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.
“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:
Battle of Britain commemoration, St Paul’s; outrageous disrespect:
Nelson Mandela’s funeral; highly respectful:
From Mediapart, 11 January 2015:
By Olivier Tonneau.
Three days ago, a horrid assault was perpetrated against the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, who had published caricatures of Mohamed, by men who screamed that they had “avenged the prophet”.
A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed. In the background lurked a view of France founded upon the “myth” of laïcité, defined as the strict restriction of religion to the private sphere, but rampantly islamophobic – with passing reference to the law banning the integral veil. One friend even mentioned a division of the French left on a presumed “Muslim question”.
As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters.
Firstly, a few words on Charlie Hebdo, which was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons. It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece). Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza.
Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic.
Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.
This being clear, the attack becomes all the more tragic and absurd: two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme-right wing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly amalgamate Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism. And to me, the one question that this specific event raises is: how could these youth ever come to this level of confusion and madness? What feeds into fundamentalist fury? How can we fight it? Read the rest of this entry »
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.”
Shiraz Socialist is not in a position to express any opinion on the alleged involvement of Gerry Adams in the 1972 murder by the Provisional IRA of Jean McConville. Adams denies any involvement. Certainly, the timing of his arrest raises the possibility that it was politically motivated. However, this 2002 article by Sean Matgamna casts a useful light on Adams’ relationship with the Provos and the “physical-force” tradition within Irish republicanism:
I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams
“Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique in… the possession of what is known as a ‘physical force party’ – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain…
“[They] exalt into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon… Socialists believe that the question of force is of very minor importance; the really important question is of the principles upon which is based the movement that may or may not need the use of force to realise its object…”
James Connolly, 22 July 1899
Seeing pictures of Gerry Adams grinning his Cheshire-cat-who-has-eaten-six-mice grin in triumph at SF/PIRA’s latest success reminded me that I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams.
His name was John Magennis. Who was he? A British soldier? A member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? A member of an Orange paramilitary group? One of the Northern Ireland workers shot by the Provisional IRA in the early 1990s for doing repair work on RUC stations?
No, John Magennis was a Republican. He belonged to the then mainstream Republican movement from which the Provisionals split away in December 1969. Those who remained were thereafter called the “Officials”. They seemed to be the left wing of the Republican movement. They talked about class and about socialism. But in fact their leaders were Stalinists.
The Provisionals were traditionalist Catholic right wing Republicans. They recoiled from the Officials for a number of reasons – their leftism, their Stalinism, their feebleness in responding to the communal fighting in Northern Ireland in August 1969, but, most of all, their turn to politics in general. The split was triggered by the decision of the IRA leaders that Sinn Fein would henceforth take any Dail seats which they might win in an election.
The split led to conflict between the two Republican groups over control of weapons and to a shooting war in which people on both sides died.
John Magennis, a member of the Official IRA, refused to surrender his gun to the gang of Provisional IRA men. They shot him, leaving him paralysed. He survived in that condition for some years and then died.
I met John Magennis only once or twice, about the time the IRA split was taking place. John Magennis was not yet an IRA member. He had come to Manchester to visit his uncle, John-John, a one-time Belfast Republican and later a prominent trade union militant on the Manchester docks, where he worked closely with a small group of Trotskyists, of whom I was one.
A big debate on Ireland had been going on in the IS group (now SWP), at that stage a democratic organisation in which such issues could be debated and of which we were members, since the deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969, when serious sectarian fighting broke out in Derry and Belfast. Were we for or against British troops in Northern Ireland?
The discussion was very heated. Those of us who rejected the IS majority’s tacit support to the British state in Northern Ireland were denounced as bloodthirsty “fascists” at the September 1969 IS conference.
John Magennis came with one of his uncles to one of the debates in Manchester. He said he couldn’t see any acceptable alternative to “troops in”.
I remember something he said which later took on a special meaning. He expressed it in the jargon of Catholic nationalism, which idealises patriotic self-sacrifice “for Ireland”, the so-called “blood sacrifice”: “I don’t want to die for Ireland”.
Back in Belfast, he joined the “left-wing” Republicans. I heard he had been shot and paralysed, and later that he had died. It was many years before I saw him again – on TV on a home video, filmed in a nursing home, trying to learn to walk again – staggering painfully, spastically, a poor wreck of the vigorous young man he had been.
Not very much attention has been paid to the centenary of the Dublin lock-out, which was reaching its tragic denouement this time in 1913, as near-starvation, together with the TUC’s failure to organise solidarity strike action, began to drive the trade unionists back to work, which often also involved having to sign pledges renouncing union membership.
Thanks to Terry Glavin (via Facebook) for drawing my attention to Des Geraghty’s splendid documentary. Terry writes, “To the blessed memory of Big Jim Larkin and the centenary of the 1913 Frithdhúnadh Mór Baile-Átha-Cliath, the 1913 workers’ uprising in Dublin. An hour well spent, splendid documentary film-making here”:
Below: Sean Matgamna describes events, with particular emphasis on the role of the Catholic church in sabotaging efforts to move the starving children of the locked-out workers to England where they would be fed:
Dublin 1913: Against the priests and the bosses
By Sean Matgamna
In the years before the First World War, the great Jim Larkin organised the savagely oppressed workers of Ireland’s capital city and made them a power in Ireland.
Organisation, labour solidarity, the sympathetic strike by workers not directly in dispute—these were their weapons. These weapons began to mark them out as no longer a driven rabble but a class, women and men increasingly conscious of a common interest, a common identity and common goals.
The bosses organised a ‘union’ too and fought back.
Their leader was WM Murphy, one of Ireland’s biggest capitalists, and a prominent Home Rule nationalist politician. In August1913, they locked out their employees, intent on using starvation to get them to submit and foreswear “Larkinism”. The British state in Ireland backed them, sending hordes of police to attack strikers, some of whom were beaten to death. It turned into a war of attrition.
Here, fighting impoverished workers with no reserves, all the advantages were with the employers. The workers’ chance of victory depended on two things: on an adequate supply of food or money from sympathisers, and on an industrial solidarity that would tie up the whole trade of Dublin. It was to the British labour movement that Dublin’s workers had to look for help.
Magnificent help came. Ships full of food for the strikers came up the Liffey, and all over Britain the labour movement rallied, collecting money and food. But industrial action did not come, and that was decisive: money and food would keep Dublin’s workers in the fight, but only industrial action in Britain —by the NUR and the Seamen’s Union, for example—would allow them to win.
In Britain, militants argued for industrial action, even for a general strike, in support of Dublin. But the trade union leaders—who held a special conference in December 1913 on Dublin—would not agree to take action.
The strike dragged on 8 months, and then, beaten but not crushed, the union, whose destruction had been the bosses’ prime aim still intact, the last workers went back to work, or accepted that they had been sacked.
What follows is the story of an episode in this struggle, the attempt to move starving Dublin children to homes in Britain where they would be fed. It is told as much as possible in the words of Dora B Montefiore, who—62 years-old and in frail health—organised it.
In mid October 19l3, two months into the strike, Dora Montefiore spoke in the Memorial Hall, London—one of many enormous meetings being held all over Britain to build support for the Transport Workers’ Union. As she sat on the platform listening to Larkin talk of Dublin, Montefiore remembered what had been done to save the children of strikers during bitter battles in Belgium and in the USA.
When Larkin sat down she passed a note along the table suggesting that the starving children of working-class Dublin should be evacuated from the labour-war zone, to be looked after by the British labour movement for the duration of the strike. Would he, she asked, back such a scheme?
Larkin passed a reply back along the table: yes, he would. He thought it was a fine idea.
Montefiore then passed a note to another of the speakers, the Countess of Warwick — an unlikely but genuine socialist — asking if she would be the Treasurer. Warwick replied: Yes. So a committee was set up.
Next day, Dora Montefiore explained her plan in the Daily Herald. Soon they had offers of 350 places for children, and more were coming all the time. Labour movement bodies, trade union branches and trades councils offered to take the responsibility for one or more children. So did sections of the militant suffragettes, the WSPU. It was not as critics said and the Stalinist historian Desmond Greaves repeats in the official history of the ITGWU, an irresponsible stunt by busy-bodies, but a properly organised part of the effort of British labour to help Dublin. Dora Montefiore reported to the readers of the Daily Herald on 14 October:
“From Glasgow, Liverpool, London and a dozen other places, come the welcome offers, and I know that if the Dublin mothers could read some of the letters, it would do their hearts good to know the sort of mothers and fathers who are planning these temporary homes for their little ones.
“Several Roman Catholics have written and one friend offers ‘travelling, lodging and board expenses for two Dublin children while the strike lasts’, and suggests ‘boarding them for a time in a convent in Liverpool or London”‘.
And on 17 October she wrote:
“…Plymouth friends offered to house 40 children and 5 mothers, and they wired later that they were in communication with the Catholic parish priest and Catholic medical officer re the care of the ‘kiddies”‘.
On 17 October, Dora Montefiore, Lucille Rand and Grace Neal, a TU organiser who acted as secretary, went to Dublin to organise the migration of the children.
They were given a room at Liberty Hall, the Transport Union HQ and a meeting of wives of strikers was called. These mothers of hungry children eagerly grasped at this offer of help.
“Meetings of wives of the locked-out workers were then called, and we three delegates from the English and Scottish workers gave our message and laid the scheme before them. As a result Grace Neal was kept busy Tuesday and Wednesday registering the names of mothers who were anxious to take advantage of our offer. The passage leading to our room was blocked ’til evening with women and children. We tried to let them in only one at a time, but each time the door opened the crush was so great that often two or three mothers forced their way in….
“When the work of registration was over, 50 children were selected to meet Lucille Rand at the Baths, where a trained woman had been engaged to clean their heads and bodies [of lice, which were endemic]… Grace Neal presided over a batch of volunteer workers at our room in Liberty Hall, who were sewing on to the children’s new clothing labels bearing their names and addresses, and small rosettes of green and red ribbon.”
But if the strikers saw Montefiore’s plan as the rescue it was, so too did the bosses and their friends. They resented this attempt to deprive them of one of their traditional weapons—the power to weaken and break the spirit of strikers and their wives by forcing them to watch while their children starved and wasted. More: they saw the chance to whip up a political and sectarian scandal as a weapon to undermine “Larkin” by lining up Catholic lreland against him. Read the rest of this entry »
“It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty”
“It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him! Why, dear me, ANY kind of royalty, howsoever modified, ANY kind of aristocracy, howsoever pruned, is rightly an insult; but if you are born and brought up under that sort of arrangement you probably never find it out for yourself, and don’t believe it when somebody else tells you. It is enough to make a body ashamed of his race to think of the sort of froth that has always occupied its thrones without shadow of right or reason, and the seventh-rate people that have always figured as its aristocracies — a company of monarchs and nobles who, as a rule, would have achieved only poverty and obscurity if left, like their betters, to their own exertions…
The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of this world. And for all this, the thanks they got were cuffs and contempt; and so poor-spirited were they that they took even this sort of attention as an honor” – Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court