“It is highly unlikely that that happened”, said Assistant Chief Constable Gray of the PSNI, responding to an allegation that information on the names of contractors was leaked by the colonial police force. Firms contracted to remove the pallets from a stack prepared for Loyalist 11th July bonfire withdrew after their names were displayed on the bonfire stack.
“In the first place, no police officer would ever leak information to anyone outside the Force,” she said. “That would be just so unprofessional. In the second place, it is well established that has never, ever been any collusion between the police force here and Loyalist paramilitaries.”
Asked why police did not move against the bonfire builders when the council asked the PSNI to investigate allegations of aggravated trespass, Ms Gray said police had “no powers to remove anybody.” She frowned as some reporters from nationalist areas burst into laughter and became incoherent. Eventually someone asked did that apply to members of Republican groups also.
“Not if they’re dissidents,” she snapped, indicating the questioner to nearby PSNI officers with a nod of her head.
Assistant Chief Constable Gray added that any police action also had to be “proportionate”. At this, uncontrolled laughter broke out again from a section of the reporters present. ASC Gray said what sounded like “Loughisland” and indicated the offending group to some police officers present, who began to film them, at which point the reporters became very quiet.
Responding to suggestions that the burning of posters of people and flags of a country might be seen as offensive, racist and threatening, Ms Gray said the offensive material on the bonfire in Lisburn was related to election campaigns and was therefore alright.
A man who identified himself as an Avoniel community worker said that the bonfire was just “Protestants celebrating our culture” and they only had a couple of weeks a year to do it now. “Things were much simpler in the old days,” he said, “when we just did what we liked. And we had a wider choice of activities, such as chasing Taigues out of the shipyards, burning Fenian houses …. But now houses have been built near bonfires so that complaints can be made by people pretending to be scared of a wee bit of fire. After all, there was bonfires afore there was houses,” he stated. “And there was roads for us to march through Catholic areas afore there was Catholic houses …. er … anyways, it’s our culture! Our British culture!”
“But they don’t do that in Britain, do they?” someone called out, refusing to be intimidated by the man’s tattoos and his UVF and Paratrooper badges, or by Ms. Gray’s glare.
“Well, maybe not,” said the community worker. “But we’ll be British even if they won’t.”
“It was the United Irishmen who lit celebratory bonfires”, another Belfast man interjected. “Like to celebrate the defeat of the English in the War of American Independence. They lit them on the hills, not beside people’s houses. And they were mostly Presbyterians!”
At this last declaration, the community worker, who had begun to froth at the mouth, screamed “Sacrilege!” and made for his tormentor. The latter seemed ready to stand up to him until he caught sight of a squad of PSNI heading for him too, at which point he upended a few chairs and made his retreat through a side entrance.
Assistant Chief Constable Gray called the press conference to an end at that point.
A woman dies; she was young, a tragedy. Where did this happen and when? In Derry on Thursday evening. How did she die? Apparently (and I say that advisedly, for I do not know the examining doctor‘s verdict nor has an inquest yet been held) by a gunshot to the head. And according to a number of witness statements, she did not have a gun herself and therefore the bullet came from someone else.
All this and more has been reported in unanimity. What was the context? Ah, there we have to do some digging.
There was a riot going on at the time – there were petrol bombs and stones thrown at the police. Oh, why? Well, some of the early reports didn’t even try to answer that. But later, we were told: the police were searching houses for IRA arms. The police had “a tip-off”, some papers reported.
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Reading between the lines, if we know enough about the general situation, we can reconstruct a probable narrative: British armed colonial police were searching the homes of Irish Republicans in ‘nationalist’ areas, just before their Easter commemoration, a commemoration during which they attacked another Republican group in Newry last year and one which was for decades banned under the Special Powers Act in the Six Counties – a ban enforced violently by the forerunners of the very police force carrying out those house searches on Thursday.
And it turns out, as admitted by senior PSNI command and reported in only some media outlets, including the Irish Examiner, that the purpose of the police raid was harassment: “PSNI officers were carrying out a search operation in the Creggan area of Derry aimed at disrupting dissident republicans ahead of this weekend’s commemoration of Irish independence.”
And we might know, though not from the general media, that the colonial police have been carrying out these raids on numerous occasions of late, as well as stopping cars of Republican activists and searching them, stopping people out walking and searching them too, as well as questioning them about where they are going and where they have been. Most people of course won’t know that – how could they?
So now that we have context, we might see the rioting as a justified response, even natural perhaps, of a colonised people to provocation and harassment by a militarised police force of a colonial occupation. And a colonial administration with a long history of atrocities by the occupying power. Or we might not – but context gives us the opportunity to interpret, while its absence leaves us bewildered or manipulated.
If we take the view that the people are justified in resistance, does that excuse the killing of the woman in question? No, not at all. But it does take us some way to understanding the situation and perhaps we wouldn’t want to see Irish Republicans as monsters then.
Lyra McKee’s death is a tragedy, as is the premature death of any innocent person and particularly a young person. The Six Counties too, that repressive backward statelet, can ill afford the loss of an LGBT campaigner.
Firing a gun in that situation was highly irresponsible and unnecessary. The shooter (or shooters) could not be sure of hitting a police officer and did, in fact, hit a totally innocent bystander. And if the police had fired back, the shooter(s) would have put everyone around them in mortal danger too.
CONDOLENCES AND CONDEMNATIONS
Saoradh, an Irish Republican organisation active in the area who were involved in preparing for the Easter Rising commemoration in Derry felt they had to cancel the event after the death. They issued a statement providing context for the riot and also extended condolences to the bereaved family and friends. Most media didn’t quote the relevant parts of the statement and some never even mentioned it.
On Saturday, their representative at their Easter Commemoration outside the GPO building in Dublin repeated the statement and amplified it, saying also that the IRA was not always right and, when they erred, they should apologise for it. The media didn’t report that either.
The media rushed, not to report the shooting and its context, but to condemn Irish Republicans who don’t agree with the Good Friday Agreement, i.e the ‘dissidents’. The BBC, in its first report on line, along with some others, called it a “murder”. Were they justified in saying that?
In law, not all homicides can be called murders. According to Wikipedia, Murder “…. is considered the most serious form of homicide, in which one person kills another with the intention to cause either death or serious injury unlawfully.” So there has to be intention to cause either death or serious injury to the victim. Are the BBC and other commentators really suggesting that the person or persons intended to kill a journalist? Apart from seriously inaccurate reporting, one might see those kind of claims as prejudicial to a fair trial for anyone arrested for the homicide.
THE CONDEMNATION BANDWAGON
And then, of course, jumping on to the condemnation bandwagon, we have the usual collection of hypocrites and opportunists. What would we expect from Unionist politicians? They have been running that colony with regular pogroms and armed repression for nearly a century – Irish Republicans are their enemies to the marrow. Arlene Foster couldn’t resist using the opportunity to praise their colonial police and to take a swipe at SF: “Those who brought guns onto our streets in the 70s, 80s & 90s were wrong. It is equally wrong in 2019.” Actually, at first it was usually the RUC with the guns on the street, wasn’t it? And then the British Army. But then after the Ballymurphy Massacre, Bloody Sunday …. well, you shoot at people long enough, they shoot back.
British Ministers and politicians had their condemnation to get in as well – well, the colony is theirs, isn’t it? The Republicans are their enemies too (and Theresa May must’ve been glad to be talking about something other than Brexit, for a change).
But then we had the Irish politicians also, including our own Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who presides over a State that is made secure for native and foreign capitalists by, among other things, persecution of Irish Republicans and sending them to jail through non-jury Special Courts. Mr. Varadkar is so supportive of the people of Derry, so sensitive to their needs, that whilst he condemns the Republicans, he praises the people of Derry for being “as strong as your walls.” Is he expressing Loyalist views or is he so ignorant of the people of Derry and their history?
Is Varadkar unaware that the Derry Walls belonged to the foreign occupation force? That the song that celebrates them is a triumphalist anti-Catholic sectarian and colonist song? That during the recent war in the Six Counties those walls were frequently a point of surveillance for the occupying military and that during the Bloody Sunday massacre, some British soldiers were up there with special rifles?
Oh yes and let’s not forget Nancy Pelosi, she too found a place on the bandwagon (well, to be fair, the others made room for her). This is long-standing career US Congresswoman who, although an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War and supporter of civil rights, blocked her party colleagues from going for impeachment of war criminal President Bush because “you never know what might come out”. She also voted for the Patriot Act, a huge attack on civil liberties in the USA and labeled Edward Snowdon “a criminal” for his whistle-blowing. And yes, after a briefing relating to a CIA agent destroying hundreds of hours of videotaping of torture in their US base in Guantanamo, she issued a statement saying that she eventually did protest the techniques (e.g “waterboarding”, euphemism for simulated drowning of prisoners under interrogation – DB) and that she concurred with objections raised by a Democratic colleague in a letter to the C.I.A. in early 2003. Yes you did, Nancy – but you waitedfour years to do so.
And what are we to say of Sinn Féin, they of association with the late Provisional IRA, putting their name to a joint statement of colony politicians? One would think that considering their past, they would hesitate to join the mob or to climb upon this particular bandwagon. One might think they would remember the innocent people the PIRA killed on occasion by accident, such as for example the Birmingham pub bombings where 21 people were killed and 182 injured or even, on some occasions, with intention.
Perhaps Michelle O’Neill did remember, perhaps she did hesitate, perhaps she wished to issue SF’s own statement. But climb aboard they did – and isn’t it all about climbing with them now?
The political parties that support the occupation said in joint statement: “Lyra’s murder (see that “murder” word again – DB) was also an attack on all the people of this community, an attack on the peace and democratic processes.”
“It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people everywhere.” (Oh, that was its purpose, was it? And this progress has been what, exactly? And towards what?– DB).
O’Neill was herself quoted as saying that the “murder” (that word again !) was “an attack on our peace process and an attack on the Good Friday Agreement.”
And “We will remain resolute in our opposition to the pointless actions of these people who care nothing for the people of Derry.”
I can’t say whether those people putting up a resistance to the colonial police care for the people of Derry or not but presumably they care for the people of their own neighbourhoods who are being harassed by the PSNI. And I remember in another city, Belfast, how the Loyalists had been threatening the Ardoyne area for many months and that in 2015, the PSNI blocked the Anti-Internment League from marching down to the city centre. Although the march eventually dispersed without incident, the heavy police presence in the area provoked some residents to remonstrate with them and, when the police began to arrest a woman, the area erupted in a riot. Who did SF blame? The local youth and the anti-internment marchers! And when a meeting was convened soon afterwards in a local venue for the march organisers and SF to explain their views, it was the latter that failed to attend.
* * *
Well, it must have been getting tight up there on the bandwagon but there’s always room hanging off the sides and if that doesn’t work …. why, one can run behind. And if not, not to worry, there’ll be another one along soon.
There are many misconceptions about Irish politics and history and the centenary of the inauguration of the First Dáil and of the first shots fired in the War of Independence (one of several of our “wars of independence”) seems like an appropriate occasion to try to tease some of them out.
For sure, many of those misconceptions belong to those viewing us from outside but here I’d like to deal with those from among our own. These misconceptions are spread equally among the Irish Republicans, Irish Socialists, Irish social-democrats and liberals – but each group believes different ones.
To Irish Republicans (and I think I am objectively correct in not applying that to all who claim the title), the War in the Six Counties was lost because their political and military leadership, or most of it, abandoned the struggle or betrayed it. I think that is a fundamental misconception which leads to further misconceptions about what might be the way forward.
Please do not think for one minute that I am excusing the conduct of that leadership – I am not. Anybody is entitled to abandon the struggle but they are not entitled to claim their departure as a new way forward and to call on others to do the same – that is if they do not wish to be called “traitors”. Nor is anyone, least of all, entitled to take part in the colonial administration and if they do so, they have earned the titles not only of “traitors” but also of “collaborators”.
That judgement has nothing to do with peaceful versus armed struggle, parliamentary participation versus abstentionism or any such debate but is simply this: anyone who participates in colonial government is colluding with the colonist power, the invader, the appropriator. That is a truth understood by most people throughout the world.
It is a different point I am making entirely: the 30 Years War was lost because it could never have been won. To see this written or to hear it said will shock many Republicans and be seen as a kind of heresy – but that does not stop it from being true. Think about it: how could an armed struggle fought in one sixth of the country alone against a modern imperial army, possibly succeed? And that one-sixth further divided with at most 30% (and in reality a lot less) possibly sympathetic to the fighters? Who could sit down to ponder this and believe that struggle had a chance? The remarkable thing is not that it was lost or given up – but that it lasted as long as it did.
The only way that struggle could possibly win would be with the support of the 26-County State and it may well be that those who embarked upon it thought that at some point the Irish bourgeoisie would intervene in some way. They did — but to increase repression of Republicans.
A war might have been won if it had been extended across the whole state. Not necessarily an armed struggle across the whole country but certainly a social, economic, political one. It is not reasonable to expect the mass of people in the 26 Counties to fight year after year for those in only one part of the country, be it a colony or not, and have their own needs ignored. The people in the Six Counties would not do that either if the situation were reversed.
Certainly there was no shortage of issues going begging, from gender and sexuality-related civil rights, housing, unemployment, censorship, clerical domination, bleeding of the national language, sell-out to foreign capital, emigration, absentee landlords, private ownership of natural resources, sexual and other abuse by institutions. However, to take on the spread of issues oppressing or of concern to the people in Twenty-Six Counties would have meant taking on the Irish Gombeen class, its State and its supporting Church. Whether because they still had hopes of the Irish State or did not want to clash with the Church which had the religious allegiance of the majority of their followers – or because they themselves did not want to challenge some or all of those institutions,It is clear that the leadership of the Republican movement then could not bring themselves to that confrontation.
If only a struggle across the whole “island of Ireland” (sic) could possibly have won then it seems logical that only such a struggle has a hope of winning today.
Some of the Republican groups perhaps have this awareness and certainly they have been seen in water and housing protests in the 26 Counties. But they are small groups, their activity patchy, lacking collaboration with one another (even in resisting State repression). More fundamentally there is no strategic plan for organising the working class. In a way, they can’t be blamed for that: they are not communists or anarchists; no matter how revolutionary or left-wing, they are primarily and always Irish Republicans.
There is another sector whose members might well be nodding their heads in agreement with the above criticism but they too are beset by an important misconception – albeit a different one. They are the communists, socialists and anarchists who would consider themselves revolutionary, i.e who claim to believe in a revolutionary transformation of society. A general disdain of the Republicans runs through this sector, considering Irish Republicans to be simple militarists, adventurist and even sectarian.
Their disdain – or perhaps their fear of being tarred by association – is such that they cheerfully allow all kinds of abuses against Republicans by the Irish State and the colonist statelet. By “allow” I mean that they do not protest against the abuses. Ethically, this is reprehensible but functionally it is dangerous. And in a country where the most numerous section ready to take on the State happens to be Irish Republican of one kind or another, such an attitude by the “revolutionary” Left is nothing short of counter-revolutionary.
This is, in a way, the sector to which I most belong but without that disdain or political apartheid.
Nor do our tiny cliques and small parties exhibit revolutionary spirit even in straight socialist issues, being in general concerned more with peaceful mobilisations and speeches or elections to public office than direct action.
One would think that trade unions would be of particular interest to the revolutionary Left – certainly the Republican movement has paid them little attention. However one finds only small struggles to appoint some Left-winger, usually not even a revolutionary, to the heights of union bureaucracy. When issues of industrial conflict arise, one does find revolutionary socialist shop stewards pushing for militant action.
But where is the education of workers? Where is the mobilisation of revolutionaries of different parties and none to support workers in industrial action? There is in fact no such “Broad Left” organisation in Ireland (not that its example in Britain is anything to emulate) and generally strike support is used for party building. When that particular conflict is over, nothing remains that was not there already.
SOCIAL DEMOCRATS AND LIBERALS
The third sector, shaking their heads at the “militarism” of the Republicans and the “impracticality” of the revolutionary socialists, are the social democrats and liberals. Their misconception is that capitalism and imperialism can be reformed so that they no longer be rapacious.
Maybe there was a time when such a belief was reasonable (though I find it hard to imagine it) but certainly that was long ago. Sincere reformers, benevolent capitalists and aristocrats and scheming reformists have all failed to reform the system of exploitation. Indeed, what historical experience has shown is that even if a capitalist or imperialist wished to subscribe to ownership in common, his or her class colleagues would not permit it.
The electoral path, so detested by some communists and many republicans, is where social democrats and liberals most place their hope and faith. And yet, despite an occasional individual exception, what has the history of those experiments shown us? Corruption of individual activists, wholesale corruption of party leaderships; diversion from the struggles on the ground to bureaucratic struggles in parliaments; careerist trade union leaders and bureaucratic officials; disempowerment of the working people; weakening of organs of real struggle; respect for the capitalists’ laws …..
Not one government of a socialist revolutionary kind has emerged by this process and, whenever it seemed to come close, it was overthrown by military coup or foreign imperialist intervention.
But still, it might work next time, eh? To the advocates of this ideology, of these methods, history does not matter – it can be ignored, denied or expected to cease its operation.
So where does all this leave us? Yes, I know, in the proverbial cac — but how can we move forward?
This is what I think:
The Revolutionary Left needs to a) organise in a revolutionary manner among the working class and b) to defend the civil right of Republicans;
The Republicans need to unite at least against State repression and take up social and economic issues of working people;
the Social-democrats and liberals should unite with the others on issues of civil rights and social issues;
but ultimately the Republicans and Socialists should ignore reformist illusions.
And what about me?
I do what I can where I think I can have a positive effect – criticise but participate; participate but criticise. And hope to learn not only from the mistakes of others but also from my own.
Speakers from the massacres at Ballymurphy, Derry, of the Miami Showband and the victims of the Stardust Fire addressed a Dublin Audience on Wednesday evening last (19th September) in the hall of Club na Múinteoiri.
They are victims and also campaigners and their stories held the audience spellbound. The campaigns arising from the Stardust Fire, the massacres of the Miami Showband, Ballymurphy and Derry all put speakers up to address the audience on their need for Truth and Justice under the banner of Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied. It was the personal sides to their stories that were particularly powerful, without losing at all the political thrust; McCann did his usual storming speech which he does very well but somehow, for all the eloquence and good points made, did not have the same impact – at least on this reporter.
Ann (Antoinette) Keegan, chairing the event and welcoming the attendance, said that she spoke both as a victim and a survivor of the Stardust Fire where 48 young people were killed and 241 injured at a Valentine’s disco on 14th February 1981. Annette survived but lost her two sisters in that fire: Mary and Martina.
She listed the steps in the slow and unjust procedures of alleged investigation that followed the fire at the disco. The first inquest had listed arson as the “probable” cause of the fire which had caused the deaths but the relatives challenged this verdict as incorrect procedurally as well as in fact and eventually had it overturned in 2009. Another inquiry years later under Judge McCartan, appointed by the Government, heard that there had been two emergency calls, one about a small fire of 18” high which could easily be extinguished and another about “smoke pouring from the loft” which had not been discussed in any previous hearing (this is the area that campaigners believe to have been the real origin of the fatal fire – DB).
Ann Keegan recollected that Judge McCartan had said that the families should have located that caller, even after all those years and got her testimony but Anne stated that it was wrong to apportion the responsibility for that to the families.
Historical note: It is a matter of record that the building’s owners, the Butterly brothers, had flagrantly violated many fire safety regulations in the building and that Dublin City Council had failed in its duty of ensuring entertainment venues it licensed were compliant with fire regulations. The Butterlys never even apologised and were compensated under the original verdict of “probable arson” to the sum of Ir£580,000 (€634,869).
Anne Keegan went on to say that the campaign had now decided that any further inquiry would be a waste of time and was calling for the reopening of the inquests as a matter of public interest. They had launched their campaign objective on June 14th at the Dáil and were pressing ahead with it now.
Anne then called a member of the campaign up from the floor to talk about the experiences of her family.
Selina McDermott took the stage and said that she had lost two brothers and a sister in the fire: William (22), George (18) and Marcella (16). Her father, she told the audience, who was known by the nickname of “Minnow” was a Dublin Fireman, though not on duty that evening. Alhough he had saved many people in the course of his career it ate away at him that he could not save his two daughters.
Both he and Selina’s mothers campaigned for the truth but her father’s workmates, who were very supportive of him, calling often at the house when he was off duty, knew he was going against vested interests and the Government and advised him to give it up because he would never win. On the other hand their mother wanted to continue the fight, which led to arguments at home. Selina’s father died six years after the fire.
I thought how sad that so many, particularly in the working class, have become conditioned to the propaganda of the ruling class that the latter cannot be beaten, a way of thinking that is perhaps much weakened now but still influential for all that. It is one of the ways in which the very small minority which is the ruling class can keep down the vast majority from rising up against them.
BLOODY SUNDAY DERRY
Selina sat down to applause and Anne Keegan called on Kate Nash, of the Bloody Sunday March for Justice campaign to speak.
Kate, like Ann and especially Selina before her, spoke in an informal way, telling the story of her family’s ordeal in Derry in 1972 when 14 unarmed civilians received fatal wounds from British Army bullets and another fourteen survived their injuries.
Kate’s teenage brother William was shot in the chest and three others were shot trying to go to his aid, including his father, Alexander Nash. Kate spoke about going to visit her father in hospital and he telling her that her brother was in the morgue. Her mother was in hospital too and it was considered unsafe to inform her of her son’s killing – until William was to be buried, when it was felt necessary to tell her so that she could attend the funeral. Kate said her mother never spoke until she returned to their home after the burial of her son but no sooner had she set foot inside the house than she let out a scream and broke down.
Kate also spoke about the devastation to the family and how her mother once said to her husband “It should have been you”, to which he replied “I know”, knowing what she meant.
The hurt did not stop there for the British Army alleged that all those shot had been armed and the Widgery Tribunal, convened with unusual speed, agreed with them. The majority of the media supported that verdict and also said nasty things about their family, in addition to alleging that they were IRA supporters (they were not, their allegiance had been to the SDLP1), accusing them also of living in filthy conditions.
Soldiers had also said nasty things to them at the hospital and at the morgue and on the streets afterwards.
Finally the Saville Inquiry was convened in the year 2000 which turned out to be the longest legal inquiry in British history, taking six years and costing a reputed 400 million pounds Sterling (approx. €450,800,000 today), with the families having to wait another six years for the publication of the report. Kate Nash made the point that the cost of the Inquiry was not the responsibility of the families and that “they (i.e the Government) spent that money clearing themselves”. David Cameron’s apology following the publication of the report in June 2010 was “a political thing”, she said.
The campaign wants prosecutions now of the British soldiers who had been identified as participating in the murders of unarmed civilians in 1972 but everything is being delayed and delayed, with the British Army providing legal advice and representation to those same murderers.
This recalled to me the words of Anne Cadwaller, speaking for the Pat Finucane Centre less than a week earlier, in the same building, as part of the Anarchist Bookfair. Cadwaller said that the British Government have what they call “three Ds” to deal with their scandals: Deny, Delay and Death (meaning hoping the accusers die meanwhile). Cadwaller could have added another “D” to her list: Deflect, i.e turn the blame in some other direction.
What Kate Nash did not tell the audience (and could not, considering the association of Sinn Féin with other campaigns represented on the platform), was that relatives and other activists had been dropping out of the Bloody Sunday campaign over the years and that when Cameron voiced his apology, Sinn Féin had called for the ending of the annual Bloody Sunday March, supported by some of the relatives. She and some other relatives and activists disagreed and have kept the march going every year since and it will take place again in Derry in the last weekend in January 2019.
She did not say either that she and some others had collected over 1,000 Derry signatures to a protest petition and conducted a sit-in protest at the “Museum of Free Derry” because of the inclusion of the names of British soldiers killed in the conflict alongside the names of Derry people killed by the Army, including the 14 Bloody Sunday victims. The protest was a success, at least for the time being.
Kate Nash sat down to applause and Ann Keegan called up the next speaker.
THE MIAMI SHOWBAND MASSACRE
Stephen Travers described himself as the last remaining survivor of the attack on their showband in 1975. For many years he had refused to acknowledge that he was a victim and said that when he did so at last “the wall fell in on me.” Acknowledging yourself as a victim, he told the audience, makes one “lose the sense of self”.
Historical note: Showbands were an Irish music phenomenon popular from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s; a five or six-player dance band playing standard dance numbers, covers of popular music hits and waltzes. The bands’ versatility extended to traditional and folk numbers and even blues and a number of famous Irish musicians and singers got their start in showbands. The typical venue was the dance-hall, cheaply-constructed buildings without an alcohol licence located in towns and villages across the country and to these the bands travelled, usually in their minibus, returning home after the conclusion of their gig.
Stephen told the audience that as a bass guitar player he had been headhunted by major bands of the time but chose the Miami because unlike the others, they did not wear band suits (one needs to remember that even the Beatles and the Animals wore suits at first). He had not been interested in politics, nor had his family and the band included two of Protestant background although apparently religion was not a subject of discussion (or possibly of interest) among them either. However, people should take an interest in current affairs and the political background, he told the audience now.
The band (minus one who lived in Antrim) was returning from a gig in Banbridge Co. Down (one of the Six Counties) and heading to cross the Border (into the Irish state) when they were stopped at what appeared to be a British military checkpoint and asked to get out, which they did. Stephen made a point of saying that he would always refer to those men as “British soldiers” rather than Loyalists or paramilitaries although their membership of the Ulster Defence Regiment is often glossed over or even concealed.2
The soldiers exchanged jocular banter with the band members while they pretended to search the back of the van but were in fact placing a bomb in it. Stephen remarked on the mindset that could permit people to joke like that with those they intended to be their victims. Another man arrived of noticeable military bearing and the demeanour of the other soldiers changed immediately, smartening up and becoming more professional. This man was also in uniform but his beret was of a lighter shade and he had an upper-class English accent (Stephen said he had a good ear and had also worked in England for a period); other band members took him to be a British officer and expected that the whole thing would be expedited now and they would soon be on their way.3
Stephen believes that the plan was for the bomb placed in their van to explode as the band traveled on and that the incident would be used to justify checkpoints and searches of traffic crossing the border in the area, accusing the IRA of using the roads to transport arms and implicating the dead members of the Miami Showband as IRA “carriers” into the bargain.4
Softly spoken but his voice sometimes thickening with emotion, Stephen described how the bomb went off prematurely, dismembering the two UDR/UVF men and blowing the band members over a ditch and into a field. The soldiers then opened fire at the band members. Stephen was shot with a dum-dum bullet which made it impossible for him to walk, although he felt no pain; he could see no blood but his stomach was bloated as the bleeding was internal. He lay down and pretended to be dead. Two band members tried to drag him out of a pile of bodies but were shot down and Stephen described how the handsome Fran O’Toole, keyboard player, was shot many times in the face and a number of times in the groin. A number of band members pleaded not to be killed but were savagely shot amidst a stream of obscenities from their killers.
When the murderers left, there were only two band survivors in the field and the other flagged down a car and was taken to the nearest RUC5 barracks, from where officers hurried to the scene and, for awhile, were afraid to approach Stephen in case the bodies were booby-trapped. Three band members had been killed and two injured non-fatally (although one has died since, leaving Stephen the only survivor).
Stephen referred also to the fact that he had been around the Dublin City centre in 1981 when he learned of a big fire at the Stardust and headed out there in his van. He said he was able to drive right up to it since no attempt had been made by the Gardaí to preserve forensics at the scene of crime.
There was one unexpected postscript in this deeply personal and yet highly political story: Stephen Travers, who loved playing music and gigging, who had been head-hunted as a talented bass guitar player, told us that he never got to play in any showband again. Whenever a band was up on stage helping people to enjoy themselves, they could not afford to have the mood darkened by the survivor of the Miami Showband Massacre sharing the stage with them.
Stephen Travers concluded by saying that all those of whatever political background who had lost people in events of that kind or in the conflict wanted the same thing: truth and justice.
Eamonn McCann is a journalist and broadcaster from Derry and member of the People Before Profit Alliance (formerly Socialist Workers’ Party) and former elected Member of the Six County statelet’s legislature. He is a veteran campaigner and was prominent in the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties; he was to be one of the speakers at the rally on what turned out to be Bloody Sunday and supports the ongoing Bloody Sunday March for Justice.
McCann generally speaks forcefully without need of notes and in an enclosed space would not need a microphone (but unfortunately was handed one which thankfully failed some time later).
McCann referred to the Ballymurphy and Derry massacres by the Parachute Regiment and other killings by them of unarmed civilians in Ireland, including a drunk Shankill6 character who was heard to shout mockingly at them seconds before they gunned him down.
The Parachute Regiment’s last posting on active service had been Aden, which is in what is now Yemen, he told the audience, where they had been fighting a national liberation insurgency led by FLOSY7.. There the Paras had been engaging in atrocities against the Arabs and they had of course got away with it, so when they were sent to Ireland they did it again. And essentially got away with it there too.
The Saville Enquiry, which McCann said the Irish Government had insisted on as part of the Good Friday Agreement process, had essentially blamed seven low-ranking British Army soldiers. Then CaptainMichael Jackson and General Robert Ford, who were in charge overall and in Derry that day, were not harmed by the incident and Jackson’s career in particular had “taken off like a rocket”, McCann said, as by the time of the Saville Inquiry he was Chief of Staff of the British Army.
Jackson had written a false account of the shootings of 14 victims as “terrorists” which could not correspond to any of the actual accounts of what had happened; “in some cases the bullets would have had to go through buildings” stated McCann and recalled that these had been presented to the world press after the murders and became the official British version around the world. However, when confronted with this evidence during the Saville Inquiry, at first Jackson “could not remember” and later “had a vague memory” of doing it.8
“They would not have been able to hold that Inquiry nor to make that apology in the House of Commons if Jackson and Ford were being held up to blame,” McCann told the audience. “They’ll sacrifice a few lower-rank soldiers – they are cannon-fodder and killers, that’s all they are to them – but they won’t blame their own.”
McCann alluded also to the Grenfell Tower disaster in London and was sure that the Inquiry would not end up placing the blame on the local authority and politicians’ connections to property companies. He then went on to draw connections between the Butterlys who owned the Stardust and the ruling class of Ireland on the one hand and the ruling class of Britain on the other, how their crimes are always being covered up and how it is necessary to change the system that protects that class.
After the applause that met McCann’s conclusion, Anne Keegan thanked everyone for their attendance and encouraged them to follow the campaigns and to continue to support them and people dispersed.
COMMENT: THE UNDERLYING REAL STORY?
The Stardust fire was an accident, possibly due to dangerous procedures and/ or lack of safeguards. It was not an accidentthat emergency exits were locked; they were locked deliberately, against all legal fire safety requirements, no doubt to prevent anyone entering without paying at the front entrance. But when the smoke and fire took hold, many people could not escape nor those outside break in to rescue them and 48 young people died and 241 were injured, families and whole communities devastated.
Therefore the owners, the Butterleys, should have faced trial for manslaughter; instead they were compensated to the tune of nearly €635,000. That the Butterlys were not charged, that the matter was badly investigated and that they were exonerated in the first inquest, was due to connections of the owners of the business with the Irish ruling class, and with the leaders of its main political party, Fianna Fáil. The appropriate term for that kind of collusion is criminal conspiracy.
Many people, most perhaps in Europe and the English-speaking world, would think that the sending of the Paratroop Regiment to Ireland and the British encouragement of Loyalist death-squads and active collusion with them was an aberration. Others might think them deliberate plans but the responsibility only of individual officers and politicians. Some would see the massacres carried out by the Paras and the Loyalist murder gangs as unconnected, as different initiatives.
However, any objective evaluation should take the following sequence of events and their nature into account:
The Six Counties was a portion of Ireland which the British colonialists insisted upon holding on to 800 years after their invasion of Ireland (1169), after a guerrilla war encouraged them to withdraw from the rest of the country (1921). It was ruled by a manifestly sectarian regime discriminating against its substantial but minority Catholic population in every area of life but most brutally in law, policing, employment and housing.
Popular resistance begins or is renewed in 1964 after a dormant period reaching a high point in 1968.
Repression is deployed (police baton charges, gas, bullets) in 1968-’69 but fails – resistance increases
British perception is that it is faced with insurgency and begins to deploy its various arms and methods
British Army is sent in 1969
At some point the SAS is also sent in (difficult to pin down the year)
Control of mass media increases over following years (many journalists attend Army briefings in hotel and file their reports without checking with local communities)
Brigadier Frank Kitson installed as Area Commander (1970) with a free hand
Gangs (UDA) and Pseudo-Gangs (MRF) are created under Kitson’s guidance (1970)
More British troops sent in. Raids on Catholic areas and 3-day curfew on Falls Road (1970)
Community resists and first armed retaliation against the British takes place (1970)
British Army arms the gangs through recruiting them into the Army itself (Disbandment of B-Specials and creation the UDR British Regiment January 1970)
Paratroopers sent in (1971)
Gangs (UVF) semi-pseudo gangs (UDA/ UFF) operating fully integrated with British undercover squads and Pseudo-gangs (MRF and UDR) Summer 1971
Internment without trial introduced August 1971
Immediate civilian protests against internment August 1971
Ballymurphy Massacre of protesters by Paratroopers August 1971
Derry giant demonstration against Internment and Ballymurphy Massacre January 1972
Massacre of protesters by Paratroopers January 1972
Formation of highly-secretive and untypical Red Hand Commando Loyalist paramilitary organisation (1972)
British Army-RUC-Loyalist murder gangs (UVF) joint operations
Trial by jury abolished for those charged with resistance “offences” and Diplock Courts founded Aug. 1973
The “conveyor belt” is created – standard torture in Castlereagh Barrack, conviction in courts using tortured “confessions”, prison sentences (1970s-1990s)
Prevention of Terrorism Act is introduced to terrorise and silence the large Irish community in Britain 1974
Nearly a score of innocent people from the Irish community in Britain are framed on bombing charges and sentenced to long terms in prison (if the death penalty were still in force they would have been hanged) 1974
SAS soldiers are detained on undercover operation within the Irish state but are soon released 1976
Rules for Coroner’s Courts in the Six Counties changed to restrict the scope of verdicts from pointing towards the perpetrators (e.g Crown forces) or the legal status of the homicide (e.g “murder”) 1976.
Campaign to break Republican prisoners’ resistance 1976-1981
Change in British electoral legislation to prevent prisoners standing for election (1981see link)
Recruitment of informers and double-agents by Army and RUC intelligence
Elimination of prominent figures in the Resistance unlikely to agree to the deal 1976-19879
Testing the remainder to find supporters for the deal
The deal is offered and some concessions made (but no fundamental ones), resulting in the Good Friday Agreement 1998.
One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see here a pretty standard response of a colonial power to insurgency in one of its colonies, escalating to deal with an escalating resistance and aiming, if military defeat seems impossible, for wearing down the resistance and the communities supporting it, then to subvert, suborn and to bring the leadership to negotiate a deal which will end the resistance but not the existence of the colony.
Of course the process was bound to have some tweaks, as this anti-colonial resistance was taking place within Europe and breaking out just 50 years after a national liberation war within that country. Still, overall, a pretty standard colonial war.
And there are many other aspects not dealt with in that timeline, including subversion of the early 20th Century Irish national liberation movement and the subsequent State, bombings and killing of civilians there in the 1970s, recruitment of agents among news reporters, blackmail operations, promotion of pseudo internal communal opposition to the resistance, such as the SDLP and “Peace (sic) Women”, the use of gas and plastic bullets in particular ways and others.
Indeed, it is those who insist on seeing all these factors as unrelated or not part of colonial policy, agreed at the highest level, who are taking the unrealistic view. One has to be determined not to seethe facts and their connection to colonial policy in order to maintain the illusion they insist upon, that the problem was/is one of “some bad apples” and “some bad decisions”.
References and Further Reading (it is not suggested that everything stated in these sources is correct):
1 Social and Democratic Labour Party, a reformist party in the Six Counties which displaced the Irish Nationalist Party in nationalist area voter support and later got displaced by Sinn Féin.
2 The Wikipedia entry on the “Miami Showband Killings” (sic) and a Wikipedia entry on showbands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_showband) which also mentions the incident as contributing to the decline of the showbands both refer to the unit involved entirely as UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force (a Loyalist paramilitary organisation responsible for more than 500 deaths, mostly Catholic civilians and a great number chosen at random). Only later in the text does it reveal that “at least four of the gunmen were serving soldiers from the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment”.
3 In his book, which I have yet to read but referred to in the Wikipedia entry on the massacre, Stephen said that the RUC interviewing him were not willing to accept this description of that individual. The man is believed by some to have been Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards regiment but seconded to one of the special undercover units of the British Army. The IRA announced that it had executed Nariac in May 1977, having been captured by them while undercover; his body is still missing.
4 The UVF did in fact issue a lying statement to that effect in a eulogy to two of their dead members.
5 The Royal Ulster Constabulary, notoriously sectarian and armed British colonial police force taking over from the also-armed Royal Irish Constabulary in 1922, soon after the partitioning of Ireland. In 2001 it was rebranded as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
7 The Aden conflict or “emergency” as usually referred to in posts about this British colonial conflict (and totally absent from a number of Wikipedia and other pages about Aden) was an insurgency against British forces in Aden, a British colony since 1839. Although an “emergency” was declared on 10 December 1963, the conflict had been going on for longer. At peak the British Army had 30,000 service personnel there and 15,000 South Arabian troops and of their combined forces suffered 382 killed (227 British Army) 1,714 wounded (510 B.A.). No statistics on the number of Arabs killed by British forces and their allies are easily available. “Britain dropped more than 3,000 heavy bombs and more than 2,500 rockets in a bid to pacify the guerrilla insurgency who used the Radfan Mountains for cover” (Daily Mail article 2017 glorifying the British in general and the Paras in particular).
A joint effort was created between the British forces and the Federation Regular Army (FRA – of the Federation of Southern Emirates, a British protectorate) to combat the National Liberation Front and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). The paramilitary groups initiated a guerrilla campaign of grenade attacks against the British forces. By 1967 the situation in Aden escalated and the evacuation of British families and citizens was enforced. The city erupted in riots, tensions were heightened further by the Six Day War and a mutiny broke out within the Federation Regular Army.
The conflict ended on 30 November 1967. British forces withdrew from Aden and the National Liberation Front seized control of the government. The People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared.
8 In a short piece in the Irish Times in September 2013 (see link in References and Further Reading section) Eamonn McCann cast doubt upon the same testimonies which he denounced in the meeting reported here. McCann attended nearly every day of the Saville Inquiry in London, staying with family there and traveling there and back at his own expense and wrote a weekly report on the Inquiry for the Irish Times.
9 Too many to list all here but covered in a number of publications; the first was probably Máire Drumm of Sinn Féin by the mysterious Red Hand Commando Loyalist paramilitary organisation (also claimed by the UFF) and those convicted afterwards included one “ex British soldier”. The eliminations encompassed the attempted murders of veteran Civil Rights campaigner, ex-MP and active anti-imperialist socialist Bernadette McAlliskey (shot 14 times) and her husband in 1981; the ambush and execution of members of the IRA unit of the East Tyrone Brigade, including IRA Vols. Jim Lynagh and Pádraig McKearney, by the Special Air Service in 1987; and the last perhaps, Dominic McGlinchey 1994 by persons unknown.
Glasgow and Dublin Anti-Internment Committees joined forces on 18th February in a protest against continuing internment without trial in Ireland. Around two score protesters gathered outside the iconic General Post Office building in Dublin city centre’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street. They displayed the anti-internment banners of the Dublin and Glasgow committees and placards against internment, including one against the jailing of Catalan political activists by the Spanish state (also refused bail).
Leaflets of the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland were distributed to shoppers and visitors passing by, along with others about the conviction of Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton (the Craigavon Two), framed and jailed in 2009 and still in jail, serving life sentences. Songs about internment and political prisoners were played on a sound system, as well as Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong and Christy Moore’s Viva La Quinze Brigada.
Despite the official end of internment by the British in 19751and by the Irish state in 19572, Republican activists continue to be jailed without trial in a number of ways: Licence revoked and bail refused or revoked.
When a Republican leaves jail under license, she or he can be returned there without any court hearing or the presentation of any evidence against them; this is what has happened to Tony Taylor and Gerry Mackle, for example. Refusing bail for accused Republicans has become almost standard, despite the fact that this is supposed to be a last resort, for example when there is a serious risk of the accused fleeing the administration, or interfering with witnesses – which has rarely applied to Republicans refused bail. The real reason has usually been revealed when they have been granted bail: they are required not to attend protests, meetings or to associate with other active Republicans. In other words, they are being prevented from exercising their civil rights to express their opinions and to organise politically.
Welcoming the participation of the Glasgow Committee in Dublin, a spokesperson for the Dublin Committee stated that “members of the Dublin Committee have been proud to attend anti-internment protests in Glasgow in the past” and went on to say that “we look forward to future cooperation with the Irish diaspora and internationally against political repression, particularly of jailing without trial of political activists.”
The Dublin Anti-Internment Committee is entirely independent of any political party or organisation and holds regular awareness-raising protests at different locations. The Committee welcomes the participation of other organisations or individuals in their protests but asks them not to bring political party material etc to the anti-internment protests.
On its FB page the Committee also maintains a list of Republican prisoners in jails on both sides of the British Border, updating it from time to time.
1By then more than 1,900 people – only around 100 of them Loyalists – had been interned, many of them tortured; it was during protests against it in 1971 in Ballymurphy and 1972 in Derry that the Parachute Regiment killed 25 unarmed people.
2Introduced by De Valera’s government in July 1957 during the “Border Campaign” of the IRA.
10th ANNIVERSARY OF DEATH OF VOLUNTEER BRENDAN HUGHES COMMEMORATED IN DUBLIN
(From the End Internment FB page, courtesy of the Dublin Committee of the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland)
Irish Republicans (mostly independent) and a number of anarchists and socialists commemorated Brendan Hughes (“The Dark”) today (18th Feb 2018) at the General Post Office building in O’Connell Street, main street of Dublin. Republicans from Glasgow also participated.
Around two score assembled with black flags and portraits of the IRA Volunteer who died aged only 59 ten years ago (2008). Hughes was from a Belfast Republican working class family and entered the struggle, enlisting in the Provisional IRA in 1969. He was arrested in 1973, beaten and jailed but escaped, leaving Belfast but subsequently returning to Belfast, to the Malone Road middle-class area under an assumed name while he continued in his resistance activities.
Captured again in 1974 with a number of firearms at his address he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. In 1973 he was convicted of assaulting a prison guard in the jail and was sent to Long Kesh. This was after political status had been removed from Republican prisoners and Hughes joined the “blanket protest” (refusing to wear prison uniform). Later he led the “dirty protest” (prisoners refused to “slop out” after being beaten by guards and emptied their bodily wastes out the windows until these were blocked up, then out under their cell doors, until they were swept back at them and finally on to the walls of their cells).
Hughes began hunger strike which he maintained for 53 days in 1980, ending with others only after what appeared to be a deal offered by Thatcher. It is believed his health never recovered from his prison experiences; he suffered from problems with his heart and eye problems, in addition to arthritis.
Released from jail after 10 years, he became a serious critic of the “Peace” (pacification) process; according to his brother, Hughes asked that his former comrade Gerry Adams not be permitted any role in his funeral. His brother admitted later that he had bent to pressure and had allowed Adams to carry Hughes’ coffin.
Brendan “The Dark” Hughes died on 16th February 1998.
ln the Six Counties, the British colony in Ireland, the sectarian lines are drawn. The Good Friday Agreement did nothing to eliminate them, contrary to the praises of many and perhaps even the wishes of some who supported it. The majority section of the population has a badge of professed faith to identify it, Protestantism, while the other has its own badge, Catholicism. But each section also has other symbols of its own.
Politically, each section has a number of divisions within it but each has its majority representation: the Democratic Unionist Party for the Protestants and Sinn Féin for the Catholics. Both of these parties have overcome others to rise to prominence over their respective sections – the DUP deposed the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin overtook the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP display the symbols of their respective sections and employ them to sectarian electoral advantage.
Apart from professed religion as a signifier, each section also has its own visible symbols: the Tricolour and Harp for the Catholics, the Union Jack and Crown for the Protestants. And to this has now been added language: Irish for the Catholics and Ulster Scots/ English for the Protestants.
There are other symbols too but they are of minor importance, for example for the Catholics flying the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Palestinians and, just because they must oppose anything the Fenians do, the Israeli flag for the Protestants. Soon we may see the Catholics adopt the Catalan Estelada flags and the Protestants, the flag of the Spanish State. But would Unionist Protestants fly the flag of a Catholic country? Yes, it’s quite possible – they already fly one of a Jewish state.
The opposing sections are in this discussion described as “Catholic” and “Protestant”, as though religion were really the issue – however it is not. Some commentators like to speak in term of “nationalists and unionists”, with the more extreme wing of the latter described as “Loyalists”. That particular sub-group of Unionism is more likely to refer to Catholics as “Taigues” or “Fenians”.
There are religious differences in doctrine and in temporal supremacy between both religions: Catholics believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, the mother of the Christ figure and Protestants do not, though she is seen as a saint in their churches also. Perhaps more relevantly, for Catholics the Pope is, notionally at least, the supreme temporal religious authority while for Anglican Protestants, it is the ruling British Monarch (other British-based Protestant sects acknowledge only their own vicars, their reading of the Christian Bible or their own consciences). Currently, that monarch is Queen Elizabeth II Windsor and lest she be considered just some kind of figurehead, albeit with untold (literally!) riches quite apart from public funds allocation and properties, it is well to remember that she is also Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces.
Back in the day, the Pontiff (the Pope) also controlled a fair share of armed force and also brokered deals between the monarchs of different kingdoms. And in that respect, we’ll shortly come to some great ironies with regards to the Six Counties but first there are other matters to deal with.
RELIGION AS A QUESTION OF STATE POWER
Henry VIII of England disestablished the power of the Pontiff in English-ruled domains and made himself head of the Church, which of course required a split in the Christian Church, and the whole process has since become known as the English Reformation. That happened in the 16th Century; Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I continued this policy in the 17th Century and also extended the power of England and the territories under its domain. Of course, none of this was done by those monarchs alone; powerful feudal and commercial interests were involved also. Being Head of the Church of England allowed Henry to dissolve monasteries and confiscate their lands, filling the coffers of the Crown and of the faithful – faithful to the Crown.
Unfortunately for Ireland, a large part of the country was in the possession of England at this time, though not without resistance. And the original “English” colonists, the Gall-Ghael (“foreign Gael” in Irish), the Normans who had invaded from a colonised Wales with their mercenaries, wanted to stick to their earlier religion, continuing to acknowledge the Pontiff as their spiritual leader. They held their lands through conquest of arms under English monarchs (though the first had been a French Norman) but their loyalty to the British Crown was somewhat shaky. In 1366, nearly two centuries after their conquest of the Irish lands they held, the English Normans called them “the degenerate English” and accused them of having become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.1
And what of “the Irish themselves”? They too were of the old faith, although their earlier Celtic Christian Church had been more than a little lax in its application of Roman doctrine, especially in laws and mores around marriage, justice and the status of women. The Roman Church was feudal and Irish society still ran along clan lines.
An uneasy alliance was formed between the Gael and the Gall-Ghael which emerged first for the English king Charles I against Cromwell, in the middle of the 17th Century and later again near the end of that century for King James II against King William III (of Orange). On each occasion the Irish alliance lost.
BATTLE, SECTARIAN LINES AND IRONIES
And here we come to ironies. William of Orange was a Protestant and the victory of his forces at the Battle of the Boyne is considered by Unionists a victory of Protestant forces over Catholic. Actually, there were some Catholics among William’s force and some Protestants among the opposing James II forces but that is not the irony. Nor is the fact that William of Orange was a homosexual and that Rev. Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party and led it until his death in 2014, led a campaign against decriminalisation of homosexuality under the slogan “Save Ulster from Sodomy!”
No, the irony is even greater than those two facts and it is this: William’s armed forces were part-financed by the Vatican, in other words through the Pontiff himself. Although in Ireland the conflict took on the shape of Catholics fighting for freedom to practice their religion (and even Gael and Gall-Ghael holding on to their respective powers), against Protestants forcing their religion and colonial power on others, it was part of a European-wide conflict known to historians as The Nine-Years War. A coalition of forces composed of Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, England and Savoy, styling itself the League of Augsburg, drew up to oppose Louis XIV of France. And James found himself on the side of France and against his own Parliament.
The Pontiff, as leader of the Holy Roman Empire, was very much a member of the League of Habsburg as was the Kingdom of Spain and Savoy – all under Catholic rule. When news of William’s defeat of James’ forces at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690 reached the Vatican, a Te Deum mass of praise was celebrated there and similar demonstrations of praise were practiced in the Spanish Kingdom also. That war in Ireland had fundamentally little to do with religion in reality but everything to do with English state and colonial power and European power struggles.
And of course this is not only an irony for the Protestants, who annually celebrate the Boyne victory on the 12th of July in their most sectarian and anti-Catholic manner, but for the Catholics too, who see James as defending their Catholic faith, of which the Pope was the spiritual leader. Nor is that the only irony in connection with Ireland and the Vatican: it was a Pope, Adrian IV, who issued a Papal Bull (something like a warrant) in 1155 legitimising invasion and conquest of Ireland by Henry II of England. Pope Adrian IV, aka Nicholas Breakspear, was the only English Pontiff ever, true but he was a Pope and he must have had substantial support in Rome to issue such a document.
One of the characteristics of republicanism in the late 18th Century, apart from the abolition of the monarchy, was the separation of Church and State. Freedom of conscience and worship were important principles in the French and American revolutions. The United Irishmen also adhered to those principles with an even greater motivation, which was that the majority of the Irish population was excluded from participation in government, military and civil profession by a religious bar.
The Unitedmen were defeated, crushed. Their Protestant (Anglican) and Dissenter (Presbyterian) leaders and supporters were executed or exiled2 and the remnants for the most part became dominated by sectarian anti-Catholicism. And Irish nationalism, including republicanism, came to contain a strong Catholic bias (notwithstanding the continuing presence of Protestants and true Republicans in the movement).
Despite the fact that the Irish (and English) Catholic Church hierarchy has been publicly and energetically hostile to Irish Republicanism from the 1780s onwards, the majority of the Irish Republican movement of the early 20th Century observed the practices of the Catholic faith and never broke from its religious allegiance nor sought to overcome the dominance of the Church in society. As a result the Republican movement was unable, had it wanted to, to tackle many of the social injustices in the Irish State’s education, health, intellectual, literary, art, gender and sexuality policies and legislation, where the Church held sway.
Liberty of conscience and worship remains an important civil right, a democratic demand. People are entitled to practice their concept of religion or to abstain from it and their choices in this regard should not influence people’s participation in society as a whole. The Catholic Church is losing its power in the Twenty-Six Counties and that is reflected too in the Six. The Presbyterian churches are likewise losing influence. However, faith congregation membership continues to be a communal marker and to be used by the DUP and SF to hold their respective voting blocs together.
If separation of Church and State is an important principle of Republicanism then Republicans should actively campaign for that end. No school that bases its intake of pupils on the practice or belief of any religion should receive State support. But in the unlikely event that Sinn Féin should embark on a campaign to apply that principle, they would find themselves losing their voting block, for that is how their block is identified in the Six Counties: as Catholics, baptised in Catholic church, attending Catholic services to some degree or other and being educated in Catholic Schools.
The Unionists are of course just as careful to look after their own sectarian voting block and at least as sectarian. But they don’t claim to be Republicans.
THE ESSENCE OF THE SYMBOLS
Symbols of course do not merely stand for what they are themselves but, in being a symbol, for something else also. A sculpture or drawing of a lion may represent the animal but when used as a symbol, frequently stands for monarchy and power: for examples, the lion on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom and the lions at base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. And symbols can also change their symbolic meaning and come to mean something else than was originally intended. The cross symbolised martyrdom for early Christians, later came to symbolise Christianity itself, later still the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition …. For the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states of the USA, the burning cross symbolises the power of their organisation and white anglo-saxon ethnic supremacy.
The Irish Tricolour flag was presented to Thomas Francis Meagher of the Young Irelanders by women revolutionaries in Paris in 1848, the Year of Revolutions in Europe (but not really in Ireland, where the fight had been knocked out of the remaining survivors of the Great Hunger 1845-1849). Reputedly the flag’s colours signified peace (White) between the traditions of the Gael (Green) and the descendants of those who had fought for William (Orange). The Unionists see it, however, firstly as a symbol of rebellion against the Crown (not without reason, given its historical use) and secondly as a flag of a Catholic Ireland.
The Harp is an Irish symbol of some antiquity and was reputedly flown on standards in ancient medieval times in Ireland. The Norman and English invaders appropriated it firstly as symbol of a conqueredIreland and incorporated it into their colonial standards and flags. Revolutionary republican grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Cromwellian settlers then appropriated the harp as the symbol of the republican United Irishmen, with the motto “It is newly strung and shall be heard”. After the defeat of the Unitedmen (whose leaders were nearly all Protestant), the Harp became a rather suspect symbol for Unionists, mostly Protestants and besides, it is the official symbol of the Irish State (the only state in the world with a musical instrument as its national symbol). However, it remains within the arms of the United Kingdom, representing the Six Counties colony still in British/ English possession.
The “Easter Lilly” emblem is a symbolic representation of a white lilly with an orange centre, with a green leaf as a background. It was developed by Irish women Republicans in the second decade of the 20th Century to commemorate those who died fighting for Irish national freedom, in particular during the 1916 Easter Rising. For decades it was produced as a simple paper representation for the Irish Republican movement and sold on streets or pubs in the lead-up to Easter Monday, when the Rising would be commemorated. In more recent times it has been worn for up to a week each side of Easter Monday and it has also been produced as a metal badge or pin, which some Republicans wear all year around.
The flag of the United Kingdom, commonly known as the “Union Jack”, embodying a design composed of the symbols of the Crosses of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick, represents the union of the nations through their respective patron saints3: Scotland and Ireland under the rule of England and its Royal Family. It was a forced, not a voluntary union and is therefore a reactionary symbol but Unionists in the Six Counties view it as a symbol of the union with England which they wish to maintain.
The Crown represents the English Royal Family and UK State power. Since it is the same State that imposes its rule on the other nations of Ireland and the British Isles, it is fundamentally a reactionary symbol, also representing the reactionary institution of monarchy.
The Poppy, a cloth representation of the red flower, is worn by many British people in the lead up to Armistice Day, November 11th and sometimes for days afterwards. Many British people apparently believe that the purpose of this symbol is to commemorate the dead in wars or to support veterans and their families. In fact as research has shown, the primary purpose of commemorating ‘Remembrance Day’ and the Poppy is to gather public support behind the Armed Forces of the UK. Unionists seemingly see wearing it as proof of their political allegiance to Britain, England or the Crown – or all three.4
In the most recent history of the Six Counties, the symbols listed above have been those of the respective communities, with the added fact that Crown and Union Jack have also been symbols of the colonial statelet itself.
Recently two other symbols have been promoted, also with sectarian allegiances: Irish and Ulster Scots. Neither of these two languages is spoken by the majority of either community, for whom English (with some words specific to Ulster) is the majority language.
THE IRISH, ENGLISHAND ULSTER SCOTS LANGUAGES
Irish or an Ghaeilge, one of the languages of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages group, was the language of the people living in Ireland before it was invaded by England and remained the majority language in Ireland until the end of the19th Century. It continues as a community language5 in all provinces of Ireland including Ulster but there in parts of Co. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland (and not part of the Six Counties despite the statelet being called “Northern Ireland”).
Irish died out as a community language in the Six Counties from its last refuge, the Sperrin Mountains, sometime in the early decades of the 20th Century (the 1911 Census recorded a majority of Irish speakers in that region but also, interestingly, in the Protestant Sandy Row area of Belfast City). However, some Irish speakers survived and others learned the language so that it continued to exist in the colony after the partition of Ireland in 1921. During the recent 30 years’ war, Irish enjoyed a resurgence and to some extent became a badge of resistance to colonial rule.
English is, more than most, a language composed of a number of different languages. Given that it sounds like and is classified as a Germanic language, it is surprising that its major component is of French language origin with the minor component based on Saxon German. English developed in what became England over a period including the defeat of the Romanised Celtic tribes of the area by the Saxons and Angles and the subsequent conquering of the Saxons themselves by the French-speaking Normans.
A century after their victorious invasion of England, the Normans invaded Ireland. In most of the area they conquered in Ireland, the Normans soon came to adopt many local customs, including the speaking of Irish so that less than two centuries later, their England-based colleagues referred to them as “the degenerate English” who had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”6
Although the invaders failed to enforce the Statutes of Kilkenny, over the following centuries they managed through eviction of natives and plantation of colonists, as well as the exclusively official use of English and legal repression of the Irish language, to make Irish a minority language and to reduce it, as a community language, to a number of reservations in certain parts of the country.
Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, in turn a dialect of German spoken by Saxon colonisers of the Scottish Lowlands (the reason the dialect became known as “Lallands”). The Scottish colonists of Irish lands given to them by James I, Oliver Cromwell and English bankers brought the language into Ulster where it developed into “Ulster Scots”. That too gave way to English over time except in some pockets, without any serious effort to revive its fortunes. Until, that is, agitation began in recent times for rights for Irish speakers and for the teaching of Irish, when some Unionists, seeking an “Ulster”7 “Protestant” equivalent with which to oppose any benefits for Irish, began agitation for the preservation and teaching of Ulster Scots.
However, the real competitor with Irish for dominance in the Six Counties (as also in the Twenty-Six, the Irish State) is of course English.
“PARITY OF ESTEEM”
“Parity of esteem” is a concept that was put forward by Sinn Féin within the atmosphere of the Good Friday Agreement.
To many people at the time, including myself, it seemed like something between “soft” Republicanism and a token demand, something to represent to the party’s following that it was doing something for them in the Six Counties. Sinn Féin would have claimed it was much more than that – and it was.
When some critics of SF or of the Peace (sic) Process claimed that sectarianism was being institutionalised, was being “copper-fastened”, I wondered how that was. Obviously, people in Catholic areas would vote Sinn Féin but how was that any different other than how they would have voted previously, viz. Nationalist or SDLP?
But in the past, except for the brief “power-sharing” agreement8 which the Loyalists had so effectively sunk, no political representative on a Catholic voting base had even come close to carving up the Six Counties on a community proportional basis. Now Sinn Féin have done so – not just in local authorities but in the government of the statelet itself (present difficulties excepted). That is what SF has achieved, after some years of civil rights agitation, Catholic communal resistance to repression and nearly three decades of armed struggle – a sharing out of the spoils of office. Power-sharing. Parity of esteem. A sectarian carving out of areas of influence.
And every power-base must have its symbols. Recently the Irish Language has become one such. Obviously the Irish language is entitled to support and its speakers have civil language rights. Clearly the sectarian opposition of Unionist politicians to concessions in this direction is fundamentally wrong. Of course a Language Act is needed so that Irish speakers can use it to push for their rights where the institutions oppose and block them. But that is not why SF has come so late into this struggle. It’s another symbol of their ethnic power-base and another stick with which to beat the Unionists.
And of course there are Irish language speakers and campaigners who are Sinn Féin members. They made clear you knew that during the huge demonstration in favour of Irish language rights, the Dearg le Fearg9 demonstration of 2014 in Belfast, when they were the only political party displaying a banner in violation of an understanding that no political party would do so.
But what does Sinn Féin do in order to forward the language among its own members and activists? Are its public speakers obliged to be competent Irish speakers? Are its Ard-Choiste (Executive Committee) meetings conducted through Irish? Its cumann (branch) meetings? Its Ard Fheis (annual congress)?10 No, none of those. Is the party even running an Irish language instruction program to overcome this deficit at some point in the future? No.
Apart from some enthusiasts among its activists and a vague nationalist emotional attachment, Sinn Féin as a party is not really interested in the language. In the Six Counties, it is interested in a sectarian carve-up which will keep it at the power table and the Irish language has now become useful for that. Just as, in the Twenty-Six Counties state, it is interested in coming to power in a different kind of power-sharing.
THE EASTER LILLY AND THE “REMEMBRANCE” POPPY
And the latest symbol to be sullied by joining this war of symbols is the Easter Lilly. In times past the Easter Lilly, commemorating in particular the dead who fell fighting for freedom in the 1916 Rising, was worn by many in the Twenty-Six Counties state who were not Republicans. In the latter decades of the last century, few wore it apart from Republicans and, in the Six Counties, it was asking for trouble from the colonial police or Loyalists (often the same thing) to display it. The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954-1987) there empowered any police officer to decide it was likely to lead to “a breach of the peace” and to remove it by force; conviction of a breach of the Act was punishable by a fine of up to £500 (sum equal to about £15,300 in 2017) or up to five years in prison.11
The Act, the repeal of which was one of the demands of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s, was finally repealed in 1987 but of course, any signifier identifying a person as a Republican or even a Catholic in the Six Counties is at the very least an invitation to less favourable treatment by the authorities and at worse to harassment and assault by Loyalists or colonial armed forces personnel.
It is of course right that people should have the right to wear the Easter Lilly but to pose it as an equal right to wearing the Remembrance (sic) Poppy is to devalue the Lilly, to putting an anti-imperialist and Irish Republican history emblem on the same level as an imperialist military-glorifying one. But that is exactly what Sinn Féin is now doing12. And Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish state, recently publicly agreed with that notion.13
And is that not the same project as those of the “Museum of Free Derry”14 and of the Glasnevin Cemetery Trust15, one on each side of the Border, commemorating dead British colonial force members side-by-side with their victims and those who fought against them? As though they are of the same worth to commemorate? As though the objectives of each were (are) of equal value?
What more effective way to undermine the power of an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist symbol than to equate it with its opposite?
THE IMPORTANCE OF SYMBOLS
I once heard an organiser of a British-based left-wing party, himself of Irish parents, declaim against Irish political commemorations in London as “only of symbolic importance”. How little he understood of human beings to say that! Outside of urgent situations, natural surroundings and chemical reactions, symbols are the only things that convey meaning to human beings.
This page is covered in printed symbols, which we have learned to decipher into words which, in turn are symbols to convey meaning by association. If I write the letters h,o,u,s,e joined together, or say “house”, a symbol in sound, the listeners construct the shape of a house inside their heads, based on the culture and structures to which they have been exposed in their lives, to understand what I mean. If I write or say instead “tent”, they will visualise something else. If I write or say “party” the listener may struggle between visualising a festive occasion or a political party but should I have preceded that word with another, “house”, confusion disappears and the only question is whether the listener’s experience or understanding of a “house party” is the same as mine.
A nod of the head is a symbolic gesture which in most cultures signifies some level of agreement, a shake of the head its opposite. We understand symbolic hand gestures, shrugs, grimaces, smiles, winks, the lift of an eyebrow, bodily posture. Shapes of body or posture can convey sexual availability and induce arousal, or convey threat and give rise to fear. Symbols haunt our dreams, according to Jung and Freud, communications from our subconscious. Symbols are crucial to conveying and understanding meaning.
WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS NOT
It is right and proper that people should uphold the symbols of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial historical resistance, including the Irish Tricolour (although more appropriate to my thinking is the Starry Plough of the Irish Citizen Army16). Another symbol of that resistance, the Easter Lilly, is equally valid. It is right and proper that people should
value the cultural and political history embodied in the symbol of the Irish Harp. It is a matter of great cultural world importance that the Irish language survive and flourish. These are important symbols and, in the case of the language, an important thing in itself. These are not things to be equated with symbols of oppression, colonialism and imperialism.
The Union Jack, the Crown and the Poppy deserve to be shunned by all progressive people, because of the values they symbolise and the continuing effect of those things today. The English language, on the other hand, is worthy of a place in a bilingual Irish society.
Let Republicans and others promote the wearing of the Easter Lilly and the display of flags of historic Republican resistance. Let them never place them in the same context or on equal status with the symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Let many promote the use of the Irish language and rights for its speakers but let it not be used as a crude political weapon, much less to further the prospects of a party which actively colludes with and shares in colonial rule by an invader and has done nothing in reality to promote the language even among its own ranks.
1The Statutes of Kilkenny sought to halt this “degeneracy” with 35 Actsforbidding the “intermarriage between the native Irish and the native English, the English fostering of Irish children, the English adoption of Irish children and use of Irish names and dress. Those English colonists who did not know how to speak English were required to learn the language (on pain of losing their land and belongings), along with many other English customs. The Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” were to be dropped and pursuits such as archery and lancing to be taken up, so that the English colonists would be more able to defend against Irish aggression, using English military tactics.
“Other statutes required that the English in Ireland be governed by English common law, instead of the Irish March law or Brehon law and ensured the separation of the Irish and English churches by requiring that “no Irishman of the nations of the Irish be admitted into any cathedral or collegiate church … amongst the English of the land”.
“………. Statute XV, which forbade Irish minstrels or storytellers to come to English areas, guarding against “the Irish agents who come amongst the English, spy out the secrets, plans, and policies of the English, whereby great evils have often resulted”.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statutes_of_Kilkenny
2 e.g William Orr, Edward Crosbie, Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald, Edward Hayes, Henry Joy McCracken, Henry Munroe, William Aylmer, Thomas Addis Emmet, Bagenal Harvey, Joseph Holt, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet ….
3 Ireland has in fact three patron Christian saints: Patrick, Bridget and Columcille.
5 By use of the term “community language” here I mean a language used by a community settled on an area, as distinct from say a community of people separated by distance but united by use of a language, or a language used by a few families separated from one another by a majority not speaking that language.
7 A misnomer constantly repeated not only by Unionists but also by British public commentators: the province of Ulster has nine counties, of which three are in the Irish state and six in the British statelet.
8 The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which proposed power-sharing between Protestant and Catholic communities in the shape of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, was overthrown by the Loyalist action of the Ulster Workers’ Council (and Ulster Army Council) strike of 1974, including armed intimidation of Catholic areas, with British Army troops and RUC police standing by (or in the latter case openly colluding) .
9 Literally “Red with Anger”, a campaign of demonstrations organised both sides of the Border, against administrations of both states, by Irish language campaigners and speakers. Connradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League, an organisation part-funded by the Irish state) took part in organising this but it was only one of many much more grass-roots organisations across the country involved. It had been agreed that political party representatives would not be speakers (this was violated in some instances) and that political party banners would not be displayed (violated by Sinn Féin on the Belfast demonstration).
10 This is very different from comparable movements for national independence in Catalunya and the Basque Country, where their own national languages dominate their political discourse, despite repression (until the 1980s) and lack of state support.