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IRCA Easter 2014 Address April 22, 2014

Posted by guestposter in Irish Politics, The Left.
38 comments

Irish Republican Comrades Association – Easter 2014 Address

Speaker Pat John Kelly.

Welcome friends and comrades to the 2014 Official Republican Commemoration organised by the Irish Republican Comrades Association.

We are here to remember friends and comrades and all those who gave their lives in pursuit of an independent Irish Republic based on the needs of the Irish people linked with the beliefs of Tone and Connolly. In other times we would have naively called upon the Irish people to follow us alone in leading them to the promised land of the Socialist Republic. Unfortunately some still cling to that forlorn hope.

Republicanism has always been strong on tradition and has looked back for guidance and has regarded past tactics, with slight modifications, as being the only way forward. Should we be saying today that we hand on the torch to the next generation, therefore dictating without stopping to think what the next generation might want or believe? I don’t believe they would accept that, just as we did not accept it in our youth.

We, as the then Official I.R.A in the early 70’s, did our best to stem the seemingly unstoppable decent into all out sectarian war in this part of the island. Words spoken, and actions taken at the time, attempted to show that there was an anti-sectarian republicanism, founded and championed by the United Irishmen and modernised with the socialist critique of Connolly, still in existence. Thinkers and political activists like Liam McMillen, Cathal Goulding, Joe McCann, and others, recognised the critical nature of the impending disaster our society was spiralling towards and called for talks between all of the armed protagonists and political representatives!

Today, simply acting like old soldiers who held to the one true faith and reminding people as to how right we were all along and that the political compromise we called for over 40 years ago has in some way come to pass is simply not good enough. Some people could do that, and maybe believe that they are entitled to do that, but it would no basis for the forward movement of politics in our society. Friends and comrades it is time for an honest appraisal and critical look at our position and sphere of influence in the reality we live in today.

In recognition of the current reality the majority of our membership formed the Irish Republican Comrades Association because it best describes who and what we are. We conferred no grandiose titles on ourselves as was the case in the past. Irish Republican because we are followers of Tone and the enlightenment Republicanism of the United Irishmen and Comrades to denote our adherence to the socialist beliefs and principles of the Movement we came from. We therefore invite all those who still adhere to the principles of the Official I.R.A as it was termed and its political manifestations to forsake conspiracies and join with in this honest endeavour.

All who claim to be adherents of that tradition and background have to remember that it is the living we have to convince and work with politically, not the dead. Those who are seemingly in ongoing contact with the dead in relation to existing political reality must grasp and accept the fact that it is conversations with the living that have to take place now.
In recent history each Republican and or Socialist grouping has tended to regard their political interpretations with an almost religious fanaticism. Those who differed were classed as “heretics” deserving of more hatred than those who actually rob the people of their entitlements. In Belfast, the modern cockpit of Nationalist/Republican vitriol and rancour, led to school friends from the poorest neighbourhoods labelling each other Trotskyites or Stalinists, Nationalists or Communists. Of course the all-encompassing description “traitor” served, when other labels did not quite fit, leading to the same school mates and friends shooting and killing each other at the behest of malignant gurus.
Was it worth it? Let’s face it we all practised forms and degrees of fanaticism. The time is long overdue for a serious degree of realism in how we treat and engage with one and other and how we will attempt to influence the next generation.
This will be of major importance in creating the necessary tolerance, understating and trust to accommodate and build a meaningful and relevant “popular front” in building a strong alliance in opposition to the current right-wing political and economic orthodoxy accepted across these islands and around the globe. It is no longer of any relevance to the Irish people today which modern day historical group or organisation claims to be the one and only true inheritors of the political beliefs and value systems of Republicanism or Socialism.

In the monumental task ahead the one thing we have that the present and future generation of activists may require is experience. Experience at organising, experience at making mistakes, experience at weathering defeats, experience of not simply taking the populist line that always leads to the corruption of political ideals. That is what we can pass on, along with our political views of course, and help to inspire working people to strive for a new way forward.

Are we any closer after all the years of struggle and sacrifice to achieving the goal of a new way forward? What is the feeling among the broad range of people and groups on the left? Is it hope or despair? I fear it is the latter. We all failed in not having the courage to seriously address this issue. The broad left has failed, though many groups seem to still believe the failure is due to the reason that all the others did not adhere to their particular position.

We have had several generations of excuses for the failure of serious engagement to assist in the building of progressive politics. I am not saying that each group should simply abandon their individual political analysis. Just that we cease to abandon the potential for creating political progress in the interests of group or organisational self-righteousness! Many of the older so called left parties seem to have lost their way entirely. This of course could be blamed on lack of pressure from the grass roots. Are we and many groups like us too contented in our own small comfort zones to rise to the real and necessary challenge of a new left re-alignment?

Politics for the working class North and South have not progressed in our time. Like most countries they have regressed. While class enemies reap their ever-increasing bounty unimpeded at the expense of general humanity a political, economic and social battle-plan is being implemented across the capitalist world. It is aimed at dismantling of all the gains achieved by the struggles of working people in all countries over the last 150 years.

The only two political philosophies that have in the past been truly international are Capitalism and Socialism. Capitalism now enjoys runaway success and now views even the mildest forms of Social Democratic politics, grudgingly tolerated in the years of the modern Cold War, as a dangerous threat to their interests.

If “international communism” was Capitalisms deadliest enemy during that time, it is now the concept of “Social Democracy” itself that capitalism has now openly declared war on. It is fighting that war on all fronts with a ferocity not seen in history since the epoch of Capitalist, Colonial and Imperialist expansion of the 18th & 19th centuries. The current crisis and lack of a serious left political response is an international one.

If Social Democracy, and the parties who have represented it and still claim to represent it, cannot be bought, bullied or bribed into the acceptance of their economic and political hegemony, then they must be smashed and destroyed.

Here on this island and in Britain that process has already taken place with hardly a whimper of organised protest. The political structure in the Republic now lacks even the semblance of a Social Democratic voice, a necessary touchstone for all progressive politics.

This is all taking place while the groups and organisations on this island who should be working in defence of our class are furiously quacking at each other like angry ducks in an ever diminishing pond of political relevance. Continuous and ultimately futile deliberations about the philosophical minutiae of what the ultimate socialist society is and will be, must be left for another and less important day.

What is our response locally? Firstly no group should continue to dictate their analysis as the only way forward in an all or nothing syndrome. The way forward has to come about as the result of intense debate involving all those who strive for a just and humanist society. The main issues effecting working people of fair and decent wages, housing, health, education are the battlegrounds where common purpose should be found and acted upon.

We would advocate that there must be a whole new approach to co-operation and forming a united force to confront the advancement of the modern Capitalist agenda. Had anyone predicted fifty years ago that the banking and financial system would collapse as a result of gambling debts and the majority of working people would foot the entire bill people would have been laughed at!

The building of a “Social Forum” could begin the process to remedy that situation. A Social Forum north and south to re-awaken and re-invigorate the Republicanism and Socialism of James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Peader O Donnell, George Gilmore and Jim Larkin. A Forum that takes cognisance of the modern society and reality we live and exist in today would be a good starting point. Republican Congress was 80 years ago it is maybe long overdue that a similar concept at least be talked about in relation to the idea.

No matter what the pundits may say sectarianism is being challenged daily by a range of working class groups and organisations, ourselves included. If the sectarian language and chants seem louder and shriller today it is because the element of doubt is beginning to register. In saying that we still have a long way to go to rid our society of this ancient plague is an understatement to say the least. Sectarian voting patterns, and the outdated concepts of British and Irish nationalisms that perpetuate it in the North, pollutes Irish politics both North and South.

The present political power holders in the North continually highlight the differences between the two sides of our divided society, inventing new cultural ones as required. This is to perpetuate the “them and us” syndrome that saves them real political campaigning at elections.

A Social Forum in the North could provide a middle ground where working class groups could concentrate and elaborate on the commonalities of both sides. It could act as a venue where activists place one foot in with the other foot firmly in their own camp until the term “traitor” so beloved of Irish politics loses its power over progressive thinking.

This concept is not being proposed as some kind of magic formula or a quick fix solution to entrenched sectarian attitudes. It would be more the beginning of a long drawn out process to introduce the real politics of left versus right to a tribal voting system.

Friends and Comrades this is not a day for smugness of any kind. It time to think and renew open and frank debate and consider with others the proposition of a new departure.

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Left Archive: Resistance – Civilian Resistance c. 1971, People’s Democracy? February 25, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Online Document Archive, Official Sinn Féin, People's Democracy.
6 comments

Resistance

To download the above file please click on the following link: Resistance

Many thanks to Alan Mac Simoin for scanning and forwarding this document to the Archive.

Unusually there’s no clear provenance of this document. It mentions the Civil Rights Movement, People’s Democracy and the Republican Movement, and the cover is obviously taken from the famous Joe McCann ‘Army of the People’ photograph from the Official IRA. That said it appears to have been written by NICRA or PD members and any clarification on it would be very welcome.

It was written in the wake of internment and before the suspension of Stormont in March 1972.
As such it calls for the end of internment on foot of what it considers to be a mobilisation of the people. It also focusses on Crossmaglen and gives a detailed list of activities in that area such as protests, barricades and other forms of opposition to the state. There’s also a ‘Jail Journal’ reprinted from the Irish Times which consists of a personal account by Seamus O Tuathail, former editor of the OSF United Irishman and his experiences in Crumlin Road Prison.

The document also states the aims of the groups that it represents, most important of which is the establishment of a ‘democratic assembly’ and that:

The Assembly would be organised on a 32-county basis, and would lay the foundation for an all-Ireland democratic republic in the tradition of Tone, Connolly and the 1916 Proclamation.

Left Archive: Law (?) and Orders: The Belfast ‘Curfew’ of 3-5 July 1970, Central Citizens’ Defence Committee July 3, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Central Citizens' Defence Committee, History, Irish Left Online Document Archive, Northern Ireland.
65 comments

CCDC Law (?) Order

40 years ago today, at about 4.30pm, the RUC and British army raided 24 Balkan Street in the Falls, looking for arms. The incident was to spark what the United Irishman of August 1970 described as “the biggest military engagement since 1916 between units of the Irish Republican Army and British Crown forces”, and resulted in 3,000 British troops, backed by helicopters and armoured cars, placing an illegal curfew on around 60 streets in the lower Falls. The curfew lasted from 10pm on Friday July 3rd until 8am on Sunday morning, with a two hour break on the Saturday evening for people to buy essentials. Four men were killed, all of them by the British army, amid mass arrests and house searches. Three were shot dead, and one was deliberately run over. This document describes the deaths of Charles O’Neill, William Burns, Patrick Elliman, and Zbigniew Uglik. It also gives a detailed description of the hardships experienced by the civilian population as a result of the curfew itself, and as a result of the actions of the British troops, many of whom engaged in an orgy of destruction and looting. The British seized about 100 weapons, 25 lbs of explosives, 21,0000 rounds and some radio equipment and gas masks. In the weeks after the curfew, the Central Citizens’ Defence Committee conducted a survey of the residents within the area placed under curfew, and the pamphlet provides a invaluable insight into the experience of the local population. A sense of how intense the fighting was and the scale of the British army operation can be seen in its own statistics: its men fired 1,454 live rounds, and deployed 218 CS gas grenades and 1,355 gas canisters. Many of the latter were fired into the area from a large catapult attached to the back of an army jeep like a medieval siege engine. And no, I’m not making that up.

The Central Citizens’ Defence Committee was founded on August 16th 1969 on the initiative of Jim Sullivan, adjutant of the Belfast Command of the Irish Republican Army. Sullivan was its first Chair. It acted as the coordinating body for the various defence groups that had sprung up in the various areas in August 1969 and after. It rapidly expanded, and at one point, according to Paul Arthur, 95 delegates represented 75,000 people. The wide-ranging nature of the body can be seen in the fact that while Sullivan continued to play a leading role in it, it also included some of the local priests from St. Peter’s Cathedral and people connected to the Nationalist Party and to Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, the Westminster and Stormont MPs for the area. It wasn’t a left organisation, but it included significant left-wing elements, and its account of the Falls curfew certainly deserves a place in our archive.

This document was produced in September 1970. It was written by Seán Óg Ó Fearghail, with a foreword from Mícheál Ó Dathlaoich (Michael Dolley, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy and lecturer at Queen’s). The British Army believed Ó Dathlaoich to be the real author. The British Army were concerned enough by it to rapidly produce a detailed response that was sent to media outlets. The document starts with a brief historical overview; gives a detailed account of the events that led to the curfew and the curfew itself (one, it must be said, that downplays the extent of the resistance to the British army); and the second part of the document is a breakdown of the result of the CCDC’s survey of the residents, which was conducted by teams of mainly students, with the curfewed areas being broken up into different zones, as explained in the document. Although in many respects, a largely factual and narrative account, it does have a clear analysis, and lays the blame for what happened squarely at the door of the British Army for its overreaction, and the document accuses the army of implementing a pre-planned strategy.

The historical overview describes the social, economic and living conditions within the area, and stresses the religiosity of the people, as well as the large number of ex-British servicemen in the area. The account is at pains to stress the respectability of the area, reflecting the extent to which the Catholic church and the local social elite had become involved in the CCDC. It also provides a quick description of the civil rights campaign, the outbreak of the Troubles, and the weekend before the curfew (June 27th/28th), when serious sectarian violence had led to six deaths in the Crumlin Road and the Short Strand, with the emerging Provisionals responsible for them all, including that of a Catholic accidentally shot dead while cooperating with the Provisionals in the Short Strand. As noted already, the account of the incidents that led to the curfew blames the British Army for not ignoring the hurling of a few stones, and instead choosing to respond with CS gas, and repeatedly failing to back away from confrontation instead of further provoking it. It also notes the recklessness of army actions that endangered civilians, but also describes the throwing of homemade hand grenades at the military by the Provisionals that escalated the situation, and which they admitted to the Irish Times of July 7th 1970 had been a mistake. It stresses the contempt with which both the hierarchy and the troops on the ground treated both the CCDC and elected politcians trying to bring things to a halt – Devlin was threatened with death by troops holding him – and the mistreatment of civilians, their homes, and their property. At the same time, however, there is a reluctance to smear the names of entire army units, and it goes out of its way in part II, the survey, to point out that many of the soldiers behaved well. Among the headings for Part II of the hardships faced by civilians are Shortage of Food, Loss of Liberty, Financial Hardship, Cruelty to Animals, and Brutality of Troops.

The Conclusion lays the blame for the Curfew squarely at the door of General Sir Ian Freeland, General Officer Commanding and Director of Operations for the British Army in Northern Ireland, and warns that the curfew may be seen by future historians as a significant step in the alienation of the non-unionist population. It also goes out of its way to point out that a formal curfew had been called, as the British had taken to denying this due to its illegality. It attacks the army for the deaths of the civilians, and its claims to have killed two snipers whose bodies were moved out of the area, while again downplaying the extent of the resistance. All in all, this is a superb insight into the curfew, and into how some important sections of public opinion felt about it.

Apart from the inherent interest of the document itself as a source, it is worth taking a minute to consider the wider significance of the curfew. In retrospect, we can see it as the first expression of a new and more hardline policy being introduced by the British military, the new Tory government (elected June 18th 1970) and the Stormont regime. The murders of the four civilians as a result of utterly reckless and dangerous firing by the military, and the false claims about killing snipers whose bodies have disappeared to justify the killing of innocent civilians are all too familiar, especially two weeks after the Saville report was published. Having said that, the claims that from the curfew on, the non-unionist population considered itself at war with the British are not accurate either.

There has been a lot of myth making about the curfew, and it has become the centre of disputes over what happened and how it is remembered. The area was a stronghold of the IRA, with the Provisionals numbering only about 12 to perhaps 150 members of the IRA, the Auxiliaries and the Fianna. The IRA (Official) version has always been that the Provisionals were ordered to throw the nail bombs at the soldiers, and then withdraw from the area to leave the IRA to fight it out with the British. A small number of Provisionals did stay behind – possibly against orders, as the Irish Times interview alluded to above says that the Provisionals as an organisation were not active in the area – including Brendan Hughes, who gave several accounts of his activities before his death. By his own account in Voices from the Grave, the Provisionals were involved in a five or six minute gun battle before hunkering down and sitting it out. The fighting lasted from around 8pm until 3 or 4am. The Provisionals have also always stressed the part played by their members in the march of the women that is claimed to have broken the curfew on the Sunday. For the 35th anniversary, the Provisionals produced a DVD about the curfew, and for the 40th, they centred a commemoration around the march of the women. As is clear from the CCDC document, the curfew was already finished, although that would not have been known to those marching.

The reason for the Provisional stress on the march was because they could not reasonably claim the credit for the fighting, although it seems that in recent years, since the DVD at least, there has been an attempt to annexe the military resistance to their cause, just as several members of the IRA (Official) killed as late as 1972 now appear on the Provisional roll of honour. The list of stories covered for the first edition of the new monthly An Phoblacht includes the following. “The Falls Curfew, the Defence of Ardoyne and the Battle of St Matthews”, which suggests an attempt to portray the curfew as part of a seamless whole in which the Provisionals stepped forward as the defenders of the oppressed catholic community, although I haven’t read the paper, and so could be wrong there, and will be happy to be corrected.

The IRA and Republican Clubs were quite clear in claiming credit for the fighting, and I think it is fair to say that the curfew is remembered as the set-piece battle of the IRA in its Belfast heartland, involving as it did large numbers of people and many important figures in the history and development of The Workers’ Party, including the likes of Jim Sullivan, Liam McMillen, and Joe McCann. And for the fortieth anniversary, a large group of Workers’ Party members who were involved in the curfew as members of D Company have produced a pamphlet (called The Story of the Falls Curfew) putting down their experience and analysis of the curfew, and combatting what they see as the attempts by others to write them out of the story of the curfew, or to misrepresent their motives for taking the actions they did. This is not just the Provisionals, but also those journalists and historians who have claimed they felt they had something to prove in competition with the Provisionals after the events of the previous weekend. They point out that a desire to defend their area was not the same as a desire to be seeing as the defenders of the Catholics. The pamphlet includes an account of another event alluded to by Brendan Hughes in Voices from the Grave, when IRA volunteers pulled guns to prevent a Catholic sectarian mob, of which Hughes was a member, burning Protestant homes as a way of stressing the differences between the two.

The media coverage of the 40th anniversary has reflected these ongoing issues about historical memory. Alan Murray, in the Belfast Telegraph on June 23rd, described the ongoing sense of injustice felt by the families of two Protestant men shot dead by the Provisionals during the violence at the Short Strand on 27th June. They feel that their relatives were innocent men, shot dead by sectarian gunmen, and that every year their memory is smeared to hide the truth. The Andersonstown News has for its past few editions been running stories about the curfew, including interviews with Workers’ Party members who were active that night and with some of those involved in the women’s march, detailing how they “broke” the curfew. Another story with another woman talks about the curfew being over before the march. A few of these stories have been among the small number from each edition that get posted on the website, and likewise some of the texts discussing them have been published online too. It’s interesting to note what stories and texts from the printed editions have been left offline. You can still find British soldiers who believe that the bodies of two snipers were successfully hidden, and that the shooting was by and large justified. The curfew remains a very good example of how during the Troubles, competing versions of history were fostered for political reasons, and how myths can take hold and become unshakeable truth in popular memory.

The Left Archive: ‘The Role of the IRA, 1962-1967’ by Liam McMillen, Official Sinn Féin… October 13, 2008

Posted by guestposter in Irish History, Irish Politics, Official Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin.
39 comments

A very welcome guest post for the Archive today from Brian Hanley of Queens University, Belfast. The IRA, 1926 – 1936 is perhaps his best known work amongst a general readership, but for those of us here his forthcoming book co-authored with Scott Millar, on the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party will be of particular interest.

bmcosf
above lecture was delivered by Liam (Billy) McMillen in Dublin during June 1972 at a series of lectures organised by (Official) Sinn Fein to commemorate the birth of Wolfe Tone. As ever the context is important. In 1972 Liam McMillen was one of the best known republicans in Northern Ireland, having been involved in the IRA in Belfast since the early 1950s. From Ton Street, in what is usually called the Lower Falls, his family had been involved in the republican movement since the 1920s. McMillen was first jailed in 1953. For a period during the late 1950s he joined the breakaway Saor Uladh organisation, before returning to the IRA. He was imprisoned again during the IRA’s Border Campaign and on release in 1961 emigrated to England where he worked as a scaffolder. Known as the ‘wee man’ McMillen was a fluent Irish speaker and active in language circles in Belfast. In 1963 he became officer commanding the IRA in that city; after the split in 1969 he was O/C of the Belfast Official IRA and a member of that organisation’s Army Council. When this speech was delivered the Official IRA had just declared a conditional ceasefire, and the North was entering into a period of uncertainity with rumours of a Provisional IRA ceasefire on one hand and increasing sectarian violence on the other. By the time the speech was published in 1975 it would be as part of a tribute to McMillen (Liam MacMaolain: Separatist, Socialist, Republican by D. O’Hagan, 1975), the 48 year old Official IRA leader having been shot dead on April 28th 1975 by the organisation that would become the INLA.

The lecture itself is a brief account of republican politics in the North, particuarly in Belfast from 1962 to the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. It is a significant document, often overlooked in histories of the IRA and the politics in the 1960s more generally. It certainly provides a different interpretation of many of the well known events of that period and throws new light on some aspects of republican strategy. It begins by describing the aftermath of the Border Campaign and the task the IRA faced in re-building and the realisation, for some at least, that ‘physical force alone had failed.’ McMillen suggests that the early 1960s saw the ‘final surrender by Fianna Fail of the national ideal’ the moves by Sean Lemass to recognise Northern Ireland part of a trend towards telling nationalists to accept partition and ‘settle down to become happy little Britishers.’ That Fianna Fail under Lemass was dragging the South into greater reliance on British imperialism was a central argument for 1960s republicans.

Describing the weakness of the Belfast IRA he nevertheless asserts that their role in ‘upsetting Britain’s plans for Ireland’ would be an important one. McMillen claims that the nationwide commemorations of Wolfe Tone’s birth were the beginning of a re-organisation. He recounts the story of the controversey surrounding the refusal of the then Belfast IRA commander Billy McKee to break an RUC ban on the tricolour at the Wolfe Tone event; in the aftermath of this dispute McKee resigned and was replaced by McMillen. (Bad feeling about this incident simmered and became acute when McKee emerged in late 1969 as a founder of the Provisional IRA in the city). McMillen argues that the ‘tri-colour was to play a central role in the future developments in Belfast, especially in re-awakening the dormont nationalism that slumbered in the hearts of the people.’

In October 1964 McMillen stood as a republican candidate in the Westminister election. As he explains ‘the task of contesting the election fell on the local units of the IRA.’ McMillen recieved 3,256 votes, the best of four republican candidates in the city. He suggests that this proved that ‘abstentionism was dead, and that it was time to bury the corpse.’ (Whether or not he actually thought this in 1964 is hard to say; though the IRA discussed and rejected abandoning abstentionism in 1965.) But the election was notable for the violence which followed the police seizure of a tricoulor from McMillen’s election HQ in Divis Street. Ian Paisley had held several provocative rallies in this period and threatened to march on Divis Street to remove the flag himself if the police did not act. After the RUC smashed their way into the republican HQ there followed was several days of rioting, with the unveiling of new tricolours and the singing of ‘the National Anthem with a solemnity and fervour’ that McMillen claimed never to have witnessed ‘before or since.’ McMillen claims that the events ‘embittered the nationalist population against the Stormont regime (and) set the stage for future confrontations between the youth of the nationalist areas and the RUC.’ The IRA also gained a ‘couple of dozen’ new recruits. For McMillen the events proved that ‘the embers of patriotism still smouldered among the people’ and that ‘a good strong republican breeze was all that was required to fan those embers into flames.’

As for the IRA itself McMillen notes that ‘the routine work of organising a physical force movement continued’ and ‘men were still being recruited, organised into sections, companies and units, and were being trained in the use of arms and explosives.’ McMillen had argued elsewhere that the revolution would have ‘three phases…political agitation, economic resistance and physical force.’ (United Irishman, December 1970). At Easter 1965 in Belfast Sinn Fein president and leading IRA figure Tomas Mac Giolla spoke of the importance of confronting discrimination in the local government franchise. McMillen notes the attempts by the Belfast IRA to establish ‘one-man, one-vote’ committees that year, but that campaign was stillborn, partly according to McMillan because of the ‘intransigence’ of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. However he notes that this effort was in many ways the ‘forerunner’ of the Civil Rights Association. In late 1965 an IRA unit disrupted the showing of British Army recruitment film in a Catholic school in Belfast, (an event McMillen mistakenly dates as happening in 1966). Several Belfast IRA members, including 18-year-old Joe McCann were also jailed that year.

The buildup to the Easter 1966 Anniversary celebrations and the importance the IRA placed on them is also related by McMillen; ‘the whole resources and energy of the Belfast movement were devoted’ to organising the commemorations. They were seen as an opportunity to flout Stormont’s ban on republican symbols. Certainly anyone who believes that militant republicanism was utterly marginal prior to 1969 should look at contemporary coverage of the 1966 commemorations in the North and the large numbers attracted to the Easter events. McMillen mentions two members of the Belfast IRA staff being jailed at this time; he was one of them. This was ‘a small price to pay’ he suggests for the ‘vast return of national fervour’ that accompanied the celebrations. But ominously sectarian tension was also present with clashes when Ian Paisley (again) led a march through the Market area of Belfast in June. McMillen recounts how the local IRA intervened during these riots. He also notes how the newly formed Ulster Volunteer Force had targeted IRA members prior to their killing of Catholic Peter Ward (Contemporary republican sources claim that the UVF had assistance from the RUC Special Branch.)

McMillen was a member of the first executive of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) when it was formed in 1967 and helped draw up its constitution. He notes that though the initial meeting was ‘attended in strength’ by members of the Republican movement it was decided not to pack the committee but ensure it was broadly based. (It is worth noting that the presence of the commander of the Belfast IRA on the civil rights executive would hardly have reassured Unionists or the RUC about the organisation’s ‘reformist’ nature). After some months McMillen quietly stepped down and was replaced by Kevin Agnew, a republican from Co. Derry (who would later support the Provisionals). Outside of NICRA activity there were now five Republican Clubs in Belfast though McMillen claims that activists in the city ‘dragged their feet’ in terms of social agitation. He may be slightly exaggerating here. It was only really in Dublin and Derry that the republican movement had prioritized housing agitation during 1967 and Belfast was as active in many ways by 1968 as Cork or other areas. McMillen also notes the IRA’s bomb attacks on British Army recruitment offices in Belfast and Lisburn as part of their ‘happy blend of political agitation and military activity.’ These occurred after the setting up of NICRA (in May 1967 and January 1968) and demonstrate that republican engagement in civil rights did not see the end of armed activity in the North.

McMillen then turns to the republican policy of pushing NICRA to take to the streets, arguing for a march in Belfast during 1968. He does not mention the events in Dungannon which led to the decision to march there but notes that the ‘bulk’ of the Northern IRA were present on August 24th 1968. (In fact of course many were stewards). McMillen perhaps surprisingly describes the march as a ‘disappointing anti-climax.’ He does not recount how the day saw militant speeches from among others Austin Currie and Gerry Fitt who described the RUC as ‘black bastards.’ (While much of the recent coverage has emphasized the influence of the American Civil Rights movement it is worth noting that the marchers in Dungannon sang ‘A Nation Once Again’ as well as ‘We Shall Overcome’ when confronted by RUC lines.)

McMillen then notes the importance of Derry on the 5th of October. Most interestingly he recounts how the IRA had met to discuss their tactics on the day. Again perhaps surprisingly he argues that had the RUC not stopped the march then ‘the CRA would have died a quiet and natural death.’ Instead ‘the events of that day led directly to the dramatic developments’ of 1972. He points to two factors that inspired the RUC’s actions; they had received information that the IRA planned to cause ‘havoc’ in Derry and hence reacted ‘violently to the first gentle nudge’ and secondly that Belfast republicans ‘had been instructed, in the event of the parade being halted by police cordons, to push leading Nationalist politicians into the police ranks. This they did to such effect that one became the first casualty…receiving a busted head from a peeler’s baton.’ (Little sympathy there it seems for Gerry Fitt). McMillen describes how ‘the television coverage of the RUC brutality that day exposed the fascist nature of the Orange/Unionist domination and its ruthless denial of elementary democratic rights to a large section of the citizenry.’ McMillen’s use of the term ‘fascist’ might surprise some, though perhaps it is an indication of how little reform republicans really expected from Stormont. After October 5th the movement mushroomed and McMillen is positive about how it developed; ‘it exposed in a manner which no other movement could have done the blatant injustices of the Special Powers Act, gerrymandering and discrimiation.’ McMillen also claims that the Civil Rights movement raised demands on behalf of the ‘poorest class of Protestants.’ (In fact there is little evidence that NICRA devoted much attention to working class Protestants in its 1968-69 heyday. There were rancourous debates within the Civil Rights movement on whether class demands should be raised to attract working class Protestant support. In general republicans argued against raising these demands for fear of splitting the movement; ‘Republicans must be the foremost advocates of unity in the Civil Rights Movement. They must strongly oppose those who call for a split in the Civil Rights Movement in the spurious belief that in this way that working class Catholics and Protestants will get together for ‘socialist’ and ‘non-sectarian’ demands.’ United Irishman, June 1969). During the winter of 1968 there were several more Civil Rights marches in Derry and one in Armagh (republicans such as Johnnie White in Derry and Denis Cassin were prominent stewards at these events). McMillen briefly mentions the second Derry march. An ominous development in both cities were sectarian clashes after these events.

Then comes January 1969 and Burntollet. McMillen makes no comment on the march, which for some commentators has become a piviotal event. Republican opinion on the march and indeed on the Peoples Democracy organisation itself was divided. Republicans took part in the Belfast to Derry march and provided shelter and food to the marchers. (The United Irishman’s criticism of PD was that they were not sufficently anti-partitionist, not that they were ultra-left). McMillen does not mention the serious rioting in Derry in the march’s wake nor the rioting in Newry a week later when Belfast republicans were again prominent in the disturbances. However he does explain how in April after more rioting in Derry the Belfast IRA burned down 10 post offices in the city to stretch RUC resources. There was also a republican organised march on the Falls Road that ended in large-scale rioting. (The IRA did not claim the fire-bombings at the time, though IRA leader Cathal Goulding publicly warned that ‘if our people in the six counties are oppressed and beaten up…then the IRA will have no alternative but to take military action against the police force [we] have no alternative but to protect our people or allow them to be slaughtered and we are not going to allow them to be slaughtered’ Irish Times, 22 April 1969).

McMillen then notes the various political endeavours of the movement in Belfast, while also estimating IRA membership and arms in the city. Here he praises Joe McCann as one of those who understood the need for both political and miltary activity. (When McMillen gave this lecture McCann was dead, killed by British troops in April 1972). By 1969 the Belfast Housing Action Committee had organised several protests and was squatting homeless families in Divis Towers. McMillen mentions the attempts by republicans to make contact with housing protesters on the Shankhill Road. He then explains that by the summer of 1969 there was increasing pressure on the IRA to respond with weapons to clashes between nationalists and the RUC. Finally he describes the events after the Apprentice Boys march in Derry on August 12th.

Here McMillen, perhaps deliberately, confuses the dates. It was on August 13th that republicans organised demonstrations to tie up RUC resources in Belfast. These led to riots on the Falls Road and it was later that evening that the IRA opened fire on the RUC in Leeson Street. This was one of a number of armed actions carried out under McMillen’s orders on August 13-14th. It was the following day, August 14th that the fighting in west Belfast took on an inter-communal nature. Again McMillen does not go into any detail about the IRA’s role in this, though he asserted in 1970 that ‘the meagre armaments in the hands of the Belfast units were put to their most effective use and, it can be safely said, prevented even more widespread death and destruction’ (United Irishman, December 1970). McMillen himself was arrested on the morning of the 15th in a house off the Falls along with Malachy McGurran (a leading IRA member from Lurgan) and Frank Cards (Proinsias MacAirt, a Belfast IRA member). Interestingly, he asserts, in contrast to much commentary, that during the fighting ‘the people turned to the IRA for leadership and defence’ and that after August the movement ‘enjoyed a popularity among the people it had never experienced before.’ Though centrally involved in the republican split in Belfast McMillen leaves discussion of the formation of the Provisionals to ‘another lecture.’

McMillen’s account is notable for the emphasis it places on reviving nationalist feeling among Belfast Catholics, and for its openness about the role of the IRA in both the Civil Rights movement and in Belfast during 1969. It is particularly important given that recent commentary on the Civil Rights movement has downplayed or ignored altogether republican involvement. It also contrasts very strongly with later claims about republican policy during that period by both historians and some of McMillen’s comrades. There were clearly contradictory influences at work in 1960s republicanism. It was not only the ‘ultra-left’ in the Civil Rights movement who desired confrontation, nor was it only republican ‘traditionalists’ who were interested in armed action. Republicans were in favour of non-violent tactics on occasion but they had not abandoned violence as a strategy; they were after all revolutionaries, commited to the overthrow of both the Northern and Southern states. Cathal Goulding stated publicly in February 1969 that ‘if the civil rights movement fails there will be no answer other than the answer we have always preached. Everyone will realize it and all constitutional methods will go overboard’ (Irish Times, 7 February 1969). I think it is fair to say that in 1969 at least McMillen would have agreed with those sentiments.

Brian Hanley.

‘Yeltsin Gorbachev’, ‘cedarlounge revolutions’ and polar bears – oh my! June 8, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
12 comments

Busy times, a new poll out from the Sunday Business Post that puts the referendum at a lot tighter 3% for the ayes. But frankly I’m relaxing this weekend (other than to ensure that tomorrows Left Archive has a certain link to last Monday’s) so just a few thoughts (and hat tip to splintered sunrise who occasionally does something similar) finish off the weekend.

What words are responsible for greatest number of people arriving at the Cedar Lounge Revolution over the past 30 days?

Well, it’s not “yeltsin gorbachev” (9). Nor is it another historic duo “stalin and hitler” (18). “kathy sinnott” does a bit better at 12. Joe McCann is a bit lower at 11, but thankfully better than “rush limbaugh” (10). “peoples democracy” is at 14. “the killings at coolacrease” are at 12. The “Left Archive” a mere 10. C’mon folks, a bit of interest :).

“Killing Joke” are at 40, but their singer Jaz Coleman is at 14. David Cameron is at 39, which is an interesting – or possibly worrying – trend. Lisbon may exercise some, but only 19 enquiries as regards ‘coir lisbon’ came this way. A mere 20 for ‘irish republican army’. And then weirdly ‘chips’ are at 204 (at least it’s weird until one remembers it is linked to US health insurance).

Not entirely unsurprising, though, that searches for the ‘cedar lounge’, ‘cedarlounge revolution’, ‘the cedar lounge revolution’ or ‘cedar lounge revolution’ remain high and indeed top the All Time stats. Good to know.

But the top ranking search term of the month? Almost incredibly it is ‘polar bear’ up in the 700s. Nothing to do with “Lost” (I’m still waiting for the explanation for that – or am I?), but instead to do with a post some time back that considered the reasons for the animus of Spiked online towards our ursine friends…

Not just that, of those who did arrive this was very popular as a destination…

And who can blame people? Furry, ferocious and photogenic. Quite a combination.

Here is Knut, the polar bear cub from Germany, who has at least two of the above qualities and will therefore ensure that (shamelessly) polar bears remain central to the revolutionary endeavours of the Cedar Lounge Revolution.

Of course being the CLR there is a political, or at least somewhat serious element to the Knut story as noted on the C4 blogs:

Frank Albrecht, the German animal rights activist who was supposedly advocating Knuticide, was in fact arguing the opposite side of the case.

He was talking about a case in Leipzig zoo, where a brown bear cub, born in similar circumstances, had been put down. The zoo was taken to court, but justified the claim on the basis that it was cruel for a bear to be reared by humans. And they won.

Mr Albrecht merely pointed out that if you were to follow the same logic, it would mean death to Knut. And before you could say ‘delightful little bundle of cuteness’, someone at the Bild newspaper took a firm hold of the wrong end of the stick. Knut became a star, and Mr Albrecht became an evil bear-killer to TV viewers across the world.

Perhaps he should join Spiked online. They may have an out-reach group for such matters.

And on that note roll on the week…

Myth-making: Political imagery, posters from the Troubles and the contradictions of armed struggle by socialists September 3, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Design, Northern Ireland, The North.
35 comments

ppo2984.jpg

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…

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…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…

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. .. and this fine, albeit using a somewhat chilling visual imagery, semi-constructivist poster for the IRSP.

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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.

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This week from the Irish Election Literature Blog… February 26, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
9 comments

As AK notes…

Yet another mad week, God knows who the next resignation will be…

Anyway here’s Trevor in happier times.

In other green news…

Deirdre De Burcas Replacement in the Seanad Mark Dearey.

Then off we pop to the Left with…

Eamon McCann running for The Socialist Environmental Alliance in 2005.

Then John Dunne of The Workers Party from Dublin North West in 1997.

And then from ten years later we have John O’Neill of the ISN runnning in Dublin North West.

Back then to 1980s…

A Kieran Doherty H-Block candidate Poster from the 1981 General Election.

and A booklet from 1986 proclaiming ‘A New and Exciting Option in Irish Politics’…..

I had forgotten that Mary McAleese was with RTE for a while.

…and the first Dail in 1919.

And finally, a calling card to surely Win Friends and Influence People

Thanks as ever to AK… a great roundup of materials…

A New Left in Ireland? That’d be nice… and some thoughts on Richard Boyd Barrett and Keyser Soze. July 19, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Further Left.
28 comments

It may not have escaped peoples attention that at the weekend the CLR likes to kick of its shoes, put on the fluffy monster slippers with the plastic claws, sit down with some crisps and beers and leave behind the heavier stuff of the week. Hence you’ll see pieces about, ah, I don’t know, U2, or trains, or quite excellent 1980s new wave bands. And thankfully this weekend is no different for bringing tidings of non-too great seriousness. For entertaining to read in the Irish Times today that:

DISCUSSIONS AIMED at forming a new and united left-wing political party in Ireland are “ongoing” and such a group may be assembled in time to contest next year’s local and European elections, a prominent left-wing activist has said.

And the identity of this ‘prominent’ left-wing activist? Why none other than…

Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit Alliance [who] said the success of a broad coalition of left, anti-war and trade union movements in securing a No vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum highlighted the potential for an established left movement, and he is working to form a new left choice for Irish voters.

The analysis being based upon the not entirely innovative idea that:

“I think the Lisbon Treaty [General Election, European Election, latest crisis of capitalism – delete as applicable] vote clearly demonstrates the need for a new left because the entire political establishment, including the official left in Ireland – the Labour Party – backed an agenda for Europe which was rejected by the majority of Irish people,” he said.

And inevitably:

“This shows a massive gap between the political establishment and the aspirations of the majority of people in this country, and it is in that space we believe a new left is required, and now is the time to grasp the opportunity.”

This may be true, but no explanation as to how a mere 12 months prior to this election the electorate voted in representatives of… you guessed it… that self-same political establishment, as indeed they have at every election so far in this fine Republic of ours (and that polling data since the referendum indicates that that same political establishment is nowhere near the life-support machine). Nor, indeed, a thought that Nice 1 delivered a No vote and Nice 2 a Yes without somehow seeing a reformation of our political structures.

But despite these trifles…

Mr Boyd Barrett said Ireland currently had an “active but fragmented left” and he would like to see, for example, members of the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Independent left TDs and like-minded trade unionists joining in such a development.

Now, those of us with an interest in such matters will notice the key element of the above sentence, that being that the words ‘he would like to see’. As it happens so would I, but wishing ain’t going to make it so. Nor the cold hard fact that over the past four or five years in more propitious circumstances where, for example, within the Technical Group in the Dáil there were at least five TDs (and one or two fellow travellers who just might have been inveigled into a serious machine) who could loosely be described as leftist similar moves came to naught. Why the situation should have improved since then is unexplained.

Excitingly he moves from wish to… more wishes…

Mr Boyd Barrett said such a party would oppose privatisation and neo-liberalism, and fight for workers’ rights and a democratically planned economic system.

Yes. It’s a fine party alright.

And his ambitions for it are unconstrained:

He said he would like to see the new group in place in time to contest the local and European elections next summer, and indicated that “voting pacts” and “a broad manifesto” would be agreed upon between those involved.

Which is excellent.

Although a minor issue, ah no, it’s very small, no it’s hardly worth raising… well alright, if you insist… Joe Higgins, former SP TD, one of the members of this remarkable new political vehicle (and also not merely one of the finest left politicians this country has ever had, but also near uniquely one who was elected and has a small party of some substance – whatever my quibbles with aspects of their approach and programme), already kitted out in full, and ready to roll…

…said that for a long time his party has seen a vacuum in the left-wing movement and a need for a new mass workers’ party.

Yes! It’s moving forward, smoothly. Or wait, is there a certain slowing… someone lifting their foot off the accelerator?

However, he said the difficulty lay in how such a grouping would come about and over the past 10 or 15 years conditions for the formation of a new left-wing movement had not been favourable.

“Unless the conditions are correct it would be wrong to launch a new left party . . . We always co- operate in campaigns with groups from the left and community groups and in the run-up to the elections next summer we will discuss the possibilities of co-operation, and what could be achieved.”

Hmmm… That’s odd.

Now as it happens over at splintered sunrise there was an interesting discussion about a profile of the near ubiquitous RBB in the Phoenix. A profile which ended with the thought that:

Older and more aware Trots like McCann enjoy the lifestyle that such harmless and radical posturing amounts to, but Boyd Barrett may come to realise that he must make a choice between this leisure activity and serious politics. He may conclude that he has to make the plunge into mainstream politics, either as an Independent like Tony Gregory or Finian McGrath, or with one of the larger political parties.

And splintered made the summation that:

Happily, though, he [RBB] didn’t quite make the cut [gaining a seat at the 2007 Election], thus enabling himself to postpone the conflict between his electoral career and his organisation a couple of years more. But a day will come, and it won’t be long, when he won’t be able to duck the issue any more.

And weirdly reading the IT article I can’t help but feel that here it is and somehow the quote in the Usual Suspects referring to Keyser Soze comes to mind: Who is Keyser Soze? Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power.’

For there is the odd fact that RBB, unlike most of us, doesn’t just have one political home, the SWP (curiously not mentioned in the IT article), but also PBP and who knows what other three or four letter acronyms to his name. And allied to that curious fact is that many of those votes so skillfully accrued down Dún Laoghaire way might not have come to PBP had the other, original, set of initials been on the ballot box (incidentally, can’t you just hear the knives being sharpened to cut that to a four seater at some point in the future?). And one can wail and bemoan that fact or one can say, well, them’s the breaks in 21st century Ireland, or equally reflect on the fact that another equally sharp and impressive slightly less upper middle class lad managed with the S missing from the acronym to do rather well, all things considered, in carving out a political career in just that constituency way back when and ever since.

In any case, it’s not that RBB feels the need to leave the SWP and start anew with some other formation, but that he (and the SWP) as usual think the way to do it is to start anew within some new formation. Which sort of squares the circle splintered points to.

Reading some of the contributions here on Politics.ie at this fabulous news one can’t help but wonder how this is going to pan out. No, wait a moment. I think I know precisely how this will pan out…

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And poof. Just like that, he’s gone.’

Hmmm…

New Myths of the Peace Process No. 2: A Better Defence of the Realm… The British Security “Solution” in Ulster December 20, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in New Myths of the Peace Process.
36 comments

newtonhamilton.jpg

The recent issues of Prospect magazine are – as ever – excellent. There are pieces that have sent me off on various tangents. However, having said that, there are one or two eyebrow raising moments within the November issue – which I guess is what one should expect with a largely centrist or liberal magazine. Still, just how far the eyebrow should be raised is important. And I have to say that in the case of an essay by contributing editor, Dean Godson, that might be to quite a height. [Dean Godson is an interesting character, who is linked to the Daily Telegraph and as Prospect notes: Dean Godson is research director of Policy Exchange and a contributing editor to Prospect. His biography of David Trimble, Himself Alone, is published by HarperCollins]

Godson argues that

The Northern Ireland conflict is now fought over the lessons of the Troubles. One apparent lesson is that only extremists can make deals stick. But perhaps the real conclusion is that the late-colonial British did not properly study their own history

Well. That grabbed me.

Godson considers that…

Of course, most of the dramatis personae this time round never donned a uniform. But this squalid little war, conducted over the constitutional status and governance of the most cussedly unfashionable part of the Kingdom—and which seemed utterly sui generis for much of the time after the start of the Troubles in 1969—has suddenly become a trendy template for conflict resolution across the world. There is now something of an “international ideology of Northern Ireland.”

One could have drawn many lessons from the Troubles, but what has come down now, after nearly four decades, is that the moderates in such conflicts haven’t got the “credibility” to “deliver.” Only the extremes can make agreements stick. And to do that, you need to suck them into negotiations and make them an integral part of new arrangements. That means offering generous inducements—often to pretty nasty people. The extremes thus win, but in the process apparently cease to be quite so extreme.

Well, one might also argue that the proof is in the pudding. It is early days yet, but the logic of a ‘broad’ deal encompassing both centre and extreme (or near extreme – although in the North it’s tricky to define such things since annoyingly for those of Godson’s ilk those nice UUP and SDLP folk are now politically rather diminished in comparison to the supposed extremes) seems inescapable.

He continues…

I have yet to meet a single politician, mandarin, policeman, soldier or spook who has examined in any depth why internment failed once on the island of Ireland in the 20th century, in 1971, but succeeded there at least three other times—and what the reasons for those differing outcomes might be. It is now taken as axiomatic that it can’t be done, and perhaps the conventional wisdom is right, especially in the era of the Human Rights Act. But the issue is surely serious enough to merit deeper investigation—considering that the British state is confronting a new kind of terrorist threat that is far more lethal than anything the Provisionals threw at it over 30 years.

The reasons for the failure in 1971 and the successes in previous times are so self-evident that it is remarkable Godson bothers to raise the issue. In 1971 internment came during a time of mass political (and armed) mobilisation of Nationalism and Republicanism. That mobilisation had pointed to the partisan and partial nature of the Northern Irish state at point in time where democratic legitimation could hardly have been more important (given the significations of ‘democracy’ in a world which had only recently seen civil rights, anti-Vietnam and sub-revolutionary situations emerge in the very recent past). In the early 1920s internment ‘succeeded’ in large part because it took place during full blown conflict when a comprehensive implementation could be carried out with no thought of public opinion – indeed quite the opposite, few in England or Northern Ireland would complain and Dublin was too remote to do more than raise rhetorical concerns. Furthermore there was no chance that sustained operations against the North could continue. In the 1940s the armed activities and the mobilisation were of much lesser significance and internment on the Southern side of the border was implemented by a ‘Republican’ Fianna Fáil during a self-described ‘Emergency’ (caused by the War) of supposedly existential proportions to the new polity.

It is fair to point out that as noted by Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick in 1996’s “The Fight for Peace” following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement there was serious concerns amongst Republicans as to the reintroduction of internment. However, as they note:“The IRA had put in place a second… and third line of leadership… but the republican conclusion was that internment implemented on both sides of the border would amount to a pincer movement which might beat the IRA. An IRA source summed it up: ‘Internment could be terrible or it could get right to a united Ireland’. A risk that the Irish and British governments were eventually not to take.

Godson continues…

I am not militarily literate, so I cannot make any assessment of tactical lessons about rural patrolling, urban observation posts or the role of naval and air support in the Troubles as described in Operation Banner. But the study does confirm that the historical understanding upon which the army based its analysis of the Troubles was seriously flawed. The army, like so many “Brits,” succumbed to the charms of what the historian Liam Kennedy mockingly called the MOPE—”most oppressed people ever.” Indeed, JJ Lee—scarcely a revisionist historian—once came across a glorious quote from an editorial in the Irish Press, the semi-official Dublin government newspaper, in 1943: “There is no kind of oppression visited on any minority in Europe which the six county nationalists have not also endured.” Yet on any global scale, the Stormont regime bore no resemblance to French Algeria, the American deep south, apartheid South Africa, let alone Nazism (Bernard Levin actually made this last comparison). The genius of northern nationalists after 1969 was to sell the story that something terrible was going on in Ulster—which was causing huge collateral damage to the reputation of right-thinking Englishmen. Many British soldiers and officials believed that the Prods, at some level, had it coming to them—and this conditioned their response to republican violence.

The big problem here is context. Everything that might be difficult to incorporate into his ‘one-size fits all’ thesis is removed. Therefore the political aspects of Stormont rule are completely ignored in favour of deconstructing an array of straw men on the social side. That the text he uses is that of a British Army report from some thirty years after the proroguement of that unhappy Parliament is telling. He doesn’t look at any contemporaneous reports from the media, or indeed the British government.

He doesn’t reference NICRA or the civil rights struggle whatsoever. He makes some startling flights of analysis as regards a putative 70% of the population that was in favour of the status quo or British rule, which are not quite the same thing.

In a sense, therefore, the Pat Finucane Centre (founded in memory of the murdered republican solicitor), is right to criticise the army’s history of Operation Banner as signifying an imperialist mentality. The British did behave like colonialists—but, critically, like late colonialists rather than high imperialists. They superimposed on Northern Ireland a model of self-extrication that was appropriate for colonies, where the white settlers amounted to no more than 10 per cent of the population: the army would hold the ring till the politicians cobbled together something that would enable impoverished postwar Britain to pull out in a dignified fashion. All the movement was always in one direction, towards a diminution of a British role. Whether this model was appropriate for a part of Britain where around 70 per cent of the population was pro-British (at least at the start of the Troubles, when pro-union Catholics are included) is open to question.

The problem with this is that even with 70% of the population, a somewhat dubious statistic, it still leaves one in three antagonistic or alienated from the state. A huge figure in any society and one that renders even majoritarian solutions difficult to impossible to impose. And that is to dismiss entirely the fragile nature of the tacit support, or rather tolerance, that Stormont had (and I hope to do a piece on this ‘kinder, gentler’ Stormont that is another ‘myth’ Godson indulges himself in, soon).

Moreover in his final paragraph he makes a series of assertions that are quite simply – well, incorrect is the word that springs to mind. For example. He elides the security situation in the 1970s and 1980s with Stormont prior to proroguement and therefore ignores the changing nature of the conflict from civil rights activism to all-out paramilitarism. He ignores almost completely two key aspects of Stormont rule. Firstly, that in the confined territory of the North an internal parliament built on a majoritarian basis was bound to lead to a form of perpetual dominance by one group. Moreover, for all the hand-waving he indulges in he elides the term British with Unionist as if the two are synonymous. They’re not, or at least not entirely. There is a political aspect to the term British which is quite different – at least to my mind – from the nature of Unionism. The latter is shot through, as indeed is Republicanism (and for more on that consider the discussion Garibaldy and I have been having where he makes many sound points as regards defining that contested term), with the political, the communal, the sectarian (in both senses of the term) and ideological.

But it is also in that final paragraph where he implicitly argues there was some form of a ‘security’ solution, that weight of arms could end the conflict. But this is – and he’s not going to like this if he ever reads it – exactly the inverse of the completely banal and, frankly, bankrupt thinking of traditional armed Republicanism. ‘One last push’ lives on in the thoughts of some on both sides of this struggle. It’s a foolish and dangerous belief to hold, and I’m none too happy to see it applied to Iraq either.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Troubles is that this record remains such a source of pride to the British state. After all, Northern Ireland is about the last place where we still are a superpower. Consider what cards we held: the largest single deployment of British troops, the most professional regular army in Europe, amounting to 30,000 men at the height of the violence; the Ulster Defence Regiment/Royal Irish Regiment, a 6,000-strong local militia, described by General Michael Jackson as among the best troops he came across in his career; 13,500 officers in the RUC, one of the finest gendarmerie forces in the world, whose alumni now train policemen for counter-insurgencies the world over; big MI5 and, in the early years, MI6 stations; GCHQ expertise; total air and naval dominance; control of the public expenditure pursestrings for the staples of daily life, including all welfare payments; and the support of a substantial majority of the local population. Despite all of these advantages, the Troubles were a score draw: it’s a bit like the Manchester United board deriving pleasure from the fact that Crewe Alexandra came to Old Trafford and didn’t actually win. In this case, we didn’t win in Northern Ireland because we didn’t want to win—not least because we didn’t know our own history.

I’m effectively illiterate when it comes to football, but I can see a fair few problems in his argument. The RUC being one of the ‘finest gendarmerie’ forces in the world? Well, perhaps on a functional level, but that seems to miss the point by a fair distance in a divided society. Note too that he mentions the ‘height of the violence’, but completely ignores the nature of an armed presence there which certainly was one aspect of the problem. How naval ‘dominance’ translated into any serious level of political dominance is an imponderable. But that’s the issue, is it?

Is there any sense that a ‘security’ solution was possible? One need only to see how the ‘firm hand’ approach was exercised to see that this is an ahistorical reading of the situation. As Joe Lee has noted internment, introduced in 1971, had already ‘proved a colossal blunder’. The British Army itself was reported as being against imposing it. The result… a process which was entirely partial – and perceived to be so – led to a profound alienation both within Northern Ireland, and as Lee suggests ‘massively increased support and sympathy for the IRA in the South… not only internment itself, but the political illiteracy of the army in implementing it, brought a hitherto inconceivable surge of recruitment to the IRA’. This illiteracy was demonstrated by the fact that it was largely the older better known members of the IRA’s which were picked up, leaving newer more recently radicalised recruits on the ground in areas which as Eamon McCann noted were ‘hysterical with hatred’. Indeed the sheer scale of the internment process was arguably something never seen before on the island, or at least not since the War of Independence.

It became, if possible, worse. As Lee notes ‘the army compounded its failure by engaging in selective torture in a manner that ensured it would lose the propaganda battle even more decisively… [this] simply steeled IRA resolve and fostered further sympathy for them at home and abroad. Torture proved an inadequate substitute for intelligence’

But it is when Lee argues that ‘far from snatching a lightening victory, and scotching the snake before it could mature to its full serpentine length, internment ensured that if there was to be victory for the army at all, it would come only after a long hard slog, and with the virtual certainty, in the absence of political development, that ‘victory’ would only be an interlude before the next installment of ‘one more round” that he comes closest to pointing to the vacuous nature of all calls for a security solution.

Yet, worse was to follow. Intentionally or – on balance – more likely not the events of Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, resulted in the effective withdrawal of the Nationalist/Republican community from any rapprochement with the state in the short to medium term. And it is important to note that the march, although ‘illegal’ still represented some level of engagement with the ‘state’. Its aftermath was to provide an object example for those who argued that reformation was impossible.

Cormac Lucey writing in Magill (yes, it’s still being published!) also addresses the Godson article in the most recent issue. Lucey worked with Minister of Justice Michael McDowell earlier this decade but he points out the rather discomfiting fact that ‘..at every stage of the last century organised political unionism rejected reasonable proposals advanced by nationalism only to have to make greater concessions later’ and more importantly ‘…unionism didn’t just fight to oppose Irish unity; it fought to oppose reforms within the United Kingdom and, latterly, within Northern Ireland’.

With respect to the military issue he notes that the key advantages held by the British state, which Godson lists, comprise seven military advantages (including ‘naval dominance’) before belatedly turning to two political advantages. Yet the battle in NI was a political battle with a military dimension rather than a military battle with a political dimension’. He argues that far from the British military ‘favouring’ republicans or nationalists… ‘contrast the British Army response to rioting … on Bloody Sunday… which triggered fourteen deaths with the non-response to the club-wielding UDA members who helped bring down Sunningdale. Consider the fact that British double agents worked within both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups to target republican paramilitaries for assassination’. And so on.

He writes that ‘The Blair govt. was willing to mediate between conflicting parties rather than seek to impose a self-interested solution. In this respect it behaved as a democratic state rather than as a colonial master. Maybe it is this aspect of the Blair government’s stance that roused Godson to write his article. [he] hints at his by his preoccupation with military factors and with ‘winning’ in a situation where no party could win except by oppressively overriding the wishes of others and building up the problems of others’.

It seems to me beyond credibility that the level of oppression necessary to shut down violence in the absence of an agreed process was ever a feasible prospect. One need only look at how those actions which appeared close to extra-judicial played within the British polity, such as the shootings of the Gibraltar Three, to note that strong ‘security’ solutions had remarkably little support both within elites and within the broader public.

Indeed, one merely need look at the Loughall shootings in early 1987 where undercover soldiers ambushed eight PIRA men in the course of their attack on an RUC station in the village. Such attacks by the British Army tipped dangerously towards ‘open warfare’ that while on a military level could be relatively easily carried out had dangerous ramifications as regards changing yet further the perception of the conflict in the North as one of ‘national liberation’ and which might serve – counter-intuitively – to legitimise PIRA. But of course there was another factor at play. Few enough recall that during the Loughall shooting a passer-by, Anthony Hughes, was killed in the cross fire and his brother was injured. In the context of a more serious shooting war such incidents would proliferate, a difficult situation for any government.

Liam Clarke in “Broadening the Battlefield” notes a further political dynamic evident during both the 1970s and early 1980s: “A major escalation of sectarian tension and state repression would allow the IRA to present themselves as, and perhaps to actually become, the defenders of the Roman Catholic community”. This ‘defenderism’ mentality is one that would hardly be quenched, and most likely exacerbated, by increased security measures.

But there were other realities at play. Richard English in Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA argues that ‘[by the 1990s] there existed a military stalemate between the IRA and the British state… the IRA could not be simply defeated militarily (a point publicly stated by Secretary of State Peter Brooke)… the state had shown itself capable of developing a wide range of anti-IRA strategies… by the mid-1980s the capacity of the security forces to constrain Provisional activity through surveillance, arrests and so on was more impressive than it had been in the 1970s”.

Ed Moloney in a Secret History of the IRA also suggests that ‘By the start of the 1980s…military stalemate reigned, with nothing on the horizon to suggest that significant change was possible. The IRA could not be beaten, that seemed certain, but neither could the British’.

Perhaps all these estimable commentators and historians coming from widely divergent backgrounds as regards their views of the IRA are wrong. But a consensus exists.

Moreover Godson ignores that Northern Ireland was not the only theatre in this conflict. Despite the surveillance strategies that English refers to PIRA was still, in the early to mid-1990s able to mount some attacks in England itself. These were limited but their psychological impact was as significant as their physical impact. Sure, a total lockdown might have been close to possible – at enormous political cost, as Clarke points to – within Northern Ireland, but that did not of itself guarantee that violence would not spread to the rest of the UK. And in order to contain that the sort of measures which we see an hint of these days would have been necessary. That, I suspect, would have been too great a cost for the British state to bear.

One side aspect of this is what a greater degree of sympathy in Britain towards Unionism might have contributed to the policies chosen. The gulf between loyalism and Britain has been often remarked upon and Alan F. Parkinson has written an interesting – if sometimes contentious – book on this very subject, and in particular the unflattering depiction of Loyalism and Unionism in the British media in ‘Ulster Loyalism and the British Media’. But even were there greater sympathy it is hard to see the situation arriving at a more preferable solution from British eyes.

There are further issues. Liberal democracies have their own ‘mythic’ narrative that they must remain at least partially true to. In the case of the United Kingdom it is all but inconceivable that it could have imposed the sort of solution that we see in other conflicts. The reasons are varied. In no particular order we can see that the liberal as much as the democratic issues of the problem demanded solutions other than simple majoritarianism, Nationalist complaints were broadly reasonable, that the Nationalist community was already too large to comfortably contain, that the geographic aspects of the conflict allowed for largely but not entirely passive support from a Republican and Nationalist hinterland to the South, that however unwillingly Dublin might accept the role it had some measure of responsibility to Nationalism, the proximity to Britain and the concomitant gaze of a domestic and international media all too keen to expose the egregious, and there are many others. Not least was modernisation itself.

Consider the following from the “Ulster” book by the Sunday Times Insight Team dating from 1972. “The [British] Army had supposed that internment – despite its being a ‘distasteful weapon’ as Tuzo publicly called it – could at any rate be made to work… They were appalled at the Catholic reaction. They had foreseen rioting, but not warfare”. That may have been a self-serving analysis on the part of the Army, the sort of thing Godson decries, but as a narrative it suggests that Britain disliked seeing itself as a oppressive force. Delusory as that may seem in light of subsequent events it remained a core narrative within the conflict with its own repercussions.
And these generated a dynamic that led as Joe Lee suggests when writing about the Anglo-Irish Agreement to:

‘Hillsborough [which] was the first attempt by the two sovereign governments to escape from the paralysis of zero-sum thinking about the North, of an all or nothing conflict about sovereignty in which one side’s gain could only be the other side’s loss…it involved a shift in the perspectives of both governments, in particular London’s acceptance of Dublin’s right to make certain official representations implied a recognition that partition had not solved the Ulster Question. It conceded that the nationalist areas – amounting to over half the area of Northern Ireland – ought not to be ruled simply as occupied territory….’

And that last point is crucial. For the security solutions at heart point to one direction where force is used to implement political structures which are neiter shared nor agreed. That, surely, is part of the definition of ‘occupied’.

In a way one of the most grimly interesting aspects of the conflict was that it played out across three decades (or if one prefers it played out across eighty odd years) where various approaches were attempted – albeit with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness. A local majoritarian parliament failed. Direct Rule failed. Too early attempts at power-sharing failed. Security solutions failed. Various blends of the above failed… who now remembers Roy Mason’s efforts with any fondness. These things are clues, are they not?

And the biggest clue? Why Godson notes it only to dismiss it. The fact that the British Army itself noted the difficulties in the report he alludes to is the key issue. It might be a self-serving analysis too, ‘we didn’t so we couldn’t’. But… tallied with almost all other voices it points to an Army which recognised the limits of what was permissible, even under the ferocious rhetoric and sometimes ferocious (albeit limited – such as ‘shoot to kill’) actions of late Labour governments in the 1970s and Thatcher in the 1980s.

That an analysis of this nature can appear in what is arguably Britain’s finest political journal of recent years is distressing. And it is difficult to believe that Godson isn’t aware of the complexities. Complexities that render the blunt and futile comparisons between the relative weight of the British army (not forgetting one of the world’s finest gendarmerie forces) and an historical and then-contemporary conflict driven by a myriad of different issues entirely moot. But then, we’ve all got our comforting myths’, don’t we?

Incidentally, just to note an interesting piece on Tom Griffin’s ever excellent The Green Ribbon blog which considers some aspects of Sunningdale and after and notes contemporary resonances.

My glorious career in student politics and what I almost learned from it. July 31, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Greens, Labour Party, Sinn Féin, The Left.
73 comments

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On foot of discussions about the strangely long-lived impact student life appears to have had on Eoghan Harris, I’m reminded of the 1980s. Now the WP was an organisation which really placed no great interest in third level, probably since its grip on USI was by the mid-1980s but a distant memory (the student princes of OSF, Rabbitte, Gilmore etc having decamped to the unions or the public sector) and subject to a fightback by both PSF, fellow travellers of one stripe or another and the Labour Party (always more radical at the more – ahem – youthful fringes). As it happened I was probably one of the very very few reasonably active members of the party at both constituency and student union level, quite a trick considering the demands of the former and the way in which the party was regarded as the most Machiavellian and negative political operator in the latter. Anyhow, in my attempt to radicalise my fellow comrades in the student body I would bring in speakers from the party or try to organise that they might go to party conferences.

This was a project which met with mixed success, which is to say none at all. A small number from the Womens’ Group went to a WP Womens’ Conference but returned entirely unimpressed by the lack of theoretical enquiry and “boring” (I quote directly) concentration on childcare, housing and health.

On a separate occasion Pat McCartan, as Industrial Spokesman for the party, was dragged into the college to lecture on the Workers’ Party plans for dealing with the economy and unemployment. This too was met with a certain disdain by the more radicalised elements amongst my peers, the Maoists (of which there was one) found it insufficiently revolutionary and too detached from the rural (actually the latter point wasn’t the worst analysis I heard), those who were premature SF supporters had already developed a deep and abiding hatred for the WP, while most others found the ideas of large scale factory fishing ‘dull’.

Another time I brought a member of the party who had achieved some significance in the cultural field in to talk about his politics. The posters around the college made this fairly clear. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, after the visitor had waxed lyrical about his political education and the way in which the party had changed him for the better (I kid you not, there was more than a hint of a religious conversion at work here) it was announced by one tutor who had brought an entire year group to see this dialectical education that he had expected to hear about the cultural achievements, not the man.

I sort of gave up after that and ceded the field to the SWM who held meetings no-one went to and which even pity wouldn’t drive me to attend. The CPI-ML met with greater luck. They had one member on site and their TCD contingent would troop up on a weekly basis to be met with some interest by the more Republican on campus. Mind you none of those Republicans ever joined PSF, so perhaps their support was also more rhetorical…

I was never elected to USI, but spent some time on the fringes as a delegate to conferences. All good stuff. Particularly Portrush one year where I wound up in the bar having to listen to the large SF contingent give voice to that traditional song which contains the lines “Up the Provo’s, down the Sticks”. Still, this was after I’d been harangued for an hour or so by another member of the CPI-ML (who went onto much more exalted things) about the revolutionary necessity of the armed struggle. Not that this sort of discussion was restricted to the margins. The raw hatred during debates between some in the Campaign for Labour Representation and Nationalists and Republicans was remarkable and to some degree inexplicable at that point, although not quite so much in retrospect once one realises that the malign influence of the BICO was there…

I never saw that as a terribly important ‘site of struggle’. As a hostage to a perhaps delusional pragmatism I saw the real work as in the constituencies. Now, that view might well be correct although much of that work in retrospect seems to have been about getting certain people elected to a certain democratic institution, and not so much about seeing the ideology implemented.

And this in a sense brings me back to discourse. Because I’m innately suspicious of political parties that centre their activities on students. Or maybe suspicious is overstating it. Perhaps it is that I just don’t believe that it is possible to develop large scale long term political allegiance from such protean material.

And again to refer back to Eoghan Harris, his fears of Ireland slipping into ‘civil war’ seem to me to be akin to the idea that somehow May 68 could be played out on the admittedly smaller canvas of the Republic of Ireland with a students/students alliance spearheading such change, with presumably the SWP or whoever providing the ideological cement. Not that it was ever put in such terms. Both work on the line that you can leverage societal change in the most unlikely of conditions (and this reminds me of a friend of mine who was strongly involved in the bin tax protest who saw it as a means of displaying the true reactionary face of the state and therefore being an exemplar to the working class of the nature of that state. Anyone who has signed on in the dole office around the corner from the Rotunda will already have a fairly good idea as to the nature of the state, for bad and good).

The SWM, later the SWP, seemed to me to be living in a fantasy land (oh yeah, well I remember a certain E. McCann at Portrush bringing a certain star quality to proceedings, or not as the case may be) of mobilising people who didn’t want to be mobilised. This had a specific resonance for me because I was involved in the student administration of the college I went to on anti-Fees campaigns and such like.

From 1985 through to mid-1989 which was the period of my deepest involvement we (the Union) found it impossible to seriously mobilise the student body to combat a continuing process of fee increases. Not that there was no protest. There were sit-ins that disabled the College administration for weeks on end. There were also larger protests in tandem with other institutions in Dublin and elsewhere across the island.

But the point was that it was short lived and a basic problem was the rapid churn of students as one year arrived just as another left. Events from even three or four years previously achieved a mythic quality. I saw Joe Duffy on the back of a truck outside the GPO during a USI protest – or did I? I genuinely can’t be sure one way or another. The wars against OSF in USI were spoken of in hushed tones, but who could tell what were the details? I got my hands on some of the USI reports of the time and it all seemed curiously innocent to me, the sort of petty manipulation that characterised students politics during the period and ever after.

This ‘churn’ of students meant that campaigns would run into the ground too rapidly, would mean that only those outside of exam years, or what laughably were called ‘mature’ students, were really willing to give it their all, and even they were a minority of a minority (incidentally in my one size fits all paranoia it always struck me that the pressure to cut degree course from five to four, or four to three years was in part motivated by a wish to exacerbate the churn). Which meant that that SU activity tended to revolve around general administration and “ents”. Some years later, in the early 1990s, in UCD while doing a post-graduate course I saw almost the same pattern reiterate itself, albeit in somewhat better economic conditions. Oddly enough, for all the supposed sectarianism of the times on the left I found there was a broader comradeship between many of the different left groups I met there, from those who would later be in Red Action, Labour Youth and whoever.

But consider this. The mid-1980s was arguably the time of greatest prolonged economic crisis the 26-county state ever saw. Unemployment was sky-high, emigration was a constant. Yet it was impossible to motivate students to any sort of sustained activity. If not then, when? And if not, why? I’d argue that the reason was two-fold, firstly although students were more clearly middle-class then than now, the situation was so grim it made no difference – all would emigrate a seemingly failing state. Secondly the essential conservatism of the society rubbed off and lent a passivity to people. Revolution was rhetoric and everyone knew it – even at that point. A third possible reason was the sheer blandness of the alternative – Soviet style communism, in whatever variant was fairly unattractive, perhaps particularly in an Ireland that was just emerging from the permafrost of a mildly culturally and socially repressive state itself, and in any event was also a clearly failing system at that point.

This isn’t to argue that there was no capacity for change driven by students (although I’m also innately suspicious of theoretical models which try to reify their agency in political struggle). The late 1960s and early 1970s had seen student agitations which had specific results. Speaking for the institution I was in, moribund curricula were replaced. Tuition was altered. Staff were replaced and buildings and equipment developed. But these were essentially reformist demands, and as such were conceded when funding was available.

Afterwards, almost inevitably, the funding diminished and with it so did the fabric of the buildings, the number of staff and so on.

And I think it is interesting that political parties, such as the SWP, have recognised the necessity to break away – even slightly – from the college over the past decade or so (ironically at the very point where one could argue Third Level education has become somewhat more widely accessible to those from working class backgrounds – that too tells us something about the changing nature of our society and the intriguing ideological frameworks within which certain parties have operated). Again, I wonder if the emphasis on ‘youth’ sections, and students, has in reality been a minor contributory factor to the almost complete failure for radical left projects both in Ireland and abroad. There is a general cynicism about the left in this society, a sense that it is not entirely serious. I wonder how much of that is driven by the sense that ‘ah, it’s just a bunch of students protesting’. Students, rightly or wrongly – and perhaps wrongly, are considered a fairly cosseted group within the society. That the major visual manifestation of further left projects has rested in the past on such groups to provide much of the muscle is unfortunate. And unfortunate as well, if only because there is no reason why students shouldn’t participate fully in political activities. The process of Third Level can radicalise and inform. But can it do much more than that, and if not is this yet another case of the left looking back to partial victories, say the Russian Revolution, say 1968 and trying to crush all future activity and activism into their template?

If one believes in the generally accepted form of the political party, and I know there are those who with good reason don’t, parties have to organise beyond the academic institution. In a way the recent performance by Richard Boyd-Barrett, which was in all fairness quite good, might exacerbate this trend (although, as has been pointed out here and elsewhere he was flying something of a flag of convenience – but at least a convenience that broke away from the traditional image of the further left). Alternatively they might look at Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party and conclude that it really is a little too much hard work and better to wait until the conditions come right. Problem is conditions often don’t come right unless they’re nudged, or unless there is a serious component willing to step up at the necessary moment.

Actually I wonder what effect the most recent election will have on those fractions. Sinn Féin appear to be battening down the hatches and getting on with things. Labour seem to be waking up from the dream that was the Mullingar Accord. But beyond them how will the analyses stack up? No element or even relation of the further left was returned (sure, Seamus Healy did relatively well, and on another analysis so did Joe Higgins, but nowhere near well enough). I’ve spoken to one individual who would broadly be in the further left, although not aligned with a party, who told me a couple of weeks after the result that he was giving up on electoral politics. Good on him, but perhaps it gave up on him.

Yet in the face of the hegemonic grip by the centre centre/right on Irish politics that I referred to previously, where now for those groups? Opposition has its own charms, and we’ve seen various groups survive for decades simply by a sort of activism which bends and shapes itself to whatever is the issue of the day. But it’s unappealing surely? And then there is the instructive example of the Greens. A generous (and not necessarily incorrect) analysis of their words and actions since the election would merely serve to underpin the idea that they too had to accept that hegemony – even once they had stepped inside the tent. That they see no way of altering that until they are given time. It’s not the happiest of prospects, now is it?

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