Myth-making: Political imagery, posters from the Troubles and the contradictions of armed struggle by socialists September 3, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Design, Northern Ireland, The North.
I was looking for the poster above on the net after skimming through the actually quite good “INLA – Deadly Divisions” by Jack Holland and Henry McDonald while cross referencing with the R Ó B biography dealt with in part here last week. The poster was based on this photograph…
…taken of Joe McCann of the OIRA when that organisation took over Inglis Bakery in the Markets area in Belfast during the internment swoop in August 1971.
Anyhow, I found it on the rather good yankinulster blog which appears to have been dormant now for over a year. It’s a pity, the eponymous yank shares many of the same interests of the CLR, including political design culture and the North. But the yank has also established a rather fine exhibition of political posters which span the Troubles and include such gems as this one which clearly indicates the geographic and territorial preoccupations of Ulster Unionism in the early 1970s…
. .. and this fine, albeit using a somewhat chilling visual imagery, semi-constructivist poster for the IRSP.
yankinulster also provides a good bit of information in the accompanying captions. Very impressive indeed.
Anyway, back to the Joe McCann poster. In a way it provides the perfect example of the dichotomy facing Official Sinn Féin in the early 1970s. On the one hand the necessity to retain and project an armed presence in the North – particularly in the face of those upstarts from PSF. On the other the ideological drive to the left led to some recognition of the destructive aspects of that very armed presence in terms of building working class unity. Joe McCann was one of those who exemplified the link between those two positions, a link that became progressively more attenuated as the decade lengthened.
McCann had gone with the Officials during the split, but was always strongly in favour of an armed campaign and is alleged to have participated in various activities including [according to wiki and Deadly Divisions] the attempted murder of John Taylor of the UUP then Northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs, and the deaths of up to 15 British soldiers. So while the image is one of the revolutionary as romantic hero, Starry Plough flag fluttering in the breeze behind him, the reality was considerably more hard-edged and contentious. What possible political gain could there have been from murdering John Taylor? How precisely did an armed campaign fit into the project of winning hearts and minds in the working class as an entity which comprised Nationalists and Unionists?
These questions aren’t in any sense to take away from his self-evident courage, or indeed the reality that McCann was genuinely interested in and convinced of the utility of political struggle as well as an armed campaign, merely to point up the contradictions inherent then – and now – in the means chosen to deal with the situation at hand (and one might point to fact that this predated direct rule).
His death, in some ways, also sat within the archetype of the young male revolutionary (he was only in his mid-20s – although perhaps Deadly Divisions overstates it when it describes him as ‘the nearest thing…to a Che Guevera figure’) cut down in his prime. He had been ordered by the OIRA to remain in Dublin after a sequence of actions he was involved in. He returned to Belfast, was spotted by the RUC who relayed the information to the Parachute Regiment. During a confrontation and chase with soldiers the unarmed McCann was shot dead. Ten spent cartridges were counted near his body by a local shop keeper, indicating that this was arguably had the hallmarks of a ‘shoot to kill’ incident.
It’s not unreasonable, I think, to suggest that in this imagery one can see the clear suggestion of a future that would lead to the establishment of the IRSP and INLA. The symbolism of the gun against the Starry Plough, the reference to the “Soldier of the People”, even in a sense the way in which the soldier becomes autonomous from the people, the vanguard, the individual fighting on behalf of those same people. But it also, curiously, contains within it an explanation of just why that route was abandoned by OSF, why it might be difficult to present any such actions as more than rooted in a single community and how it could be necessary to transcend that iconography in favour of one which genuinely reached out.
There’s a lot of talk about how PSF simply took the OSF/WP line. But in truth both strategies failed. An armed campaign of itself was too limited, too contradictory, to provide a clear way forward in the North in a context where national allegiance meant every action would be painted as effectively sectarian. The attempts to construct some sort of political alliance across the working class was equally futile. Perhaps the only strategy remaining was to start to deal with Unionism as it actually is and hope that that might lead to some sort of rapprochement. We’ll see if that will one day be added to the list of failed approaches.
In “Deadly Divisions” the story is recounted of how some believed that the image of McCann as romantic revolutionary was exploited by OSF. One individual alleged that in the weeks prior to McCann being shot ‘he noticed that the famous Inglis Bakery poster had been taken down’, although intriguingly it is also noted that ‘whatever the people in the Dublin head office might have thought of McCann’s famous picture, it remained hanging in the main hall of the Officials’ Belfast headquarters in Cyprus Street until 1982′. Logic might dictate that the armed struggle was, after the initial eruption in the North, a cul-de-sac, but emotion and history have their own momentum.
According to wiki a plaque was unveiled at the location of his death in Joy Street in the Markets in 1997 where representatives of various groups including the WP, PSF and the IRSP were in attendance. That must have been quite a meeting.
Mind you, returning to yankinulsters archive, what about this then? A poster for Sinn Féin from circa 1994. Clearly the print and design budget was being conserved the day it was commissioned.