A Four Nations approach to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland

A Four Nations approach to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland

Jacob Murphy argues how his research into the Troops Out Movement, a grass-roots, extra-parliamentary organisation, could pave the way for a genuine ‘British’ history of the conflict in Northern Ireland, through the four nations approach.

The historiography of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland (1968-1998) has been dominated by a nation-centred and high politics approach. Most historians have given extensive attention to government legislation during the peace process (1994-1998) and, as a result, have given the impression that, after the collapse of the civil rights movement in 1972, the attempt to be involved in or to solve the conflict was the exclusive domain of governments and political parties. Consequently, this high politics approach has undermined any historiographical and methodological shift towards a transnational or four nations approach to the ‘Troubles’.

The movement away from a high politics approach to a social movement dimension has two advantages. Firstly, it gives the people of Northern Ireland, who lived during the ‘Troubles’ their rightful place amongst the wider historical narrative of the conflict. Secondly, it paves the way for an extensive focus of the role and responses of the four British Isles nations to the conflict. The late Dr Bob Purdie, eminent historian of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and pro-republican political activist in the 1970s, was the first to draw our attention to the importance of grass-roots organisations in shaping events in Northern Ireland and beyond. My research into the Troops Out Movement furthers this social movement dimension into the heart of the ‘Troubles’ in the 1970s and 1980s. The Troops Out Movement was formed in London in 1973 and campaigned for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. It was a significant grass-roots organisation as it consisted of pro-republican activists from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (Northern and Republic) and therefore enables a four nation methodology to function alongside the existing historiography of the ‘Troubles’.

The Troops Out Movement was the culmination of primarily Scottish, English and London Irish resentment towards British military presence in Northern Ireland, who were deployed in 1969 and would remain until the restoration of Stormont in 2007. It was formed by a range of British socialist republicans and Trotskyists who had been active in the International Marxist Group since its Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1968. The leading members of the Troops Out Movement argued that the most likely way to pressurise the British government to withdraw its troops from Northern Ireland was to involve the four British Isles nations in a pro-republican, anti-imperialist campaign.

The first attempt to achieve this was through a conference in May 1974 which invited English, Scottish and Welsh trade unionists and Labour Party officials to London in order to attend a lecture entitled ‘The British Army’s projected role in Britain’. At this conference, the leading members of the Troops Out Movement argued that the ‘counter-insurgency’ tactics used against the Catholic population in Northern Ireland would be replicated by the British police force and subsequently deployed against the working class in England, Scotland and Wales. This argument became a widely accepted notion by leading members of the British Left, especially during the police repression of British miners in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.

The next major step of the Troops Out Movement to involve England, Scotland and Wales in the troops out campaign was to send a British Labour Movement delegation to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1976. This was a unique opportunity for people in England, Scotland and Wales to see for themselves the situation in both parts of Ireland during the ‘Troubles’. By visiting the most troubled and pro-republican regions in Northern Ireland, such as South Armagh, the Troops Out Movement had tactically created a formidable English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish alliance which was wholly supportive of the campaign for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland.

I believe that the Troops Out Movement represents a micro-history of a wider theme whereby a genuinely ‘British’ history of the ‘Troubles’ could be written through an equal focus of Irish (Northern and Republic), English, Scottish and Welsh perspectives to the conflict. This would involve a study into how each of these four nations responded to the conflict as well as the interaction which existed between these nations, most evidently shown through the conference and delegation campaigns set up by the Troops Out Movement. The use of the transnational/four nations approach to other social movements, whether Protestant, Catholic, unionist or nationalist, would reorient the historiography of the ‘Troubles’ towards a more well-rounded, global perspective to the conflict.

Jacob Murphy graduated with an MA in History at Newcastle University in December 2014. During this time he focused particularly on the role of grass-roots, extra-parliamentary organisations in shaping British responses to the partition of Ireland in the 1940s and the ‘Troubles’ in the 1970s. He is currently a committee member of the York Irish Association which is organising York’s first ever St. Patrick’s Day weekend festival in March 2015.

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