I, Dolours

‘I Dolours’ is a film about the life of Dolours Price, and her activities as a member of the IRA during the 1970s.  It is part dramatisation and part interview conducted by the journalist Ed Moloney, who is also the Producer and has written an important book on the history of the IRA.

Actor Lorna Larkin is excellent as Dolours and she needed to be, because the most arresting parts of the film are excerpts of the interview with Dolours.  She is determinedly articulate, direct and forthright.  One review has described her as a “terrifying and bitter woman”, but one person’s bitterness is another’s righteous anger.  She is unrepentant about her activities in the IRA and brutally honest.

And it is this honesty that so jars with the present, where a principal republican leader claims never to have been a member of the IRA and another claimed never to have killed anyone. While mainstream commentary ridicules such claims, it fails to register the service they do to its own anti-republican narrative.

Her unflinching justification of the IRA and its campaign will be shocking only to those too young not to have come across the ‘arrogant’ and ‘elitist’ republicans who regarded themselves as ‘defenders of the truth’, as described in Dolours’ own words.

It contrasts with the mealy-mouthed political sophistry of today’s Sinn Fein, many of whose members justify their current opportunism with their experience of previous sacrifice. As one comrade of mine put it, their descent into corruption is justified by the phrase ‘we’re worth it.’

Dolours’ interview is also interspersed with archival footage of the civil rights movement, which Dolours and her sister Marian joined, and the attacks on the movement by loyalists and police.  The demand for the most limited reforms was met by naked state and loyalist violence, with footage in the film of the ambush at Burntollet and the RUC attack on the 5thOctober civil rights march in Derry.

This has generally been passed over quickly in reviews but in the more recent media coverage, marking the 50thanniversary of these events, their importance to the creation of ‘the Troubles’ has been at least partially recognised.  It was obviously crucial to Dolours’ political development and from a socialist point of view led to a political and personal tragedy.  From such a viewpoint the alternative to the reform strategy of civil rights was not that of militarist republicanism, which Dolours notes she had at one time herself rejected.

From these attacks however, Dolours learned that “change would not be brought about by marching” and the objective of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers was the wrong one.  She came from a family steeped in republicanism, with her father taking part in the bombing of England during the Second World War, which Dolours seemed to regard as almost surreal in conception, while her aunt lived her life in the family home, having had her eyes and hands blown off while attempting to recover an IRA arms dump.

She was ultimately to be the third generation of the family to end up in jail, which might appear to lead to the belief that she was born to be in the IRA.  But if this were so then she would be less intelligent and less human than the woman that appears on the screen.  She embraced the idealism of the civil rights movement and then rebelled against its perceived ineffectiveness in fighting oppression.  She devoted herself to the IRA and consciously submitted to it discipline.  She didn’t seek to avoid danger, and refused to present herself as a hero.

She does not embellish events or her participation in them, and attributes her passion and zeal to youthful ardour.  She makes statements she knows will not gain her any sympathy, such as her defense of the killing of informers, while she displays sympathy of her own years later for only one disappeared, someone who went to his death believing that this death was deserved, just as Dolours did.

The film shows a number of clips of IRA car bombs in Belfast City Centre, and some of their grisly effects, and records her seeming endorsement of the view that one bomb in England was worth many times that number in Ireland.  It dramatises her volunteering to participate in the bombing of London, having had the risks explained, and even as other IRA volunteers walked away.

While noting the immature behaviour of some of the male IRA volunteers in England, who failed to follow orders and got drunk, she also acknowledges that this made no difference, because the whole operation had already been compromised by informers.

She and her sister were caught, imprisoned in England, and went on hunger strike to demand that they serve their sentences in Ireland.  For most of the hunger strike, which lasted over 200 days, she and her sister were force fed, an experience that eventually resulted in Marian’s, and then her, early release.

The film invites some sympathy for her during this period and her resulting continuing ill health, which led to her eventual premature death.  It can hardly do anything else, just as the picture of bomb explosions and their aftermath can hardly do anything other than evoke the opposite. But it also should prompt questions, because it does an injustice to Dolours to assume that the decisions she made were inevitable.

How, for example, was it hoped that these bombs would achieve republican objectives if bombs in Belfast mattered so little?  And why did they continue for so many years?

That Dolours was not asked these questions is understandable.  The interview was a last testament, to be shown only after her death, and her ill health at that time made her vulnerable.  The journalist Ed Moloney has explained the backstory to the interview on his blog.  She therefore said what she wanted to say.

This must also, unfortunately, explain rather unsatisfactory aspects of the film.  As has been noted elsewhere, it feels incomplete, not only on the political side but particularly in relation to Dolours future life after release. The ending feels rushed, and her opposition to the betrayal by the movement of the cause she dedicated herself to is not fully explained.  She does however say that what Sinn Fein had achieved was not worth missing a good breakfast.

Most media attention has focused on her admitted role in the killing of the disappeared: those who were considered to be informers and who were driven across the border, often it seems by Dolours, where they would be shot and their bodies buried.  Some of these bodies have not been recovered. This, she admits in the interview, was a war crime, but only it seems because families did not know their loved ones’ fate and could not be given a body for proper burial.

Of all those disappeared, the most notorious case was that of Jean McConville, a widow and a mother of ten children, who were separated from each other and put into care following their mother’s death.  Dolours is not kind after the event and makes no attempt to soften what she and her IRA comrades did.  The lack of any attempt at sugar coating gives her statements greater credence, although Jean McConville’s family protested at the film’s opening in Belfast and dispute some of her assertions.

Her other claim is only superficially more controversial and was aired long before the film, which was that Gerry Adams was not only in the IRA but also ordered the killing.  That the former has been denied by him is taken seriously by no one, which leaves denials of the latter also suffering from a problem of credibility.

The worst review of the film I have read ends with these remarks:

“Perhaps that is the saddest part of I, Dolours, is that she died feeling let down, deceived and unfulfilled, having not achieved her ultimate goal in life. Though, she does serve to be a forgotten relic of a time which indeed many would never wish to see the likes of again. Ultimately, Dolours is an unreliable narrator and we must remember that this is one woman’s perspective, and that everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

The film itself is testimony to her not being forgotten, and the poignancy of her story is an invitation not to forget but to learn from.  This includes the political lessons that are especially important, since she lived and died a political woman.  She makes clear that she did not seek to excuse or exonerate her activities, on the contrary she saw no reason to do so, and the film stands as a challenge to her erstwhile comrades who have made political careers doing so.

That she is an unreliable narrator seems hard to sustain given her definite and precise approach to the telling of her story; her complete avoidance of seeking after sympathy, and plain admission to her unpalatable actions. There is no reason to believe that “everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

On the contrary, it is the truthfulness of her words that cuts through the carefully constructed silences and avoidance that characterises today’s approach by Sinn Fein to the actions of the IRA.  Continued embrace of IRA history, along with denial of everything it entailed, or attempts to make us “all” responsible for actions which specific actors were only too willing to claim for themselves at the time; all this is incompatible with the truth that Dolours continues to speak.

On the question of Dolours feeling let down by not having achieved her ultimate goal, I get the feeling that, apart from the physical and psychological damage she suffered from her experience in prison, republican defeat was not decisive in contributing to her death.  Coming from a republican family she grew up and had lived with its consequences. She understood defeat and faced it when it happened.  Not for her black taxis driving up and down the Falls Road hooting its celebration. It was the betrayal of the movement that she devoted her life to which must have demoralised more than mere defeat.

She must have been aware that she drove to their deaths members of the movement whose betrayal, in the great scheme of things, was so much less than the movements’ later complete capitulation.  And just as she did this, so later did the republican movement do it to her.

The film is authentic in its showing of a republican view of ‘the Troubles’, free from today’s spin and bogus self-justification.  In this way it is an honest and faithful portrait of its subject.

Remembering or forgetting the Kingsmill massacre?

News in the North of Ireland for over a week has been dominated by the controversy created by Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff, who posted a tweet of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill sliced bread on his head in the shop at a service station.  He’s regarded as the Sinn Fein clown but nobody was laughing, at least not publicly, as he posted his video at 5 minutes past midnight on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of ten Protestant workmen by the IRA, at Kingsmill in Armagh.

He was roundly condemned and Sinn Fein suspended him from his post for three months, which was generally regarded as a weak admonition.  Unionists roundly condemned the photo and the punishment and contrasted one republican’s behaviour and the party’s mild rebuke with the recent Sinn Fein demand for equality and respect.

McElduff complained that he had not been aware that there would be any link between his tomfoolery and the massacre but some argued that it was too much of a coincidence.  My own view was that it was crass but couldn’t see the point of a republican drawing attention to something Sinn Fein would wish forgotten and which the IRA at the time would not admit.

What was more important was that the killings had actually taken place and had not been politically accounted for by those who carried it out and who are now claiming the mantle of reconciliation.

The sectarian slaughter was so appalling there was no admission of responsibility and, despite years of demands by republicans for a truth process, they still haven’t done so and aren’t going to.  Six members of two Catholic families had been murdered by loyalists the day before the Kingsmill massacre, and Kingsmill was carried out and widely seen as retaliation.  A classical tit-for-tat killing designed to deliver a message that we can also do what you can.

I remember that, perhaps five years later, a republican supporter defended the massacre to me on the grounds that it stopped the sectarian tit-for-tat killings.  This was the view of republicans at the time and no doubt still the view of most of those old enough to remember it now.

A also remember a comrade of mine once saying that the IRA fought a campaign that sometimes involved sectarian killing while loyalists fought a campaign that was sectarian killing. That many of the unionist politicians today complaining about the behaviour of McElduff are still today collaborating with loyalist paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality and with a record of sectarianism no republican could match makes their protest and grievance easy for many to dismiss.

The media controversy didn’t die, partly because it suited unionist purposes, and partly because it really does put a big pall over the republican ‘equality and respect’ agenda, with the video conjuring up the view that sectarian killing is a joke.  In the North the controversy will not significantly dent Sinn Fein support, but it just adds to the cynicism and/or calculated ignorance required to continue that support.  While always stating their republicanism could not be compared to loyalism, the retreat to what-about loyalist hypocrisy admits of such comparison. It is a defence, but only at the expense of embracing your enemy and sharing the same unwanted spotlight.

In the South, things are different.  It is now being argued that the resignation of McElduff after the mild rebuke of suspension has not been voluntary but demanded by Sinn Fein, especially Sinn Fein in the South, for whom association with the past deeds of the IRA really is a shackle they seek to escape.

This might seem the worst of all options for republicans – refusing to take strong action that might demonstrate they have changed and recognising  their responsibilities, while losing their colleague anyway.  But this is not how it works.  He’s gone; they can welcome his decision and move on.  Just like the original massacre – admit nothing, while sending a message, and hope to move on.

Like seemingly every major atrocity during the ‘Troubles’ the spectre of the British state’s involvement has also been raised by the controversy and as usual relegated in importance.

Police failure, seeming incompetence in investigating the case and suspicions of collusion, with no one charged over the killing, has raised again the issue that the IRA and loyalists seemed often to be almost puppets of agents working in the bowels of the British State.  That this was the case for much of loyalism can hardly have been doubted, though seldom admitted, but the state penetration of republicanism has been much more surprising.

In truth, there is little new in the episode because nothing has been revealed that we didn’t know already.  It will not affect the current political stalemate in the North and in the South every step away from its past renders the new Sinn Fein closer to a pale imitation of the rest of staid Irish nationalism.  Those coming from a republican tradition are devout in their remembrance and commemoration of the past but they seem incapable of learning from it.

Far from facing its history and learning its lessons they forget nothing and learn nothing because they either seek to repeat the same strategy today or defend the strategy applied yesterday. In any circumstance it would be a failure today as it was before.

The episode is seen as showing the barriers to reconciliation existing in the North but the columnist Brian Feeney of the Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ is right when he says that reconciliation is a religious notion that is a chimera, one that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t exist.  What is actually being demanded is reconciliation of incompatible claims coming from different sides while the respective validity of these different sides is also paradoxically affirmed.  The complete incoherence of the equality of sectarianism that passes for political progress here is on show once more.

What is required is not reconciliation of two sectarian sides but unity across sectarian division that through this unity dissolves it.  Irish republicanism has failed this task, which it once set itself over two hundred years ago, and no one really expects it to have much to do with achieving it now.

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

In a 1 June article Socialist Democracy (SD) wrote that “a popular slogan by People before Profit (PbP) candidates – “we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!” – is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism.”

In another post SD say that “This neutrality ignores socialist support for democratic rights and the frequent alliances between republicanism and socialism that are part of our history. It can blind workers to the very real mechanisms employed by loyalism and the state to combat radicalism amongst Protestant workers and prevent working class unity.”

First some basic points.  Saying you are neither Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, is not to equate the two, no matter how SD convinces itself it does.  It is a matter of fact, and a matter of principle that socialists are not unionists or nationalists.

It is similarly the case that socialists do not believe that workers should be led by either unionists or nationalists.  We do not believe nationalism can deliver the equality that socialists support never mind the fundamental reorganisation of society we seek, and which makes us socialists.

It is therefore not only permitted, but absolutely required, that socialists state that they are socialist!  At a very basic level it is as simple as that.  It is also the case that they need to do so to distinguish themselves from Irish unionism and Irish nationalism.  In the SD version of democratic alliances with republicanism it would seem that we cannot say that we are not unionist or nationalist, which amounts to politically surrendering your flag.

Does SD believe that Irish nationalism, in whatever form, can unite the Irish working class?  If so, it should reconsider its independent existence.  If not, it should drop this ridiculous line of criticism, and in doing so the comrades should consider how they ended up defending such a position.

I will venture that they did so because of their understanding of nationalism. As quoted above, SD states that “Irish republicanism . . (has a) revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content”, forgetting the fact that Sinn Fein is no longer standing by the traditional republican programme. The Provisional republicans, as SD say (in their article of 10 March) have moved from “armed struggle to constitutional nationalism.”

Their failure to register this when condemning PbP must have something to do with their declared opposition to the slogan of the PbP and their claim that this disregards “the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism.” (1 June 2017)

SD state in their response to my original posts that “all theories have to deal with real life”.  So how does the theory that the programme of Irish nationalism is “generally democratic” stand up to real life?

Let’s examine the concrete, real life expressions of Irish nationalism, and not the theoretical one clearly envisaged by SD.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the ‘United Ireland Party’ and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, are both reactionary Irish nationalist parties of the capitalist class.  Sinn Fein, by SD’s own admission, is a “constitutional nationalist” party and cannot be considered as either a party of working class interests or even of revolutionary nationalism.  The role of the real republicans is actually obstructive of working class unity, since they convince everyone including themselves that the only alternative to the peace process and the current sectarian arrangements is militarist violence.  In doing so they don’t threaten British rule but bolster it.

So, in the real world, just what nationalist movement does SD defend and support, so much so that it wishes not to declare socialist independence from it?

Socialist Democracy do advance correct criticisms of PbP, but they are lost in an avalanche of the good and the simply atrocious, which will convince no one who is not already convinced.  Its articles are written in such a way that it is not clear that they are designed to convince anyone not already on-side, but simply to declare a position.

This reaches the point that even when PbP make clear that it is not neutral on the question of democratic rights and the issue of the border this isn’t welcomed, but dismissed – “ A key slogan of the new [People before Profit] election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism? (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In summary, my original posts were designed to raise the problem of strategy that socialists face in the North of Ireland.  The response from Socialist Democracy does not take us any step forward.  My initial overall impression when coming to draft this reply to their criticism was that the comrades are wrong in several serious respects in relation to socialist strategy.  In drafting the response my final overall impression is now one of their more or less complete confusion arising from misunderstanding the reactionary role of Irish nationalism.

On this there is obviously much more to say (see this post and ensuing discussion for example). The demand for an end to partition and national self-determination has historically been reflected through Irish nationalism (and still is today by the real republicans), but the utter inadequacy of nationalist politics in maintaining any democratic content in these demands in its real world political manifestations, in its political parties and programmes, is something that must be understood.  Otherwise the essential role of socialist organisation and a socialist programme, based on the self-activity of the working class itself, and not on organisation and a political programme divorced from it, is not understood.

Irish nationalism must be combatted North and South because (among other important reasons) it cannot uphold the democratic impulses that are contained, and have erupted periodically, within the Irish working class.  This much should be obvious in the South of the country.  It should certainly not be defended because at some times and in some places it has taken leadership of struggles that have had such a democratic content.  Not least because it will fail and end up strangling such democratic dynamics while sidelining and opposing socialism.

This is what happened over the period following the rise of the civil rights movement, where Irish nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, substituted itself, its methods and its programme for this mass democratic struggle, and then helped bury it in the sectarian deal brokered by imperialism.

This is the underlying political analysis that answers a question that might be posed by my posts – does any of this matter?  The SD response states that “perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply commonplace”, but the author will know that it is, in fact, much more commonly ignored.

Socialist Democracy wants to resist the rightward drift of the socialist movement in Ireland, and its arguments would ideally be as powerful as pure argumentation can be in countering this drift. Unfortunately, its arguments cannot play such a role, and if the comrades seek that they should they will have to be seriously revised.

concluded

Back to part 2

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

The second point I want to respond to in the response to my initial posts is what Socialist Democracy have to say about the nature of Sinn Fein (SF), which in my view is once again confused.

SD state that it is a serious weakness of mine that I see Sinn Fein in the North as a Catholic Party and equivalent to the DUP.

I do indeed assert that it is a party that defends Catholic rights but that does not mean I assert equivalence between it and the DUP.  I don’t assert this, and in fact my analysis has been that Sinn Fein’s project of seeking equality of sectarian rights is not only not the same as the DUP’s but has been rejected by the DUP, which wants superiority of sectarian rights for unionism and rejects such equality.

What this means is that Sinn Fein fights for Catholic rights, for communal sectarian rights, but is not equivalent to the DUP, which continues to seek Catholic subordination.  How could the Socialist Democracy author have missed this?

It is nevertheless the case that Sinn Fein has asserted and defended sectarian rights and does so straight from entering Stormont, when declaring itself as part of one of the sectarian blocs for voting purposes.  Even the SD author acknowledges that in relation to defense of Catholic rights that “it is true that this is their mode of operation in the various carve-ups in Stormont.”

It is at this point that the SD author attempts something extraordinary.  First by saying that this “does not sum up the party itself or the dynamic of their supporters.”

We have already quoted from SD itself on the dynamic of its supporters – “popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist.”  As SD have also said: “the majority of the population accept the framework of the Assembly and the idea of a balancing of sectarian rights.”  It has also pointed to Sinn Fein conciliation of unionism in its response, which, let’s be clear, means conciliation of sectarianism.

As for the party itself, interested readers are free to read article after article on the Socialist Democracy web site slating the political practices of Sinn Fein and its support, and its collaboration with imperialist rule and the most outrageous facilitation of loyalist corruption, including its own description of Sinn Fein’s politics as “Catholic populism.” (article 1 June 2017)

In an article published on 10 March this year we read this:

“the central tenets of the peace process, equality of the two traditions and the Government of Ireland Act, remains a barrier to anything other than the institutionalisation of sectarian division.”

“they (SF) were facilitating, and participating in, the corruption and sectarian carve-up of resources that is the everyday activity of Stormont.”

“the St Andrews Agreement and the settlement around it is based on communal rather than civil rights.”

Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein “went from opposition to Britain rule to administration for British state and comfortable membership of a nationalist family of church and state.”

“McGuinness and Sinn Fein surrendered to the Catholic Church and the Catholic bourgeoisie represented by the Derry Traders Association.”

In another article from 5 January this year we read that “structural sectarianism extends into the internal life of the parties. . . The main business of the assembly is to share-out resources on the basis of sectarian privilege.  Its output is a routine of scandals based on sectarian corruption. . . But to really get to the heart of Arlene’s impunity we must take into account the role of Sinn Fein. . . In this environment, they must desperately wave their presence in government and the share of sectarian patronage they control as proof of the success of their strategy of working within the colonial system.”

If one wants to read a textbook case of the sectarianism that Sinn Fein defends then one could do no better than read the Socialist Democracy article published on 8 December 2016.  It sums up the political practice of Sinn Fein in Stormont by stating that “the consequence is that sectarianism – rather than being allowed to wither away – is being artificially kept alive.”

Yet, in his reply to my critique, the SD author finds that “Sinn Fein presents itself as a part of the left.  Their main demands at the moment – an Irish language act, LGBT marriage rights, investigation of state killings, are essentially democratic demands. . . . It is not long ago that the SM (Sráid Marx) blog itself proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state!”

It’s not clear at all what we are supposed to make of all this. Previous SD commentary on Sinn Fein speaks repeatedly of Sinn Fein “lies” and states that “Sinn Fein have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth since the beginning of the peace process.”

So, what point is the SD author now making?  Is SF still up to its neck in sectarian patronage, or is it in some way a party of the left, putting forward democratic demands?

Did SD not write on 10 March that “Sinn Fein itself was unconcerned about state murder, about corruption or about the Irish language until their own members revolted.”  Is it now implied that this revolt has changed the nature of the party?

Just as on the question of reforms, which are supported in general in order to be dismissed in particular, Sinn Fein is sectarian in particular but dare not be compared to the unionists in general because it puts forward democratic demands.

Oh, and isn’t it noticeable that while PbP gets slated for putting forward demands for reform, Sinn Fein’s claims to do so are presented as some sort of defense or exculpation for its less appealing practices?

But perhaps it really is that Sinn Fein have changed. So, for example, in its article on the elections on 1 June, Socialist Democracy say that “The political campaign that Sinn Fein ran in the March elections was much sharper than the vague populism of the SWP.”  After another paragraph, we learn in the same article that “The Sinn Fein slogans were insincere.  They allowed all these issues to fall in order to keep Stormont running, but now they put forwards substantive policies that reflected the anger of their supporters.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

This indeed would now appear to be the SD argument, for it says in its response that “It is true that Sinn Fein voters, along with the majority of the nationalist population, hold the illusion that reform will come through Stormont, but it is not the case that they seek only rights for Catholics. There is all the difference in the world in looking to Stormont for reform and supporting Stormont as the bulwark of reaction.” (Of the last sentence, we can only agree!  It is SD that, in its criticism of PbP, appears not to see any difference, as I pointed out in the first of these posts.)

But of course, it must be noted that now SD is speaking not of Sinn Fein itself but of its supporters.  Yet this doesn’t quite tally with what it has previously said: of the working class, SD has said that “many oppose open sectarianism, but feel that there is some benign form that could share resources peacefully. They despise politicians, but feel that a team of better politicians could manage better. Politics are avoided as many have been convinced that the only alternative is armed conflict.”

Most importantly, this move to discuss aspects of the Sinn Fein support appears here to be employed with the effect of providing cover for the Sinn Fein party, for nowhere is it admitted that Sinn Fein is a bulwark of support for sectarian discrimination, something that was previously an SD commonplace.  This is a remarkable retreat on its part.

This shift in the assessment of the Party has been presaged with earlier SD condemnation of PbP while simultaneously at least partially exonerating Sinn Fein:

“Nowhere in the PBP narrative is there any recognition of the imperialist dominion of Ireland or an acknowledgement of the material base of partition in armed bodies of the state. The Sinn Fein narrative, while mistaken, is at least coherent. A presence in government in the North and South would so impress the British that they would immediately withdraw from Ireland, they believe. Exactly how having PBP candidates in Stormont would lead to a united Ireland is far from clear, given their frantic support for the institution.”

So, read that again.  As against the PbP narrative, the Sinn Fein one is at least coherent – get into government North and South and the British will withdraw, but the PbP strategy of getting into parliament is “far from clear.”  So, although both strategies are described as more or less the same – achieving power through parliament – the SF one is ‘coherent’ but the PbP one is not.

More importantly, the role of Sinn Fein itself in mobilising Catholic workers in support of sectarian arrangements, which in turn support loyalist intimidation of Protestant working class communities, one that “keeps sectarianism alive” (according to earlier SD analysis quoted above), is nowhere admitted in the response to my critique.  It all falls to the wayside in defense of what SD thinks is an anti-imperialist and revolutionary approach to politics in contrast to perceived reformist heresies.

However, SD notwithstanding, as long as Catholic workers support Sinn Fein they will be vicariously supporting sectarianism and this has and will continue to block development of a socialist alternative among these workers.  This is what is key, but is what is completely absent in the SD response, which consists of savagely criticising the failings of PbP, while now putting forward some meagre cover for Sinn Fein.

This bias for Sinn Fein and against PbP, even in particular cases where it appears that there is no essential difference in approach between them (and we leave aside whether this is in fact true) arises from a further aspect of SD’s politics, illustrated in a recent theme of their criticism of PbP – opposition to the slogan “Neither Orange or Green, but Socialist.”

However, before dealing with this and leaving this section of my reply, I want to address the SD point that while I criticize Sinn Fein for defending sectarian rights I also “proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state.”  This is correct, so I need to explain why I did so.

The posts in which I put this forward explained that the programmes put forward by the left groups in the South were reformist and different only in degree from that of Sinn Fein.  In order to put their strategy forward as a credible alternative, these groups would have to seek unity with Sinn Fein and seek to stiffen the latter’s reformist promises or expose them as fraudulent.

If this led to a larger reformist alliance there might be some greater hope that a break by Irish workers from the capitalist parties they have supported (in particular Fianna Fail) might be made on a larger scale, providing the grounds upon which Irish workers could learn and advance to more adequate socialist politics.

I understand that for SD this is to be regarded as a betrayal, involving the creation of a reformist movement, in which case I also await their opposition to Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain.  For my part, it is a judgement that at that time such an alliance would have been an advance for Irish workers upon which further advances could hopefully be made.

However, despite SD protestations to the contrary, it is clear that it envisages a purely revolutionary democratic road forward (and they criticise stagism!) when the comrades state that:

“As in the years following 1916, we should not wait for the British and for Irish capital to grant us independence. We must take it for ourselves. Given the number of parties who claim that they stand for a united Ireland and the widespread support for unity even while it is downplayed everywhere, is there any reason why a 32 county constituent assembly cannot be called to assert our democratic rights?”

So, SD believe the bourgeois democratic institutions of the Southern state can be overturned and replaced by a Constituent Assembly!  To answer their question – the reason why such an assembly cannot be called is that all the parties claiming to support a united Ireland don’t really mean it, and the mass of the population regard their bourgeois democratic institutions as legitimate and support them.  If the tiny number who support a constituent assembly attempted to turn their slogans into reality this vast majority would join in crushing them.

I have no idea how such a perspective could be defended from the charge of being ultra-left.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2

Martin McGuinness, personification of republicanism

On October 24 1990, a Derry man Patsy Gillespie was abducted by the IRA, tied to the driver’s seat of a van and told to drive the van packed with explosives to a British Army checkpoint on the border with Donegal.  While doing so his wife and children were held at gunpoint.  Two other such bombs were also delivered to targets on the border on the same day.  Using others to deliver bombs was a well-known IRA tactic and almost inevitably the driver got out at the target and warned of the bomb.

This time however the bomb was to be detonated by remote control or by the door of the van being opened, which Patsy Gallagher did as he struggled to free himself and get out of the van.  When it opened five British soldiers and Patsy Gallagher were killed; the largest part of him to be retrieved afterwards was part of his hand.  The use of a ‘human bomb’, as it was quickly called, caused widespread revulsion, including among nationalists.

Patsy Gallagher was killed because, according to the IRA, he was “a part of the British war machine”. He had been warned to leave his job because he worked at a British army base, as a cook.  He was, to use a more old-fashioned phase, a ‘collaborator.’

The deployment of three such attacks on the one day would had to have been sanctioned by the Northern Command of the IRA, whose Officer Commanding was Martin McGuinness.

Just under a decade later he was Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive, the administration devolved from Westminster.  His Sinn Fein colleague in the Executive was Bairbre de Brun, who was Minister of Health.  One of her more important acts was to launch a review of acute services in Northern Ireland: “I want to hear all the arguments and weigh up the options before taking any final decisions. To put me in a position to take the necessary decisions, I need measured, informed and objective advice on how acute services can best be developed to meet the needs of our people.”

To lead this review she appointed a well-known figure, Maurice Hayes.  He had been the most senior Catholic civil servant at Stormont, supplying weekly reports on politics in the Irish State to the Northern Ireland Executive in 1974; later becoming head of personnel for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and later Northern Ireland Ombudsman. He was Electoral Boundary Commissioner, a Senior Advisor to the Chair of the Constitutional Convention, a member of Lord Patten’s Commission to reform the police in the North of Ireland, and authored the report which led to the establishment of the office of Police Ombudsman.

In other words it could be said, if one wanted to, that when Sinn Fein got into office they asked the most senior ‘collaborator’ around to help them decide what they were going to do now they had got there.

Nothing epitomises the evolution of republican politics in the North of Ireland so much as the sequence of these two events.  In fact, it could be said that no two events define republican politics so much as the conjunction of these two events.  All the more important because they are now either forgotten, or, in the second case, were barely noticed at the time.

Of course, Martin McGuinness was later denounced for various actions by other republicans, including his condemnation of these republicans as traitors for shooting British troops; and for toasting the Queen in white tie and tails at Windsor Castle.  These were high-profile events but they were mainly symbolic.  The killing of Patsy Gallagher for being “a part of the British war machine” while hiring the biggest ‘castle Catholic’ when it entered office were not symbolic but very real.  These events tell us most of what we need to know about the politics of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

A working class cook had become a ‘legitimate target’ in a war which, when it ended, they could think of nothing better than to ask one of the most prominent Catholic establishment figures for advice on what they should do.  Militarist ‘anti-imperialism’ gave way to equally ineffective subordination as a parliamentary ‘opposition’ to British rule, an opposition that involved not being in opposition but being in government.  And with a party so right wing its antediluvian views resembles closely the most rabid base of Donald Trump.

Throughout their evolution, no matter what its twists and turns, the movement exhibited a complete lack of class politics.  The socialist opinions of some masked the right-wing politics of the movement as a whole.  As the old adage goes, opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

The movement has been a vivid demonstration of lessons not widely enough appreciated – that ‘anti-imperialism’ does not necessitate socialism and that a predominantly working class base does not equate to politics defined by class.  A socialist assessment of the political life of Martin McGuinness that does not register these facts is worthless.

This is important because the political assessment of someone’s life often becomes more important than that life’s impact when it was lived.  Gerry Adams claimed that “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him.”  But this of course is untrue.

Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA did go to war.  The necessity for armed defence against sectarian pogroms was usurped by the Provisional IRA into a conscious offensive war that promised victory ’72, ’73 etc. It was they who claimed that only the IRA and its armed struggle could bring victory, by which they meant a united Ireland; but their struggle degenerated as the British State inevitably crushed it by its superior power.   They failed so comprehensively they now pretend this war was about something other than declared at the time, all about equality and not ‘Brits Out’.  In all this Martin McGuinness played a leading role.

I remember being asked by the wife of a republican whether I thought Martin McGuinness was a British spy.  Not because I had any more knowledge of the secret war than she had, because I was pretty sure I had less, but because despite this she really didn’t have a clue, or rather the clues were useless.  She simply wanted another opinion of someone who might have thought about it from a different perspective from her own.  The important point is that it was a legitimate question and one that will probably never go away (see the posts here and here.)

Politically it doesn’t really matter, because informers are as much a part of the republican movement and its history as anything else.  Secret conspiracies are particularly vulnerable to much more powerful secret conspiracies to counter them, and the British state is not short on this resource.  The role any individual can play is limited in most circumstances and particularly so  in the oppressive circumstances in which McGuinness was politically active.

His legacy is one of a failed armed campaign and collapsed political arrangements at Stormont that he fought doggedly to promote.  But the grubby reality of the latter is as clear as the brutality of the former.  This includes broken Sinn Fein promises to oppose welfare cuts and support for austerity and sectarian patronage.

No amount of media spin, lamenting the botched implementation of a renewable energy scheme, or failure of the institutions to deliver effective government, can hide the fact that the scheme was not botched – it worked perfectly – and Stormont is still effective in containing politics within sectarian boundaries, even when it only functions as a prize still to be realised.

In the latter part of his political career Martin McGuinness must be judged on both his pursuit of such an unworthy goal and his failure to achieve its lasting implementation.  To rephrase slightly: pity the land that needs heroes and sad the land that needs one like this.

 

The politics of conspiracy – the case of Denis Donaldson

donaldsonI remember a number of years ago I was handing out leaflets at a Sinn Fein meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road in Belfast.  It was about the relatively new peace process and it would be fair to say that the leaflet was not celebratory of the new initiative.  I was outside the room, although inside the Mill complex, but since the Provos came to regard the whole of West Belfast as theirs it came as no great surprise that one of their number decided I was trespassing on their territory.  As the years have gone by, and if rumours are to be believed, this is less and less their territory and more and more their property.

I was collared (not very roughly) by a then prominent Sinn Fein councillor and pulled (not very strongly) over to another prominent Sinn Fein member, Denis Donaldson.  The councillor wanted to know from Donaldson was it not alright that I should be handing out leaflets critical of Sinn Fein but should be told to get lost.  Denis Donaldson was no more interested in me giving out leaflets than the man on the moon and couldn’t even give a full shrug of the shoulders in apparent indifference; he couldn’t either be bothered to grunt any disapproval or otherwise.

The councillor was a bit exposed so he mouthed some vague displeasure to no particular point and I meandered back to outside the door to give out the rest of the leaflets.  As a comrade of mine put it, the Provos were more tolerant of other opinions when they were less ‘political’, when they confined themselves overwhelmingly to shooting and bombing, than they were to become during the peace process.

The point of this reminiscence is that Denis Donaldson was obviously the go-to guy at the meeting who determined what (or who) was allowed, in other words from ‘the army’.  Denis Donaldson was later revealed as a long term agent of MI5 and is now dead.  He was shot after being exposed as a spy in a remote and ramshackle cottage in Donegal. The rather pathetic circumstances of his death were fitting to someone who, unlike other agents, appeared too demoralised even to run in an attempt to save himself.

Now he has become a headline again because an ex-British soldier has alleged he was shot by the Provisional IRA and not by a ‘dissident’ IRA, which had claimed responsibility.  The headlines have been made because the ex-soldier has now written a book about his activities in the north of Ireland and accuses Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams of having sanctioned the killing.  Adams, through his lawyer, has denied it.

One of Donaldson’s notable activities was his involvement along with two other men in an alleged Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont.  He was subsequently charged only for prosecutors to drop the charges “in the public interest.”  In such cases “the public interest” is anything but the public interest and is invariably in the state’s interest.

In the south of Ireland an inquest into his death has been delayed 20 times at the request of the Garda Síochána due to concern that a detailed journal found in Donaldson’s cottage contains information about the organisation of the republican movement and about his activity as informer and the activity of the state forces.  It’s doubtful either Sinn Fein or the British State want the contents revealed.

So we have an ex-soldier selling a book making one claim and Adams making the opposite claim.  The ex-soldier also claims that he was previously going to seek to join the IRA before then joining the British Army.  He regards himself as a republican and supports Sinn Fein today, indeed he claims he did so even when serving for the British Army in Ireland!  One can hardly think of anything more bizarre! Indeed it’s hard to think of anything less credible, except for Gerry Adams’ claim that he was never in the IRA.  So on purely a priori grounds of credibility the ex-Brit appears to come out on top.  Does it matter?

In so far as it impinges on Adams it simply reminds one of his lack of principle, unwilling and incapable of defending what was the primary dogma of republicanism – driving the British out of Ireland by armed force. After this was surrendered nothing remained sacred.  Following this betrayal there has no repentance of Gerry who has denied his movement more than three times.  Any further promises – to oppose austerity etc – are open to charges of relying on the same level of credulity necessary to accept his claims to non-membership of the IRA.

In so far as the headlines recall the murky intrigue of the ‘dirty war’ it reminds everyone who lived through it of just how dirty it was.  It was well enough known that loyalist murder survived upon the tolerance and sponsorship of the British state.  What has become clearer since the ‘end’ of the various armed ‘campaigns’ is the degree of this sponsorship.  But even more revelatory has been evidence of British penetration of the republican movement and the betrayal of genuine republican activists by agents of the British State inside the movement.

What all this history has demonstrated is that the conspiracy of the state cannot be overcome by any revolutionary conspiracy.  Irish republicanism is pathologically disposed to such conspiracy and has failed again and again.

As I near the end of reading a recent biography called ‘Karl Marx – a Nineteenth Century Life’, one consistent feature of Marx’s political activity recorded in the book was his opposition to conspiracy as the means of working class organisation.  The political activity that won Marx to socialism and which he in turn fought for again and again was the open organisation of the mass of workers, in struggle for their own objectives based on their own class interests.  It was Marx’s view that these interests are ultimately revolutionary and either the workers became conscious of them, became revolutionary, or they “were nothing.”  Freedom cannot be made behind the backs of workers.  A class cannot come to control society without being aware of its control.

A movement that perennially fails to recognise such basic truths signifies one of two things.  It is incapable of learning or its goals are essentially not about the freedom of the working class.  In both cases conspiracy becomes a favoured means of organisation since, like Gresham’s law, bad organisation drives out good.

Add to this a militaristic outlook and all the horrors of the dirty war are almost inevitable.  It is however not inevitable that sincere working class people end up in such demoralised circumstances that death is almost invited.