1990s >> 1994 >> no-1084-december-1994

Ireland — they died for nothing

Why should I want to go back  

To you, Ireland, my Ireland?

The blots on the page are so black 

That they cannot be covered with shamrock.

I hate your grandiose airs,

Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger.

Your assumption that everyone cares, 

Who is the king of the your castle. 

Castles are out of date,

The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;

Put up what flag you like, it is too late 

To save your soul with bunting.

So wrote Louis MacNeice in his finely anti-nationalist Autumn Journal. The same sentiments of contempt for the futile excitement of national folly were echoed in great plays such as Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey and The Hostage by Brendan Behan (revived recently in a superbly anarchic production by the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Now that the Ulster dust is settling and, in the words of one Irish politician, inaction is speaking louder than words, it is surely time for some reckoning to be done. Was it worth it? The bloody years of furious castle-building, which have left few castle-dwellers and no shortage of occupants for the slums and the cemeteries, were either necessary or they were in vain. Socialists say that they were pointless: that for workers to die for flags and anthems is to die for nothing.

First, the accounts — the inventory of the dead and destroyed. Before the British Left sloganise about the IRA’s heroic struggle and Bostonian bar-room rebels play remote-control murder with their pocket books, let us do a few necessary historical sums. Who has died and for what? Since the commencement of the current “troubles” in 1969 over 3,200 Northern Irish people have been killed. This is in a population of less than a million. The proportional equivalent in American terms would have been half a million political murders: ten times the number of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. 37 percent of those killed were shot directly: another 30 percent were killed in gun battles, cross-fire and ambushes; 24 percent died in bombings; just over 5 percent of the catholic dead were victims of the British army. Nearly 35,000 Northern Irish people have been victims of serious injuries, ranging from lost limbs, blindness, bullet wounds and brain damage. This amounts to almost one in fifty of the population. Since 1973 1,500 kneecappings and so-called crucifixions (being shot in the elbows as well as knees) have been carried out by the IRA and their mirror reflections in the loyalist terror gangs. Those who were so punished had no court of appeal at which to defend themselves. Many of those escaping such attacks are now in exile in Britain and elsewhere.

Barbaric inhumanity has not been the preserve of the terrorists. The British army, assisted by the RUC, and backed up by the laws designed to facilitate freedom of the state against the people, have carried out vicious beatings, strip-searches, shoot-to-kill exercises and sustained torture in their political prison camp at Long Kesh. These crimes are not inventions, but have been exposed and condemned by bodies ranging from Amnesty International to International Court of Human Rights. How many workers have been pushed into the arms of futile terror gangsterism by anger engendered by the military arrogance of the British state? It should not be forgotten that the soldiers killed while serving in Ireland, whose deaths have been counted as victories in IRA pubs from Belfast to Boston, were exclusively working-class men, usually drawn from the dole queues, often Liverpool or Glasgow catholics.

Statistics can blind their magnitude and, anyway, the prejudiced will refuse to be confused by mere facts. So let us ask some searching questions which involve times, dates and human faces, not just numbers. What liberation was served by the murder of two boys in Warrington last year when an IRA bomb ended their short lives? What defence of Irish culture was served by such reckless vandalism as the bombing of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast (a famous repository of Irish social history) or the murder some years ago of an old man whose reputation as a maker of instruments for traditional Irish musicians was destroyed when two IRA men shot him dead because he was a protestant? What freedom was being canvassed when socialists in Belfast attended a Sinn Fein meeting on the Falls Road and, after asking a question which confronted the rhetoric of nationalism with the reality of class, were threatened and forced to leave?

We socialists opposed unreservedly the broadcasting ban upon Sinn Fein and Co, but what of their ban on the right to speak out against them which has led to threats, beatings and kneecappings in the name of liberation? These are questions calling for answers; We do not expect to hear them from the Irish-American know-nothings or the slogan-chanting SWPers whose logic-defying position throughout all of this has been to give “unconditional critical support” to the IRA. But let those who have any genuine belief that blowing up workers is a means to freedom tell us how they answer these questions, or how they seek to evade the historical commitment to do so.

Message from America
During the last presidential election Clinton, in a bid to win Irish-American votes, promised to send a peace envoy to sort out the little mess in Ireland. Perhaps Ireland should have responded by offering to send Gloria Honeyford to clear up the riots in LA. The entire US involvement in Ireland has been motivated by cynical vote-seeking. When Gerry Adams was first invited to visit New York in early 1994 politicians seeking their share of the 40-million odd Irish-American votes were falling over one another to shake hands with this fascist. When Adams and Kennedy shook hands perhaps they swapped notes on their respective victims. Then Bruce Morrison, a man defeated for political office, was sent over to Belfast with Clinton’s blessing, to carve out a deal with Sinn Fein. The deal involved a promise of hundreds of millions of dollars of US capital investment in the north-east of Ireland. But what will these American capitalists be investing in? Not folk music sessions and the leprechaun-making industry, that’s for sure; they will only invest their money where there is a low-waged, disciplined workforce to be exploited.

On this recent visit to America Adams was treated as if he should be compared with Mandela. The truth is that Adams and his party, Sinn Fein, do not represent very much at all. Over 98 percent of voters in the Republic of Ireland do not vote for Sinn Fein even though they are quite free to do so, while in the north 90 percent of voters in general and 70 percent of catholics do not vote for Sinn Fein. So, the principal significance of Gerry Adams lies not in his mandate, but in his capacity to murder and mutilate.

While in the USA Adams spoke in Cleveland where one member of the audience, John O’Neil, asked him whether he regarded consent as being fundamental to any democratic political settlement and whether Sinn Fein was prepared to oppose the Irish constitutional link between church and state. Adams declined to respond to the points raised, instead offering some empty rhetoric about how the Americans were to be praised for throwing off British imperialism. (He failed to utter a word about American imperialism.) One catholic-nationalist in the audience turned to another and was heard to declare, “That fellow O’Neil must be Protestant.” “Worse than that”, was the response, “he is a Marxist!” So much for the radicalism of Sinn Fein’s US supporters.

The American government pretends to reject terrorism. Of course, they carry out legalised campaigns when they see it as being in their national interest, but they claim to oppose unofficial and unelected political killers. But with what credibility can Clinton’s government rebuke armed terrorists, be they Bosnian Serbs or Libyan hijackers, when they have made it clear that the best way to obtain a hero’s welcome in the USA is to bomb your way to credibility? Who will take seriously American bleating about the nasty bombers of the World Trade Centre when Bill Clintstone’s Barney Rubble, Al Gore, was televised shaking the hand of a man whose sole claim to power rests upon his association with precisely such tactics?

As ever, the myth of the New World Order rests upon the miserly economic and sordid political interests of a rich and privileged minority. The catholic and the protestant slums of Ireland north and south will never be served by such political game-playing.

The futility of Nationalism
From its inception, Irish nationalism was motivated by a kind of stupidity (“the delirium of the brave” as Yeats called it) which workers should not have touched with a barge pole, let alone a flag pole. Consider the words of nationalist nutcase and IRA hero Padraic Pearse, a leader of the Easter 1916 rebellion, who rejoiced at the sacrifice of Irish lives in the great imperialist war of 1914-18:

  Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for over a hundred years . . . The last sixteen months have been the most glorious of Europe . . . The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for the love of country.

What benefit has any wage slave ever gained from a war grave? Even if there is to be a united Ireland, what possible gain does any worker expect to be offered by membership of a semi-clerical state in which citizenship amounts to no more than freedom to be exploited for a wage or a salary or unemployed and paid even less welfare money than is offered by the British state? This prospect might lead some fat New York catholic lawyers to dance a jig, but where will it leave the working class?

Both the IRA and the loyalist ceasefires are to be welcomed by all workers. Socialists want a situation under capitalism where we can operate to abolish the system in circumstances where bullets and bombs do not threaten us daily. But now comes the hard part. 600,000 Northern Irish protestants still think they are British and 300,000 Northern Irish catholics (give a few here or there) still think they are Irish. As long as these identifications are considered to be worth a candle there is a prospect of renewed conflict.

So, the merely negative achievement of ending the killing, much as it is to be seen as a step forward, is not where matters must rest. It is now time for workers to reach the realisation that their class identity, as used and robbed providers of profit to a supranational capitalist elite, is what really matters. To defeat this elite globally and not just in Ireland, calls for workers to exhibit the courage to transcend the identities inherited from capitalist history (Irish/British—catholic/protestant) and recognise that as workers who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population we have a world to win. It is on that basis that Irish history can proceed from the futility of national rebellion to the exciting opportunity of the social revolution by the many.

Steve Coleman