Through a glass darkly: the BICO and the Irish Times


This is a little late I know, but it’s been hard work tracking down Ireland’s second most eccentric political journal (after the Hibernian), the Irish Political Review, that scurrilous organ produced by what used to be known as the British and Irish Communist Organisation. Although the September issue isn’t half bad – Mark Langhammer’s speech on Labour organisation in the North is well worth a look – I’m more interested in August’s issue, which has no less than twelve separate articles attacking the Irish Times. Even given that the Times is a long-established IPR bugbear, and that it is annoying in its own right, this seems somewhat excessive.

The IPR case is that the Times is an anti-national element in the literal sense of being an agency of a foreign state – that is, Britain – within the Irish body politic. Like a lot of BICO/IPR arguments, it’s based on a fair amount of historical fact, plus a great big whack of post facto rationalisation, and the squeezing of seemingly disparate events into an internally coherent framework – much better than the Judeo-Masonic conspiracies the Hibernian goes in for, but still veering towards the paranoid. The IPR case against our paper of record goes something like this:

a) The Irish Times was the historic paper of southern unionism, and never broke from its Protestant-colonial heritage.
b) Following on from that, the Times did not partake in the democratic republican consensus that obtained in the 26 counties following the de Valera ascendancy in the 1930s, and has remained hostile to Fianna Fáil (and, by implication, the Irish electorate that stubbornly keeps the buggers in power).
c) Upon the eruption in the North in 1969, the Times took a strongly pro-British and pro-unionist line, and has continued to do so. This is in keeping with its being essentially an anti-national paper.
d) In the current context, Madam Editrix Geraldine Kennedy has arrogated to herself the role of opposition, on the grounds that the official opposition in Leinster House has shown itself unequal to the task of removing Bertie from power. Therefore the Times, using the shambolic and probably unconstitutional Tribunal system as its weapon, has determined to unseat the elected government of the State by any means necessary.

There is other stuff involved, such as a preoccupation with Douglas Gageby’s correspondence, and a retroactive defence of the late Seán Doherty’s bugging activities during the Year of GUBU, but I think I have the essentials. And it’s not a view that I’m entirely unsympathetic to. But I do think the thread of history is a little more tangled than that, and there are much more illuminating things to be said.

The most interesting point is how the Times went from being the organ of southern unionism to the singular entity it is today. This is by no means an unbroken progression of anti-national journalism. Cast your mind back to the late 1930s, and the array of daily papers then extant in the South. The Indo had transformed itself in the early 1920s from a Redmondite paper to an unofficial mouthpiece for Cumann na nGaedheal and, therefore, the Saorstát equivalent of Pravda. (Remember that Cumann na nGaedheal was not just the ruling party, but effectively was the Saorstát.) It was at least as hostile to the new FF dispensation as the Times. Down in Cork, the Examiner had likewise been Redmondite, but had accommodated itself to the fact that there were few Redmondites and even fewer unionists in Munster. And of course you had the newly formed Irish Press as Dev’s voice on earth.

The Times in this period was facing a similar conundrum to the Examiner, in that the unionist community in Dublin was in long-term decline both demographically and sociologically. What Bertie Smyllie realised was that, while the Ascendancy still had enough critical mass to sustain a paper, for the sake of the Times’ long-term future he had better expand its appeal. The August IPR actually recognises this, but then dismisses it as of no importance, the new arriviste readership simply assimilated the Ascendancy worldview. I don’t think this will do. It may have applied in a limited way to the new layer of businessmen who accompanied their growing prosperity with an affected interest in golf and rugger, but much less so to the hordes of rustics now ensconced in the Civil Service. Then you must recall that the Times was, faute de mieux, the paper of choice of our national intelligentsia, such as it was, who had little affinity with the Saorstát mercantilism of the Indo or the völkisch populism of the Press. Cruiskeen Lawn did not appear in the Times by accident.

Now it is true that the Times never lost touch with its core readership of Church of Ireland vicars and Trinity dons, but to explain the paper’s record over recent decades you need something more. That something more is the emergence of the neo-democratic D4 caste, about which the IPR’s recent collaborator Des Fennell has written so well. D4 is worthy of an in-depth study in itself, but I’ll remark that, while it is natural that the bien-pensants should find their most congenial home at the Times, the vast majority of them were not Protestant, many if not most were not from the traditional bourgeoisie and, with a few exceptions that will immediately leap to mind, they did not simply ape Ascendancy culture. More to the point is that, in the atmosphere of the late 60s and early 70s, the tendency that would coalesce as D4 consciously contrasted a thrusting and modern Britain with a backward and insular Ireland. Thus, Britain became normative and Irish deviations from Britishness were to be interpreted as symptoms of backwardness.

This is a colonial mindset to be sure, but it isn’t an Ascendancy one. It actually bears a considerable resemblance to that of certain social layers in the former Eastern Bloc, what Slobodan Antonić calls the “missionary intelligentsia” – and that’s something I’ll return to in the near future. But my point is this – yes, a considerable part of the Irish punditocracy is anti-national not even in the republican sense, but in the more modest sense of being in an antagonistic relationship to most of the Irish nation, or even the concept of Irishness. Yes, they tend to believe that they, the enlightened people, should be running the Irish state, rather than the Fianna Fáil cowboys who illegitimately occupy government. And yes, Britain has sought for many years to influence 26-county politics and has had no shortage of useful idiots. But, even allowing all that, to effectively put the Irish Times on a par with the coup-mongering media in Venezuela – well, we aren’t Venezuela, and it seems to me to be stretching the point just a little.


  1. ejh said,

    September 19, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    I think it would be true of the punditocracy – as it would be true of the chattering classes in London – that while few are from the ruling class as such, old or new, fewer still have any experience of being on the kicking-end of society in any real way. They’re nearly all from the profssional classes, nearly all will have expected to do well (and even those who did not, are doing well) and none of them really knows what it is like to be skint, or bullied at work, or fearful of one’s life because of being on the wrong side of ethnic divisions and living where that matters.

    Indiviually that doesn’t disqualify anybody from an opinion, from being right or wise or good, and it would be crass to suggest otherwise. But it does tend to mean that in the mass, these people do tend to identify with the viewpoint of well-off people in centres of power, because even if they are not from there, they are not excluded from there in any meaningful sense.

    I learned this lesson at Oxbridge, which people misunderstand as an upper-class place where people outside a public-school elite are few, and victims of snobbery. Hardly at all, really – you can come from anywhere provided you’re preapred to play the game, and you’re most likely to come from the professional classes.

    For this reason, professional-class people are unsympathetic to what they see as whinging, because to them it does look like la carrière ouverte aux talents and so there is a basic sympathy not just for a certain sort of politics economics (friendly to rights but not to trade unionism) but to Washington, New York and London. Of course it’s normative to them, because there’s nothing stopping them being a part of it.

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 20, 2007 at 7:12 am

    One of the most interesting aspects of the dynamic, and to be honest I think the IPR wilfully ignores the way the IT became the house organ (so to speak) of social liberalism in Ireland which grew as an enormous dynamic within both the urban and elements of the rural middle classes and elements of the working class (and had the attractive aspect of being in no sense in contradiction with other more reactionary strains in the IT worldview), is the one you touch upon at the end of your post. It is the sense that FF is somehow illegitimate and unworthy of power. The curious thing is how that sense actually pushes many from progressive or even left backgrounds towards FF in the end (or at the least engenders a certain sympathy) and is actually of enormous benefit to that party. Unintended consequence.

  3. Ed Hayes said,

    September 20, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Maybe of no importance; in my SWM days some of the better experiences were going to Waterford to helpo out Johnny C, a long term member since the early 1970s and union activists try to recruit a few youngsters. In between we’d sell maybe 200 papers outside Waterford Glass and meet up with a couple of the shop stewards for a few pints and to give them their own copies to sell. None were members then, but they had been as teenagers. They all also subscribed to the Brit SWP journal International Socialism. I came from an Irish Press home and I don’t think I read the Times until I was 18. But the Glass stewards were all Irish Times readers and even knew a couple of the journalists. Nothing to do with the IPR I know. Just interesting.

  4. ejh said,

    September 20, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    It is the sense that FF is somehow illegitimate and unworthy of power.

    It’s partly a corruption question, isn’t it? And a fair enough one to ask, though if they think that New Labour in London or the Democrats in Washington are any better they may have some difficulty making that case.

    But I suppose it’s also partly that professional-class arrogance that there’s a trade-off going on whereby FF says to the population “tell you what, we’ll not tell you that everybody needs to shape up and modernise” and the electorate says back “no probs, we’ll not vote you out of office no matter how much dirty money we hear about”.

  5. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 20, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    It’s like that old Yes Minister line: ‘the Times is read by the people who run the country, the Guardian by the people who think they should be running the country, the Morning Star by people who think the country should be run by another country, the Daily Telegraph by people who think the country is being run by another country, and the Sun by people who don’t care who runs the country, so long as she has big tits’.

    Let’s have the Splintered Sunrise on the rise of Dublin 4 in post-Whitaker Report Ireland. A key thing about them is their rock-solid sense of their entitlement and their equally strong belief in the absolute lack of entitlement of everyone else.

    It’s also interesting that Dublin 4 only really acquired the whip hand after the country’s reemergence from the economic crisis of the 1980s. You could argue that reemergence was radically shaped by the social partnership Haughey introduced after 1987, and that therefore Dublin 4 owes its place at the helm to the very old-school FF nationalism it affects to oppose. It also raises the question; when the crisis years return, will Dublin 4 be able to build some sort of deal that will allow it to retain it’s hegemony?

  6. Worldbystorm said,

    September 20, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    The thing is ejh, that FF is not as corrupted as some would like to portray it. That’s not to say that there haven’t been phases, and one only has to look at the abysmal record of local government in the 1980s and later. In fact it was that potent nexus of money, development, housing, etc, which fed into a sort of faux modernisation that led to much of the trouble. But a small detail. This evening on the RTE news they had transcripts of the proceedings at the Tribunal. What do they have, actors do voiceover of lawyer in plummy D4 tones, Ahern played with actor stumbling and stammering in his working class lad made good accent. And I couldn’t help feeling, well here we go again, another subliminated lash at his class. And trust me, I’m not a supporter of our hero.

  7. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 20, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    This is something that explains why someone like Beverly Cooper-Flynn can keep getting reelected.
    The Dublin 4 media class can ponce around Doheny and Nesbitt’s saying ‘I say, did you see my piece exposing BCP for what she really is?’ but people in Castlebar will just think ‘that bloody shower in Dublin are attacking our local person’.

    The fact that D4s aren’t apparently aware that this is a problem shows them up for the bunch of poseurs they really are. You can see this also in their attitude to the North – reading a lot of the standard IT/Sindo boilerplate on the North you get a strong impression that for these people the significance of the violent deaths of innocent people is that it provides them with a striking backdrop against which to pose and preen themselves.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 20, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Waters of all people wrote quite well on this in Jiving at the Crossroads. How his family in Roscommon went from being traditional FG voters to supporting Doherty, pretty much for the same reasons.

    The more I think of it, the east European parallel – I’d be most familiar with the Serbian situation – fits well with the sense that we, the enlightened folks, should be running the country, and the redneck majority voting the other way is just intolerable. It’s not an exact parallel of course, but when the Guardian hails Sonja Biserko as the leader of Serbia’s democracy movement I can’t help thinking it’s a bit like hailing Kevin Myers as the leader of Ireland’s democracy movement. I’m tempted to look at that as a sort of tangential light on the D4 phenomenon.

  9. ejh said,

    September 21, 2007 at 8:22 am

    No, I think that’s basically right, because it involes people who are progressive in some ways, more educated (often far more so) and more enlightened than their countrymen, but at the same time completely unable to understand:

    a. that they have their own snobberies and prejudices ;

    b. that they are where they are as a result of social advantage just as much as ability ;

    c. that the economics they propound favour (and are seen as favouring) them, not everybody ;

    d. that there is a huge link between social division and prejudice, which their economics foster rather than ameliorate ;

    e. that if you weaken labour organsiation and socialist politics, it’s not liberalism which fills the gap ;

    f. that if progressive social ideas are linked to fuck-you economics, and are seen as being propounded by a superior elite, then you are asking for what you get, which is an alliance between the resentful proletariat and the cynical wealthy.

    That they can’t grasp any of these is precisely because of their monumental self-regard and sense of superiority.

  10. ejh said,

    September 21, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Incidentally it may or may not be pertinent that a poster on Crooked Timber just described the characters in Sex And The City as

    “strong women trying to survive in a society that’s less than forgiving”.

  11. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 21, 2007 at 8:41 am

    The one time I saw that show, the blonde was spending 500 USD on a handbag. La lutte continue, eh?

  12. ejh said,

    September 21, 2007 at 8:43 am

    Five hundred dollars more
    And what do I get
    Another Gucci handbag
    And deeper in debt

  13. Gabriel said,

    September 22, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Congrats for being included in the top 20 Irish Political blogs…see Slugger O’Toole for details..Congrats again from us here at Unrepentant Communist

  14. Starkadder said,

    September 24, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    I pointed out the “twelve seperate articles” in that issue too. Great minds think alike, eh?
    Apparently, David Alvey and the “Marxist” John
    Martin of the IPR group sent sent a memorandum to
    Brian Lenihan calling for an investigation to be set up into the Irish
    Times and the Mahon Tribunal.Nothing seems to have
    happened, but this finished the IPR off as anything even vaguely leftish in my view.
    A few years after the infamous McDowell letter,
    Jack Lane was likening De Valera to Idi Amin
    in the “Irish Communist”. While Brendan Clifford was saying Contemporary Northern Ireland “was the most democratic state on earth(!!!)”.*
    The Words “pot”,”kettle” “calling” and “black”
    spring to mind…

    * In the pamphlet “Against Ulster Nationalism”.

  15. Starkadder said,

    September 24, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Sorry, some clarification needed.I meant that
    the Andrew Gilcrest letter carrying Major
    McDowell’s “white nigger” comments had been written
    in 1969, and Lane and Clifford were making similiar
    racist comments about the southern Irish in the early seventies.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 24, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    I was just rereading Against Ulster Nationalism a little while ago. It’s like a lot of the old BICO stuff in that the politics are jawdroppingly awful, but there’s something about Clifford’s style of writing that I can’t help liking. Like the passage on the phenomenology of the SDLP mind. He’s a unique character, and I’m kind of glad he is.

  17. ejh said,

    September 25, 2007 at 6:57 am

    I thought that said “phrenology” for a moment….

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 25, 2007 at 9:07 am

    It would have been even better if it had been phrenology…

  19. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 25, 2007 at 11:31 am

    I don’t recall seeing NI described as ‘the most democratic state on earth’ in ‘Against Ulster Nationalism’. (My copy is on permanent loan to somebody, so I can’t check.) Wasn’t a central part of the B&ICO argument that NI was undemocratic because nobody there could vote for the parties that actually governed the (UK) state? They still have the same view, except it’s the Irish state rather than the British state they want NI to be part of!

    Maybe I was seduced by Clifford’s style, but I still think that pamphlet is one of the best polemics I’ve ever read.

  20. Starkadder said,

    September 25, 2007 at 11:43 am

    There were several editions of that pamphlet
    published; maybe the phrase was in a different
    Brendan Clifford has come a long way from the
    “Slieve Luachra” area of Ireland he grew up in.
    He is certainly erudite and a prolific publisher,
    but I can’t stomach the man’s arrogance. He reminds
    me of other authoritarian leftists like Gerry Healy and George Galloway.

  21. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 25, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    I had a coffee and a cigarette with him once, after hearing him at a seminar on Russia in the 20s, and anyone less like an authoritarian leftist leader would be hard to imagine.

    He recently described himself as a Jacobite from Slieve Luachra.

  22. ejh said,

    September 25, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I have no idea who the man is, so my opinions on the subject are probably not worth the time it takes to read them – but I once spent time in Arthur Scargill’s company and anyone less like an authoritarian leftist leader would have been hard for me to imagine. But he is, a bit, isn’t he?

  23. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 25, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    I know what you mean, but until I see some examples of Clifford’s authoritarian behaviour, I’m inclined to take his personality as it comes across in his writing as much as it did in my brief acquaintance.

  24. Starkadder said,

    September 25, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    I’ve never encountered Brendan Clifford either,
    so I couldn’t say what he is like to meet.
    But from his writings, he seems to have a huge ego (In the 1987
    pamphlet “Queens:A Comment on a University” he
    claimed “to know more about Irish history than
    anyone else”!).
    B.C’s wife Angela Clifford (formerly Angela Khalil, born in Palestine to Jewish parents)
    is another interesting character. She became known in the seventies for her works on feminism and gay rights, and as a translator of German Marxist works by people like Kautsky and Bernstein. Apparently she also used to be a Zionist,
    but now she is strongly against Israel.Bizarrely
    she also wrote a biography of anti-semitic Austrian politician Karl Lueger. I read a review
    somewhere said the biography was largely
    sympathetic to him. It’s like Diane Abbott producing a hagiography of Enoch Powell!

    If anyone’s interested, her family tree is
    The Aufrichtig Family Tree

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