Two poor saps fight for world’s most thankless job


It beats me why anyone would want to be leader of the South Down and Londonderry Party. And yet, incredibly, two people do want it, with both social development minister Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and incumbent deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast) now having declared themselves. What’s even odder, as Brian Feeney points out in a pithy analysis, is that the SDLP has been in existence since 1970 and this is the first time it’s ever had a contested leadership election. Gerry Fitt was leader at the foundation (had anyone chosen to challenge him, they would have soon discovered that Gerry was a dab hand at mobilising the graveyard vote); John Hume was proclaimed leader by acclamation, as was Mark Durkan.

Indeed, the party wouldn’t be having an election now if Alasdair McDonnell had his way. He’s publicly called for Margaret Ritchie to withdraw from the leadership race and form a “dream ticket” as his deputy. She won’t, of course, but it just goes to show that there’s nothing more elitist than Humespeak.

Brian remarks:

It’s not exactly a glittering field. In political parlance, neither is ‘a big beast’.

Well, we know Brian has a rather sour attitude towards his former party colleagues, but he does at least know them well. And what’s at stake for the party?

The party has been bleeding votes for a decade, a loss which became a haemorrhage in 2004 when the party dropped 100,000 votes in the European election.

Next year’s general election is another critical test. The SDLP must hold its three Westminster seats.

The immediate task for a new leader is therefore clear: to restore organisation and morale and stem the flow of votes.

In short, it’s a task that makes Gordon Brown look like he was born under a lucky star. The major talking point about the SDLP in recent years has been whether or not it would expire before the Unionist Party did. Look, for example, at the results from the 2007 Stormont election. The SDLP’s first preference vote was below one quota in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Derry, North Antrim, South Antrim, Upper Bann, North Belfast and West Belfast – although it retained seats in all these constituencies, these MLAs had to be elected in the later counts, largely via the transfer of PSF surpluses. In West Tyrone the party actually cobbled together slightly more than a quota, but lost its seat due to a lunatic strategy of running three candidates. The SDLP has very few surefire winners even in a Stormont PR poll, never mind for Westminster.

Mark you, even though the SDLP has no chance of increasing its three-seat haul, it does have some advantages. Mark Durkan is justly popular in Derry and, while Martina Anderson will give him a run for his money, it would be a huge shock if he failed to win there. In South Down, despite Eddie McGrady’s advancing years, he does have an incumbency advantage and can’t have been harmed by Caitríona Ruane’s travails as education minister. South Belfast, of course, is a hugely unpredictable three-way marginal. It will be a close-run thing.

So what do the candidates for the party leadership have to offer? Here’s Brian:

Organisation and finance are areas regarded as Alasdair McDonnell’s forte. A successful businessman himself, he is also a formidable motivator, but a polarising figure in the SDLP.

He and Mark Durkan did not gel as leader and deputy leader. McDonnell was not allowed a free hand in organising as he had hoped and allowed his frustration to show.

The good doctor can be ruthless and forceful and does not suffer fools. For some in the party his elevation to deputy leader was a shock and the same people now fear for their future if he were to become leader.

Interestingly enough, he’s less popular with those who’ve have close experience of him than with those who know him as a competent media performer. Nobody doubts the man’s ambition, but along the way he’s seriously pissed off so many party colleagues as to put a question mark over his electability within the party. Note also Durkan’s resignation statement drawing attention to the issue of double jobbing, something that could very easily be interpreted as a dig at Alasdair. Lucky for him that it’s a delegate conference and not the Assembly party that decides the contest.

You could see some of McDonnell’s opponents lined up behind Margaret Ritchie as she declared her candidature.

One is Carmel Hanna, MLA from McDonnell’s own South Belfast constituency. Another is Alex Attwood from West Belfast.

I like Carmel Hanna, but her influence is limited by Alasdair’s iron grip on the South Belfast SDLP. And wee Alex’s record as an electoral strategist surely counts against him.

For many people in the party Margaret Ritchie is the ‘Stop McDonnell’ candidate. For every member who believes McDonnell is exactly what is needed to shake the party up, blow fresh air through it, there’s a member who would be horrified if he became leader, fearing that he’s too brusque, volatile and unpredictable. It looks like a tight race which could turn pointed.

And it would be none the worse for all that. A cobbling together of a “dream ticket” that would paper over the very real differences in the party would arguably be far more damaging in the long run than a big barney that would at least get those issues out in the open. You can’t plot a strategy if you’re not going to have an argument about strategy.

Margaret Ritchie hopes to garner support among the party’s strongest areas: South Down and Foyle where the biggest branches are. Ritchie’s popularity in the SDLP has soared after her dogged stance against money potentially going to fund groups connected to loyalist paramilitaries. Being attacked by Peter Robinson didn’t do her any harm either. However, while Alasdair McDonnell could never be criticised for lack of ambition and drive, Margaret Ritchie has always been content to remain in the shadow of Eddie McGrady, working for decades in his constituency office and unhesitatingly accepting his decision to stand again for Westminster, both in 2005 and again next year at the age of 75.

She is the safe, establishment candidate. She will rock no boats. She threatens no one in the SDLP.

Indeed not, if she can’t suggest gently to Eddie McGrady that he might like to consider retirement.

The same can’t be said for McDonnell who believes some people in the SDLP need threatened. He’s a firm believer that in political parties hot air rises and dead wood floats and that, if there isn’t change, the SDLP will submerge under the weight of that dead wood.

I’m not sure about this theory of regeneration through hot air, but Alasdair is surely the man to test it out.

Where will he get his support if Ritchie holds on to the big branches?

First, his own constituency. Although his running mate, Carmel Hanna, supports Ritchie, McDonnell still rules the roost there. Other parts of Belfast are not important because there are no SDLP members in large swathes of the city.

This is true, as Brian well knows. In West Belfast, for instance, there is still a substantial SDLP vote, but the party probably has fewer paid-up members in the constituency than the Workers Party. One can extend this to many of the rural areas, where local fiefs can get elected by name recognition without needing branches. This doesn’t necessarily make for bad representation – someone like Dominic Bradley, for instance, is a decent and useful public representative – but there’s an obvious problem for the longer term in that many of the fiefs are getting a bit long in the tooth. As Brian points out:

The technicalities of the election aside, the new leader faces serious problems, the first of which is the average age of party members and elected representatives. The SDLP seems to have frozen about 25 years ago, around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Incredibly, Mark Durkan – the outgoing leader at 49 – is their youngest MLA. Margaret Ritchie is 51 and Alasdair McDonnell 60.

Compare David Cameron (43) or Brian Cowen (49). There’s something wrong with a party whose current leader is its youngest MLA.

There are no visible young figures in the party. Yes, they do have a few young councillors, but none has developed a political profile. None is an obvious candidate for stardom.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Gerry Adams is a good dozen years older than Durkan, and most of his kitchen cabinet are about the same age as Gerry, but he still looks like he leads a more youthful organisation. Does the SDLP have people who are analogous to Conor Murphy or Michelle Gildernew or John O’Dowd? If so, they’re well hidden.

Finally, policy. What does the SDLP want now that the Good Friday Agreement has been achieved?

They exude an attitude of entitlement and bitterness, forgetting that voters don’t care about past achievements.

The leading figures spend their time attacking Sinn Fein’s policies. When John Hume was leader everyone knew what the SDLP wanted. They were sick hearing him repeating it. What does the new SDLP leader want? Can either McDonnell or Ritchie enunciate a separate identity for the SDLP, look to the future, carve out a path to follow that will not only enthuse members but attract new young recruits?

And this theme of entitlement and bitterness rings quite true. Alex Attwood has often seemed bemused at why voters don’t turn out in droves to thank the SDLP for having pioneered the peace process. Moreover, you can’t base a popular appeal on “we hate the Provos”, as the Workers Party discovered – although to be fair, the WP always had some positive ideas too. You need something that you actually stand for.

And the lack of actual policy is striking, although par for the course in the north. The Phoenix was saying the other week that, where Durkan was a Labour man, McDonnell was essentially a Fianna Fáiler. If this is so, it’s a matter of milieu, as Alasdair went to UCD and is mates with lots of FFers, while Mark worked closely with John Hume and so would have had exposure to the European social democrats. None of this has filtered through into any clear ideological division.

This, ultimately, is what’s going to be the new leader’s task – to lay out what the SDLP is for in the New Dispensation. If the winner can’t do that, it may well be that, as Brian speculates, the party’s first leadership election could be its last. Often with a Brian Feeney article on the SDLP, there seems to be an undertone of “Why didn’t those bozos make me the leader?” Today, Brian may feel that he had a lucky escape.

The Daily Tottygraph goes to university


The British press do like their hardy perennials, don’t they? Every year when the A-level results come out, the Daily Telegraph has a big photo feature on the front page. And every year, Private Eye runs a spoof item where the Telegraph reports the shocking news that attractive young blondes are doing well in their exams. While the Eye‘s humour is a bit frayed at the edges these days, that one works because of its deadly accuracy.

Well, the season for A-level results is long past, and Liz Hurley seems to have been keeping a low profile of late. But a picture editor’s work is never done, nor is that of the jobbing journalist whose job it is to write up a flimsy story as an excuse to run said pictures. For instance, the reason why the Daily Mail has more traffic on its website than any other British newspaper is its boundless enthusiasm for photos of celebutante Kim Kardashian, who is virtually unknown in Britain but attracts loads of online traffic from the States. The right sort of image is a godsend for generating traffic – Chris knows that, and so do I.

Presumably, this is why the Telegraph has chosen to leave the sixth-formers behind for the moment, having made the startling discovery that there are also lots of fruity young women at university. The tag for this story is the setting up at Cambridge University of The Tab, a web-based tabloid that’s supposed to provide a populist counterpoint to the established student papers. And indeed, it seems to have a healthy hit rate, not least due to its willingness to flash the flesh:

But a section where students pose in their underwear has caused controversy and led to calls for the scantily clad students to be covered up.

The Cambridge student union women’s officer, Natalie Szarek, said that they should be removed because they “reproduce and reinforce harmful attitudes towards women”.

Miss Szarek complained that “semi-naked women in provocative positions are being shoved in freshers’ faces”, adding: “We can do better as a university”.

Hmm. Well, at least Ms Szarek is educated enough not to claim that saucy photos are literally being shoved in people’s faces. Being a webzine, you would have to actually look it up on t’internet to see it. From my brief perusal, it doesn’t look horrendous – mostly campus news, film and gig reviews, a bit of humour, and guides to which pubs to go to in Cambridge. Normal student fare, then. These two or three features with mildly suggestive pictures are a fairly small proportion of the content – though no doubt they account for a lot of the traffic, we’re not talking Nuts here. And I didn’t spot anything nearly as offensive as what used to appear in PTQ.

Of course, the Telegraph doesn’t miss the opportunity to paint things as much saucier than they really are:

Meanwhile one of the student models, who posed on a punt in a small pink bikini and high heels, requested her photos removed from the site.

Becky Adams was said to have been “embarrassed” by the fall out of appearing in the tabloid and said she had only done it “as a favour for a friend”.

Female student does something for a laugh, regrets it later. It’s about as newsworthy as male students being a bit tasteless and vaguely sexist.

Until yesterday a picture of her accompanied an article headlined “Bra-vo” – a piece about a study which found that Cambridge women have on average the ninth largest bra sizes in the UK.

This was one of those self-serving commercial surveys, from Debenhams in this case. It was all over the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago, so it’s not as if this was particularly outrageous.

“There’s a huge amount of intellectual snobbery around, mainly from those who haven’t read the site,” [Tab co-founder Taymoor Atighetchi] said.

“We do not think what we are doing is sexist. It was always the intention to have a debate about these issues. The website is a tongue-in-cheek version of the tabloid newspaper – we are not just emulating it.”

At this point, Taymoor sort of loses my sympathy. All he had to do was say it was a tongue-in-cheek tabloid format, and leave it there. All this “we want to stimulate a debate on these issues” business is just a pseudo-intellectual equivalent of the Daily Telegraph saying “This is outrageous! And here are the pics to prove it!” One recalls the old Russ Meyer movie poster showing one of the great man’s top-heavy starlets in profile, with the tagline “Stacked with redeeming social significance”. But, while Meyer may have been a sexist reprobate, at least he was funny.

The female photographer who took the “Totty” photos also defended the website and said that six senior women staff are all proud to work for The Tab”.

“As a female who works on the Tab editorial team and a feminist, I’m delighted that so much debate has been generated over the Tab Totty section,” she said. “The main aim of The Tab was always to stimulate debate, and I feel we have truly succeeded when it comes to the issue of Page Three modelling.”

Ditto. We’re not talking here about a sociological treatise on the subject of young women in their skivvies, with necessary illustrations. We’re talking about something that is basically light-hearted, tabloid and populist – and justifiable in its own terms, however little it may appeal to the sort of people it isn’t aimed at. But then, intellectuals doing tabloid is a path fraught with dangers. Back in the 1980s, Guardian journalists produced a one-off version of a Sun-type tabloid and handed it out to bemused estate dwellers. It didn’t work, largely because the Graun journos treated the product as basically a comic – whereas Sun journalists, or indeed staff on comics, take their product very seriously indeed. The Sun isn’t a dumbed-down Guardian with shorter sentences, tits and bingo; it’s a thing in itself. Not to my taste, but lots of people like it.

The correct argument is not that this student silliness is some earnest project to get people talking about images of women. The correct argument is that this is just a bit of throwaway fun, and while you may or may not like this sort of image, there are many more concrete problems young women – even those at Cambridge – have to deal with.

Featured model Heidi says in her Tab piece:

In recent debates within the university, the impression generated by the CUSU Women’s Council and others is that prior to a few girls getting their kit off, the university was a sexism-free zone. Whilst totally misleading, this nonetheless demonstrates precisely a pernicious concealment of sexist attitudes that are in evidence throughout the university. There is a 21% wage inequality between male and female academics; the first female head porter was appointed in the institution’s 800th year; women’s boxing and rugby do not earn the same full blue status granted to their male counterparts.

There is a culture of sexism in Cambridge that needs addressing. That it took photos of girls in underwear to make people think so is bizarre; that the photos have become a sole target for all that is degrading and objectifying to the university’s women is just ridiculous. CUSU’s recent focus is totally misdirected, and fails to deal with far more worrying, entrenched gender problems. To equate ‘smashing sexism’ merely with stigmatizing nudity completely skews any argument about latent gender inequality in Cambridge…

Quite so, and this is why I don’t have much patience for that brand of feminism that’s mainly centred around speech codes. It’s not that I don’t think there’s an argument to had around images or language and how they reflect power in society, but we’re talking about the difference between image and actuality. See also, Andrew Pierce for a reflection on the kind of protection the gay community needs – that is, protection from the rise in homophobic assaults, not some half-baked legislative action to prevent ignorant glipes like Chris Moyles or Jan Moir from hurting their feelings.

Reggie and his malcontents


So, the Official Unionist conference was on at the weekend, and I know readers will be agog to hear about it. This was the second party conference since the Forza Nuova lash-up with the Tories was agreed, and of course the big initiative was at the centre of things. Last year, Rankin’ Dave Cameron himself turned up; this year’s guest speaker was William Jefferson Hague, which might seem like a bit of a come-down, but then this is a party that’s used to the devastating charisma of Michael McGimpsey.

There’s no doubt about it, the UUs are in better spirits than they’ve been for some time. There are those who have doubts about the UCUNF boondoggle – and we’ll get onto some of those momentarily – but at least pan-UK unionism is an idea, and that’s not insignificant for a party that has lacked any vaguely coherent ideas for a very long time. Sir Reggie’s reorganisation, shifting power from the constituencies to the centre, makes them look more like an actual party and not quite so much like a disorganised rabble. The Tory connection brings some material resources, and a connection to what looks like a winning team on its way to government. Perhaps most importantly, there’s Jim Nicholson’s achievement in outpolling the DUP at the European election. Well, I say Jim’s achievement; his main achievement was to hold his own while Jim Allister took the DUP to the cleaners, but then the Unionist Party can go a long way on schadenfreude at the DUP’s travails.

There’s also the possibility that the Prodiban assault on the DUP may mean them picking up a couple of Westminster seats next year, even if they don’t significantly increase their vote. South Antrim could be interesting – Singing Willie has never been popular there, not least because of his unwillingness to leave Magherafelt and actually set foot in South Antrim. Grumpy Gregory is not totally secure in East Derry. And a face-off in Upper Bann between gospel-singing DUP incumbent David Simpson, and Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry for the Official Unionists, could be better than X Factor.

Not that Reggie is getting things all his own way. The UUs’ Labour-oriented personalities are still not very gruntled at all this palling around with Cameron – the party’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, didn’t bother turning up for the second year in a row, while veteran Belfast councillor Fred Cobain did attend, but cleared off halfway through to go to the Crusaders match. And following the conference, there’s been yet another broadside from the Unionist Party’s socialist wing (essentially Roy Garland and Chris McGimpsey). Their open letter is reproduced in full over on Slugger, but here are the highlights.

Throughout its history the UUP has been a party which had the foresight and the commitment to fend off Irish independence, to form the Government of Northern Ireland, and to keep Northern Ireland running over half a century, including the challenging period of the Second World War. Today it appears that the UUP does not have the vision to see across to the far side of the Albertbridge Road.


The new arrangement is a great deal for the Conservatives.

They tried and failed to gain support here over a decade ago. In the 1992 General Election they received 5.7% of the popular vote. Their last outing was in the 1993 Local Government Elections when 9437 brave souls gave the Conservatives their First Preference Votes.

Under this new dispensation the UUP leadership are offering the Tories a Northern Ireland wide organisation, tens of thousands of loyal voters, around 150 councillors, over 20 MLAs and two seats at the Executive table at Stormont.

Bearing in mind the chronic feebleness of the Ulster Tories, there’s something to that, if you look at things on the Norn Iron rather than UK scale. Reggie would no doubt urge sceptics to look at the big picture. And, while Cameron and Hague are dispositional unionists, there’s a pragmatic argument for acquiring a regional affiliate at little cost. I also suspect Cameron is interested in the Unionists not merely for their own sake, but also in terms of what might happen in Scotland.

What does our Party receive in return? At one Executive Committee meeting we were assured that we would have two seats at the Cabinet table in any new Tory administration.

Assuming Cameron follows through on this, I would hazard a guess that David Trimble would be a safe bet for one of those. For the other, it depends whether the Unionists can elect any MPs. For all we know, this arrangement could mean Flash Harry sitting in the Cabinet. Or, if worst comes to worst, there’s always Jim Molyneaux, who I’m sure would be willing to serve despite being 175 years old.

The UUP had been members of the European Peoples’ Party for all of Jim Nicholson’s European career.

It was a grouping he was happy with and it had treated him and the UUP well – making him one of its three Quaestors. However, David Cameron did not favour the EPP and because Jim had to take the Tory whip he had to leave and join another more right wing group replete with some fairly dodgy eastern European MEPs.

There’ll be no taking the march past of the Latvian SS veterans for Reggie, then.

In addition,we are now approaching a General Election wherein our candidates have to be jointly selected by the handful of Northern Ireland Tories. Some constituencies have been told that they must select Tories irrespective of the wishes of the local activists. Others have been told to delay selection meetings until secret discussions have been undertaken with London. Never in the history of the UUP have we submitted to another party having the final say as to who we should run for election.

Considering the relative weight of the two parties, it is a bit of a scud, right enough.

Historically the Ulster Unionist Party was a uniting force within the pro-British community. Irrespective of your national politics you could be an Ulster Unionist. Left and Right could sit together in the same branch. Even when our MPs took the Tory whip the party remained a uniting force within Ulster.

That’s right, historically it was a catch-all party for Prods. The weakness of this argument, of course, is that since its eclipse by the DUP it can’t hope to regain its status as a catch-all party, and must find some distinctive identity beyond “We’re the unionist party that isn’t the DUP.” Reggie understands the question – whether he has the right answer is another matter.

Will those working class constituencies which have always returned Ulster Unionists still do so once it becomes clear that the Ulster Unionists have become little more than the eccentric old maiden aunt who lives in David Cameron’s house but to whom no one pays a blind bit of notice.

Ouch! Actually, that reference to the working class raises a whole other train of thought about the sociology of unionism, but that would take us so far afield it’ll have to wait for another post.

Perhaps you, Sir Reg, and the rest of the leadership should remember the advice given to Edward Carson when he followed a similar road. “Be careful Edward, the Tories have never adopted a cause yet but they have betrayed it in the end.”

You don’t have to go as far back as Carson. You only have to ask which party was in government at Westminster in 1972 when Stormont was prorogued. David Cameron may be a dispositional unionist, but are we to believe that, if Washington pressures him to give some concession to Gerry, he’s going to jeopardise his relationship with the Americans for the sake of Reg Empey’s feelings? Garland has been especially insistent on this point, arguing that the Unionists simply can’t rely on the Tories to stand up for Norn Iron – the Unionists would have to do the standing up for themselves.

But then again, these malcontents are yesterday’s men to some extent, of an older generation, representing a tradition of Labour Unionism that’s in danger of extinction. They don’t have an alternative vehicle to hand; they have nowhere else to go but home, and, whatever their ability to stir the pot in their associations, Reggie can probably afford to ignore them.

What he can’t afford to ignore for much longer is the Sylvia problem in North Down. The incumbent MP has made it clear that she won’t stand on a Tory ticket under any circumstances. The North Down Tories have selected the affable but lightweight Ian Parsley, despite him having been in the Alliance Party only five minutes ago. The Unionist Association hasn’t selected a candidate. It’s a tricky little quandary for Reggie. Complicating things is North Down’s long-established preference for quirky independent politics, and in particular UU defectors – first the late Jim Kilfedder, then Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney. Lady Sylvia is so popular with the housewives of North Down as to be virtually bulletproof, with or without her party. And a party in the fragile condition of the Unionists will have to think very carefully about whether it wants to dispense with one of its most capable representatives, when it doesn’t even have a credible replacement lined up.

I’ve said before that the Tories would find the Unionists more trouble than they were worth. When Cameron went in for his rhetorical flourish about the Tories fighting every constituency in the UK, did he have any idea what he was letting himself in for?

The long dark afternoon of Cool FM


I’d like to thank Phil for this idea, which IIRC he raised in some other comments box many moons ago. Many readers will be aware that Graham Linehan, of Father Ted fame, runs a blog entitled “Why, That’s Delightful!”. Graham, I’m sad to say, has a sunnier disposition than me. Not that I don’t get where he’s coming from – some mornings I open the Irish News, see Richard O’Rawe nailing Gerry’s ass to the canvas, and exclaim to myself, “Why, that’s delightful!” But oftentimes my reaction is just a tad more jaundiced. Therefore this blog is launching an occasional feature entitled “Jesus, That’s Awful!”

Let us begin with a double header. Those of you who don’t reside in the greater Belfast area will probably not be familiar with Cool FM. But you will, I trust, know that there’s such a thing as commercial radio and have some idea of what it’s like. I have no reason to suspect that Cool FM is anything more significant than the local version of a broader phenomenon. But that doesn’t stop me having the same sort of animus towards Cool FM as a proud gardener would have towards a cat that insists on using her flower beds as a latrine. It may be the nature of the beast, but it’s no less of an irritation.

The irritation comes from what are just common features of the genre, that come to grate intensely with prolonged exposure. The relentless chirpiness of the DJs – and I’ve long thought Sonya Mac sounded far too pleased with herself for somebody who comes from Ballygowan – you could take in small doses. It’s the permanent chirpiness that gets up your goat. Likewise with the ads – a cheery jingle for Sam’s Yer Man has lost something of its charm by the four thousandth listen.

But no, it’s the records that end up doing your nut. If you’ve ever thought that the Radio 1 daytime schedule had an absurdly restrictive playlist, the commercial pop sector makes Scott Mills sound like John Peel. There is a very small and very rigidly followed playlist, basically consisting of the big sellers of the moment, plus the most heavily promoted pre-releases. Moreover, the list seems to change at a glacial pace. And even in the classic requests slot, there’s a distinct element of “If it’s half past twelve, it must be ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’.” Even if I liked the records, I’d get browned off sooner rather than later.

It may be objected that this is a popular formula, which is true. Every second radio you pass is playing Cool. It may further be objected that I’m not the target audience, which is also true. But until a station is launched where agreeably morose DJs play Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, you have to take your wireless programming where you can get it.

Which leads me to the pachyderm monstrosity of The X Factor. I’m not going to discuss the programme for the moment, but, as Paul remarks, it’s a remarkably efficient vehicle for total domination of the charts. And, in commercial radio, charts mean airtime. In this case we’re discussing Cheryl Cole’s “Fight For This Love”, which has made number one this week, being the year’s fastest-selling single, but this week’s run at the charts follows a good couple of weeks of saturation airplay. On Cool FM, it appears to be being played every hour on the hour, although my mind is probably exaggerating slightly. Only slightly, though.

I don’t like this record very much. And I like it less by the day. To begin with, this solo debut from the fashion icon, reality TV star and fourth best singer in Girls Aloud was just in-one-ear-out-the-other forgettable. A thin vocal, a lyric composed entirely from relationship manual clichés, and what sounds like a Bon-Tempi backing track. Compared to Girls Aloud’s best material – that mix of stripy hair, elaborate dance routines, pounding beats, nonsensical lyrics and an overwhelming sense of fun – it’s a bit of a let down.

But then you have to reckon with the airplay factor. What at first was forgettable, after the twentieth listen is mildly annoying. After the fortieth listen it progresses from the mildly annoying to a Black Eyed Peas level of annoying. At present, I am seriously wondering whether this was the stuff they used to drive Michael Caine mad in The Ipcress File. And at the current rate of sales, it’s likely to stay on the playlist for months on end.

At which point you say frig this for a game of soldiers, stick the old earphones in and treat yourself to some sounds that you actually like. And if that smacks a little of fogeyism, well, at least you’re not being driven demented by Cheryl Cole any more.

St Alfonzo’s pancake breakfast


If there’s one thing I find fascinating about Pope Benny, it’s not his theology – although his writings are impressively crunchy, and his book on Jesus in particular is well worth your time – but how he’s developed his own political style since taking over as Pontifex Maximus. JP2’s rock ‘n’ roll papacy was always going to be a hard act to follow, and not a great deal was expected of Benedict, partly because of his natural reserve and partly because he’d spent so long holed up at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acting as JP2’s theological enforcer. Those of us who take an interest in these things may have noticed that, while Wojtyła was rooted in a very Polish mystical tradition – which reminds us that Catholic Poles are not as far removed from Orthodox Russians as they might like to think – Ratzinger’s background was firmly in the German rationalist school. But like I say, that’s a matter for theology aficionados.

Over the last few years, though, we’ve got a better idea of Benny as a political operator. This doesn’t always come through in media coverage – especially in Britain, where Catholicism usually only features in the news in relation to abortion, an issue that’s infested by Catholics pretending not to be Catholics (the ProLife Alliance) and non-Catholics pretending to be Catholics (‘Catholics for Choice’). Church politics as such doesn’t get much intelligent coverage, which is perhaps why Benny’s establishing himself as a reformer has gone largely unremarked.

More important, though, is a conceptual fallacy whereby most commentators equate reformism with liberal reformism. It seems impossible to grasp that one can be theologically orthodox – and if you aren’t theologically orthodox, you won’t get to be Pope in the first place – and still be a reformist. In fact, Benedict has racked up quite an impressive track record of cracking down on malfeasances in the Church although, in his characteristic style, he isn’t very ostentatious about it.

Take a look for a moment at this atrocity:


Now, you will probably be saying to yourself, “What are those guys doing waving around a naan bread on a giant pair of BBQ tongs?” This is a Corpus Christi procession in the Austrian city of Linz, and is supposed to be the bit where the Host is paraded on a monstrance. In fact, it isn’t a naan but a focaccia, although I’m willing to bet focaccia is still an illicit substance. What were they thinking? “Hmm, we’ll just get some bread-type stuff and stick it on the end of these tongs – it’ll do just as well…” That’s the sort of muddled thinking one would expect from the C of E, but more of them later.

Benedict, of course, is a great enthusiast for raising the overall liturgical standard – although in the German-speaking lands he may have his work cut out – and apparently the Austrian bishops’ ears were burning after the Focaccia Incident became known. But the disciplinarian aspect goes well beyond slapping down instances of liturgical silliness. Luke Coppen lists quite a number of significant moves, in an article worth quoting at length:

Consider the following incidents, most of which have been widely reported but are rarely linked together:

The Maciel affair: In May 2006 Pope Benedict took the highly unusual step of ordering one of the world’s best-known priests to retire to a life of prayer and penance. His decision followed a Vatican investigation into allegations that Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement, was a sexual abuser who had fathered at least one child.

Investigating America’s seminaries: Not long after his election Benedict XVI oversaw an apostolic visitation of seminaries in the United States. The investigation was inspired by the clerical sexual abuse crisis of 2002 and covered all schools of theology as well as college-level seminaries, houses of formation, and academic institutions that form future priests.

Scrutinising American female religious orders: The Pope has also ordered a wide-ranging investigation of American women religious. The apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States, which is currently underway, covers approximately 400 apostolic religious institutes of women and approximately 59,000 women religious. It is likely to lead to a shake-up of American female religious life.

Deposing the leader of an African Church: Earlier this month Pope Benedict accepted the resignation of Archbishop Paulin Pomodimo of Bangui, the most senior Catholic cleric in the Central African Republic (CAR). The resignation followed a visit to the CAR by a papal emissary, Archbishop Robert Sarah, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, in March. It is widely thought that the Pope requested the archbishop’s resignation because he tolerated priests keeping mistresses.

Calling for a thorough accounting of abuse in Ireland: Also this month Pope Benedict called for a profound examination of the state of the Irish Church following a damning report into “endemic” abuse in schools run by religious orders.

Crisis talks with the Austrian bishops: And this week Pope Benedict held an emergency meeting with the leaders of the Austrian Church. The gathering followed the appointment and subsequent resignation of Gerhard Wagner as auxiliary Bishop of Linz and reports that priests in senior positions in the diocese live with mistresses. The Pope reminded the bishops of “the urgency of going deeper in the faith and the integral fidelity to the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Church” – a coded message that the Austrian Church is in serious need of reform.

These events together show the determination with which Pope Benedict is confronting the gravest scandals in the Church today. They have all had considerable publicity, but nevertheless have not created the perception that Benedict XVI is a bold reformist pope.

So why, despite the accumulating evidence, is Pope Benedict not regarded as a reformer intent on ridding the Church of wrong-doing?

Some suggest it’s because in mass media terms a “reformist pope” can only mean a pontiff who takes a progressive stance on hot-button issues such as priestly celibacy, contraception and women priests. They argue that the kind of reforms Pope Benedict is pursuing – enforcing celibacy, cracking down on liturgical abuses and investigating radically progressive American nuns – simply don’t fit the existing media stereotype.

There is some truth in that. But there are other factors at work:

1) The geographically disparate nature of the reforms makes it difficult for observers to connect them together;

2) Many of the investigations are carried out in strict secrecy with severe ecclesial penalties for anyone who breaches confidentiality. This means that neither media nor the wider Catholic public ever know precisely what is going on.

3) Pope Benedict rarely mentions the investigations in public and, if he does, speaks in coded language that only those already in the know will understand (see, for example, his ad limina address to the bishops of the CAR where he discusses the need for reform of the priesthood).

I think Luke makes a persuasive case there. To reiterate, anyone expecting a liberal Pope endorsing the nostrums of the Guardian or Channel 4 News is likely to be waiting a very long time, but it’s well within the abilities of a traditionalist Pope to shake things up, root out abuses and tighten standards all round.

But the big news of the moment is, of course, this new Apostolic Constitution that’s aimed at disaffected Anglicans. I’m still not sure what to make of this, whether it’s an utterly brilliant manoeuvre or it will turn out to be completely pointless. But the thrust of the matter is the establishment of a Personal Ordinariate under which umbrella Anglicans will be able to accept the authority of Rome whilst maintaining their established practices. This has already been given a trial run on a smallish scale in the United States, where there are quite a few traditional Anglicans who are deeply pissed off at the heretical modernist leadership of the Episcopal Church USA and have despaired of trying to coexist within the same organisation. What the Personal Ordinariate amounts to is something that was considered by the late Cardinal Newman, the establishment of an English Uniate Church, equivalent to the various Byzantine-rite formations within the RCC, or indeed the Lebanese Maronites. (Although previous pontiffs may well have thought the Maronites more trouble than they were worth, the same way English Tories came to look on the Ulster Unionists.)

It’s at times like this that I turn to Damian Thompson for some pithy observations. I have my worries about young Damo, not least his recent foray into Mussolini territory, but he knows his religious onions and is particularly good on the C of E. Quoth Damo:

The truth is that Rome has given up on the Anglican Communion. With one announcement, the Pope has given conservative Anglicans a protected route to union with Rome – and promised that, even once they are members of the Catholic Church, they will be offered a permanent structure that allows them to retain an Anglican ethos…

The Vatican would not use the phrase, but this is very close to the setting up of a “Church within a Church”. Yet that is not as unusual as it might seem: Eastern-rite Catholics have their own liturgy and church structures, and in America a small number of ex-Anglicans use service books that borrow from the Book of Common Prayer.

In point of fact, Benedict is offering traditionalist Anglicans more than the Canterbury communion has felt able to do. Within the C of E, the usual procedure has been to spend years debating these issues in General Synod and then to come out at the last moment with some convoluted proposal for a “third province” or “flying bishops” or suchlike. Now, there’s a firm offer from Rome about a long-term haven. What’s also interesting is the diplomacy surrounding this. There have been noises from the C of E about how poor old Rowan wasn’t told until the last moment, and this is a terrible snub. There have also, not coincidentally been critical noises from what one might term the Cormac camp within the English Catholic hierarchy. Actually, reports from Rome stress the high regard Benedict has for Rowan – I suspect the secrecy had at least as much to do with keeping the Bishops’ Conference out of the loop. Benedict will be aware that possibilities for a move of this type in the early 1990s failed thanks to the ecumenists in the BC; he will also be aware that for this gambit to work, the defectors would have to be offered something outwith the authority of the BC. Hats off to our modern Machiavelli.

And yet, and yet. These Anglo-Catholics can be awkward customers. Of those who’ve converted in dribs and drabs over the last wheen of years, many have got a hell of a culture shock – expecting some romantic world of incense, Latin and purple robes, they quickly discovered the actually existing Catholic Church in England was full of guitar-strumming, jumper-wearing priests in concrete churches. Besides, if you’re all that attached to Anglican liturgical forms, there is an outlet that can do them for you wholesale, and it’s called the “Church of England”. I can well imagine some of these High Church AngCats reacting with horror on being told they would have to ditch the Roman Missal and use the Book of Common Prayer instead.

It’s also objected, and there’s some truth in this, that those who were most likely to convert have already done so. It is also the case that quite a few of the AngCats have come to enjoy toddling along to General Synod and getting angry at the modernists, and would miss all the rows. On the other hand, there was quite a warm (if guarded) reception from Forward In Faith, and perhaps some less likely suspects might be attracted.

The departure of a lot of traditionalists would at least ease the factional situation for Rowan, although the conservative evangelicals in the C of E aren’t going anywhere, and nor are the extreme modernist trendies. But, in the end, what other options are there for the Anglican traditionalist? The Canterbury communion looks less welcoming by the year; the small Continuity Anglican formations in various countries have failed to take off; and the Eastern Churches, who could have done long ago what Benedict has just done, have been sleeping on the job as per usual. Benny has, in effect, told the Anglican traditionalists that they have to piss or get off the pot. Now they have to make their choice.

By the way, this affair has piqued the interest of our old bugbear, Titus Oates of the National Secular Society. Titus writes:

Of course, in a strictly secularist sense, the NSS should not concern itself with the internal machinations of religious organisations. If the Pope wishes to stab the Archbishop of Canterbury in the back (in a wholly ecumenical sense, of course) then that’s nothing to do with us.

Titus then, of course, goes on to fulminate at length about something he’s just said he’s not concerned about.

But wait a minute. The state is involved in this. We have an Established Church, the head of which is also the head of the State. So when the Roman Rat plays such a comprehensively dirty trick on Rowan Williams, we all have to consider whether there are constitutional implications.

Well, there aren’t. The Established Church remains the Established Church, regardless of the comings or goings of its personnel. But that doesn’t deter our friend:

Since the Holy See is at once both the government of the Catholic Church and also of the State of the Vatican City, any bishops who sit in the House of Lords who decided to opt for Rome would owe allegiance to the Holy See, which, when wearing one of its hats, is a foreign government.

Ah, it’s the old dual loyalty canard. Titus, as we know, is deeply concerned about Catholics getting into Westminster, lest they start wearing cloaks and funny hats and plotting to blow up King James. He seems less keen to level the dual loyalty charge against Jewish parliamentarians, which is probably sensible.

In other words, because there’s an established church at this end and a church-state at the other, the constitutional implications could be enormous. If half of the Church of England is going to end up under the Vatican umbrella, then can it really remain “by law established”?

Look, this is really quite simple. Those Anglicans who opt for the Personal Ordinariate leave the communion of Canterbury and enter that of Rome. It doesn’t effect the Established Church at all on the constitutional level. If Titus is attempting to argue that Anglo-Catholics defecting to Rome will, by some mysterious osmosis, turn England into a Papist theocracy, I must confess that his logic is too subtle for me.

In his anxiety to keep the “Anglican Communion” intact, Rowan Williams abandoned his own humane, liberal instincts and threw in his lot with the worst elements of bigotry within his flock. They have now rewarded him by conniving with the “Holy Father” to pile on the humiliation.

Is this humane and liberal Rowan Williams the same Rowan Williams upon whose head Titus and his mates heap abuse on a regular basis? I believe it is.

The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet. And rightly so. The Church of England is already on life support, but it continues to twitch.

I suspect some wishful thinking here, but go on…

Both institutions provide a playground for some of the most gruesome and horrible people you could ever wish to meet (particularly if you are a child).

There is, you know, a reason why Catholics feel a deep anger about abuses such as were detailed in the Ryan report. That is because of the breach of trust involved, and because the guilty parties acted in contravention of the ideals of the faith they were supposed to be representing. But Titus doesn’t understand, or care about, that anger. What is more, people who loudly proclaim that celibacy is perverse and sexual libertinism praiseworthy are not best placed to attack people who fail to abide by a vow of celibacy. And again, if Titus is really shocked at homosexual priests who have a liking for teenage boys, perhaps he should speak to his pals in OutRage! who want to lower the age of consent to fourteen, which at a stroke would decriminalise much of what he’s complaining about. Or is it only immoral when clergy do it?

They argue endlessly and violently over which bell to ring and which language to say their prayers in.

Evidently our friend hasn’t heard of the vernacular Mass.

They spend their lives bowing down to the bones of a dead girl and pretending that a biscuit is actual flesh and that wine is really (that is, literally) blood.

Nor does he understand the doctrine of transubstantiation, or what the veneration of saints is all about.

And yet, throughout history, the Vatican has managed to convince those in highest authority that it is entitled to unique and unquestioned respect. Politicians and diplomats bow down to these monsters and let them get away with murder (quite literally sometimes). Whatever corruption the Vatican is involved in (and it has been involved in every conceivable immorality in its time) no-one in high secular authority (the UN, for instance) dare point the finger and ask for an explanation.

Where does the UN come into this, pray tell?

Through forming alliances with some of the worst dictators and tyrants the world has ever seen, the Vatican has managed to gain for itself a small patch of land where no international law can intrude, where no inspections take place, where no questions have to be answered. And from that protected base it stretches its poisonous tentacles around the world.

Aha, now I get it. Evidently our Mr Angry has been reading the collected works of Dan Brown on his holidays. No UN inspections can take place in the Vatican, lest they discover that neutron bomb guarded by heavily armed Opus Dei monks, while Pope Benedict cackles maniacally and strokes a white cat.

We need to ensure that the bigots and reactionaries that infest those few acres in Rome do not get a grip on Britain.

Perhaps you could form an alliance on this issue with the DUP. Although Iris Robinson’s views on homosexuality might be too ripe for our friend.

I always thought the great thing about atheism was that it was about personal freedom and you didn’t need anyone to advocate for you. Perhaps that explains why I get wound up by evangelical atheists, and keep wondering why people like Titus don’t just get themselves a hobby. In any case, religious people may feel reassured that they aren’t the only ones who get doughheads representing them – militant secularist rationalists can be as moronic as anyone else.

Rud eile: I know some readers are dying to hear my take on what’s going on with the Swips. There may be something on this in due course, but for the meantime Red Maria has the scoop.

Rud eile fós: I don’t do Search of the Week as a regular feature any more, but I just want to give a shout out to the punter who came here googling “George Osborne in school uniform”. That’s an image that’ll take a while to shift…

The Lost Revolution: the Intercontinental


The story told in The Lost Revolution is often grim, but at points there’s a surprising amount of gritty humour, much of it showing through in the interviews. There’s one anecdote from near the start of the Troubles which, though it could have turned out very seriously at the time, had me almost falling off my chair in laughter. The context of this was that, after the split in the republican movement, both factions suspected that the other had left sleepers behind – which was almost certainly true – and in the febrile atmosphere of Belfast, where personal and family connections ran so deep, this led to a lot of paranoia. Apparently, at one stage the Official leadership in Belfast suspected Mary McMahon of being a closet Provo. Given what we subsequently know about Mary Mac’s years of stalwart service to the Workers Party, this seems so incongruous as to be almost surreal. But then, that’s with the benefit of hindsight.

Actually, there is a parallel to this in that for years it was rumoured around the Provisionals that Jim Gibney was a Stick. And I don’t mean in the pejorative sense that some militarists might have called Adams a Stick, because they thought him too political – it was actually alleged that Gibney was a Stick. I never believed that, and the only evidence anyone seemed to have for it was that he lived in Twinbrook, but it’s easy to see how these things get started and then develop legs of their own. And it demonstrates how the lines were not as clear-cut as perhaps partisans of either side would have liked to think.

If these posts have had a theme, it’s been on the unpredictability of historical events – events that are both overdetermined, to the point where they seem inevitable in hindsight, but also contingent. The 1969/70 split in republicanism is a classic example. There was of course the basic force of the different constituencies within republicanism all pulling in different directions; there were also multiple political issues, which changed quite rapidly in both their form and their weight. Here I want to pick out four interlinked aspects of the debates leading up to the split.

The National Liberation Front
In a sense, nobody but the most hardened military elitist denied the need to forge links with other radical tendencies – to the extent that those tendencies existed, for there could be nothing analogous to the alliance between the IRA and Fianna Fáil in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Indeed, the very idea of republicans leading a popular mass movement presupposed that others would be involved. One recalls the short-lived Dáil Chonnacht movement as something that, while initiated by the Provisionals, was far from being a Provos-and-fellow-travellers affair – it included intellectuals, Labour Party members, possibly a discreet communist or two, radical Catholics, advocates of Gaeltacht self-government and so on. There are even later echoes in Costello’s big idea of the Anti-Imperialist Broad Front.

But the core of the NLF strategy, as formulated in the 1960s, revolved around the question of republicanism’s relationship with Irish communism. There were factors on the communist side of the argument, too – remember that Irish communism, as personified by Seán Murray and Mick O’Riordan, had significant roots in republicanism, and had recognised republicanism as the native form of political radicalism. (Of course the Comintern’s formulation of the United Front was first devised for alliances with anti-colonial movements and only later extended to social democracy. Probably more immediately relevant was the Kremlin’s contemporary interest in anti-colonial movements internationally.) What was more, the CPNI by then had shed its extreme pro-British colouring of the 1940s, come firmly under the influence of Desmond Greaves Thought and was moving towards reunification with the southern party.

There is little doubt that what Johnston was pushing for was a formal and permanent alliance between the republican movement and the two communist parties, in a schema that would see the communists provide a theoretical sophistication the republicans lacked, while the republicans had a popular base and organisational clout that the small and isolated communist parties did not have. The CPs’ trade union links were also an attractive factor, in particular the possibility of the CPNI providing a link to the Protestant working class. It must be emphasised, though, that Johnston didn’t have some sort of mystical power over the leadership, most of whom were willing to go along with Johnston’s brainchild because it seemed like a good idea to them. Goulding in particular didn’t seem like the kind of man to allow a Trinity intellectual to lead him by the nose.

It was also, of course, the specific alliance with the communists that caused dissension from traditionalists – from North Kerry, from Cumann na mBan, and with Mac Stíofáin fighting a rearguard action within the leadership. Mind you, the social background of the time was an Ireland where Masses still regularly included a prayer for the conversion of Russia.

The civil rights strategy
In a way, the civil rights strategy in the north, notwithstanding the theoretical framework Greaves had given it, was just a regional counterpart to Economic Resistance for the rural western base, and the growing housing agitation in Dublin. The big difference was that civil rights became a big enough movement to take on a logic and momentum all its own. In areas like Derry, Dungannon and Newry there quickly developed a situation pitching entire communities against the Orange state. The marching tactic, brilliant in its simplicity, proved ideal for building up a mass movement, which reached the parts Operation Harvest hadn’t.

Belfast, as ever, was different, and NICRA did not employ the marching tactic in Belfast – though Peoples Democracy did, occasionally and on a relatively small scale. This related in part to the internal politics of Belfast republicanism. On the one hand, the McMillen-Sullivan leadership, although it was interested in social agitation of the Dublin variety, was keenly aware of the sectarian dynamics of Belfast, and therefore reluctant to resort to what could be literally incendiary marches. On the other, there was a cabal of veterans in Belfast who were openly scornful of civil rights as a reformist strategy, who had been sidelined or expelled by the leadership in the preceding few years, and who would go on to form the core of the Provisionals in Belfast. We’re talking here about Jimmy Steele, Jimmy and Máire Drumm, Billy McKee, Leo Martin and probably John Kelly – later, in the aftermath of the August 1969 pogrom, they would summon Séamus Twomey and Joe Cahill from the vasty deep, and make a bid for support on an essentially Defenderist programme. In the meantime, the leadership was understandably cautious about staging anything that might look like a provocation.

There is a further footnote to this in terms of the relationship between the republican movement, the CPNI and Peoples Democracy within NICRA, and the 1978 official history of NICRA, for what I believe are factional reasons, obscures this issue. Bernie Devlin’s quip that the Communist Party was as conservative as the Unionist Party was a bit of hyperbole, but there’s no mistaking that, as civil rights got some momentum behind it, Betty Sinclair and her allies in the NICRA leadership did come to be the conservative wing, especially when PD changed the rules of the game with the Long March. There is still an unanswered question about the 1969 NICRA AGM, when PD carried out an effective coup against the communists, for which they must have had republican votes. The question mark is posed by the communists’ firm belief that they had a pledge of support from Goulding. The possible explanations are that Goulding was not quite as supportive as he let the CPNI think; that republican organisation was shambolic enough for Goulding’s position not to be conveyed to the northern members; or that the northern members were aware of the leadership’s wishes and disobeyed them. Any one is plausible.

In any case, the lines in 1969 were a lot more blurry than later accounts, informed by the rapid souring of relations between the Officials and PD, would indicate. Certainly, there was a lot of instinctive sympathy amongst northern republicans for the young militants of PD, and this had been indicated early on as the Long March went through South Derry. Sinn Féin had been cautiously positive about the PD campaign in the Stormont general election of 1969, with the reservation that PD at that time was very resistant indeed to raising the issue of partition. And contemporary statements from both Goulding and Garland go well beyond what was the stance of the communists in NICRA.

The organisational issue
In any factional dispute, there is always an organisational issue, and this takes on a slightly baroque aspect in Irish republicanism, which is simultaneously a political party and an armed conspiracy. Basically, we are talking about what might be termed dual subordination, where the armed wing was subordinated to political rather than military ends in its activity, while the party was organisationally subordinated to the armed wing. This didn’t prevent oppositionists like Mac Stíofáin acting independently, but it certainly complicated things, not least in the version of democratic centralism that would have the IRA making a decision internally, then voting en bloc within Sinn Féin to secure a majority for whatever the IRA had decided.

It’s tempting to read into this a precursor of how the WP came to operate democratic centralism, and chronologically that’s the case. But a more apt parallel would probably be with how dissenting Provisionals have characterised the Adams approach – Tony McIntyre will tell you that Sinn Féin has been running the Army Council for years, while recalcitrants in the political wing would complain about military discipline operating in the party, and they would both be right. In any case, this sort of management is bound to produce more grievances than strictly necessary.

There’s no doubt, this was the line in the sand for the traditionalists. And when we call republicans traditionalists, we are talking about quite serious traditionalism. One of the leaders of the walkout at the 1970 Ard Fheis, quite aptly, was the 1916 veteran Joe Clarke. Joe must have been almost ninety at the time, and needed crutches to get about, but he was still sharp enough and fiercely attached to republican fundamentals. By this point, he had made it his personal mission to outlive the traitor de Valera, and that tells you all you need to know about the character of Joe Clarke. He, or Jimmy Steele, or Seán Keenan, may not have been great men for political theory, but they knew what traditional republicanism was, and they had an instinctive aversion to anything that smacked of reformist backsliding. (Not, I believe, that the Official leadership were reformists, but we’ll get onto that. We are talking here specifically about the trad-republican view that de jure recognition of the state was reformism.)

And yet, in the north this was less of an issue than you might suppose, at least as far as Leinster House abstention was concerned. Back in 1965, Seán Caughey of Belfast had resigned as Sinn Féin vice-president out of impatience at the failure to drop abstentionism and politicise fast enough. He later joined the Provisionals. At the beginning of 1969 six Tyrone republicans resigned from the movement in protest at Sinn Féin’s refusal to put forward an attendance candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election. One of the six was a certain Kevin Mallon of Coalisland, which name might ring a few bells.

In fact, projecting backwards, although a split was probably inevitable at some point, it was far from predictable who would be on what side, unless you’d managed to predict in advance the exact combination of circumstances and relative weight of issues. Garibaldy was saying elsewhere that Brian Keenan couldn’t have been a member of the Workers Party. I think a more precise way of putting it would be that Brian Keenan, in terms of the man he became and the things we know he was involved in, could not have been a member of the WP as it subsequently developed.

Maybe Keenan is too incendiary a character to mention in a game of What If. I’ll say here, then, that in my opinion the best politician the Provisionals had was Dáithí Ó Conaill. He was arguably the sharpest thinker, certainly the most articulate speaker in a movement not overburdened by such, and had been an early advocate of a political turn in the Curragh debates during Harvest. Had he not been an ironclad abstentionist, it’s quite easy to imagine him having made a rather effective Workers Party TD. And we can reverse that, as Joe Sherlock always had more of the aspect of a traditional Sinn Féin politician than a Marxist-Leninist. (Perhaps this is why I could never quite buy Joe as a Labour politician in later years. He always seemed to look a little bereft, as if wondering where old Tom Gill had got to.)

For many participants, which side they chose in the split will have been determined by where they lived, by what their background was, who their friends were, who they were related to (especially important in Belfast, where the republican movement mostly consisted of six or seven extended families) and by which figures in the leadership they looked up to and/or had most contact with. Even if you rationalised it on political grounds, much was still contingent on the precise balance of pressures. Had there been a split on abstention without a crisis in the north, the Provos could have been as marginal as RSF today. Had it been the other way around…

The canonic figure for the confused nature of this process was Costello, who was both the most aggressive exponent of politicisation, the left turn and ditching traditionalist theology, as well as being a thoroughgoing militarist with a strong physical force line on the north. That the 1969/70 split didn’t finally resolve the issues at dispute was proved by the subsequent splits in 1974/75 and 1986. No, this was not a simple division between the politicos and the militarists. It was much more involved than that, and the logic behind the different factions’ evolution would take years to work out yet.

Want a strategy that will help with Muslim alienation? Stop giving money to Ed Husain


Maybe this is an effect of age, but I find myself increasingly thinking that Peter Hitchens has got a point about law and order. Not, I hasten to add, that I buy the Hitch’s entire bill of goods, with its emphasis on capital and corporal punishment. But I think he has a point in the more general sense, that if a few basic things were working reasonably well – a police service that did what it was supposed to, a criminal justice system that did what it was supposed to, and more solidarity at community level – then we could get rid of a lot of the accoutrements of the surveillance society. But the whole trajectory under New Labour – and there is zero evidence that the Tories will change this – is of an unwillingness to sort out those basics, a project that would take a lot of time and energy for little immediate reward, while responding to screaming tabloid headlines with dopey authoritarian initiatives.

And so it is that putting people like David Blunkett, John Reid and Wacky Jacqui Smith in charge of the Home Office has led to Britain sleepwalking into a sort of liberal Stasiland. On the one hand they’ll pass something decent like the Human Rights Act, then the Mail and the Express go buck mad when dodgy characters avail of it – which might have been expected, because your prosperous suburbanite is unlikely to need the Human Rights Act. And so, as the Human Rights Act is introduced with one hand, with the other you get the culture of Asbos, CCTV, ID cards, enormous DNA databases, fingerprinting of children and all the rest of it.

In the current climate, it’s not surprising that Muslims are getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. A lot of this has to do with the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, when it became clear that there was very little intelligence on angry young Muslims, a handful of whom might be prepared to blow themselves up along with whomever else happened to be in the vicinity. A sensible approach might have said that examining the causes of Muslim disaffection might be in order. Actually, since Mohammad Sidique Khan left behind his suicide video, we have a fair idea what he was angry about – Iraq and Palestine. But this falls foul of New Labour’s insistence that radicalisation of young Muslims has nothing whatsoever to do with British foreign policy, but results from “preachers of hate” and the occasional mosque bookshop stocking works by Sayyid Qutb.

As luck would have it, there was a ready-made mould for the new Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent for short) initiative to be poured into. This was the patronage system operated for decades by Labour councils in inner-city areas. Rather than try and lift Asians in Sparkbrook or West Indians in Brixton out of poverty, or deal with the long-range effects of structural discrimination, it was much easier to hand out grants to anyone who could plausibly claim to be a community leader, and it didn’t hurt that these people would then drum up votes for Labour, in many cases becoming Labour councillors. And this is what Prevent has largely become in practice – a politically corrupt use of the grants system to set up an enormous domestic spying operation.

Much of the outline of this was already known, but Saturday’s Guardian usefully gathered a lot of the information into one place, and it makes for uncomfortable reading:

The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism, the Guardian has learned.

The information the authorities are trying to find out includes political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates, and other sensitive information, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Other documents reveal that the intelligence and information can be stored until the people concerned reach the age of 100…

The government and police have repeatedly denied that the £140m programme is a cover for spying on Muslims in Britain. But sources directly involved in running Prevent schemes say it involves gathering intelligence about the thoughts and beliefs of Muslims who are not involved in criminal activity.

Instances around the country include:

  • In the Midlands, funding for a mental health project to help Muslims was linked to information about individuals being passed to the authorities.
  • In a college in northern England, a student who attended a meeting about Gaza was reported by one lecturer as a potential extremist. He was found not to be.
  • A nine-year-old schoolboy in east London, who was referred to the authorities after allegedly showing signs of extremism – the youngest case known in Britain. He was “deprogrammed” according to a source with knowledge of the case.
  • Within the last month, one new youth project in London alleged it was being pressured by the Metropolitan police to provide names and details of Muslim youngsters, as a condition of funding. None of the young Muslims have any known terrorist history.
  • In one London borough, those working with youngsters were told to add information to databases they hold to highlight which youths were Muslim. They were also asked to provide information, to be shared with the police, about which streets and areas Muslim youngsters could be found on.
  • In Birmingham the programme manager for Prevent is in fact a senior counter- terrorism police officer. Paul Marriott has been seconded to work in the equalities division of Britain’s biggest council.
  • In Blackburn, at least 80 people were reported to the authorities for showing signs of extremism. They were referred to the Channel project, part of Prevent.
  • A youth project manager alleges his refusal to provide intelligence led to the police spreading false rumours and trying to smear him and his organisation.
  • One manager of a project in London said : “I think part of the point of the [Prevent] programme is to spy and intelligence gather. I won’t do that.” In another London borough wardens on council estates were told to inform on people not whom they suspected of crimes, but whom they suspected could be susceptible to radicalisation. One source, who has been involved in Whitehall discussions on counter-terrorism, said: “There is no doubt Prevent is in part about gathering intelligence on people’s thoughts and beliefs. No doubt.” He added that the authorities feared “they’d be lynched” if they admitted Prevent included spying.

It would surely be more sensible and cost-effective to have confidence-building measures aimed at communities experiencing alienation, instead of alienating them further with this sort of “enemy within” stuff. What’s more, the less alienated the communities are, the more likely it is that you’ll get decent intelligence on the tiny minority of headbins who might fancy blowing themselves up. But apparently that is beyond the imagination of the Home Office.

However, one man is rather keen on all this snooping:

Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, said it was the morally right thing to do, and that waiting until people had fallen prey to extremism and were drawn into terrorism was too late…

Husain said of Prevent: “It is gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences. If it is to prevent people getting killed and committing terrorism, it is good and it is right.”…

Husain said gathering intelligence outweighed civil liberty concerns that prying into the political and religious beliefs of people was a dangerous move towards a police state: “That’s the name of the game. It’s not about doing the right thing by Islamists or by liberal do-gooders, it’s about creating a society where liberal do-gooders survive freely.”

Can it be coincidental that, under the auspices of Prevent, some £700,000 of taxpayers’ money has been handed over to the Quilliam Foundation? I suggest not.

One may hope that, in their current zeal for small government, the Tories might have something more sensible in mind. But no, their plans are even more draconian:

The Conservatives are seriously considering adopting a new policy called Preventing Extremism.

Among those who would be considered extreme under those plans are those who advocate a caliphate, a pan-Islamic state encompassing many countries; those promoting Sharia law; and those who believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world.

This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military and those who fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now, the Tories have been flaying the government for some time on the question of the non-violent Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Whilst having a rush of blood to the head, Mr Tony Blair promised to ban the Hizb, but the government backed away from this on the grounds that, while the Hizb say some objectionable things and they aren’t very popular, there was zero evidence of them being involved in violent activity or incitement of same. The Tories are adamant that they will ban the Hizb nonetheless. But it’s worth pondering for a moment just how far-reaching those Tory proposals are. Someone who writes an article or a blog post advocating Sharia law could be blacklisted; so could someone who states that the Palestinians have a right to resist occupation (and note here that we’re not talking about blowing up civilians, but about directly resisting the IDF); and you have to love that “fail to condemn” bit, which summons up images of the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade in Catch-22.

Here’s the kicker:

Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, who has advised both Labour and the Conservatives on extremism… (emphasis added)

You can find much more on Prevent from this report [pdf] from the Institute of Race Relations, which goes into some detail about how a programme supposedly aimed at stopping radicalisation is in fact increasing Muslim alienation. It also mentions the influence Ed and his mates are having on the Prevent programme.

Inayat Bunglawala puts it well:

In normal circumstances you would have expected British Muslims to wholeheartedly rally behind the stated goals of the Prevent agenda, i.e., to reduce the risk from terrorism and to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism.

In practice, however, under the guise of the Prevent program, ministers at the communities and local department (CLG), including Ruth Kelly and her successor Hazel Blears, attempted to engage in a rather ambitious bit of social engineering and began promoting and funding outfits which had little or no support among UK Muslims, including the Sufi Muslim Council and the Quilliam Foundation, while trying to marginalize far larger and more representative bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Oddly enough, the views of the government and these new outfits concerning the “war on terror” were largely indistinguishable…

According to The Guardian, the Quilliam Foundation has received £700,000 in Home Office Prevent funding to date. It is an eye-opening figure given that the Quilliam Foundation was only established in April 2008 by two former Hizb ut-Tahrir activists Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz.

The Quilliam Foundation has earned notoriety among UK Muslims by consistently being seen to smear and attempting to undermine leading Islamic figures and mainstream organizations by labeling them as ‘Islamists’.

And also adding to British Muslim concerns, the Quilliam Foundation has gained the vocal support of a whole gallery of influential neo-conservatives and Zionists including Nick Cohen, Michael Gove, Charles Moore, and Martin Bright. Indeed, the latter, Martin Bright, was the author of a notorious article whose title referred to the holy Qur’an as a ‘great con trick’…

(Ed’s popularity with the Decents is a good spot. He’s also been feted by the neocon Scoop Jackson Society, and hailed as an heroic figure by the Alliance for Workers Liberty. You can go a long way by telling people what they want to hear.)

Many British Muslims have understandably come to view the Quilliam Foundation as constituting a government-backed attempt to destabilize leading Islamic organizations in the UK. An essential and necessary first step to help rebuild relations with British Muslims and increase trust must be for the Home Office to publicly make crystal clear that the government does not in any way condone spying on individuals who are not suspected of involvement in unlawful activities. A second essential step must be to loudly distance itself from the actions and views of the Quilliam Foundation and to immediately cease funding its mischief-making against Islamic institutions.

Well said that man. The two cabinet ministers responsible for Prevent, Alan Johnson and John Denham, are relatively sensible characters who have made some of the right noises in recent months, certainly in comparison to the Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears double act that preceded them. It remains to be seen whether or not they are willing to follow through on those noises. Ceasing to shower enormous amounts of public money on Ed Husain would be a good start.

More thoughts on this from Liam, who is wondering whether now would be a good time to get rid of those Wolfe Tones CDs.

Thinking outside the box


We’re going to take a momentary break from The Lost Revolution, although this post will touch on one or two relevant points. What I want to ponder is a simple matter of political strategy. There are two quite serious strategic conundra that face anyone interested in progressive politics in Ireland. Let me state at the outset that I won’t be putting forward any answers to these issues, because I don’t have any. But, quite honestly, neither does anyone else.

The first of these issues is how to break Fianna Fáil’s grip on the southern working class. I don’t mean weaken it conjuncturally, but break it for the longer term. Sure, FF are undergoing a torrid time in the polls at the minute – currently registering fourth in Dublin, unless I’m mistaken – and Biffo Cowen looks like he’s heading up a dead government walking, but it would be a fool who would predict that this was permanent. FF have very deep social roots, and a couple of years of a useless Fine Gael-Labour government could quite easily see the buggers bouncing back again. What would be needed would be to get FF down, keep them down and for some other formation to capture their base before they could make a comeback. I find it difficult to see that happening any time soon.

The second, and much more tricky, issue is that of how to end partition without armed struggle. One may object that armed struggle hasn’t been very successful in ending partition, but that’s hardly the point, at least if you’re worried about more generations coming along and taking up the physical force tradition. During the Troubles, you used to have these meetings organised by the left where the left speakers would attack the armed struggle as being either morally wrong or tactically counterproductive or both. Inevitably, there would be some Provo sympathisers in the audience who would ask the leftists to produce an alternative strategy. And they could never do it convincingly.

The left, in its approach to the north, has been quite heavy on schemata and has had a whole array of tactics, but a plausible strategy has never really been forthcoming. You found this even – perhaps especially – with people who prided themselves on their theoretical sophistication. The old-time Peoples Democracy used to have a schema, derived basically from Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula, whereby the national struggle in the north would create shock waves in the south which would in turn open up an all-Ireland revolutionary vista. That, self-evidently, did not work out, not least because the southern bourgeoisie was a lot stronger and deeper rooted than PD allowed for. PD’s successor group, when not impersonating Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, seem to have turned that schema on its head and now look to industrial militancy in the south to create shock waves in the north. You’ll notice that this is still a schema, and doesn’t really have much in the way of empirical evidence to support it.

Militant/the SP developed quite an elaborate schema which was, if I interpret Peter Hadden correctly, designed as a counter to the republican and official communist stages approach of resolving the national stage of the revolution and then progressing to the socialist stage. Peter claimed to have broken with that whole approach, but to the sceptical outsider it looked as if he had simply reversed it – by positing the national question as an epiphenomenon of capitalism, what was then required was for the working class to achieve power north and south, with economic militancy as the motor, and thereafter the national question would be easy to sort out. By way of contrast, the SWP (who have long had to negotiate the difficulty of an extremely anti-republican leadership and a membership containing a fair percentage of hardline republicans with an embarrassing tendency to talk like PD members circa 1973) put forward a schema that was quite appealing in its crude clarity – these issues would be solved in the course of the revolutionary process, so the task of the moment was for the revolutionary party to get more bums on seats. This would seem more convincing if the vanguard was a little better at keeping bums on seats for longer than five minutes.

Of course, the foregoing is a massive generalisation, and there is plenty more that could be said – in terms, for example, of how Militant expected a mass left split from the Labour Party, or how PD expected a mass left split from the republican movement, both of which hopes were obviously disappointed. But these are on the level of theoretical schemata. There has never been any shortage of tactics either, but strategies properly speaking have been thin on the ground. I mention this not in an accusatory way, because it’s not as if I have any ready-made strategy either.

The classic socialist strategy for ending partition has been to try and break the Protestant working class, or a substantial section of it anyway, away from unionism. It’s the most obvious alternative to physical force, and it’s not rocket science or any great novelty – the CPNI, probably under Greaves’ influence, wrote this perspective into Ireland’s Path to Socialism in the early 1960s. But then you come up against the question of how exactly to go about doing this. Republican and communist participants in NICRA were very much informed by the Greaves perspective, but it quickly became apparent in the course of the civil rights movement that splitting the Unionist Party and winning over the Protestant working class were not at all the same thing. That the Protestant working class, under the impact of civil rights, turned not to socialism but to Paisleyism demonstrated that.

A lot of this comes down to how you perceive unionism. There’s been an element of traditional republican thinking that has a serious blind spot in respect of unionism, basically seeing it as a function of the British presence rather than an autonomous entity. Recognising unionism as a thing in itself was obviously a conceptual breakthrough, but one that doesn’t answer any questions but simply raises a whole lot of new questions. There’s also been this tendency, not only amongst republicans but also on the Marxist left, to see unionist identity as something quite shallow and easily discarded – as a form of false consciousness which Protestant workers will see through when they enter into class struggle, for instance. No, there’s more to it than that, and seeing unionism as a reactionary ideology doesn’t mean, uncomfortable as this may be, that it isn’t organic.

This is where Henry Patterson scored points in his attack on republican civil rights thought in The Politics of Illusion. (Henry was still a member of the Workers Party when he wrote it, but there are specifics about his background – he’d previously been in the Workers Association, a BICO front group, and was something of an apostle of the late Bill Warren – that are as relevant, and probably more so, than the WP’s positions.) Basically, the Greaves strategy saw that discrimination was the material basis of unionism, and since discrimination against Catholics necessarily meant discrimination in favour of Protestants, it cemented the Protestant working class to the Orange state. Remove discrimination, and you kicked away unionism’s material prop, and therefore (so the thinking went) removed the Protestant worker’s motivation for supporting unionism.

This didn’t work. The schema failed to take into account the stiff resistance the Protestant working class would put up to a movement against discrimination, for precisely that reason. Henry also derides as wishful thinking the idea that, in the absence of discrimination, unionism would fade away – unionist identity was a lot more deeply rooted than that, as he ably pointed out. The trouble with Henry’s critique is that he has an equal and opposite blind spot, which is the assumption that, if discrimination was abolished, northern nationalism would fade away – that there would be no material basis for a separatist project and so northern Catholics would simply retreat into a sort of cultural Irishness. In essence, this following the line of least resistance leads only to Walkerism, and that doesn’t work either. It also leads to the world of endless Barry White columns in the Belfast Telegraph wondering bemusedly why northern nationalists couldn’t be satisfied with a Welsh-style recognition of their cultural identity (actually, unionism even finds that difficult) or why prosperous Catholics on the Malone Road weren’t becoming unionists.

Disappointing as though it may be for the thoroughgoing historical materialist, ethno-national identities do have a life of their own, and are usually very entrenched. And while some purist Marxists may say that the workers have no country, with the wish being father to the thought, in fact it’s elements of the capitalist class that have moved most swiftly into a sort of post-national Europeanism, the charms of which the actually existing working class so far remains resistant to.

Could things change? Hypothetically, yes, but in unexpected ways and not necessarily with the working class at the centre. Here I’m going to do some shameless speculating, but it’s no more off the wall than some of what gets argued as quite serious politics.

Firstly, Newt was mentioning just there about some of the interesting noises Big Ian was making in his fairly brief stint as first minister. That is to say, the Dochtúir Mór seemed to be hinting at an idiosyncratic sort of Ulster nationalism, which might involve close relations with the south but which also embraced Paisley’s very chummy relationship with Alex Salmond. This however proved too heady a brew for the DUP, and Peter Robinson’s mood music is much more conventional. This is not to say that the logic of devolution, and perhaps developments in Scotland particularly, might not work itself out in an unpredictable way.

Secondly, one should not dismiss out of hand the idea that a conservative Catholic movement might find common cause with culturally conservative Protestants – although probably not these guys – in resisting the tide of secularism. Bernie Smyth has actually had some success along these lines on the single issue of abortion. One can only imagine the horror of our bien-pensants at such an appalling vista.

Finally, there’s a class aspect here, and I’m thinking in a sense about something that Malachi mentions every so often, about the middle class’s abdication from politics and whether this might be reversed in a post-Troubles environment. I was struck by Garibaldy’s account of the appearance of Chris McGimpsey at the WP NI conference, where Chris mentioned how his electoral base on the Shankill owed a lot to the old NILP base, which by now is dying out through old age. But, while socialist unionists like Chris McGimpsey or Roy Garland seem like quixotic figures now, there are other possibilities which are more likely to manifest themselves in North Down than in Belfast.

Allow me to explain. The North Down constituency is the wealthiest in the north by some distance, and contains within it a very large concentration of liberal unionists. These people have a liking for quirky independent candidates. They are also prepared to vote in large numbers for Catholic candidates – historically Alliance, but there would be some logic in UCUNF trying its hand with a Catholic candidate. (It’s the Shaun Bailey strategy. There is little evidence that Shaun Bailey appeals much to black Londoners, but he just might appeal to liberal-minded white folks who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more.)

This mix of factors has led to some delicious unpredicability in North Down politics. In the latter half of the 1980s the area was the major stomping ground for the Ulster Tories, which makes sense. Then the good burghers elected Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, who not only surrounded himself with Conor Cruise O’Brien and veterans of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but on being elected to Westminster promptly declared his hitherto unsuspected leftwing sympathies and proposed to take the Labour whip. (They didn’t let him.) Big Bob was then unseated by Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a most assiduous supporter of New Labour. The thinking now is that the UCUNF lash-up, with its appeal to pan-UK unionism, may have a strong appeal in the area.

But there is another, admittedly hypothetical possibility. Up in Derry, PSF have been running a unionist outreach programme for years, but this seems to encompass relatively few Prods from the estates and rather a lot of businessmen and clergy. And in fact, it is the business class who are most open to the all-Ireland context, and just might be willing to look south. One might argue that, if Fianna Fáil were serious about their northern mission, they wouldn’t be farting about in Derry and Downpatrick talking to clapped-out SDLP types, but heading to Bangor and Holywood to make a business case for a united Ireland. Then again, maybe FF isn’t fit for purpose, and you would need it to be a particular sort of candidate to make the right impact there. I believe Declan Ganley is between political projects at the moment…

The Lost Revolution: from the Harvest to the New Departure


It’s well known, and chronologically indisputable, that the republican movement’s turn to socialism in the 1960s came out of the failure of Operation Harvest. What I want to do in this post is to consider the question of whether that turn was quite as thought-out or as seamless as it appears in retrospect. The short answer of course is No, but hopefully the meander around the subject will cast some light. What I want to emphasis is the ad-hocness of the development towards socialism, in personnel and ideological terms.

Operation Harvest ended in February 1962 with the frank admission of failure. There’s an easy, seamless narrative which says that then the new leadership of Mac Giolla as Sinn Féin president and Goulding as IRA chief of staff, who then steered the movement towards political activism and socialism. In fact, things were a lot more confused than that. Firstly, the “Three Macs” leadership had largely been displaced from the top of the IRA in the course of the campaign, in what was a generational shift more than anything else. The old leadership then retreated to Sinn Féin, which evidently they saw as some sort of factional headquarters – though this was factionalism without alternative programmes, but really about control of the movement. Having been routed, there was then a drawn-out process in the spring and summer of 1962 which involved Pádraig Mac Lógáin resigning as party president, followed by his associates resigning from the ard comhairle. Thereafter you had Mac Giolla taking on the presidency, initially on an interim basis, and various co-options of younger personnel until the ard fheis could formally confirm a new leadership team.

The change of leadership in the army happened in September 1962, basically because the incumbent chief of staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (for it was he) was tired out after the campaign and wanted to go back to teaching in Roscommon. Nobody else wanted the job. At first Goulding didn’t want it either, but in the absence of anyone else he was talked into it. Now, it is important not to have an anachronistic view of Goulding. He was certainly a Marxist in later life, but whether he was a Marxist in 1962 is seriously doubtful. At the time, it appears that he was seen as a bit of a militarist – not merely in that he had an army background, but that he had been in the IRA since the late 1930s and it was only in the mid-60s that he was cajoled into joining Sinn Féin. Evidently, we’re talking about someone whose ideas changed quite considerably – his personal reliance on Johnston being a big factor – and the process by which people’s ideas changed is worthy of consideration.

The IRA statement ending Harvest had admitted defeat on the grounds of popular indifference to the national struggle, and, whatever one might say about Seán Cronin’s military theories, that was the decisive factor, with the large passive support shown in elections to Westminster (1955) and Leinster House (1957) going into marked decline as the campaign dragged on with no prospect of making any progress. So you had the need for political action, discussed in a broad-ranging sense by the Curragh inmates during the campaign, largely posed in functional terms – that if the movement was to survive and even prosper, it would need to get itself a mass popular base. This had been dimly understood in the past, with the various unsuccessful attempts by the 1930s IRA, following the enormous disappointment of Fianna Fáil in office, to set up front parties. It was even understood by the Three Macs, and was the motivation for the army’s takeover of Sinn Féin at the start of the 1950s, even if, once having acquired SF, they didn’t have much idea of what to do with it.

So then the question was, what sort of politics? Republicans of the time have often been described as essentially Fianna Fáilers with guns. This isn’t precisely correct. In formal programmatic terms, FF was perhaps to the left of SF (and Labour!) in that its constitution incorporated (and may still do to this day) the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, which the SF programme did not. Labour did not formally describe itself as socialist until late 1966 (in a very vague way) and SF not until 1967 (although it then tried to elaborate its socialism, as Labour did not). Taking it back to 1962, what set the republican movement apart was its adherence to abstentionism and physical force separatism. So if you were going to graft politics onto such a movement, there was then the question of what sort of politics. There were both internal and external factors at work.

To take the external factor first, de Valera’s gutting of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, followed by the enactment of a new constitution and the declaration of a republic, meant that in practical terms, the southern state – the north being different of course – looked as independent as it was ever going to get, and the insistence of republicans that the Dublin government was merely a puppet government, not to mention adherence to the de jure republic of 1916, came increasingly to look like a piece of baroque theology. But then you had the Lemass government abandoning autarkic economics, and this opened up the road for a neo-colonial analysis that reformulated imperialist domination of Ireland in economic terms – particularly significant being the British imposition of tariffs on industrial imports, in flagrant ignorage of the Anglo-Irish free trade area; the menace of the EEC also loomed increasingly large. These were areas where Johnston and Coughlan, with their Marxist background, could impart some coherence.

Internally, the 1930s tradition of IRA involvement with leftwing politics could be resurrected – in fact, even after Russell’s rightist coup there were examples of the movement getting involved in things like physically resisting evictions. A project of radical agitation, based on fusing the movement with the masses, made sense on this level. But this also needed to take into account the actually existing base, so you then had Donegal once and twice. Once with Fr McDyer’s co-operative experiment, in which Dáithí Ó Conaill and other republicans had been involved, and which fed into the developing programme. Twice with the re-emergence, via the WTS, of Peadar O’Donnell and the renewed relevance of his ideas. The Economic Resistance perspective, with its fish-ins and such, was straight out of the O’Donnell repertoire.

But of course the new departure wasn’t only a matter of rural agitprop, important though that was. There was the increased willingness of the movement to identify itself as socialist, with the resurrection of Connolly and Mellows in republican thought. Certainly there was a functional aspect to the movement’s socialism in the early stages. Also important here is that, post Vatican II, the Catholic Church was no longer opposed to socialism and this dimished the power of the red scare – there could even be, as the 1960s wore on, a little trendiness about socialism, with the s-word being employed even in the proverbially timid Labour Party, and Garret FitzGerald floating the (in hindsight, doomed) idea of Fine Gael reinventing itself as a Social Democratic Party. The fear of Muscovite communism, however, did remain tangible, which was the big strike against Johnston’s apparent aim of formally fusing the republican movement with Irish communism. (One suspects the SACP’s role in the ANC might have been a model here.) This evolutionary process perhaps helps to explain Mac Giolla denouncing the communist menace in the 1960s, only to become the communist menace a few years later.

So you had a developing programme of agitation around socio-economic issues. Although SF remained under fairly tight army control – look at the short shrift given to conservatives in North Kerry, or in the notoriously traditionalist Cumann na mBan – increasingly you had the army being used in pursuit of this agitation, providing support to strikers and squatters in an echo of its 1930s left period. And this also posed the question of electoral intervention. Costello was always forcing the pace of course, and his own experience as a councillor in Bray fed into that. But the majority of elected councillors were out in the rural west, and in this context we may again note that those who went on to form the Provos were not necessarily against electoral intervention – Ó Brádaigh and Mac Fhearghail had been elected abstentionist TDs in 1957, and Ó Conaill had nearly won a seat in Cork in 1961. Their Rubicon was on recognition of the state, which few people were arguing for early on in the new departure (Tom Mitchell of Tyrone was one prominent exception), but which would come back onto the agenda whether the leadership liked it or not.

Again we see that a project embarked on – in this case politicisation and an agitational perspective – can easily develop a momentum of its own, throwing up questions not even considered at the beginning of the process. And in this context, a moderately successful project can reveal as many, if not more, contradictions than a heroic failure.

The Lost Revolution: A sketch on republican geography


In Joy Street in Belfast, at the edge of the Markets, there is a little wall plaque paying tribute to Joe McCann on the spot where he fell in 1972. I used to walk past it every day on the way to work, although it barely registered for a long time, the way you don’t really notice something that’s always been there. In The Lost Revolution, Hanley and Millar describe the Markets as “notoriously clannish”, which I guess is one way of putting it, and mention McCann’s rare ability as an outsider to be accepted there. Which leads me onto the importance of geography and territoriality as regards Irish republicanism and how it developed.

In his book on the Officials, Seán Swan has a nice aside at one point about how Dublin was distant from Belfast, and was also distant from Kerry. The contradiction Seán refers to is that you had a movement whose leadership was headquartered in Dublin but whose base was mostly rural and western, and moreover which had a powerful element in the north with very different concerns again. The basic schema, and I know this is a great simplification, is one of a traditionalist republican constituency in Connacht and Munster, a working-class socialist constituency in Dublin (Costello, from Bray, counts as an honorary Dubliner in this instance) and an essentially Defenderist constituency in the north. There’s a lot of truth in that, but, as I say, it’s a simplification.

We may start, I suppose, with western republicanism, which doesn’t quite get the understanding it deserves – Goulding, Garland and Costello were always impatient with the rural traditionalists, and Adams has shown little sign of a deep understanding. Western republicanism is a thing in itself, quite distinct from the concerns of the east coast metropolis, but is well worth considering as it was, prior to 1969, the main reservoir of support for republicanism. The WP would in later years consider this a petty bourgeois element, which may be true in strict Marxist terms – the typical activist would be a small farmer, a schoolteacher, a publican or an auctioneer, not Tone’s “men of no property” but rather men of small property. And while western republicanism had a strong militarist streak, it was primarily concerned with southern matters.

We are talking here about a movement formed by the memory of the Civil War, but that wasn’t as distant in the 1960s as it seems now. There were still rather a lot of Civil War veterans around. The Civil War was still a living memory, and much more so were the persecutions of republicans that followed, with those enacted by Fianna Fáil felt with especial bitterness. For traditional republicans, de Valera was a byword for treachery – even today, it’s hard to get traditionalists to take a balanced view of him – while men like Joe Clarke and Tom Maguire were personifications of republican fidelity. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, from Longford, will talk not only about his father, a hero of the Anglo-Irish War who was badly wounded and died relatively young as a result, but also about how he, as a young boy in the 1940s, attended the funerals of republican hunger strikers. Such is the republican concept of living history that there are always veterans around to transmit the memories.

What animated the traditional republican in the west was a burning, visceral hatred of the Saorstát and all its works and pomps. This found its expression in abstentionism, and in the legitimist concept that the de jure Republic of 1916 still existed in shadow form, and that the Army Council of the IRA was the legal government of the Republic. (Abstentionism and legitimism aren’t inseparable, and it’s logically possible to have one without the other, but they make for a powerful, mutually reinforcing combination.) These people were anti-partitionist, to be sure, but were equally if not more concerned with sustaining a revolutionary opposition to the southern state. This is important to consider when we come to the 1969 split. It wasn’t the north that occasioned the split, though the eruption of the north sharpened the questions. Nor was it the move to socialism as, though there was still a genuine fear of Muscovite communism, most traditionalists were not opposed, or at least not strongly opposed, to the moderate co-operativist socialism of Sinn Féin in the latter half of the 1960s, as long as this did not involve breaching abstentionism. The movement had in the past swung to the left and to the right and back again, and would do in the future, but abstentionism was the line in the sand that the traditionalists would not cross, and that by itself would have precipitated a split.

Things in the north were, of course, different. Northern republicanism was never all that concerned with the theology of the traditionalists, and northerners were often dismissive of abstentionism, particularly as regards Leinster House. Recall that the northern IRA had rallied to Mick Collins, because Collins provided guns to the north and took a tough line against the unionists. Republicanism in the north was and is basically separatist and anti-unionist, with a strong overlay of defence. Even so, there are significant regional differences.

Let me illustrate this concretely. War and an Irish Town is a good read, but what you miss is how untypical Derry was. Since there were relatively few unionists on the west bank of the river, and there are many fewer now, the Troubles in Derry took the form of a more or less demographically solid nationalist community pitched against an external force in the shape of the state. There are few other areas of the north – South Armagh, perhaps, although that’s a very different place – where the lines were as clear cut. Even in mostly nationalist areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh, where separatism was a realistic programme, there were still considerable numbers of unionists living cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The potential for a separatist project to devolve into sectarianism was always there, and the need to consider defence was always there.

Things become more complicated still in Belfast. If you go to Short Strand, you get a good sense of the physicality of ghetto Defenderism. It’s a small, overcrowded estate in East Belfast, surrounded on three sides by hardline loyalist areas and on the fourth by the Lagan. During the Troubles and even at points in the peace process, the fear of a loyalist pogrom has been tangible in the area. It’s not surprising, then, that Short Strand republicans have a notoriously independent streak – whether they’ve borne allegiance to the Provos, the Sticks or the INLA, the theoretical leadership of their organisation has always had trouble keeping the Strand in line. Equally, Ardoyne republicans are essentially focused on what affects Ardoyne, and don’t particularly want to know about West Belfast.

Even in West Belfast, where there’s some security in numbers and relative geographical spread – which is why Bombay Street in 1969 was such a shock – one should never underestimate the importance of defending the community against the Prods. One could be a Second Dáil legitimist or a socialist equally well, as long as defence was not forgotten. What’s more, there is an element of variation that will come into play in terms of the story of the Officials. If we want to talk about the Sticks in Belfast, to a very large extent we’re talking about their strongholds of the Lower Falls, Twinbrook and the Markets, and the specificities of those areas, and the friction with the Provos that aris at regular intervals. (I quite like Henry Patterson, but his vision of Stickyism seemed a very long way removed from what people in Twinbrook would understand by it.) And again, if we’re to understand why the IRSP/INLA turned out as they did, it’s worth remembering that most of their Belfast membership spent 1975 physically under siege in Divis Flats, which would have a disorienting effect on anyone.

And that leaves us with Dublin. It’s probably an exaggeration, if we’re talking about the republican movement in 1967 or so, to see there as being a real constituency of horny-handed proletarian republicans in Dublin. Sinn Féin’s paid-up membership in Dublin at the time was probably in the same ballpark as Mick O’Riordan’s IWP. Quite a few of these people (including leadership figures such as Tomás Mac Giolla or Seán Ó Brádaigh) would have been rural transplants. Of those who were native Dubliners, there would have been as many from a small business background (Goulding with his painting and decorating business, de Rossa from a shopkeeping background) as actual wage labourers. Nonetheless, it was the case that most of those Dubliners who moved into republican activism were motivated at least in large part by the experience of poverty, and that led to an openness to socialist thinking.

What you had then in Dublin was not so much an actually existing working class constituency, as an ideal or potential constituency. But this constituency was not particularly interested in traditional republican concerns, and much of the Dublin-based leadership (Costello comes to mind) were either indifferent to or even contemptuous of those concerns, not being animated either by Civil War resentments or by northern sectarianism. The trouble then is when you have a leadership that, in pursuit of a new constituency, develops a fractious relationship with the old one. And when that leadership makes inroads into the new constituency, beginning to reshape the movement in its own image and at the same time accelerating its own evolution – that’s when you get a combustible mix, just ready for a movement to split right down the middle.

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