I remember inventing the Troops Out Movement by Bob Purdie.
(Bob Purdie (1940-2014) wrote several autobiographical essays on his Facebook page. In his last few months he also started publishing his lectures and essays. In addition there are numerous essays on Irish politics.)
The Troops Out Movement was my idea, but I took no part in launching it and I was only marginally involved. Within a few years I had repudiated it and none of the histories of the TOM have mentioned my founding role. I now think that should be put right.
By 1973 internment was ceasing to be the central issue of the Irish conflict and “Ulsterisation” and criminalisation were blunting the raw edges of the British government’s security strategy. The Anti-Internment League declined in size and could no longer employ me as organiser. I had a difficult period for two or three months before getting the job on Red Weekly, but part of my lost income was bridged by a payment, organised by Géry, to write the first draft of the AIL’s “Alternative White Paper on Ireland”. The pamphlet was thoroughly revised and rewritten by the Irish journalist David Brazil and it bears his name, but the basic structure and most of the arguments were mine.
It was necessary to think about a new direction for the IMG’s Irish work and my ideas were catalysed by a conversation with my French comrade and friend Gerard, who was visiting London. He suggested a campaign for troop withdrawal, on the model of the American left during the Vietnam War. The British Army was suffering constant losses and public opinion was deeply disturbed. Géry predicted that the losses would mount and that this would produce a social crisis similar to that in the US at the height of the conflict in South East Asia. I agreed with this analysis and I wrote an internal document proposing that we launch a “Troops Out Movement”, I gave it the acronym “TOM”.
My idea was readily accepted by the “Irish Caucus” of the IMG, but we were seen by the leadership as a focus of opposition and they were suspicious. Many of its members had been supporters of Géry Lawless in the Irish Workers Group and they had begun to operate as a semi-autonomous grouping, following his lead. He was bitter about the IMG leadership’s refusal to support him when he was attacked for releasing the Provisionals’ claim of responsibility for the first London bombings, they had even implied that he ought to get their permission before earning his living as a free lance journalist. So he was not willing to be hemmed in by them and the others were equally rebellious. The main personalities in the Caucus were the Galvin brothers, Brian McCabe, Oscar Gregan, Jack and Barbara McClafferty and my old friend Alastair Renwick.
The Galvins, Guglielmo (Gil) and Bernard, were Irish Italians who ran a photographic laboratory in Soho. Their Italian mother back in Dublin was legendary. She was a superb cook and their leftist friends loved to go to their home for a meal. Unfortunately she was also a Fascist, Mussolini had connected her village to electricity and she still revered his memory. She had learned English informally in a working class area, so she had a poor grasp of the difference between respectable expressions and obscenity. While they were enjoying pasta and discussing politics they had to put up with a barrage of curses from this little old lady, about their left wing ideas. I once ate one of her meals, she made her own spaghetti and it was as light as a feather, but I was spared the diatribe. Gil died recently, I mourn him and remember him with great affection.
Brian McCabe was a Dubliner, a housepainter with a strong sense of humour. Once we were picketing opposite the German Embassy and Gerry Foley of the American SWP was standing on the other side staring intently. He was a small, solemn looking, owl of a man with large glasses and he was standing in front of a tall fence that screened the Embassy garden. He had set down his large briefcase on the pavement by his side and near him was a contingent of the Metropolitan Police. Brian suddenly stopped and shouted “ROIGHT GERRY! – TROW IT OVER DE RAILINS NOW!” All the police heads swung round and Gerry Foley cringed, picked up his briefcase, and scurried off.
Jack McClafferty was a talented designer and I have already credited him with the logo, used by the TOM, of the island of Great Britain dressed in riot gear and about to baton Ireland. He and his English wife Barbara were good friends and they often gave me hospitality when I had moved from London. Oscar Gregan was from Cork and he had to put up with a lot of needling from Géry who had a Dublin prejudice against that city, but Oscar was always good natured and positive. He wrote the section of my Ireland Unfree about the British and Irish Communist Organisation without demanding any acknowledgement, he is hereby given the credit he deserves. Alastair Renwick, like me, had become a John MacLean inspired Scottish Socialist Republican and he plunged heart and soul into the Irish question. His mild personality, patient hard work and trustworthiness made him widely popular. His status as an ex-soldier meant he could speak with authority about the British Army but, contrary to some myths, he had left the Army before the Northern Ireland crisis blew up and so he never served there.
The IMG leadership did not embrace my TOM strategy. They declared it to be premature and that no action should be taken until they could predict success. So the Irish Caucus went ahead and launched it anyway, keeping me out of the loop so that my status on the leadership bodies was not compromised. Most of them dropped out of the IMG and were beyond the control of the leadership. The TOM took off and a network of branches sprang up composed of a variety of left groups, Irish exiles and unattached radicals. IMG members at local level took part, even supporters of the leadership.
Once it had been created I could see two political problems. One was that, almost immediately, a completely separate campaign for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland was set up. The other was the criticism that a pulling out the troops would destabilise the situation, spark off a sectarian civil war and result in a bloodbath.
There appeared to be a confluence of interests between the TOM and the withdrawal people, but their motives were quite different. They wanted to abandon Northern Ireland to its fate and there was a tone of anti-Irishness in some of their propaganda. My strategy was based on self-determination for Ireland, which I believed was being denied by Partition and the grip of the security forces. There were a few attempts at getting the two campaigns together, but nothing came of them.
The “bloodbath” critics seemed to be much more straightforward to deal with and I set out to thoroughly examine and refute their arguments. The fact that the most vehement of supporters of this view were the Communist Party and the Official Republicans gave me an added incentive. I first tried to refine the argument, in particular to get TOM supporters off the hook of outright opposition to anything they said. Their alternative was to campaign for a Bill of Rights which would guarantee civil liberties and equality in Northern Ireland, but I didn’t see this as an either-or issue.
I attended a meeting hosted by Tam Dalyell in the House of Commons, one of the people present was the late Christopher Hitchens. Dalyell was interested from the perspective of the British soldiers on the ground and he spoke about the way in which the troops were provoked by local people in Catholic areas. One of our number responded that they were being provoked, but they, themselves, provoked. Tam Dalyell seemed to take this on board and, taking my cue from this nuanced approach, I cut in when some TOM supporters scorned the Bill of Rights idea. I said that such a Bill was desirable and, if it was viable, it should be supported as a step towards democracy. But I didn’t think that the Northern Ireland state could be reformed in this way, or that “British imperialism” would ever make such a concession. Chris Hitchens nodded vigorously in agreement.
I then set out to develop a more sophisticated argument that would overcome the “bloodbath” idea. I did so with rigour and honesty, but I discovered that I could not refute it, in fact I came to agree with it. But that is part of the story of my break with revolutionary Marxism and it will have to wait for later.