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The Wood for the Trees. Another Massive Leap for Progress. Or, More Ignoring of Imperialism. January 5, 2012

Posted by Garibaldy in Commemoration, Republicanism.
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The recent trend for commemorating WWI as a good thing because Catholics and Protestants/Unionists and Nationalists both fought in it is something that drives me absolutely nuts (previous rants include this against Myers, this in praise of Nadine Coyle, and this. Usually we are spared this rubbish apart from the run-up to November 11th, but Belfast City Council’s decision to invite an Irish minister to its Somme commemoration has brought it back into the spotlight.

The motion, from former Lord Mayor Pat McCarthy of the SDLP (and former member of the Republican Clubs to save anyone else the trouble of pointing that out), was unopposed, with PSF abstaining on the grounds that this should have been dealt with by a sub-committee that exists to deal with the forthcoming centenaries (kicking off this year with the Ulster Covenant). There’s a thread about this on Sluggerotoole that makes for depressing reading. Amidst all the sound and fury, no reflection on what the war actually meant, nor what it was about. One of the greatest disasters in human history, the very epitome of all that is wrong with imperialism, reduced to a petty squabble about here.

This is the reality of politics in Northern Ireland still. Empty gestures that are in and of themselves are often either meaningless or – as in this case – utterly reactionary, and serve only to reveal how either variety of nationalism (British or Irish) on offer in the north is inherently limited in its potential to be progressive. So wrapped up are they in their combat with one another, any place for consistently progressive politics, for secularism, for class politics, gets squeezed out almost entirely by all-too-often sectarian forms of populism. See the 11 Plus debacle for a fine example. Unfortunately, this is what the people want, and this is especially what the middle and lower middle classes represented best by the DUP and PSF especially like. In my opinion, anyone who considers themselves a principled progressive who can look at these maps and think about the commemoration of WWI in positive terms because of nationalism and unionism in Ireland is kidding themselves. I’ve mentioned this before, but in 2003, The WP in Waterford opposed the erection of a statue to a VC winner by proposing a memorial to all the victims of imperialism. No doubt in my mind which is the progressive option, and which is the message most fit to build class unity across the island.

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1. tomasoflatharta - January 5, 2012

People on the real left should start running their own independent commemorative events about World Wars and Imperialist Slaughter – and go beyond justified disgust at the antics of the “Courtly Mummers” savaged by the mocking words of James Connolly.

Here, for instance is a scene from an anti-war film

“This is a scene from Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), a Christmas film set during WW1. Scottish, French and German soldiers fraternise on Christmas Eve (based on a true story).
The singing of fictional German tenor Nikolaus Sprink was done by Rolando Villazón.”

Ken Loach paid a marvellous artistic tribute to the ordinary people who fought the Irish War of Independence with the “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wind_That_Shakes_the_Barley_%28film%29

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2. Ramzi Nohra 1 - January 5, 2012

yes good stuff Garibaldy

Honouring those who fell defeating Nazism is one thing, honouring those who basically died for nothing is another.
From a Southern perpsective, I just cant understand why you would be bothered to celebrate/commemorate the dead of another nation’s army. I know Irish people served in the army, but they served in the US army in great numbers too at various times – I dont see much clamour to remember the sacrifices of the Union army etc. Thats a side issue though I suppose.

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EWI - January 6, 2012

The answer is in the near-perfect overlap of those who call for the commemoration of British imperial military history with those who oppose the commemoration of the Irish rebel version.

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3. Joe - January 6, 2012

Good post, Gari, but it’s not as straightforward as that.
Yes the British State uses the poppy and Remembrance Day etc to generate support for its armed forces and its armed aggressions abroad right up to the current day.
But this motion was aimed at promoting reconciliation and better mutual understanding between unionists and nationalists and specifically unionists in Northern Ireland and the government and people of the Republic of Ireland. On that basis I support it.
And I think that the matter of the fight against Nazism is downplayed in your post and the 2 comments so far. Soldiers from the Irish army deserted to join the British Army and fight against the Nazis. For their pains they were dishonourably discharged and blacklisted from public sector employment when they returned here. Some of them died in the fight against Nazism. Some of their comrades may wish to remember them by taking part in Remembrance Day ceremonies. They have my support.
Politics in this island – in terms of nationalist/unionist engagement – is indeed reduced to gestures. After all we’ve been through, that’s about the most we can do. With time, we may be able to develop that into some kind of cross-community class politics. But that will take generations. We shouldn’t be in too much of a rush.

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Garibaldy - January 6, 2012

Joe whatever about the ins and out of Remembrance Day and WWII, this is specifically a Somme commemoration, and thus related to no conflict other than WWI.

I understand your pessimism but I don’t think gesture politics is what we should be aiming at, and certainly not using gestures that carry a bigger and reactionary message.

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FergusD - January 6, 2012

Joe,
That pount you make about IDF desteters to the UK armed forces in WWII came up on BBC Radio recently, someone is making a programme about it. The tenor of it seems to be how terrible it was for the Free State/Republic to treat them so badly. Indeed, the “starvation policy” did sound terribly harsh and unjustifiable, however…

They did desert from the armed forces of their own state to join the armed forces of a foreign one, not many states would be keen on that! But the punishment was far too harsh.

(My Dad, Irish born, was in the UK armed forces in WWII. In truth he joined probably for excitement and travel, not as part of a crusade against Nazism.)

And was WW2 a crusade against Facism? I think not, indeed WW2 was a great imperialist slaughter as well IMO. Just because (some) Facist states were on one side and parliamentary democracies on the Western allied side doesn’t make it a war against Facism, and it certainly wasn’t an ant-imperialist war (SEAC, South East Asian Command, or as GIs called it Save England’s Asian colonies)although I concede that many ordinary people saw it that way.

This radio item seemed to me to be another attempt to both question Irish independence and neutrality in WWII and to somehow incorporate Ireland back into the “British” world view. Something that has been happening for some time and which these WW1 commemorations are about too. And my grandad was in the Canadian army in WW1!

Irish people’s involvement with the British armed forces is a long a complex one I know, but I do smell a campaign to try and change Irish attitudes. Maybe “they” would like to Ireland loose its present day neutrality?

I don’t THINK I’m being paranoid!

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4. fergal - January 6, 2012

Interesting post Garibaldy.I can understand ordinary people feeling compassion for family members who perished(for nothing) in the most painful and harrowing circumstances but really what was it all about?To find out which set of thugs would rule Africa and Asia,the French,the British and the Germans? In France,which saw so many young people butchered for nothing,every little village has its war memorials.There are around 30,000 local councils in France and on around 40 of these memorials the words “Down with all wars” are inscribed upon them.If I had the time and money I’d love to visit these anti-war war monuments.
On WW2 the American historian Howard Zinn,who fought in this war makes the point that the evil Nazi regime was militarist,nationalist,xenophobic,and imperialist and weren’t the British,French,Americans and Soviets offering a similar product,to use some media doublespeak!Hitler had to be stopped,but why didn’t the French and the British not do anything when the Nazis bombed Guernica?
Does Belfast have any plans to celebrate the Outdoor Relief campaigns of the 1930s?Wouldn’t this be an intersting development?Your granddad was on the dole and got up and did something about it as opposed to your grandad was poor, joined the army in 1914 and died in an imperial war.

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5. CMK - January 6, 2012

I regard this as a very touchy subject and a particular challenge for the Left here.

When reading through the initial post and the subsequent comments I was thinking of the two memorials in the town where I live.

One is for the 400 or so men from the town and its hinterland who died in WW1 and the other is for two members of the IRA who were murdered by British forces during the War of Independence. Relatives tell me that during the 40’s and 50’s the WW1 memorial was constantly vandalised and defaced. Probably by people who had relatives listed on it. Needless to say there was, and still is, an annual procession to the other memorial and you can’t move for tri-colours in the week leading up to it.

The scale of the deaths recorded in the WW1 memorial is staggering but it seems to have been completely erased from the collective memory of the town; until the past few years – roughly since the peace process kicked off. Now we have the British Legion, and, I understand, the UDA leaving wreaths and what not at the memorial with a completely uncritical celebration of Remembrance Day every year.

There is a crucial space between these two extremes which the Left needs to bring to the fore. First that WW1 was a completely pointless imperialist slaughter – a point that has been made here already but is worth repeating. The second point follows from the first: these 400 or so men sacrificed their lives for nothing substantive. That is a profound tragedy. The third point worth drawing out is the circumstances of many of these men’s deaths. A lot of them died at Gallipoli due, fundamentally, to Churchill’s incompetence and over-reaching. Many of these men could well have survived several ‘over the top’ actions in which hundreds died. They probably believed that military tactics could have been changed so that actions could be taken that resulted in much less loss of life. But the General Staff, whose actions are whitewashed by current Remembrance Day ceremonies, continued to wasted hundreds of thousands of lives and to shoot those who refused to allow their lives to be thrown away.

To read the coverage of Remembrance Day you’d think every single one of these men died unquestionly for ‘King and Country’ or, more likely, for Redmonite Home Rule.

But it should be worth pointing out that many of them, having witnessed the pointless slaughter and carried out themselves pointless slaughter of their brothers in the German or Turkish armies, probably died cursing the King, Redmond, Martin-Murphy and Asquith or Lloyd George.

The conscious effort to incorporate the futility, but nonetheless the sacrifice of the troops themselves, of WW1 with Afghanistan today, for instance, or whatever imperial adventures the Tories have up their sleeves, must be resisted trenchantly and without apology.

Just because these men died in a British uniform it doesn’t mean they deaths provide justification for British imperialism either then or now.

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EWI - January 6, 2012

Just because these men died in a British uniform it doesn’t mean they deaths provide justification for British imperialism either then or now.

But that’s exactly the way they’re being used. Even the children of the WWI veterans are now all dead.

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EamonnCork - January 9, 2012

The whole Remembrance Day thing has become massively politicised in recent years, part of a campaign whereby the notion of, “standing by our troops,” is supposed to exempt politicians from any blame attaching to the senseless deployment, and senseless deaths, of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
if my memory serves me correctly when I was in London Remembrance Day was never invoked, certainly not explicitly, as a justification for the British presence in the North. But there’s a blatant attempt to use it now to get the Tories and New Labour off the hook over Afghanistan.
On the other hand I would support the campaign to pardon guys who deserted from the Irish Army to fight against the Nazis in the second world war. I’ve always felt they were punished to some extent for going against the state’s insistence that this country’s neutrality in WWII was an act requiring enormous gallantry and sacrifice instead of an act of pragmatism.

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EWI - January 9, 2012

On the other hand I would support the campaign to pardon guys who deserted from the Irish Army to fight against the Nazis in the second world war. I’ve always felt they were punished to some extent for going against the state’s insistence that this country’s neutrality in WWII was an act requiring enormous gallantry and sacrifice instead of an act of pragmatism.

But this theory falls down on the very first hurdle – that civilians who went to enlist in the British armies and industries weren’t “punished” in any way, after all.

Desertion from the Irish army while the state was under very real threat of attack and invasion carries penalties, which I happen to fully agree with. I’d like to see someone question the BBC and Tory types behind the current campaign in the UK (which seems to be inspired by anti-Irish feeling) hard on the question of ‘conscientious’ deserters from the BA.

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6. CL - January 7, 2012

For many of these men,-those who died and those who returned maimed in mind and body,-joining the British army meant a steady paycheck; this economic conscription, explains why many enlisted, not any mass adherence to Redmondite imperialism.

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7. An Strath Bán - January 9, 2012

“See the 11 Plus debacle for a fine example. Unfortunately, this is what the people want, and this is especially what the middle and lower middle classes represented best by the DUP and PSF especially like.”

Given that Sinn Féin has been the only Assembly party to consistently stand against the 11plus (and losing some of middle and lower middle class support that you speak of as a result) you are being somewaht disengenious here Garibaldy. On the other hand there has been deafening silence on the 11plus issue from great campaigning socialists like Eamon Mc Cann-I wonder if he is afraid of losing some of the trendy socialist vote if he rails against the 11plus as Sinn Féin has done?

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Garibaldy - January 9, 2012

I don’t think I’m being disingenuous in the slightest to be honest. In the bit before you quote, I said that

“So wrapped up are they [British and Irish nationalism in the north] in their combat with one another, any place for consistently progressive politics, for secularism, for class politics, gets squeezed out almost entirely by all-too-often sectarian forms of populism”.

Let’s look at what happened with the Eleven Plus, which I said was an example of this. A progressive move deserving of praise (which I’ve delivered here and elsewhere in the past) was utterly botched in an attempt to avoid getting rid of the grammar schools so beloved of the middle classes and Catholic church (as well as many working class people who see them as a route to social mobility). The consistently progressive thing to do would have been to abolish “academic selection” completely, something which McGuinness had the power as education minister to do when he first announced its abolition. Instead, a committee was appointed to buy time to look at how to preserve the grammar school sector while abolishing the 11 Plus. Subsequently, the rules were changed in the negotiations with the DUP to restore the election and the moment was lost. The 11 Plus exists but in privatised form all because of a fudge that was attempted so as not to alienate the middle classes who benefit most from the grammar school system.

I don’t see how this is anything but an example of how any socially progressive trends within either nationalism or unionism will in most cases be squeezed by the all-class nature of the two blocs.

I’d like to see the evidence that lower middle and middle class support has been lost seeing as academic selection and the grammar schools remain.

As for Eamonn McCann, I’m sure there are others better suited to defend him than I am, but a quick search of the Belfast Telegraph archive brings up articles both on academic selection and integrated education, and I’m sure if I went looking on his political websites I could find other stuff.

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