Preas na Poblachta

As part of this blog’s self-appointed brief is to look at debates among Irish radicals, I thought an overview of the republican press would be in order. This will help us orient ourselves a little and may be of interest to readers outside the republican milieu. At some later point I’ll probably take a look at the Irish left press to balance things out.

It’s important to realise that things have changed in recent years in terms of the republican media. It used to be, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, that you just had to pick up Republican News every week and you’d get an overview of what the Provos were saying. There was no other journal of significance, indeed hardly any political tendency of any significance. In the days before the peace process, when republicans didn’t have much access to the mainstream media, a weekly read of what was effectively the Voice of Grizzly was invaluable for knowing what the boys were up to.

Not so these days. Readers outside Belfast may not realise this, but it’s much more important to read the Andersonstown News, which, together with its local satellites, fulfils a very specific function. Now, I know that the Andytown News is not formally a Provo paper. That’s the beauty of it. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and his little media empire are able to fly kites over sensitive issues, thus giving Gerry some plausible deniability while at the same time campaigning among the base for the route Gerry wants to take. It could therefore best be described as the Ghost of Grizzlyism Future. It has, for example, been pushing for the best part of a year for endorsement of policing, which, given that Máirtín wouldn’t wipe his bum without permission, gives the lie to Gerry’s claim that he only made up his mind two months ago. I don’t like the Andytown News – it tends to remind me of the Sunday Sport without the tits – but it’s worth a look for that reason alone.

Republican News, on the other hand, I tend to read on and off – you don’t see it that much in the North. It too has a specific function, being aimed at the PSF cadre, and in particular the southern cadre. That explains why it is usually quite militant in its language, having a more strongly republican and leftist coloration. That would reflect the Provos’ southern base better – while the Andytown News perfectly fits the consciousness of the cynical ward-heelers in Belfast, the PSF membership in Dublin contains not a few people who think of themselves as radicals, even revolutionaries. I often think that being a radical in Sinn Féin Nua must cause a body a severe case of cognitive dissonance, but you can see what Republican News does for these people. It reassures people who thought they were joining a radical movement that they are indeed in one. Therefore, if the Andytown News forges ahead, Republican News tends to lag behind what the leadership are actually doing.

Actually, I prefer Republican Sinn Féin’s Saoirse, and, as I hear it now has a bigger circulation than Republican News, so too seemingly do quite a few others. I’m not a supporter of RSF, and it’s a very long time since I would have been a republican in the sense that RSF comrades would understand it, but I find Saoirse comfortingly familiar. There is never any doubt you’re reading a republican paper, and, if you ignore the improved graphics, you could almost be reading a copy of An Phoblacht circa 1975. You won’t read stimulating new ideas here – not that you’ll find them in Republican News either – but that’s not the point. This is good old-fashioned principled republicanism, just like the politics we used to know, to warm the cockles.

Now we turn to the Starry Plough – which only appears sporadically and can be hard to track down – and I’m sorry to say that, after thirty-plus years to get it right, the IRSP still haven’t mastered the art of producing a readable paper. It has varied down the years, though, and more recently there has been noticeably less of the Shining Path and Kim Il Sung stuff the Irps were so keen on in the 90s. Strange to say, you can actually find reasonably intelligent articles in the Starry Plough, though I have serious doubts, based on the entire history of the Irps, of their ability to translate a good paper position into operative politics.

It is at least a better read than the Sovereign Nation, organ of the Real Republicans. This paper’s content can best be summed up as follows: Down with Gerry! Armed struggle – yo! Punishment beatings – yo! Apart from the occasional nod to “sovereignty” in the Wilsonian sense, you will be hard pushed to find any political content. This is militarism pure and simple, and it’s more than a little wearying.

Finally, it’s worth taking a look at two more open publications. Fourthwrite, which emerged from the “republican recomposition” discussions following the 1994 ceasefire, has wide recognition and a stable circulation, and manages to provide an arena where opponents of the Gerryite strategy can debate. The magazine is patchy – generally there will be a couple of excellent articles, a couple of really awful ones, and a couple that leave you scratching your head – but is essential reading nonetheless. Fourthwrite’s strength, I would say, is its weakness – while its openness is to be commended, its lack of a well-defined line means it has trouble really taking the lead in a “recomposition” project, with contributions varying between strident opposition to the Good Friday process and willingness to remain within the Big Tent, and a consequent lack of focus.

The same could be said of Forum, publication of the Dundalk-based New Republican Forum group. Forum has a less attractive style than Fourthwrite, but makes up for it with rather heavier articles. Like Fourthwrite, the politics are basically republican, vaguely leftist, undogmatic and showing a welcome willingness to think about alternative strategies. There is indeed some political thinking going on amongst republicans, it’s just that you have to dig a little to find it.

Take it down from the mast

So, the Provos’ Extraordinary Ard Fheis has voted by over 80% to endorse the ard chomhairle’s blockbuster motion on policing. This marks a further qualitative stage in the transformation of the Provisionals into Fianna Fáil Mark II. It’s hard to say whether this is the point of no return – so many Rubicons have been passed that it’s difficult to believe that anybody still gives credence to the Provos’ claims to be any sort of radical force. But what does the Ard Fheis decision mean?

First off, regular readers will be aware that I’m not in favour of accepting policing. The reasons for this are very simple. I’m not claiming that the current PSNI is exactly the same as the old RUC, although the changes made to policing practice are not half as significant as the PR would have it. Basically, any northern police force cannot but be a pillar of imperialism, and cannot but be a sectarian force. RSF correctly pointed out that the old RIC had lots of Catholic officers, but that didn’t stop it being a British force pledged to uphold British rule. I would add to that the point that non-sectarian policing in the North is impossible for the same reason that you can’t have non-sectarian unionism; that since partition, the Northern state has been based on the maintenance of sectarian privilege, and the armed wing of the Northern state must by its very nature enforce that state of affairs.

Now, the main argument put for joining the policing structures is that you can influence policing in a positive direction, making real, far-reaching changes instead of just taking a few rough edges off the old RUC. That is essentially the argument put by the SDLP in 2001, and Grizzly only differed in setting the bar slightly higher in terms of reform. This is quite persuasive, if you think the Northern state is reformable. Leaving aside the ludicrous Ard Fheis claims that supporting policing would undermine partition, that really is the key point. For decades republicans, and the majority of socialists, have taken the view that the North was irreformable. Against that was the Humeite view that sectarianism was a mere excrescence on Northern politics, and it was possible to have a Six-County state where genuine democracy and equality could exist. That is the view that the vast majority of Ard Fheis delegates have embraced.

I won’t waste too much time on the speeches from the ardán: since the latter-day Provos have developed a political culture whereby lying is held to be the height of sophistication, there is only so much you can take. I have a theory that when Elvis shot the TV, Mitchel McLaughlin was on. But to briefly recap the lowlights, Grizzly did his usual language-mangling turn, replete with all sorts of references to issues that push republican buttons but are of dubious relevance to the actual debate; copious backslapping of his intelligent and well-informed audience; and lots of gobbledegook about this concept of “civic policing” he has been pushing recently. Gerry Kelly was Grizzly without the folksiness, and I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse; the god-awful Mary Lou McDonald offered up further evidence that she never really left Fianna Fáil; and Marty McGuinness gave his well-honed “Is mise an Ghluaiseacht” speech.

And of course the delegates lapped up this tripe. Even the few dissenters loudly pledged their support for party unity. There was no walkout, which was disappointing but hardly surprising. In fact, not even the margin of victory was surprising, for a number of reasons. Most obvious of these is the arm-twisting that went on at cumann level in the run-up to the Ard Fheis. More importantly, there aren’t many ideological republicans left in Sinn Féin Nua: many have left, others are keeping a low profile, and there are many many people in the Provos who have basically stopped being republicans in anything but a Platonic sense, if they were ever republicans in the first place. There is a whole generation of party members, especially in the South, which believes itself to be radical (and that can cause the Gerryites some problems, as over a possible coalition at Leinster House) but has had zero education in principled politics. And finally, the leadership remained united – there was simply nobody of any stature willing to challenge Gerry, nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future.

And this leaves us with the question I keep getting posed – what’s the alternative? A glib response would be to say that I wouldn’t have got myself into this position to start with – it’s difficult for me to put what PSF supporters would see as credible alternatives, because we aren’t arguing from the same premises. A better question to ask might be, what force could pose as an alternative pole of attraction? No easy answers to that one, but it at least allows us to look at the dynamics of the republican base, and the strengths and weaknesses of the tendencies that might aspire to be an alternative.

PS. I spy in today’s News Letter an opinion piece by Malachi O’Doherty urging Big Ian to stand firm and not be taken in by Gerry’s honeyed words. At least, that’s what I think it says underneath the tangled syntax. Thus does Norn Iron’s leading progressive intellectual find himself to the right of Peter Robinson.

Shilpa Shetty zindabad!

I had been avoiding writing anything about Celebrity Big Brother, but I couldn’t resist glamming up the Sunrise with a brief note about the gorgeous desi rani’s deserved victory. Deserved not only due to reaction against the racist bullying, but generally because of Shilpa’s grace under pressure, ready humour and of course that fabulous Mumbaiyya accent.

A good night all around, with the three foreigners and the gay Welshman coming out tops. Jermaine “Yoda” Jackson, with his serene disposition and his Zen koan dialogue, was an absolutely great contestant – and for once I think Davina was onto something, the Jermaine Jackson Little Book of Calm surely can’t be far off. And it’s always nice to see H from Steps on the telly – if there’s any justice, this chirpy little fellow will get plenty of work out of the experience.

And an honourable bronze placing for my hero Dirk Benedict, who won over the audience with his bone-dry wit. I’m pleased to see his autobiography Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy racing up the Amazon bestseller listings. If you haven’t read this extraordinary book, I strongly urge you to go out and procure a copy right now.

For more on the class aspects of the Jade fiasco, this excellent post by SouthpawPunch is well worth your time.

And no, this is not today’s main post. The Provos will get a good kicking later.

That was the week that was, 27.01.07

From time to time, it will be the pleasure of the Sunrise to bring you brief snippets from Norn Iron, stories that probably don’t merit a post in their own right but, taken together, give you some idea of what’s going on in God’s Wee Ulster. Today we will cast our jaundiced eye over the local press, which has understandably been preoccupied with policing, the conjunction of the O’Loan report and the Provo Ard Fheis being too good to ignore.

The News Letter, the voice of bigotry, was as usual almost unbearable unless you’re in the mood for unionist paranoia. The universal line was to forget about collusion or having serial killers on the state payroll – the important thing was to remember the sacrifices of the gallant Royal Ulster Constabulary GC, and protect its hallowed memory from the facts – sorry, slurs – contained in a report authored by an uppity Catholic woman. Say what you like about the News Letter, at least it’s comfortingly predictable.

I’ve never really taken to the Irish News since it discovered “lifestyle” – the old Vatican Times format had a certain olde-worlde charm to it – but it still remains compulsive reading. Not only for fully reporting stories that the News Letter and Telegraph tend to bury, but also for its inimitable letters page and its array of columnists. The latter have been in good form this week, with the focus firmly on O’Loan.

Susan McKay was wonderful as always, and Newton Emerson quite excellent. In fact, the Thursday Irish News has quite a surreal cast to it, with the humorist Newt writing hard-hitting and thoughtful pieces, while Grizzly’s messenger boy Jim Gibney is often unintentionally hilarious. Though Jim is a skilled enough practitioner of Gerryspeak to give Bangers Morrison a run for his money, even he is finding the policing debate tough going, and this week’s offering – a convoluted claim that the Provos had been right not to join the Policing Board in 2001 but were right to do so in 2007 because of the massive concessions their brilliant negotiators had won – was really pisspoor. Even better, though, was Wednesday’s offering from Brian Feeney, the Humeite hatchet-man turned Gerryite hatchet-man. Brian wrote a blistering piece about how the O’Loan report exposed the rottenness of the Northern state – which makes it all the more curious that his column the previous week had excoriated any republicans who didn’t want to join the cops.

Popping over to the op-ed pages of the Belfast Telegraph, things look pretty bad. There was a typically hateful and ignorant rant from imperialist lickspittle Kevin Myers. Keep at it, Kevin, the knighthood can’t be far off. Plus a more than usually idiotic piece from Lindy McDowell, who asked us to consider the thousands of lives saved by informers. Either Lindy didn’t read O’Loan or she was deliberately blowing smoke – in any case, I fail to see how the cops using the Mount Vernon UVF as proxy killers actually saved lives. Either way, we have a fine example of unionist “see no evil” politics.

Tele columnist Eamonn McCann found himself in the news this week, not only opening the Free Derry Museum, but addressing the proletariat of Derry along with Anthony McIntyre (now there’s a bad sign) on the subject of policing. Eamonn’s tack was the usual SWP pseudo-radicalism of claiming the cops are the same all over the world – which is how the Socialist Worker lead editorial on policing could maunder about strike-breaking in South Africa without once using the word “sectarianism”. The funny thing is that the Concerned Republicans are dying to get Eamonn to be the anti-policing candidate in Foyle – Eamonn, however, is adamant that he’ll be the anti-water charges candidate.

With all this going on, you might have expected Eamonn’s column in Thursday’s Telegraph to be on policing. But no – Eamonn laid into the Provos over, er, the National Graves Association’s plan to restored the decapitated statue of Seán Russell. Eamonn huffed and puffed about this atrocity on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, and just to make things a bit racier, included a thinly-veiled incitement to vandalise the statue again were it ever to be restored. But even Eamonn seems to have sensed this was a bit thin, so he padded the column out with a denunciation of the Medjugorje hoax and the Catholic Church’s historic links to Croatian fascism. No wonder the Prodocracy love Eamonn.

A small story you may have missed – Norn Iron’s voluntary sector, under the umbrella of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, called for the restoration of Stormont. Maybe it’s worth explaining that we don’t have a voluntary sector here in the sense that it exists in Britain or the South – what we have in the North is a funded community sector floating on a sea of peace grants. This corrupt setup, employing 30,000 people, is what Newton Emerson calls the “peace industry”, and it’s the biggest employer in the North, bigger even than the civil service. So the headlines should have read, “Peace industry calls for continuation of peace process”.

Also this week, I note from the court reports that nationalist councillors have failed in their bid to get Stroke City’s name officially changed to Derry. Yeah, we’re really on the road to the Republic.

Dawn Purvis was elected leader of the PUP and appointed to the Transitional Assembly in succession to the late David Ervine. She instantly got off to a flying start by refusing to meet Raymond McCord, just as her predecessor had done. Dawn also issued a statement about how the community of Mount Vernon were being victimised. Well yes, they are, by the UVF, but I suspect what Dawn meant is that the UVF are being victimised. Dawn Purvis, by the way, is a member of the Policing Board.

Finally, in view of Lord Maginnis’s fine Deep Southern performance on the news this week, we will be running a readers’ poll. Surely “Ken” is too modest a name for a man like this. So I invite readers’ comments on whether he should be named:

a) Stonewall
b) Scoop
c) Bullrun, or
d) Roscoe.

Cast your votes now!

The limits of rhetoric

I happened to catch Grizzly’s oration to the broad masses at Clonard last night – you may have seen it on the telly. This is the latest and biggest of the mass meetings the Provos have been holding all over the shop in order to reassure their base ahead of the Ard Fheis vote to embrace the peelers. Even though the meetings have been carefully staged, the publication of the O’Loan report – I’m reading it now and will write something presently – hasn’t helped the apparatchiks, and widespread discontent at the base has been evident.

Gerry, though, was at his smoke-blowing best. I’ve had occasion on this blog to write about the various Machiavellian manoeuvres and rhetorical tricks that our boy uses to hoodwink the base, and they’re on full throttle at the minute. Most prominent at Clonard was the backslapping ploy. Gerry made a point of remarking how intelligent and sharp and politically engaged the West Belfast community was, and that’s the giveaway. When Gerry protests loudly that nobody can pull the wool over West Belfast’s eyes, it almost – but not quite – distracts you from the knitting.

It took me back to some of the spin-mongering tactics that Gerry used between the late 70s and mid-80s to outflank his opponents within the Provos. If you want to know the military gossip, you won’t get it here, so go and read Ed Moloney. In any case, control of the army is straightforward – the North dominated the army, Belfast dominated the North, the Ballymurphy mafia dominated Belfast, and the Murph was Gerry’s personal fiefdom. With that setup, all you need to do is invoke military discipline – and a lot of volunteers weren’t terribly political in the first place. No, Gerry’s big problem was with Sinn Féin, which was allegedly democratic and as strong in membership terms in the South as the North. This is an important distinction, because while in the North (pre-H-Block at least) SF was little more than a support network for the army, in the South it consisted of political activists who had a well-defined programme – the various iterations of Éire Nua – and were building around that programme.

So to turn what was a relatively serious political party into a cynical personality cult, it was necessary to undermine the programme and sideline those closely identified with it. Thus it was that, almost from the moment the Cage 11 boys made their pitch for the leadership, one could hear wild talk of a new generation of young, hungry radicals, influenced by Marxism forbye, challenging the old, tired, out-of-touch rural conservatives (not only Dáithí and Ruairí, I should point out, but almost the entire elected leadership of Sinn Féin). This spin was promoted heavily by Eamonn McCann, but lots of other people who should have known better fell for it. The reaction from the old guard, who the spin was intended to infuriate, is what caused Gerry to make his famous statement that there was no Marxist influence in the republican movement. For once Gerry came passably close to the truth. I do seem to remember Bangers Morrison describing himself as a Marxist-Leninist, but I strongly suspect that Danny was extracting the urine. Same goes for Tom Hartley’s infatuation with Fanon – few people read his essays, and I’m not sure even Tom took them that seriously. No, Gerry was right, the new ideology was not Marxism – it was Grizzlyism.

The point about the “left turn”, which so many people still seem to think was real, was that it was a means to an end, the end being the grabbing of power. I don’t know, and I really don’t care, whether Gerry and his satraps were still sincere republicans at that point. But they played silly buggers with politics for the sake of their own advancement, and playing silly buggers with politics always carries the danger of turning you into an unprincipled cynic. Most of the leftist posing of that period (opposition to standing for election, for example) was simply that. Ruairí is fond of saying that a militant slogan is no substitute for a worked-out programme, and whether or not you agree with Ruairí’s programme the argument still holds good. Having got rid of their established programme without putting anything substantial in its place, the Provos were left with an ideological vacuum, and as we know nature abhors a vacuum. Nonetheless, the ultra-radical posturing served its short-term Machiavellian purpose, and that was all that mattered to the Gerryites.

A similar point could be made about the infamous “grey document”, introduced by Gerry into a discussion on the updating of the programme. Written by a Provophile British Trotskyist, this little squib was a mess of wild ultraleftism completely unsuited to Irish conditions. The most notorious provision of the document was for nationalisation of the land, with farmers only having “custodial ownership”. This went down like the proverbial lead balloon with republicans in places like Donegal and Conamara, who had been having some success agitating among small farmers in impoverished rural areas. More than that, it cut at the very base of the southern Shinners, many of whom actually were small proprietors. But then, Gerry never intended the “grey document” as a real contribution to the republican programme. Having served its purpose of outraging the “conservative” southerners and burnishing the Gerryites’ radical reputation, the mad ultraleft proposals were quietly buried.

Then there was the Women’s Department. It was nearly impossible to argue against a Women’s Department, especially after the role played by prisoners’ families during H-Block – but then that was the point. To a big extent, the Sinn Féin Women’s Department served as a playpen for feminists, many of them former members of Peoples Democracy, who could bum and blow to their hearts’ content about women making their mark on republican politics and refusing to accept their traditional tea-making role any more. Its other functions were to wind up traditional republicans, who believed they had joined a revolutionary movement and not a consciousness-raising group, and to provide a loyal cadre of Gerryite hatchet-women. While Provo political correctness ensured that lots of women, some of them hilariously inept, got to fill prominent positions, none of them achieved any real influence, let alone transforming republican politics. (The same goes in more general terms for the PD defectors, who quickly found out who was boss.)

One of the great examples of this sort of legerdemain was of course the abstention debate in 1986. I don’t propose to go into the gerrymandering of the Ard Fheis, or the unconstitutionality of what was done at it, or even the pack of lies fed to delegates by McGuinness, Doherty, Maskey and the rest of the stooges. What’s more interesting, for the purposes of this discussion, is how the debate was cast in rhetorical terms. A shining vista was held out of “revolutionary TDs” holding the balance of power in Leinster House and lending invaluable support to the armed struggle. From today’s vantage point, it’s enough to make a cat laugh. But do you see what they were doing? Accepting the institutions of the Banana Republic was supposed to be the radical, even “revolutionary”, position, while revolutionary opposition to the southern state was “conservative”. I’m not an abstentionist, but even I knew at the time what a load of cobblers this was. Gerry’s “revolutionary” position was reformist to the core.

The point being that you can get away with this sort of thing for a long while – as John McAnulty says of David Ervine, it is indeed possible to fool most of the people most of the time. And if your rhetorical tricks are good ones, you can keep on using them to good effect for decades. But there comes a time when concrete reality rudely interrupts and the good old smoke and mirrors don’t work any more. My sense is that, at least for a significant number of people, the policing issue is that time.

Fortnight, voice of the neocons

If there’s one thing that annoys my brain on a regular basis, it’s Fortnight magazine. Actually, it’s been annoying lots of people for donkey’s years. How this journal has got away with pissing down our backs for so long is a source of wonderment.

Let me explain. Fortnight is really a magazine of two halves. The arty-farty Pseuds Corner half, full of poetry and reviews of Belfast’s architecture, caters to Norn Iron’s thin layer of luvvies, who use the magazine to backslap each other. Nobody actually reads that half apart from the luvvies themselves. What the punters read is the political half.

Now, the thing about the political half of Fortnight is that in days of yore, when I started reading it, the mag used to be the voice of liberal unionism and was worth a look for that reason. These days, under the stewardship of Malachi O’Doherty, it’s a very strange creature indeed, the nearest thing Ireland has to a neoconservative journal. And this is despite Fortnight having grand pretensions to being pluralistic and tolerant and letting a thousand flowers bloom. This is perhaps best illustrated by looking at a few of the charmed circle who write for Fortnight regularly and set its tone.

First we have Malachi himself. Malachi has a well-worn argument for how the North can be saved from the apocalyptic forces of Provodom, and the rather less apocalyptic forces of Paisleyism. That is, the unionist middle class should get up off their arse and wrest back political leadership from the plebs. In essence, we should go back to 1966 and have a Captain Terence O’Neill figure in charge, somebody with a bit of class who can lead the great unwashed by the nose, and accept the South Down and Londonderry Party as a respectable junior partner. And Malachi is supposed to be a great progressive thinker.

Then we have the odious Henry McDonald, a man best known for his splenetic attacks on the anti-war movement and the “Provo fascists”. Henry is a signatory to the neocon Euston Manifesto, which he endorsed with the statement “I signed because I know there is a rational, tolerant left out there in Britain and hopefully also Ireland. A left beyond the 21st century version of the Hitler/Stalin pact, the alliance of the silly and the sinister, the toxic fusion of medieval reactionary bigots and totalitarian epigones. And I signed it because I saw this before – in the opportunistic alliance between ultra leftists in Britain and terrorists in Ireland whose armed campaign almost pushed my country to the edge of sectarian civil war.” I quote this in full simply to point out that Henry cut his political teeth in the Workers Party of Ireland, an ultra-Stalinist organisation which maintained an active armed wing for the whole time he was in it, and moreover an outfit that thought Saddam Hussein was the bee’s knees.

Another exemplar of progressive thought often to be found in Fortnight is Dr Anthony McIntyre, proprietor of the Blanket gossip site. Tony, for those who don’t know him, resigned from the Provos when they signed the Good Friday Agreement, and has spent much of his time since demanding that the Provos should declare their formal surrender rather than keep on pretending they have achieved anything. Tony is also an inveterate red-baiter, who never misses an opportunity to shoehorn a denunciation of the “Trots” into the most incongruous articles, and has laboured mightily over the past year to promote the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons and Irshad Manji’s dopey manifesto declaring the defence of the yuppie racists in Denmark to be the Greatest Intellectual Struggle of Our Times. Tony has also of late struck up a cosy relationship with the neoconservative Henry “Scoop” Jackson Society, where he finds himself in the company of well-known radicals like the vainglorious Chomsky-hating derivatives trader Oliver Kamm and the frothing Croat nationalist Marko Attila Hoare.

These neocon farmhands are of only morbid interest in themselves. But they do demonstrate that the main qualification for being a Fortnight bigwig is to be an ex-socialist or ex-republican willing to pen scurrilous attacks on those who still are republicans or socialists. What is, in fact, a pretty nasty neocon rag still manages, amazingly, to pass itself off as a forum for Norn Iron’s leading forward-thinking intellectuals. Personally, I find the Phoenix magazine, which has no political line and no intellectual pretensions, to be a much more stimulating read. I guess Fortnight’s continued existence is proof that nobody ever went broke underestimating the gullibility of the chattering classes.

Stuck inside of Dublin with the Dungiven blues again

Today’s topic was determined on the flip of a coin, either Jean Baudrillard or a trip down Leftist Memory Lane. So any readers hoping for some French philosophy of a Monday have my sincerest apologies – instead, we’re going to put the Scorpions on the stereo, dig out the Rubik’s Cube and the old copies of Power Man & Iron Fist, and party like it’s 1982.

Nearly 25 years ago a major ideological shift took place in the Socialist Workers Movement, one that virtually nobody in today’s SWP will be aware of. This was of course the “neo-colony” debate, although debate may be putting things a little too strongly. It was decided, on the basis of a hefty document from Kieran Allen (The Nature of the Southern State), that the Free State was not in fact a semi-colonial, “imperialised” state but rather an advanced European capitalism much like any other.

The debate was unusual in that, if memory serves, the initiative did not come from Britain. One irritating thing about the SWM was that our conference could decide what it liked, but big shifts in policy would normally arrive with the Pooka, as Cliff would have a brainstorm in the run-up to the British SWP conference in November and this would then be translated into Irish terms. Now, Kieran was always basically a Cliff man – Cliff had elevated him to the leadership, after all – so it can be safely assumed that the Poms were consulted before the change was taken to the Irish membership. I wasn’t in the inner circle, so I can’t be certain of this, but I would lay money on it. Nonetheless, the drive for the change came from Ireland, though Cliff’s methodology was much in evidence.

Cliff used to have a rationale for arriving at new theoretical positions, which was based on working back from a bad position to its supposed theoretical roots, and then formulating a new theory which would safeguard his organisation against the bad position. A lot of the supporting argumentation for the state capitalist theory of Russia took the form of arguing that the Healy movement’s pro-Stalinist position during the Korean War derived from their holding a degenerated workers state position, and the adoption of state capitalism would allegedly protect us from this terrible deviation. (See also the Harman-Mandel debate in the 1980s, when Chris Harman, a very intelligent man, was forced to systematically falsify the history of the Fourth International.) Kieran’s document on the Southern state was really an application of the same method.

What exercised Kieran was the Provos’ embrace of electoral politics and a (largely rhetorical) leftism, and the magnetic pull that was having on the far left. Already we had seen Peoples Democracy, a much stronger organisation, go into a state of virtual collapse as the majority of its militants went over to Sinn Féin. We were also leaking members, albeit on a smaller scale – partly because we had fewer people to lose, mainly because PD’s concentration in the North and much more intimate links to the Provo base rendered them more vulnerable. The dominant view in the SWM was that we had to guard ourselves against the danger of defections to the Shinners, and it was that pragmatic view that informed the ideological shift.

Kieran’s basic argument was that PD had got what was coming to them because they had “tailed” republicanism – a pretty tendentious view given their and our comparative records over H-Block. But then, for reasons best known to himself, he chose to aim his fire at our theory of the Southern state, which had been pretty well established since the SWM’s formation in 1971. Of course, the preceding SWM position was not dealt with directly, as Kieran’s polemics were mostly aimed towards the extravagances of republican politics, such as the Provos’ argument that the Southern ruling class were direct puppets of Britain, or some of the absurdities developed by the Sticks under the baleful influence of Eoghan Harris. The positive argument for the new position was simply a few tables showing that various characteristics of capitalism applied to Ireland, while failing to hide the fact that this was a very peculiar sort of capitalism.

But, as you might expect, the debate centred not on the empirical evidence or lack thereof, but on the supposed consequences of neo-colonial theory. It was argued that, if we accepted the South as a neo-colonial state, we would inevitably be driven towards Stalinist-style popular front politics, towards unity with Irish capital and specifically with Fianna Fáil. This ignored the fact that in the previous eleven years we had never felt the urge to unite with Irish capital – nor for that matter had Peoples Democracy, the IWG or the LWR, all of which had substantially similar positions.

At the time I didn’t challenge this, nor did I seriously question the new position until after the SWM had dispensed with my services some years later. I was much more concerned with our line on the North, and the general view was that not only would this not weaken our position on the North, it would actually strengthen it, as we would have no illusions in the possibility of there being a “patriotic bourgeoisie”. Actually, as it happens, there were consequences flowing from the new line that we weren’t really aware of at the time, and that did serve to weaken our politics in the longer term.

The basic consequence was that the national question was confined to the North. Without really noticing it, we moved away from a perspective of a nationwide struggle for national liberation and socialism, and towards a view that in the South there was a class struggle pure and simple, with only a platonic connection to the North. That became the consistent line. It also strengthened economistic tendencies in the Northern SWM, although less consistently as reality had a tendency to impose itself. Opposition to imperialism, which was the outcome of an all-Ireland perspective, came to be reframed simply as opposition to sectarianism, which I think is the logical outcome of a perspective confined to the North. Not that we ever went over to the West British Marxism of Militant – even the most strident economists balked at Militant’s conclusions – but we gradually developed premises that weren’t a million miles from theirs.

And the moral of this story? I suppose that you have to try and base your politics on empirical reality, and think through your conclusions before you jump. And if you believe that adopting a particular dogma can ward off political sin like a cross repels a vampire, you’re likely to find the unintended consequences of that hastily adopted dogma turning round and biting you in the ass.

Not George Washington

If you got yesterday’s Irish News (subscription required) two items will have caught your eye. On the front page, Grizzly was offering to meet dissident republicans to discuss their concerns and attempt to win them round to support for the peace process. Inside the paper was the text of the resolution the Provo leadership are circulating for support ahead of the Extraordinary Ard Fheis. Taken together, the two provide a small illustration of the Gerryite modus operandi.

To take the second item first, it was striking that the leadership couldn’t put a simple yes/no question on endorsing policing. Instead there is a huge blockbuster resolution containing a condensed version of the entire Provo programme, reiterating support for a united Ireland, the equality agenda, justice for victims of collusion etc ad nauseam. The reason for a rhetorical ploy like this is simple. A yes/no vote on the issue of policing would have posed all kinds of trouble for the Gerryites. Obviously there are the increasing signs of dissidence in the sticks; also, even though Belfast and Derry City are easier to keep a lid on, getting support for the New RUC past the Bloody Sunday families or Relatives For Justice, not unimportant parts of the base, might have taken some doing. The advantage of the blockbuster resolution is that you can either support the leadership or reject the programme as a whole. It’s a bind, and deliberately so.

Another obvious trap is Gerry’s offer to meet the dissidents. He’s pulled this trick a few times in the past, and it’s a good one. If they refuse Gerry’s reasonable offer, the dissidents risk looking so rabid and fanatical as to deter any wavering Provo supporters from going near them. On the other hand, if they agree to talks behind closed doors, such is Gerry’s history of mendacity that they’re even more fucked. The smart play in this situation, the jiu-jitsu move, would be to say that, while they have no desire to sit down around a table with Gerry, they are perfectly happy to meet him in public and debate the peace process in front of an audience. They may or may not win people over, but at least the Sleekit One would be out in the open where you could see him.

There are a couple of other classic Gerry strokes we might expect to see in the next month or two. One will be the wheeling out of hunger strikers, dead volunteers’ families and various heroic figures from republican history – at least the airbrushed version where Brendan Hughes was never on hunger strike and Billy McKee didn’t defend St Matthew’s. It’s a pity that the late Joe Cahill is no longer available to give one of his “I stood at the foot of the gallows for Ireland” speeches, but there must be a fair few of those on tape.

The other Gerry manoeuvre to watch for, especially now that several Stormont candidacies are going begging, will be a high-profile role for selected military men. These will be figures who are totally loyal to the Gerry agenda, but whose military careers will give the impression that our boy has a bunch of fearsome hardliners breathing down his neck. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly have both played the role to perfection in the past, so don’t be surprised if Brian Keenan starts popping up giving speeches all over the place. It’s a stroke that would be characteristic of Jack Lynch circa 1969, letting the optics suggest unbending republicanism while in fact doing the opposite.

If you’re a chess player you’ll know that with time you acquire the ability to predict your opponent’s next few moves. Gerry is a great Machiavellian operator, but he only has a certain number of strokes and after a while you get to see them coming a mile off. It’s a constant source of wonder to me that so many people keep being suckered by the same gambits time after time.

And the skies are not cloudy, part 3

Today we return to our discussion of what a revolutionary programme for Ireland might entail, and we are going to deal with the place of economism in Irish Marxism. Don’t run off shrieking just yet – it isn’t as hard as it sounds, and I promise to keep the jargon down to a minimum.

The outstanding practitioners of economism today are the two major far-left groupings, the SWP and the Socialist Party. We’ll concentrate here on the SP, not to wind up my regular readers from that group – though that’s a bonus – but because the SWP’s politics constitute a moving target and so don’t lend themselves to this kind of discussion. The SP, on the other hand, are the dogmatists of economism and, to their credit, once they arrive at a position they tend to stick to it like glue. They have the merit of being consistent, even if they’re consistently wrong.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the theoretical premises and historical development of the SP’s position on the national question. Marc Mulholland has done that quite ably, and, while I have my differences with Marc, his account will do to be going on with. Nor will I go into a big long ramble about what economism means outside Ireland.

What economism means, in the Irish context, is the studied refusal to consider the relevance of the “I” word; a writing out of Britain’s role; the proposition that the Banana Republic is a normal European country, comparable to say Norway or Holland; in the North, the denial of any material basis to sectarianism; the belief that spontaneous economic struggles will lead to the defeat of sectarianism; the advancement of “workers’ unity” as the all-purpose slogan for any situation; and the often unconscious tendency to privilege loyalist workers.

The best example of this approach is the SP’s last major publication on the North, Peter Hadden’s Towards Division Not Peace. Amongst other criticisms I could make, the pamphlet is characterised by magical thinking, which postulates that whatever we say is so becomes so. Therefore, since the British conceded the original NICRA demands, plus the Fair Employment Act and some other bells and whistles, it follows that discrimination no longer exists in any serious form. Many nationalist grievances are imaginary, and furthermore nationalists should keep quiet about them, because harping on these minor grievances only militates against the workers’ unity that is held to be constantly imminent – in fact, to even raise a grievance about sectarianism is, well, sectarian. This also explains, by a complicated logical process, the Millies’ enduring belief in the talismanic power of bread and butter.

Let me explain. If sectarianism doesn’t have a material basis, it can only then be described as a form of false consciousness. And this is in fact what the SP do – in their Weltanschauung, the workers are continually and spontaneously uniting around bread-and-butter demands, only for Machiavellian “sectarian politicians” to drive them apart again. So we move from the realm of materialism to psychological categories, in a way reminiscent of that old GLC anti-racist poster. (“Are you a racist? You’d be a nicer person if you weren’t.”) When workers unite in spontaneous economic struggles, so the theory goes, they see the potential power of a united class and the stupidity of sectarian divisions. This is what the SP call “the potential of class issues to transcend sectarianism”. The process is seen as virtually automatic – to the extent that it isn’t, all that is needed is the presence of the SP to point out to workers their objective interests.

There is a grain of truth in this, but only a grain. The reality of the North is that sectarianism finds it quite easy to intrude into the bread-and-butter sphere. I wouldn’t normally quote Gerry Adams as an authority, but he is fond of telling a story about his youthful activism in 1960s Ballymurphy, when local Catholics united with Protestants from New Barnsley to fight for a pedestrian crossing on a bit of road where a child had been killed. Eventually the crossing was won, but not before a Paisleyite rabble-rouser had broken up the united campaign. Gerry draws the obvious conclusion – if the working class found it so hard to unite for a pedestrian crossing, wouldn’t they find it much harder to unite for anything substantial?

Not to say that economic campaigns can’t possibly lead anywhere beyond their immediate demands, but one has to start out by recognising the difficulty of it and being prepared to confront the tough issues head-on. Allies who are easily swayed by taig-baiting will not be reliable allies. The SP, on the other hand, draw the opposite conclusion. Because economic struggle by itself undermines sectarianism, the need is for maximum class unity at all times, and one must at all costs avoid saying anything that might annoy the Prods. This explains why, any time loyalist bigotry rears its ugly head, the SP rush out statements condemning ALL sectarianism and none in particular.

What we end up with, therefore, and ironically from people who set out to avoid the Stalinist stages theory, is a stages theory turned on its head. Instead of uniting Ireland first and then fighting for socialism, the idea is that we achieve socialism – separately, North and South – then we talk about the national question. This is how the SP reconcile their formal position of a “united socialist Ireland” in the sweet by and by with their fervent unionism in the here and now. There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.

Or to put it another way, we have a reverse Leninism, where, instead of the advanced workers taking the lead, the most politically backward workers have a veto. Where Dev was supposed to have said “Labour Must Wait”, the SP say “Wait For Labour”. Anything that isn’t a simon-pure united workers’ movement is dismissed as reactionary, and we are condemned to sitting on our arse waiting for a radical movement that lives up to the SP’s impossible standards. Which is pretty much what Militant did throughout the Troubles, when they ignored very real struggles and instead exaggerated the political significance of every little sectional strike.

Next in this thread, we’ll look at the stages theory versus permanent revolution as a strategy for Marxists.

Run Rabbitte run

Irish Labour is facing the upcoming election without any serious hope of making progress, and how that has come to pass is a story in itself. A couple of years back, Labour was riding high in the polls, and, not for the first time, looked to have a serious chance of displacing the Blueshirts as the major opposition party in the Free State – if only the party leadership could press home its advantage. That “if only” is important. Pat Rabbitte, in comparison to other party leaders, gets terrific notices – he’s very highly regarded by the Leinster House lobby correspondents, and has a reputation as a great orator amongst the drunks and insomniacs who watch Oireachtas Report. But the party’s apparent strength has turned out to be its real weakness – in return for a mess of pottage called the Mullingar Accord, Pat has committed Labour to a strategy of clinging like grim death to the rotting corpse of Fine Gael. Recent polling shows Labour flatlining at around 11%, which represents no improvement at all on the last election.

The arithmetic is simple. To the limited extent that Labour has prospered in recent years, it has done so by eating into the traditional Fine Gael electorate – in particular, colonising territory in Dublin historically occupied by FG’s nearly defunct liberal wing. If Labour is to advance further – maybe not in terms of seats in this election, but lining up constituencies for future gains – it can only realistically do so by putting the squeeze on the Blueshirts. But one of the unstated provisions of Mullingar is that Labour should turn its back on developing winnable seats and concentrate in these areas on providing transfers for FG candidates. This point is not lost on activists in a number of constituencies who have put a lot of effort into rebuilding Labour’s organisation and profile, in the hope of delivering TDs in the not too distant future, only to be told that the only purpose of their candidates is to run sweeper for Enda.

Not only this, but Labour has a fight on its hands to even hold its own. The best bet at the minute is that the party will come out of the election with more or less the same number of TDs that it currently holds, give or take one or two, but even a small swing could be catastrophic. At the last election, no less than seven of Labour’s 21 seats were won with narrow margins over Fine Gael, and would thus be vulnerable to even a minor revival in the FG vote, or to Sinn Féin Nua continuing to nibble at Labour’s working-class base, or to the Greens squeezing Labour in the middle-class trendy vote – all of which would be consistent with current polling. It follows from all this, as night follows day, that the best strategy for Labour in purely electoral terms is to kick the shit out of Fine Gael. It should be, like, obvious. But then, Pat Rabbitte is a man who spent the best years of his life on the ard chomhairle of the Workers Party, while being completely unaware that the Official IRA existed.

For the last couple of decades the second largest party in the state has had no clear idea of what it stands for. Now, to give him credit, Electric Enda has a few ideas, and those ideas are pretty rightwing. On health, he has introduced the concept of the deserving sick. On education, FG proposals have sent the teacher unions screaming into the warm embrace of Minister Mary Hanafin. And then there have been Enda’s forays into law and order, where he has vainly attempted to outdo Interior Minister McDowell in the Dirty Harry stakes. And what has Pat said about this? Has he attempted to put manners on his putative coalition partner? No he has not. The practical outcome of Mullingar seems to be that Enda can say whatever pops into his head, while Pat can say frig all.

Nor can Labour make a serious pitch for the protest vote this time out. The ongoing Shell to Sea campaign in Mayo provides the clearest evidence of this. Footage of gardaí baton-charging old age pensioners should be a godsend for any opposition party worth its salt – and Labour’s weakness on the ground in Mayo is not really the point, Ireland is a small country and the national leadership could and should have spoken out. But the Corrib pipeline is in Enda’s constituency, Enda supports the project, and therefore Pat can’t say anything of substance. The upshot is that somebody will make electoral hay from Rossport – it may be local independents, the Provos or even the Éamon Ó Cuív faction of Fianna Fáil – but it surely to God won’t be Labour.

These facts have impressed themselves on Rabbitte’s critics within the party, of whom there are many. Nor has grumbling been confined to notorious malcontents like Declan Bree or Henry Haughton. There are lots of Old Labourites who would be keen to wrest back control of their party from the Sticks, and are discreetly sharpening knives even now. (Not to say, of course, that all the criticism is principled in nature. There are those in the parliamentary party who worry that Pat’s visceral hostility to Fianna Fáil is ruling out a coalition option.) One hears regular reports of anti-Mullingar sentiment in Labour Youth. Most importantly, I think, is the stance of the “rebuilders” who have been putting in heroic amounts of spadework in the constituencies. There are quite a few ambitious young councillors who don’t stand a chance of getting in the Dáil this time around, but might well be contenders in future elections. They are less than gruntled at the suggestion that their main task is to elect Blueshirts.

The most coherent alternative to Mullingar is that put forward by ATGWU regional secretary Mick O’Reilly. This is based on the idea that Labour could struggle for power in its own right – first, by attempting to maximise its own representation, then by projecting itself as the main force in a progressive alliance which would encompass Sinn Féin Nua and leftwing independents (possibly also the Greens), and which would, on current figures, be stronger in the Dáil than Fine Gael. This alliance would refuse to enter into any right-led coalition (although Mick acknowledges that this would mean the unprecedented situation of a party actually sticking to its electoral commitments). It would then fight for political hegemony in the southern state, instead of passively accepting its lot in life as junior partner to either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Mick’s perspective is a seductive one, and its appeal to those activists in the Labour Party who are trying to rebuild in local areas is easy to see. It would certainly be a vast improvement on the course followed by Rabbitte and the hard-right Stickie faction who currently control the party. But is Pat interested in a grandiose scheme to try and put Labour in a dominant position in the state? No he is not. He seems perfectly happy with his lot in life. He’s firmly ensconced in the party leadership (at least this side of the election). Labour may not be a great prize, but it’s a hell of a sight better than Democratic Left. Apparently his only remaining ambition is to be Electric Enda’s tánaiste. And, on current evidence, he won’t even achieve that. What a comedown from his days as a stentorian Stalinist.

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