Something in the air
The rise of the Troops Out Movement
The British government was facing increasing problems over Ireland that mirrored Vietnam. In 1972, over 100 British soldiers were killed and over 500 wounded in the North of Ireland
THIRTY YEARS AFTER the arrival of British troops onto the streets of the Six Counties, and 26 years after the foundation of the Troops Out Movement in England, Aly Renwick, a former British Army soldier and one of the founding members of Troops Out, recalls the events and politics which shaped the movement in the 1970s.
While always focusing on the situation in Ireland, the Troops Out Movement sought ways to link that to the struggle of the workers in Britain
Throughout those early years - against the background of the war, a bombing campaign in Britain, attacks on our demonstrations by the far right, state harassment and the anti-republican `Peace People' - TOM was to keep Ireland's British question at the forefront of British politics
THE Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland took its inspiration from the 1960s world-wide upsurge of student and worker revolts in general and the struggle for black civil rights in America in particular. In Britain there was student radicalism, industrial unrest and huge demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam. In the weeks before British troops were sent out onto the streets of Derry in 1969, the number one hit in the record charts was Something in the Air, by Thunderclap Newman. This song was to ring out over the barricades in West Belfast and at the student sit-ins and workers' struggles in Britain:
Call out the instigators
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get it together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here
The Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign was formed in Britain to campaign on Ireland. Then, as the struggle in Ireland escalated into open war, the Irish Solidarity Campaign appeared. After internment was introduced, the Anti-Internment League emerged. While many British radicals helped form and support these organisations, the bulk of their members were Irish. Focused on the tide of struggle in Ireland, the Irish in Britain flooded out onto the streets to create many massive demonstrations and other protests.
By the middle of 1973, there was a downturn of work on Ireland. The radical groups who had always blown hot and cold on Ireland were concentrating on the industrial struggles which were to bring about the three-day week, a miners' strike and the end of the Heath Conservative government in early 1974.
The Troops Out Movement (TOM) was started by independent activists and individual members of radical groups, as reported in the organisation's first bulletin, Tom-Tom:
``The Troops Out Movement was formed in West London in September 1973 by a group of trade unionists, housewives, students and ex-soldiers. The first major public meeting was held at Fulham Town Hall in the following month. Four hundred people came to hear an impressive list of speakers and it was obvious that the group would rapidly expand.''
The British government was facing increasing problems over Ireland that mirrored Vietnam. In 1972, over 100 British soldiers were killed and over 500 wounded in the North of Ireland. Over 170 RUC and UDR members were killed or wounded in the same period. Desertion rates of soldiers from the British Army increased while recruitment and re-enlistment were running at the lowest level since national service had ended in the early 1960s.
Domestic opposition to the war rose. MPs raised the question of withdrawal in Parliament and Peggy Chaston, a soldier's relative, started a national petition calling for `our boys to be brought home'. The Troops Out Movement keyed into the dissent but adopted `Troops Out Now', based on `Self-determination for the Irish People' as principled demands to campaign on.
Britain in the early seventies was also a land of trouble for the Establishment, as Tom-Tom reported:
``Under the auspices of the Tories, the year `73-'74 ushered in developments in Britain which prompted widespread speculation on the continent and in the USA that Britain was heading for a military coup. As the NCCL [National Council for Civil Liberties] annual report says, `Parliament was dissolved, in the midst of a Red Scare unparalleled in thirty years, with the declaration by the government of a sixth state of emergency, the continuation of a joint military/police operation at Heathrow - despite its doubtful validity - and the admission by the Home Secretary that troops might be used in industrial disputes.''
Brigadier Frank Kitson's book, Low Intensity Operations, had already provoked debate about the use of troops in Britain. In 1972, Terry, a deserter on the run, told Time Out about his time in the British Army:
``We've all been through riot training as part of our normal training - it was a bit of fun at the time. One half of us pretended to be Irish or the miners - or whoever was on strike at the time - and the other half would just charge into them. We'd think, `Today we'll really get those strikers, or those Irish.' We really thought like that.''
While always focusing on the situation in Ireland, the Troops Out Movement sought ways to link that to the struggle of the workers in Britain. In early 1974, TOM organised a conference in London on `The British Army in Ireland and Its Projected Role in Britain'. This was a great success with a capacity audience of over 700 people and many more being turned away at the door. The event consolidated TOM, helping to consolidate the network of branches in England, Scotland and Wales.
The next year, 1975, TOM held another national conference on `The British Labour Movement and Ireland'. It took place with a minority Labour government in power and the month after our TV screens had been filled with pictures of the last US forces leaving Vietnam - by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Organised on a delegate basis, this conference was also a resounding success and helped set up the first mass delegation to Ireland one year later.
The 60-strong Labour Delegation to Ireland visited Dublin, Crossmaglen and Belfast. Shocked by what they saw and heard, many delegates continued to campaign on Ireland. Also in 1976, two issues of Troops Out were produced, the forerunner to the magazine. To counter the growing dissent about the war and to stabilise its Irish policy, a policy of Ulsterisation was put in motion by the Labour government. Similar to the Vietnamisation tried by the US in Vietnam, Ulsterisation reconstructed and rearmed the RUC and the UDR to thrust them into the front-line. In 1976, 14 British soldiers were killed, compared to 38 members of the RUC and UDR. While the coffins were accumulating in the North of Ireland fewer were `coming home'.
After the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974, Labour introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As the first Troops Out pointed out in an article entitled `Police Gag Irish Community':
``The Act is being used to intimidate and deter people from daring to hold political opinions about Ireland contrary to the policies dictated by the British government. For the government knows full well how potent the voice of the Irish community could be - witness the tens of thousands who came out onto the streets of London in 1972 to protest about Bloody Sunday.''
Because of its links with the labour movement, the TOM was subject to state-organised harassment. When members were stopped and questioned visiting Ireland, they were usually asked, `How many Labour MPs are supporting you now?'. A demonstration at which MPs were due to speak was infiltrated by agent-provocateurs and the police started fights with groups of demonstrators as soon as the MPs started to speak.
At a meeting in the British parliament organised by the TOM with left Labour MPs, the TOM speaker was not called upon to address the meeting as previously agreed. The MP chairing the meeting later reluctantly revealed that earlier in the day he had been called in to Labour leader Harold Wilson's office and shown what he claimed to be a `very damning' Special Branch file on the TOM speaker.
Throughout those early years - against the background of the war, a bombing campaign in Britain, attacks on our demonstrations by the far right, state harassment and the anti-republican `Peace People' - TOM was to keep Ireland's British question at the forefront of British politics. Local meetings, leafleting and petitions strengthened the roots of the organisation in different communities. Branches organised area initiatives on many issues and anti-army recruitment work was undertaken.
TOM published the Alternative White Paper on Ireland, which was distributed in large quantities. Demonstrations were held in Barnsley and Mansfield, home constituencies of Northern Ireland Secretaries Roy Mason and Don Concannon. The TOM was the first organisation to raise the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six. Visits to Ireland built lasting links between the TOM and the oppressed people in the North.
The `instigators' of the Troops Out Movement recall those early days with pride and affection. Heady times, when there was `something in the air'.
Alistair Renwick is the author of the newly-published Hidden Wounds, which takes a detailed look at what has happened to British soldiers who have served in the Six Counties. The book tells how many ex-soldiers have ended up in British prisons. Hidden Wounds is available from TOM (Stg£4.99 + 60p postage)