Monday, August 11, 2008

Of pigs and souls

(previously posted at Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service)

Malcolm's daughter, a pert little piece, never fails to press home on him her better and more recent History degree. She is fond of quoting the wit and wisdom of President Josiah Bartlet. Her current favourite aperçu, in a different but obvious connexion, is that the Democratic Party eats its own young.

An immediate ancestor of that remark is Joyce's Stephen Dedalus:
Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

-- The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

Davin knocked the ashes from his pipe.

-- Too deep for me, Stevie, he said. But a man's country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie. You can be a poet or a mystic after.

-- Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.

This reflection was forced on Malcolm, reading Liam Clarke in the Sunday Times, who was poring over Anthony McIntyre's Good Friday: the Death of Irish Republicanism (so newly republished that Amazon seems not to have listed it yet):
McIntyre, a former IRA commander who served 18 years for murder and then did a PhD in republican history, is right. The Provisional IRA — and the army council that plotted its campaign — is on its death bed. It may thrash around like a headless chicken for a few years, but it is past reviving. If the IRA ever re-emerges, it will be a new organisation with new people.

So, as you were, stand easy.

If K-waves exist in history (Ah! those Kondratieff cycles! another marxist construct to emerge like Krakens from the despised depths), they wash over Ireland more frequently than elsewhere: about every 30 or 40 years, perhaps.

We were surely last here in the 1960s:
... the Republican movement had split down the middle in a crisis that was as public and almost as damaging as that which led to the formation of Fianna Fail itself. The stated issue was the recognition of the 'partition parliaments' of Dublin, Stormont and Westminster. The I.R.A. had held a secret convention in mid-December [1969] which had voted 39 to 12 in favour of recognition and the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis meeting (in the incongruous surroundings of the American-financed Intercontinental Hotel) was supposed to do likewise and give Sinn Fein a mandate to oppose foreign investment and set about the 'reconquest of Ireland, shop by shop and factory by factory.
That was where, contemporaneously with the moment, Tim Pat Coogan finished the first part of his The IRA.

When Coogan resumed, ten years later, adding Part II, it was with a penetrating rhetorical question:
How did the blackened, almost unarmed and certainly very largely discredited I.R.A. resurrect itself to become a national force moving the North of Ireland issue to the fore throughout all the dismaying events of the last decade?
His explanation comes down to:
  • street-wise opportunism on the one hand; and

  • bone-headed and stumbling governmental reactions on the other.
Fair enough. Malcolm reckons Coogan's chapter 16: The Roots of the Conflict has stood the test of time; and needs to be taken as a complete course of treatment.

An earlier cycle

De Valera came to office in 1932 with the slogan On to the Republic! So who would restore the republic? And how? What, in the context of a decade of self-government, and a changed world since 1916, was the "republic"?

Support for Fianna Fáil and the IRA was coterminous: farming communities, and urban workers. Stopping land annuities to Britain strengthened De Valera's position with the countryside. The reprisals, tariffs on Irish exports, was characterised as the "economic war": in such terminology, De Valera was seen as fighting for the republic. There was no room for him to be outflanked by the IRA.

Yet, it was a desperate time: even before the tariff wall went up, unemployment in the Saorstát was 133,000 and rising rapidly; central Dublin -- 25,320 families cammed into 4,830 tenements -- was remarkable only in numbers for urban squalor. The Hierarchy, on the back of the Eucharistic Congress and readily echoed by Cosgrave's men, were shrill in a 'red scare'. The Blueshirts (easily conflated with Cumann na nGaedhael and international finance as bogeymen, real or imagined) were in the ascendant. Only the declaration of the 1932 election had forestalled the IRA re-arming against the Cosgrave coercions and gaolings.

Two days into his new administration, De Valera had met the IRA command and demanded that the government be recognised: the implication, and stumbling-block, was tacit acceptance of partition, and the anathema of a de facto 26-county republic. De Valera then further undermined the IRA through patronage: jobs, service pensions for old IRA men, and Frank Aitken's Volunteers for the younger element.

The IRA had to change in this new dispensation. Was it to be:
  • A nationalistic body, anti-imperialist and also 'anti-fascist'? Or

  • A force for social and political change (The Communist Party of Ireland launched in June 1933 and claimed '50 per cent of the delegates to the Congress are members of the IRA')?
When the I.R.A. General Army Convention met, on St Patrick's Day, 1934, it split "almost evenly" over proposed changes of policy which, many felt, might address those issues. Mick Price, Peadar O'Donnell, Charlie Gilmore and Frank Ryan lost to the Executive and Army Council by a single vote: they took up their ball and went to play at Athlone.

Two weeks later 200 met at Athlone and issued a manifesto:
to make the Republic the main issue dominating the whole political field and to outline what are the forms of activity that move to its support.
When the Manifesto was published, in the first of a regular weekly Republican Congress, it carried a motto from Connolly:
We cannot conceive of a Free Ireland with a Subject Working Class.
Now, as Malcolm sees it, the story of 1934 takes an extraordinary turn.

Let him, first, back-track to the last day of September, 1932. It was the Friday evening after the outdoor-relief workers had voted to strike for an increase in assistance, for an end to task-work, and to payments-in-kind. Lord Craigavon, bizarrely onlie-true begetter of the British jigsaw puzzle library, was moving a vote of thanks to Belfast Corporation, as the Northern Ireland Parliament went to occupy the new Stormont. Jack Beattie, the NILP MP for East Belfast, grabbed the mace; denounced the motion; and yelled it should instead be a debate about:
"the serious position of unemployment in Northern Ireland ... The House indulges in hypocrisy while there are starving thousands outside."
He threw the mace to the floor; and strode out. The massed Unionists replied by starting up God Save the King.

Tommy Henderson, an Independent Unionist from the Shankill, raised his voice to answer, "God save the people".

Beattie and Henderson had a strong case:
  • There were nearly 80,000 unemployed: for the period 1931 to 1939, 27% of the insured workforce was out of work: it reached nearly 30% in February 1938.
  • Life expectancy was 57 years.
  • Maternal death-rates were rising -- by a fifth between 1922 and 1938.
  • Half of all juvenile deaths were through infectious disease (a quarter more than urban England).
  • TB was rampant, 20% higher than anywhere in the UK.
A decade of Unionist supremacy had brought the city of Belfast from being among the most profitable and prosperous of the Kingdom to abject paupery.

On the following Monday the demonstrations started. On Wednesday the police repeatedly baton-charged the protesters, driving them back to Sandy Row. The Government banned all marches.

By the following Tuesday, Catholics from Seaforde Avenue were attempting rescues of Protestants from Black Marias. There were barricades in the Lower Falls, where police fired shots: two deaths (one Prod, one Mick: fourteen wounded). A curfew was called. There was a further death from shooting.

The Government capitulated and the relief substantially increased. The funerals of the victims became demonstrations of cross-community solidarity.

In 1934, the Republican Congress was successful in organising in Belfast, including among Protestants in the Shanklin and Ballymacarrat.

This led to a moment that defies credence or analysis.

Large numbers from Belfast went south to the Wolfe Tone commemoration on June 17, 1934. On the way they laid a wreath on Connolly's grave at Arbour Hill.

The IRA leadership believed some Republican Congress stunt was intended. They forbade all banners at Bodenstown. The Shankill contingent had banners, such as:

Wolfe Tone Commemoration 1934
Shankill Road Belfast Branch
Break the Connection with Capitalism.

The Tipperary IRA followed instructions, and moved in to confiscate the banners:
The Belfast men defended their banner. The Tipperary men saw it as a Communist banner. Bodenstown has not witnessed a more ironic scene: Catholics attacking Protestants trying to honour Wolfe Tone ...
Thus Seán Cronin, in the (sadly, out-of-print) Frank Ryan biography. Much of the rest of the preceding section derives from Jonathan Bardon. No apologies for a good story.

To conclude:

McIntyre is sadly, badly mistaken. His 'republicanism' may have gone to execution on Good Friday: no great loss therein. The true radical moment, north and south, is yet to come.

For the time being, the northern economy has the shock-absorber of that £9+ billion of Westminster subsidy. The RoI Government makes gestures, and NI politicos regularly head to Dublin, like Oliver Twist, in hope of a few more crumbs. Let it be remembered (as Bardon pertinently noted, apparently using figures from the early 1990s):
If the republic ... had to take over the annual subsidy from the United Kingdom exchequer to Northern Ireland, it would cost every citizen there on average £570 -- more than fifteen times the present sum for every person in Britain.
As we enter, perhaps, a decade of a Kondratieff winter, such largesse is not going to repeat itself, and not going to be underwritten by Dublin.

Then there is the changing political environment.

The Cameroonies are using Blasted Boris in London as a test-bed. On present performance that means cuts, cuts, cuts to fund the core vote in the leafy suburbs in a later pre-election give-away. No great departure in Tory policy there, then. How much a few DUP or UUP Parliamentary votes are worth, to either Party, depends on the English electorate of 2009, or whenever.

Public pensions, health and education apart (all heavily dependent on continuing Westminster subsidy and on the lavish public expenditure by Labour in recent years), the Northern Ireland salariat and wage-earners have more in common with mortgagees and tenants down south than with those in Finchley or Harrogate.

Once that penny drops, there will be a truly revolutionary moment.

Now, what was that about the soul's slow and dark birth,
more mysterious than the birth of the body?
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