Changing of the guard for Sinn Féin Eile


That’s what I get for not being prompt in reading RSF press releases, for Garibaldy has scooped me. All this is, is the announcement that at the upcoming Ard Fheis, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh will be stepping down from the party presidency. He will however be allowing his name to go forward for the Ard Chomhairle (there’s a safe bet if you want one) and will remain a patron of the party. One assumes he’ll be as active as he’s able.

Ruairí’s stated reasons are age and health, and I see no reason to doubt this. He’ll be turning 77 next week, and his health hasn’t been the greatest – at times it seems that sheer cussedness has been the main thing keeping him going. That, by itself, tells you something about a man whose total adherence to the principles of traditionalist republicanism has been his distinguishing political feature. And such is the case with the small party that’s largely been formed in his image.

I’ll be honest, I have a lot of time for Ruairí, not only despite considerable political differences but in some respects because of them. I’m not a Second Dáil legitimist, and my views on the current justifiability of armed struggle are quite some way removed from RSF thinking, but I can still see that there is something inherently attractive about traditionalist republicanism of a sort that Mac Piarais might have recognised, and something quite splendid about upholding the absolutist banner in very difficult times. And having remained true to that cause for well over half a century is not to be sniffed at. We’re talking here about someone with a remarkable history – if you haven’t already read Bob White’s excellent biography, you really should, and the man himself is always willing to cooperate with historians – and whose personal integrity has never been questioned, at least not by anyone without major question marks over his own integrity. You know, I felt much the same about the late Mick O’Riordan, Mick’s lifelong dedication to Joe Stalin notwithstanding.

The question will be what this means for RSF, and it’s sensible for the irreplaceable leader to manage a change in the leadership while he’s able. You have to consider in the first instance that, shortly after its formation in 1986, RSF adopted the perspective of the holding operation – they knew there was always going to be a market for traditionalist republicanism, and that if they could only hold the faithful nucleus together, then in the long run they could attract a new generation of the discontented. It worked for republicans in previous tough times, and there was no good reason to suspect it wouldn’t happen again.

But there was a very long barren period, and you can see this in stark physical terms if you ever happen upon an RSF commemoration. Usually, there will be a lot of old age pensioners and a lot of teenagers, and not many people in between. This creates a conundrum if you’re looking for a new party president, because I’m assuming that Ruairí is not going to be succeeded by someone of his own generation – indeed, some of the more elderly leadership figures might be considering their own positions. The problem is that, if you’re looking for someone between the ages of, say, 35 to 55, there aren’t many people who fall into that bracket, and many of those who are in place are the children of senior cadres – they may be able people in their own right, but this situation, together with leadership figures combining several jobs (as is to be expected in a small party) makes the organisation look a little bit nepotistic. Then again, republicanism has always been a family business.

All of which should make the next RSF Ard Fheis more interesting than usual. Not just in terms of who takes on the presidency, but if there’s a wider reshuffle at Ard Chomhairle level – there may be younger people emerging, and more northern-based people, in a leadership that’s tended to be rather elderly and western in its complexion.

Meanwhile, as the traditionalists manage their leadership transition, and the SDLP leadership is thrown wide open, Conor Murphy – often tipped as the next PSF president – was on today’s Politics Show averring that Gerry was going to be the leader for the foreseeable future, and he was very happy about that. It seems that in certain strands of republicanism, the African concept of the life presidency retains its attractions.

Keeping the Church out of politics, except where it’s expedient


If you’re doing the rounds of the second-hand bookshops and you come across Desmond Fennell’s Nice People and Rednecks, a collection of the great man’s Sunday Press columns from the 1980s, you could do worse than to pick it up. Des’ insights on Irish politics in the Age of Gubu haven’t aged all that badly, and some of them are strikingly relevant now.

Here’s Des writing circa 1983, apropos of a nakedly partisan campaign by Dublin liberals to pressure the Church into declaring membership of Sinn Féin to be sinful, including some aggressive media barracking of the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich:

For the past twenty years or so, since we opened the gates to consumer capitalism, there has been a sort of tacit pressure on the Catholic Church to make its teaching conform to the requirements of the secular power; and the Church has by and large collaborated. But this was the first occasion on which the demands of the secular power were expressed so openly, as if there were now a conscious intention to transform the Catholic Church in Ireland into something like the Anglican Church in England – a state church, a subordinate agency of public policy.

Gone are the days, if they ever really existed, when the secular power or liberals wanted churchmen to ‘keep out of politics’. Only some senile anti-clerical, or hillbilly Republican, would now be so naïve as to raise that slogan! During the past year and more, we have seen the frequent political interventions of the Protestant churches welcomed by the government and the media liberals with open arms, or rather, with awed prostrations. The Protestant churches have most acceptable views on the IRA/Sinn Féin, divorce, contraceptives, abortion, and so on. They want a secularist Ireland. The Taoiseach, the Labour Party, and the media liberals want the same; so naturally they are grateful when the Protestant churches call for secularism.

But the Catholic Church, too, is extremely welcome to intervene in politics, provided that it, too, says the right things. It has been active in condemning the IRA, while remaining silent about many related moral questions; and this has been appreciated. But now it must go further. It must say that divorce would not be a bad thing, and that it is sinful to be a member of Sinn Féin…

It would be something like the Italian Church, some years back, telling Italian Catholics it was immoral to support the Communist Party, or the Irish bishops, during the Civil War, excommunicating the Republicans. Or again, to take a fair analogy, it would be as if the Church, in the late 1920s or early ’30s, had declared it a sin to be a member of Fianna Fáil – for Fianna Fáil, and its leader de Valera, seemed every bit as impious to respectable Ireland in those days as Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams do now. Strange that the self-same people who tell us we have moved far from the bad old days when it was thinkable for the Church to do that sort of thing, should be urging that the Church do precisely that sort of thing now.

Well, Des has always been good at skewering the strange phenomenology of the Dublin liberal mind. But let’s leave behind the Ireland of FitzGerald and return to the Ireland of Cowen. Specifically, we have the Lisbon II referendum coming up in a matter of days. What brought Des’ old piece to mind was that, both prior to and following the defeat of Lisbon I, there were a lot of recriminations going around, and the Catholic Church was not missed out. I direct readers to this discussion during the campaign at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. Of particular interest is the intervention of Labour’s Joe Costello:

The media, and RTE in particular, are providing imbalanced coverage. The Labour Party launched its campaign on Sunday, subsequent to which Sinn Féin spokesperson, Ms Mary Lou McDonald, MEP, was interviewed and countered every argument put by the Labour Party. Yesterday Fianna Fáil launched its campaign and, again, Ms McDonald was allowed to make her criticisms. That is not balance, it is imbalance. A party with four Deputies is allowed to speak every time coverage is given to parties representing 180 Members. Surely it is time RTE considered the way in which it provides balanced coverage.

I love that because of the way Joe identifies “balance” with “reflecting the Leinster House consensus”, which is precisely the attitude that pisses people off, especially on the Europe issue. But immediately before that Joe stated:

Alive has some connection in that it is published by a religious order, the Dominicans in Tallaght, although I am not sure of the extent to which it has that order’s imprimatur. The literature is entirely politicised and one-sided. It is not religious. As I remarked at our last meeting, I picked up copies of Libertas literature in the Pro-Cathedral. Church leaders need to examine the literature being distributed within churches. The danger arises that ordinary church-goers will accept without question that the information is accurate and has the support of the church leadership.

Joe is here referring to the rambunctious little Catholic tabloid Alive!, which has been vociferously anti-Lisbon. Then and now, other elected representatives have expressed themselves along similar lines – demanding that the Catholic authorities take tough action against anti-Lisbon activism within the Church, or that the bishops should come out strongly in favour of Lisbon. This is precisely the sort of thing Des was talking about all those years ago. It’s not that the bishops shouldn’t intervene in politics, but that they should intervene on the right side.

Actually, on this issue, the transnational progressivists have little to fear from the institutional Church. The thing you have to realise in sociological terms is that, while the Catholic bishops are intimately linked to the Irish establishment, they’re also state bureaucrats – only not appointed by the Irish state but by the Vatican state. As a result, they toe the Vatican line on Europe as on other issues. And the Vatican line on the EU is cautiously positive – as enunciated by Pope Benny, and by JP2 before him, the Vatican has tended to view European integration as a great thing for world peace, while having reservations about the actually existing EU, particularly the untrammelled capitalism bit of it.

This is not an anti-EU stance by any means, but it’s a long way removed from the uncritical cargo-cult Europhilia of most of the Irish political-media-business strata. It means that, if you stick a microphone in front of a bishop, he’ll mumble something positive about Lisbon, but it’s not like the Catholic Church is going to come out and campaign for a Yes vote.

On the other hand, they do like to keep their hand in with the politicos. Most readers of this blog are probably not regular readers of the Irish Catholic, but that organ has been worth watching of late as it’s been doing a fair bit of the government’s job for it. For one thing, it’s been reassuring its readers that Lisbon will in no way put a question mark over Irish abortion laws. For another, it’s been lining up senior clergymen to get stuck into Cóir with gay abandon. In fact, bearing in mind all the republicans, communists and wife-swapping sodomites in the No camp, it’s striking that the Church honchos are more concerned about Cóir. Possibly the hierarchy are working on the theory that Irish political radicalism is pretty much on a Mickey Mouse level and doesn’t pose a realistic threat to the Church – after all, this is a country where most atheists won’t even admit they’re atheists but just join the Church of Ireland. A group of headbanging Catholic ultras, on the other hand, do represent a challenge to the hierarchy on their own turf, even if a numerically small challenge.

Perhaps this is something that we need to take into consideration. There’s a lazy mode of thought on the Irish left that assumes a community of interest, or at least a community of sentiment, between the institutional Church and whatever ultra tendencies pop up at the grassroots. But it ain’t necessarily so. Back when the Hibernian was a going concern, what immediately jumped out from its pages was its antagonism towards the institutional Church, and its frequent excoriations of the “useless” Irish bishops. In fact, these Catholic ultras were as uncompromising in their anti-clericalism as any member of the Irish Humanist Association – just anti-clerical in a different way.

Which calls into question the whole concept of “clericalism” as applied to these tendencies, although there isn’t an alternative descriptor readily to hand. As for secular liberals wanting the bishops to speak out in support of their favoured policies, well, here’s Des again:

The whole affair – which is really about party politics and pretends to be about morality – reeks of the most loathsome hypocrisy.

Yes it does.

Bananaman goes to the United Nations


Well, the news today has been led by Iran. At the Pittsburgh G20 summit, we’ve had Irish-American leader Fionnbarra “Barack” O’Bama, with Brown on one side of him and Sarko on the other, indulging in some serious sabre-rattling. Taken alongside Netanyahu’s apocalyptic tubthumping at the UN, it’s all horribly reminiscent of the runup to the Iraq war, and I’m just waiting for the sexed-up dossier proving that not only has Iran nukes, but it could launch them at Britain in 45 minutes. A few thoughts occur. One is to wonder if the Russians have ratted out the Iranians as a quid pro quo for not having a deployment of US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Another is to wonder how this is going down with those two well-known allies of democracy, the pro-Iranian government of Iraq and the pro-Iranian government of Afghanistan. Finally, it strikes me that this is probably not a good time for Ahmadinejad to start winding the Jews up with his hilarious stand-up routine on the Holocaust.

There are some pertinent thoughts on Iran from Commander Huber, but there’s something about the visuals of first the UN General Assembly and then the G20 that’s struck me. If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, currently the Catholic Church is touring the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux around Britain. The holy remains were just in Liverpool, where 15,000 people turned out for the event. What struck me was the slightly disrespectful, almost sniggering tone on some of the BBC coverage. I should make it clear that praying over saints’ remains is not my thing, but there was an odd little disconnect between the Life of Brian treatment being given to the plebs in Liverpool, and the high diplomacy in the States.

Firstly, there was O’Bama’s failure to have sufficient face time with Gordon Brown at the UN. The British press pack went buck mad over this, which may have something to do with a herd mentality when it comes to Brown’s woes, but there’s also the aspect that Chris flagged up:

The papers report that Brown’s requests to meet Barack Obama one-to-one have been rebuffed. What they don’t answer is the question: what was the policy issue that Brown believed could be solved only by facetime, rather than by the sort of emails and phone calls that occur all the time between Downing Street and the White House?

They don’t answer this because there was no such issue.Brown wants a one-on-one with Obama not because it’s necessary for policy purposes, but because it’s a legitimation ritual. A meeting would send the signal: “I’m a global statesman, not a mere politician like Cameron or Osborne; I’m addressing big global issues.”

The same is, of course, true of the upcoming G20 summit. All the substantive business this does – insofar as there is any – can be, and has been, done behind the scenes. The facetime, and the photo opportunities, are ceremonies intended to elevate the individual politicians in their own, and voters’ minds…

Rituals such as G20 summits, and “bilaterials”, are part of the effort to win this allegiance, to shore up a mystique of high office.

Mystique is not wrong, but it’s not merely a question of Brown gaining prestige by his proximity to the Emperor. This is one of those areas where diplomatic ritual comes to resemble a ritual of another sort. Maybe you saw David Miliband pushing his way through the throng, so as to thrust his hand at a somewhat bemused O’Bama, who hesitantly took the proffered hand while seemingly being unsure of exactly who Millipede was. You know what it reminded me of? Supplicants in ancient Rome seeking to touch the hem of the Emperor’s toga.

Perhaps even miraculous cures will start being reported from those who have shaken the hand of the New Messiah. So, in place of Catholic superstition we have something rather reminiscent of Roman superstition. The folks involved in the latter, of course, all like to think of themselves as modern and progressive, but that don’t sound much like progress to me.

Durko contemplates end of road


The South Down and Londonderry Party are dead men walking. The poor fuckers just don’t know it yet.

Although I suspect Mark Durkan might have an inkling. It’s the only interpretation I can put on Durko’s decision, at the ripe old age of 49, to announce he’s standing down from the party leadership some time next year. And the manner of his doing so raises some questions in itself.

Firstly, Durko has said that his top priority is to defend his Foyle constituency at the Westminster election. Although he’s an effective MP, this may not be a foregone conclusion, and I suspect Martina Anderson will give him a run for his money. The SDLP should have learnt by now to be wary of setting up Battles of Stalingrad in advance – Bríd Rodgers’ run in West Tyrone in 2001 was supposed to be the SDLP’s Stalingrad, only it turned out to be more like the Charge of the Light Brigade – but there’s no doubt that losing Derry, even by a whisker, would be a psychological blow from which the SDLP would find it difficult to recover.

Actually, the next Westminster election looks like being pretty hairy all round for the SDLP. Alasdair McDonnell’s position in South Belfast is shaky in the extreme, being dependent on a) his ability to put a serious squeeze on Alex Maskey and b) a fairly even split in the unionist vote – if either the DUP or UCUNF candidates pulls decisively ahead of the other, Alasdair is toast. In South Down, things are unpredictable: Eddie McGrady still hasn’t indicated whether he’ll stand again (he’s almost as old as Big Ian, but the Dochtúir Mór seems to fancy another run in North Antrim), and Caitríona Ruane is not the hot prospect she looked before becoming education minister. In the five Shinner-held seats, the SDLP are so far behind they may as well not bother. So some fairly marginal considerations could determine whether the SDLP come out of it with three seats or none.

No, I think Durko, who’s a fairly likeable, intelligent and capable guy, has seen the writing on the wall. He may have been John Hume’s anointed successor, but St John left him with a party in what may be politely termed a shambles – to the extent that it’s a party at all.

There are two issues here, the organisational and the sociological. Organisationally speaking, the SDLP was always defined by local fiefdoms. It was thus in the days of Gerry Fitt, who managed to con the London media into thinking he was some great socialist, but whose base in West Belfast was maintained by a potent mixture of parish-pump clientelism, widespread electoral fraud and, when the occasion warranted it, strident sectarian tubthumping – Gerry’s “organisation” basically consisted of his indefatigable wife Anne. In the rural areas, the SDLP organisation followed a predictable pattern. In a given area, you’d have a local worthy – perhaps a doctor, solicitor or head teacher – who would have done something in the civil rights movement and had been dining out on it ever since. He would have enough standing in his area to get elected onto the council on name recognition alone, but wouldn’t bother his arse building a branch. In fact, building a branch would be regarded with suspicion as possibly building up a rival. The “branch” would thus consist of a handful of his friends and family who would knock on doors at election time.

So you have a situation where Alasdair McDonnell gets a big vote out of Malone and Stranmillis, but it’s almost impossible to get anyone in South Belfast to join the SDLP – the party seems to barely exist in the area outside elections, despite Alasdair claiming enough in Westminster and Stormont allowances to employ a small army of workers. No, the party coasted along for many years on its local personalities, on the high public regard for St John Hume, and above all, on being the default option for nationalists who wanted a non-violent option on the ballot paper. The retirement of the big names and the increased respectability of the Provos has knocked the feet out from under them, and it’s no surprise that they are increasingly confined to Derry and South Down, the two areas where they did have a machine, and some middle-class ghettos in Greater Belfast.

(We may parenthetically note that the party’s 20-year control of Queens Students Union – which is as weird, in British terms, as UKIP controlling a students union – drew on the default option, as republican activism was banned and so the Catholic majority would vote for whatever Catholic candidate was available. Whatever about their ruthless use of incumbency advantage and patronage, once republicans were legalised the numerically small SDLP couldn’t hang on for long.)

But if we turn to the sociological aspect, there’s obviously a gap in the market for a Catholic party that isn’t called Sinn Féin. Even in the Republic of West Belfast, there are layers of people – often middle class, yes, but also located in the more respectable end of the working class – who would be boiled in oil before they’d vote Provo. But these layers are relatively middle-aged and elderly – those under 30, if they vote at all, only vote for one party – and are thoroughly demoralised. Between 1996 and 2007, the SDLP vote in West Belfast plummeted from 11,087 to 4,110 while the PSF vote stayed relatively stable in absolute terms, only rising from 22,355 to 23,631. But when you consider that in this period PSF went from 53% to 70% in that constituency, and the SDLP declined from 26% to 12%, you have to factor in whose supporters are turning out and whose aren’t. To be brutal, you wouldn’t bother voting for Alex Attwood unless you’re a political masochist, and if you’re a real political masochist you may as well vote for John Lowry.

So there is a gap in the market, but it isn’t obvious who’s going to fill that gap. Honestly, it may as well be Fianna Fáil. In this context, ideology is not nearly as important as class, and having a leader who’ll play well with the professional classes. Actually, I’ve never believed that ideology really played much of a role in the SDLP anyway, despite the much-touted divisions between the party’s nationalist and social democratic wings. Denis Haughey was Hume’s aide in Strasbourg and a great advocate of post-nationalist European social democracy, but his 1992 election campaign in Mid-Ulster was still one of the most nakedly sectarian campaigns I’ve ever seen. John Hume Thought is not irrelevant, especially when it comes to SDLP members’ self-image, but it’s never been an ideological party.

And this is what’s going to come into play when the party chooses its new leader. (We may note that Durko’s announcement included his intention to step down from the Assembly so as to end double jobbing. This might spike the guns of the multi-jobbing deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell, who manages to combine Westminster, Stormont and his medical practice.) You’re getting names touted about like John Dallat or Margaret Ritchie or Allbran Maginness, all of whom are able enough people, but you’d be sorely pressed to find any serious political issues at stake, either on a higher ideological level or in terms of the peace process. No, what’s going to come into play is whether anyone has any ideas about burnishing the tired SDLP brand and making it appealing again.

And if all else fails, Mark Durkan might figure that, Derry people’s legendary unwillingness to leave their city notwithstanding, he could do something on a broader stage. You never know, there may be a vacancy for the Fianna Fáil leadership…

More on this from 1967.

Kathoey fever to hit Belfast


Here’s something I almost missed, although there’s not a fierce lot you can say about it:

They may look like a group of gorgeous girls — but everything is not as it seems.

Dressed in sequinned hotpants and scarlet red crop tops, these lovely ladies could be the next Girls Aloud or Pussycat Dolls.

But on closer inspection — much closer inspection — these women are actually men.

And the Lady Boys of Bangkok are heading to Northern Ireland for the first time, with their sensational Mile High Tour.

Billed as a ‘glamorous cocktail of cabaret, dance and comedy’, the flamboyant show will be performed in the Spiegeltent at Custom House Square twice nightly for a fortnight from November 7 to 21.

Demand is exected to be high for tickets to the top-selling show.

And why not? I expect, of course, that the Free Presbyterians will be out protesting against this abomination, just as they did the last time Jesus Christ Superstar was in town. But actually, the Bangkok Lady Boys should find a receptive audience in Norn Iron. After all, we as a culture have grown up with the idea of James Young in drag as family entertainment, and every year respectable folks turn out in their droves to see May McFettridge in panto.

What’s different about a high-camp show from Thai kathoeys? Well, they may be easier on the eye than we’re used to. But the good folks of Belfast are not exactly in a position to give off about anyone in exotic dress.

But I do look forward to hearing Iris Robinson’s take on the event.

Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution


Last night, I did something that in years past I would have thought twice about, maybe three times, then thought better of. I went into an enclosed space with a lot of Sticks.

The occasion for this was the Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. Many readers will already be beating their way through their copies, and having nearly finished the book, I can well recommend it. I’ll get back to the book and the questions it raises at greater length, but just a few comments on the launch itself.

A good wee crowd in Queens Bookshop for it, and many copies being shifted. A lot of familiar faces, some of whom I couldn’t put names to, some that I hadn’t seen in years and who were looking noticeably greyer. It was the sort of event where you nod at someone in passing and then you think “Jesus! That was X! I wondered what had happened to him!” What was encouraging to me was the diversity – lots of people were either members or former members of the WP, but there were people there with backgrounds in just about all the republican groups, some of which would have clashed violently with the Officials in years gone by. And a rather hale Brian Feeney, who used to be one of the WP’s most rambunctious critics, caught my eye.

There was an element, then, of an old-timers’ reunion, but it wasn’t all like that. There were quite a few people there below pensionable age, and even some young folks. I’m not sure whether they were students, or people interested in what their parents used to do, but it did at least mean it wasn’t an entirely “the socialists will be seventy” affair.

Richard English gave the introduction, ably plugging the book. He remarked, and this would be a bit of a running theme, that the Official Republicans had been poorly served by history, not only by their factional opponents but also by their friends and supporters, and how important it was to give an account of them that recorded the facts and did so in an unpartisan way. He also flagged up the heavy use of interviews to capture the flavour of the period, and read out some pithy quotations to emphasise that even amongst all the grimness of the story, there was a lot of grit and even humour to be found.

Richard also talked about how, although the Officials hadn’t achieved what they set out to achieve, their interventions in Irish politics were important nonetheless. And he returned to something that was a little predictable from his own discussions of republicanism, that the departures of the Officials – the renunciation of armed struggle and the engagement with unionism specifically – were ahead of their time, and others had since followed in that path. I don’t entirely buy that, because it decontextualises the development of two very different processes. But it’s not irrelevant in that it’s also the WP’s understanding of its own history, as in Mac Giolla’s famous quote that “we were right too early; Adams is right too late; and Ó Brádaigh will never be right.”

Brian Hanley then took the stage, looking very much like the academic he now is. Brian spoke generally on the importance of telling this story, and about the work that had gone into the book. He especially talked about all those interviews, and paid tribute to the people who had welcomed him and Scott into their homes and relived often painful memories, on the basis that this was a story that needed to be told. He also spoke about his initial scepticism that this was a book that could be written, and the challenge of doing so since he and Scott had disagreed on just about everything. But he was proud of their achievement, and I think rightly so.

Finally, Scott Millar, who I didn’t know at all, spoke, and gave a very interesting little talk revolving around a number of themes. Firstly, he talked about how, as a young man in Dublin, the influence of the Workers Party had been pervasive, and he had canvassed for Proinsias de Rossa. (Perhaps, he quipped, not something that would be universally popular with his audience.) The WP had in its time played a very significant role in Irish politics, and on many issues been ahead of its time, but hadn’t got its due in historical writing, much of which, where Official Republicanism was concerned, was just mired in polemic either for or against.

Scott also remarked on the decision to be up front about the party’s unorthodox methods of fundraising. To be fair, I don’t see how a historical treatment of the Workers Party, unless it was an in-house hagiography, could avoid mention the various enterprises that Group B was involved in. Yet, as Scott pointed out, whatever you thought of Fenian and Bolshevik methods of fundraising, as employed by the Officials, it was remarkable that this was the first history of an Irish political movement to give such prominence to the money question. Left republicans had made waves forty years ago by attacking Taca, the then fundraising arm of Fianna Fáil; had accounts of FF paid more attention to the money men, the Irish taxpayer might not now be having to bail out the successors of Taca.

Finally, Scott mentioned something I’ve noticed about the book myself and heard said, that it’s a narrative history but light on the analysis. As per Scott, it was a deliberate decision not to build a big analytical structure, but rather to let events speak for themselves and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. I can see that, in that it’s a work for the general reader, whereas Seán Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-1972 is a book for the specialist; I can also see that the authors of a polemical work might not have got the extraordinary access that provides such a huge part of the book’s material. But Scott also remarked, and it was nice to hear this, that left republicanism was not the property of a single party or organisation, and he emphasised the broad spectrum of people for whom the thought of Wolfe Tone was still relevant. A polemical work, one which sought to either claim the Official tradition as the sole repository of true republicanism or simply to dismiss it as an alien Stalinist aberration in Irish politics (and we’ve seen writings along these lines) wouldn’t serve much purpose to those who want to gain a rounded understanding, the better to inform ourselves for the future.

So, that was well worth going to. WorldbyStorm has already written up on the Dublin launch, and some more thoughts on the book itself will be forthcoming presently.

Entering the charts, and a wee dander around the blogosphere


This past week Norn Iron’s funniest blogger hit the big time, having been given a platform in the Belfast Telegraph. No, not your humble host, but Professor Billy McWilliams, founder of the wonderful 1690 An’ All Thon, who was spakein’ his mine about issues of concern to the Ulster Scot, and outlining a programme of action for new Stormount culture heid-yin Nelson McCausland. (Here I must take issue with dodgy translation in the Tele’s headline. Nelson is the minister for culture, but he is not the culchie minister. It’s Michelle Gildernew who has ministerial responsibility for culchies.) Anyway, thon was deadly crack. More please.

On a related note, I don’t often blow my own trumpet here, but it’s the time of year when inventor of blogging Iain Dale publishes his chart of the most popular blogs in the “UK”. Obviously this is just a bit of fun and completely unscientific – and, with several hundred blogs in the field and around 1500 voters, you don’t need to be enormously popular to appear on at least one chart – but, nonetheless, you get a nice warm feeling when you make an appearance. This blog was enormously gratified to be voted the 52nd most popular left-of-centre blog, beating Norman Geras (Yo! Fuck you, Norm!); utterly flabbergasted at, thanks to Iain’s eccentric taxonomy, being named 27th most popular Labour blog (some other folks were equally surprised at being on that list); and surprised at only placing one lower than Melanie Phillips on the big list. Aw, shucks.

Apropos of this, Andy has some thoughts about the pro-Labour blogosphere that are worth a look, but here’s my Kent Brockman. Quite apart from the indignity of finding oneself on lists with well-known leftwingers like Tom Harris and Alistair Campbell, not to mention Draper’s brainchild LabourList (one notes the predominance of Westminster village people at the top of the various charts, which may be a commentary on the Total Politics readership), I want to return to this long-running trope of Iain’s that it’s the right that sets the pace for political blogging in Britain, while the left trails far behind. I don’t actually think Iain is entirely wrong – the strongest part of his case is that loyalty to the New Labour government has had a stupefying influence on specifically Labour Party-centric blogging (but, I would argue, not on those many readable Labourites who are either indifferent or hostile to the New Labour project, or have a wider variety of interests), though this is changing as Labour discipline has broken down. It remains to be seen whether a Cameron government would have the same bromide effect on the Tory blogosphere, with the possibility of Labour blogs picking up as they have a target to get their teeth into.

Otherwise, I think Iain’s comparing apples with oranges. Let’s leave aside his tendency to view “the left” and “Labour” as more or less coterminous, which misses out the vital left blogging done by people outwith the Labour Party – as the chart is no longer picked by a select few, that’s been correcting itself and it’s been diversifying a fair wee bit. But there are also important structural differences between the left and the right. It’s been noted ad nauseam that the Tories have the two superstar bloggers, Iain and Guido, who enjoy a lot of media traction and can set the tone for lots of smaller Tory blogs; there’s also the existence of Conservative Home as a hub for those who identify specifically with the Tory Party. The rise of Liberal Conspiracy notwithstanding, the left-of-centre blogosphere is much more pluricentric, which I think is unambiguously a good thing, in a Thousand Flowers sense. I enjoy reading Dave Osler, but that’s not to say I’d like to see a situation where Dave was as dominant on the left as Iain Dale is on the right.

On the other hand, the right-of-centre blogs tend to do better on Wikio or Technorati because authority on those sites is based on linkage, and rightwing blogs link to each other quite promiscuously. By way of contrast, many of the most prominent left blogs either ostentatiously ignore each other or maintain a state of glowering hostility. This says something about left political culture that I’m not sure reflects well on us, and makes it a bit implausible if we talk – as we sometimes do – of having a shared space for discussion. And that’s without even mentioning the virtual shouting matches that go on in the comments threads. The most prominent blogging representative of one British far-left group has taken to issuing alcohol-fuelled proclamations about which of his online antagonists he’s going to have executed in the unlikely event of his group taking power – an extreme case maybe, but the further left in particular often has a level of discourse that verges on hate speech, where anyone who differs from The Line even slightly is a class enemy who needs to be smashed. Bear in mind that blogs like Socialist Unity or Lenin’s Tomb are rather widely read in the labour movement – how does this reflect on the left’s image?

The polemic problem arises because the sort of invective that used to be contained in tiny-circulation left publications is now available to anyone with an internet connection. And that’s not the only way that the new media challenge us. Just about all MSM outlets now expect at least some of their journalists to blog, but there are an embarrassing number of dead-tree journos who don’t seem to get what blogging is about, apart from an opportunity to share their surplus word count with the public. To get away with that, your surplus word count needs to be of a certain quality – one of the reasons why Stephanomics is so unmissable on the BBC site is that Stephanie gets to go into quite technical economic issues that aren’t easily translated into a three-minute spot on the TV news. But it’s the dialogic aspect that’s a challenge to your professional journalist – it might be invidious to single anyone out, but I immediately think of Nick Cohen and Martin Bright, who are both in the habit of deleting even mildly critical comments and only responding to sycophantic comments. By contrast, an example of good practice is Peter Hitchens, who actually reads his comments box and takes some trouble to respond, often in excruciating detail, to his interlocutors. But Peter has ideas, wants to proselytise for those ideas, and has the confidence of the ideas man that the comments box is your friend, even when it’s hostile.

Bringing this back to the political, I’d like to note a rare tactically astute move on the part of the Labour Party in appointing Bristol MP Kerry McCarthy as the party’s Twitter Tsar. This is a smart move, not only because Kerry is a prolific blogger and tweeter, but because she’s one of the few online politicians who seems to have grasped how you work with the new media, by a willingness to be unvarnished and by embracing the interactivity. The latter bit is important. There was an interesting segment on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour some weeks back, on the decline of the public meeting, where politicians would go and address a crowd of often rowdy punters, thus developing important skills in improvised speaking and in dealing with hecklers. The last forty years or so of TV-dominated politics have virtually killed off the old-fashioned public meeting, and the meetings “Dave” Cameron and Nick Clegg have been having with tiny audiences of floating voters in target constituencies are a poor substitute. But online communication has the immediacy, rowdiness and unpredictability of the public meeting (though lacking the face-to-face aspect) and so has some democratising potential.

This is something the further left will have to consider carefully. Take Lenin’s Tomb, the Socialist Workers Party’s unofficial official blog. The Tomb accounts for a huge proportion of the SWP’s published output – maybe over a half of the party’s word count, if Richard is having an especially prolix week – and certainly has a much wider readership than the print Socialist Worker. Now, the SWP leadership are not as technophobic as they were back in the days when Alex Callinicos was proclaiming that anyone who worked with a VDU was middle class and that the internet was inherently elitist and anti-worker, but it still blows hot and cold on its most important online shop window. While non-SWP people sometimes complain that the Tomb hoves too close to the old Pravda letters page format, there are quite a few people in the party who find it much too anarchistic and freewheeling. If the party leadership were really smart, they would adopt the Sainsbury’s strategy. You know the way that, when Jamie Oliver lit into Sainsbury’s over its chickens, there was speculation that he would be dropped from their ad campaign? I never believed that, because a Jamie who’s willing to occasionally bite the hand that feeds him is a more credible spokesman than a transparently mercenary Jamie. The SWP know on some level that allowing party members to think for themselves, even if it means them going off-message once in a while, reflects well on the party – better at any rate than turning every tiny issue into a test of loyalty. They’ve been willing to follow this approach with such as Paul Foot and Eamonn McCann, but very reluctant to extend it to mere mortals.

Well, that’s just a bit of an unstructured ramble around the issue. But I do think there’s an important point at the centre of this – the new media offer great opportunities, but also require us to develop new skills and habits. This may be difficult for those who continue to regard Lenin’s Iskra as the cutting edge of propaganda. But as the media shift online, I think we’ll see new people emerging organically, while some masters of the old formats fail to adapt and fall by the wayside, in a manner that would gladden the heart of Professor Dawkins. And the left, while it may love its traditions, is no more able to defy natural selection than anybody else. Selah.

Gail Walker Watch: Elton John in “may be homosexual” shock


This week Gail’s doing local politics, and getting stuck into Ian Parsley with surprising vim. I say surprising, because Gail’s Tory shtick and her oft-expressed disdain for the Alliance Party might have misled some readers into expecting that she might have been pleased about young Parsley’s defection. Not so. She starts off with

Perhaps more than most places we in Northen Ireland don’t like turncoats.

In some ways, it is a deplorable trait, displaying the most stubborn, blinkered and vengeful aspects of our character.

and goes downhill from there. Note Gail’s ability to accuse others of being “stubborn, blinkered and vengeful” without blushing. We have fulminations about how Parsley had betrayed his electors, betrayed the party that made him a rising star and turned his back on his pro-European credentials. (One would have thought Gail would appreciate the latter, but she doesn’t let logic or consistency get in her way when on a roll.) And, bathetically, we have the strident demand that Parsley should force a by-election at a cost of £30,000 to the North Down ratepayers.

We do not hear a similar demand that George Ennis and Terry Williams, who were elected by the people of Ards as loyal Paisleyites but have now joined Jim Allister’s Provisional DUP, should follow suit. Perhaps Gail hasn’t noticed. Nor do I recall her making such demands on turncoats Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster. Maybe that was a totally different situation. Or perhaps she just doesn’t like the cut of Parsley’s jib. She’s rarely happier than when in aren’tchasickofhim mode.

But this is all by the by. What’s caught my eye is that Gail is sounding off about Elton John wanting to adopt this wee Ukrainian boy. Gail has previous on this issue, having vocally defended the right of her hero Madonna to adopt as many Malawian children as she wants. So, what does our intrepid columnist make of the Elton situation? Apart, that is, from mentioning Madonna no less than four times in a small sidebar supposedly devoted to Elton John?

No doubt we’ll get some lectures in the press about exploitation and sorrowful thought pieces about the children left behind.

From whom? Gail does not inform us. I fear she is again doing battle with the nasty liberalses in her head.

But, as with Madonna, Sir Elton will find a way through the guff, if to adopt this little boy is what he genuinely wants to do.

Guff, you see. Those nasty liberalses who annoy Gail, they don’t actually have points of view that might be worth considering, if only to disagree with them. It’s all just guff.

It’ll be interesting to see though, if his Britishness is a protection against the more savage invective levelled against Madge by some well-known chidren’s charities, for instance.

The liberalses, they just want to slag off Americans, you see. Nobody could possibly have any other objection to an extremely wealthy white woman blowing around Africa, picking up attractive toddlers as she goes, and using her money and influence to circumvent local law. No, even to suggest that would be anti-American.

Even more, if his being gay will deter some of his potential critics in a way that Madonna’s adoptions didn’t.


It’s an added complication for the salad-munchers. They’ll probably not bother, pretending it’s not happening.

I am not familiar with this term “salad-muncher”. It sounds vaguely like a homophobic slur, but is probably just a Gail coinage to describe people she disagrees with.

Meanwhile, let’s hope that little Lev – now he’s been outed in the papers, and photographed with the real Queen of England – gets to spend his formative years with someone destined to be a great dad.

“Outed”? “Queen”? You know, I never realised Elton John was gay… No, I get it now. Ooh, my aching sides.

God knows, Gail has never taken this blog’s advice in the past, but if you’re going to do gay jokes in your columns, it might help if you’re not an outspoken defender of Iris Robinson. I’m just saying.

Prodiban insurgency spreads to new province


Another day, another two defections. This time, we’re talking about the Traditional Unionist Voice, which has been steadily picking off DUP councillors. And so it is that two councillors in Ards, George Ennis and Terry Williams, have proclaimed their allegiance to the Prodiban insurgency. By my maths, this brings to around eleven the former DUP councillors who have crossed over to the TUV. The main group of these have been up Ballymena way, with a scattering of single councillors elsewhere, but Ards is virgin territory. Not surprisingly, Sunny Jim is cock-a-hoop.

Local DUP honcho and Ulster Scots aficionado Jim Shannon has been downplaying the news, and to be scrupulously fair to them, this wasn’t entirely unexpected. Both councillors quit the DUP a couple of years back, with George Ennis having run unsuccessfully as a Stormont candidate for the United Kingdom Unionist Robert McCartney Party. (What is it about unionists and shocking party names?) Nonetheless, the two represent something of a catch for the TUV, both of them having served as mayor of Ards and George being a former MLA. And if you take them alongside Charlie Tosh in Castlereagh (though Charlie has since fallen out with Sunny Jim), if the DUP doesn’t look out, the TUV in the Strangford constituency might get the appearance of momentum behind it.

And that in itself should give Robbo pause for thought. Nobody foresaw Allister’s performance in the European election. Peter Robinson estimated he might get 30,000 or thereabouts, when he ended up accruing twice that. The reason, I think, is that the TUV drew its support from the kind of people who the media don’t usually talk to, and who tend to be a bit guarded even when you do talk to them. You know who I mean. The dour Presbyterians of North Antrim and East Derry. The jittery, paranoid border Prods. The fundamentalists whose objections to Papists in government are as much theologically as politically grounded. In other words, the rural section of the traditional DUP base.

The Strangford constituency (Iris Robinson prop.) is a different kettle of fish. It’s got a big rural section, but it also shades into East Belfast. The rural Paisleyites never really took Robbo to heart, and he may be resigned to trouble in Ballymena, but the TUV establishing a base in Ards is just a little too close for comfort. And the more the DUP has to look over its collective shoulder, the more stresses and strains will be put on the New Dispensation. It’s in this context, I think, that we should see Robbo’s floating of a voluntary coalition with weighted majority voting. He will be hoping to defuse the unrest on his right flank by dangling the prospect of an Executive without Provos. The question is, are those who are moving to the Prodiban inclined to believe a word he says these days?

Hat tip: Turgon.

Peelers plead poverty


Let’s take a brief look at the peelers today. First, there’s been this big kick-up about the Sped scheme. For the uninitiated, Sped stands for Special Purchase of Evacuated Dwellings, and is a scheme whereby people who have been intimidated out of their homes have these homes bought by the government, and are then given the money to resettle. It’s a very Norn Iron scheme in that it does fulfil a useful function for people in dire straits, but it’s also wide open to scamming. It was well known during the Troubles that some RUC officers would quite cynically apply for rehousing money to boost them up the property ladder.

Anyway, it seems that around seventy people have been waiting in limbo to be rehoused, because several months ago the Sped kitty ran dry. This must have been known about, at least in the Department for Social Development, but nobody seems to have regarded this as a matter requiring attention. That was until this last week, when it became apparent that there was a cop on the rehousing list, who was having a hard time of it while waiting to be rehoused. All of a sudden, social development minister Margaret Ritchie and finance minister Sammy Wilson were falling over themselves to get the fund replenished. Well, if that’s what it takes to get things moving…

Elsewhere, the invaluable Newton Emerson was taking on the subject of the enormous police budget. The peelers are currently putting on the poor mouth as a result of having to make savings of £17 million out of their £1.2 billion annual funding. A few highlights from Newt’s deconstruction:

The PSNI feels aggrieved because it is already cutting long-term spending at the Treasury’s request.

Nevertheless, an organisation of this size that cannot save another 1.4 per cent has its wire stretched pretty thinly indeed.

To see how stretched, you need to examine the PSNI’s annual report…

It includes such budget items as £30m for compensation and injury awards, £11 million for “agency services (other)” and £15.8m for “supplies, catering and publications”.

Essex Police claims to have saved £11 million in a year through tackling trivial expenditure, leading to The Daily Mail headline ‘Police force puts 239 new officers on the beat by cutting down on tea and biscuits’.

Perhaps similar parsimony would yield similar results here. But the PSNI believes it is cutting down on the tea and biscuits quite enough already…

Overtime and the size of the full-time reserve have been cut by a third in the past three years and hiring new community police support officers has been postponed for the next three years but pay and pension levels are seemingly sacrosanct. In fact, the PSNI is still budgeting for annual rises of 2.5 per cent for officers and 4 per cent for civilian staff. Why are even modest cuts in police pay so completely out of the question? Inflation is now zero and wages have outpaced inflation for years.

With nearly 10,000 applicants for 440 posts this year, meeting all the Patten requirements for improved representation, there is no issue with attracting recruits.

A 3.2 per cent across the board cut would save £17m, protect jobs and services and leave everyone no worse off than they were in 2007.

There is no need to impose even this slight reduction on rank-and-file officers and civilian staff. A cut could be skewed heavily towards senior management, who are absurdly overpaid.

The chief constable makes £184,000 a year, or half as much again as the secretary general of the United Nations. This does not include a house, car, pension and expenses. Dozens of other uniformed and civilian PSNI managers earn six-figure sums. This week The Belfast Telegraph uncovered details of an additional £100,000 bonus scheme for the PSNI’s eight most senior staff. Information on further bonus schemes is being withheld under the increasingly useful Data Protection Act. There is no evidence whatsoever that these schemes are required to attract or retain qualified people.

Amen to that. Actually, given the fact that only a 1.4% cut in total expenditure is being asked for, you wouldn’t even need to cut headline pay – a slightly more parsimonious line on compo and overtime would do the trick. But then, the Norn Iron cops wouldn’t know parsimony if it was handed to them on a china plate with tartare sauce. And there’s a big section of our political spectrum which believes the peelers should get whatever resources they ask for.

Finally, there’s the ongoing row about the closure of stations. I’m not going to get into the trouble in Short Strand that followed the Provos’ celebration of the closure of Mountpottinger barracks, save to wonder whether Short Strand’s policing needs really require an enormous Fort Apache-style construction in an area with an acute housing shortage. The point is the reaction of the unionists. Let’s leave aside the Fermanagh unionists, who are professing to be much exercised by the dissident threat and who reckon that the Israeli “separation barrier” is an example of best practice when it comes to porous borders. Much deeper into the north, you can see evidence of the common unionist belief that every hole in the hedge needs to have a fortified barracks.

There was a fascinating example of this in the Newtownards Chronicle the other week, where local DUP MLA Simon Hamilton was brandishing a leaked Policing Board document naming a number of rural stations that have been earmarked for possible closure. Many of these stations, located in tiny villages with virtually no crime, are only vestigially manned, and local folks are aware that you’ve a better chance of finding a cop down the Chinese than at the station. Nonetheless, Simon reckons this to be a threat to a vital public service.

Counterposed to this was the technocratic argument from acting Chief Constable Judith Gillespie, who posited that the physical infrastructure of policing in the north was a hangover from the Troubles and not really suited to modern policing. Specifically, she said that there were too many stations, they were too big and they were in the wrong places. By offloading some of its surplus real estate, she reckoned, you could have a more mobile and responsive police force while staying within budgetary restrictions. Simon, however, was having none of it.

Actually, Simon Hamilton’s whole approach to this issue is illustrative of the common unionist position, that they want to be British, and for the British state to lavish them with goodies, but they don’t want to pay for it. A common conversation might go like this:

Unionist: We have to keep the RUC Reserve.
You: Who’s going to pay for it?
Unionist: Don’t care.

And so the Chronicle debate could be summed up along similar lines.

Simon: See these police stations in Killyleagh and Saintfield? We need to keep them open, and fully manned forbye.
Judith: Our budgetary settlement won’t allow for that.
Simon: Don’t care.

Of course, nationalist politicians have a similar attitude. They just have different priorities.

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