From Bloody Sunday to Trafalgar Square

This text describes the mass insurgency in Ireland leading up to the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, and looks at how the British state has applied the lessons from Ireland against the working class in Britain. It was first published in early 1991 in the aftermath of the Trafalgar Square poll tax riot and circulated as a 4 page A4 leaflet amongst the anti-poll tax movement ; later it was republished in Clash, the international autonomist magazine and Wildcat (London).

Submitted by Juan Conatz on July 11, 2009

"I'd shoot some of these bastards, I would, honest... this is more like Northern Ireland" (comments by police, 31 March 1990)

The Trafalgar Square riot of 31 March 1990 was a liberating experience for most of those who took part in it. The attempt by the police to assert their control over a crowd of 200,000 anti-poll tax protestors was met with massive resistance and for a while we were in control of the streets of the West End of London.

Although the police might have "lost it a bit" on the day however, they have been determined ever since to show who's boss. Even on the day there were 391 arrests, and many demonstrators were injured by the police. Immediately afterwards the police launched Operation Carnaby- more than 100 people were arrested as the police raided the homes of anti-poll tax activists. The Crown Prosecution Service set up a special unit to rush people through the courts in political show trials, where magistrates have been handing down heavy sentences (e.g. Robert Robinson was jailed for two years for allegedly kicking a police van being driven at high speed into a packed crowd). On October 20th 1990 the police made a further 135 arrests when they violently dispersed a Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign picket outside Brixton prison.

The level of state repression has clearly taken some people in the anti-poll tax movement by surprise. In itself the fact that so few covered their faces at the height of the fighting on the 31st shows how unprepared people were. This naivety might be understandable if it wasn't for the fact that the British state has been dishing out such repression- and worse- for years just over the Irish Sea.

Repression in Ireland

In the North of Ireland (with a total population of one and a half million) there are more than 30,000 members of the security forces on active duty, This includes 13,000 heavily armed members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its reserve, 10,000 British troops, and 6,000 Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers. By way of a seasonal present 600 extra troops were sent over in time for Christmas 1990. The firepower of these bodies of armed men is almost entirely aimed at the working class in the catholic areas of the six counties.

In this part of the world raids on people's homes are a common part of the daily level of harassment. At the beginning of December 1990 for instance upwards of 800 homes and other premises were raided in Derry, as troops carried out house-to-house searches (the peak year for house searches so far was 1973, when 74,556 searches were carried out- amounting to nearly one-fifth of all homes in the six counties).

People here don't have to just worry about video surveillance in the streets (as is becoming common in English city centres). They are subject to massive and permanent electronic eavesdropping as the state attempts to watch every move they make and listen to every word they say. Demonstrators have been attacked not just with truncheons, but with CS gas, plastic bullets and live ammunition.

The "conveyor belt justice" being meted out to poll tax protestors is nothing new either. Trial by jury has been abolished in Northern Ireland, where the "Diplock Courts" have a high (and rapid) conviction rate of 90-95%.

A whole series of "dirty tricks" have also been used, with British Intelligence working hand-in-glove with loyalist terrorists when it suits them. Fred Holroyd, a former MI6 officer has claimed that British Intelligence supplied the explosives that were used by Loyalists to plant car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974, killing 31 people.

"You're innocent until proven Irish" (woman arrested under PTA)

British state terrorism against Irish people is not confined to Ireland either. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, introduced by the Labour Party to intimidate Irish communities in Britain, 7222 people have been arrested, detained and questioned (as of December 1990). Many have been excluded from Britain without even being charged. Every year 50,000 Irish people are stopped and questioned at British ports. And as the cases of the Guildford 4 (the first people arrested under the PTA) and the Birmingham 6 demonstrate, being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time is a major crime in British courts.

Popular insurgency

Still, some people would no doubt say, things are different in Ireland. After all, isn't all this repression simply a response to the bullets and bombs of the IRA? NO! In fact the tactics used by working class catholics in the early phases of the present "troubles" were remarkably similar to those used by the anti-poll tax movement today.

In Derry, 1968, the movement initially focused around poor housing, and in particular the discrimination against catholics which stopped them getting council houses. The Derry Housing Action Committee began by disrupting meetings of the Londonderry Corporation, the local council. Empty houses were squatted, private landlords charging exorbitant rents were picketed, and Electricity Department officials prevented from cutting off supplies.

A similar campaign was carried out in Belfast. The struggle for better housing here was based at first around opposition to the building of the Divis Flats high-rise complex, and continued when they were built. During 1969 the police reacted increasingly violently to protests and there were frequent riots. On one occasion fifty people armed with a telegraph pole attempted to break down the door of Hastings Street police barracks.

In Derry too even peaceful demonstrations with the most timid demands for "civil rights" were clubbed into the ground. On 5 October 1968 police baton charged a banned march in the city. In January 1969 a march from Belfast to Derry organised by the left-wing People's Democracy was attacked at Burntollet Bridge, a few miles outside of Derry. Loyalists in open collusion with the police waded in with nailed clubs, stones and bicycle chains. Rioting broke out in the city, and barricades went up in the Bogside. The police were kept out of "Free Derry" for five days. A pirate radio station ("Radio Free Derry- the Voice of Liberation") began broadcasting and defence patrols armed with sticks and iron bars were organised.

Battle of the Bogside

The barricades went up again on August 11 1969 in anticipation of an RUC and Orange attack the next day, the day of the Apprentice Boys march (the annual celebration of protestant supremacy). The next day, as feared, RUC men and Apprentice Boys marchers attempted to charge into the area and fighting erupted. "The Battle of the Bogside" lasted for about forty-eight hours. Open-air petrol bomb factories and first-aid stations were set up, and dumpers hijacked from a building site were used to carry stones to the front.

Meanwhile people took to the streets in Belfast after hearing a taped plea from Derry for solidarity. Teenagers with petrol bombs faced police armoured cars with high-velocity, heavy .30 calibre Browning machine guns (with a range of almost two and a half miles and capable of shooting through brick walls). A nine year old boy, Patrick Rooney, was killed in his bed in the Divis by one of these bullets. Although some IRA members used their few guns to defend the catholic ghettos in Belfast, the organisation's role at this time was minimal. Indeed graffiti such as "IRA = I Ran Away" appeared on the Falls Road (it is important to stress this fact as many people in Britain imagine that so long as we don't use arms, neither will the state).

Back in Derry, the Bogside was not only successfully defended (youths lobbed petrol bombs onto the police from the top of a block of flats overlooking the main entrance to the Bogside), but the police began to be pushed back towards the commercial area of the City. It was at this point that the Labour Government sent in the troops. The army were not sent in to protect the catholics or as a neutral peace-keeping force, but because the situation was getting out of control and the RUC were losing. This much was later made clear by James Callaghan, home secretary at the time:

"When I got back to the Home Office, I was informed that earlier in the afternoon, Sir Harold Black, the secretary to the Northern Ireland Office, had telephoned to say that Anthony Peacocke, the Inspector General, feared that the police would be unable to contain the Bogside for much longer, and that if troops were not made available, the police would be compelled to retreat from their position in front of the barricades"

Initially the troops were welcomed in some catholic areas as a neutral force. Such illusions were also pedalled by British leftists who defended sending in the army, such as the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP): "Because the troops do not have the ingrained hatreds of the RUC Specials, they will not behave with the same viciousness" (Socialist Worker, 21.8.69).

Any illusions in the Army's "peacekeeping" role didn't last long. In July 1970 the Army imposed a curfew on the Falls Road in Belfast, in the course of which four catholics were killed. On 4 November 1971 Emma Groves lost both her eyes after a soldier fired a rubber bullet into her living room from close range.

Resistance to the army grew steadily, and by the summer of '71 a mass popular movement had developed in Ballymurphy, with street committees, women's committees, youth committees, etc. A picket (consisting mostly of local women) outside the Ballymurphy British army base had been violently attacked, and street fighting had become a regular event. In this period fifteen people were killed in the area. During rioting people organised themselves with wet sacks to put on top of smoking gas canisters, basins of water and vinegar were placed outside houses to wet handkerchiefs or faces during CS gas attacks, and front and back doors were left open to enable rioters to escape army swoops. An attempt to build an RUC station was abandoned when people overran the intended site. Rioters overcame troops and rode off in some of their jeeps. In short the state "lost it a bit", not just for an afternoon as on 31 March, but for a prolonged period. The RUC, the Army and thousands of gas canisters had failed to subdue the insurgent working class of Belfast, Derry and elsewhere.

Bloody Sunday

"What became known as Bloody Sunday then has often been, and frequently still is believed to have been, an act of undisciplined slaughter perpetrated by blood-crazed Paras. This assumption though is wrong and to a large extent lets the British establishment off the hook. By assuming that soldiers "ran amok" it puts the blame on individual soldiers who pulled triggers and killed people. Bloody Sunday was a planned, calculated response to a demand for civil rights, designed to terrify organised protestors away from protesting. It fits easily into the catalogue of British involvement in Ireland as a quite logical and even natural event" (Fred Holroyd, ex-British Army Intelligence Officer.)

In August 1971 internment without trial was introduced. On the tenth, Operation Demetrius was launched. 342 people were arrested and nine people killed by troops. In this period experiments in sensory deprivation torture were carried out on some people arrested, with the aim of psychologically breaking them. With hoods placed over their heads, they were made to stand spread-eagled against a wall balanced on their fingertips. They were kept like this for four or five days, being bombarded with white noise and beaten if they moved, denied food, drink, sleep, or access to toilets. At intervals they were taken up in a helicopter and thrown out while just a few feet off the ground having been told that they were hundreds of feet up (they were still wearing their hoods).

In protest at internment, a rent and rates strike was organised which attracted the support of some 40,000 households. By October this had escalated to non-payment of TV, radio, car licences, road tax, ground rent, electricity, gas and hire purchase (this a good idea that we should imitate- after all why stop at not paying the poll tax?). In response to this crisis the Payments of Debt Act was passed, allowing debts to be deducted directly from benefits- no doubt our rulers remembered this idea when they dreamt up the poll tax.

The introduction of internment was accompanied by a 12-month ban on all demonstrations. Despite this, on January 30 1972 tens of thousands of people attended a demonstration in Derry. The state's response to this act of defiance was a cold-blooded massacre. CS Gas and water cannon had already been used by the time the Parachute Regiment came onto the streets and opened fire on the crowd. The Army claimed that they were returning fire, but forensic tests on the 14 people killed showed that none of them had had contact with weapons and no weapons were found anywhere near the bodies.

Since Bloody Sunday many more have died. In the last twenty years more than 300 people have been killed by the army and police.

Bringing it all back home

"Some of the tactics adopted by the London police and later by other forces were those developed and used by the army and the RUC Special Patrol Group in Northern Ireland. The introduction of "snatch squads" and "wedges" in demonstrations, and random stop and searches and roadblocks on the streets were based on the Army's experience in Ulster" (Robert Mark, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner)

"The British Army has a great deal of experience of what we call "counter-revolutionary" warfare" (Army recruitment advert, December 1990)

If people in Britain have been slow to learn the lessons of Ireland, the same cannot be said for our rulers. They have used the North as a laboratory for social control, where methods of repression can be tested before being tried out on the rest of us.

This is not a new phenomena. For instance as long ago as 1883, the police Special Branch (originally called the Special Irish Branch) was set up to deal with Irish rebels. Before long they were being used against any radical opposition in Britain and Ireland, so that by 1978 Merlyn Rees (Labour Home Secretary) could accurately say: "The Special Branch collects information on those whom I think cause problems for the state"- a lot of people!

Snatch squads were used against pickets during the 1977 Grunwick strike, and in the same year riot shields were introduced at Lewisham when a crowd fought fascists and the police. But it was the 1981 riots in English cities that marked a real turning point in the application of the lessons learned in Ireland.

The first riots occurred in Brixton in April 1981 (a helicopter-borne night-vision TV camera was used, as seen in the six counties). In July there were further riots in Brixton, Manchester Moss Side, Birmingham, Luton, and many other places. At Toxteth in Liverpool CS Gas was used for the first time in Britain.

John Biggs-Davidson once wrote: "If we lose in Belfast we may have to fight in Brixton or Birmingham". In 1981 the spectre of the British state losing simultaneously in all of these places appeared briefly, as the riots in England coincided with a resurgence of mass protest in Ireland in support of the prisoners' struggles in the H-Blocks and Armagh. Hunger strikers' deaths were marked by intense rioting, and the similarities between the repression facing the working class in Britain and Ireland became increasingly apparent. For instance two youths in Derry were killed by an army land rover; later the same tactics of using army or police vehicles to break up crowds led to the death of David Moore in Toxteth (it is a miracle that nobody was killed at Trafalgar Square when police vans were again used in this way).

In response to the riots the government announced that plastic bullets, armoured personnel carriers and water cannon would be available to the police. On 14 July, six senior police officers flew to the six counties for a crash course in riot control from the RUC (it is now standard practice for police superintendents to do a tour of duty with the RUC). At the same time the Army gave police chiefs a demonstration of armoured troop carriers and water cannon at a military research establishment in Surrey. A riot training programme at the River Way Police Holding and Training Centre in Greenwich was subsequently developed by Brigadier Michael Harvey, on secondment from the Ministry of Defence.

The militarisation of the police was further consolidated with the appointment of Sir Kenneth Newman as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1982. His reorganisation of the Met, with the creation of riot-trained Territorial Support Groups to deal with public order, was based upon his previous experience as Chief Constable of the RUC.

In the Broadwater Farm uprising in 1985, plastic bullets were deployed, but not used. In the North of Ireland 17 people have been killed by plastic and rubber bullets, and they have been widely used in "crowd control"- in May 1981 no fewer than 16,656 plastic bullets were fired. British police had stockpiled 20,000 plastic bullets by 1986.

The post-riot repression on Broadwater Farm was straight out of Belfast or Derry, complete with raids on people's homes and frame-ups. In a letter from prison, Winston Silcott (jailed for thirty years after being convicted of killing PC Blakelock) wrote: "If the police get away with it against us, many more people will be in trouble, because the police has just tested what they can get away with. Just like they try things in Ireland and when it works over there, the police bring the tactics on the streets of London".

During the 1984/5 miners strike, many mining areas were placed under police occupation. Roadblocks were extensively used to prevent the movement of flying pickets. A striking miner who had served with the army in Northern Ireland said at the time: "As far as I can see the police occupation here is exactly the same as we were doing in Northern Ireland".

The international outcry after Bloody Sunday (in Dublin a crowd marched on the British Embassy and burnt it down) helped force a change of tactics on the British Army. Since 1972, live ammunition has rarely been used on crowds; instead SAS death squads and their locally trained allies have targeted particular individuals for assassination (and anybody who gets in the way). Probably their best-known operation was the killing of Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Daniel McCann on Gibraltar in 1988. In Ireland many more have been killed, such as Fergal Caraher, an unarmed man killed by soldiers in South Armagh on 30 December 1990.

So far the SAS has not been used in this way in Britain. However an undercover SAS unit has been in operation here since 1984. In October 1987 the SAS used stun and CS grenades to end a jail siege at Peterhead prison. During the 1990 Strangeways riot there were calls from sections of the establishment to send in the SAS there.

The poll tax

"If a genuine and serious grievance arose, such as might result from a significant drop in the standard of living, all those who now dissipate their protest over a wide variety of causes might concentrate their efforts and produce a situation which was beyond the power of the police to handle. Should this happen the army would be required to restore the position rapidly" (Brigadier Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations)

The poll tax is potentially the "genuine and serious grievance" Kitson feared. It has lowered the standard of living of practically the entire working class, and has provided a focus for all the anger that has built up in ten years of defeats. There has been massive resistance. Millions have refused to pay, anti-poll tax groups have been set up in estates and workplaces throughout Britain, and central London has seen the most serious rioting for a hundred years.

Police tactics developed in Ireland have been used against us. They have attempted to intimidate people off the streets, notably by the use of thousands of riot cops to smash the poll tax prisoners support demonstration on October 20th. Senior police officers have called for the banning of future demonstrations. Nevertheless the rioters of the 31st did not face the gas and the bullets that our comrades in Derry suffered in 1972. Why is this?

Obviously the particular logistics of March 31st made the use of such weapons problematic. The West End is the heartland of the tourist trade; wealthy tourists and shoppers would inevitably have been caught up in gas or gunfire.

A more general reason is that the state has learnt a lesson in Ireland that we can take some comfort from: repression is a double-edged sword. Bloody Sunday might have scared people off the streets for a while, but it politicised many more, leading in the long run to further resistance.

In the North of Ireland the British state can take the chance of provoking such resistance. It is dealing with the minority population of a statelet, and furthermore its propaganda machine works overtime to keep the struggles of this population isolated from the rest of us. Shooting down poll-tax protestors is another matter. The state simply did not want to risk a massive escalation of the struggle with who knows what consequences.

We shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security however. The armoured cars and tanks and guns are ready and waiting. If the crowds that charged up St Martins Lane and Regent Street had headed off towards Buckingham Palace it might well have been a different story. In the ambulance dispute we saw the army used as scabs; lets not kid ourselves that we will never see them armed on our streets.

We might not be facing the army at the moment, but we still have a lot to learn from what's going on in the six counties. This doesn't mean that we should tool up with semtex and armalites. It does mean that we should pay a lot closer attention to what's happening just across the Irish Sea. Quite simply, Ireland shows what the British state is like with its back to the wall.

Internationalism begins at home

People all over the world (including Ireland) have recognised the anti-poll tax struggle as their own. There have been actions in support of our movement in Australia, Greece, Holland, Poland and elsewhere. It is vital that we adopt a similar internationalist approach.

Some people in the anti-poll tax movement might think it's just a matter of getting rid of the Tories (even though Labour councils are sending in bailiffs against us). Some people in Ireland might think its just a matter of getting rid of British troops (even though the Irish state carries out its own repressive measures, as in the recent extradition of Dessie Ellis to face a British show trial). In fact just swapping one set of bosses for another, or flying a different colour flag over the prisons, barracks, and factories, won't make any difference. Behind all their apparent differences (democratic, military, "socialist", republican, monarchist), all the governments of the world are united against the working class. All of them try to enforce the rule of the bosses' profit system with its money-work-wages routine. And all of them use force against those who seriously challenge this set-up.

It is only by uniting against all of them that we will be able to drive all the cops and troops off the streets, not just in Belfast and London, but everywhere else too. We need to link up our struggles internationally and fight together for a classless world community where our needs are what counts, not capital's.

Since Trafalgar Square there have been similar working class riots in such places as Germany, Greece, France and Morocco. We could and should build links with people in these places. But if we don't even try to build links with people on our own doorstep in Ireland, the emergence of a wider internationalist perspective in Britain doesn't look very likely.

This doesn't mean becoming armchair cheerleaders for the IRA. It means linking up at a grass-roots level with struggles in Ireland, North and South. It is true that the poll tax hasn't been introduced there. For a start it would be unenforceable- as it is there are whole parts of West Belfast where people don't pay for their electricity- and besides it would risk encouraging protestant workers to unite with their catholic neighbours. This happened during the 1932 Outdoor Relief Strike when catholic and protestant unemployed workers fought the police together in Belfast. However we still have plenty in common; for instance we could draw on their experience of dealing with the courts and prison system.

England had its own Bloody Sunday a hundred years ago. On 13 November 1887 socialists, radicals and Irish people came together to defy a ban on meetings in Trafalgar Square. Tens of thousands marched to the Square, protesting against "coercion in Ireland", among other things. They were attacked by the police and several people were killed. Today there is still repression in Ireland, we are still facing the police in Trafalgar Square, and our rulers are still scared of united resistance in Britain and Ireland. Let's not wait another hundred years to turn their nightmares into reality.

Casement Park and Trafalgar Square

"Trapped in car like Ulster Corporals… Police feared they would be kicked, beaten or even burned to death during the bloody poll tax riots. One terrified officer though he would be dragged from his car by the screaming, spitting mob - like the two soldiers in Northern Ireland. Sergeant James Millar said: "It flashed through my mind that I would be killed. My thoughts were with the soldiers" (Today, April 2 1990)

The incident referred to here took place near Casement Park, Belfast on 19 March 1988. A few days earlier the funerals of the Gibraltar Three had been attacked by an armed loyalist, Michael Stone, leaving three people dead. At the funeral for one of Stone's victims, two armed undercover soldiers drove into the funeral cortege at high speed. They were disarmed by the crowd and later killed.

Today newspaper was right to compare this to Trafalgar Square, but for the wrong reasons. For in Belfast and London vehilces were driven into the crowd. And in both places the working class heroes who defended themselves and many others were villified in the press as 'savages' and 'animals' and subjected to political show trials on the flimsiest of evidence. 22 people were convicted and jailed for periods ranging from two years to life for defending the funeral.

From Practical History