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.


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    January 25, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    I wonder if you’re not being a little too kind to PSF south of the border with regard to their ‘political’ machine. As it happens I went to school with Dáithi’s son and later was active with WP in that (a North Dublin) constituency for the best part of ten years. To be honest the PSF presence on the ground was fairly thin to the point of non-existant. That pattern was largely, but not exclusively replicated across Dublin, with occassional pockets of serious membership such as Christy Burke’s Dublin Central area. The obvious reason was that they didn’t engage in ‘national elections’ so in some respects they didn’t need a machine. That, of course, began to change even before 1986, but even as late as the early 1990s their activity was more minimal than one would have thought.

    Of course the brilliant irony is that they stepped neatly into the space the WP/DL had vacated particularly on the fringe estates around the city.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 26, 2007 at 9:11 am

    I think you’re probably right as far as Dublin goes. It would have been very different in the border counties and the west though, and I had in mind the sort of agitation PSF went in for in those rural areas. The general point was that for the Belfast pragmatists the party was a harder nut to crack than the army, because you had more of a southern presence and the southerners were more likely to be republican ideologues.

    The north/south divide in political movements though is an interesting subject in its own right. You had this as a big fault line in the WP, and the CPI has had constant bickering between Dublin and Belfast for as long as I can remember.

  3. ejh said,

    January 26, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    My sense is that, at least for a significant number of people, the policing issue is that time.

    Why would you think so? Where else is there to go?

  4. WorldbyStorm said,

    January 26, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    Yep, those are fair points about the rural and border thing. Still, I tend to think that Republican ideologues in the South were fairly underdeveloped in terms of an ideology. Eire Nua has to be one of the worst documents of it’s sort ever produced, a sort of Poujadist version of socialism.

    I take your point about the North South divide in parties, it was amazing how ‘serious’ the guys from Belfast were in the WP, well not so amazing really, they’d been at the hard end of it.

    Still, I have to agree with ejh, where else can people go? I know a number of people within SF who are hopping mad about the issue, but they’re not on the brink of leaving.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 27, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Well, my view is that Gerry can get away with plenty as long as there is no alternative, and there isn’t another organisation waiting to pick up the slack. So what’s likely is that activists will just drop out – that’s happened big time in Belfast tho the Dublin Shinners are a different breed. But I do think there is some space emerging where a political alternative could get a hearing.

    What that alternative is I’m not too sure. Being a lone blogger I’m free to jeer and sneer, which is what I enjoy anyway. If organisations like Eirigi or the Irps or Socialist Democracy want to pitch themselves to disillusioned Shinners it’s really up to them to provide an alternative.

    My own ongoing thread about programme is really designed as a space to think aloud about where the various left and republican tendencies’ weaknesses lie, and what a new programme might look light. As you know I’m basically dealing with method at the minute rather than solid proposals.

    As you may have guessed I’m not a supporter of RSF and don’t claim Eire Nua as the answer. I’m taking it as a jumping off point because I’m familiar with the document and the discussions around it down the years, and I think it touches on a few important areas. I could just as easily write about the Irish Industrial Revolution or even the FF Coru in that context.

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