From Irish Political Review—September 2005

Lord Fitt

The late Lord Fitt resigned from the leadership of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, and from membership of it, a quarter of a century ago. If he had retired from all political activity relating to Northern Ireland at the same time, on the ground that what he helped to start forty years ago was something he could no longer live with, one might sympathise with his predicament. But he did not retire. He entered the aristocratic chamber of the Legislature, and periodically uttered the anathemas that were expected of him.

Vincent Browne, perhaps feeling that he has overdone the politics of reality in recent months, devoted his Irish Times column to "praise of valiant Gerry Fitt" on 31st August. Not once referring to him by his aristocratic title, Browne praises him for bringing "international attention to the corruption at the heart of the old Stormont state"; and for then bringing attention to "a new and more vicious injustice, the campaign of murder, maiming and mayhem of the IRA". And he comments:

"Had Gerry Fitt's politics been given time to mobilise, might not thousands of lives [have?] been saved?"

Thousands of lives might have been saved if a number of people in positions of authority in London, Belfast, and Dublin had acted differently. But we cannot see now, any more than we could see then, what politics Fitt had that could mobilise people in any way other than the way they were mobilised. Such politics as he had went into the mobilisation that actually occurred. And, when that mobilisation began to take a turn of which he disapproved—a point that is not easy to pin down—he failed utterly to make his disapproval effective. He had nothing to say, beyond expressing disapproval, which might have diverted people into a different course of action.

He called himself Republican Labour at the start. And around 1966 he regularly threatened Stormont with the IRA if it did not hurry up and deliver the reforms he was demanding. An apologist might say that he was only making a prediction and this prediction turned out to be accurate. But, when he said it, it always sounded like an exhortation, and it usually elicited a loud cheer. He knew what he was doing when he raised the spectre of the IRA in this manner. And we cannot recall that he ever tried to lay that spectre at the critical time—that he ever said: The necessary reforms have been achieved and now is the time to settle down within the Stormont apparatus.

"One man, one vote" was introduced in 1969, the B Specials were disbanded, and the Derry gerrymander was stopped. These were the reform demands. But Fitt did not say that the Civil Rights demands had been met and that Northern Ireland was now OK.

The following year he took part in the formation of the SDLP and became its leader. The SDLP had two incompatible aims: British social reform and the ending of Partition. We put it to Fitt that these two reforms could not be pursued together in practical politics, but he would not chose between them.

In early July 1971 Brian Faulkner (as Stormont Prime Minister) made him an offer at a meeting of the Stormont Parliament which on the spur of the moment he could not see how to refuse. But a few weeks later he withdrew the SDLP from Stormont, using the excuse of a shooting by the British Army in Derry for which the Northern Ireland Government bore no responsibility. If he had delayed for a few weeks longer, he might have had the better excuse of Internment, and he did in fact pretend that Internment was the reason for rejecting Stormont and setting up the Alternative Assembly at Dungannon.

A couple of years of fantasy politics followed. As the war raged with great intensity, the SDLP played hard to get. Then, in the Autumn of 1973, Prime Minister Ted Heath lit a fire under the party with the suggestion that he would incorporate Northern Ireland into the British State if the SDLP kept up its refusal to negotiate within existing structures. This brought Fitt back to the conference table, and in January 1974 he became Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland under Faulkner in a power-sharing arrangement that was semi-voluntary, combined with an elaborate Council of Ireland. The understanding among Unionists was that the Dublin Government (with C.C. O'Brien and Garret FitzGerald to the fore) had agreed to amend the sovereignty clauses in the Irish Constitution. In March 1974 Dublin declared formally that this was not the case, and that the assertion of sovereignty over the North remained in place. This led to a strong Unionist demand for the postponement of the establishment of the Council of Ireland pending a resolution of the sovereignty issue. The SDLP refused to consider postponement, and was supported in this stance by the Dublin Government and the new Labour Government in London. The Strike (or "Constitutional Stoppage") against the Council was launched in May and became general throughout the Northern Protestant community. Fitt declared that it was a Fascist Counter-revolution and must be put down by force. But the dog it was that died. The best attempt at cross-community devolved government that there has been was sacrificed to a delusion by the SDLP under Fitt's leadership.

Fitt hung on in the leadership for about five years longer, and then resigned from the party and entered the House of Lords.

During the mid-70s he would agree privately with what we were attempting to do, but he refused absolutely to say anything publicly about it. And his story was that he was straitjacketed by "the countrymen" in the SDLP. That meant John Hume. But the truth is that, insofar as Fitt had a political position different from Hume's, he held it only in the bar of the Europa Hotel, and all it was capable of mobilising was a pint.

Professor Bew expressed regret on Radio Eireann some yeas ago for having taken part in the Civil Rights agitation of 1968-69, because of what it led to. But Bew's participation made no difference to the course of events. Fitt was a leader in those years. The course of events would have been different if he had played a different part. In view of the attitude he struck later, it would have been appropriate for him to express remorse for stirring things up, and to apologise to the people he had stirred up for having done so without having any idea of where to lead them, and for then feeling obliged to leave them in the lurch. Instead of doing that, he turned on the people he had stirred up, and denounced them to order whenever the BBC required him to.

Expressions of remorse are now demanded of the Provos. Vincent Browne demands them whenever he gets one of them on his programme. But the Provos are a consequence of the state of affairs that Fitt helped to bring about.

Vincent Browne, demonstrating how little he has learned since he was Northern correspondent of the Irish Press in the early seventies, says that Fitt's career would have been a success if he had done nothing else but bring "Westminster and international attention to the corruption at the heart of the old Stormont state".

Commentators in the Republic have a mania about corruption these days. But mere corruption would not warrant an all-out agitation to undermine a State. Indeed a state without corruption (as the word is currently used) is an impossibility.

What was wrong with Stormont was its essential structure. And nobody needed to draw Westminster's attention to that because Westminster devised it.

And Stormont was not a state, but a region of a State, an area for which a peculiar form of government had been devised which could only function through the conflict of communities, with the larger Protestant community exerting dominance over the smaller Catholic community. It is inconceivable that the British statesmen who set it up did not know what they were setting up.

The routine of Protestant communal dominance maintained a semblance of order for close on half a century. It trivialises the situation to describe that routine as corruption. Corruption has the implication of deviancy. But the way the North was governed under Craigavon and Brookeborough was not deviant. They operated the structure according to the logic of the structure. It would have been deviant if the North had existed within the politics of the British state—but in that case it would not have existed.

Fitt understood all of this in private, but in public he would not take a stand on it. And, when he broke with the SDLP and entered the Lords, he regularly denounced people for not behaving normally in what he knew was a thoroughly abnormal framework of state.

Browne's view seems to imply that structures of state do not influence conduct. People can be good on individual grounds, regardless of the way public life is organised. Public peace and well-being is an outcome of individual goodness, and disorder therefore an outcome of individual proclivity to evil. On this view it scarcely matters how the state is organised. But that is a view that is hardly supported by the history of the world, especially not in recent times. And it is no more supported by the history of the 26 Counties than of anywhere else. Political life in democracies proceeds through conflict, and if the conflict which democracy encourages is not connected with the governing of the state in a way that gives the active political minority a realistic prospect of power, then it is a pseudo-democracy which can only give rise to trouble. The alternating exercise of power in the state makes democracy functional is power in the state, and supervised local government—in which majorities and minorities must share power—is no substitute.

West Belfast sent Jack Beattie to Westminster 60 years ago with a mandate to become part of the Labour Party. If the Labour Party had not refused him the whip, the subsequent course of events would have been different. Politics in the North would have been connected with power in the state. And the gravitational pull of power in the state would have brought alterations in political life in the 6 Counties. But the Labour whip was refused. Northern Ireland remained locked up in itself. And the make-believe of Stormont politics was borne in on Beattie. Though refused the Whip, he voted with the Labour Government in the post-1945 reforms. The Ulster Unionists then had a kind of external association with the Tory Party and voted against the social welfare reforms, with every appearance of earnest opposition to them. But Beattie was also a member of the Stormont Parliament, and he saw the Unionists enacting there, after the briefest of intervals, the very legislation which they had opposed vehemently at Westminster.

It might be said that legislation is all that matters, and it doesn't matter who does it. But that is essentially an apolitical view. It was rejected by Beattie, as it had been rejected long before him by Edmund Burke in a famous pamphlet directed against the contention of the Crown that what mattered was "not men but measures". Representative government is all about men in the first instance. It works because it gives people the feeling of participation in the exercise of power in the state, rather than because it produces legislative measures which are dispassionately judged to be good.

Beattie demanded admission to the political democracy of the state and was refused. He then applied for membership of the Irish Labour Party and was admitted. But the ILP, though a real political party, was the party of another state. And therein lay the predicament of the Catholic community in the North. (Beattie, a Protestant and a Socialist, was elected largely by Catholic votes.) It was deprived of a democratic political outlet for its energy in the politics of the state, and the Stormont system was nothing more than a system of communal Protestant policing of Catholics. It was compelled by the circumstances imposed on it by the Partitionists to be anti-Partitionist.

These were the circumstances which made Fitt both an Irish Republican and a British Socialist. If Beattie's demand had been conceded, Fitt would probably have been a Junior Minister in Harold Wilson's Government. He was in many respects an archetypal British Labour politician of the old school. But he lived as a Catholic in Northern Ireland, and that made him a Republican as well. He was anti-Partitionist and therefore Republican. He was Catholic and therefore Republican. That is how it appeared to Unionists, who disregarded fine distinctions, and that is substantially how it was. And he called himself Republican Labour.

But he never made an effective combination between these two elements of his position. And, until he removed himself from Northern Ireland to the Lords (with, as Browne puts it, "the sad acceptance of a peerage"), he refused to choose between them. And then he just became "Fitt the Brit".

Vincent Browne was clearly shocked by Daily Ireland's brisk dismissal of Fitt. Living as a guru in the smug revisionist provincialism of a functional state which has relinquished the moral obligations implicit in its origins, he does not even attempt to envisage the actual conditions of life in the North, does not see the damage done by Fitt to the cause which he stirred up, and cannot imagine why he came to be so well hated. But the sad truth is that Fitt became thoroughly bogus, and remained so for a quarter of a century.

Browne found in Daily Ireland

"an odious triumphalism that reflects the mentality of some of those who call themselves republican".

He knows very little of the North if he thinks this mentality is specific to "those who call themselves republican". Such experiences and mentalities are communal and, in the structured absence of any kind of politics other than communal, nothing else is possible on a social scale. Communities experience in the North what the adherents of political parties experience in Britain and Ireland, and moralising about it is only a kind of supercilious posturing.

And Fitt, before he became the Brit, indulged in this "odious practice" along with the community which he represented. In more meagre times he gave expression to communal triumphalism when Glasgow Celtic won the European Cup. And in 1974 it was no less evident in the "Socialist" wing of the SDLP (Fitt and Paddy Devlin) than amongst "the countrymen". And it was around that time that he described the Protestant community as "a million monsters" bred from the Plantation of Ulster.

Browne asks what difference there is between the Sunningdale Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. The difference perhaps does not appear great if one looks only at the measures and disregards the men. But the Sunningdale measure had much less representative force behind it, vis a vis the Catholic community, than the GFA. The SDLP, which had fed the insurrectionary movement from July 1971 to 1973 and had then been cajoled and nudged into negotiations by William Whitelaw and Ted Heath, did not carry the community with it as Hume and Sinn Fein did in 1998. The social atmosphere in the Falls in early 1974 was nothing like what it has become since 1998. The community was not "up" then, as it is now. (And when communities stand in the place of political parties they are, like political parties, either triumphalist or despondent.)

And another great difference is that the men in 1974 were not as earnest and resourceful in carrying through the measure to which they had committed themselves—or into which they had been inveigled—as the men of the GFA have been. Fitt and Devlin entered fantasy-land in May 1974 and threw away their political hand in order to indulge their delusion of a historic stand against the resurgence of Fascism, instead of manoeuvering to preserve the Sunningdale structures in the North.

Fitt's last political action of consequence is not mentioned by Browne. It was to bring down the Labour Government in Britain and open the door for Thatcher. His Republican and Socialist elements were always tripping each other up. He was at ease as a Socialist supporting the minority Labour Government, but in the end he brought it down. And the reason? That it had increased Northern Ireland representation at Westminster from 12 seats to 18!!

Newspaper columnists have taken on the role of moralisers in the Republic. Politicians have become little more than hucksters, and the Church has been silenced for the time being, so newspaper columnists tell us how we ought to live. Something similar happened in the Soviet Union around 1930, with consequences that are not auspicious. But that is the phase we are in, and we must live amidst a daily barrage of moralising columns. And, if we take issue with Vincent Browne, it is because he is the only one worth bothering with.

In his column on Fitt he worries about "the campaign of slaughter", and when such a campaign is warranted. While he praises Fitt for condemning "the barbarity of the IRA", he thinks that condemnation blinded him to "other injustices":

"But how about those who now, with the benefit of dispassionate hindsight, remember only the injustices of Stormont and the viciousness and arbitrariness of the British military response to the IRA campaign, and not at all the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the IRA?…

"Yes, I know, the benefits of hindsight and all that, but at least we might now acknowledge, lest anything like that ever rise again, that the campaign of slaughter was wrong, that there was no justification for the taking of a single human life (and I am not saying this from a pacifist position for I believe that the taking of human life can at times be justified, as, for instance, in apartheid South Africa, where injustice was so grave and politics so hopeless.)"

But this is to go sub speciae aeternitatis, and to see some elemental human standard beyond states and their political relativities, and it is at the same time to succumb to a fashion of the moment. Man, however, is a political animal, and politics has little to do with eternal standards. And fashion fluctuates from decade to decade.

Morality might not be synonymous with political authority, but it exists on the basis of the authority of states. There is no moral arbiter in the world beyond the power of the state. We live in the 21st century, for goodness sake. We have left European mediaevalism behind us. The Reformation which abolished the separate moral order and merged the functions of King and Pope happened over four centuries ago and became the dominant Imperial Power two hundred years ago. There has been no replacement for the position that Rome held in the Middle Ages—certainly not the United Nations, which is the instrument of a handful of states.

The way of our world is that an existing structure of political authority sets the parameters of morality within it. This is substantially denied only as between one system of authority and another. Condemnation by one system of authority of the morality which forms part of another system presents itself in general terms, as generally valid and binding, and purports to be derived from something other than the interest of the state which issues the condemnation. But it requires little probing to discover that it is all apologetics and special pleading, and that it depends very much on absence of memory.

Why would indiscriminate slaughter of the Boers in South Africa have been uniquely moral, as Browne suggests? They did not wantonly set up a situation of communal conflict when a better alternative was open to them. The South African State was for generations an integral part of what presented itself as the civilised order of the world. It was particularly active, as part of the British Empire and full of Imperialist enthusiasm, in the wars against Germany, both of which were held by the victors to be wars for the defence of civilisation against a deadly danger—and which were widely accepted as such by virtue of the immense prestige which accrues to the military victor in a world war. And its race distinctions were inherent in the civilisation which it defended.

In 1919 the Versailles Conference refused to adopt a declaration on racial equality proposed by the Japanese. And both Britain and the USA kept up an unembarrassed white racism for a generation after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The subversive influence of the Communist third of the world on the civilised world by way of the anti-Imperialist regions gradually undermined the racial values of the West. A situation then developed in which the South African regime was widely held to be illegitimate, and the civilised West subjected it to economic sanctions for fear of otherwise losing Africa to Communism.

Thus a regime which the civilised world had not only considered legitimate, but had treasured as a particularly valued part of itself, became illegitimate not through any changes in itself but through external changes. At that point the Boer community was locked in unavoidable conflict with the Black and Coloured communities. The Anglos, who were no less racist, had the option of returning home (which many thousands of them had only left for the racial Paradise of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in the preceding generation). But the Boer had no home other than South Africa.

The communal conflict in south Africa must be judged to be necessary, unavoidable, by any reasonable realistic standard located in actual Western values. But the communal conflict in Northern Ireland was entirely unnecessary. There were reasonable practical alternatives to it. But the political structure which could only reproduce communal antagonism was freely chosen for the 6 Counties by the governing authority which set up Northern Ireland, in preference to the democratic structures of the multi-national state which operated elsewhere in the UK. Westminster no doubt had its reasons for this, and it gave priority to those reasons over everything to do with good government in the 6 Counties. Those reasons can only have been to retain leverage in the internal politics of the part of Ireland which it was obliged to let go. But, even if that is disputed, it remains the case that the Northern Ireland predicament, unlike the South African predicament, was freely set up by the governing power in preference to the more reasonable and practical alternative.

Vincent Browne thinks he would have justified indiscriminate slaughter of the Boers. But he had no need to. It didn't happen. The clear and acknowledged absence of democracy did not lead to "a campaign of slaughter", while the perversion of democracy in the North did. And that should not surprise anybody who sees the way of the world.

When Ireland voted to be independent in 1918, it fought a war of independence when the Government ignored the vote, and there can still be heard voices in the wilderness which justify that war. It is difficult to establish hard objective standards in these things, but one can see grounds for saying that the South was less oppressed and its position was less hopeless in 1919 than that of the Catholic community was in Northern Ireland at any time between 1921 and its going to war in 1970.

If there is a message in all of this, it is that wars are not generated by absolutes, but arise out of the relativities of actual politics in the dynamics of a definite situation. And it was on the battlefield, campaigning against the war, that we concluded that there was sufficient reason for it. That did not lead us to support the war. We kept on trying to achieve the alternative until Unionist conduct made it entirely hopeless. But it led us to reject the 'Good and Evil' ideology with which the West is tormenting the world today.

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