Surely Danny is jesting with us – isn’t he?

So, as you know, the southern election has been called (and not before time) for 11 March. This also means that Gerry, having decamped to the fresh pastures of Louth and East Meath, will have to vacate his position as West Belfast’s abstentionist rep at Westminster, having already stood down from Stormont.

This poses a few tricky questions, as noted by the Beeb’s indefatigable Mark Devenport. One is the technical issue that, whilst Gerry has written to Commons Speaker John Bercow saying he’s resigning his seat, he isn’t going to apply for the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. Doubtless the Commons can deploy some procedural device to unseat the Dear Leader, but Mr Bercow is going to have to put his thinking cap on to figure out what that may be.

More to the point, though, is exactly who SF will pick as the party’s by-election candidate for one of the safest seats in the Commons. Amongst the Belfast Shinners, Alex Maskey seems to me to be the obvious choice – he has decades of hard constituency work behind him, is extremely popular with the party membership and has become quite an adept politician compared to the wee hard man he was in the 1980s. On the other hand, the “movement” may have someone else in mind. It’s certainly a plum position for whoever gets the candidacy.

But one name that didn’t come to my mind was that of this blog’s old mucker George Galloway. Yes, Danny Morrison is holding forth in next Monday’s Andytown News as to the desirability of running Gallows as a candidate, despite Gallows being otherwise engaged in Glasgow at the moment. There’s also the slight complication of George not being a member of Sinn Féin, which should theoretically disbar him from being the SF candidate.

We must also ask ourselves whether Gallows would be the representative West Belfast really needs. Regular readers will know that I’m far from being a paid-up member of the Gerry Adams Fan Club, but I’ll acknowledge that the guy does have a certain gravitas. Are the broad masses of the Falls Road really prepared for an MP who could, at a moment’s notice, vanish from his constituency only to rematerialise in some exotic setting, perhaps sucking up to a Middle Eastern dictator, perhaps impersonating a household pet on national television, or perhaps doing some even weirder shit that nobody could predict?

I’ll admit, George would be fantastic copy, and part of me sort of hopes that Danny is on one of his occasional kite-flying exercises. Sadly, I suspect Danny is just extracting the urine. And maybe it’s just the case that our staid political culture over here couldn’t cope with the Gracchus of Dundee.

Claudy, and the meaning of Jim Chesney

I want to reflect – indeed, I need to – on Al Hutchinson’s report into the 1972 Claudy bombing. In an insightful piece, Malachi has already said much of what needed to be said, but there’s still some amplification I want to do in terms of the historical context.

The facts of the matter are relatively simple. On 31 July 1972, three 250-pound bombs ripped through the tiny village of Claudy outside Derry, devastating the village and leaving nine civilians dead, both Catholic and Protestant. No warning was received. No claim of responsibility was ever made, though it was universally assumed the Provos were to blame. Even by the standards of 1972, our worst year for atrocities, it was an exceptionally stupid and murderous act. No prosecutions were ever brought, which is the starting point for the Hutchinson report.

What has grabbed the headlines is the apparent involvement of a south Derry priest, Fr Jim Chesney, in the bombing. This isn’t altogether a surprise – Chesney’s involvement had been rumoured for decades – but it makes the bombing unusual in the extreme, and that is reflected in the cover-up.[1]

There is a general and a specific reason for Chesney to be a remarkable case. The general reason is that the Church doesn’t do war. Well, you can go back to the Crusades if you like, and the Franciscan Order has never quite lived down what its Croatian members did during WW2, but the general rule holds firm. That’s why, though many if not most Anglican churches contain war memorials and will fly the flag on certain occasions, you will not see anything of the sort in a Catholic church. And, even if the Church’s stringent conditions for a just war are met, priests are certainly not supposed to take up arms.

The specific reason has to do with the Catholic Church in the north of Ireland, which had long since reached a modus vivendi with the Orange State similar to the arrangements it reached with the Polish dictatorship – spiky, at times hostile, but mutually dependent. At the time, in 1972, and for many years afterwards, the British relied on the hierarchy as a moderating force holding the line against republicanism, the relationship intensifying in the 1980s when Douglas Hurd launched his programme of pacification through grantocracy. And this was reciprocated by the bishops producing fierce condemnation of the IRA as required, while offering very muted and qualified criticism of the state. In political terms, the bishops never quite ordered their flock to vote SDLP, but they came very very close. The establishment instinct ran very strong indeed.

Now, add to that the conformity you associate with a ghetto religion. If the Catholic clergy in the south sometimes resembled a mafia, discipline in the north was infinitely stronger. Considering that hundreds of priests would be active here at any given time, during the entire period of the Troubles there were precisely three priests who publicly fell out with the hierarchy. One of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t really count, as he’s a southerner and his problems with the hierarchy mostly related to his homosexuality. You had Fr Joe McVeigh in Fermanagh, who had an essentially republican viewpoint casting the bishops as pro-British; and Fr Des Wilson in Ballymurphy, who also started from a basically republican position but added to that social issues relating to the deprived urban area he was working in, plus some well-aimed criticisms of the elitist and cliquish practices of the Irish hierarchy. And that was it.

And this points up just how much of an outlier Jim Chesney was. There were a relative handful of priests who were known, quietly, to have strongly republican opinions, but that would be a matter of their opinions, and at most they might be thought to have turned a blind eye to certain activities. A priest actually becoming a bomber was literally unheard of; as I say, the rumours about Chesney have been circulating for many years, but I cannot think of any other named priest about whom there was anything similar, even on the level of rumour.

Which takes us to the cover-up, and we have some idea of the mechanics behind this. After the Claudy bombing, a detective sought permission to have Chesney arrested for questioning, but this was stopped by Special Branch. There then followed a series of discussions between British proconsul Willie Whitelaw, Cardinal William Conway and the top brass of the RUC on the theme of what to do about Chesney, which led to him being taken out of the north and transferred to a southern parish.

Note a couple of things about this. One is that the decision not to pursue Chesney was a political and police one, the two not really being separate in the north. The Church, in the person of Bishop Eddie Daly, interviewed Chesney twice; this was twice more than the cops did. Even after his transfer, there was nothing preventing the RUC from further investigating Claudy had they chosen to; they chose not to. Why?

One of the most common pitfalls to make when considering the north of Ireland is to assume that it works in a basically analogous way to Surrey or Hampshire, or indeed Dublin or Cork. It doesn’t – it especially didn’t in the febrile atmosphere of 1972 – and policing and criminal justice show that starkly. To say that the RUC lacked credibility in nationalist areas is to put it very mildly. It would be more accurate to say that the RUC was viewed as essentially a sectarian militia whose main purpose was to keep the Catholics down; a view shared by Protestants, who by and large thought this was a good thing. Internment was in full swing at the time. “Taken in for questioning” was not an innocuous phrase when it was known that suspects were being tortured. The loyalist gangs styled themselves as auxiliaries to the state forces, and in later years it would become clear that many of them, including some of our most notorious mass murderers, were actually on the state payroll.

Let’s take this further. What would have been the effect of arresting a priest on bombing charges, in the atmosphere of 1972? At the time, it wasn’t unknown for Catholic churches to be attacked by loyalist mobs. Two priests had relatively recently been shot by the British army. Is it implausible to think that ghetto opinion would have rallied behind Chesney, either believing the case to be a stitch-up or not caring, just seeing a priest under attack from the hated state? And what of the reaction on the other side? Loyalist political and religious leaders frequently claimed that the Vatican was controlling the IRA, often in collaboration with the Kremlin and sometimes the Freemasons or Illuminati. Some still do. Would the exposure of a bomber priest confirm that narrative? Was the fear of an enormous pogrom, dwarfing even that of 1969, an unreasonable fear?

So, when sketching out a police and state cover-up in which the Church was also complicit, the reasoning is not really all that mysterious. Since it appears that, despite plenty of intelligence pointing to Chesney, there was a lack of hard evidence coupled with the man’s own denials, it’s all too easy to see how a political-police decision (and all policing here is political) might be reached that pursuing Chesney through the criminal justice system was more trouble than it was worth. Having reached that conclusion, the next question was how to get him out of the picture before he did any more damage, which is where Conway comes in.

Jim Chesney has now been dead for thirty years. Willie Whitelaw is dead; William Conway is long dead; of the senior RUC officers involved, most will be dead by now. Justice, in the judicial sense, is probably out of the question at this point, and all the survivors and victims’ families can be left with is some transparency about what happened. Not that this will be much consolation. It’s a murky story, and nobody comes out of it well. As can be said about much in our history.

[1] In fact, we’re still at the point where intelligence rather than hard evidence is pointing to Chesney, and some people who know about these things are sceptical about his involvement. But we’ll assume that for the sake of argument, as the cover-up was premised on the assumption of his involvement.

Hoods ahoy

This week we aren’t going to bother doing a fisk of the Tablet, except to point out a couple of particularly notable zingers. At the front, Ma Pepsi seems to have formed the arresting idea that Dave Cameron’s Big Society has something to do with the writings of the late Raymond Williams. I think not. And at the back, Elena Discourteous reports on a homily delivered by Fr Tim Radcliffe, the Tablet‘s favourite priest, at the latest of the notorious Soho Masses, on the theme of how the Catholic Church is run by a bunch of old dudes who aren’t down with the zeitgeist. Unless Fr Tim has a wild clubbing lifestyle that we don’t know about, he makes for a rather unlikely Voice of Yoof.

But that’s enough of that. For the moment we’ll take a short break from matters ecclesiastical in favour of more local subject matter, for the Andersonstown News has been hilarious lately. This specifically has to do with a little fraying at the edges of Gerry’s kingdom. Don’t get me wrong, the para-state of republican Belfast retains its one-party system by popular demand, but the Provos have been experiencing a few headaches recently, and smaller forces have begun to get a bit more assertive.

On the political level, one manifestation of that is the series of events that have been held to commemorate the Falls Curfew. This has lead the Sticks to raise their voices along the lines of “Hold on, the defence of the Falls wasn’t youse, it was us,” which is of course historically true. This point went by default for many years, not least because of The Workers Party’s reluctance to admit to its military roots, but it’s good to see the path being made a little less smooth for revisionism.

But there’s a different aspect to this which I want to look at, starting with the riots in Ardoyne over the Twelfth. The Andytown News has firmly stated that the riots were the work of the Continuity IRA, which I seriously doubt since the Contos have trouble enough orchestrating themselves. Furthermore, top Belfast Provo Bobby Storey has been making ominous statements to the effect that he knows where the guilty parties live. This itself raises a question – I’ll grant you that Big Bobby is not a man you’d like to meet in a dark alleyway, but if the guilty parties are not scared of Gerry Kelly, who do you expect them to be scared of?

As mentioned previously, Ardoyne is graced by not one but two residents’ groups, and a look at these illuminates matters. Put very simply, the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA) is the Provo-controlled group, and the Greater Ardoyne Residents Coalition (GARC) is the not-the-Provos group. It is alleged by the Provos that GARC is nothing but a dissident/hood coalition with marginal support, but there’s more to it than that. Granted that there are dissidents involved in GARC and that the local hoods will use any disorder around parades to have a bit of crack, GARC actually has real people involved, and enough critical mass to be able to set the agenda locally. If you looked at the peaceful sit-down before the riots broke out, there were dissidents in it – I recognised a few RSF members – but the bulk of the people involved were indeed residents. Basically, GARC has come to encompass anybody in the area who has a beef with the Provos – even people who should really be within the peace process Big Tent – thanks not least to CARA being so tightly controlled as to exclude anyone even slightly off message, like people who don’t approve of the rioters but aren’t too keen on shopping them.

To sum things up then, we have an enclave with a ferocious history and a strongly independent streak; an interface area where loyalist marches provide a semi-regular flashpoint; a smallish but significant dissident presence; a large and combustible population of unemployed youth; top-down politicking from the Provos that has got some people’s backs up; and a functional coalition opposing the Provos on an issue where their ability to control events is vulnerable. That combination is unique to Ardoyne at the moment, but it sets an ominous precedent.

Moving into west Belfast, there’s something interesting happening in the Divis/Lower Falls area, where an unofficial residents’ group has sprung up. This time the issue is over a bonfire. To explain for readers outside Belfast, some years ago the Provos quietly dispensed with the traditional Internment Night bonfires. These guys want one in the Divis area, and claim a leafleting exercise has shown enormous popular support for bringing back the local bonfire. The Provos poured cold water on that, arguing that of course their leafleting got a positive response because they only leafleted their mates. The unofficial residents replied that there’d been a meeting in April attended by Fra McCann whereat the broad masses expressed their boundless enthusiasm for the bonfire. Fra then surfaced to say that yes, he had been at the meeting, but nobody there wanted a bonfire. You can choose who to believe, I suppose, and it could well be that Divis gets a bonfire whether residents want it or not.

But if you want to know the real source of Máirtín’s current wrath, you have to head further up the road. You may recall that the Ardoyne rioting over the Twelfth was preceded by some rioting at Broadway. This allegedly had to do with a loyalist bonfire, which I doubt as the said bonfire was a mile up the road. The subtext of this was the IBA, a gang of hoods who’ve been terrorising St James’ for some time now. Quixotically enough, they seem to model themselves on TV’s Sons of Anarchy, and have been goading the Provos into coming and having a go if they think they’re hard enough.

And it’s these guys who have really got up the nose of the Andytown News, which is issuing ever shriller calls for someone to do something about these rotten wee bastards. Recent issues of the paper have been full of lurid stories about how, for instance, the Bog Meadows are full of motorbikes that the IBA are stealing to order.

For what it’s worth, the dissidents don’t like them much either. At the weekend, it is alleged, a few guys from the dissident ÓNH went out armed to tackle them, except their gun jammed, and then they were lifted by the cops. Cue a lot of cheeky graffiti about the ÓNH and their old rusty guns. They’ve also managed to seriously annoy the IRSP by graffitiing all over Casa Irp.

In a nutshell, this sums up a lot of the problem with the policing debate. We used to hear people like Alex Attwood telling us that the alternative to the Provos controlling the streets was law and order. Au contraire, it looks very much as if the alternative to the Provos controlling the streets is the hoods controlling the streets. We eagerly await Attwood informing us as to whether he thinks this is an improvement.

CPI: SF at the crossroads

An interesting article on the recent PSF Ard Fheis here, from the Communist Party – and you could do worse than have a look at Socialist Voice (or Unity if you’re in the north) regularly. Personally, I think Gerry and the guys have been through quite a few crossroads, but the points raised here are valid ones.

The recent ard-fheis of Sinn Féin was a somewhat quiet affair, with not a lot on the agenda to stir interest other than two motions, from Waterford and from Drimnagh, Dublin, dealing with possible participation in a coalition Government after the next general election in the Republic.

The motion from the Drimnagh cumann stated: “This Ard Fheis calls on Sinn Féin not to go into power with other parties in government such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, as this would be incompatible with our politics and would damage the party.” But the Ard-Chomhairle put forward an amendment that effectually leaves the door open for participation in a future Government, and this was overwhelmingly carried.

The arguments made by those supporting the two motions drew on experience from previous coalition Governments and the consequences for the junior parties in those Governments. Underlying the debate—not mentioned during it but certainly part of the subtext—was the fact that many members in the Republic are greatly concerned that if the Sinn Féin leadership get an opportunity to join a coalition Government they will do so. The experience of the dumping of central policies just before the last general election is still a painful memory for a large number of Southern members.

The position of the Ard-Chomhairle was that any decision in relation to joining a Government would be taken by a special party conference. Given that Sinn Féin is in effect a Northern party, controlled from Belfast, its priorities are shaped by political developments and the priorities surrounding the Northern situation. The majority of delegates to the recent ard-fheis, as with previous ard-fheiseanna, were from the North. If the opportunity arises to enter government in the Republic, the likelihood of their joining a coalition is very high—simply because the political priorities are determined by that relationship.

What is also obvious from the speeches during the ard-fheis and in media interviews afterwards is that the Northern leadership has little more than a superficial understanding of the political, economic and social situation in the Republic. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the political and economic questions, they flounder—which is quite understandable, given the nature of the conflict in the North over such a prolonged period and the preoccupation with the peace process.

If the opportunity arises of entering a Dublin Government, a majority at any special conference for taking that decision will be Northern delegates, who will approach such participation from an entirely different set of political priorities.

Yet the agenda of the ard-fheis shows that the majority of motions down for discussion came from branches in the Republic, while those dealing with the Northern situation came mainly from the Ard-Chomhairle, with very few from individual cumainn in the North. There were no significant motions dealing with the social and economic situation in the North, and those that there were were devoid of any real depth.

This reveals a number of possibilities: that there is complete unity on the economic and social strategy of the national leadership; or they have no clear idea of an alternative strategy; or the leadership brooks no criticism of its attitude to government; or if there is criticism it is muted or corralled, in the interest of sustaining the unity of the organisation and a united front against unionism.

Another area that shows how far Sinn Féin has shifted politically was the section dealing with “European affairs.” Motions 11, 12 and 13, all again from the Ard-Chomhairle, show a further diminution of opposition to the European Union. There was no indication of the nature of the European Union and what it represents; there was no challenge to the view presented by the media or assessment of the effect of the Lisbon Treaty. All three motions were full of woolly thinking and pious aspiration. “Bring information on the EU back to different sectors and local communities in Ireland through a programme of outreach . . . Engage on the basis of our progressive policy positions on issues within EU’s competences . . . Promoting democratic change in the EU.”

What is ignored is the fact that the policies of the European Union itself have contributed to the crisis and have a major bearing on the measures that member-states can introduce to overcome the crisis.

The question is, How can you call yourself a republican and support the European Union? Republicanism is about democracy and the sovereignty of states, equality between states as well as equality between peoples, and the centrality of the people in democratic and economic policy and decision-making.

The European Union has been deliberately constructed and is treaty-based to ensure the very opposite, by removing the people from the whole process and actively discouraging their involvement, undermining national democracy and national accountability, making all political and economic decisions subservient to the needs of transnational corporations, and all this backed up and imposed by the main imperialist states at the heart of the European Union.

There is a token throwing in of the idea of using the European Union to “raise the issue of Irish Unity, and other issues related to the peace-process.” It is not clear what “Irish unity” would mean, considering our inability to change or do anything independently of what the European Union will allow and what is possible within an imperialist superstate.

A revelation of the pretence at being some sort of radical party while hiding this from some of those it believes are allies in the struggle for Irish unity is the fact that there was no criticism and no indication of their understanding of the role of the United States in global politics, or its central role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In relation to the coup in Honduras, the motion from the Ard-Chomhairle “condemns the coup d’état in Honduras which resulted in President Zelaya, who was democratically elected, being removed at gunpoint. This act undermines democracy in the region.”

The coup in Honduras was planned, organised and supervised by the CIA and the US State Department. No calls for President Zelaya to be allowed back; no expression of support or solidarity with the democratic forces now engaged in an intense struggle with the puppet government; no acknowledgement that a number of leaders of the democratic opposition have been assassinated.

From reading the motions and the speeches of leading figures in Sinn Féin one cannot help seeing that it is a party moving steadily to the centre. It is caught up in electoral politics and is prepared to make whatever compromises are required to secure participation in government. It will surely end up in government but with nothing radical to bring to the table.

At this stage, what separates Sinn Féin from the Labour Party is that it still has a commitment to Irish unity; but its attitude to other central questions makes the achievement of that goal unrealisable. As for the rest, the establishment can rest easy.

The question now is, Where will those in Sinn Féin who believe in a radical republicanism go from here?

The dead past keeps on coming back

Over at Slugger, amongst much discussion of this issue, Brian asks why the Adams story isn’t getting quite the media play of the Robinson story:

On Adams, Suzanne has been doing much of the grind work and much of the rest of the press have been riding on the back of it, just as everyone seized on BBC Spotlight’s exclusive whistleblowing. Although restraints have been cast aside, some caution is still needed on Adams, if only in the interests of fairness, as Mick has rightly warned. The Sunday Tribune have been taking considerable risks over defamation, confidentiality and reporting detail that could prejudice a trial. The Cahill case goes very far indeed, as if the paper believes there’s little chance of a prosecution or need to shield the victim, despite her voluntary testimony. Note too the police’s warning to Gerry Adams over his own persistent attempts at self-exculpation. That line may actually have been crossed some time ago, albeit arguably in the public interest…

I think this is basically correct and, as Dave knows, being online is no protection against the defamation laws. In criminal cases you enter much dodgier territory, which is why I’m being extremely careful on this – and not only on this issue, it’s not as if I don’t have thoughts on the Tommy Sheridan case but I’m not going to open a discussion thread on it until the legalities are resolved. There is the further element of prejudice – certainly, Liam Adams’ defence team would be remiss if they didn’t make reference to some of the more sensationalist media coverage in the north. It seems to me too, and here I must enter the caveat that I Am Not A Lawyer, that the Tribune has indeed been running some risks. AFAIK there is no public interest defence for naming a sexual abuse complainant who has not voluntarily waived her anonymity, and withholding names while providing more than enough detail for close-knit communities to identify individuals looks like thin ice to me.

But let’s return to Brian:

How do I rate the Adams affair as a story? Cumulatively gripping, but quite a slow burn which could yet ignite. The long fuse partly consists of Gerry Adams himself under pressure. The allegations against both Adams brothers may well be about a greater immorality than anything Iris Robinson committed. But news judgements are essentially amoral although moral judgements may figure. The painstaking trawl through newspaper records about who said what and when, if at all, lacks the punch of the Iris affair, particularly for broadcasters. Moreover the political fallout has been conspicuously less so far. Almost certainly Adams’s exposure would have been greater had he been deputy first minister. But those still on the hunt can take comfort: this is surely a story that hasn’t peaked yet.

Up to a point. Actually, the Robinson story still has legs, in terms of the business connections of the Developers’ Unionist Party, not least in the Strangford constituency. Plus, even if you’re primarily interested in the sex angle, it’s entirely possible that an enterprising journalist can turn up one or more trouser-dropping DUP reps for our collective entertainment. If even a tenth of the rumours floating about are true, the Wee Frees are going to have conniptions.

But back to Gerry. It’s becoming very easy to lose sight of the actual issues – although see this for a sobering reminder. There are, as I’ve said, lots of people who don’t like Gerry, often for very good reasons, and it’s understandable that some folks are very excited at the prospect of bringing down Gerry and some of his honchos. It’s also unsurprising that Gerry himself is capable of being deeply manipulative even during what’s evidently a personally very difficult time – although his efforts to keep the party out of this seem to have had the opposite effect. There are, though, difficult questions for him to answer in the longer term.

But don’t underestimate the extent to which Gerry is bulletproof. There’s nobody about to launch a putsch against him internally, and there’s no external foe with the stature to seriously challenge him electorally. West Belfast is a virtual one-party state, and is so by popular demand. Who are his external opponents? Alex Attwood? The Workers Party? The small dissident formations? None of these are going to sweep the broad masses any time soon.

That’s why it wasn’t surprising that, listening to the vox pops earlier today at the Kennedy Centre, most of the punters seemed inclined to give Gerry the benefit of the doubt. There was, it’s true, a little graffiti calling on him to resign, presumably the work of some dissident youth, but it’s been painted over already. It’s quite possible, indeed almost certain, that some people have been leaned on, but you always have to keep in mind that the west Belfast para-state rests on a serious base of popular support. Not only that, but any shit that could conceivably have been thrown at Gerry already has been, multiple times.

Take, for example, the anticipation of the Dark’s posthumous memoir, which the media have been telling us Gerry is deeply worried about. But, Gerry’s denials notwithstanding, everybody knows he was in the Provos, and everybody knows he was leading the Provos in Belfast at a particular point in time when some very bad things happened. Unless the Dark knew (and recorded) something really sensational – and only Gerry really knows what Brendan knew – it’s unlikely he’ll tell us much we either didn’t know or couldn’t have guessed. It’ll be worth finding out, anyway.

Mind you, these abuse cases do point up something worth commenting on. When we talk about the high level of rape and sexual abuse in Irish society, we always have to bear in mind that the perpetrator is usually someone known to, and most often related to, the victim. The exposures of clerical abuse since the Brendan Smyth case are more than just a drop in the ocean – and clerical abuse rightly attracts particular odium because of the breach of trust involved and the fact that the clergy are expected to set a higher standard – but the iceberg is what happens in families.

That said, there are good reasons why, in all the advances our society has made in dealing with sexual abuse, it’s been much easier to train one’s fire on institutions. From the point of view of a victim coming forward after 25 or 30 years, it’s often easier to do so when you’re taking to task a priest who may be dead or an industrial school that may be long since closed, than taking on a family member, with all that that implies. The pressure on the victim is greater when it’s a family matter. And let’s not forget that institutions can be reformed – the reform of the Irish Catholic Church may have been painfully slow and overwhelmingly driven from Rome, but it is taking place – while reforming families is a much bigger ask, and not something you can put forward a large-scale solution for.

So it is in this current situation in the north, that while the abuse has been internal to families – although republican families – it’s an institution, in the form of Sinn Féin, that finds itself in the spotlight. One may ask, without supporting the party, whether this is entirely fair. I don’t think that republicans are more likely to be abusers than anyone else in our society, but if we’re talking about what went on in nationalist Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s there are a number of factors to be borne in mind. One was a policing vacuum, and a police force seemingly more interested in recruiting victims as informers than getting them justice. Also, a social services infrastructure that was a lot less clued up in these matters than it is today. You have a Provisional movement that valued discipline, loyalty and secrecy above all else – which allows you to see how republicans who’d been guilty of quite serious crimes could escape the movement’s rough-and-ready policing regime. And all this in the context of a society dislocated and brutalised by the effects of the Troubles.

And now? Today, the party has a policy that says any member suspected of sexual abuse is immediately suspended without prejudice and reported to the statutory authorities – authorities the party now recognises, which it used not to. This policy dates from as recently as 2006, which tells you how rapidly ideas are changing on this issue, and changing for the better. As far as the more distant past goes, the potential damage will be determined by the significant distinction between an active cover-up (as in the McCartney murder) and a failure to act; and, not least, by how straight party reps are on the matter.

And as for Gerry – well, it’s possible he’ll just get tired and jack it in. But my instinct is still that he’ll jump when he wants to jump and nobody is lining up to push him. In that sense, he’s better placed than Peter.

Rud eile: For those of you who like lefty trainspotting, the Real SWP were out leafletting in Cornmarket on Saturday. Given that they’ve taken the guts of the branch, my instinct is that they’ll be pursuing a tack of doing what the branch was doing, only without the national party. And since the aggravation from the centre often outweighs any material support you might get, they may even make a go of it.

Killian goes off piste

Let’s take a brief break from the DUP and turn our attention to events in Provieland. Many readers will already have heard that Dublin city councillor and ski enthusiast (how he must be loving this weather) Killian Forde has resigned from the party and is said to be about to join Labour. Whatever the bluster from his former comrades, Killian is a sharp bloke with an obvious political future ahead of him, who is a serious loss. Now, back in June Killian wrote a document for a review of party organisation in Dublin, a review that never happened. This has now appeared on the excellent SF Keep Left blog, whence I am shamelessly nicking it. As for Killian’s arguments, they are sensible and well made – I will only say that, if he thinks these problems are specific to PSF or that Labour is going to be a huge improvement, he’s in for a rude awakening. (h/t Remi)

Submission in relation to the 2009 local and European election in Dublin.

From Cllr Killian Forde.

In my opinion Sinn Féin is in serious and potentially critical decline in Dublin.

The organisation has too few members, a shortage of electable GE candidates and a membership that is frustrated and tired.

Looking at the next GE election the most likely scenario, as it now stands, is that we will lose our seat in Dublin South Central. We will also fall far short of securing seats in Dublin South West, Dublin North West, Dublin Central and Dublin North East.

A modestly optimistic scenario would see us retain DSC and win DSW, thereby returning Sinn Féin to the same position as 2002 with the same personnel.

We need to commit to a number of clear decisions within the next couple of months if we are to have any ambition of being serious political players in the city.

We are one election away from being totally irrelevant in Dublin and the south in general.

Concentration of resources.
SF should target and contest in no more than 5 constituencies in Dublin. In order of likelihood of success they should be.

1. Dublin South Central.
2. Dublin South West.
3. Dublin North West.
4. Dublin North East.
5. Dublin Mid West.

I do not believe we should contest in Dublin Central. The departure of Christy Burke, and the probability he will run as an independent, coupled with the poor vote in the Cabra ward, means this seat is not winnable in the next General Election

I would recommend that a decision be taken by September on which constituencies to run in. The decision to run should be based solely on the potential to secure a General Election seat. Arguments about “building for the future” by constituencies should not be entertained.

Other Dublin constituencies should be put into hibernation and all members seconded to neighbouring constituencies. An audit should be done on the skills set available in each of the cumann and tasks set that match the individual.

Dublin Mayoral Election.

Next summer an election is due to take place for the position of the Mayor of Dublin. This affords us the opportunity, perhaps the last one before the GE, to get our politics, messaging and election logistics right. The decision on the candidate needs to rest solely with the Dublin Cuige and be done by means of an open contest with a secret ballot. Members should be encouraged to put their name forward. We need a healthy open debate and competition. The candidate selected should reflect where SF in Dublin wants to position itself. I would recommend that a convention be done on this candidature in October 2009 with a DOE appointed the same month. Its extremely unlikely we can win the seat but we should aim to pleasantly surprise people with a refreshed, succinct and clear political message.

Candidate training.

All SF candidates running in the GE election must receive training to work on their areas of weakness. An honest strengths and weakness’s assessment should be carried out on each of the candidates selected to run. For instance DELETED….

Specific weakness to do with policy know how, image, interview techniques, canvassing behaviour can be improved by sourcing expert assistance in these areas. SF in Dublin should aim that all of its candidates in the next GE are the whole package.


Sinn Féin is an appalling run organisation. Its structures are opaque, its personnel management non-existent, there is little accountability on the senior leadership and people are appointed to important roles without any experience.


Sinn Féin, it appears to me, does not even have a basic organisational chart for employees, elected officials, candidates and cumman members to be able to refer to. The power and associated decision-making in the party lies with individuals not embedded structures. This means that those seeking to question or contribute to decisions, policies or strategy have to try and negotiate through a maze of offices, titles, committees, working groups and individuals to try to get their voice heard. The structures that do exist have not the confidence to make decisions, meaning that even minor matters get funnelled up to a small amount of the same people in the party. These people then end up with an effective veto on everything. This practice makes the party bloated, slow and predictable.


People are routinely appointed to positions in the party with no experience in the role. This must end. In the period preceding the 2009 election we have had the appointment and employment of a Head of Publicity that has no experience in PR and as far as I know no specific experience on brand management or marketing. It also appears that the post was never advertised and the person selected was chosen for reasons unknown. The Director of Elections appointed to oversee Mary Lou’s crucial European campaign had never even participated in any form in any election before, anywhere. Managerial appointments in Leinster House include people who have never managed people before. It appears that we have a reoccurring approach of training people “from the top”.

From now on all employment for posts must be publicly advertised and people interviewed for the post by members of the party with experience of HR interview skills.

Policy development.

Policies are our tools and, still, our development of same is far too slow. Our response to the economic crisis was glacial. The bank guarantee happened in September, our economic policy was launched, way too late, in March or April. My own experience trying to engage was irritating. I submitted a contribution to the Chairperson of the Economic Strategy Group who forwarded to the Secretary General. I never received any feedback from either and I know my paper was never distributed to other members of he Economic Strategy Group. In short, the time I spent in researching and writing it was a complete and utter waste of my time. Time that I could have spent canvassing or organising my election.

I recommend that we need to look at policy development from two parts. One is by ensuring that the TDs and their PA’s are given the autonomy and trusted to issue statements and brief positions papers for public consumption in response to ever changing events and so compete in the publicity battle.

The policy development department needs to be allowed to develop their work and that work signed off rapidly.

The Party culture.

Sinn Féin and republicans value loyalty and obedience, probably above any other virtue. This was an understandable position when the republican movement was at war. It has now become the greatest hindrance to us developing as a dynamic, interesting, vibrant, creative party. There is little tolerance for dissenting opinions and nowhere for people to take those opinions. Criticism and accountability of the leadership has been discouraged for so long that simply put there is a culture of fear and misguided loyalty that militates against empowerment and people taking responsibility with their work and the development of the party.

Politics is about the battle of ideas. We need to facilitate and positively encourage the frank and open exchange of ideas. People need to be ambitious, hungry for positions and impatient for chance. Competition for candidatures need to be encouraged, policy should be developed to allow for a frank exchange of ideas.

The leadership of the party, both elected and those on the National officer board must decide what they want. Their style of operations and management are not appropriate and unhelpful if they really want the emergence, nurturing and development of new leadership and electoral talent.

Dublin Sinn Féin should endorse candidates to run for all A/C positions at the 2010 Ard Fheis. This gesture will send an important message to the ordinary party membership, namely that it is ok and normal for leadership positions to be contested. Dublin Sinn Féin can play a positive role in influencing change in the party culture. The Dublin officer board can provide the leadership needed in our party so that it’s ‘corporate culture’ becomes one in which the vital checks and balances needed to keep the organisation fresh, vibrant and evolving are mainstreamed.

Summary of recommendations.

1. Contest a maximum of five constituencies in the next GE.
2. Do not contest Dublin Central.
3. Cumann who are not in areas selected for contesting the next GE are put into hibernation and the personnel redeployed to the target constituencies.
4. Organise a convention and select candidate to stand in next years Dublin Mayoral Election by October 2009.
5. Dublin Sinn Féin should encourage prospective candidates to put their name forward to ensure there is a healthy debate and competition internally for the Mayoral position.
6. Ensure an experienced DOE is appointed by October 2009 for the Mayoral election.
7. Provide appropriate targeted and tailored training for the candidates selected to run in the next GE.
8. Monitor the employment of personnel to ensure that all posts are publicly advertised and the hiring process transparent and fair.
9. Encourage the TDs offices to develop a quicker and more autonomous response to political developments.
10. Allow policy sub committees to do their work and drafts to be presented to the membership, not the A/C or General Secretary’s office, first.
11. Dublin SF should put forward candidates for all A/C positions for the 2010 Ard Fheis.
12. Start challenging decision making by the national officer board, because it now seems obvious that no one else will.

A quarter pound of reasons, and half a pound of sins

Part the first:

Peter Robinson’s dramatic statement today about his marriage has capped a period of feverish speculation, although it isn’t yet ended. We had already had Iris Robinson’s announcement that she was standing down as an elected representative due to her mental health problems, specifically long-term depression which had, by her own account, led her to engage in irrational and self-destructive behaviour. Peter added to this today by remarking that Iris was incapable, in a medical sense, of functioning as a politician, and (together with a written statement from Iris) speaking of her affair and subsequent suicide attempt.

This at least explains Peter’s own erratic behavior over the last while. He had, you’ll be aware, taken some flak for not issuing a statement of condolence on the death of Cardinal Daly, and there was speculation that he was deliberately playing to his own sectarian gallery. Had either the OFMDFM or the DUP prepared a two- or three-line statement immediately, everything would have been fine. But there was three days’ silence, followed by a five-paragraph statement, the first four paragraphs of which were attacks on Peter’s naysayers in the press. Even for a notoriously thin-skinned control freak, this looked a bit off, not least Robbo’s statement that he had been incommunicado over the holidays. This revelation of the depth of family difficulties sheds light on events.

As for Iris… well, one tries to feel sympathy. Certainly I wouldn’t wish mental illness on anyone. But, and this may not reflect well on me, her confession to the sin of adultery seems a bit poetic in the case of someone who’s been so keen in the past to flay others for their personal morality. In particular, Iris will be best known outside the north for her ignorant and hateful comments on homosexuals. It is perhaps worth pointing out, though, that Iris’ position on homosexuality is absolutely mainstream opinion in the Democratic Unionist Party – look at how quickly they washed their hands of Paul Berry after the sports massage affair – and, whoever succeeds her in the Strangford constituency, it is not likely to be Peter Tatchell. Iris’ mistake was to say in the metrosexual Westminster parliament things that you could have got away with at Stormont. On this and other issues, and however energetic she’d been as a constituency MP, I’d consider her contribution to northern politics as basically a negative one. So I do hope she has a recovery and rebuilds her life as a private citizen.

In the wider sense, this is not going to shake Peter’s position as DUP leader. There are, as we know, people in the rural Paisleyite wing of the party who’ve never taken to him. There was widespread derision of his and Iris’ Westminster expenses claims. There has been resentment of their use of allowances to employ members of their family, and of the way that for decades the Robinson family has run Castlereagh council as the loyalist analogue of North Korea – when you drive through Castlereagh, you’re always looking out for a street or public building that’s been named after Peter. There is ongoing speculation about the financial questions to be raised in the upcoming Spotlight programme. But this – this will not harm Peter. Iris’ acknowledgement and repentance of her sin, and Peter’s forgiveness, speaks directly to the evangelical Protestant mindset.

The question is whether Peter wants to go on. He’s been saying that he’ll be back at work in the morning as usual. But in his interview, Peter, who likes to project himself as a hard man, was emotional in a way that I’ve never seen from him. He looked like a broken man. Nobody in the DUP will move against him on the back of this, but he has an out if he wants to take it.

Part the second:

The other bit of our ongoing soap opera is of course the Adams family. I’ve been reluctant to say anything on this, partly because I don’t want to overcommit myself when important facts aren’t known, and partly because the allegations against Liam Adams will soon be sub judice – and some parts of the press have been so free with their allegations that you’d almost think they were trying to prejudice a possible trial.

So I’m going to be very careful. The revelations about Old Gerry scarcely matter now outside the family, as the man is dead and buried, but there was an interesting point in what Gerry Óg said about his mixed feelings on burying his father, that he felt the old man didn’t deserve the tricolour on his coffin as he had besmirched republicanism. This seems to be saying that a republican can’t be an abuser, or an abuser can’t be a republican – which surely isn’t true, as republicans represent a cross-section of our society. It’s also had the unfortunate result of provoking some of the usual suspects into attempting to explain away republicanism as some kind of psychosexual deviation, conveniently letting everyone else off the hook for the Troubles.

As for the case of Liam Adams, I’m going to say nothing at all about the substantive issue which will be before the courts before too long. I will say that so far, Áine and her mother are the only people coming out of this with any dignity. The real issue is about Gerry’s handling of the matter, and I’ll direct you to a thoughtful analysis by Malachi and a more caustic one from Liam.

The first thing to say is that, as well as acting as family spokesperson, Gerry very clearly has two things he wants to accomplish. One is to distance the whole affair from Sinn Féin – in which he hasn’t succeeded – and the other is to establish that this is a family issue. Now, there are a lot of people who don’t like Gerry, and a lot of people who have very good reason not to like Gerry – I’m not his biggest fan myself – but there was quite a bit of sympathy for him at the outset, in terms of what he said about Old Gerry. Rather a lot of that has been frittered away by the Turbine‘s exposure of gaps, evasions and terminological inexactitudes in his account of the business of Liam Adams.

To set this in some context, the level of rape and sexual abuse in Irish society is horrific. The vast majority of this is domestic. Since the Brendan Smyth atrocities came to light some fifteen years ago, there has been a huge shift in attitudes around the issue of clerical abuse, which attracts particular odium due to the breach of trust involved. But this, while bad enough in itself, is dwarfed by domestic abuse where attitudes still lag. And bear in mind also that the new enlightened thinking that you get in respectable southern society has not quite penetrated places like Ballymurphy.

Malachi points out that, if Gerry was a bishop, he’d have had to resign by now. This hits the nail on the head. We’re not talking about something like the Robert McCartney murder, where the Provisional organisation actively covered up a crime committed by one of its members, forensically cleaned the scene and ensured that nobody present had seen anything. No, the bishops criticised in the Murphy report were not criticised for things they had done, but for things they might reasonably have done but didn’t. Gerry admits to handling things badly, which is more than Bishop Drennan of Galway has done; but, were he in a different position, that wouldn’t save him.

Gerry’s preferred narrative is one of him popping up from time to time, either having a quiet word with the brother or having a quiet word with someone else about the brother – quietly having him expelled from the party, for instance, without telling anyone why. It’s not implausible in its own terms; the trouble is that Suzanne Breen, who evidently smells blood, has been labouring mightily to undermine this narrative. She hasn’t yet produced a smoking gun, and maybe never will, but has certainly put a lot of question marks over Gerry’s version of events and has managed to trap Arthur Morgan in a direct lie. It all chips away at the edifice.

And yet, I don’t think this does spell curtains for Gerry’s leadership, for a number of reasons. The obvious one is, who’s going to use this against him? On the unionist side, it will provide Sammy Wilson with a few bad-taste jokes for the DUP conference, but they aren’t competing for support with Gerry. The SDLP can’t use it, for a reason I’ll get onto. The dissidents might, but it’s not as if they have much of a base or an attractive alternative.

To return to the context, we should note that these allegations date from 1987 and yet it’s only now that the police are actively pursuing them. This is not just a matter of the police in the 1980s not being as sensitive to sex abuse allegations as they are now. It also relates to the situation that prevailed in west Belfast and similar areas, where the RUC effectively did not bother with ordinary crime. The RUC policed the IRA, and the IRA policed ordinary crime. It did so using a rough-and-ready system of penalties ranging from verbal warnings via beatings to shootings and exilings, with the occasional execution of especially serious recidivists. Some readers will recall a case in Derry many years ago of a predatory paedophile, a seriously bad man who was said to have raped large numbers of children in his area. That ended when the IRA burst into his home and blew the man’s legs off, leaving him to bleed to death. It is worth recording that this action was extremely popular in the local community, and indeed many in the local community had lobbied for drastic action.

That was an extreme case. Mostly it operated on a less dramatic scale. I actually have a story similar to Liam’s, of an elderly relative who was having trouble with young hoods; someone in the republican movement was spoken to (the person involved is dead, so I can’t check, but I have a feeling it may have been the Sticks rather than the Provos); a warning was issued and the trouble stopped. For people accused of sexual abuse, shooting and exiling would have been expected. In the case of Liam Adams, it could be asked – in fact, it is being asked – whether he avoided summary punishment by dint of being Gerry’s brother. One does not condone this attitude, one merely notes it. But liberal critics of Gerry, such as the SDLP, can’t take this tack, because our modern human rights thought is very much against punishment shootings and exilings.

The angle that would most interest republican critics, who read Suzanne Breen avidly, is the spook angle. In the nature of these things, there is no actual evidence of spookery. What there is is the commonsense observation that if the cops received a report of this nature relating to a close relative of Gerry’s, the spooks would certainly be interested, and their track record in the north would be not to bring these crimes to a possibly doomed court case, but to compromise or recruit individuals. That is just an observation of the spooks’ MO during the Troubles; anything beyond is pure speculation. But, after Scap and Donaldson, Gerry really doesn’t need his inner circle to look any flakier.

I will make one further observation about Gerry’s future. I don’t think this will hurt his electoral prospects, not least because of the lack of an alternative. But you will remember that, following the McCartney murder, it was predicted by some that PSF would be badly damaged electorally, and in particular Alex Maskey, who had done a lot of the flak-catching around the case. In the end there was a limited impact in Short Strand, and no detectable impact anywhere else. This has a lot to do with the disposition of PSF voters – and remember, Gerry is sitting on a 70% vote share in West Belfast – to get very defensive if you press the attack beyond a certain point, and especially if notorious anti-republicans are jumping on the bandwagon. Despite the heroic stance of the McCartney sisters and the massive sympathy for them, there came to be a widespread attitude that this was being used by hostile outsiders as a stick to beat the community. That’s a very difficult mentality to break.

No, Gerry leading the party that he leads, and with the setup of the peace process being what it is, the chances of him being pushed out are minimal. Like Peter Robinson though, he has an out if he wants to take it. And, even though he’s a mere youngster of 61, his comrades may start thinking about a medium-term succession.

These family dramas, whether the family be Robinson or Adams, do however all point in one direction. That is that, both at party and Executive level, there is a greater shift of authority to the Deputy First Minister. Since recent polling indicates that Martin McGuinness is easily the most popular politician in the north – even amongst Protestants – that may soothe some nerves. But a peace process held together by Martin’s force of personality… an interesting prospect.

Defectors go leor!


It’s a funny thing, but defectors have been much in the news the past week. Not one defector, but three. And not one of them without some kind of twist in the tale. And, wait, till I tell you, defections may be common in the south – one thinks of the late Nollaig de Brún and his multiple party allegiances – but much less so in the north. That’s why Billy Leonard is such an unusual figure.

First up is the news that Fianna Fáil, its support crumbling south of the border, has optimistically been attempting to establish a base in South Down. This has involved a high-powered delegation from HQ, including justice minister Dermot Ahern and former Ceann Comhairle Rory O’Hanlon, as well as uncrowned king of Connacht Éamon Ó Cuív, who talked about how his grandfather, President de Valera, had a long-standing connection to the constituency, having been elected there in the 1920s. One may wish to take this sentimentality at face value, and one may note that Ahern (from Dundalk) and Dr Death O’Hanlon (from Carrickmacross) are border deputies with a natural interest in what happens next door. But it’s hard not to see this stellar line-up as representing a big vote of no confidence in the long-term future of the South Down and Londonderry Party. Consider also that the Soldiers of Fortune already have a cumann in Derry, and add a little piquancy in terms of the near forty-year animus between the SDLP and the Blaneyites. Maybe Durko and Attwood should pause awhile in thought.

Anyway, lending some tone to proceedings was FF’s most prominent local figure, ex-councillor Colonel Harvey Bicker OBE, formerly of the Ulster Unionist Party and the British army. Now, Harvey defected to FF some time ago, and is currently an appointee to President McAleese’s Council of State, but he retains an interest in South Down politics and is now rather ostentatiously in favour of the all-Ireland context. Whether such an eccentric figure is symptomatic of anything is another matter. My view is that there must be something in the water around that neck of the woods, which is also the stomping ground of ex-UUP man Henry Reilly, who currently sits as a UKIP representative on Newry and Mourne council.

Another councillor to make the news has been Belcoo man Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh, who has left PSF to join the Socialist Party. (More here.) At least we can say that Domhnall hasn’t acted for purposes of electoral advancement, and he has resigned his seat on Fermanagh council, rather honourably reckoning that, as a co-opted rather than elected councillor, he couldn’t possibly claim the seat as his. I wish Domhnall well in his new environment, and obviously this is a feather in the cap for the SP, but it does puzzle me a little.

Yes, on one level, I can see it. Domhnall is a socialist, and wants to be in a party with its socialist identity front and centre, and the SP is certainly that. He feels that Gerry has moved to the right, and I can’t disagree with him there. He admires Joe Higgins, which is certainly understandable. And I can see the mechanics – he’s grown disillusioned, and will have been talking to the SP’s Paul Dale, who’s been a council candidate himself in Enniskillen. And yet… you know, when a councillor goes independent, as some PSF councillors have done recently, it’s one thing, but going over to another party is a definite statement of intent. And what has me scratching my head is that there are more obvious places for a disillusioned socialist republican to go. Of late, éirígí have been pleased with picking up councillors Louise Minihan of Dublin and Barry Monteith of Dungannon; below the elected reps level, I know of some activists over the last wheen of years who have gone to Sinn Féin Eile or to the Communist Party, either of which makes sense.

Having read what Domhnall said in the Impartial Reporter, I’m not much wiser. He is convincing when talking about his disillusionment; his statements on the neoliberal politics of the Assembly are the standard SP boilerplate. What I’m wondering is whether he’s still a republican. The point about the SP is that it’s the most determinedly anti-republican formation on the Irish left, and has spent decades defining itself against “left republicanism”. If Domhnall thinks you can be a republican in the SP, he’s in for a quare gunk. On the other hand, if he’s been convinced by the SP’s hallmark policy of the “socialist federation of Britain and Ireland”, that’s well and good for him, but I don’t see it having much purchase in rural Fermanagh. Well, we shall see, and I look forward to hearing more from Domhnall.

Finally, we have to take a look at Ian Parsley (not Paisley), the fresh-faced young Alliance councillor in North Down who was Alliance’s candidate in the recent Euro-election, but has now defected to the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, via its Tory component. His rationale is that this allows him to plug into UK-wide politics, which is a bit cheeky, since he surely knows that many Alliance people are card-carrying members of the Liberal Democrats. The word is that this fits in nicely with UCUNF’s small headache of finding a candidate in North Down, since the sitting Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is a stalwart Labour supporter and has been notably sceptical of the whole UCUNF boondoggle. Counting against Ian, however, is his rash declaration that he isn’t actually a unionist. This may be a slight disability if you want to win the endorsement of the Unionist Party.

All I can say about that is that I’m glad I’m not a North Down voter. The prospect of a battle of the young fogies between Ian Parsley and Peter Weir is almost too grim to contemplate.

Gerry the Prod


What is the difference between the backwash of the Ryan report and the conviction of Frank Dunlop? I think here that there’s a rather obvious disconnect between individual responsibility and corporate responsibility. The multiple tribunals on corruption have tended to look for high-profile scalps. Charlie Haughey, of course, is dead, but they did manage to get a damning report out on his finances. Bertie Ahern, sleekit weasel though he is, may yet be done – in fact he’ll have to be, if the astronomical cost of the Mahon tribunal is to be justified.

And so it is with Frank the Canary. Not that Frank can complain about his conviction, but self-evidently he didn’t operate in a vacuum. He bribed politicians to advance the business interests of his clients. His activities can’t be separated from the politicians who willingly accepted his bribes, or from the business clients who profited from those politicians being encouraged by Frank to take the right decisions about planning applications. Furthermore, while the Irish lobbying industry has been straining mightily to insist that Frank is such a singularly bad apple that no conclusions about their industry can be drawn from his transgressions… well, you can believe that if you want.

The Ryan report is something else. Let’s leave aside Biffo Cowen rumbling about prosecutions of the miscreants. That’s not very likely, since all of the institutions investigated have long since been shut down, most of the perpetrators are long since dead and, following previous sex abuse scandals, the Catholic hierarchy has put serious effort into getting an effective vetting procedure in place. So we have the spotlight being turned on the religious orders and whether they’re willing to shoulder responsibility for the sins of their predecessors – which is the point that Archbishop Nichols was discussing. That’s fair enough, but it’s far from being the whole story.

Another point is that much of this is really about catharsis. The 2000 or so victims are a constituency who feel, rightly, that they have been ignored in the past and want to be heard now. Basic human sympathy, and public acknowledgement of their pain and anger, is the most important thing that can be done.

There are other points about Ryan – which is a hefty and complicated document – which shine a light on aspects of Irish society, some of which haven’t really been touched on. It will be argued that the failure of the Irish state to become properly independent, which meant that the historical outsourcing of important social services to the churches was never rolled back, forms a crucial part of the backdrop. (I realise that a lot of the media coverage in Britain and its D4 colony has depended on the frisson of Catholicism. It may be worth asking whether a study of care homes in Britain over the same period would show a difference in the fundamentals, as opposed to the details.) There’s also an aspect of the industrial schools being used as a source of what really amounts to slave labour, and what that says about class structures in Ireland.

While we’re on the class aspect, there was another thing that struck me, which was the broad definition of what constituted abuse. Had Ryan had a narrower focus on serious cases of assault or rape, the report would have been much thinner, but there would certainly have been enough there, and in a focussed way, to make a big impact. The introduction of categories like “emotional abuse” had me scratching my head a little. Perhaps this is a generational thing, as I can remember an educational system where a rap across the knuckles with a ruler, or occasionally a chalk duster thrown at your head, were accepted disciplinary tools, and if you got a clip round the ear at school, you would get another one at home. The revelation that the regime in these institutions decades ago was not in accordance with present-day thinking on the rights of the child is not very startling.

On the other hand, you have to bear in mind that the kids who were sentenced to these institutions were drawn from the poorest of the poor. The religious who administered the institutions were, as a general rule, drawn from more respectable layers of society. There is something to be said for a rounded description of the routine brutality in the institutions, not least for what it says about the extreme class hatred that existed – and still does – in Irish society.

Well, there is a lot of backwash still to come from this. And, if experience is any guide, it won’t be long before the substance of the story is drowned out by the sound of grinding axes.

Anyway, on the same general theme, this provides me with an opportunity to look at a contribution on the issue from someone who’s relatively new to blogging, but whose presence does lend a bit of tone to the Irish blogosphere. Yes, it’s Gerry Adams.

I have to say, I’m finding the Grizzly blog compulsive reading these days, as much for linguistic as political reasons. Gerry can do the folksy thing when he’s down with his constituents addressing local politics, but when he puts on his high politics hat, he sounds like nobody on earth. Or at least nobody in West Belfast. More precisely, he sounds like a Trotskyist sociology lecturer circa 1978, overlaid with a heavy veneer of Humespeak. And I’ve noticed that he has a liking for the impersonal locution “this blog believes…” when he’s dealing with serious issues, as opposed to the “me and my muckers” style he uses for local stuff, or quoting Meat Loaf lyrics.

Anyway, Gerry has been dealing with the Ryan report. And, by and large, he writes well on the subject and I agree with most of what he says. But what struck me was a little bit in the middle where he gets all theological. You see, Gerry agrees with Mr Tony Blair that the Catholic Church needs to be reformed:

This blog has long held the view that the institutionalised Catholic church is undemocratic in many ways. For example women are denied the right to become priests. Church lay members have no say in who their pastors are. Bishops and cardinals are elevated to positions of power and authority for life. Compulsory celibacy is a nonsense and the theology on which it, and other teachings, are based is entirely flawed.

Yes, well, we will skip over the incongruity of the leader of Sinn Féin complaining about the top-down style of the Catholic bishops. But this isn’t totally new. Gerry, when not hugging trees, has publicly bigged up the Protestant churches in the past, having particularly kind words for the democratic regime in the Irish Presbyterian Church. (Your actual Presbyterians are wont to say that it’s a self-serving oligarchy, but at least they have the appearance of a democratic say.) And the other stuff he’s saying, about ending celibacy and ordaining women, looks very much like a programme of radical reform to me. I certainly can’t see Pope Benny going for it.

This poses an interesting question, because Gerry is, as we know, a regular Mass-goer and certainly is at ease with what we might term cultural Catholicism. And, bearing in mind where his support comes from, you can understand why he doesn’t just up sticks and join a Protestant church. But there is a certain fascination in his occasional revelations of Prod tendencies. After all, as I remarked about Mr Tony, I couldn’t figure out why the arch-moderniser had chosen to belong to a reactionary church. As for Gerry? Next thing you know, he’ll be parading on the Twelfth.

Dissidence in the New Dispensation


Wait till I tell you, the Easter commemorations were pretty desperate this year. But weren’t there an awful lot of them? Actually, there seem to be commemorations going on all the time. And this is something that strikes me, that the more the Provisionals turn into a constitutional party, the keener they are to celebrate the republican past. It’s easy to be cynical on this point, but I don’t think it can be explained purely by cynicism. I think there are other things going on here in terms of republican identity.

This was something that occurred to me apropos of the tributes to the late Marie Moore. I don’t want to seem disrespectful to the memory of Marie, one of the grand old women of Belfast republicanism and someone who was very well liked. But I was a little taken aback by the Andytown News running a double-page spread explaining to the broad masses what they owed to Marie Moore. If you took the paper at face value, if it wasn’t for Marie we would all be sitting in a hovel in Short Strand with no trousers or shoes. And this is something that, for instance, Jim Gibney has developed into a fine art over recent years, simultaneously backslapping the republican base and impressing on the base the need for gratitude to the leadership.

Departing from this for a second but sticking with the Andytown News, the other noteworthy thing has been the ongoing propaganda campaign against dissident republicans. This has actually got to the point of being scurrilous bordering on the downright hysterical – if you believe the Andytown News, every single dissident, not only members of the armed groups but even extending to éirígí activists, is a criminal of some description – glue sniffers, burglars, paedophiles, you name it. In fact it is quite possible, even likely, that there are criminal elements among the dissident ranks, although they are probably small fry compared to the Provo and Stickie entrepreneurs. But Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is not a man to be too fastidious about his propaganda.

None too fastidious, either, is Bobby Storey, who’s recently been holding forth on this point. Some folks will fall over laughing at the idea of Bobby of all people taking a high moral tone against the men of violence. But that is to miss the point. When Bobby Storey goes around saying “I know where these guys live,” there’s really only one way to take it. The question is whether the threat carries any credibility without the military wing to back it up, and with no prospect of the Provisional IRA being resurrected for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. (The Brits might be tempted to stave off the emergence of a local Hamas by bringing a local Fatah into play, but I can’t see the DUP standing for it. During the peace process, they went buck mad whenever the Provos did in a dissident.)

But anyway, back to the criminality thing. Once we get past the black propaganda, this often morphs into the Gibneyesque line that, while the Provisional leadership have put in decades of sacrifice for the cause, the dissidents are nothing but young thugs. The fact that some of the people most strident on this issue were young thugs themselves once kind of gives the game away. Because, of course, the dissidents in themselves are not all that different from the Provos of years past. It’s the Provos who have changed – the context obviously has changed massively, but rock-bottom republican theology has never required, for instance, mass popular support, and would regard power-sharing at Stormont as an irrelevance at best.

This poses a bit of a problem for supporters of the GFA process. A few weeks back I saw a letter in the Irish News from Danny Morrison lambasting the dissidents and all their works. At least, that’s what it looked like at first glance; at second glance, I was left wondering whether Danny was completely out of touch or whether he just liked nursing his grudges. The reason for this is that Danny spent most of his time getting stuck into the Irish Republican Writers Group, a body that’s been defunct for a decade or more. Frankly, for Danny to be harping on what Tommy McKearney and Tony McIntyre were saying twelve years ago is a bit odd, at a time when Fourthwrite has at least one foot in the Big Tent, and the Blanket has folded. But this also points up a little conundrum, in that the peace process got by for a long time by simply co-opting the opposition. If you were a republican or loyalist critic of the process and you were able to string a sentence together, there was a good chance you’d be put on the payroll. In the end, virtually the only republicans left outside the Big Tent were RSF, who really are died-in-the-wool ideologues, and who, having correctly surmised that there would always be a market for traditional republicanism, were mostly content to keep their elderly cadre together until a new generation of disaffected youth came along. But that was then and this is now. The spotty youths causing most of the trouble at the moment are outwith the peace industry, are likely to laugh in your face if you tell them Martin McGuinness is a great republican, and nobody seems to have a clear idea what to do about them.

It’s true, of course, that the dissidents don’t have much popular support. When a raft of dissident candidates stood in the last Stormont election, between them they got something under 10,000 votes – not entirely insignificant, but not much in the grand scheme of things. There are, mark you, some caveats that need to be entered. The vote for anti-Agreement republican candidates doesn’t necessarily equate to support for a renewed armed campaign. On the other hand, those candidates were a motley bunch hampered by poor organisation and a lack of a coherent alternative. The majority of them were from Republican Sinn Féin, who are not universally popular even with other hardline republicans; most of the others were in or around the IRSP; and there was Gerry McGeough, the nearest thing to a green fascist we’ve seen in sixty years. It did show that there might be some limited potential for a well-organised political alternative with a knack for populism and a track record of grassroots activity, but the likelihood of a follow-up along those lines isn’t great.

The other thing said about the dissidents is that, as well as having no support, they have no strategy. It’s tempting to believe that if you’ve ever been to one of the periodic meetings that happen in places like Derry to discuss alternatives to the peace process. The usual format is that a bunch of people will talk about the need for an alternative, although they may not have any idea what that should be, and then someone from the Real Republicans will get up and insist on their inalienable right to take potshots at the Brits, regardless of whether taking potshots at the Brits is a good idea. But there is a hazy strategic conception at work. Partly it’s the strategy of tension, which I don’t think the Brits are going to fall for any time soon, but on a more prosaic – and effective – level, it consists of asking the question, “Which side are you on?”

Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on the goal of the 32-county socialist republic. But, while you can make some rhetorical hay around them sitting in the Stormont executive, it’s not true to say they’ve ditched the goal. It’s on the first page of their programme, after all. You can talk about people being corrupted, or institutionalised by a process they thought was going in another direction, or simply worn down by war-weariness, but you’re still, in the main, talking about people who want to be republicans on some level. That’s why the parades, and the tributes to past heroes; that’s why Martin McGuinness was talking just there about winning the republic by 2014.

What anti-Agreement republican activity does, whether it’s low-level disruption by the armed groups, or whether it’s éirígí’s brand of agitprop politics (parenthetically, while I have my doubts about éirígí, the ferocity of the attacks on an unarmed political group suggest that they’re annoying the right people) is to ask the question “Which side are you on?” Do you, in essence, support the state against republicans, no matter how deluded you think those republicans may be? Imagine this being asked to a panel at a debate. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for an RSF member, who would simply answer No. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for a member of the SDLP, which has been collaborating with the state for decades, and who would simply answer Yes. The leftist on our imaginary panel would huff and puff and say that this was the wrong question, and we should really be talking about water rates. But for a PSF politician? Totally committed to the peace process, yet subjectively unwilling to openly pledge loyalty to a partitionist settlement, or even to recognise that that’s what the settlement is. For that reason, it’s still problematic to support the state against republicans – that’s why they don’t say they’re defending the state, they say they’re defending the Good Friday Agreement.

Ah, the vagaries of being slightly constitutional. You can ride two horses for a while, but it doesn’t really add up to a long-term perspective. Eventually the dissonance has to be worked out one way or another.

More thoughts on this point from WorldbyStorm.

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