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Bob Armstrong

A Letter from Ulster

(February 1943)


From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.4, April 1943, pp.126-127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Bob Armstrong, author of the following letter from Belfast (dated February 1943) although only thirty years old, has a record of over ten years’ of valiant service in the British workers’ movement. Twice wounded in the Spanish civil war as a soldier in the International Brigade, he was in Spain for nearly two years–from August 1936 until the middle of 1938. Shortly after his return he broke with the Communist Party of which he had been a member for six years and, with five others from the Islington (London) branch, joined the Trotskyist organization, the Workers International League.

Now living in Belfast, he was arrested January 6 under the Special Powers Act which he describes In his letter. At the time he was distributing leaflets protesting the arrest of his comrade, Patrick McKevitt, who after a week in jail without charge or trial was escorted to the border and deported into Eire. Protests by both British and Irish labor organizations, and by ILP and left Labourite Members of Parliament finally forced the release of Armstrong.

There are approximately 600 prisoners in Crumlin Road jail about 300 of whom are serving sentence – probably two-thirds of these sentenced prisoners being Irish Republican Army men. The remaining 300 are interned, and there are more than 200 other Internees in Derry Jail. It is estimated that tens of thousands have been detained since the war. All internments are made under a clause in the Special Powers Act stating that such and such a person has given grounds for reasonable suspicion that he or she has acted or is about to act in a manner prejudicial to the peace. This is the equivalent to the Japanese “dangerous thoughts” Act. Not a few of the internees assert that they have never belonged to a political organization in their lives.


It was during my sojourn in Crumlin that the Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army and three of his associates staged their spectacular get-away from the most heavily guarded prison in the British Isles. The drama of this escape was heightened by a black-type advertisement in the press offering £3,000 reward to anyone supplying information leading to the arrest of any one of these men. The greatest man-hunt in Ulster history is under way. The relentless, unending war between, the British regime and the Irish Republican Army has provided all the highlights in Ulster politics during the past twenty years. The fearlessness of martyred republicans such as Tom Williams has almost legendary fame. The Irish Republican Army is almost 100 per cent proletarian in composition, its great reservoir of strength being the Belfast Falls Road area. The more petty bourgeois Eire section is but a feeble reflection of the Northern movement. Yet it advocates no social policy whatsoever, for it considers itself to be not in any sense a political party, but purely and simply an army. Its sole aim is to expel foreign imperialism from Ireland. In 1939 it declared war on Britain. When the world war began it welcomed Germany as an ally in the common struggle.

The prevailing cult of national-socialist ideology within the Irish Republican Army would vanish like a cloud of smoke at the first signs of a British-German concord. All nations and movements it judges in accordance with their attitude to Britain. Yet for all that not a single British soldier has suffered injury at the hands of the Irish Republican Army since the war began. The reason is clear enough. Despite its pretentious claims the Irish Republican Army, being incapable of an appeal outside the nationalist areas, cannot rise beyond small-scale skirmishing tactics. To deal with this the Royal Ulster Constabulary, one of the most highly trained police forces in the world, is adequate. Even if, by a miracle, the Irish Republican Army succeeded in overcoming its immediate enemy, it is madness to believe that the IRA could defeat the British army, and most certainly Britain would not passively surrender the right to garrison Ireland.

To refute this argument republicans cite the successful outcome for the South of the Black-and-Tan war. But this struggle succeeded only because the revolutionary ferment in the British working class prevented the Lloyd George government from embarking upon a large-scale regular war against Ireland. The great Russian revolution had kindled a flaming love of liberty throughout the world, and not least in Britain. Without this the heroism of the Irish people in 1921 would have proved unavailing. Only the revolutionary movement of the British and Irish working class can finally free Ireland from imperialist rule. But the IRA as yet cannot understand this. Nor is this accidental. For the amazing virility of this historically outmoded form of struggle is due, not mainly to the dead weight of tradition, but to the shameless collaboration with imperialism of parties masquerading as socialist, the Stalinists and the Labourites, who compromise working class methods at every step and engender a contempt for socialism.

Discriminated against at every step, the Catholic working class youth are forced into the struggle. More than a third of the Six-County population belong to this so-called "minority." The government sits on a powder magazine. If it released its weight it would be blown sky-high. But the weight of the police is adequate; and kept under control the IRA has great uses. For the Protestant workers, conscious though they be of their membership in the down-trodden class in the general capitalist set-up, are also keenly aware of their privileged caste position. They fear, and with good foundation, that a victory of the IRA would place them in the position of a persecuted minority: for, no matter how much the IRA disclaims sectarianism, the fact is that, basing itself on the degenerate capitalist system, it could not prevent the unleashing of anti-Protestant pogroms at the first signs of mass unemployment.

Why We Are Under Fire

The Trotskyist movement has been singled out for attack not on account of its small-ness, but because its program is feared. A movement threatening to disturb the caste rift, upon which the regime uneasily balances, is to be feared above everything else. The regime fears not an alliance between the IRA and the Trotskyists, but the passing over of the glorious Falls Road proletariat from IRA utopianism to a revolutionary socialist program.

For that we will not require to pander to the illusions of the IRA or any other organization which stands apart from and against the program of the revolutionary working class. We need no catspaws. We turn to the dauntless working class youth of the Falls Road and strive to win, them, not by nursing outworn prejudices, but by proclaiming proletarian methods of struggle. The Irish Section of Workers’ International League demands:

  1. That the internees be released or brought to trial.
  2. The repeal of the Special Powers Act.
  3. A united front of all working class organizations against the arbitrary rule of the police.

Bob Armstrong

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