Madness to the method

One of the things that used to puzzle me slightly about the SWP, at least in latter years, was the great enthusiasm of most of the leadership for the early Lukács. Our friend the Sheriff of Nottingham was particularly enthusiastic about History and Class Consciousness, and used to wax prolix on the subject whenever given the chance. This wasn’t of course a universally held position – John Molyneux eloquently dissented from the Lukácsian consensus, as did Professor Callinicos, although I am not sure that Alexander’s championing of Louis Althusser was much of an improvement.

Why was this puzzling? Well, if you’ll recall, H&CC was denounced by the Comintern on the (correct) grounds that it was philosophically idealist. Not necessarily an obvious fit for a party that loudly proclaimed its unbending materialism. (I have the same problem with Historical Materialism, an excellent journal in many ways but not containing a fierce lot that’s historical or materialist. Some of the articles are at such a level of abstraction as to give the reader a nosebleed.) I have come to believe, though, that the attraction was on the level of Methodological Marxism.

Allow me to explain. If you’ve read H&CC, one of the most memorable bits is Lukács’s little essay asking “What is Orthodox Marxism?” His conclusion – and I can still remember this being hilariously deconstructed by Duncan Hallas – was that, even if all the propositions of Marxism could be refuted empirically, Marxism would still remain valid because Marxist orthodoxy resides in method. Now, it is important to bear in mind at this point that, despite some suggestive passages in his earlier philosophical writings, Marx never at any point wrote a discourse on method. What has come to be known as the Marxist method is something that was very largely deduced from his writings by the theorists of the Second International and carried on (in prose that seems badly translated from German or Russian, even when the writer is a native Sacsbhéarla speaker) by today’s further left.

Given my historicist leanings, you’d expect me to be a little flippant about such matters, and indeed I am. The late Kurt Vonnegut used to say that, as a young man, he’d been given two useful pieces of advice when his school principal told him to go out and kill Hitler, and his father told him to never stick anything in his ears. Likewise, I have acquired a few simple rules of thumb that usually stand me in good stead. When leftists talk about a turn to the class, it’s time to be suspicious of what’s coming next. When they talk about a turn to Lenin, it might make more sense to ease yourself quietly out the the door. And when they talk about the Marxist method, you can be reasonably confident that they’re making it up as they go along. As one Marxist methodologist of my acquaintance once exclaimed, “Facts? What can you learn from facts?”

To keep this intellectual for the moment, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt has a great description of this mindset in his immortal treatise On Bullshit:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Which brings me neatly back to the Sheriff.

I find reading SWP Pre-Conference Bulletins something of an enervating experience, requiring you to work yourself up into that willing suspension of disbelief that dramatists aim for. There used to be an awful lot of ringing declarations of the party’s infallibility; statements so sweeping you would hope (usually in vain) that the more bumptious element wouldn’t take them literally; and libertyvalanced versions of events that you were sure didn’t happen like that. The factional situation this time round at least means there are two sides doing the libertyvalancing, and the claims of infallibility has been replaced by an acknowledgement that yes, some minor mistakes were made, but it was all the other lot’s fault. If you remember the polemics between Taaffeites and Grantites when Militant split, it’s a bit like that. There are also some good (and one or two quite strange) contributions from further down the hierarchy, which unfortunately will probably get lost in the mix.

I should state at the outset that I don’t have a dog in this fight, and will try to take a fairly detached view. I should also state that I’ve been listening rather too much to Southern Culture On The Skids, which may contribute to a slightly skewed outlook on the world. One mentions this as a reason, not an excuse.

The big draw in IB2 is of course the long awaited platform of the Rees-German “Left Platform”. It’s followed by a reply from the CC, which bears all the stylistic hallmarks of Alex Mango, and a pleasingly short and pithy one from a comrade Nick, which is not surprising if that’s the same Nick I’m thinking of. But here are some observations of my own.

This debate needs to take place in a fraternal and tolerant atmosphere free from personal attacks. No one should feel nervous about putting forward their views for fear of being denounced as factional or, worse still, of facing disciplinary action.

The real tradition of Leninism in such periods is of free and open debate in which all positions are ensured maximum exposure and careful consideration in order that the most effective policies can be adopted in a democratic manner. We should therefore avoid misrepresentation of comrades’ political positions.

The correct response at this point is to say, hark who’s talking. The main author of this document was notorious for thinking that there were absolutely no deficiencies in party democracy until he was removed from the Central Committee. But, having established that we all believe in mom and apple pie, let’s beat on:

Ten years ago at the time of the Seattle demonstration [after having abstained from Stop the City a few months earlier] the SWP made a sharp strategic change. Faced with an anti-capitalist mood [it’s still never been explained what an anti-capitalist mood actually is] becoming a movement, we decided the starting point for revolutionaries was to get involved with the movement and do what we could to give it direction…

We launched Globalise Resistance as a loose anti-capitalist network involving a number of leading figures on the left and had real success mobilising and expressing the sentiments of thousands of activists in this first phase of radicalisation…

Our pivotal role in Britain’s biggest ever mass movement, Stop the War, took this process to a new level. The SWP provided a good deal of the inspiration, the organising backbone and the political direction for Stop the War. We gained huge credibility in the process and recruited many of the best of a new generation of activists, many of whom have been central to the organisation ever since. We took this process a step further with the wider project of Respect [notice no reference to the Socialist Alliance], which had significant success until its crisis in 2007.

And following this list of triumphs in which faction leaders were centrally involved (and skipping lightly over, for instance, the obsolescence of GR), we have this gem:

No strategy is risk free, and like any other orientation, aspiring to lead mass movements creates many difficulties. However it is crucial we do not allow past setbacks to prevent us from taking future initiatives.

This reads to me rather like Mr Tony Blair’s “let’s draw a line under it and move on” routine. With perhaps an undertone of “don’t blame the people who had the balls to take risks”.

The SWP should commit to spearheading a broad and political united front response to the economic crisis and its effects.

In that case, you’re not talking about a united front, not even of a special type. You’re talking about a generalised political bloc, or even a party if you prefer. This woolly use of language annoys my brain.

We need branches which are interventionist, geared around the many demands of the class struggle and the movements, which can act as centres of resistance for socialists locally, rather than, as too many of them are, small and sometimes abstract discussion centres.

This raises the appalling vista of a return to the infamous “action branches”. And from the people who ended up going further and disbanding branches altogether.

We need a campaign of sustained recruitment… We should be organising more regular recruitment rallies that break out of the pattern of standard public meetings.

Oh no, not that old chestnut. If all else fails, have a recruitment drive. At this point, let’s remember how Cliff improved on that in 1973 by appointing himself membership secretary and regaling the monthly NC meetings with a league table of organisers showing the ace recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Although within three months all that table showed was who was the most shameless liar, usually Roger Rosewell.

The limited but real increase in industrial struggle demands much more than a propaganda response. And it also demands much more than organisations that are ‘party fronts’ that contain few figures beyond the SWP or only contain them as figureheads.

Hmm. We’ll get back to this.

What is required is a broad, united left organisation on a national scale that can deliver solidarity to each dispute as it occurs on a far more effective level than the SWP alone is capable of doing.

Sounds a bit like what the SA, SSP and Respect projects were supposed to be about, and we know what happened to them. And who happened it.

After some musing on Cliff’s metaphor of the small cog moving the big cog, and the necessity of a middle cog (Gear! How many times, it’s gear!) we get some rather obfuscatory arguments about Right To Work agitation. And yet more about this broad united front against the recession, which sounds uncannily like the heretical idea of the broad left party. Except that those like Socialist Resistance who say they want a broad left party actually have a clear idea of what they want, and don’t just rely on half-baked sloganising about all-purpose united fronts.

We then move onto the big swingeing polemic about the transcendent importance of Stop the War.

In the run up to the last Party conference we heard for the first time a critique of the anti-war movement as being too ‘top down’ and ‘too reliant’ on notables… Worse still some CC members have now started to repeat the criticisms of the Stop the War Coalition first heard from the left sects – that ‘Stop the War doesn’t generalise enough’ and that ‘Stop the War failed to stop the war’.

The latter is factually indisputable. As for the rest, just because the Weekly Worker says something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Furthermore, the Left Platform comrades seem to find it inexcusable pessimism to state that Stop the War isn’t as important as it was in 2003. Of course Afghanistan remains an enormously important issue, but the massive gap between anti-war sentiment and anti-war activism is a reality, and it’s a gap that can’t be bridged by getting the SWP Central Committee to read The Power of Positive Thinking. Even Bookmarks getting in a job lot of its sequel, Enthusiasm Makes The Difference, might not be enough.

We then move onto a discussion of the united front tactic that might interest Harry Frankfurt:

For Lenin and Trotsky the strategy of the united front was essential to advancing the interests of the working class… The united front is therefore integral to revolutionary strategy… But what happens when the revolutionary party stops pursuing a united front strategy? The lack of such a strategy can lead to revolutionaries accommodating to political forces to their right.

It’s hard to believe – no, actually it isn’t – that John Rees is the author of a relatively recent pamphlet on strategy and tactics. The united front, as the early Comintern understood it, was a particular tactic that may or may not be applicable in given circumstances. In fact, as Trotsky later expanded on the topic, it is to be understood as a concrete manifestation of transitional politics. Since the SWP doesn’t believe in transitional politics, it is perhaps excusable that John doesn’t get this, but it is not excusable that he falls into the schoolboy sectarian error of elevating a tactic to a strategy, and a permanent strategy forbye.

To put it in Marxist terms, we need a dialectical unity of opposed principles.

This is not a good sign in what’s supposed to be a perspectives document. He’ll be talking about the negation of the negation next.

CC members have argued that ‘we have no partners’ for a united front… The wider left may be weak but, partly because of this, there are a number of trade union leaders, MPs, radical journalists, high profile academics and cultural figures who are ready to work with the revolutionary left. A glance at the impressive line up at Marxism is conclusive proof of this. The truth is we have not even tried to involve these kind of people in, for example, a Right to Work Campaign.

This reads to me like the same old routine of a front with an impressive array of left celebrities on the platform, the SWP providing the apparatus (and therefore largely able to do what it likes with the apparatus) and the base as a stage army. I don’t want to prematurely write off the Son of No2EU coalition, but there’s a strong argument in that case that having three trade union general secretaries speaking in a personal capacity does not equate to having a labour movement mobilisation. It would be all the more of a stretch to imagine that you could build a popular Right to Work Campaign by putting, say, Seumas Milne or Slavoj Žižek on the platform, entertaining as Slavoj might be. (Sadly, I don’t think they have Slavoj in mind. It would be another “let’s get Tony Benn to be our honorary president” job. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not exactly a brave departure from what’s gone before.)

Then we get to the business end of the faction document, which paints for us glowing opportunities in terms of popular sentiment on things like the Afghan war, climate change and political corruption.

We are not simply witnessing a shift to the right in British society; rather we are seeing growing polarisation between a left- and a right-wing pole. The existence of a mass, broadly leftwing, broadly anti-capitalist consciousness is still evident.

I’m not convinced of this, but what our factionalists are concerned with is why the SWP isn’t setting the agenda in this presumed favourable atmosphere.

The other response is to look more closely at the method itself.

Down your shots now!

We will need to be creative in our own activity, offering the Party as an attractive proposition for activists. This involves developing a dynamic programme of party events… [snip long list of dynamic events]

And here’s the kicker:

We need flair, and a bit of imagination. But most of all we need to show that we can lead and deliver for the movements.

We need to move with the times, become leaders within the movement again and ensure the continuity of the revolutionary tradition.

Get that? No more of those conservative dullards on the CC, let’s have people with flair and imagination!

Did I mention Lukács? Yes, and I was thinking of John Molyneux’s criticism of Rees on the grounds that

John also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently. Nor is this just a question of personal arrogance, I also think John holds an elitist theory of leadership derived from Lukacs’ concept of the party as bearer of working class consciousness (but perhaps that is a debate for another time).

In point of fact, that was a debate for 25 years ago. What we have here is a little Lukács, crossed with Cliff’s liking for Samuel Smiles (as in, there is no limit to what we can achieve if we just try a bit harder) and now crossing into Nietzsche. Maybe it’s just me, but John and Lindsey really do seem to see all the big initiative of the last decade (almost regardless of how those initiatives have ended up) as triumphs of their will. But, have they succeeded in going beyond good and evil?

The north’s most transgressive politician

One of the less remarked on aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is that the Assembly doesn’t have by-elections – rather, when a vacancy arises it is filled by nomination by the party leader.[1] You can understand why, given the need to maintain the sectarian status quo in the STV constituencies, and there is at least one good precedent for why by-elections can be a fraught business in the north.[2] But this is a little frustrating for political anoraks who like by-elections for the colour and unpredictability they bring. The upcoming council by-election in Craigavon should be entertaining, although under the RPA they are sadly to be phased out at local level as well. And party conventions to select replacement MLAs just don’t have the same marquee factor.

But last week’s PSF constituency convention in East Derry did present some features of interest. This was to select a replacement for Francie Brolly, who is retiring in the new year. Now, Francie – folk musician, footballer, Gaeilgeoir and uncrowned king of Dungiven – is a fascinating figure in his own right. Not least because he illustrates something about political plate tectonics since the peace process – he was long known to have republican leanings, as you’d expect for someone from Dungiven, but the idea of Francie Brolly appearing on a ballot paper with the words Sinn Féin printed next to his name would have been nearly unthinkable circa 1985. But then, in those days it would have been hard to imagine Jimmy Spratt being a candidate for the DUP.

No, the really big news was the man who’s going to take Francie’s place in Stormont, Coleraine councillor Billy Leonard, who’s become quite the rising star since he defected from the SDLP five years ago. What’s interesting about Billy is his background. Your stereotypical PSF politician, particularly of the older generation, would have a background in the Provos and would very likely have done time. Billy, I can confidently say, was never in the Provos. Before he was a politician he was an RUC reservist. And as a young man, he was in the Orange Order.

Billy isn’t of course the only Protestant Shinner there is – there’s long been a bit of a Prod subculture in the South Belfast cumann – but he’s the only one who’s been willing to stick his neck out as an elected representative, and I don’t think many (or possibly any) of the others have quite as thoroughly Prod a background as he does. Quite a journey he’s been on then. Here is the man in his own words:

Describing his personal journey from a Protestant church-goer to becoming a republican, Mr Leonard said the biggest issue he had faced was challenging the British/unionist identity and adopting his ‘Irish-ness’.

“I have a great love of history and politics but the biggest transition and challenge for me was the Irish identity. I had already left the Orange Order long before my transition,” he said.

As it happens, this is actually a bit of a counter-argument to what Billy’s party leader, our local analogue of Huck Finn, was saying a little while ago. Or maybe not, since Gerry is a terrible man for sloppy use of language and in particular Orwell’s great sin of obfuscatory jargon. Gerry’s point appears to be that unionists will have a bright future in a united Ireland. This is wrong. Protestants, which might be what Gerry meant to say, could have a bright future in a united Ireland. Orangeism might even have a future in a united Ireland – in a folkloric sense like at Rossnowlagh, instead of as a system of sectarian power. But a unionist politic in an independent united Ireland – that is to negate the whole nature of unionism, and such a state could only come into being by way of the political defeat of unionism. Ask Billy Leonard. He’s as Protestant as he ever was, but he long since ceased to be a unionist.

Politics matters, and nor does it give much comfort to the bright young things around UCUNF who are pushing this idea of “civic unionism”, as if it’s something that the likes of Paul Bew, Arthur Aughey and Bob McCartney haven’t been saying for ages. The theory behind this seems to be that if unionist politicians adopt cuddly and non-sectarian language, ally themselves with Dave Cameron and talk a lot about the multicultural UK, then a lightbulb will switch on above the heads of middle-class Catholics who will then agree to become “nationalists in a cultural sense”, while embracing civic unionism politically. Ignoring the fact that, if there are such people they’re all in the Alliance Party, it’s based on the fallacy that nationalists don’t actually have an identity linked to a political project, or if they do, it’s one that can easily be set aside. And that’s leaving out of it unionism’s actual record of non-sectarianism or cultural diversity, which is not much to write home about.

This also set me thinking to a rather enjoyable article by Manus O’Riordan in the current Irish Political Review. You’ll not be surprised to know that it revolves around that great BICO bugbear of the Irish Times. But Manus also has a good point to make about southern Protestants. This is that after independence southern unionism became a redundant project and eventually, in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, southern unionists found themselves a political vehicle in Cumann na nGaedheal (of course there were also the Trinity senators, and a tradition of independent Protestant candidates in Donegal lasting into the 1960s) and became transformed in time from unionists to part of the pro-Commonwealth tendency to becoming a barely distinct element in the southern body politic. There was the regular outburst of Union Jackery in the Irish Times, most notably during the Emergency, but not as an operative political project. And today, while there are plenty of Prods in the south, it sounds a little funny to talk of the Anglo-Irish, unless you mean a very small number of aristocratic families who don’t really amount to much sociologically.

Manus aims a particularly sharp dig at the Reform Movement, the current vehicle of southern neo-unionism, which has been pushing this rather strange idea that southern Protestants are not really an integral part of Irish society but are in fact the British national minority in the south. This seems to be linked to some nebulous idea that, once southern Protestants are so defined, under the GFA architecture Britain would be able to claim some constitutional right to represent their interests. It’s unclear whether the Reform Movement has actually canvassed any southern Protestants outside its own small number, or whether this is just another harebrained constitutional wheeze like their semi-regular “let’s rejoin the Commonwealth” campaign.

For what would southern Protestants, if you can even identify them as a discrete social group, make of this? Manus cites the example of Trevor Sargent, the Irish-speaking former Green Party leader. What nationality would you say Trevor was? Is he less Irish than anyone else? Or is him being a Protestant a bit like him being an Esperantist, one of those things that makes Trevor interesting but not something that removes him from the nation? Or what about Ivan Yates, is he part of the oppressed British minority? Is Ivan anything other than Irish? Or Jan O’Sullivan? I tell you what, if you told Alan Shatter he wasn’t fully Irish but was part of our Israeli national minority, then Alan, great advocate of Israel though he is, would react pretty sharply and probably call you an anti-Semite.

It’s one of those things, I suppose. During the Troubles, there were few things more irksome than 26-county nationalists (and I mean that in the literal sense of Saorstát nationalism) coming north and talking like unionists. Although I’m sure the unionists appreciated their moral support, and Eric Waugh is still willing to jump on any sliver of evidence showing that southern Prods might be kinda sorta oppressed, it never really made any impact on unionist thinking. Nor would the rational observer expect it to.

[1] I’m not sure, and maybe someone can explain, how this works for defectors. Let’s take Gerry McHugh of Fermanagh. If he steps down, does his former leader, Gerry Adams, get to nominate his successor? As an independent MLA, does he get to nominate his own successor? If he were to join, say, éirígí, would the nominating power accrue to them?

[2] I’m thinking particularly of how back in 1981 Larry Kennedy, independent republican councillor from Ardoyne, was killed by the UDA. Unionist councillors refused a co-option and a unionist won the by-election, thus allowing the UDA to change the makeup of Belfast City Council.

Rud eile: Congratulations to Alan for winning best blog at the Slugger Awards, which is not nothing when you consider the good blogs there are about this place. Daithí was a worthy nominee as well, but lord only knows what I was doing there. Some folks must have a taste for the old GUBU.

Search of the week: Someone has arrived on this blog by Googling the phrase “John Rees fucked”. Hello, Martin.

That would be an ecumenical matter

I often say that leftists should pay more attention to church politics. This isn’t just because religion is important to a lot of people (note, for instance, that the Mormons currently have over 13 million members worldwide, which is doing a bit better than any Trotskyist tendency) and it isn’t at all dependent on whether or not you buy into the theology involved. Rather, in the spirit of Machiavelli, who knew a lot about this sort of thing, it’s worth your while following these matters because the politics in itself is fascinating.

Yesterday, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was over in Rome meeting Pope Benny. There were some predictions in advance of a big showdown, though that isn’t in either man’s style. There was also a bit of crowing from predictable quarters about the length of the interview, in much the same way as Gordon Brown was recently criticised for his failure to get sufficient face time with Barack O’Bama. In fact, not only are Benny and Rowan rather similar characters – both bookish and reserved in demeanour, both personally humane while being theologically conservative (actually, Rowan might be slightly more conservative) – but their high regard for each other is well known, and the pledge to carry on with the ecumenical process via ARCIC looked to me like a diplomatic smoothing of feathers.

Because, make no mistake, the Apostolic Constitution providing facilities for defecting Anglo-Catholics has ruffled lots of feathers. Rowan himself was put out by Rome’s failure to consult him. This, one assumes, was not primarily aimed at snubbing Rowan but at bypassing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, for a number of political reasons internal to English Catholicism. Within that sphere, there are some overlapping elements. The Cormac camp, who are old-fashioned ecumenists who were very much committed to the ARCIC process, are not thrilled at their long-range project being derailed. There is also an element at Eccleston Square that was very much happy to have an Anglo-Catholic faction within the C of E, a bit like the way the old LCR used to have a faction that was very much in agreement with Lutte Ouvrière but didn’t actually want to join LO. And then of course there’s some institutional pique at the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith organised this behind the back of the Bishops’ Conference. But we’re talking horses for courses here, and the CDF, while it’s primarily a doctrinal police force, in certain circumstances functions as the Vatican’s equivalent of the A-Team. If you want to spend the next forty years in inconclusive discussions about corporate union, ARCIC is perfect. If you want a job done, you call in the CDF.

It’s also notable that the Suppository, voice of the liberal left in English Catholicism, is in a bit of a snit, and fired off a furious editorial the other week denouncing the Apostolic Constitution, although it was politic enough to aim its fire at the CDF, rather than the guy whose brainchild this is and who actually wrote Anglicanorum Coetibus – which would be, er, the Pope. Uncharitable traditionalists might feel that the Tabletistas, having struggled mightily to excise the Catholicism from English Catholicism, might not be thrilled at an influx of conservative Anglo-Catholics reintroducing Catholicism by the back door.

From a related quarter, Hans Küng has also swung into action. Tying this together with the fraught rehabilitation of the SSPX – and, in Benny’s position, I’d want to make those bastards jump through a few more hoops – he characterises Benedict’s mission of becoming the Pope of Christian Unity in terms of “Traditionalists of all denominations, unite under the dome of St Peter’s!” You’ll notice that Küng says this like it’s a bad thing.

I do feel a bit sorry for poor old Hans, who must be feeling a bit bereft by this point. Most of the liberal Catholic theologians are, like him, pretty elderly these days and less influential than they’ve been for a very long time. Nor have there been any modernist successes to raise the spirits. The Catholic movement for women’s ordination, to take one example, was slapped down so definitively by the late JP2 that those who haven’t given up altogether have made their way to the subculture of episcopi vagantes, or, ironically, Anglicanism.

And what of the Anglo-Catholics, then? It’s unsurprising that the Continuity Anglicans have already welcomed Anglicanorum Coetibus, what with them having requested it in the first place. But there are bigger fish to fry within the C of E itself, encompassing Forward In Faith and going beyond them. The interesting thing is that, what with the Constitution and its complementary norms actually giving AngCats more than they might have wanted, this calls their bluff. Are they too attached to doing Victor Meldrew impersonations at General Synod to make the jump? Or will they put their money where their mouth is?

What might hasten matters along is that, while the legislation going through General Synod to allow women’s consecration as bishops had been going to include special provisions for opponents of the move, these provisions have now been withdrawn. While Benedict is holding the door open and the AngCats are wavering on the threshold, the Anglican bigwigs have chosen this moment to give them a big kick up the arse, thus propelling them forwards.

And dear old Rowan, who’s forced to preside over an anarchic body that’s probably incapable of being led, could be forgiven for taking a darkly philosophical view. Even if the Anglo-Catholics depart and that simplifies the factional situation, the extreme liberal modernists aren’t going anywhere and neither are the conservative evangelicals. I can’t see him ever going over to Rome, as much because of Rome’s innovations as its conservatism, but perhaps Constantinople might give him a call?

Speaking of which, there have been more pronouncements of interest from the Russian Orthodox Church, or more specifically the ROC’s extremely energetic external affairs honcho, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk. Firstly, Hilarion has been saying that the German Lutherans’ election of a woman, Bishop Margot Kässmann, as their new president might affect ecumenical dialogue – the Lutherans claim to find this incomprehensible, which suggests they don’t understand the Orthodox very well. Moreover, Hilarion has been speaking on the subject of relations with Catholicism. While he’s very cautious about reunion, putting that decades in the future, he is rather keen on the idea of the tradition-based churches – the Orthodox, the Catholics and the pre-Chalcedonians – forming a strategic alliance to uphold traditional values. That sound you just heard? That’s Hans Küng’s head exploding.

Addendum on the Rompuy Kid

I must admit to knowing very little about Belgian prime minister and newly appointed European Council president Herman van Rompuy. He isn’t Mr Tony Blair, which is a plus. He is expected to be a chairman and facilitator rather than an emperor, which is fine. And I now know that he writes haiku and his sister is a Maoist activist, both of which factoids are oddly endearing.

But our friends in the National Secular Society (Titus Oates prop.) are perturbed. These fearless truth-hounds have discovered that van Rompuy is a Catholic. What with around 90% of Belgians being Catholics and van Rompuy being a leading member of the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, this is truly a shock. The NSS ask, “Does the Pope have another little toiler at the top of Euro politics?” This quaint seventeenth-century idea of theirs that the Pope spends his time phoning up Catholic politicians and giving them detailed instructions is oddly charming when it isn’t annoying. And the great thing is that this is an all-purpose NSS denunciation. Had the president been Jean-Claude Juncker or Wolfgang Schüssel or even Mr Tony, they could have run exactly the same headline.

They are rather pleased, though, that new Euro foreign minister Cathy Ashton is rumoured to be an atheist. You’ll notice that none of this has anything to do with either politician’s actual positions or competence for the job. Isn’t single-issue tubthumping brilliant?

Finally on faith-based themes, here’s an interesting article on Belfast’s Jewish community.

You see, Richard, building a revolutionary party is very much like making love to a beautiful woman…

…you always have to make sure it’s you doing the screwing and not getting screwed. I’m guessing that most readers will already have seen the Indymedia story about resignations from the SWP in Belfast. On that thread, Cllr Gino Kenny has confirmed that there have been departures, and I’m told by my own sources that the broad thrust of the story is correct. There has still been no word from the people concerned, however, so that’s a lacuna.

Here are a few thoughts. The first thing to note is that the three individuals named do not have a reputation for questioning the party line. All are longstanding activists and would be regarded as diehard party loyalists. Furthermore, all have a reputation as being very hawkish on the regime question – if they have reinvented themselves as born-again democrats, it’s probably because, when you’re on the receiving end of democratic centralism rather than the dispensing end, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. If the party is losing people who have spent many years defending every political contortion and every disciplinary crackdown emanating from Henrietta Street, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

Despite the proximate issue apparently having been a local tactical one around elections, this does relate to the current faction fight in the British mothership, although in a rather complicated way. To recap, the Rees-German faction accuses the CC of returning to a downturn perspective – this is an obvious exaggeration, but it’s true that there has been a noticeable shift back towards the old view that the branches were the basic building blocks of the party, that you both build the branches to intervene and by intervening. The minority counterpose to this what they view as systematic united front work – it’s not unattractive in the abstract and contains some important elements of truth, but in practice it often leads to what I think johng described elsewhere as a small number of hyperactivists running around being brilliant. That’s the danger at least.

Now then. The Irish burger-flippers have indicated their advance support for whatever the London leadership want to do. This is no surprise, they did the same over the ISO expulsion and the Respect split. But the irony is that the practice of the Irish franchise is about as Reesite as you can get – although this is in an untheorised way, and largely determined by the environment. The organisation of years past may have exaggerated its importance[1], and some of its apparent strength was a matter of smoke and mirrors – so the idea of Belfast as a party “stronghold” a few years ago was largely down to the personal dynamism of Davy Carlin – but there’s no mistaking that it looks much weaker organisationally than it used to, with visible things like paper sales having almost disappeared.

And yet, this weakness coincides with the party leadership being more prominent than they’ve ever been. Ten years ago, the SWP ran election candidates under its own name and got derisory votes; now, under the People Before Profit umbrella, it has several councillors and a modest base it can hope to build on. The Great White Chief himself has gone from being an obscure far-left activist with holes in his jumper to having a super-duper academic career and establishing himself as a bit of a media pundit on trade union issues. Much of this success has come via what the party describes as united front work[2], to the point where you can barely set foot in Dún Laoghaire without seeing a black-and-white poster featuring Richard Boyd Barrett advertising some campaign or other. So, in the absence of a strong organisation, this only strengthens the existing elitist tendencies.

Also to be considered is that the Irish group has always been inordinately keen on one of Cliff’s less attractive ideas, the theory of the “conservative block”. Basically, this posits that people who have been around a while become demoralised, pessimistic and stuck in their ways. They also have a disturbing tendency to develop ideas of their own. You will note, of course, that the visibly ageing politburo is exempt from this conservatising pressure – at least, any member who has the cheek to suggest they might doesn’t stay a member very long. There is some occasional lip service paid to the idea of experience cadre acting as the memory of the class, but in practice there is a strong assumption that the permanent leadership contains all the experience and knowledge that will ever be needed. The revolving door is not a problem – in fact, the younger and rawer the recruits the better. You also have to take into account a deeply subjectivist culture that says that, if the leadership’s latest brainstorm has failed, it’s not because of objective circumstances or (God forbid) that the idea was a stupid one in the first place, but because the conservative elements in the membership failed to be enthusiastic enough.

This all points in one particular direction. It points to a perspective, which may not even be conscious, that you develop prominent personalities and then the movement will be built around the personalities. There have been problems with this sort of perspective, related to Tommy Sheridan or in a somewhat different way George Galloway. You would think these would filter through eventually. After all, Eamonn McCann is the most prominent leftwing personality in Ireland, and a most attractive candidate, but it’s not as if Derry is a hotbed of Trotskyism.

So, to return to Belfast, it is said there was a bust-up over electoral strategy. Seán Mitchell, as it happens, is rather a good catch for the SWP. He’s articulate and energetic, he has lots of contacts, and he’s from a prominent Gaeilgeoir family, which counts for something in west Belfast. I’m sure he will make a good councillor some day, although for which party remains to be seen. But it is plausible that branch members would want to think over whether they had the wherewithal to run an election campaign around Seán; it’s also plausible that the leadership would want to take a punt on him; and, if it came to a disagreement, it’s inevitable that the leadership would detect the presence of conservative elements who needed to be rooted out. The message this might send to the people they are trying to get into a broad left coalition is something I’m confident didn’t even cross their minds.

As a bit of a rud eile, the Indymedia thread notes a small glitch in this electoral strategy. Any Mitchell candidacy would be under the aegis of People Before Profit. The Derry-based Socialist Environmental Alliance has voted, no doubt in a monster mass meeting, to fold itself into PBP, and the SEA is no longer registered as a political party. PBP is, but if you head over to the Electoral Commission website, you’ll notice that the officers are given as: Leader and Nominating Officer, Gordon Hewitt, Treasurer, Mark Hewitt. If the SWP want to run any PBP candidates – including in Derry – they had better seek an amicable arrangement with Gordon and Mark. If Gordon and Mark aren’t minded to play nice, they could always contact Linda Smith to hear about an analogous situation.

[1] This reminds me of one of my favourite examples of sectarian vainglory, when a leading SWM member at the end of the 1980s proclaimed the group to be the leading force on the left, since it now had 150 members and Militant only had 130. This, by the way, was when the Workers Party was at the height of its powers.

[2] I’ll freely admit that it’s been a long time since I read The First Five Years of the Communist International, but I could have sworn the united front perspective governed how substantial communist parties could work with organisations – whether social-democratic parties or national liberation movements – with a mass character. I evidently missed out the bit where every issue of the revolutionary paper has a statement from Kevin Wingfield on behalf of Ballymun Against The War, Ballymun Against The Bin Tax or Ballymun Says Down With This Sort Of Thing.

Ruairí passes on the baton

Two issues in the world of republicanism to be tackled today. Firstly, Sinn Féin Eile held its Ard Fheis at the weekend, whereat Ruairí Ó Brádaigh stood down from the party presidency he has occupied for the past 23 years. Some shit-stirring from the Sunday World notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Ruairí’s decision wasn’t on the stated grounds of age and health – remember, he’s in his late seventies and hasn’t had the best of health in recent years – and the handover seems to have been amicable. The report in the Irish News indicates the, not merely respect, but the real affection in which Ruairí is held within RSF. His leadership held a small and beleaguered movement together through some very barren times, and that’s not nothing. I expect there will be many tributes in the next issue of Saoirse. And if RSF aren’t already planning a festschrift in his honour, they really should.

The remarkable thing was that there wasn’t a staged succession, but actually a contested election – itself a rarity in republican politics – with neither candidate being called Ó Brádaigh, although both were called Des. This resulted in Des Dalton of Kildare edging out Des Long of Limerick for the presidency. The issue here wouldn’t be ideological – neither man dissents from RSF’s rather fundamentalist trad-republicanism – but generational. Des Long would freely admit that he isn’t in the first flush of youth, and while you could be absolutely sure that party orthodoxy would be safe in his hands, it would have been a bit like Benedict succeeding JP2. The decision of the Ard Fheis to go down a generation and elect the relatively youthful Dalton demonstrates that the party has decided to pick a leader who will be in place for quite some time to come. We await to see what comes from his mission to make RSF politically relevant at grassroots level – squaring practical activism with RSF theology will take some doing.

There’s also a northern interest in the elevation of veteran Ard Chomhairle member, Geraldine Taylor of Poleglass, to vice-president. Geraldine isn’t exactly part of the youth wing either, so this can be seen as a tribute to her many years of stalwart service, and in particular her undoubted ability to annoy the hell out of the Provos.

More details will of course follow, especially in terms of whether or not there are new people coming through into leadership positions. To the extent that RSF have a perspective of moving away from just being a holding operation for traditionalist republicanism, and towards trying to build their movement outwards, there will be some difficult questions to be answered, of the sort that always arise when republicans try to break out of an insular sectism. I expect the Dalton leadership to be cautious, and the man himself has shown absolutely no desire to challenge the various taboos of RSF theology, but those issues implicit in, say, trying to build a local government base can’t be avoided entirely. Nor can the contradiction of the physical force tradition between trying to build a popular movement and simultaneously having an armed conspiracy on the go. Although the party’s core cadre is tightly knit and highly ideological, I have my doubts about some of the young people in the north who are attracted to dissidence.

A further point about dissidence: the arrests linked to the Massereene barracks killings continue. They have by now encompassed rather a lot of individuals belonging to a whole range of organisations or none. Most are being rapidly released without charge. Some of these are political activists who may have a paramilitary past but who, given their profile, would have to be absolutely insane to go around taking part in armed actions. As with the media campaign against éirígí – and I note that the IMC report includes an examination of éirígí, an entirely political group with no armed wing – it’s hard not to conclude that the cops are taking the opportunity to shine a spotlight on republican irreconcilables, and getting their names into the public domain. Back in the Troubles, that sort of thing used to get people killed.

Search of the week: In a reprise of our popular feature of old, I’d like to give a shout out to the Googler who landed on this blog searching for “Scooby Doo on crack”. I always had Shaggy down as more of a psychedelics man…

Fixed and consequent


For the last week or so I’ve been turning over some thoughts about the passing of Chris Harman in my head, trying to get a clearer picture. There’s no doubt of course that Chris’ sudden death leaves an enormous hole in the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party; beyond that, it’s a loss to the entire left, which is not overburdened with people like Chris. And, although I was never personally close to Chris – even had I had more contact with him, he wasn’t the easiest person to get close to – it’s almost like losing a member of the family. Cliff was Cliff and was uniquely unique, but for many of us Chris was arguably more important in shaping our ideas.

Some random impressions. I have in my head going to a smallish meeting in a dank room above a pub in a provincial town, and seeing at the head of the room an unprepossessing figure who reminded me for some unaccountable reason of Bob Ross, mumbling about the Permanent Arms Economy. The last time I saw Chris was in a more salubrious venue at a conference in London, where he was speaking on revolutionary politics in the 1970s, and got through around 45 minutes without notes – something that annoys me intensely in some speakers, but I was willing to forgive in Chris. His speaking style was as unflashy as his writing style – the nearest thing to a tic was his tendency to quote Dylan lyrics, which was slightly odd as I had him pegged as more of a Herman’s Hermits man – but there was enough there in terms of concentrated ideas to hold your attention from start to finish.

Everyone seemed to have a Chris Harman story, often centring around his lack of social skills, but that wasn’t necessarily unkind. I can’t remember encountering anyone who was more consistently left brain in the way he operated. If he wasn’t the hail-fellow-well-met type, nor was he one of those pocket Lenins who would throw a hissy fit when crossed – far from being puffed up with his own importance, he was probably excessively modest. At SWP parties, Chris was invariably to be found in the kitchen, immersed in a conversation about profit margins in the natural gas industry or some such. (This is where I suspect my memory. I vividly recall the stereo playing “Wham Rap!”, but that just can’t be. It was probably the Specials.) Sometimes you would try to talk to him and he would stare through you as if you weren’t there; sometimes he would accost you out of nowhere, and without any small talk ask how your Russian was these days and whether you could look him out such and such an article.

His writing was the thing that will outlast him. Much of his material was first-rate. I particularly liked Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, and The Lost Revolution on post-WW1 Germany. The Fire Last Time was, for my money, the best single overview of the movement of 1968. I wasn’t quite so keen on his People’s History of the World, although it’s proved enduringly popular, but then my preference in history is for the focused and specialist. This is why Chris, though he certainly had the brains to be a successful academic, didn’t have the temperament for it. The People’s History shows the polymathic sweep of his interests – there was literally nothing in human experience that was alien to him. To put it another way, Richard Evans has written a whole series of brilliant books on German history, but I suspect he would look at you funny if you asked him to write something on mediaeval China – the norm amongst academics is to devote years to mastering their patch. Chris didn’t have a patch, or rather his patch covered everything. That’s why party comrades, sometimes mockingly and sometimes affectionately, knew him as the Renaissance Man – if you wanted a plausible Marxist analysis of the most obscure historical or theoretical issue, Chris was the man to go to.

Ideologically, he had a reputation for picking up Cliff’s ball and running with it, although some of his work – notably on state capitalism – ran almost entirely on a different track. He was also, after Kidron’s departure, the only man left with both the ability and inclination to do book-length studies of political economy. (In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone on the Anglophone left who still does that.) But his real forte was as an educator of generations of radicals, and as a populariser of Marxist ideas. Yes, he spent nigh on thirty years editing Socialist Worker, and he was the author of the popular primers How Marxism Works and Economics of the Madhouse. Mind you, I found him most appealing as an essayist. His long-running column in Socialist Review always provided you with some food for thought. And there was some truly excellent Harman material in the ISJ. One thinks of the economic articles that were collected into Explaining the Crisis, or his debate on political Islam with Phil Marfleet, his side of which was published as The Prophet and the Proletariat.

That’s why I felt, when Chris took over the editorship of the ISJ a few years back, it was as if he had come home – that’s where he should have been all along. The journal these days is much more accessible, and though it’s still very much a party journal it’s much more open in terms of contributions, which reflects Chris’ willingness to argue the toss with anyone. From a personal point of view, it’s much improved from the days when it was all 60-page essays on the Russian Revolution from the same handful of people – hopefully the quality can be kept up, which places a responsibility on the co-thinkers Chris had gathered around him on the editorial board.

There is a further aspect of Chris I want to touch on, which is his approach to Leninism. “Party and Class” is not an unproblematic essay, especially in the way it casts centralism as ontologically superior to democracy in the DC formula, but it does contain the extremely important insight that the only guarantee against a capricious leadership is an educated, assertive and combative membership keeping the leadership in line. This insight was, I fear, lost on some of the younger leaders, who seem far too keen on the idea of a priestly caste of leaders keeping the membership in line. It was also obscured by Chris’ own behaviour at times. Not that he was the 100% personal supporter of Cliff often assumed – they did have their arguments – but after the splits of the 1970s Chris, along with Cliff and Duncan and others, was involved in the tacit agreement that the CC should keep all its disagreements internal and never ever appear disunited in front of the membership. This was inevitably going to stultify the organisation – as even Alex Callinicos has admitted, even if you think the leadership has mostly been correct, two contested elections in thirty years is not healthy. One might add other features – for instance, the control commission may at some time have rejected a CC disciplinary measure, but nobody seems able to remember such an event.

This early insight comes into play in terms of the debates in the party over the past year or so. Chris remarked – and I don’t at all believe he was being disingenuous – on how frustrating he found it to write an article that he hoped would kickstart a debate, only to find that nobody was willing to take issue with it. The key point about the debate around the Respect split – and this is something that Swiss Toni’s amazingly factional obit fails to understand – is not that some people raised weaknesses in John Rees’ modus operandi. (Chris, having opposed Rees’ promotion to the CC in the first place, could have claimed some moral capital, although that was slightly diminished by the articles he’d written supporting John and Lindsey’s brainstorms in the interim.) The point was that the split exposed systematic deficiencies in the party’s culture and processes, and these were what had allowed Rees to do what he did – I would go further and say that they encouraged the less healthy aspects of Rees’ character to come to the fore. And so, although I have serious doubts about the “democratic renewal” process in the SWP, one felt much more optimistic about it knowing that Chris was involved.

And this, I think, illustrates something important about Chris and the genuine respect in which he was held. The fact that Chris was never an oppositionist didn’t stop many comrades identifying themselves, effectively, as Harmanites. At various points when the leadership seemed to be going mad, Chris would write these articles that may have simply been assertions of orthodox IS politics, and may well not have been intended as shots across anyone’s bows, but were often read as such. It’s likely that on many – perhaps most – such occasions people were inflating minor differences in emphasis into something more significant. But there is something to be said about the appeal Chris held for the sceptical or disgruntled. There are people in the SWP, frankly, whose support the leadership will never have to worry about because they will support anything that comes out of the leadership. The party has always found it difficult to accommodate those with an independent cast of mind. That for those people Chris would be a touchstone of all that was thoughtful, sensible, sane and Marxist about the SWP – that may not be a tribute he would have sought, but it’s a good enough indication of what he meant to many people.

Rud eile: Edward Woodward, another good bloke, has died. Fondly remembered from Callan, The Tranquilliser, and of course the brilliant Wicker Man. More from Madam Miaow, Harpy, Garibaldy and Jim.

Rud eile fós: At the risk of this turning into obits corner, I just want to mention the passing at the age of 95 of HH Patriarch Pavle, a man of peace and stalwart opponent of injustice and the abuse of power. Neka mu je večna slava i hvala.



Hmm. For all the talk of double jobbing between Stormont and Westminster, perhaps more attention should have been paid to the fact that a large majority of Stormont MLAs are also district councillors. With these guys calling the shots, the reduction of the number of councils from 26 to 11 was never going to run smoothly. Although when it comes to some elements that are attractive to the political class but less so to the punters – such as pay-offs to retiring councillors or the elimination of by-elections – there has been remarkable harmony amongst the parties.

This is of course now a devolved matter, and falls within the bailiwick of environment minister Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley), who is also a member of Lisburn council. According to a leaked Executive document, Pootsie is proposing to tinker about with the findings of the impartial Boundary Commission, notwithstanding the exhaustive consultation the BC carried out prior to issuing its recommendations. And – purely by coincidence, I’m sure – this tinkering is taking place in the minister’s own backyard.

It all revolves around the boundaries between Belfast City Council and the new Lisburn-Castlereagh supercouncil – specifically, where the Dunmurry ward should go. The BC proposed hiving off the Twinbrook-Poleglass-Lagmore area from Lisburn and putting it into an enlarged Belfast. This made a lot of sense, as those estates have always considered themselves to be part of west Belfast and have never had much affinity for the extremely orange council in Lisburn. Dunmurry is a bit trickier, though. Quite a few people there wouldn’t mind staying in Lisburn, mainly because of the lower rates. Representations along these lines were made to the BC, which rejected them. Edwin now seems disposed to keep Dunmurry in Lisburn.

Does sectarian geography come into this? You bet your life it does. It is essential that Belfast not have a majority one way or the other, so while the city boundaries are being extended westward they are also being extended eastward, to take in some of the more urban parts of Castlereagh – which happen to be solidly Prod. Now, there seems to be a worry in unionist circles that the inclusion of Dunmurry in Belfast could tip the balance the wrong way. There also seems to be some thinking in SDLP circles that it might not be a bad thing to boost the numbers of Catholics in Lisburn so as to increase their electability. (Lisburn is already experiencing west Belfast creep, but if the boundaries are unhelpful then the SDLP might expire before demography shifts their way.) If this is the case, then it’s a rather embarrassing position for a party that was formed in large part to campaign against gerrymandering. Chris has a good breakdown of the local factors at work over at Slugger.

Then there is the monetary aspect of the land grab, as flagged up by Conall. In brief, the new boundaries were to see Forestside shopping centre go to Belfast, which would quite sensibly see the dual carriageway become the city boundary. The trouble is that Castlereagh council rakes in a great big whack of commercial rates from Forestside, which helps keep the domestic rates low. Pootsie proposes to allot Forestside to Lisburn-Castlereagh, in return giving Belfast the Dundonald Ice Bowl and the modestly named Robinson Centre. This is not a good deal for Belfast, but it would be a good deal for the (DUP-dominated) Lisburn-Castlereagh.

It remains to be seen how this will play out. Pootsie claims both unionist parties, the SDLP and Alliance are all willing to go along with his modest revision. On the other hand, the Executive operates on the basis of consensus and, even if this got to the Asssembly, the majority nationalist party could block it by calling for a cross-community vote under the GFA. Paul Butler (PSF, Lagan Valley), who represents the Dunmurry area, has pronounced himself opposed to the revision, though he may have to give his party a shake. If the plans don’t go through, the minister has been rumbling about how the entire project of local government reform may crash.

Although to be honest, when you look at how little power our local councils have and, specifically, the kind of balloons who get elected to the councils… would the electorate even notice? The existing councils have already had their terms extended well beyond the four-year limit, and nobody seems to be much exercised about that.

The fall of the House of Paisley


“I have a sentimental weakness for my children, and I spoil them as you can see; they talk when they should listen.”
Don Corleone in The Godfather

At the moment, you can’t see the big hole in Cromac Square where the road has collapsed. The Roads Service have it cordoned off until it can be repaired. But this flags up an uncomfortable truth for us. There’s a sort of historical myth that the industrial development of Belfast was down to the natural harbour. Fact is, even though the city lies at the head of the lough and it became a busy port, there was no natural harbour – the city was built on reclaimed land. So an awful lot of those impressive-looking big buildings in the city centre are resting on wooden frames which in turn are resting on silt, and are sinking infinitesimally year on year. What the Cromac Square event shows us is how quickly something that looks permanent can be hit by subsidence.

Which brings me nicely to the book of the moment, David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley. Readers of the Belfast Telegraph will of course be familiar with David as the investigative reporter who is a dab hand with the old Freedom of Information request. He had more than a walk-on part in the downfall of the Paisley dynasty, so it’s only fitting that he’s providing the narrative here. And quite a narrative it is.

What we don’t have here is a replication of what’s already been done. The extensive biographical background in Ed Moloney’s Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat is not rehashed. Nor is the in-depth theological deconstruction in Dennis Cooke’s wonderful Persecuting Zeal, still for my money the toughest critique of Big Ian because it hits him where it’s most important. What we do have is a most entertaining run through the events that shook the House of Paisley over the last three years or so. This takes us from Papa Doc’s coronation as First Minister in 2007 to his abrupt resignation as DUP leader and Executive head a year later, not to mention his enforced departure as boss of the Free Presbyterian Church, the fundamentalist denomination he had founded all the way back in 1951 and been permanent moderator of for as long as anyone could remember.

What happened, then? There were several interlocking features, including unrest in the DUP’s voter base (although the party itself remained remarkably disciplined), unrest in the Church, the eagerness of Peter Robinson after thirty long years as deputy leader to ease the octogenarian leader into retirement – and, running through this like lettering through a stick of rock, the Junior Problem. The rebellion of the base against a man they had for decades regarded quite literally as God’s anointed leader would be a story worth telling in itself, but the antics of Ian Jnr add just that note of low farce that your humble scribe enjoys.

There are a number of things we don’t know for sure. We don’t know exactly why Paisley did the deal with the Provos in the first place; and we don’t know the exact process of his resignation. The DUP maintains a strict omertà when it comes to such issues, so the best we have to go on is informed speculation. Several things are clear, however. The groundwork for the deal can be seen in the DUP’s decision in 1998 not to go into opposition in the Assembly, but to nominate semi-detached ministers who would run their departments but not attend Executive meetings. Some while later, it became clear that the Robinson faction wanted to cut a deal – Jim Allister, not an unbiased witness admittedly, dates this no later than 2000. There was a transparent strategy of first destroying the Official Unionists and then, once the DUP was in the driving seat, cutting a deal that was more amenable to the DUP’s concerns.

So much we can say with confidence. It was also the case that, if the DUP could be brought on board, it could be a much more reliable coalition partner than the OUP, simply because David Trimble always had around half of his anarchic party openly scheming against him. The DUP’s fierce internal discipline – including making candidates sign undated resignation letters in case they went off message – was a whole different kettle of fish. But to make it work, you needed Paisley, and his unique personal authority. A Robinson-led DUP would have suffered a much bigger schism; as it was, the loss of only Jim Allister and a dozen or so councillors must have looked very manageable at the outset.

So the trick was to get Paisley to sign up. Since it’s unlikely the man himself will ever provide a cogent account, we aren’t sure why Dr No suddenly became Dr Yes, and a number of interviewees proffer their own theories. One theme is the serious illness, its nature still a closely guarded secret, that Paisley suffered in 2004. It is suggested that, realising his own mortality, he wanted to bow out on a positive note, having built something up rather than tearing it down. Others point to his not inconsiderable ego, which Tony Blair took great care to flatter. Certainly, the idea of being prime minister appealed mightily to him. It’s also interesting that Robinson became very nervous of letting Paisley negotiate one-on-one with Blair, such was his tendency to go off script. It’s likely to be quite a while before we know the details.

What isn’t in dispute is that the DUP didn’t prepare its base for a deal, which was a key difference between it and PSF. The Provo base is willing to buy whatever Gerry is selling, but he still has to make the sale. The DUP, as Robinson has subsequently acknowledged, didn’t make the sale. They came out of the St Andrews talks sounding very non-commital about a deal; they went into the 2007 Stormont election still sounding non-commital. Even when they struck the deal, they promised a battle a day in the Executive. And what did the DUP base get? They got the Chuckle Brothers.

Personal chemistry is an odd thing. Although Paisley has a justified name as a fierce polemicist, in person he’s often absolutely charming. Up in North Antrim, stories of his personal warmth and kindness abound, including from people who consider him a totally destructive force politically. Martin McGuinness is also a very likeable and gregarious chap. Compared to the previous Stormont double act of the congenitally spiky David Trimble and the rather grumpy Séamus Mallon, maybe it wasn’t that surprising that the odd couple would hit it off on a personal level. But it still looked really weird in political terms. Nor did it make any sense at all to the DUP base. They had been told that their party was entering government purely to ward off the threat of joint sovereignty, and they were going to get their battle a day. They surely didn’t expect their leader to actually enjoy sharing power with the enemies of Ulster.

Initially, however, Papa Doc faced more trouble in his church than in his party, which is itself instructive. The thing to remember is that, though Paisley is by far the most prominent churchman in the north, and it was largely his polemics that forced the largest Protestant denomination, the Irish Presbyterian Church, into its current passive and pietist stance, the FPC has never really broken out of the fringes. It currently has around 12,000 members in the north, which is about as big as it’s ever been. And yet, the FPC has an importance in that many of the core DUP cadre are church members (though by no means all – Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson are Elim Pentecostalists, while more recent defectors from the OUP mostly belong to mainstream denominations). For people with this overlapping membership, Paisley was therefore both their political and spiritual leader. Outside of Iran, and possibly the haredi parties in Israel, this is a unique position.

But if heading the government was difficult to square for the leader of a historically rejectionist party, it was multiply so for someone who remained the head of a small, fundamentalist, highly ascetic denomination. The disconnect between the DUP’s mass support base and the Wee Free cadre – more stark in Belfast than amongst the country ‘n’ western element – was already apparent before entry into government, and massively increased after it. This may not be apparent to people who are unfamiliar with the Wee Free mindset. For instance, one of the first internal controversies was around the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure funding Belfast’s Gay Pride parade. DCAL minister Edwin Poots, a DUP member and Free Presbyterian, made a pragmatic argument that the previous Direct Rule minister had approved the funding, and there was no point in him dragging the department into a court case he couldn’t possibly win. This cut little ice.

But when this sort of thing touched the leader, it was far more powerful. Shortly after the Poots affair, it became known that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister was funding LGBT groups to the tune of £180,000. Paisley could have made the Poots argument; he could also have said that stopping the funding would have required the agreement of his co-premier Martin McGuinness; instead he chose to blow smoke around the issue. This cut even less ice with the Wee Frees, for many of whom Paisley disbursing public money to the sodomites was much more hurtful than him going into government with unrepentant gunmen. Tears were shed and voices raised on the issue. And even the feelgood announcements the OFMDFM loved got the big man into trouble with his flock. So he might open the swanky Victoria Square shopping centre, a complex that trades on the Sabbath and contains outlets selling alcohol. So he might announce an initiative for young musicians, lightly sidestepping his years of condemning rock music as evil, and compound the offence by giving the musicians money from the sinful National Lottery. And then there was the Stormont book launch he hosted for Dana, where he was incautious enough to praise the singer turned politician’s strong faith – that is to say, her Catholic faith.

These are attitudes that seem quaint to the Belfast media class, and are probably shocking to British readers. But a Free Presbyterian in somewhere like Ballymoney would think very differently. These are the attitudes of the traditional Paisleyite movement, and the leader could do himself no good by stepping outside them. His former close friend and chief ecclesiastical critic, the redoubtable Rev Ivan Foster, harried him relentlessly along these lines, going so far as to denounce Paisley from the pulpit. So it was that Paisley found his church divided, and had to agree to step down rather than face an open schism and possible defeat.

The old man’s troubles were compounded no end by Baby Doc. There is no doubt that Wee Ian is the apple of his father’s eye, and the elderly leader, now suffering senior moments in the Assembly, came to rely on having his son by his side as OFMDFM junior minister. But Junior has never been very popular in the DUP – you hear him being openly described in such terms as “brash” or “charmless” or “buck eejit”. Apropos of Simon Mann being released from Equatorial Guinea, I was having a bit of a reread of Adam Roberts’ The Wonga Coup, in which Roberts wonderfully describes Mark Thatcher, another living example of the law of diminishing returns, as attracting trouble like a man wielding a golf club in a thunderstorm. Ian Jnr is very much like that.

A lot of the trouble centred around the north’s only World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, which falls within the North Antrim constituency represented by the Paisleys. Scientists reckon the polygonal basalt columns, famous from the sleeve of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, were formed by volcanic activity some 60 million years ago. Many DUP members reckon they were formed 5000 years ago as a result of Noah’s Flood. But that’s as may be. The salient point is that this is where property developer Seymour Sweeney comes in.

Seymour had a plan to build a visitors’ centre, and preferably other facilities too, at the Causeway. He has spent years, and lots of money, acquiring land in the area. This was opposed by Moyle District Council and the National Trust, who were agitating for a public-sector facility. It was also opposed by officials in the Planning Service. The Causeway’s World Heritage Site status also brought in the DCMS in London and UNESCO, neither of which were dying about Seymour’s big idea. But this did not fly with the Developers’ Unionist Party, and environment minister Arlene Foster announced that she was “minded” to overrule her officials and give Seymour the concession. Then Stephen Nolan, having been in receipt of a tip-off, asked Baby Doc on the radio whether he knew Seymour. “I know of him,” said Junior, which was a typically smartass Junior answer. And then all hell broke loose.

The resultant storm was mainly to the credit of a fairly small number of journalists, notably David Gordon, who asked the right questions, made the FOI requests and went where the evidence took them. There was also input from a few public representatives in the North Antrim area – from Declan O’Loan, from Daithí McKay and, perhaps most deadly, from Jim Allister, who doesn’t play fair and knows an Achilles’ heel when he sees one. It transpired that Seymour was a DUP member, that he knew both Paisleys well enough to have been lobster fishing with Junior, and that Junior had something of a history of energetic lobbying for Seymour.

This went well beyond the Causeway, incidentally. It included a housing development just fornenst the Causeway, where both Junior and his in-laws subsequently bought holiday cottages. It included a lucrative land deal outside Ballymena. All the Sweeney-related material is in the book. Nobody is suggesting actual corruption, of course – it’s just that the extent of Junior’s lobbying began to make him look like Seymour’s personal shopper, and created a serious perception of cronyism.

And it just got worse. It transpired that, at the St Andrews negotiations, Junior had approached NIO ministers with a shopping list of constituency projects, a couple of them Sweeney-related, that he wanted facilitated. Senior DUP figures were openly scathing about a member of the negotiating team seeking private side deals on things like funding for the North West 200. Then it came out that, although he was an Assembly member and devolved minister, he was also receiving public money to the tune of ten grand a year as a parliamentary researcher for daddy.

What turned the tide was the council by-election in Dromore. This was an area that should have been a walkover for the DUP – indeed, they should have taken it on the first count – and the party put a lot of effort in. Local MP Jeffrey Donaldson was in charge of the campaign, and the DUP relished the opportunity to humiliate the newly-formed Traditional Unionist Voice. But they didn’t. Around a third of the DUP vote switched to the TUV, and the majority of TUV transfers went to the OUP, who won the seat. The transfers were especially ominous, demonstrating that lots of voters wanted badly to poke the DUP in the eye. This was just recently repeated in the Euro-election.

Moreover, the DUP didn’t get – and still don’t – how to deal with the TUV. This is the result of Paisley’s traditional strategy of making certain he couldn’t ever be outflanked on the right. The first rule of unionism is not to give anyone the opportunity to call you a Lundy. When Jim Allister got up and said, in effect, “Big Ian, you’re a Lundy”, the DUP didn’t have a clue how to respond.

It was a stroke of bad luck that Dromore coincided with a row over MLAs’ constituency office expenses, which have been basically unregulated. Billy Armstrong (OUP, Mid Ulster) built a prefab office on his farm at taxpayers’ expense, and only afterwards got round to applying for planning permission. Michelle O’Neill (PSF, Mid Ulster) managed to claim £18,000 for an office in the tiny South Derry village of Gulladuff. That was the second most expensive office. The most expensive cost three times as much, and was an enormous party office in Ballymena, occupied jointly by Rev Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley Jnr. What added spice to this was that the building was purchased by a holding company in which one Seymour Sweeney acted as guarantor.

And so, with the constant stream of embarrassing stories about Junior, he was forced to walk the plank, though still insisting – with daddy’s support – that he had done nothing wrong and this was all a conspiracy got up against Big Ian. What is unarguable, however, is that Junior’s departure from government left the old man seriously exposed, and this helped the Robinson camarilla bounce him into retirement.

It’s a good story well told, and David ends up with some sober reflections on what passes for government under the New Dispensation. The half-baked economic strategy, based on the Brits forking out endless subventions and lots of US investment, looks a lot less convincing given the global economic crisis. Education is still bogged down in the 11-plus debate, with Caitríona Ruane attempting to apply bright ideas from the Queens education department while unionist MLAs, with the sole exception of Dawn Purvis, are so in thrall to the grammar school lobby that they don’t seem to register the massive educational underachievement in the Protestant working class. And then there was Sammy Wilson, the environment minister who didn’t believe in global warming. (Sammy has since been promoted to finance. His replacement at environment is Edwin Poots, who does believe in global warming but doesn’t believe in evolution.) Not to mention the DUP-run culture department, which takes up less than 1% of the Executive budget but around 75% of hot air in the Assembly.

However, the current Stormont system, though prone to sectarian friction, is more or less stable for the medium term. David goes into some detail about how the funding system helps incumbents, and about the unlikelihood of new players breaking the mould. (He is sceptical about the Tory-Unionist UCUNF boondoggle, and rightly so in my opinion.) In the last analysis, he reckons, the system is likely to hold because nobody involved has anywhere else to go. What was the big difference between Sunningdale and the GFA and St Andrews? Different players, same basic deal. Very few people are actually nostalgic for the Troubles – whether the peace process can provide worthwhile government is a whole different question.

The jabbing finger


The other day, as I was making my breakfast, I turned on GMTV. Usually I don’t register breakfast telly all that much – at that time in the morning, my brain can just about process Hi-5 or Elmo’s World – but this time I was brought up short. Who should be sitting on the sofa holding forth but this blog’s bête noire of the moment, Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. (An enormous groan rises up from the broad masses.) Now, bear with me, because I’m not going to bash the NSS here. What interested me was a stylistic issue.

As far as I could figure out – I evidently switched on halfway through the segment – this was a discussion of PC councils rebranding Christmas as “Winter Festival”, or some such tabloid cobblers. Terry was banging on about how bad it was that schoolkids were being drafted into nativity plays. What struck me was how soft-spoken he was being. From his occasional TV or radio appearances, obviously I didn’t expect him to be shouty, but nor did I expect him to be quite as emollient as he was. Perhaps that’s because his argument was weak – Commercemas has so little religious content these days that it would take a supreme effort for him to find something to get upset about. Perhaps it was an environmental issue, as being lightly grilled by Emma Crosby on a comfy sofa is not the same as having Paxman barking at you across the Newsnight studio. Perhaps it was because he was debating with the Rev Joanna Jepson, who projects such an air of overwhelming niceness that it must have felt like being mauled to death by a cute ickle bunny wabbit. Or perhaps it was just too early in the day for a full-on rant.

What I mean was that the Sanderson on the TV screen, talking for all the world like a reasonable human being who is capable of seeing the other guy’s point of view, is a bit of a jolt if you look at all regularly at his written output, because he writes like Jim Denham on steroids. I assume that he’s not that bad in real life, when he isn’t sat in front of his keyboard emitting steam from his ears.

I was thinking about this in connection with what Andy was writing there about keyboard rage:

Face to face human interaction generates hormonal response, with the generation of low levels of Oxytocin that makes people like being with each other. Human interaction mediated by technology lacks that aspect of social bonding, and people become excessively rude.

What is more the rudeness generates a self-referential culture, where people are rude because other people are rude – it is a learned social expectation.

There’s a lot of truth in that. Sometimes people get into flame wars and forget that there’s a real person on the other end. But that’s on a basic level. There is also an aspect of how the internet has democratised writing, where the blogosphere doesn’t require any professional training nor submission to an editor – which is not an unmixed blessing. And of course political subcultures and the learned behaviours within them contribute as well.

Firstly, there’s a clear disconnect in attitudes between those who are engaged in politics with a big P, and single-issue campaigners. What to me most commonly distinguishes single-issue campaigners is an overwhelming self-righteousness. This isn’t meant as an attack on the characters of single-issue campaigners, it’s an observation based on the nature of their activity. Big-P politics is not merely about the art of the possible; perhaps more to the point, it’s holistic in nature, with its starting point being society as a whole. Even Marxist politics starts from the working class, conceptualised as being the majority of society. This inevitably means compromise. By way of contrast, the single-issue campaigner only has to plug away relentlessly on that particular issue – compromise is not only unnecessary, but is a positive hindrance. I’m sure there are plenty of Burma solidarity campaigners whose first instinct would be to denounce Aung San Suu Kyi if they thought she was going to compromise.

One interesting feature, though, is the inherent expansiveness of liberal rights theory. For instance, the NSS, which is supposed to be about separating church and state, makes detailed pronunciamentos on all sorts of issues like abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, usually on the tenuous basis that, since lots of religious people are against these things then secularists must support them. And at this year’s Gay Pride march in Belfast, a platform speaker lambasted the Dublin government for its civil unions bill, demanding no less than fully-fledged gay marriage. The speaker was a representative of Amnesty. Bearing in mind Amnesty’s traditionally narrow remit around prisoners of conscience, and its former self-denying ordinance about getting involved in domestic politics – during the Troubles, it was nearly impossible to get Amnesty to say anything about Ireland – this was quite striking.

In extremis, you can get single-issue NGOs broadening their remit so they almost function like small political parties, only without the obligation to seek votes, and retaining the single-issue modus operandi, which is something the single-issue campaigner brings with him into party politics. A good example of the MO is Peter Tatchell. Since recent catfights on SU demonstrate how fraught it is to mention Peter in other than glowing terms, I should start by putting on record that, though I don’t always agree with Peter and I think he could choose his company better (if you don’t want people to think you’re Islamophobic, posting on Harry’s Place isn’t the brightest idea), I do admire his courage and salute his indefatigability. No, the thing about Peter, as I keep saying, is that his strengths and his weaknesses are bound up so closely. He’s incapable of seeing a case of oppression without setting up a solidarity campaign, and has enough nervous energy to run about a hundred of these at any one time. Some of them are perforce quite obscure – the canonical example being Peter’s solidarity campaign for gay Rastafarians – and, while you’re glad somebody is doing something around these issues, and you would sign a petition if asked, it would take some convincing to get you to do more. But Peter tends to assume that his hobbyhorse of the moment should be everyone else’s top priority, and no sooner has he set up a campaign than the raised voice and the jabbing finger are deployed, as he demands to know why the left isn’t dropping everything to campaign for the gay Rastas. Eh? Eh?

Perhaps it’s unfair to single Peter out, because there are plenty of other examples. One example of the clash between holistic and particular views of politics came about over the embryology bill, when Labour MEP Mary Honeyball got stuck into Catholic MPs who either voted against or abstained, using some unfortunate Guy Fawkes rhetoric about how it was intolerable that MPs should be guided by “the Pope’s whip”. This drew sharp responses from some Labour MPs such as Jon Cruddas. Now, the point here is not that Cruddas is a Catholic and Honeyball a militant secularist – that figures, but it’s not the whole story. Rather, it’s a question of whether you view the Labour Party as primarily a coalition of social constituencies or as a vehicle for progressive causes. Cruddas, who knows a fair bit about psephology, can give you the crude statistic that, at the last election, Labour secured 34% of the total vote but 53% of the Catholic vote. A lot of that is a function of class and ethnicity, but it’s also the case that the teachings of social Catholicism – anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-greed, communitarian – are rather a good fit for traditional Labourism. So you have an important part of the Labour base who don’t necessarily expect to have their concerns on issues like abortion written into the party manifesto – but they would like to feel listened to, and if you tell them to bugger off and take their custom elsewhere, they just might.

And the worldview ties into one’s experience. Cruddas is basically a party man, with close links to the union apparati. Honeyball was a feminist activist before she was a politician, in much the same way that Sanderson was a fulltime gay liberationist before he was a fulltime secularist. I don’t say that these backgrounds are illegitimate, just to point out that they bring with them a particular approach. Where the professional party man can appear like a chiselling opportunist, the single-issue campaigner finds it much easier to hove to the biblical injunction of come ye out from among them and be ye separate.

You find a similar tendency to separatism in the left-sectarian milieu. Which is odd, because of the holistic aspirations of Marxism, but it probably isn’t surprising that smallish far left propaganda formations without any real chance of achieving power have a culture that’s much more akin to the single-issue NGO than the mass party. The other factor is a stylistic thing, in that the Russian Marxists of a hundred years ago were great at giving the impression of absolute certainty in their own correctness and in the scoundrelly opportunism of their opponents – which creates a small problem for the Church of Latter-Day Trotskyism in that Lenin and Trotsky violently disagreed with each other much of the time, and they couldn’t both be right. But what’s much worse is when you get these group gurus who aspire to be Lenin or Trotsky, or journalists in the left press who want to write like them. Then factor in a culture where much of the left cadre is trained up in what can only be described as hate speech. Those people with almost the same views as yours? They aren’t basically sincere people you happen to disagree with on some minor matters – they are traitors, sell-outs, lundies, apostates, enemies of the people fit only to be smashed. The watchword is no compromise under any circumstances, and woe betide you if you leave yourself open to attack on that basis.

And internet keyboard rage only magnifies this. Take a look at the comments box here, below a fucking death notice. The double act of Father Jack and Morality Blog is especially obnoxious, but the same thing can be found elsewhere in milder form.

And again, one can find much the same thing with the Decent Left. There you get the single-issue aspect, some bad habits from the left milieu, and exacerbated by the fact that the Decents are not activists – few of them are even members of the Labour Party – but are extremely voluble pundits. This is what leads you to people like Cohen, Toube or Attila the Hun doing their perpetual Mr Angry routine, which gets enervating very quickly. I’ve never been as angry about anything as those guys are about everything. And here is where, for once, I’d like to praise Professor Geras. If Normski was just banging on about Israel and Zimbabwe and Human Rights Watch seven days a week, not only would it be intensely boring for his readers, but it wouldn’t be much good for him. That Norm goes off regularly to write about cricket or literature or country music shows that he, unlike most of his Decent comrades, has understood the importance of the mental health break.

There is a lesson here, you know. It’s that stepping back, taking a deep breath, perhaps having a cup of tea before you hit that “send” button is rarely a bad strategy. I try not to blog when angry, because it usually just comes across as peevish. Occasionally you’ll get someone who does anger well, though I hope young Laurie is sensible enough to know that you can’t only do anger. Approaching something coldly and calmly helps; and the odd bit of frivolity doesn’t hurt either. Too much anger and self-righteousness will just end up giving you aneurysms. And it confirms the prejudices of those (particularly women) who read the comments boxes of the left blogs and come away with the overwhelming impression that the left is just a Sargasso Sea of mentalism.

Not coat-trailing but fleece-trailing…


This picture almost speaks for itself, doesn’t it? This is the story that’s been convulsing Tyrone – or at least providing an opportunity to sound off on the phone-ins – about a Protestant farmer out by Ardboe who got up in the morning to find his sheep had been spray-painted in a tricolour scheme. God help me, I couldn’t help a chuckle, although the farmer, who now can’t sell his sheep, is entitled to be annoyed about it.

On one level, I suppose, this is of a piece with the sort of low-level sectarianism you get a lot of in north Antrim, Coleraine and such places. The form, one suspects, has something to do with that Tyrone farmboy culture that impels Queens students to hold wheelie bin races at three in the morning – the possibility of drink having been taken over Halloween can’t be dismissed either. But there you go – in Belfast people mark their territory by painting kerbstones, in rural Tyrone they paint sheep. Just when you think this place can’t surprise you…

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