Postwar era filled with empty words
We should be wary of the corrupting potential of speech integral to armed struggle, writes John-Paul McCarthy
Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30
Tony Judt's great history of modern Europe, Postwar (2005), was really an analysis of a paradox.
The "very scale of the collective misery that Europeans had brought on themselves in the first half of the century had a profoundly de-politicising effect: far from turning to extreme solutions ... the European publics of the gloomy post-World War Two years turned away from politics."
We may well be in the midst of a similar process as the Northern Ireland nightmare fades into the middle distance.
This drift towards a curiously empty kind of political analysis is making its presence felt here in a number of ways.
It can be felt, for example, in the recent suggestion that a royal presence at the 2016 commemorations would blind the populace to the efficacy of nationalist violence in the revolutionary era.
This kind of "violence works" attitude prides itself on its political savvy, but it is a good example of the Judt phenomenon because it cannot really cope with the revolutionary generation's own oft-expressed political anxieties and ambivalences.
No less an observer than Michael Collins himself told a Cork newspaper in 1922 that he was not convinced in retrospect that IRA violence in and of itself did the trick.
He explained that: "In July last there were many parts of Ireland where the British forces could operate without the slightest interference. There were some parts where they could operate with difficulty. There were no parts where they could not operate even by a small concentration of numbers."
The de-politicisation problem is also especially acute amongst younger citizens who may have no memory of the armed struggle before the first IRA ceasefire in 1994.
For all they know, there may be considerable truth in, say, Jimmy Drumm's famous Bodenstown oration in 1977 where he lamented Provisional Sinn Fein's lack of a "positive tie-in with the mass of the Irish people who have little or no idea of the suffering in the North because of media censorship and the consolidation of conservatism throughout the country".
The Republic's refusal to allow Sinn Fein/IRA spokes- persons access to the radio and television waves from 1970 to 1994 may appear especially strange to those reared on the internet.
They are unusually vulnerable to retrospective critiques of the Section 31 broadcasting ban that define that measure in terms of "censorship".
That characterisation can really only be sustained though if the whole question of terrorist advocacy is drained of its political content and if Gerry Adams is turned into a kind of political version of John McGahern.
"Censorship" is just as politically vacuous in this sense as the "violence worked" school.
Judging by the polemics of Danny Morrison, still the most interesting of the Provisional Sinn Fein propagandists, Section 31 constituted a serious hardship.
Morrison returns time and again to Section 31 in his writings, calling the measure at one point "an insult to the Irish people", even though four popularly elected Taoisigh (Lynch, Cosgrave, Haughey and FitzGerald) supported it.
Viewed through the prism of the IRA's campaign against the Republic itself though, it seems a modest, if highly effective counter-measure, a return of serve if you like for the organisation that triggered a formal state of emergency here after they murdered the unarmed envoy of our nearest neighbour on Irish soil in 1976.
Before the Fine Gael faction on the Supreme Court buckled, they used to deny IRA suspects the political-offence defence in extradition matters on the grounds that any fair reading of the IRA's own charter showed that it was at war with the Republic as much as with Ulster unionism.
The actual Republic had to be dismantled if the 32-country socialist republic was to be created.
Extradition was an appropriate penalty in these circumstances, as was a broadcasting ban, especially if we recall Abraham Lincoln's pithy insistence that rebels cannot "at the same time throw off the Constitution and invoke its aid. Having made war upon the Government, they were subject to the incidents and calamities of war".
And if such incidents and calamities also properly included the denial of jury trials for IRA suspects – a grave denial if ever there was one – then surely the less immediately onerous penalties of Section 31 were equally justifiable.
The fashionable "censorship" critique is really an invitation to fold Section 31 into the old, disordered Catholic preoccupation with "corrupting public morals" and with things that are "in general tendency indecent and obscene".
Post-apartheid South Africa is helpful on this point.
Even though they are committed to facilitating an uninhibited, robust and wide-open intellectual life, they flatly refused to give "propaganda for war" the same kind of constitutional protection afforded to other kinds of speech after 1994.
They have no problem distinguishing between the self-defeating paranoia of the cultural censor, and the corrupting potential of speech that is integral to a calamitous armed struggle.
Neither should we.