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

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

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.

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.’


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.


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.


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?

The O’Reilly case and the Irish media July 23, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Crime, media, Media and Journalism.
1 comment so far

Today, Joe O’Reilly is beginning his life sentence in the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise following his unanimous conviction on Saturday evening bringing to an end an almost three year campaign for justice by the family of his wife, Rachel, whom he murdered in October 2004 at their family home. Outside of his Mother who still insists on his innocence, there can be few people not glad to justice being done, who are not satisfied at the result.

It also brings to an end one of the most interesting intersections of crime and media in Irish life that we have seen over the last few years. There have been no murders, no crimes, in recent Irish history that received similar levels of media attention not merely over the course of the trial, but in the years since the murder took place.  There were 66 murders or manslaughters in 2006, 54 in 2005 and 45 in 2004, the year Rachel O’Reilly was killed.

Some achieved a limited prominence in the media such as the murders of Baiba Saulite, Anthony Campbell, Dennis Donaldson or Donna Cleary. Most, the victims of inter-gang warfare in Limerick or Dublin, were forgotten by all but their families and the Gardaí after a fortnight. None achieved the prominence of the Rachel O’Reilly murder. In only her case has the victim achieved such a status that she is regularly referred to in the media by her first-name only.

I have been trying to remember over the weekend when I became aware that her husband was the killer. I don’t read the Evening Herald, which was to the fore in identifying him as the killer, and I didn’t follow the story when it cropped up elsewhere in the media. Yet at some point I became aware that it was ‘known’ who the killer was. A consensus had emerged not in the corridors of the Irish media, but at watercoolers and dinnertables across the country long before O’Reilly was arrested and charged with the crime.

Writing in the Sunday Tribune yesterday, former Evening Herald crime correspondent Mick McCaffrey, made a number of interesting comments. The Herald, and McCaffrey in particular, probably wrote more about the trial than anyone else, and were the first and the most vociferous in pointing the finger at the husband. I find what he says about the appetite for news about the murder interesting:

“Every time the murder appeared on the front page of the Herald, sales went through the roof. The amount of times Rachel’s photograph was splashed on the front page of the paper became a bit of a running joke among journalists and ordinary members of the public…..

“We eventually got permission (To show pictures of O’Reilly in handcuffs after this arrest) and the frontpage poster edition was one of the biggest-selling copies in years.”

Why was this murder so different? At one level it had a couple of things we’re not used to in Irish murders. It had a clearly identified guilty party at an early stage. The story was less about ‘who’ killed Rachel because we ‘knew’, but about whether he would be caught. The steady closing in of the net around O’Reilly contributed to the build-up in interest. It also had sex in O’Reilly’s affair with Nikky Pelley.

But was there something else? A number of weeks ago Tomás Ó Siocháin, TG4’s Programme Editor, began a speech on the media by reading out five names, the last of which was Madelaine McCann. The first four, only one of which I vaguely recognised, were the names of four children of similar ages who have disappeared in Ireland over the last two to three years. “Why,” Ó Siocháin asked, “are we able to remember some victims and not others?”

He pointed to the distinctions between the McCann case and those of the other children, many of whom were the children of immigrants. Madelaine was white, female and pretty. Her family, those advocating and fighting on her behalf, were middle class, English speaking and media literate. The media, once identifying a story for which there seemed to be unlimited interest, became fixated on it to the detriment of other stories that might have had a better news value.

Can the media obsession with the O’Reilly case be explained similarly? Is this at the heart of why the murder of Donna Cleary, a working class single mother shot by a gangland thug, is more important than the murder of a middle-class married woman by her husband? Is it the reason why the murder of Baiba Saulite, an immigrant to this country and a single mother, by gangland figures allegedly operating on behalf of her estranged husband is slowly being forgotten?

And if so, what does it say not merely about the Irish media, but about those of us who consume it?

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