Archive for May, 2009

The Sunday Independent and Factual Inaccuracy

May 31, 2009

Also Posted at Cedar Lounge

The following comes from a story by Jim Cusack in today’s web edition of the Sunday Independent.

One of the key incidents in the outset of the Troubles in 1969 was the sectarian murder of a Protestant man, Billy King, who was kicked to death by Catholic rioters outside his home in the Fountain area of Derry.

Billy King, who was killed in September 1969, and Kevin McDaid, who was kicked to death last Sunday, were both aged 49 and both the fathers of four children. Neither was involved in any form of militancy and both were killed merely because of their religious backgrounds.

The killing of Billy King and several other Protestants by Catholics prompted the retaliatory violence by Protestants, who invaded Catholic areas of Belfast, leading to the British government’s decision to call in the British army as the then under-strength Royal Ulster Constabulary was on the verge of collapse.

Leaving aside the fact that the final paragraph makes no sense due to a grammatical error, this is utter nonsense. The British Army was sent onto the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969 in response to attacks by loyalist and state forces on the Bogside and subsequent rioting elsewhere in the North, especially Belfast and Armagh. Cusack has a very bad track record on factual accuracy, but this version of events is so grossly wrong as to completely misrepresent reality, and in essence blames northern Catholics for the bigoted and vicious behaviour of reactionary unionism in this period. Frankly, someone who claims to be an expert on Northern Ireland who writes this nonsense ought to be sacked.

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Celebrity Deathmatch: Terrorist Edition

May 30, 2009

A shorter version of this post is also at Cedar Lounge.

Gotta love the Yanks. This story will raise memories among those who heard it of a joke doing the rounds in Belfast during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It also raises memories of conversations had at school, including about whether the Provos would beat the Mafia. The Provo supporters were always very happy that they were generally regarded as the best terrorist organisation in western Europe. I’d still put my money on the people fighting real wars though.

Sectarianism: Still the Defining Characteristic of Northern Ireland

May 29, 2009

I’ve just put the following post up over at Cedar Lounge, and am putting it up here too. I should be back to blogging more regularly next week.

Yesterday nine men were charged in connection with the brutal gang attack that resulted in the murder of local community worker Kevin McDaid and the attempted murder of another man. In the aftermath of the conclusion of the Scottish Premier League season that saw Rangers take the title from Celtic on the last day, a loyalist gang mounted an attack on a predominantly Catholic area of Coleraine, and Mr. McDaid, his wife and at least one other man were brutally beaten. It seems that tensions in the area had already been raised by a planned loyalist band parade and the flying of tricolours in the area. There are a number of important strands to this story that go beyond the immediate tragedy of the death and injuries. The first is that this is a brutal reminder that despite the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing, sectarianism remains the defining reality of life in Northern Ireland. It is especially virulent in many small towns where violent clashes and intimidation remain rife.

Beyond these obvious signs, we should not forget that the overwhelming majority continue to live lives completely separated from one another, and of course we now will have a private Catholic and a private Protestant transfer test for those wishing to go to grammar schools, which add class to religious segregation.

The murder of Mr. McDaid raises other issues. The first is that of paramilitary involvement. The police have specifically said that the attack was not an organised action carried out by the UDA. However, of the nine people charged, several are members of the local loyalist band whose parade has been a source of contention, and one is an ex-member of the UDP. This suggests very strongly that the people involved in the attack were linked to the UDA. This does not necessarily mean that the attack was a sanctioned UDA operation. There are parallels with other murders over the last number of years believed to have been carried out by members of paramilitary groups but where the organisation itself has been absolved of responsibility. This is probably the case, but the unpleasant reality is that the overall interests of the political process mean that the boat would probably not be rocked by membership charges in such cases even if it weren’t. It is a reminder as to why the structures of paramilitary organisations must be dismantled, something which has largely happened with the Provisionals but hardly at all with loyalist paramilitaries.

The response of unionist politicians has once again come under justified scrutiny. Newton Emerson in the Irish News hits the nail on the head

Responding to the murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine, DUP councillor Adrian McQuillan said: “What reason can you see for there being tricolours up yesterday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon? None other than for to get a reaction from the loyalist community and they certainly got a reaction this time, which is very sad.”
This statement stinks of equivocation. To equate flying a line of scruffy bunting with taking a man’s life is absolutely jaw-dropping. The eventual absent-minded description of the murder as “very sad” only adds to the insult.
Depersonalising acts of visceral violence is a standard evasive manoeuvre in Northern Ireland. First the act is characterised as “a reaction”, transforming the perpetrators into mere parts of a mechanism.
Then the consequences are imbued with some abstract property, like sadness, as if concrete human decisions played no part.

He also quotes Ulster Unionist MLA David McClarty on the allegation of UDA involvement in the murder. “We have to moderate our language and not go throwing blame where no proof has been given as to who was responsible for this incident.” This type of equivocal language is familiar across the decades of the Troubles, where unionist politicians have often been ambiguous in their attitudes to loyalist paramilitaries to say the least. The inherently sectarian nature of NI politics is evident here – we must extend understanding to “our side” who ultimately have their hearts in the right place unlike the other side. While such attitudes persist, there will always be a climate that enables day-to-day sectarianism and confrontation to flourish.

The McDaids have raised a number of concerns about police actions on the day in question. Firstly it was claimed that the police had stood by during the attack, something denied by the police themselves, who claimed that the initial officers on the scene had to withdraw due to weight of hostile numbers. Then today the family have released a statement questioning the police’s involvement in negotiations with loyalists over tensions in the area in the period before the attack. This from the family’s statement

The family wish to make it clear that they are concerned that the PSNI were involved in negotiations with a number of persons perceived to be from the Loyalist community on Sunday the 24th of May 2009.
“The family are concerned regarding the nature of these negotiations and the attendant claim that threats were made by individuals from this background to police that violence would ensue unless certain demands made by them were met.
“It is a fundamental tenet of a civilised society that individuals such as these should not dictate the terms of law and order.
“We are further concerned that given the prior knowledge of the threat, neither we and nor our neighbours were not properly protected by police.
“We want the community to support the police, but equally police must also support the community.

Hugh Orde has responded to the family by stating that there had been negotiations in the area between loyalists and the residents of the area attacked, in which Mr. McDaid had been involved, to try and reduce tensions. He also said that the police dictated their activities and no-one else. Except that’s not really true, is it? On first glance, the idea of the police negotiating with loyalists seems very problematic, especially in light of what followed. However, the reality is that in interface areas the police negotiate with all sides on a regular basis. And the reality also is that these negotiations can be and have been extremely useful in preventing and containing violence in many areas, including during controversial marches. Politicians and people from all sides praise the police when such tactics work. I doubt that this was the first time that the police in this area had been involved in discussions with the local residents, and I also suspect that such negotiations have had positive effects. The tragic death of Mr. McDaid should not blind us to this fact, nor should there be a knee-jerk response that assumes the police were automatically in the wrong to have become involved in negotiations. Clearly the police response to the mounting tensions and the violence must be examined for mistakes or negligence, but we need to keep things in perspective.

Overall then this murder should not be viewed as an isolated incident. It is the direct result of the type of society and politics we have Northern Ireland. Sectarian attitudes, and ambiguous attitudes to incidents of sectarian violence, permeate our society. They are a cancer, as is the presence of paramilitary groups. Until we root out these diseases, the symptoms will continue to break out. In the current circumstances, with peace and power-sharing, added to the economic crisis, we – north and south, as well as Westminster – have taken our eye off this vital issue. The binning of the Shared Future strategy almost as soon as the DUP and PSF assumed power was one such sign. There are many others. Sectarianism still has the capacity to kill workers. It still poisons and destroys their lives. Progressives must step up their campaign against it.

UK Income Gap Widens

May 8, 2009

I can’t really say I’m shocked by the news in the Guardian that the income gap between rich and poor has widened in the UK, and has reached the greatest level since modern records began in the 1960s. The gap has worsened in particular since Labour’s last election victory in 2005 with income for the rich rising and that of the poor actually falling. 15% of UK pupils are now eligible for free school meals, meaing their household income is below £15,575. Inflation has seen 20% of the UK population with the lowest incomes seeing income cuts of 2.6% in real terms, while the richest saw their income rise by 3.3%. Attempts to end child poverty have had little impact. 11 million adults – about one in six -live below the poverty line. These are staggering statistics. During a decade of sustained economic growth, the poor have actually suffered declining living standards, both relative to the rich, and more recently in real terms.

Worse is the most damming statistic imaginable for a Labour government

As a result, income inequality at the end of Labour’s 11th year in power was higher than at any time during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

What can you say about that?

Republicanism: Political Philosophy or Perverted Theology?

May 4, 2009
Liberty Leading the People

Liberty Leading the People

I’m a republican. But then so is George Bush. And so, they claim, are the organisations presided over by Gerry Adams and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. So what sort of republican am I? I’m a Wolfe Tone republican; a James Connolly republican. But so, they would say, are Adams and Ó Brádaigh. So that doesn’t get us very far. How else can I define my republicanism? I’m a republican in the French tradition. I believe in the guillotine.

Having stolen that joke from a comrade, I should point out that there is much more to the French Republican tradition than the guillotine. Yes the first French Republic preserved itself through the combination of a controlled economy, popular mobilisation, military power, and ruthless repression known to history as the Terror. But we need to bear in mind what the purpose of those extreme measures were – the defence of a democratic political system that sought to place the control of their own destiny in the hands of the French people. The constitution written by the Jacobins in 1793, although suspended before it came into operation, was the most progressive the world had ever seen, guaranteeing not only the right to vote to all males over the age of 21 but the right to subsistence as well. But the French Revolution and French Republicanism (along with the American Revolution) have made another fundamental contribution to republicanism as a political philosophy – what the French call laïcité and what we know as secularism. The idea not only that church and state should be separate, but that religion should have no part to play in politics.

This democratic, egalitarian, secular ethos, encapsulated in the revolutionary battle cry of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, also lay at the heart of the programme of the Society of United Irishmen, the first representatives of the modern international revolutionary tradition in Ireland. The United Irishmen sought the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter not only to break the connection with England but also to draw a line under the sectarianism that poisoned Irish society. The people of Ireland would no longer be divided by religion, but would instead be united by a common citizenship in an independent, democratic, secular republic. Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen recognised, as James Connolly did later, that such a republic could only be founded upon the “men of no property”, and would have to be run in their interests. The modern international revolutionary republican tradition that has its roots in the French Revolution is therefore built on a number of basic principles: democracy, secularism, and social justice. Any individual or organisation that fails any one of these tests cannot claim to be a part of that revolutionary republican tradition. Hence I discount the claims of Adams and Ó Brádaigh to be part of that tradition – despite the rhetoric, the reality of seeking to act as the representatives of one section of the Irish people, variously defined as Catholics or more recently as nationalists and republicans, though as often as not used interchangeably. This is at its least a damaging communalist approach. At its worst, it has found its expression in Kingsmill and other vicious sectarian attacks.

Republicanism as I have defined it above is a living and developing political philosophy, that has culminated in revolutionary socialism. However, in Ireland, republicanism has in the popular imagination become reified into a simple adherence to Irish independence, to be achieved by the use of violence if necessary. This seems to me to be an adequate description of Adams’ organisation’s view of republicanism, going by its actions over the last several decades. For Ó Brádaigh’s organisation, on the other hand, it is a set of political strategies that evolved in the era of the First World War. Primary among these is abstention from any political assembly that has not been elected by an all-Ireland process. For Ó Brádaigh’s movement and the other main dissident nationalist paramilitaries in the Real IRA, the use of arms in asserting the right to an independent state regardless of whether it has popular support or not has become a principle.
These are the issues that Paddy Murphy has been addressing in his latest column in the Irish News (the link should work until Saturday May 9th, after which it becomes subscription only. For another discussion of this article, see this thread on Sluggerotoole.).

Murphy approaches these questions with his usual acerbic and penetrating analysis.

In most countries republicanism is a political philosophy. In Ireland it has evolved into a religion. It is in that context that we can most usefully appreciate the argument between Sinn Fein and their former colleagues in dissident republican groups.
On the surface the argument is about the legitimacy of the use of violence. But since they both appear to agree that violence, at the ‘right’ time, is justified, the debate is more about timing and who has the authority to determine that timing.
Sinn Fein argues that Provisional IRA violence was justified by circumstances. Dissidents claim that the circumstances have not changed and that the time is still right. To resolve that stalemate, both sides seek authority in the religious dogma of republicanism.

As Murphy points out, the Provisionals themselves started life as a dissident breakaway from the-then Republican Movement, claiming legitimacy on what must seem to us after the last few decades as absurd grounds.

When Provisional Sinn Fein broke away from mainstream Sinn Fein in January 1970, those walking out of the Ard Fheis claimed authority because they had with them Joe Clarke who had fought in 1916. Legitimacy was derived from a republican relic.
Following their formation, the PIRA was granted an imprimatur by Commandant-General Thomas Maguire (1892-1993) who, as the last surviving member of the Second Dáil (1921), somehow claimed possession of the true republic. He decreed that the Provos were its legitimate inheritors. In 1986 he revoked his blessing on the PIRA and imparted it instead to the Continuity IRA. Maguire giveth and Maguire taketh away. (His claimed possession of the one true republic raises the question as to how a republic should be kept in the house. Should an Irish republic be stored in a specially-built tabernacle behind velvet curtains with subdued lighting and piped organ music, or would it be acceptable to just keep it in a box on the mantelpiece?)
Satirical as that sounds, the concept forms a thread of reasoning in the present argument. Flann O’Brien built a successful literary career on notions less fanciful than that of a man in possession of a republic.

Here Murphy identifies what is bad about militarism, and what led to the rethink initiated by the Republican leadership in the 1960s after the disastrous Border Campaign. The Republic is to be achieved not by the mass action of the Irish people, but by an elitist group regarding itself as the keeper of the national flame. It would decide when violence was to be switched on and off even when the people were opposed to it. The consequences of such ideological and political poverty was isolation and futility. We can see the bankruptcy of this position in the most recent murders of the two soldiers and policeman.

Even though the Provisionals may have abandoned violence and abstentionism, Murphy argues, they remain trapped by the failings of politics-as-theology (with the leader as Pope).

Previous converts to the paganism of politics, such as Michael Collins (1922) and de Valera (1932), simply left the IRA to its military manoeuvres. But the PIRA leadership claimed victory (remember the parade of black taxis) which meant that they did not have to leave the IRA. They took it (and thus the true republic) with them, thereby retaining their claim of republican infallibility.
It was on that basis that they claimed legitimacy for their entry into Stormont. (By now they had downgraded Maguire’s status as a saint, claiming instead a direct link to Pearse. This presumably explains their penchant for dressing up in historical costume at Easter parades.)
The success of this remarkably clever strategy depended on one of two achievements – a united Ireland or radical social and economic policies in the north. Apart from Caitriona Ruane’s education policies, Sinn Fein has avoided the latter and focussed on vague promises to deliver the former.

While they remain fixated on ensuring their status as the legitimate legitimists, the real issues that affect the daily lives of working people are ignored

Meanwhile in the real world, 400,000 people are unemployed in the south. Where, in the inter-republican argument, is the case for a nationalised banking system? Where is the policy for state investment in the manufacturing industry? Whatever happened to the concept of cooperatives and mutual help in rural society?
Instead we have competing claims on the quality and legitimacy of one organisation’s historical pedigree over another’s. It may not be best religious practice but it is time for Sinn Fein to concede the argument and walk away. Otherwise the row will drift into a republican civil war with Britain on the side of Sinn Fein. Britain has never lost a war in Ireland. It will not lose this one. Dissidents will be imprisoned and probably killed, giving gainful employment to a new generation of ballad-writers and graveside orators. That will present Sinn Fein with a won war and a lost argument.

A party of government ought to be focusing, Murphy says, on more pressing matters.

There are more demanding political responsibilities, such as addressing the crisis in capitalism.
Like all religions, these two sects of republicanism offer little in terms of material benefit in this life.
True happiness can be achieved only in the heaven of a united Ireland. In the meantime, we continue to suffer in their six-county purgatory where, for many, a significant part of that suffering is listening to inane arguments while the real world passes us by.

Once again, Murphy cuts to the quick. His criticism here could be applied to our entire political elite. While the governing parties argue about symbols, about kids in GAA tops packing bags at Tescos, about which party will better represent “their side” in the European Parliament, the ordinary working people of Northern Ireland and their children face crisis – economic, educational, and social. The problems they face are not entirely the responsibility of the governing parties in Northern Ireland, but they are doing little to improve things, and in some cases – especially the transfer of pupils from primary to post-primary education – are making matters worse.

So for those of us who view republicanism as a political philosophy, what can we do? We must revivify the efforts made since the turn to the left in the 1960s to make it relevant to the lives of ordinary people, while at the same time fighting sectarianism. Only a socialist alternative can change the course of Irish history, and build a better society. That is a long-term project, but it starts with the everyday problems of all our people.

May Day in Belfast and Havana

May 1, 2009

Details of the ICTU Belfast May Day parade and associated events are available here. The parade will be held on Saturday May 2nd, leaving its traditional departure point at the UU Art College in York Street at 12pm. Marchers are asked to assemble at 11.30. After the parade there will be a family diversity festival in St George’s Market. There will also be on May 1st and 2nd a Migrant Workers’ Festival, and an event organised by the Shared History Interpretive Project (S.H.I.P.).

The main speaker will be SIPTU President Jack O’Connor, and the march will be led by SIPTU and by workers involved in occupying the Visteon plant in west Belfast. This occupation is for better severance conditions from the company, which supplied Ford.

May Day in the north has been an important event for decades, as a visible representation of progressive social and political thinking that draws in people from across the community and rejects sectarianism and the damage it does to the lives of ordinary workers. Now that we have a power-sharing government, the trade union movement has a vital role to play in keeping pressure on the politicians to deliver, and to promote progressive ideas. A big May Day turnout is especially needed at this time of cuts and job losses, both as an expression of resistance to the bailout of ruthless speculators, and to raise awareness among ordinary people that alternatives economic strategies that stress job preservation and creation are possible.

On a related note, there will be quite a few familiar faces missing from this year’s Belfast May Day parade. Instead, they will be attending May Day in Cuba. Around 80 members and supporters of The Workers’ Party are in Cuba for the May Day celebrations in this, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution as an expression of solidarity and support with the Cuban people in their struggle against imperialist oppression. This is the essence of what May Day is about. Solidarity among workers of all countries against the common enemy – the exploitation of one human being by another.

Hasta la Victoria Siempre! As the lucky so and sos in Cuba would say.