Leonie Hannan, Vice Chair of the Labour Party’s Belfast branch, spoke to the unofficial Momentum magazine, The Clarion.
For an open letter from Momentum supporters in Northern Ireland to the Momentum NC, arguing for their right to organise a group, see here. At present the Labour Party in Northern Ireland meets regularly, decides on policies, campaigns on issues and sends delegates to conference, but is not allowed (by the national Labour Party) to stand candidates in any election.
How has the Labour Party in Northern Ireland changed over the last eighteen months?
LPNI has changed in two main ways. First of all it has grown dramatically, from around 350 members back in May 2015 to over 3000 now. There was a first surge during and just after the leadership election in the summer of 2015 and then a second leap in membership prompted by the coup and the prospect of a challenge to the elected leadership.
This first change, in many ways, predicts the second – that the politics of the party here have shifted to the left and members have an appetite for active involvement in politics. It’s clear that people are joining because they are motivated by Corbyn’s leadership, his critique of society’s problems and the kinds of policies he is advancing. When the party was much smaller, it did not have the reach that we have now, it was in some ways quite de-politicised because the focus was trained almost exclusively on the right to stand in elections – which LPNI still does not have and which remains a very important issue for us.
However, despite this difficult context for Labour activism, now we are seeing new members who are primarily motivated by politics and the need to contribute to the Labour Party’s new direction – a direction which they see holds potential to address the serious problems facing society, problems that have been compounded by years of austerity and which have particularly acute ramifications in Northern Ireland.
What kind of people are involved and what motivates them?
Well this is the really interesting bit and points to how our increased membership can contribute significantly to our long-standing campaign for the right to stand candidates. LPNI attracts members from across communities, people who see the system isn’t working for them and who feel a profound disillusionment with sectarian politics. We have trade unionists joining us, we have BME members and many LGBT members too – who don’t always feel comfortable in some of the other political parties in this region.
We have members who might describe themselves as Republicans alongside those who hold Loyalist views and, of course, many in between and this is something quite unique in Northern Ireland. Something quite unusual and yet extremely powerful. For progressive politics to make an impact here, we have to draw people from across the sectarian divide around issues that affect all communities – the effects of poverty, loss of jobs, social, educational and health inequality, homophobia and racism and the continued repression of reproductive rights. The larger a party we are here in Northern Ireland, the more motivated activists we attract, then the greater pressure we can apply on the issue of our right to stand candidates. We are here, we are many, we are diverse and we need Labour representation.
Corbyn won 70pc of the vote in your nomination meeting – more than in his own CLP. Why such strong support?
He didn’t just win 70% of the vote at our meeting, he won 70% of the vote in the election itself. Moreover, he would have had an even higher share of the vote if the majority of our members had been able to use their vote. In the end, much less than a third of members could exercise a vote (because our membership is disproportionately new and therefore found itself subject to the NEC’s last minute rule changes). I just think this shows the way Corbyn’s political agenda resonates in Northern Ireland, which is a post-conflict society suffering deeply at the hands of its own power-sharing government and their implementation of Tory cuts.
In fact, at the nomination meeting, person after person stood up to say why they had been brought into politics (often for the first time and, for some, after decades of disillusionment with politics) by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. They saw this change as offering an opportunity to rehabilitate the Labour Party as a political party for ordinary people; a party that would not put the needs of corporations above those of struggling workers.
How does the LP fit into, or stand out from, the framework of sectarian politics and the constitutional conflict in NI?
As I mentioned, LPNI draws its membership from both communities and provides a much-needed space for non-sectarian politics. In fact, its growth in membership speaks not only to the interest in Corbyn, but also to the disillusionment with Stormont [the Northern Ireland Assembly]. Effectively we have a government made of false opposites – Sinn Fein and the DUP power share, they govern together and they implement the Tory agenda. Of course, engaging with the Labour Party doesn’t preclude having a view on the Union, but in the end the Good Friday Agreement ensures that any change would have to have the consent of the people.
What is your relationship with the trade unions?
We have a really strong relationship with Unite, who provide us with space for our meetings, who campaign with us on local issues and who resolutely support the project of standing Labour candidates in NI. There is really high trade union membership here in Northern Ireland, many as part of affiliated unions and so it is a real disservice to those affiliated members not to have the possibility of full political representation.
Please explain about this issue of standing Labour candidates.
Historically, the Labour Party has tried to remain neutral in relation to Northern Irish politics, preferring to sustain a relationship with the Social Democratic and Labour Party instead. The SDLP are sometimes referred to as a ‘sister party’ and attend Labour Conference.
However, there are a number of problems with the SDLP in terms of Labour representation. First, they do not (and cannot) attract support from both communities because of their status as a nationalist party. They have their origins in the Civil Rights movement and the Catholic community’s struggles in the 60s for equality. Today, their commitment to equality only goes so far, they describe themselves as a pro-life party and their spokespeople have continued a virulent attack on women’s rights by vocally supporting the current abortion law (women cannot even have an abortion in Northern Ireland in the circumstances of rape, incest, foetal abnormality or risk to a woman’s health – interesting considering the recent Polish women’s campaign).
Besides this key issue, the SDLP hold conservative views on a range of issues and just don’t offer a left-wing alternative to the ultra-conservatism of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, founded by Ian Paisley). In these circumstances it is just not reasonable for the Labour Party to suggest that Northern Irish people should support the SDLP in the absence of Labour. I suppose the other simple point to make is that 3000 people didn’t just join the SDLP, they made themselves clear when they joined the Labour Party and I think they should be listened to.
What are the big issues the party, or its members, campaign/should be campaigning on over there?
Northern Ireland is an economically deprived region, a problem which fosters sectarian tension, and has suffered a series of devastating job losses. JTI Gallagher let workers go in May, Caterpillar announced job losses in September, cuts have been seen across the voluntary and community sectors, library service cuts and many more. There are also the same issues as elsewhere with un-unionised labour, which need to be tackled and LPNI is playing its part supporting worker organisation and strike action wherever possible.
The Momentum NC in February passed a document saying the organisation wouldn’t organise in NI. What’s your view on that?
We are writing a letter to the NC making our case for Momentum organisation in NI. The main point is that their decision not to organise is based on a a statement made by a Momentum national officer that Labour does not organise in NI. Well, as I have just explained – Labour absolutely does organise in this region and so there is no reason why Momentum should not also organise, especially so considering the motivation of the vast majority of our members. I regularly get forwarded emails received by Momentum from members in NI who are eager to be involved, the demand is there and it really should be met. Like the right to stand issue, it is a bit much to be told by people in England what we can and cannot hope to achieve over here in relation to Labour politics. Really, the people in England, both Momentum and Labour, ought to listen to the 3000 Northern Irish residents who are telling them very clearly what it is they need.
Northern Ireland Labour Party members protesting against cuts
By Sean Matgamna (first published in 2012)
In a hugely symbolic moment on 27 June, during a royal visit to Northern Ireland to mark her jubilee, the former commander of the IRA shook hands with the Queen.
The man who commanded the force responsible for, amongst other things, the death of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, exchanged a handshake with the woman whose armed forces murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers in his hometown of Derry. This was, all proportions guarded, a real life instance of David Low’s famous cartoon “Rendezvous” in which Hitler (“the bloody assassin of the workers”) greets Stalin as “the scum of the earth”.
The response of the press, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, was very positive.
The Guardian thought “it underlined how far we have come since the Troubles”. The Mirror contained an unusually calm and rational article from Tony Parsons who described it as “the end of something — the decades of hatred, loathing and bloodshed” as well as “the beginning of something, too — when the raw wounds of the past can perhaps begin to heal”.
The Belfast Telegraph, traditionally a Unionist paper, hailed the handshake as “bridging a gulf that spanned centuries”. The southern Irish press was unreservedly impressed. The New York Times called it “a remarkable sign of reconciliation for both figures”.
The working-class socialist response to this would seem to be fairly straightforward. McGuinness claims still to be a republican in both important senses of the word. As a “capital R” Republican he appeared to make peace with the highest symbol of British rule while her state and government continue to “occupy” the northern part of Ireland and deny his people self-determination.
Even more objectionable is his apparent suspension of “lower case” republicanism — the rejection of rule by hereditary, unelected privilege. Contempt for such an institution should be taken for granted by even the mildest democrat.
Didn’t McGuinness, by shaking the Queen’s hand, acknowledge both her right to rule and her government’s sway in Ireland?
A glance at the fiercest critics of this historic handshake is a reminder that things are more complicated.
Before the meeting the Daily Mail advised the Queen to burn her gloves after carrying out her “distasteful duty”. The Sun’s front page headline declared “We don’t blame you for wearing gloves M’am”. The Times cartoonist provided an image of the Queen putting on four pairs of gloves before shaking the bloodstained hand of McGuinness.
The idea that there might be plenty of blood on the monarch’s hands too didn’t occur to any of them.
The Daily Mail was the one paper that didn’t deem the occasion to be worth a front page story. Inside, though, they brought us arch-militarist Max Hastings under the headline “I’m sorry, even in the name of peace, it was wrong to shake his blood-soaked hand”.
Hunting for evidence that McGuinness, the deputy prime minister and latter-day conciliator, remained “a fanatic”, Hastings alighted on his principled decision not to take his full ministerial salary (£71,000).
For me, that is evidence that Sinn Fein retains some connection with its mainly working-class base. For Hastings, it shows “certitude about his own moral compass” and this, he claims, is “the foremost requirement of a fanatic”.
On what appears to be the opposite side of the spectrum, McGuinness and Sinn Fein have been attacked by harder line Irish Republicans for yet another betrayal. Protests were held by dissident republicans, and senior SF councillor Alison Morris resigned in opposition to the event.
It’s important to register clearly what the critics are opposed to. On the republican side it isn’t seriously claimed that McGuinness or his party have become soft on the monarchy. For certain McGuinness and Sinn Fein have rapidly acclimatised to being part of the establishment and clearly enjoy being normal bourgeois politicians. What took place on 27 June was, however, more than just a further shift down that road.
The justification given by Sinn Fein had nothing to do with either the Queen or British rule. McGuinness described his move as “in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity”. There is no reason not to take that rationale at face value. He went on to claim that this sort of symbolism had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.
That view can be criticised as naive. It can be attacked as a top-down way of managing the communal differences without challenging the fundamental causes. In common with most elements of the “peace process” it seems to reinforce rather than undercut cultural division. It’s a different matter, however, to criticise it for “going too far” towards the unionists. The least bad fault with modern-day SF is that they are insufficiently intransigent nationalists. Yet that is the criticism most commonly levelled at them from the left.
And it’s hard not to take some pleasure from the visible discomfort this event has caused to the British right. The fact that their Queen has felt it necessary to shake the hand of the former IRA commander has opened a very old sore for reactionaries.
The most reliable of these, Peter Hitchens, summed up the problem in the Mail on Sunday. After a few predictable and gratuitous personal swipes at McGuinness he compressed all his familiar anxieties into this short sentence: “If anyone doubted that the Good Friday Agreement was a humiliating surrender by a once-great country to a criminal gang, they can’t doubt it now.”
The sort of Tories whom Hitchens and Hastings write for spent their formative years insisting that those who took up arms to fight British rule anywhere in the world were no more than criminals. They said it too of Mandela and the ANC. Time and again they have seen these claims crumble to dust as the era of direct imperialist rule has given way to triumphant independence movements. And it hurts deeply.
Hitchens’ adult life has been blighted by one episode after another of “humiliating surrender” by his “once-great country” to movements fighting to free their countries from colonial or racist rule (or “criminal gangs” as he prefers to put it).
But the Irish people have not yet won a united independent state. The British have not surrendered and nor would it matter much if they did. The key to Irish territorial unity is, and has for decades been, democratic unity between its people. What Martin McGuinness did on 27 June offended the sensibilities of democrats and socialists because of our contempt for the institution of monarchy. However, his motive at least was progressive.
It was also republican in the sense defined by the founder of modern Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone — “to replace the name Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman”. We should be bold enough to point that out.
The 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which triggered a series of events leading to Ireland’s war of independence, is bringing hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Dublin for a largely romantic and apolitical commemoration. But for many years the commemorations were low key, and the 26 County bourgeoisie was embarrassed to even acknowledge the insurrection that, indirectly, brought present day Ireland into existence.
Sean Matgamna commented in Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity) in April 1991, on the 75th anniversary:
By their heroes shall ye know them
This year’s markedly muted celebrations in Dublin to mark the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising, and of the martyrdom before the British firing squads in Dublin and on the gallows in Pentonville Jail of the founders of the Catholic Irish state, reminded me how starkly people, classes and nations may change their heroes.
From Lenin to Yeltsin is a long way down. The descent from Wolfe Tone to Ian Paisley is even longer and steeper. In Britain it isn’t “mainstream” any more to think much of the World War Two heroes whose very stiff-upper-lip exploits held the attention of the generation after the war, filling the movie screens, books of memoirs, novels and boys’ comics. In part this change is the natural result of the distance that comes with the passing of time and of generations.
Of a different order is the changing public attitude in the Twenty Six Counties to “the names that stilled their childish play” — the heroes of Catholic Ireland’s struggles for independence in the first quarter of the 20th century. This is icon-smashing with a vengeance! The blind, panicky vengeance of Ireland’s huckster bourgeoisie, to be exact.
For many decades they endorsed and propagated a version of the story of Ireland’s unequal contest with England, burnished into a splendid epic legend. The long half-forgotten myths of ancient pre-Christian Ireland — such as the story of the young champion Cuchullainn — were rediscovered, refurbished, and woven into the fabric of living history by men like Padraig Pearse. They took heroes like Cuchulainn, the great warrior who died on his feet, having tied himself to a tree to face his foes, his wounds staunched with moss, and Jesus Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross, as their inspiration for the lives they expended in political action.
Pagan myth. and Christian myth were merged and fused with ancient and modem history — and with the history of Christianity, in which the Irish have played and play a big part — to create a powerful messianic Catholic Irish nationalism. And, naturally, Irish nationalism also drew into itself much from the currents of romantic nationalism with which Europe was saturated for the first half of this century.
And whose history was this? What had all this struggle led to? To the rule of the miserable Twenty Six Counties’ own pocket bourgeoisie — who lived on after their apotheosis as exporters of farm produce, and exporters, too, of generation after generation of Ireland’s young!
As we used to say, arguing for socialism, anything less than the Workers’ Republic was a grim mockery of the long struggle of the common people of Ireland embodied in our history, and represented even in the mythological version of it. The Ireland of the bourgeoisie was a grim mockery indeed.
In fact, it was never their history. All that should be said about the true worth of the bourgeoisie and of their ancestors in the struggle of the great mass of the disinherited Irish people was said by one of the Jacobin “United Irishmen” leaders, Henry Joy McCracken, 200 years ago: “The rich always betray the poor.”
So they did. So they do. Immediately after the 1916 Rising, which was to become the keystone of the Irish bourgeoisie’s myth of its own origin, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce passed a “loyal” resolution denouncing the Rising and branding it as a form of “Larkinism” (the name then of Irish working-class militancy, which had fought the bosses to a standstill in an eight month industrial conflict in 1913-14).
The Ennis Chamber of Commerce, on the other side the country, passed a similar resolution — and many other such bodies across Catholic nationalist Ireland will have responded in the same vein.
After most of the 1916 leaders had already been shot, the Irish Independent — today the organ of Fine Gael, one of two main parties, only encouraged the British military authorities to go ahead and shoot the badly wounded “Larkinite”, James Connolly (pictured above). They had scores to settle from the great Dublin Labour War of 1913-14.
It was never really their history: only the myths were theirs, and they gloried in them, preening themselves, dressing up like baboons who have broken into a theatrical prop room.
The disgusted pseudo-aristocrat Yeats, believing in noblesse oblige, had got their measure during the 1913 lock-out and strike, when they starved the workers and their children in an attempt to break their union.
In his youth he had spent three years in William Morris’s Hammersmith Socialist Society, and he had actively sided with the workers in 1913, writing in the Irish Worker and speaking at at least one public meeting in support of the workers.
What need you, being come to sense
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For man was born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave
It was a sort of warning to them. And then, when the war of independence was over, and the bourgeoisie had seized control over the popular mass movement, divided and suppressed it, and assured their own rule behind the legal and ethical walls of the Catholic state they built — then, in safety, they could indulge themselves, not noticing the incongruities Yeats pointed to so bitterly.
Fifty years or so it lasted. And then the North blew up. The official Catholic-Irish myth had it that “the North” was just a matter of British imperialism and “British-occupied” Ireland, nothing to do with the other Irish bourgeoisie, the one enmeshed in the collapsing myths of the British Empire, and the Northern farmers and workers who followed them.
It had no grip on reality. Neither had the Irish bourgeoisie. Their interest in Northern Ireland collapsed, and so did their myths.
Perhaps the moment of sobering up came in 1970 when Prime Minister Jack Lynch put two of his Cabinet ministers (one of them the present Prime Minister, Charles J Haughey) and an Army officer, Captain Kelly, on trial for “gun-running” to the beleaguered Northern Catholics! (They were acquitted).
According to the Constitution Lynch was pledged to defend, the Six Counties was part of his government’s “national territory”
But Lynch didn’t believe it. They bourgeoisie didn’t either. Like the sobered adolescent whose day-dreaming has brought him close to disaster, they turned tail and extravagantly repudiated their former view of themselves. Now Romantic Ireland really was dead and gone. It has been succeeded by an age of the cold revision of history. Like pikes and guns, in the old song mocking British pretensions in Ireland, heroes such as Pearse and Connolly had been found to be dangerous things. They were cut down to size.
The Irish bourgeoisie has finally adapted to reality!
From Pearse and Connolly to the grasping millionaire C Haughey — a son of Catholic refugees driven south by pogromists in the early 20s — and his rival, Fine Gael understudy blue-shirt John Bruton, that is the history of the modern Irish bourgeoisie in the nutshell! It is a long, long way down. This Easter’s commemoration service sums it up nicely.
Like the Irish bourgeoisie for so long, many socialists have lived for decades in a world of inappropriate myth and misunderstood reality. That too has collapsed.
In Ireland, those who know what Pearse and Connolly and the Fenians and their predecessors really stood for will disentangle it from the bourgeois collapse, as they disentangled it from the grotesque parodies of it the bourgeoisie used to brandish.
And in the world of international socialism, the serious revolutionaries will disentangle the true socialism — working class liberation — from the Stalinist and other myths, fantasies and alien ideological encrustations. We will continue to do now, when so much has collapsed, what we did in the days when all sorts of freaks and horrors paraded around the world eagerly proclaiming their own horrible deeds to be the essence of socialism.
In both cases the collapse of the debilitating and imprisoning myths and fantasies is good because the way is thereby cleared for the truth.
From Workers Liberty (who know a thing or two about Irish politics):
Northern Irish power-sharing institutions look close to collapse, following a crisis sparked by the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan on 12 August in the Short Strand area of East Belfast.
McGuigan’s murder is widely seen as a revenge killing for the murder in May of Gerard “Jock” Davison, at one point one of the IRA’s most senior commanders in Belfast and allegedly responsible, along with McGuigan, for much of the IRA’s vigilante violence against drug dealers in the mid-to-late 1990s.
After the two men fell, an internal IRA disciplinary unit “sentenced” McGuigan to a “six-pack” — republican parlance for gunshot wounds to each of the elbows, kneecaps and ankles.
For years, McGuigan blamed Davison for the punishment shooting, and last May decided to get revenge. Davison was shot outside his home in the Markets area, near Belfast City Centre.
With a police investigation stalling, the IRA placed their own surveillance team on McGuigan and decided to avenge Davison’s death. McGuigan was ambushed by two men in dark clothing as he was walking with his wife, and killed in a volley of shots.
A number of factors explain why these killings have sparked such an intense political crisis at Stormont.
In a press conference following the McGuigan murder, Police Service of Northern Ireland chief George Hamilton made it clear that the police blamed individual members of the Provisional IRA for the murder.
He did not believe that the IRA leadership ordered the killing but did admit that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place, although its purpose has radically changed since this period.”
No one should have been surprised by the admission of the Provisional IRA’s continuing existence.
Indeed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers commented afterwards that: “It didn’t come as a surprise to me… that a number of the organisational structures of the Provisional IRA still exist but that there is no evidence it’s involved in terrorism or paramilitary activity.”
Even though Sinn Fein say publicly that the IRA has “left the stage”, no movement of this type could have moved from armed struggle to politics without maintaining a military structure with sufficient authority to rein in “hardliners”.
Without this, the movement would have descended even more than it already has into a collection of local fiefdoms motivated by apolitical criminality or, worse, a continuation of sectarian warfare.
It is remarkable that there has not been more internecine republican violence during the Provisional’s transition to politics. The anti-Good Friday Agreement groups, though deadly, remain little more than an irritant.
In truth, the significance of the McGuigan murder lies ultimately in political rivalries within Unionism.
In the last decade, the IRA has been involved in two high-profile murders (those of Robert McCartney in 2005 and Paul Quinn in 2007), both a testament to its capacity for sheer gangsterism and violence. Both victims were thrown under the juggernaut of the “peace process” by republicans, Unionists and the British government, to ensure power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
So what has changed? The Northern Ireland Executive has failed to deliver on any of the promises made to people about a “peace dividend”, instead locking itself in sectarian wrangles over parading, flags and other issues of identity, as well as attempting to implement Tory austerity.
This has largely sapped any enthusiasm that once existed for Stormont across both communities. Added to this is a reasonable fear among Nationalists that many Unionists continue to be hostile to power-sharing.
Sensing this, the smaller Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), opportunistically seized the chance to reverse its political fortunes after a decade of marginalisation, and piled the pressure on the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
With one eye on the 2016 elections it pulled its one minister out of the Northern Ireland Executive — a move highly popular with over 80% of Unionist voters.
Stunned, and after failing to suspend Stormont pending crisis talks, the DUP felt in turn reluctantly obliged to pull its ministers out of the Executive, effectively shutting down the working of the devolved government which has provided such material benefits to the party in the form of ministerial salaries, expenses and other privileges of office.
This clownish play-acting, which has always been implicit in the very structures of Stormont, risks the return of Tory direct rule, the implementation of savage welfare cuts and an intensification of sectarian tension.
A political system based on institutionalising sectarian identities within the existing boundaries of the six counties has become unable to provide adequate governance of any sort, let alone a space in which workers can elaborate a socialist politics capable of a democratic resolution to the national question.
“What I tried to do for both sides is to give them a way out with some form of dignity otherwise they wouldn’t lay their arms down.
“And can I just say this, because this has been raised with me time and time again – I accept it was a mistake to use those words, but actually if it contributed towards saving one life, or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing, because we did hold on to the peace process.
“There was a real risk of the republican movement splitting and some of them continuing the armed process. If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart I apologise, I apologise.”
McDonnell was honest, straightforward and (I thought) convincing on last night’s Question Time. In stark contrast to his boss in July, when asked perfectly reasonable questions about his warm words towards Hamas and Hezbollah:
Somehow, this seems entirely appropriate:
Apologies to all (and especially Irish comrades) for failing to mark St Pat’s Day.
To make up for this, here’s Ben Webster (and his performance is beautiful):
Ben Webster (tenor sax), Kenny Drew (piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass), Alex Riel (drums). Denmark, 1965.
Forty years ago tonight, two bombs exploded inside busy pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring another 182. In the light of atrocities that have happened since, this may not seem such a shocking incident, but at the time it was traumatic – we in mainland Britain had not experienced such an attack upon civilians since the Second World War. There never was any serious doubt that (with or without the knowledge of the Army Council) members of the Provisional IRA were responsible, though to this day Sinn Fein and their now-mainstream representatives have failed to acknowledge it.
An additional six people can be added to the tally of victims: the innocent men who were each deprived of 16 years of their liberty for a crime they didn’t commit.
I was living in Birmingham at the time, a young student member of the International Socialists. The bombings made a major and permanent impression upon me, but I’ll come to that later. First, I’ll deal with what happened within the working class in Birmingham, then with the response on the left.
There was a massive and vicious backlash against all Irish people in Birmingham. Anyone of Irish extraction or with any known Irish connection, was immediately put in fear of their life. A worker who was known to have played the pipes at an IRA funeral was strung up at Rover Solihull (he survived, but only by luck). Johnny Bryant, a member of ‘Workers Fight’ (forerunner of the AWL) was driven out of his job at Lucas, never able to return. In shops, offices and factories throughout Birmingham, people of Irish extraction or with Irish names were terrified and quite a few went into hiding. A massive march took place from the Longbridge car plant to the City Centre. Socialist activists at Longbridge had to make a quick decision as to how to react. The Communist Party who dominated the Longbridge Joint Shop Stewards Committee simply went to ground. The International Socialists, who had a few shop stewards and supporters in the plant, decided to join the march in order to argue against any anti-Irish backlash and to prevent the National Front taking the lead. They were surely right to do so. Immediately after the march, IS students (including myself) joined Frank Henderson and others in leafleting the city centre against any backlash.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one actually died as a result of the backlash in Birmingham, but that was purely a matter of luck. The atmosphere was murderous and Irish people, and those of Irish extraction, were living in real fear for their lives.
The left was in a state of shock, just like everyone else. The Communist Party and their Irish-in-Britain front, the ‘Connolly Association’, simply waited for things to blow over. The IS, which had shop stewards in major factories like Longbridge and Lucas, was in political disarray, though individual IS militants (notably Frank Henderson at Longbridge), often played principled and even heroic roles. As stated above, Frank and the other IS shop stewards and activists at Longbridge joined the protest march and argued against the anti-Irish backlash. IS members with Irish names simply went into hiding – and who can blame them?
But despite the brave and principled role of IS industrial militants like Frank, the organisation as a whole was disorientated and incoherent. No-one knew what the “line” was – whether we continued to give “critical but unconditional” support to the Provos or not. The following week’s Socialist Worker didn’t help: the headline was “STOP THE BOMBINGS – troops out now”, which didn’t really clarify matters. Was “STOP THE BOMBINGS” a demand on the Provos? Were we suggesting that the bombings were, in reality, a just and/or inevitable consequence of the presence of the troops? What the hell were we saying?
About a week after the bombings IS held an emergency meeting for all Birmingham members in the upstairs room of a city centre pub. Duncan Hallas did the lead-off, and quoted extensively from the Official IRA paper, denouncing the bombings. Inevitably, several comrades responded by asking why, therefore, we supported the Provos, instead of the Officials, whose ‘line’ on individual terrorism seemed much closer to ours. My recollection is that Hallas didn’t really have an answer to that, and the meeting ended in a sullen and resentful atmosphere of dissatisfaction. We all knew that Hallas had been talking bollocks, but we didn’t know what the answer was. The reaction of many IS industrial militants was that it was best to steer clear of any involvment with “difficult” issues like Ireland, and to stick to “pure” industrial work.
For myself, the bombing was a sort of political coming of age. It taught me that the IS was incoherent and unprincipled on the question of Ireland, and nationalism more generally. It taught me that international issues cannot be divorced from industrial work. Most importantly, it taught me that politics is not a game or a pass-time: working class people had died and we had to have something to say. Ultimately, it taught me that simplistic “anti-imperialism” that costs working class lives is no way forward. It helped me to grow up politically – but at a terrible price.
PS: an untold story: The role of the firefighters and cabbies.
Fire engine driver Alan Hill was on duty at Birmingham Highgate station that night, and was called to the scene of the first bomb, at the Mulberry Bush pub. He told Birmingham historian Carl Chinn (in the Birmingham Mail five years ago) the following:
“There was now complete gridlock in the city. The only option I had was to do a reverse run down the full length of Corporation Street against the one way traffic pouring out of the city centre. It was totally against brigade policy but I really had no alternative.
“When I reached the bottom of Corporation Street, I turned left into New Street.
“Talk about out of the frying pan into the fire. Seconds before, another bomb had expolded at the Tavern in the Town basement pub in New Street..
“The street was a scene of utter devastation.
“We sent a radio message to Fire Control explaining the position and requesting another four fire engines and forty ambulances to assist us. There was only the four of us. There were around 150 casualties. Many were trapped inside the dark basement.
“The officer in charge of the fire engine, John Frayne, who at the age of 28 was the oldest member of the crew realised it would be ages before assistance arrived.
“John explained our position to the crowd and asked for volunteers. Twelve brave men stepped forward to assist us.
“The other two firemen, Nigel Brown and Martin Checkley, were already down in the basement.
“Although I had requested 40 ambulances I realised we would be lucky to get any. It was a case of first come first served and I knew the firemen at the Mulberry Bush had already requested every available ambulance in the city. My stomach sank to my fire boots.
“With every alarm bell in the street ringing, it was difficult to hear yourself think, but about 12 minutes into the incident someone behind me was clearly shouting ‘Alan.’ I turned around. It was George Kyte.
“George was a taxi owner driver who lived in Corisande Road, Selly Oak. I knew George well I had worked with him in the past as his night driver.
“With typical understatement George said ‘I know you’re busy. I am on a rank in Stephenson Place. A couple have asked me to take them to hospital. Can I do that and will you need their details?’
“I could have kissed him.
“I told George, ‘Get on your radio. Make an emergency call. I need every available cab in the city here at this address now URGENT.’ Within seconds the message was sent via the TOA radio system.
“Access into New Street had been blocked by a cordon set up in St Martins Circus so the street was claer of passing traffic. Within a matter of moments the glow of an orange taxi sign became clearly visible in the darkness at the end of the street. It looked like a stretch limo. It turned out to be 25 black cabs nose to tail moving slowly towards us.
“It was the start of the ‘scoop and run’ method. As many casualties and carers as possible were packed into each cab and taken immediately to the Accident and General hospitals. Almost 100 casualties were removed from the scene outside the Tavern on the first taxi run.
“Other cabs appeared on the scene soon afterwards and were joined by cabs returning from the first run. Even two ‘black and white’ cars that shared the TOA radio scheme turned up.
“Considering that there would have been no more than 50 black cabs working the entire city at that time of a Thursday night, the reponse was overwhelming… without any shadow of a doubt there would have been far more fatalities that night from trauma and blood loss had the taxi drivers not responded in such a magnificent and selfless manner.”
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No country for young women: Honour crimes and infanticide in Ireland
When I was in first year in secondary school in 1997, a girl in the year above me was pregnant. She was 14. The only people who I ever heard say anything negative about her were a group of older girls who wore their tiny feet “pro-life” pins on their uniforms with pride. They slagged her behind her back, and said she would be a bad mother. They positioned themselves as the morally superior ones who cared for the baby, but not the unmarried mother. They are the remnants of an Ireland, a quasi-clerical fascist state, that we’d like to believe is in the past, but still lingers on.
The news broke last week of a septic tank filled with the remains of 796 children and babies in Galway. The remains were accumulated from the years 1925 to 1961 and a common cause of death was malnutrition and preventable disease. The Bon Secours “Home” had housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their children down through the years. These women had violated the honour of their communities, by bringing shame on their families through “illegitimate” pregnancy and therefore had to be hidden at all costs, and punished for their transgressions. The children died as they lived, discarded like the refuse of society that the Church considered them and the mothers that gave birth to them to be. Most of the children who survived were put to work in industrial schools under the supervision of perverts and sadists.
Thousands of the healthy ones were sold abroad – mostly to the US – for “adoption.” For the ones who remained, the outlook was poor. Mortality rates of 50% or 60% were common in these homes. In the case of the ones that died, either the Church did not feel they were valuable enough to feed and care for, or they actively worked towards their death. The risk they posed to the social order by virtue of the circumstances of their conception and birth was too great to let go unchecked. These children certainly did not die for lack of money or resources on the Church’s part (they had an income from the children they sold), and the fewer children of this kind there were, the less threat there was to the church’s control over society.
If the Church had allowed them to grow up to be functioning adults in Irish society it would have ran the risk of demonstrating that the institution of marriage was not absolutely integral to the moral well-being of a person. Women were not allowed keep their babies because the shame that their existence brought upon the community would be far too great. They were imprisoned within Magdalene Laundries to atone for their sins of honour, and their babies were removed from them as part of their punishment – women who dishonoured the community were deemed to unfit to parent.
Contemporary Ireland feigned shock when stories of the Laundries and residential institutions emerged. Perhaps the shock of those who were too young to be threatened with being put in one for “acting up” was genuine, because the institutions started to close as the years went on. But people in their fifties and sixties now, will remember how the “Home Babies” sometimes came to schools, and were isolated by other (legitimate) children, and then sometimes never came back. While those school-children may not have comprehended fully the extent of what happened, their parents and teachers, and the community of adults surrounding them knew.
Ireland as a whole was complicit in the deaths of these children, and in the honour crimes against the women. They were the “illegitimate babies” born to the “fallen women” who literally disappeared from villages and towns across Ireland in to Magdalene Laundries. Everybody knew, but nobody said, “Honour must be restored. We must keep the family’s good name.”
The women themselves served a dual purpose in the Laundries. They were a warning to others what happened when you violated the rule of the Church, and they were financial assets engaged in hard labour on behalf of the Church. They were not waged workers; they did not receive payment. They could not leave of their own free will, and their families, for the most part, did not come for them; the shame on the family would be too great. Ireland had a structure it used to imprison women for being sexual beings, for being rape victims, for not being the pure idolised incubator for patriarchy, for not having enough feminine integrity, or for being simply too pretty for the local priest’s liking. Ireland has a long tradition of pathologising difference.
People did know what went on in those institutions. Their threat loomed large over the women of Ireland for decades. On rare occasions when people attempted to speak out, they were silenced, because the restoration of honour requires the complicity of the community. Fear of what other people will think of the family is embedded in Irish culture.
The concept of honour means different things in different cultures but a common thread is that it can be broken but restored through punishing those who break it. We are familiar with the hegemonic concepts of “honour killing” and “honour crimes” as a named form of violence against women in cultures other than ours. The papers tell us it is not something that people do in the West. Honour killings, and honour crimes are perpetually drawn along racialised lines and Irish and UK media happily present them within the context of a myth of moral superiority.
Honour crimes are acts of domestic violence, acts of punishment, by other individuals – sometimes family, sometimes authorities – for either real or perceived transgressions against the community code of honour. However, it is only when there is a woman wearing a hijaab or a the woman is a person of colour, or ethnicised, that “honour” is actually named as a motivation for the act of violence. It is a term that has been exoticised, but it is not the act itself or the location it occurs, but the motivation behind it that is important in defining it.
Women of colour, and Muslim women, are constructed as the “other;” we are told these women are given in marriage at a young age by controlling fathers who pass on the responsibility for controlling them to husbands. “Protection” of women is maintained through a rigid sytem of controlling their sexuality in a framework of honour and shame. When these women transgress the boundaries of acceptable femininity they are abused and shunned by their community. Punishments range from lashing to death, but include physical beatings, kidnappings and imprisonment.
Imprisoning women in the Magdalene Laundries deserves to be named as an honour crime because of a cultural obsession that believed the family’s good name rested upon a woman’s (perceived) sexual activity that either her father or husband or oldest brother was the caretaker of. Her sentence to the Laundry was to restore the family honour. Read the rest of this entry »
From Waterford Whispers News
Bodies of 800 Children “Were Just Resting” In Mass Grave Claims Catholic Church
THE Catholic Church has responded to the grim discovery of the remains of up to 800 unidentified children buried in an unmarked plot beside a notorious “Mother and Baby Home” in Galway, claiming that the mass grave was a temporary solution and the infants remains are “just resting” there.
The Tuam workhouse for unmarried mothers and their babies was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours (French for “safe harbour”) between the years 1925 and 1961, during which time the bodies of at least 796 children aged from 2 days to 9 years were placed one by one in an unused septic tank, following deaths from TB, malnourishment, pneumonia, and good old-fashioned neglect.
Meanwhile the entire nation has reacted with shock and an unquantifiable disgust at the discovery made by Catherine Corless, a local historian and private citizen, as she carried out research about a church run institution known locally as ‘The Home’. The events that transpired there are a lesson in abject misery and unending sorrow that would even make a Nazi war criminal blush and this was reflected in the word on the street from many Irish people.
“Well, I’m 55 so a bit before my time but when we used to visit my aunt up in Donegal, she would tell us to stay away from the fields down the road because there were babies buried there but if only someone knew about it,” John Drummond, a Dublin native explained, “It’s all changed now though in fairness,” John said of a country that saw 196 children in state care die between the years 2000 and 2010.
“I can’t believe it. What vile creatures must have worked there?” shared a visibly upset Ciaran Giles, from Tipperary,”like there was a Magdalene laundry down the road from my house or so my father tells me but like no one knew, well they knew but they didn’t, you know?”
Others on the streets tried to find some solace at the discovery of the mass grave. “Well, obviously those in the laundries have been compensated, Ireland’s moved on,” shared student Lauren Greene of a country that has yet to pay compensation in full to Magdalene laundry survivors.
“It was a different time, so arguments and the like create a false dichotomy,” shared 24-year-old Sean Cullen, who was told as a child to avoid to walking home by the priest’s house for some reason, “ha yeah, that’s weird isn’t it? Because obviously my parents didn’t know the priest raped children or else they would have done something about it,” he added.
The Catholic church, who were limited to just €128 million in compensation to sexual abuse victims in a 2002 deal, meanwhile sought to explain their stance on the mass grave in Tuam.
“There’s a lot of speculation as to what went on in The Home following these recent revelations” said Monsignor Sean Green, spokesperson for the Irish branch of the Catholic Church Scandal Containment Unit, “people seem to believe that because these children were born to unmarried mothers the church at the time considered them sinful and unworthy of a decent Catholic burial, so basically threw their little remains into the nearest hole they could find”.
“But trust me, that wasn’t the case; I assure you, those bodies are just resting in that mass grave. Cover up the mistreatment of children? Not at all. We’ve always planned to exhume them and bury them properly, and we’re going to get right on it really soon”.
When WWN asked the Government for comment absolutely no one was available for comment.
To donate to the memorial fund which will see a plaque erected with all 796 names written on it contact firstname.lastname@example.org To see a list of the people who can demand justice and bring about accountability in this case please consult the nearest phone book or the latest census.
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