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Friday 20 April 2007

Tomás Mac Giolla: I ain’t dead yet

Courtesy of WorldbyStorm over on Cedar Lounge, my attention has been drawn to the extensive interview with long-time Workers Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla in the latest Magoo magazine. And very sprightly Tomás seems too – I’m slightly surprised to hear that he’s still alive, but surprised in a good way. Like WbS, I’m rather more sympathetic to Tomás now than I would have been in the past, although probably for different reasons.

Apropos of Tomás’s comments on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and the discussion on CLR about the Official/Provo split, it strikes me that there is something to WbS’s point about the defence of old old positions. As opposed to the de Rossas or Grizzlys who abandon old positions without putting anything in their place save the pursuit of power within the current system. That’s a charge that can’t be laid against either Mac Giolla or Ó Brádaigh. Certainly, one of Ruairí’s great selling points is that nobody is ever in any doubt about where he stands. And while I can well imagine the WP simply fading away, RSF won’t, simply because the market for traditional republicanism may be small but it’s steady and will always be there this side of unity.

Here’s an interesting point, though, about 1969/70. I’ve written a bit about that split and how it impacted on republicanism North and South, and that’s a theme I’ll be developing further. But I think it’s important to note that the split was not simply a question of Defenderist militarism versus electoral vanguardism, although that was the major dividing line in the Six. Nor was it a question of socialism versus conservatism – to be sure, on the Provo side there were some howling reactionaries, but the ideologues – and I’m thinking primarily of Dáithí Ó Conaill and the Ó Brádaigh brothers – were seriously interested in progressive politics, had no problem describing themselves as socialists (while being suspicious of too close a connection to the Communist Party) and had been key figures in the programme debates of the mid to late 1960s.

The point was that there wasn’t a problem with the adoption of socialism, as long as the basic republican orientation, denying the legitimacy of partitionist assemblies first and foremost, was not compromised. The bitterness of the 1970s, at least on the Provisional side, sprung to a great extent from the belief that the Officials had tried to convert the militant republican movement into something it wasn’t and couldn’t be. As Ruairí often says, much of the bad blood wouldn’t have existed if the Officials had simply left Sinn Féin, as so many others had done, to set up a new constitutional republican party, a sort of more socialist version of Clann na Poblachta.

But again this issue is complicated, and I don’t entirely agree with Ruairí on it. From his point of view, the abandonment of abstentionism and the basic republican beliefs that abstentionism flowed from, of and by itself meant a shift into constitutionalism. I’m not sure about that, not only because I’m not a theological abstentionist, but also because I’m not convinced that the Sticks actually set out to go constitutional, although constitutional they undoubtedly became. I’m willing to be charitable and allow that Mac Giolla, Goulding and Garland (Costello too I suppose, although he was always sui generis) were really serious about converting the republican movement into a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, and had some success in so doing. The WP then, or at least the SFWP of the 1970s, was probably the best chance the Irish left has ever had of building a revolutionary party with real social weight. It certainly throws into sharp relief the claims of the Anglocentric far-left groupings about their historic advances.

How this potential wasn’t achieved is a fascinating story in itself, and one that other people are probably better placed to tell than me. (Not that I wouldn’t have a go…) The main pitfall I suppose was the WP’s chronic split personality, never having resolved the issue of whether it was a constitutional socialist party or a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party. That’s a contradiction the CPI has learnt to live with by clever application of the dialectic, but of course the WP had yet more complicating factors.

Still, nice to see old Tomás still motoring along, and sticking the boot into de Rossa and Rabbitte with admirable vim.

Finally, I realise that due to workload my blogging hasn’t been as frequent these last lot of weeks as it might have been. I am endeavouring to keep the thing regular, if not daily then a couple of posts a week anyway. Thanks for your patience.

Monday 16 April 2007

He bounces on the ground

How does this balloon get so much work? I ask merely for information. At time of writing, Stephen Nolan has a daily show on Radio Ulster, a network show on Five Live and a TV show. At the current rate of expansion, Nolan will soon have a bigger presence on BBCNI than the Hole In The Wall Gang.

Strangely enough, despite his limitations – he’s hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to politics – the rotund DJ does illustrate something about the level of discourse in the North. Billed as a shock jock, Norn Iron’s equivalent of Stern or Imus I presume, the only times Nolan deviates from conventional wisdom is when his heroic ability to miss the point kicks in. There is no break from the sycophancy that surrounds our political class – you have to go to The Folks On The Hill for that. Steve makes up for this, however, by affecting a permanently raised voice which is meant to give the impression of anger.

I happened to catch a little of Nolan Live on BBCNI last week. The topic for discussion was anti-social behaviour, arising from the small riot in Bangor a few days before. The local media have been pretty unanimous in avoiding the pertinent point, which is that the drunken youth involved had gone to Bangor for a big Orange hooley. The Orange brethren have escaped totally unscathed. Did Nolan break with the consensus? No, he did not. Instead, he vox-popped some kids from, er, Poleglass, who I am fairly confident in saying were not in Bangor following the Orangemen. What made the interview even more hilarious was that the Poleglass youth had obviously been prepped by some community worker.

The interview went something like this:

Nolan: “Oi! What have youse anti-social youth got to say for yourselves?”

Poleglass youth: “We need more youth centres. Gissa grant.”

Sin é.

And that’s without going into our shock jock’s shockingly sycophantic tête-à-tête with Big Ian…

You would think one dose of Nolan in one week would be enough for anyone. But last night I was innocently flicking through the wireless when I happened to catch the chubby chatterbox on Five Live. The topic of conversation was the gallant sailors of the Royal Navy who had gone on a pleasure cruise, iPods in pockets, only to be picked up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who subjected them to cruel and unusual punishments such as, well, forcing them to play ping-pong and calling them Mr Bean. Then the Iranians showed a flair for PR that made Britain look like a banana republic.

This is ripe ground for anyone with a sense of the absurd. Gorgeous George, filling in for Gaunty on talkSPORT last week, was especially funny. How did Nolan perform?

Punter: “These sailors. What a bunch of big jessies, eh?”

Nolan: “They were in fear of their lives! They could have been killed!”

Punter: “Didn’t you see them playing ping-pong?”

Nolan (approaching apoplexy): “That was edited footage! It was PROPAGANDA!!!”

Then we drifted off into a discussion of Prince William’s engagement, something that interests me not in the slightest. I got as far as

Punter: “I think the girl is well out of it, she’s already wasted four years on this twerp.”

Nolan: “They might have been in love you know!”

before having to change channels. Lord give me strength. If you have the endurance, Angry Steve can actually be unintentionally hilarious, but I find he works best in small doses.

Saturday 14 April 2007

Kurt Vonnegut is dead

Just a brief stopgap post today, and I assure you a longer piece will be along shortly as time and energy permit. I just wanted to say I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels I used to devour on a regular basis. He was a standing example of what was good about American culture, and American socialists aren’t so thick on the ground that the loss of an articulate radical is easily missed.

I expect there will now be something of a run on sales of Slaughterhouse Five, and rightly so. But do yourself a favour and dig a little deeper. Check out Mother Night or Cat’s Cradle. Maybe even Bluebeard. But certainly don’t miss Mother Night.

Rud eile: From What Next?, this sterling defence of James Connolly by Rayner Lysaght may be of interest to regular readers.

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Stormont MLAs say no to useless talking shop

One small story from the Teddy Bear’s Head that I almost missed – with the restoration of Stormont imminent, the British government is dead keen on restoring the Civic Forum. “What’s the Civic Forum?” I hear the broad masses cry. This is a 60-member consultative body, appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers, which makes the Free State Seanad look like a legislative powerhouse. Its job is to provide a space where peace process “stakeholders” can have a say on Executive policy.

So, who gets to be on the Forum? Well, in the first instance there are failed Assembly candidates, either influential old-timers who need appeasing or rising stars who are highly esteemed by their parties, but less so by the great unwashed. (In the latter category, one might want to look out for the SDLP’s Sharon “Lovely Girl” Haughey or the DUP’s Christopher “Milky Bar Kid” Stalford.) In addition, the community sector, alias the peace industry, is in there. The loyalist paramilitaries are in there, under the “community” rubric. The NIC-ICTU bureaucracy is in there. And there should be a few academics, to lend tone to the proceedings. In the Big Tent of the Peace Process, all are welcome.

(Parenthetically, the powers that be are missing a trick if they don’t appoint the left. Eamonn McCann and Peter Hadden would scarcely turn down an opportunity to speechify at public expense, and they have as good a claim to be in the Civic Forum as some of those who might be appointed.)

This has, believe it or not, come up against some resistance from Stormont MLAs, particularly the parsimonious DUP. Our representatives seem to have cottoned on that 108 MLAs, a dozen ministers and nearly 600 councillors are enough to be getting along with in a population of 1.7 million, and begrudge shelling out the £2m or so that would allow 60 of the Province’s great and good to be consulted on the Executive’s actions.

But isn’t this terribly stingy? Given that most of the North’s workforce is on the public payroll, what’s the real harm in bunging the great and good a few quid in expenses? And if the Civic Forum could find a way to keep Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney in the political sphere, it would be doing our entertainment industry – whoops, public life – a world of good.

Friday 6 April 2007

Real life ever more closely resembles a Colin Bateman novel

One of the advantages of covering the peace process is that quite often it manages to be GUBU in about five dimensions at once. Such is the case with this week’s most startling event, the big conference called to consider how the £1.2m public subvention to the UDA is going to be spent. Chaired by business honcho Sir George Quigley and attended by chief constable Sir Hugh Orde and the Catholic bishops as well as loyalist paramilitaries, a solemn discussion was held on how giving a big whack of public money to drug dealers, pimps and extortionists was going to turn them into facilitators for the peace process. Since most of the paramilitaries are part of the peace industry already, how this is going to work beats me.

This was preceded by a meeting of foreign ambassadors in Dublin, which had been summoned by Bertie to talk about how the international community could help the UDA go legit. This raises the prospect of yet more windfalls for Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn – unless the foreign governments have an ounce of sense about them.

Nice quote though from Orde. Asked whether the UDA had given up criminality, he said that the evidence was “mixed”. In other words, no. Nobody seems too concerned about that, just as nobody seems too keen to raise the issue of loyalist decommissioning.

Meanwhile, although the full ministerial line-up of the new Executive is not yet clear, the carve-up of departments between the parties makes for interesting reading. Basically, the Provos have been lumbered with water charges (Conor Murphy) and the 11+ (Catriona Ruane), while the DUP get to hold the purse-strings. This Machiavellian strategy has Robbo’s name written all over it.

Funniest of all, though, is the DUP getting culture. I knew Big Ian had a wicked sense of humour, but this is sailing perilously close to taking the piss. My first reaction is that this is yet another nail in the coffin for the Acht Gaeilge. My second reaction is that the gay community is going to have trouble scoring grants. And the deity only knows what the DUP would want to promote under the rubric of culture. This is, after all, the party that famously banned ELO from playing Ballymena on the grounds that Jeff Lynne’s combo was satanic.

Of course, it is always possible that DUP ministers will adhere rigidly to their Section 75 obligations, and might even have the odd progressive idea. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

What's Left? A note on sources

On returning from my short break, it is a matter of extreme pleasure to your humble scribe to get a nice plug from the estimable Mick Fealty over on Slugger. This has meant my site traffic going through the roof over the last day or so, so I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome new readers. I hope you enjoy the commentary here and decide to stick around.

The obvious story to go with is the restoration of the Executive, but this is going to run and run, and the major theme of this blog – the GUBU nature of Northern politics – will I’m sure get ample fuel from the new devolved dispensation. So I’m going to fulfil a long-standing promise to regular readers, and begin looking at Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? Nick’s book being the disjointed ramble it is, and owing to the fact that it’s difficult to read more than three pages at a go, this will be a serialised review.

The most obvious place to start is on Nick’s sources. A good deal of Nick’s authority comes from his reputation as an investigative journalist, which leads the casual reader to assume that Nick is basing his polemic on reliable information. Of course, a journo is only as good as his sources – as the late Paul Foot used to say, while the journalist may get the byline he is pretty much reliant on his network of informants. Nick, as someone identified with the left, tended to get a lot of his stories from lefty informants. For example, his exposés on education owed not a little to information provided by SWP teachers. Apart from Nick’s gifts as a stylist, this is one of the major reasons for the bite that his early demolitions of Blairism possessed.

A major aspect of Nick’s evolution since 2002 is that he no longer talks to the sort of people who fed him his stories. He has relied ever more heavily on a relatively small circle of friends and colleagues who all think alike, who are preoccupied with foreign policy (always Nick’s weak point) and who, whatever their feelings about the man himself, have done rather well under the Blair regime. It is no surprise, then, that What’s Left? relies to an unconscionable extent on the writings of Nick’s pals, as well as on cutting and pasting from congenial blogs and websites.

Nick is pretty open about this in his rogues’ gallery of acknowledgements, but this is something you notice throughout the book. One of the least attractive features of the Decent Left is their incestuous tendency to cite each other as authorities, and this gives What’s Left? something of the quality of a Normblog post stretched out to enormous length. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if Nick was relying on genuinely distinguished authorities, but…

Nick’s writing on the Balkans derives almost entirely from Marko Attila Hoare, the Nigel Irritable of the Decent Left and a swivel-eyed Serbophobe. The sections on postmodernism (which Nick clearly doesn’t understand) and Chomsky (ditto) are lifted almost verbatim from the relevant chapters of Francis Wheen’s Mumbo-Jumbo. Nick’s authority on Trotskyism is veteran icepick-wielder Paul Anderson. Nick’s big mate Oliver Kampf not only contributes the stuff on George Lansbury but also, as a full-spectrum idiot, seems to have chipped in with dubious factoids on virtually every subject Nick covers.

A critique of Nick will therefore enable, nay require, an examination of his dodgy sources, which he has regurgitated and embellished with scant regard for any independent research or checking of facts. Nick has a breathless style that may carry you along with his logical leaps, if you assume that the premises those leaps are based on are fairly sound. But they aren’t.

Update 5.4.07: Eagle-eyed readers will note that the image on this post has been changed. The original image was the result of my enthusiasm for a rather puerile punchline running away with me. I have reconsidered on receiving representations from readers who felt my humour was in poor taste, could be construed as misogynistic, and anyway I should have known better than to try and get away with boob jokes on a socialist blog.

Monday 26 March 2007

Interlude: Consimilis calefacio

Sorry about the move to moderated comments, which I hope will only be temporary and shouldn’t slow things down too much. It’s a pain in the arse I know, but no more so than my cyber-stalker from the Socialist Party, who is hell-bent on getting me to confess to affiliations I don’t have and “facts” he’s just made up. I suppose I should feel flattered to have attracted the attention of a heresy hunter, but to be honest I’m more irritated.

At any rate, to cushion the blow, we will be resuming our popular series on the revolutionary programme. I should, I realise, explain why we’re taking Éire Nua as the source for this discussion. This is partly for biographical reasons, because I’m familiar with the attempts to marry the programme to revolutionary practice, and partly because, whatever criticisms I may have developed in the interim, I still have some affinity for the old orange pamphlet. (This is why I can’t easily discuss the very interesting programmatic history of the Officials. I agreed with the first page of the Irish Industrial Revolution, but it seemed to go downhill after that.)

In the summer of ’71 I hove down to Leitrim, singing songs nobody knew and stories left undone. To metropolitan Dubs, Leitrim is Ireland’s answer to the seventh circle of hell, but if your roots are in South Derry it holds no terrors. Actually, heading out west was dead useful, as I was just in time to play a small part in the Dáil Chonnacht movement. No only did that mean spending some time with the wonderful Mayo and Conamara republicans, who really are a different breed, but getting a real taste of revolutionary political agitation. Those young people who think revolutionary politics is all about roads and hospitals don’t know they’re born.

Regional differences come into play here. As I’ve explained before, in the 1969/70 split the Officials had almost total domination of Dublin and the east coast, while the Provos were based mostly in the rural South and West. The North was in play for a while, depending on who could get guns to which areas. This tended to reinforce the stereotype that on one side were radical political sophisticates and on the other were conservative Catholic gunmen with no concept of politics beyond what you would hear on a Wolfe Tones LP.

There was of course some truth to this, particularly in the North where many, many Provos were essentially apolitical Defenders, and where the needs of Defenderism reinforced the apolitical trend. Above all, in the North the supremacy of the army was absolute. You could be in Sinn Féin, and lots of people were regardless of the party’s illegality, but the party was basically a front-cum-support network for the army. You had little standing if you weren’t a military man, and political nous was a poor substitute for a reputation as an operator. (As Grizzly himself has reason to know. If you can find anyone who was on an operation with the Dear Leader, I’ll buy you a pint.) In the South things were different, and the stereotype was much less applicable. The party had a life of its own, and you could play a useful role as a political agitator. This is the contradiction at the heart of republicanism, being a popular democratic movement and at the same time a military conspiracy.

Anyway, the programme. Even 50 years after the War of Independence, you could still find a pretty substantial population of irreconcilables who had never given allegiance to the Saorstát, and never would. These weren’t by and large “men of no property”, but men and women of little property, small farmers, schoolteachers and the like. If you had gone to the big Dáil Chonnacht meetings around the province, you would not have noticed an overabundance of rough-and-ready Ballyfermot types, but rather an awful lot of corduroy slacks and tweed sports coats. This was really the republican base outside of the Pale.

And the thing was that we had a programme that was perfectly attuned to the needs of that base. The Sticks called it Poujadism, or green fascism; we called it Comhar na gComharsan and linked it back to Pearse’s Sovereign People and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. The nationalisation of natural monopolies, workers’ control of industry, rural cooperatives and radical federalism might have seemed like an eclectic mix, although, with the exception of federalism, practically everything in Éire Nua had been part of the common discourse of the united Sinn Féin in the mid-to-late 1960s (we dumped the tincture of Communist Party Stalinism and kept the rest).

How this programmatic discourse melded with the larger revolutionary project is a subject I’ll be explaining in more detail. This involves quite a bit of thought about political methodology, and about problematic issues in both republican and socialist ideology, not to mention the difficult overlap between the two. I hope readers will get something useful out of this.

Rud eile: In mentioning the Defenderist nature of the Northern Provos, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Northern Sticks were also rather different from their Southern comrades. Anyone who’s been in the WP will bear that out.