liberation noted that each situation was unique, but went on to say in a draft programme. “National liberation struggles are usually led by sections of the national bourgeoisie, allied with intellectual and petty bourgeois elements. The working class and peasantry usually take an active part in national liberation struggles. Very often, however, their interests are subordinated to those of the native bourgeoisie, who seek state power and establishment of capitalist and state capitalist economies. We must give what aid and advice we can to forces of the workers and peasants inside the liberation movements”, and “We therefore give critical support to national liberation struggles where it affects the influence of colonial powers and where revolutionary struggle has a chance of outstripping the national liberation struggles.”[22]

It is interesting to compare arguments from the 1970’s with positions held by the Workers Solidarity Movement of Ireland (WSM). Their argument has a historical context:

“It is important to realise that partition is not a historic accident but rather the result of centuries of imperialism and struggles against imperialism. From the reformation onwards the British State encouraged religious conflict in Ireland in order to divide and rule.”

The impact of partition is noted thus:

In the north the divisions have historically meant that workers from a catholic background suffered state discrimination and were often the targets of loyalist and Orange attacks. Sharp sectarian divisions around the issues of access to jobs and housing already existed, particularly in Belfast. But the rhetoric of those who ran the northern state helped further build a sense amongst a layer of protestant workers that they had to actively defend ‘their jobs and houses’ against the demands of catholic workers for an equal share. This layer could be mobilised not only against catholic workers but also against protestant workers who either identified with the call for a fair redivision on humanitarian grounds or who saw the possibility of more being won for all workers through a united struggle.[23]

Loyalism and Republicanism are not portrayed as being each as bad as each other:

republicanism unlike loyalism often developed significant left strands within it because, at least in theory, it was based on the ‘equal rights of all’ rather then the ‘god given destiny...’


British troops were not sent into the North in 1969 in order to keep the peace but rather to provide a breathing space for the northern security forces and to stabilise in the interests of the British ruling class what they thought could have became a revolutionary situation. This remained their role, which is why we call for “Troops out now”. In addition they were used also to break the back of any mass peaceful reform movement through actions like Bloody Sunday in 1972…

We have opposed the republican armed struggle because it was an impediment to working class unity. It was based on wrong politics, it was a wrong strategy and it used wrong tactics. However we refused to blame the republicans for the situation in the six counties. Their campaign was the result of a problem and must not be confused with its cause. In the final analysis, the cause lies with the continuing occupation by the British state... The IRA was not responsible for the creation of sectarianism. Rather it was re-created in 1969 as a response to the sectarian attacks by the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries on what had been a peaceful civil rights movement. While individual IRA actions in the years since heightened sectarian tensions they were not the underlying reason why it continued to exist. For this reason the end of the IRA campaign did not result in an end to sectarianism.

The WSM has also written that:

“A lasting libertarian movement can only be built on a basis that openly includes anti-imperialism and opposition to state repression and sectarianism among its policies…”

They speculate on the future:

“Now partition could end through a referendum in which a yet to be formed majority impose a new settlement on a minority but in which sectarianism remains in place. As anarchists we would welcome the removal of imperialism even under such circumstances but recognise that in the short term at least it would probably deepen sectarian divisions in the northern working class.”

Does this experience have anything in common with experiences elsewhere, and in France in particular? The Union des Travailleurs Communistes Libertaires, which exists today around the magazine and organisation Alternative Libertaire was excluded from the French Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists accused of being partisanly in favour of the partyist activity (‘partidaire’ en francais) amongst other leftists, as well as being workerist.[24] It appears to continue to promote the rights of peoples in overseas territories still managed by the French State: rights of citizenship, rights to housing, rights to work, the right to express one’s culture and national feeling, etc.[25] In Britain the LCG was also accused of Leftism, committing the sins of “united front work” through work in the Socialist Teachers Alliance, and its co-operation with Socialist Unity,[26] an electoral front. Some libertarian communists in France have stood in elections, and consider participation in elections as a question of tactics, others, and most anarchists would reject this position. Some comments that have some resonance with events in Britain can be found in the history of French anarchism by Cedric Guerin.[27] Cedric Guerin comments on the analysis of certain anarchists in the 1950 in respect of Algeria that they delighted in putting both parties to the conflict on the same level.[28] Critical positions are quoted from the Groupe Anarchiste d’Action Revolutionnaire and from Noir et Rouge “We anarchists cannot wittingly confuse the exploiter and the exploited, the oppressor and the oppressed.” And “For us, anarchists can only be partisans convinced that colonialism should be destroyed in Algeria... morally, we can only be with the Algerian people…”[29] In 1962 an anarchist notable, Joyeux, commented at the Macon conference of the Federation Anarchiste that the Algerian revolution was a bourgeois revolution which had nothing to do with class struggle, and unless change brought about an end of exploitation it had no interest. There is some similarity between these arguments and the arguments discussed above. Perhaps Daniel Guerin had such comments in mind when he chose two extracts from Proudhon and Bakunin for his book Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, first published by Editions Gallimard in 1965 and translated and published by Monthly Review in 1970. Proudhon is quoted saying that Algeria will sooner or later constitute itself as an Algerian France on the model of the USA separating itself from Britain. His vision appears to be Eurocentric, with Algeria being Frenchified. On the other hand Bakunin is quoted saying that every people has the right to their own language and culture, but that it would be regrettable if new servitudes and new yokes enveloped decolonised countries. Guerin ends “This analysis brings us straight into the middle of the twentieth century” [30]

Looking briefly to questions of coalitions: the axis which largely determines the potential for coalition building is identified as a function of both short term and urgent immediate common objectives between various parties and the possibility that future progress will be made easier through obtaining these immediate objectives. Libertarian communists might argue that limited political campaigns- for instance against the use of plastic bullets, or against racists and fascists, work to facilitate both urgent immediate objectives and facilitate better future outcomes. Such reasoned, qualified politics is not new. It can also be found within older anarchist movements, hence this quote from Malatesta, from Umanita Nova on May 4th 1922, he wrote, on unity with Italian socialists, that we (anarchists) cannot defeat fascism:

“So we must unite with others who, though not anarchists, share short term, common objectives with us or allow that the fascists, with the connivance of the government, should be free to terrorise the country… we prefer to run the risk of being betrayed by others, than betray ourselves to the point of extinction through inaction.”[31]

The above was written when future prospect looked bleak and when fascism was on the march, but a concern for class unity was also expressed when prospects were much rosier, as in August 1920 when revolution seemed in the air, if not yet on every street corner. At that time the Syndicalist union of Italy had some 800,000 members and the Socialists controlled a trade-union movement with over a million and a half members, Malatesta wrote:

“But when the Socialist Party rests on the terrain of revolution, when workers’ organisations remain organisations of struggle against the bosses, when co-operatives remain trial runs by workers of direct management to the advantage of the collectivity, in short when socialist institutions remain really socialist, our entire sympathy and co-operation is won thereby. Also because for the moment we cannot by our own efforts alone begin or make the revolution triumph. And because we are convinced that socialism if it is really socialism will necessarily merge itself with anarchism.” [32]

The broad question addressed here is one of class unity and the terms on which such unity would be developed, in both the best and worst of political times. Today perhaps, questions of external or anti-colonial national liberation are less pertinent than in the early 1970’s. However many forms of nationalisms are thriving, overlapping sometimes with opposition to imperialist oppression, within states which increasingly take on the form of multi-national political administrations administering capital within defined geographical limits. Events in late 2005, in the poor suburbs of Paris, where many non-indigenous marginalised people suffer from institutional racism, suggest that when brought together in such circumstances, the overlap of class and national oppression may well spark confrontation and pose new, or not so new political questions. The overthrow of capital and of the state may not be on the immediate agenda in such circumstances, but for a minority community the absence of state police and para-military may be as welcome and as ‘meaningful’ there, as was the removal of British security forces from nationalist areas of the six counties in the 1970’s.

[2] In the early 1970’s it was said that that IRA stood for I Ran Away, so ineffective was the Irish Republican Army. It should also be noted that arms held by Crown forces found their way into the hands of loyalists. As this paper was being written collusion between Crown forces and loyalists was still in the news: it was announced that an ex-British intelligence source had confessed to the murder of a lawyer who acted for the IRA with a weapon supplied by Crown forces, and after police patrols had been deliberately removed shortly before the assassination.

[3] A Guardian report can be read on


[5] The Newsletter of the ORA, #4.

[6] Libertarian Struggle, #10, December 1973.

[7] Irish Republicans- Sinn Fein and allied bodies.

[9] Libertarian Struggle, November-December 1974, (not numbered).

[10] Libertarian Struggle, #23, January 1976; IS refers to the International Socialists, now the Socialist Workers’ Party (GB).

[11] Libertarian Struggle, #25, March 1976. An editorial reply commented the AWA did work with that the IS in the Troops Out Movement, but that the IS were withdrawing members from TOM, and using rank and file bodies to build the Party.

[12] Ireland: An Alternative Approach, J.C., Anarchist Worker, May 1976, p4.

[13] It is not unknown for critics of Marxism to point to ‘its’ economic determinism, this text suggest that this sin can also be shared by other ‘isms’.

[14] This line was echoed by the Organise, #20, “Both the ‘stages theory’ and the idea of ‘self determination’ would lead to such an outcome [a united capitalist Ireland], neither benefiting the Irish working class, nor advancing the international fight against capitalism. Thus they are an irrelevance to the class struggle”… “It is only through a generalised class struggle- both social and armed- that a world wide anarchist society can be envisaged”.

[15] Organise #34, April-June 1994, p11 , emphasis added. The policy of the Anarchist Communist Federation had been spelt out earlier. In 1990 the Anarchist Communist Federation gave muted recognition to anti-imperialism, a policy statement stated: “We support the class struggle in Ireland –North and South- that is attempting to oppose divisions, oppressions and exploitations. The presence of British troops in Ireland is only one aspect of imperialist domination. As in any fight against imperialism, we support the removal of capitalist troops through united internationalist working class action.

[16] Anarchist Communist Federation, in their paper, Organise #20, August-November 1990, p11.

[17] Anarchist Worker, June 1976

[18] Ireland: An Alternative Approach, J.C., Anarchist Worker, May 1976, p4. Policy agreed at National Conference, 14 and 15.2.1976, was: “The situation in Northern Ireland is that capitalists from all parts of the world are exploiting the Irish working class, and that religious, national and cultural traditions are being used to divided and further exploit the working class. The AWA rejects the concept of anti-imperialist struggle. We recognise that capitalism is an international system and that the struggle must be against both the international and the domestic ruling class. The struggle in Northern Ireland should be linked with struggles for workers power, throughout the British Isles, Ireland’s economy being an integral part of the economy of Britain, Europe and the world. We reject all para-military groups as nationalistic, elitist and divisive. The troops presence in Northern Ireland maintains divisions within the working class that ultimately benefit only the capitalists. The only way that the removal of troops could be meaningful is if they withdraw through united class action, including the self-activity of the troops. The struggle will only be resolved when the people of Northern Ireland realise that their best interests lie with each other and not with para-military groups, capitalists and religious and other sectarian groups.” ( Anarchist Worker, May 1976.)

[19] Later issues of Libertarian Communist, especially the final issue published in 1970 went some way to examining the history of the labour movement in Ireland.

[20] i.e. of the Six County state: Stormont was the location of the parliament of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.

[21] The Irish Workers Solidarity Moment had a sub-head in their paper Workers Solidarity, #43, Autumn 1994, ‘The gun was reintroduced to northern politics .. by the British state.’

[22] Towards A Programme, 1977. Clearly, socialist rhetoric is no longer so prominent, but it does survive in some circles, see for example

[23] WSM quotes are from ‘The partition of Ireland — amended WSM position paper, by National Conference — WSM Tuesday, Nov 8 2005, 11:35am’,

[24] “partidaire et ouvrieriste” see L’OCL, trente ans d’anarchisme revolutionnaire, in Courant Alternatif, Mensuel edite par l’Organisation Communiste Libertaire, 3e trimestre, 1999, p33. Both tendencies survive, the excluded now publish Alternative Libertaire. (

[25] On the situation of people in New Caledonia it wrote in Alternative Libertaire April 1998, #63: “Tout d’abord, il faut savoir que l’État français devra réformer la Constitution, pour y faire apparaître la notion d’Etat-associé. Nous devrons faire pression sur les législateurs, pour que la nouvelle Constitution soit favorable à tous les peuples voulant s’émanciper. Dans l’immédiat nous devons nous appuyer sur les luttes pour les droits fondamentaux, qui se sont développées ces dernières années en France, et auxquelles participe Alternative Libertaire : droit au logement, droit au travail, droit à la citoyenneté pour tous (Français-immigrés), égalité des droits entre hommes et femmes, pour populariser un autre droit fondamental : le droit des peuples à disposer d’eux-mêmes, droit actuellement dénié au peuple kanak par l’État français.”

[26] Socialist Unity was an electoral front, led by the International Marxists Group, an affiliate of the Fourth International. See Anarchist Communism in Britain, in Organise, #42, magazine of the Anarchist Communist Federation, Spring 1996, p18, also on — a history of crimes against an anarchist orthodoxy failing to note the context of events or the relationship between theory and activity in these times.

[27] Cedric Guerin, Anarchisme francais de 1950 a 1970, unpublished manuscript.

[28] “sous pretexte de divergences d’ordre ideologique (conception, esprit, et objectifs de la lutte nationale, role de l’Etat dans la nation algerienne, entre autres) on se complait dans une attitude equivoque de “balance” renvoyant dos a dos les deux parties et aboutissant a un soutien objectif de la presence francaise en Algerie.”, ibid.

[29] “on ne peut confondre sciemment l’expoiteur et l’expoite, l’oppresseur et l’opprime. Pour nous, les anarchistes ne peuvent etre qu’etre partisans convaincus de la destruction du colonialisme en Algerie. (…) Nous ne pouvons etre moralement qu’avec le peuple algerien…” ibid.

[30] p.69.

[31] Vernon Richards, (Ed), Malatesta: Life and Ideas, London: Freedom Press, 1965, p149.

[32] Errico Malatesta, Umanita Nova #153, 25.8.1920, quoted and translated from Anarchistes, Socialistes et Communistes, Annecy: Groupe 1er Mai, 1982, pp. 141–2, emphasis added.