Archive for the ‘History’ Category

More TV at Cedar Lounge Revolution

November 12, 2008

I have just stuck a brief note up on Cedar Lounge Revolution describing the first show in a new TG4 series about the use of informers during the Troubles here. Watching shows on TG4’s website is not totally straightforwad, and instructions are included there. The show was quite interesting, and had interviews with handlers and those convicted on the evidence of an informer.


Nadine Coyle: The Case of A Beautiful Flower

November 11, 2008


Every year, I froth at the mouth about Remembrance Day, and the way in which it is used to justify and whip up support for current imperial adventures. In addition, I am sickened by the way in which a war that cost tens of millions of lives over the oppression of the peoples of other continents is trivialised by presented as a good things by idiots because Catholics and Protestants fought in it together, and we should all unite and honour their memory. Well no. We shouldn’t. We should condemn imperialism. And we should condemn the type of facile politics that produces the trivialisation of the greatest imperialist war in history. And reject them. If people want to wear a poppy, it should be a white one. I loathe the idea that people in the UK must wear a red poppy given what it represents in my eyes.

I want to stress however that I understand that people want to remember their loved ones at this time, and I honour all those who gave their lives and much else in the fight against fascism.

Anyway, imagine how excited I was looking over Cedar Lounge Revolution’s blog statistics to see a search about Nadine Coyle refusing to wear a poppy. I had missed this story completely. Nadine is a young woman I greatly admire (as I know does fellow blogger Splintered Sunrise), and this raised her in my estimation. However it seems that the absence of her wearing a poppy in October – not even November – was due to a wardrobe malfunction, though not of the Janet Jackson kind.

Still it is a reminder of how much Jon Snow is to be admired for refusing to bow to the hysteria. And that on this day, we ought to remember all the victims of imperialist wars, and renew our opposition to them, and to the system that produces them. La lutta continua.

UPDATE: A truly disgusting article, especially from someone who considers himself a Christian.

Bugger Off

November 11, 2008

I said that when I posted on Cedar Lounge Revolution, I would flag it up here. I have just posted there my review of last night’s programme World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. The short version is I didn’t like it very much. Click here to find out why.

Stalin Whitewashed? Not the first word that springs to mind

November 10, 2008


I have just been reading this piece by Lawrence Rees on the BBC website plugging his TV show on BBC 2 at 9 tonight on the origins of the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Germany. I hope that the programme will take account of the recent revelation of Stalin’s offer in August 1939 to send a million troops with armour and air support to the German border (with Polish agreement) if the British and French would agree a military alliance. The non-aggression pact was a response to the failure of the western powers – doubtless fuelled by the same anti-communism that saw them allow democracy in Spain to be crushed by fascism – to agree. I suspect though, that this won’t turn up in the programme, but will watch to see.

Rees has an excellent pedigree in making superb programmes on this period, and I look forward to tonight’s show very much. His piece I have linked to above, however, I find somewhat less compelling than his past shows. Here is the introduction (though admittedly it may be the work of a sub-editor).

He had the blood of millions on his hands, yet Joseph Stalin has escaped Hitler-style demonisation, and even become a trendy pin-up. Why has history been so kind to this murderous leader, asks Laurence Rees.

I find the idea that Stalin has escaped demonisation somewhat questionable, especially on the basis of one poster of him on a campus. However the recent video released by Russell Brand may suggest he has more of a point. It is actually nearly impossible to find a poster of Stalin or any of his writings in this day and age, unless you go to one of those post-ironic places on the net, or parts of Europe. Unlike, say Mein Kampf, which can be found in most Waterstone’s.

Rees argues that Uncle Joe has gotten off lightly as a result of wartime propaganda still shaping the popular consciousness (note in fact my use of Uncle Joe as conclusive and subconscious proof).

The trouble is that the legacy of these “expedient lies” has still not entirely left us. Which is why I hope people will come to realise just how appalling Stalin was, and students might think twice before hanging pictures of Stalin on their walls.

Nonsense. Firstly Stalin’s image in the popular consciousness is a lot closer to Hitler, especially among young people, than Rees allows. Secondly, if he has a better image that is simply because he ought to have. After all, it was the Red Army that, in Churchill’s words, ripped the guts out of the Nazis’ military machine, and the USSR backed the liberation struggles of many countries. Yes the USSR under Stalin could be a brutal and violent place, and huge mistakes were made. Equally, we know that the Communists were fighting for their lives, and at the same time transformed the lives of the peoples of the USSR immeasurably for the better in healthcare, literacy, life expectancy and other areas. As well as saving us all from fascism.

A commentator here uses the name Baku 26, after 26 Soviet commisars delievered up by the British for execution to the Whites during the civil war. There can be no doubt that Stalin et al faced death if the forces of counter-revolution succeeded against them at any point. Nor is there any doubt that there were real challenges and conspiracies, though paranoia overstimated them. As a historian, perhaps Rees could talk a bit more about these and spare us the moral judgments. The point of historical writing is to get inside the heads of those you are writing about – little or no effort to do so is made in this day and age with regard to the USSR under Stalin.

In a world where reactionary regimes in eastern Europe seek to use the EU to ban the teaching of anything positive about communism, we must fight to defend the truth. In all its ugliness, yes. But also in all its progress, hope, sacrifice, and, indeed, glory.

Casement: Letters from the TLS

November 8, 2008

In one of my first posts, I discussed Roy Foster’s review of Séamus Ó Síocháin’s biography of Roger Casement, and what it might have told us about modern Ireland’s relationship to Easter 1916 and sexuality. One of the most disreputable parts of the whole Casement issue has been the need many have felt to deny that he was a homosexual, resulting in the denial that the Black Diaries are genuine (some years back, scientific tests as part of a project direct by Professor W.J. McCormack proved beyond reasonable doubt that they were). We should not be surprised, therefore, that Foster’s review has provoked an exchange of letters in the Times Literary Supplement (here and here).

The first, and more serious response, came from Dr Angus Mitchell of the University of Limerick, who has published extensively on Casement, and who has been the most sophisticated modern exponent of the theory that the Black Diaries are forgeries. Mitchell argues that Casement’s real legacy comes from his exposition of the nature of imperialism, and that this discomforts the self-image of the British Establishment, as it did in Casement’s day. “To this day, Casement’s name works mnemonically: a perpetual reminder of imperial criminality, disrupting the sanctity of the national archive, the repository of the nation’s historical identity.” This seems to me to perhaps inflate Casement’s importance somewhat, but to be a reasonable point.

Mitchell rejects Foster’s suggestion that he now accepts the diaries as genuine, instead saying that he accepts “that the diaries are required sources for analysing Casement’s official investigations of 1903, 1910 and 1911.” It is unclear to me precisely what this means, but I take it to mean that no historian should ignore them in future, but instead should compare them to what is indisputably Casement’s work, and then come to a judgment on where interpolations may have been imposed, in order to get a fuller picture of how Casement saw the places and people in which the diaries were written.

Mitchell then broadens the context of the discussion to the debate over revisionism in Irish history, and Foster’s role within it.

In Ireland’s troubled history wars, those who camp with Foster use the Black Diaries for the very same purposes that sexual rumours were circulated at the time of Casement’s trial. They are of interest as instruments of propaganda and as symbols to devalue his humanity to a level of tabloid history and triviality. Foster understands and engages with this controversy not on the level of a detached scholar, but as a polemicist and a gatekeeper.

This seems to me to be very tendentious. Are those who accept the Black Diaries as genuine really only interested in them as a way of devaluing the separatist project for which Casement gave his life? I don’t believe so. Certainly there may be some who wish to smear his character with insinuations of child abuse or sexual imperialism and by extension his politics. But it seems to me that those who take the diaries to be genuine are overwhelmingly trying to treat Casement as a human being rather than as a demi-god in a pantheon of infalliable heroes as was the case among nationalists for so long. Foster is certainly a polemicist, but it seems to me his judgment on the diaries is on empirical grounds. While I would disagree with Mitchell on this issue, I would agree with his concluding argument that the Black Diaries should not be the prism through which all of Casement’s actions are judged. Especially when some of those so harsh on Casement, or Pearse or Connolly are so understanding of men like O’Duffy and other Blueshirts and fascists, and keen to make excuses for them.

If Mitchell offers a nuanced and balanced argument, that of Tim O’Sullivan’s letter is much less convincing. He argues that Casement had made enemies among those oppressing Amerindians in Peru, and that they would have had him under surveillance, and would have used the rampant and blatant homosexuality detailed in the Black Diaries against him at a time and place when homosexuality was illegal. That they did not do so, he insinuates, means that the diaries are forged. He also argues that for Casement to have behaved the way the diaries suggest in such circumstances would have meant he was insane, and that there is plenty of evidence for his sanity, so therefore the diaries cannot be true. “An explanation for the contradiction is that the character who indulged in the wild sexual behaviour was fictitious; compromising sexual material was interpolated into the real diaries which Casement had kept.” This type of argument strikes me as stretching logic well beyond breaking point.

So too it seems Roy Foster, who opens his letter in response with a characteristically witty and biting putdown: “No pleasing some people, especially Casementalists.” Foster says that Mitchell’s own review of Ó Síocháin’s book in History Ireland did not dispute the authenticity of the diaries, says he gave due attention to Casement’s anti-imperialism which he says emerged late in his life, and professes to be at a loss at the references to polemics and gatekeeping. Whereas I regard Mitchell’s letter as nuanced, Foster sees it as “muddled”. His parting shot is worth quoting.

But if he intends to insinuate lack of detachment and tendentiousness, he might look closer to home.

He responds to O’Sullivan’s letter by pointing out that risky sexual behaviour is common in those in prominent positions, and so his argument leaves him unconvinced.

Pleasingly both Mitchell and Foster make clear that homophobia has no part to play in the debate on Casement. But I am still left with the feeling that the refusal to accept the authenticity of the Black Diaries is rooted ultimately in irrationality, and a feeling that their being genuine would be a slur on the character of a national hero, and possibly on the character of the nation itself. It leaves me slightly uneasy.


October 17, 2008

I’m fairly sure that most if not all the people who read here also read the Cedar Lounge Revolution (although the same can assuredly not be said in reverse), but I’ve just put a piece up there discussing two excellent articles from the London Review of Books by John Lanchester dealing with the current crisis, from January of this year, and the latest issue. Those articles are well worth a read, and links can be got at the Cedar Lounge Revolution post. In the unlikely event that there are readers who don’t read Cedar Lounge Revolution, I’ll also flag up two pieces discussing the analysis of 1968 offered this year, here and here. Maybe I’ll do this from now on whenever I post over there.

Reform or Revolution? Civil Rights Debated

October 7, 2008

Reform or Revolution? – that was the question debated at The Workers’ Party Northern Ireland Regional Conference on October 4th. The conference saw a panel discussion and question and answer session involving Des O’Hagan (WP), a founder member of NICRA, Professor Paddy Murphy, one of the organisers of the student protest marches against the ban on the Republican Clubs in 1967 and the author of NICRA’s official history from 1978, and Mary Gray of the Communist Party, standing in for Edwina Stewart, who was unable to attend.

Paddy Murphy opened the debate with an analysis of the origins and the effects of the Civil Rights campaign. He saw its origins in two disparate elements. The first was the 1947 Education Act, which opened the way for the rise of a new and more articulate generation, better able to challenge the unionist regime than the old Nationalist Party. It was the students of this generation who mounted the first protest march for civil rights, when they marched to City Hall (at the request of the police instead of Bill Craig’s house) in protest at the march 1967 ban on the Republican Clubs, and secured the support of 1,500 out of 5,000 students for the rigt of the QUB Republican Club to exist. The other element was the failure of the Border Campaign, and the turn towards socialism and political and social agitation by the Republican Movement under Cathal Goulding. The new strategy required that republicans be able to organise politically, and so they followed the civil rights strategy as meeting both these aims. He also talked about the oher influences on the civil rights campaign, such as the Mc Cluskeys and the Campaign for Social Justice, the British Parliamentary Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, and the culture of the time, with protests in America, France and elsewhere.

Addressing the question of reform or revolution, he urged people to look at where we are now. The civil rights movement had been killed by the sectarian violence. He argued that the state had not been reformed, but re-formed, into a different sectarian state – with two sectarian parties, not one. He argued that though things were different, and in some senses better, we got counter-revolution as opposed to the progressive aims of NICRA.

Mary Gray read a statement from Edwina Stewart, and recalled her own experiences of being involved in NICRA marches in Armagh, and in the discussion raised the question of civil rights for women in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, especially regarding the issue of abortion, and she spoke about the activities of the Alliance for Choice.

Des O’Hagan also talked about the Butler Act allowing working-class children such as himself better access to education, the importance of non-violence and anti-sectarianism to NICRA and for today, and condemned the ultra-leftist adventurist element in the civil rights movement. He also recounted how those interested in terrorist violence regarded NICRA as an obstruction, and wanted it out of the way, explaining their opposition to it in things like the Northern Resistance Movement. The civil rights movement he reminded the audience was about democratising the state, and thus utterly changing its nature.

Eamon Melaugh was the first speaker during the debate. He spoke of how he had been determined that something like October 5th was always going to happen, and that he would not leave the legacy of apathy and indifference to his children that had been left to him. He talked about how his family had been the victims of sectarian intimidation in Belfast in 1933, and of how the poor conditions he was agitating against affected Protestants as well as Catholics. He described how he selected the route of the march into the Diamond knowing that it would be banned, and that it was likely that the marchers would be attacked by the police – but he stressed at the time and again at the conference that the marchers would not be responsible for the violence. He believed that the arrogance and strength of the unionist regime would prove its achilles heel. And so it had. He spoke of the attempts made to write him and others like Brigid Bond out of the anniversary and the story of the civil rights campaign. He also spoke of his pride in combatting sectarian unionism and nationalism in the years after the civil rights campaign, and of how sectarianism remained the main problem in our society, a point echoed by the other speakers in the debate and by the panellists. Paddy Murphy made the telling point that there is no right not to hold a religious view in the current set-up in NI, and that this was a violation of civil rights.

The morning of the conference had begun with a discussion of the future of the left in NI ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, with a panel of Justin O’Hagan (WP), Martin Stroud (British Labour group in NI), and Ciaran Mulholland of the Socialist Party. A good deal of the debate naturally focused on the current economic crisis and its possible implications for the left. The panellists and those participating in the debate stressed the need for as much left cooperation as possible, while recognising that differences would remain. The possibility of a left candidate in the European elections was discussed, and Ciaran Mulholland spoke about the SP’s vision of how a new left party could come about in the future. The panel debated the role of the trade unions, and whether it was time for them to become more politically engaged. All agreed that left cooperation around strong social democratic demands at the least were essential to engage working people in left politics, and to reactivate the old Northern Ireland Labour Party constituency. The conference was also addressed by Noel Carillo, Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, who spoke about the devestation wrought by the recent hurricanes, and the government’s efforts to restoer the country, and the need for solidarity. A social night in aid of Cuba will be held in the Lower Falls Social and Recreational Club on October 18th.

The conference was a wide-ranging one, dealing with issues of both historical and immediate importance for progressive politics in NI, and on the island as a whole. It finished with presentations by Tomás Mac Giolla to some of those involved in the civil rights campaign – Eamon Melaugh (see photo above), Eugene Little, Edwina Stewart (accepted by Mary Gray), and in memory of Brigid Bond and Paddy Douglas, the footage of whom being struck unprovoked by the RUC on October 5th became emblematic not only of the day itself, but of the nature of the unionist regime.

Remembering Duke Street

October 2, 2008

October 5th sees the fortieth anniversary of the second march sponsored by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The march was held in Derry on October 5th 1968, and before it could get going, it was brutally attacked by the RUC from both ends to prevent it marching in the city centre. There are some who regard it as the ‘real’ start of the Troubles, wrongly in my opinion. In the next while, I’ll put up a piece on NICRA and the civil rights movement more generally. The history of NICRA has always been a disputed one (NICRA’s own version from 1978 is available here), with claim and counter-claim as to who was the prime movers in the organisation, what its goals were, was it a front for the Republican Movement under Cathal Goulding seeking to overthrow the state, etc. The fortieth anniversary is seeing the emergence of a reactionary new narrative, one which seeks to blame the civil rights marchers, especially the ultra-left elements, for the violent reaction the civil rights protests garnered from the state, and for the Troubles. I’ll come back to that in the next piece, but my criticism of part of a recent article of one of those making this argument, Simon Prince of Oxford University, can be found over at Cedar Lounge Revolution, here. Today, I mainly want to note some of the activities taking place, and encourage people to attend them where possible.

In Derry itself, the SDLP-dominated but broad-based Civil Rights Commemoration Committee is sponsoring a two day event, the details of which can be found here. The opening event actually takes place the night before, and is the screening of a documentary The Day the Troubles Began which seems to be linked to the BBC and the historian Simon Prince, criticised at Cedar Lounge Revolution. The event itself takes place in the Guildhall in Derry, and includes on October 4th as speakers John Hume, some of the participants in the march, and Mark Durkan, Martin Mc Guinness, and a prseumably very off-message Gregory Campbell. It also includes Mary Mc Aleese. Incidentally, she used to work in a bar frequented by republicans, and one Workers’ Party member once told me how on returning from a NICRA march he had been stewarding and was discussing it with others. She had asked them what they knew about it only to be told they were the stewards. Clearly the republican movement’s desire not to be seen to be dominant in NICRA was working rather too well, and has done so since. I’m not really sure what she has to add, but hopefully it won’t be anything about the Nazis and unionism. On October 5th, the conference takes a perspective on civil rights today with trade union and voluntary scetor speakers, as well as international activists.

Also on October 4th, The Workers’ Party is holding its annual northern regional conference in The Wellington Park hotel. The northern regional conference is a discussion day open to the public, so feel free to come along. The morning will focus on the prospect for socialist politics ten years after the Good Friday Agreement, with speakers from The WP, Socialist Party and British Labour in Northern Ireland. The afternoon will be dedicated to the civil rights movement, with a panel discussion involving Professor Patrick Murphy, Des O’Hagan of The WP, and Edwina Stewart of the CPI. All three were prominent in NICRA, and Murphy wrote the history referred to above. There will also be a talk on the role of republicans in NICRA, and presentations to republicans involved in civil rights, including Eugene Little who was involved in the Caledon protests that led to the first civil rights march, and Eamon Melaugh, one of the two main organisers of the Duke Street march.

All this matters. It was not violence that destroyed the bigoted Stormont regime, but the mass peaceful protests organised by NICRA. In the current climate of political apathy, as governments across the world rush to give taxpayers’ money to bail out corporations while destroying what is left of the welfare state, the strength of a mobilised and organised popular movement is a lesson worth remembering.

The Spike Lee School of the Falsification of History?

September 30, 2008

I’ve just been reading this story in the Times, about the reaction of Italian partisans to Spike Lee’s forthcoming film Miracle at St Anna. The partisans are outraged about the representation of events at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema, where 560 men, women and children were masacred in August 1944 by SS troops. According to the story, the film seems to blame the partisans for bringing the Nazis to the village, then abandoning the villagers to their fate, and shows one partisan as a collaborator. This is in direct contrast to the accepted Italian version, where the presence of the partisans served as a mere excuse.

The film is Spike Lee’s attempt to tell the neglected tale of black soldiers during the Second World War. His interest in this subject has recently led to a squabble between him and Clint Eastwood over the absence of Black soldiers in Clint’s Flags of our Fathers, so it is perhaps ironic that the Italian veterans are now accusing him of failing to accurately reflect history. The Italian criticism has raised the question of the memory of World War II, and the received Italian version that the partisans redeemed the sins of fascism. Although the author of the novel Lee’s story is based on, a black veteran of the war, has been conciliatory, Lee has not:
“I am not apologising for anything”. “I think these questions are evidence that there is still a lot about your history during the war that you [the Italians] have got to come to grips with.

It seems to me – at a time when Italy has neo-fascists in government, Rome has a fascist mayor, and leading footballers are declaring themselves fascists – that Lee has inadvertently raised some important questions about Italy’s relationship with its fascist past. The decline of the PCI from one of the major political, intellectual and cultural forces in Italian society has weakened the defences against the falsification of the fascist past. Berlusconi’s government has red-baited judges, praised Italians who fought with the Nazis, and there is a real danger that the horrors of the past are not only being ignored but glorified. The rise in immigration has led to a great deal of racist agitation and violence, as well as the growing neo-fascist vote all point to this. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the massacre, it seems to me a good thing that young Italians will be reminded of the true nature of fascism and the need to combat it by any means necessary.

Roger Casement, 1916 and Modern Ireland

September 26, 2008

Roy Foster’s review of Séamus Ó Síocháin’s new biography of Roger Casement raises interesting issues about modern Ireland’s relationship with Casement’s sexuality and the Easter Rising itself.
Foster comments that:

“Until recently, those ecstatic descriptions of homosexual fondling and penetration in discreet public places throughout the world had to be eliminated from the hagiography of a secular saint. Nowadays, when an about turn in attitudes has made the law on same-sex relations more liberal in Ireland than most European countries (including Britain), Casement’s sainthood can be extended to represent the redemption of a whole new constituency of the once excluded and oppressed. But this approach may be as anachronistic as the most ingenious forgery theories of a half-century ago.”

In these couple of sentences, Foster hits on many of the most important changes that have taken hold in Ireland over the last several decades (and analysed in his Luck and the Irish ). The decline of the Catholic Church, the desacralization of Irish nationalism, and the rapid transition to a secular society in line with the rest of Europe, except on the question of abortion. However, the transformation of Irish nationalism has not meant it has slipped out of existence, as some have assumed as traditional Catholic nationalism waned. The popularity of the government celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising demonstrated that. (I have commented previously on the debates on Irish historical revisionism here .)

So what type of 1916 is being celebrated – and is it an anachronistic view as Foster suggests? The 1916 that people are increasingly thinking about and celebrating today is not the 1916 of blood sacrifice and anti-democratic militarism so beloved of Ruth Dudley Edwards and Eoghan Harris – instead it is presented as a blow for modern, liberal, democratic and secular principles. This was the 1916 described by Mary McAleese in 2006 (even if she couldn’t help emphasising the Catholicism of many of its participants), and it is the 1916 that Foster acknowledges will result in acceptance of Casement’s homosexuality. In fact, it seems not unlikely that far from being a cause of shame and denial among nationalists for much of the twentieth century, Casement’s homosexuality will become a cause for celebration; it will be used as “proof” that the leaders of 1916 were more enlightened than many of their contemporaries and descendants.

This is a view that I have some sympathy with. It is clear that Connolly was easily the most progressive and internationalist political thinker Ireland had seen since the United Irishmen, and that many of the other 1916 leaders also held extremely progressive political views. Pearse’s The Sovereign People represented his final statement on Irish freedom, and is infused with progressive politics, something ignored by those who seek to portray him as a suicidal nutter. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the refusal to face up to Casement’s sexuality spoke volumes about the reactionary nature of extremely significant sections of Irish society.

In modern Ireland then, the acceptance of Casement’s sexuality does speak well of the development of a more secular and liberal society. But at the same time, the tendency in much of Irish society to gloss over, ignore, and bury the nastier and more corrupt elements of politics and society must be resisted. While we celebrate Casement, we must also remember the lessons of Connolly, and seek to replace a social and economic system that abandons those at the bottom to inadequate healthcare, services, and to low paid jobs.