Posts Tagged ‘Irish history’

Remember the Somme (but forget the GPO): Myers and Memory

November 15, 2008

As I was saying, the whole obsession with the poppy and the uncritical celebration of imperialist war around Remembrance Day drives me up the wall. Imagine then how delighted I was to see Kevin Myers demand we all remember those from Ireland who died serving in the British Army during the two world wars (though he ignores the fact the money from the poppy goes to the veterans of other, often nakedly colonial, conflicts). Myers cleverly picks people who died during World War II, and tells their stories. No-one in their right mind can deny the Second World War was a just one, so anyone who rejects his argument can be easily smeared. Utterly, utterly cynical. I’ll skip the extended rant this deserves, instead I will just say that I’ve never noticed Myers extend the same courtesy to those during the period 1916-23 who died in pursuit of recognition of the democratically-expressed wish of the Irish people for greater independence from Britain. I do wonder about some people some times.

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.

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.