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9 September 2004 Edition

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Troops Out Movement - 30 years campaigning for British withdrawal


There is a long and honourable tradition in Britain of opposition to the occupation of Ireland. It goes as far back as 1647 when the one of first political parties in England and early socialists, the Levellers, published The English Soldiers' Standard in which they set out their belief that Ireland should be free. Two years later, in 1649, a group of English soldiers, inspired by the Levellers, mutinied rather than go with Oliver Cromwell and his army and take part in the slaughter of Irish people. In their own pamphlet, The Soldiers' Demand, the group asked "What have we to do in Ireland, to fight and murder a people and a nation... which have done us no harm? We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent and Christian blood."

Their defiance was costly. Pursued by Cromwell, the insurgents took shelter in Burford Church in Oxfordshire before being surrounded by his men. Their leaders were hauled out of the church and executed on the spot. Corporal Perkins, Private Church and Cornet Thompson are still commemorated each year at the very place where they were murdered by the Crown.

Opposition within Britain continued to ebb and flow through the succeeding centuries with, for example, strong support for the Fenian Movement in the north of England in the 1860s, through to the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain in the 1870s and the Irish Volunteer Movement in 1913 (of which Michael Collins was a member during his time in London). After the 1916 Rising came the Irish Self-Determination League which numbered something like 40,000 members. And when Terence Macswiney died in Brixton Prison on 25 October 1920, tens of thousands lined the streets as his coffin passed by. When the conflict in the north erupted in the late 1960s, the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign was formed, quickly followed by the Anti-Internment League.

This organised opposition to Britain's presence in Ireland continues to this day through, for example, the Trade Union Movement, a small but dedicated number of MPs, and groups such as the Wolfe Tone Society and the Connolly Association. The backbone of the various resistance groupings has generally consisted of first and second generation Irish people, but there has always been a small stream English radicals, and people of other ethnic backgrounds, ready to take up the cause of Ireland.

By September 1973 some British left-wing radicals, trade unionists, Irish people living in Britain and many other ordinary people had managed to see something of the truth of what was happening in the North of Ireland through the fog of British Government propaganda. They were appalled at what they were seeing and they came together in London to form the Troops Out Movement. They were tapping into an almost unbroken tradition of resistance within Britain to the state's involvement in Ireland. In 1974 there was sufficient support for the group to be launched nationally, with branches throughout Britain. In October this year TOM celebrates its 30th year of opposition to the British presence in Ireland.

Like the Civil Rights Movement in the Six Counties, TOM's founders and earliest activists were also inspired by the contemporary political milieu. The Civil Rights Movement had swept like a tidal wave across America and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations had been an almost daily occurrence. Europe had seen student uprisings which were met with the sort of state brutality which was commonplace in the North of Ireland.

But it is worth remembering that for people living in Britain in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, particularly those without family or cultural ties to Ireland, making the leap from vague disquiet about the British Army in Ireland, to committed activism to get it out was no easy thing. So much militated against it. Irish history was not taught in schools, even as part of the history of the British Empire. There was social disapproval, apathy and, perhaps most crucially, lack of information. When Ireland was not being studiously ignored, it was being misrepresented. It was, for example, a given that the Republican Movement was, by definition, evil and its members psychopaths. Their cause was rarely, if ever, explained in anything other than the most crude and sectarian way and reaching any kind of understanding or knowledge of it required a determined and independent mind.

During that period, as anti-censorship activist and historian Liz Curtis chronicles, anyone who was interested in Ireland would have had to see through such apparently authoritative opinions as the historian RJ Cootes, who in 1972 wrote, "In 1969 bitter fighting broke out in the streets of Belfast and other northern towns. British troops were sent in to keep the peace, but longstanding religious differences could not be settled overnight".

Those of a less academic bent could rely on the Daily Mirror, which in 1969 informed its readership: "The Irish agree on one thing only. That is to go on arguing and fighting about a peace that has not existed in their history". Or they could consult the Sunday Times which in 1977, at precisely the time when the RUC was engaged in the practice of torturing prisoners, opined: "The notorious problem is how a civilised country can overpower uncivilised people without becoming less civilised in the process."

By 1981 this condition of self-delusion had reached such a level that Peregrine Worsthorne could, in absolute, po-faced seriousness, write the following sentence: "The English have every reason to feel proud of their country's recent record in Northern Ireland, since it sets the world a uniquely impressive example of altruistic service in the cause of peace. Nothing done by any other country in modern times so richly deserves the Nobel prize."

The unvarying message sent out by government and media since the beginning of the conflict has been, as Tony Benn has shrewdly observed, that Ireland is Britain's problem when of course the reality is that Britain is Ireland's problem. But then, as the historian J Bowyer-Bell equally shrewdly observed, "Perception is all". It was a philosophy keenly adopted by Frank Kitson who, in the classic of the time, Low Intensity Operations, stressed the need for the British military in Ireland to "dictate how others saw the essence of the conflict".

But there were then, as there are now, a few people in Britain who would not allow their understanding and view of the conflict to be controlled by either the government or the media. One of them was Aly Renwick, the British soldier who served for a short time in Ireland before becoming a political activist, writer and founder member of TOM. Another was Mary Pearson, another founder member of TOM who has remained an indefatigable campaigner every since.

Ever cheery, she is a familiar face in the North of Ireland, and in common with many of those who joined TOM in its infancy, recalls that it was the events of Bloody Sunday which finally motivated her to become involved in some way in Irish politics. Previously, she says, although she felt a sense of what she calls "emotional support" for the nationalist population, she had little understanding of the political situation, other than a firm belief that interment without trial was wrong.

"Bloody Sunday shocked me to the core" she says. "That armed soldiers would shoot unarmed people in cold blood. I was upset and angry about the British army acting 'in my name'."

The added insult to the deep injury was the handling of the situation by the media. "I watched the initial news flashes on TV" Mary recalls. "It was horrific and showed the raw reality of state murder. But by the evening news, the whole event was sanitised and the blame put on the unarmed protesters who were called bombers and gunmen. I remember crying with sheer anger at the role the media were playing".

Since then, she has worked tirelessly to inform the British people what their successive governments have been up to in Ireland. For their own part, successive British governments have also displayed a keen interest in TOM and its members, an interest quite out of proportion to the group's membership or indeed activities which have been unfailingly non-violent. It is something which has at times perplexed Mary.

"The government reaction to TOM has been quite strange" she says. "We have never been a mass organisation; even in the heydays of the seventies and eighties we never had more than a thousand members. Yet we have had quite serious harassment and infiltration over the years"

Indeed, she recalls being at a meeting some years ago at which Colin Wallace, the MI5 whistleblower who was framed by British intelligence for a murder he did not commit after he refused to take part in the dirty war in Ireland, said that TOM was the most infiltrated organisation in Britain. Whether or not this is still the case is anyone's guess, but the group has had some notable successes in influencing, for example, trade union policy, and Labour party policy during the latter's long days in opposition.

It has also been the case that opinion polls taken in Britain have consistently shown a majority of the public, whatever their political stripe, in favour of British military withdrawal from the north of Ireland, and for that TOM must take some of the credit.

This is despite the difficulties the group faced - indeed which any group which tried to present the conflict as something other than tribal infighting faced — in getting the message across.

"The mainstream media rarely takes us seriously" observes Mary ruefully. "In the past we have been labelled as 'terrorist supporters'. We seen to get the best publicity if one of our members is arrested or we are host to a prominent republican".

During the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin, some of the "faint hearted" British media took some convincing that the ban did actually only apply to Sinn Fein itself and TOM had an even more difficult task than usual in persuading the media to hear their arguments.

Like other activists involved in opposition to the British Government, TOM's members have been regularly stopped when travelling to and from Ireland. In some cases, members were subjected to house raids by the police, usually after IRA activity in England, when police would comb through books, photographs and personal paperwork in an attempt to gather intelligence.

In 1983, Mary's house was raided and searched for, as the police put it, "explosive substances likely to cause criminal damage", although as Mary points out, had she actually been in possession of any such substances, the police would not have found them as they spent the entire time looking through her books, photos and letters.

She, like other members of TOM, is humbled to the point of embarrassment at the reception she has received over the years in the Six Counties and at the appreciation there of the work which the organisation has done.

"It is humbling when people in Ireland say 'but you're working in the belly of the beast' because we know the level of struggle in the nationalist community in the North and what they have suffered. Our work and difficulties are minuscule by comparison".

Although the group's fortunes have been in decline in recent years, particularly since the cessation, Mary is still certain about TOM's function.

"Our role is still to try and convince people living in England Scotland and Wales that Britain has no right to be in Ireland, should never have been in Ireland, and should get out immediately.

"The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have had a dual effect on our work. Because there is more open discussion of Ireland now, it is much easier to raise the issues with people. We rarely get spat on or attacked in the street anymore, even though we still get threats from fascist organisations.

"However, we have found it more difficult to get people to become active on the issue as they think it all already happening. But I can promise the people in the North that we will continue to campaign for Britain to get out of Ireland and we will continue to expose the corruption and injustices whilst they still exist."

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