Section 31, Eoghan Harris and rewriting history… July 29, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Labour Party, Media and Journalism, Sinn Féin.
Imagine my delight when I turn to the column by Eoghan Harris in the Sunday Independent this morning. Today he is exercised by the photograph I mentioned the other day, the one showing Pat Rabbitte with Alex White. Now, I mentioned briefly that it indicated a certain ownership of at least one good Labour result by the architect of their rather stagnant Election result. But Harris goes to town. On it. Under the heading “A picture that’s worth this thousand words” he lambastes Labour for ‘the spot where the Irish Labour Party became a minor political party of politically correct DCU academics, Law Library lefties and radical chic republican socialists (sic)”. Lest we think that he is referring to some other Labour Party, one that while far from perfect might still approach even distantly the platonic ideal of our collective imagination he rapidly disabuses us of any such notions.
“…what do the four people [in the photo] have in common? And the answer is they are all supporters of the kind of soft republican socialism that can be summed up in the high-profile positions that all four took against Section 31”
Let’s consider what he means by this intriguing elision of characters as diverse as Alex White, his partner Marcy Corcoran, Pat Rabbitte and Joe Costello with … soft republican socialism and er… Section 31. Because make no mistake about it, this is not a political conflict, it’s personal.
Now, there are few, very very few on this planet who would consider that Pat Rabbitte was a ‘soft republican socialist’. And if we take that as our bench mark we can perhaps see the absurdity of the following thesis.
“Alex White was one of the leading activists against Section 31 [the rule forbidding members of SF to be broadcast on RTE] when he worked as a radio producer in RTE in the Eighties. Back then there was no talk of peace. Sinn Fein-IRA was still a politico-criminal conspiracy intent on subverting both states on the island”
Let me pause and note that in the old ‘objective’ use of the word ‘subvert’ so in many respects was my political home at the time, and that of Eoghan Harris, the Workers’ Party. Certainly the nature of the changes envisaged by the party would have been pretty subversive.
“…as the reality of blood and death recedes, a generation of academics with no feel for how close we came to a civil war are creating a cosy cottage industry around a stand-alone version of Section 31, shorn of historical context and conjuring up a left concept about ‘censoring the media’ when of course we are really speaking of censoring the IRA”
Since most of those academics would be in the 40s and 50s the contention that they have ‘no feel’ seems rather gratuitous. But then let’s consider the claim that we came ‘close to a civil war’. I can’t think of one point in the 30 years of the conflict where there was ever any serious danger to the Republic of Ireland from the North. To put it simply there was never anything close to the support for SF or PIRA which would initiate and maintain a civil war in the South. Indeed Harris conveniently ignores the fact that PIRA was always fairly careful to limit its activities south of the border for the basic reason that they did not wish to see any greater a security response than the one they already had. And if he means the North… well… there is an academic debate as to the nature of the conflict. But again, one of the most cynical attributes of that conflict was the way in which violence on all sides was fairly carefully maintained at revoltingly predictable levels in order that the gestural aspects didn’t tip over into inter-communal slaughter. So, remarkably, in the space of 30 years very very few politicians were targeted on either side bar a number of grim exceptions. But that narrative, cynical as it is and one which reflects appallingly badly on all involved, doesn’t quite fit into the simple manichaean presentation that in some respects is just an inverse of the sort of ‘traditional’ Republicanism peddled by RSF, and SF back in the day, whereby all causes and contexts are swept away in order that the perpetrators can be painted in the worst possible light. And if the intention was simply to censor the IRA, then why censor those who were not members of the IRA…. well we know the answer to that. But to hear it presented in such terms is just like old times.
Mary Corcoran is lashed for editing a book of academic essays on Section 31 which had the temerity to have nine essays against the rule and only one, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, in favour. Okay. Perhaps Harris has a point. Perhaps he, as one of those pivotally involved in pushing for its retention by RTE should have been given the opportunity to write (there is a certain pathos to his point that ‘I…had recorded a role playing exercise called Provo Mortar Bomb to prove how the Provos would run rings around RTE reporters’ – well gee Eoghan, thanks for letting us make up our own minds about those hypnotic masterminds in the Republican Movement, somehow I and most I knew managed). And yet. And yet.
Then it’s on to poor old Pat Rabbitte (words you rarely see typed around here) who is charged with being part of ‘that leadership [of the WP that opposed Section 31], the current leader of the Labour Party, the third person in the picture’.
Finally, as further justification for supporting Section 31, well apart from the one about trying to censor the IRA (not difficult since it was a proscribed organisation), we are treated to his thoughts on the political context of the times as received by his old comrade Gerry Gregg (fair to point out that ‘comrade’ may not be the entirely correct term seeing as Mr. Gregg took a political right turn some while back). Gregg wrote an article in Magill that covered much the same ground as his mentor does in this piece.
“… in the course of a brilliant biographical essay in Magill magazine, Gerry Gregg (available here on Slugger O’Toole), gives a more accurate account of the political culture in the Irish universities from which RTE recruited political activists like Gregg and White in the late 1970s:
“But there were also a host of ultra-left and Trotskyite sects – such as the Revolutionary Marxist Group, Revolutionary Struggle and the League for a Workers’ Republic. These and other groupings gave what they termed ‘critical support’ to the murderous activities of the Provisional IRA. I remember in 1976, when ten Protestant workers had been lined up and mown down by the South Armagh Provos, that one student Trotskyite hailed the slaughter as a ‘progressive massacre’. Four years later, that student was working as a radio producer in RTE.”
Let me hasten to add that Alex White is not the producer to whom Gregg refers. But as an activist against Section 31, Alex White must have been aware of the passsions which blinded some of his fellow RTE radio producers. In particular he must remember a meeting which I have referred to here many times – the meeting of RTE radio producers in 1987 which refused to support a resolution condemning the Enniskillen bombing.”
Now before going any further Enniskillen was an atrocity, the almost unavoidable outcome of any campaign of violence waged within a contested and limited geographical space such as the North. An example of the dangers of engaging in gestural violence, similar in it’s own way to the later atrocity at Omagh. But, to present one group within RTE as being malign, due to their previous activities in student politics (I mean really, IWG, RS and LWR, he took them or any pronouncements by students seriously?) seems odd when one considers the history of Harris himself and the party of which he was a member. To further discuss the Enniskillen meeting in the context here is to do us all a disservice. What was the precise context of that refusal to support a resolution? I don’t know, and I’d like to. But whether it is what he claims it is, further evidence of a malign indifference to human life or placating PSF or PIRA is a different issue. I’ve never much liked loyalty tests of one form or another. Political loyalty tests regarding situations beyond the direct control of those being asked to take them I like even less.
Moreover while it may suit to portray this as a quixotic campaign by some principled WP members plus assorted trade unionist noises off, the reality was very different. The party, united almost as one in loathing PSF and PIRA was fairly clear this was one campaign it wasn’t going to get too exercised by. Any oppostion by the WP was to a large degree cosmetic and as I recall almost never acted on. Whether RTE trade unionists reflected the views of trade unionists more broadly is a further interesting question. And finally there was a broad consensus in the political establishment in favour of Section 31. Hardly tilting against windmills there. More like going with the flow of those who had actual state power.
Then it is on to another unlikely paragon of soft republican socialism, Joe Costello. Lashed for trying to:
‘visit Los Tres Amigos in Columbia until Rabbitte restrained him. But the snob in Rabbitte, which regards Costello as politically common, provides no protection against Costello’s protege, the Dublin South barrister Alex White…[and] as White is the likely future leader of a Costelloish Labour Party, as it was he and Joe Costello who combined to let Pearse Doherty in by the backdoor (when Mary Coughlan of Fianna Fáil and Dinny McGinley of Fine Gael had combined to keep Doherty from the front door) and since I do not want to see his dirty deal with SF rewarded with a Minsterial Mercedes, I want to wish Ahern and John Gormley a long political life…’
Okay, what to say? Rabbitte may well be not my political cup of tea, but I’ve never found him as described. Coughlan and McGinley were fighting an election, not some existential battle confined to our hero’s head. A Costelloish Labour Party? I wish.
So, nothing at all about the sensitivities of naked political censorship in a society which had groaned under the yoke of state and church led censorship of arts, culture and politics for much of the century. Nothing at all about the perception, whether valid or not, that there was a considerable hypocrisy on the part of those who allegedly organised secret branches of WP members and allegedly sought to censor those who were members of another party with connections with a not so secret army. Nothing about the enormous chutzpah in accusing Pat Rabbitte of being a soft ‘republican socialist’.
I’ve mentioned the British and Irish Communist Organisation recently, and I’ll return to them soon, but here is another who took a very similar if not quite parallel journey, albeit breaking with socialism in any form entirely in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Much the same trajectory from Republicanism to Marxism to social democracy and then onto an identification with (or a tolerance of on the part of BICO) Fianna Fáil.
The battles of the past are always so much more satisfying than dealing with a present which confounds expectation. And the answer to every problem is? Why vote Fianna Fáil. The catch-all party catches one whose political journey has been marked by an egregious meandering masked in the language of moral absolutism at whatever point one chooses to examine it. No surprise there then.