Thursday 14 November 2019

Eoghan Harris: Awkward individualism says no to grim ghosts of 1916

TODAY is May Day. Back when I was a Marxist, May Day was as special to me as St Brigid's Day. Even now it has not entirely lost its lustre.

The lustre comes from Marx's noble dream of moving mankind from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. Like all projects based on the perfectibility of man, it was bound to end in blood and tears. But the dream of social justice will never die.

Today, with hard hindsight, most of us know that social democracy -- capitalism policed by political democracy -- offers the best opportunity of ending economic exploitation. Ruairi Quinn, who always acts with good authority -- he told the truth to the teachers --represents the best of that social-democratic tradition.

Those who still peddle pure socialist solutions are a small minority and would be of no consequence in a normal democratic society. Alas, Ireland will never be a completely normal democracy like Denmark as long as the IRA can insert itself into the body politic by hiding behind "republican socialism", a horrible hybrid to which most Trotskyite socialists subscribe, with soft-brained support from politics, the media and academe.

On the precedent of the Provo campaign, I predict that as the alleged "dissidents" go about their dark work, the distinctions between social democrats and Trotskyite "republican socialists" will matter more and more. May Day might be a good day to give a short lesson on these distinctions to younger social democrats.


Long ago there were two sorts of socialist. First, those I call serious socialists, who were either members of the Labour Party or the Communist Party. Second, those I call Trots. Serious socialists knew when to call off a strike: Trots didn't.

Serious socialists and communists studied the train of history, picked a slow bend, stepped aboard, argued the toss with the passengers, and settled for reform when they met resistance to revolution. Trots stood in front of the train waving a red flag and allowed the workers to be made mush.

But stupidity is not the only reason I have a bee in my bonnet about Trots. During the days of the armed struggle the Provos paid particular attention to two political projects: getting rid of Section 31 so they could go on the six o'clock television news -- for which they would frequently time the murder of an RUC officer -- and "civil liberties" campaigns such as H-Blocks.

All Trotskyite groups supported these twin Provo campaigns. Those of us who took them on in RTE and the trade unions had a reliable rule of thumb: scratch a Trot, find an armchair Provo.

Today, as the two states start to crack down on the so-called dissidents, we will see a repeat of these patterns. Trot politicians will start to sound off about civil liberties. And attack anyone who suggests we ration appearances by the Real IRA on RTE.

Last Sunday, a bellow of thugs threatened Irish democracy on RTE. True, Tommie Gorman gave them a good going-over in a way that would have made a few RTE Trots a bit touchy. But they should not have been on our screens at all.

We will now see repeats of these futile gestures of goodwill made during the long years of the armed struggle. Like that decent priest who was willing to talk to the terrorists about why they are murdering police officers. Well, he got his answer.

Alas, the media have a vested interest in promoting the notion that it is good to talk to terrorists. In private, maybe. But not on our television screens. Why? Because just being there gives them a spurious status.


Faced with this revival of republican terrorism, Fine Gael should consider the wisdom of cultivating the cult of Michael Collins. I still can't see how you can celebrate Collins's shooting of Catholic Irish policemen in 1922 while completely separating it from the shooting of Catholic PSNI members in 2011.

The truth is that when it comes to the national question we are as shaky as the Serbs. Dragoslav Dedovic, a Serbian poet significantly now based in Cologne, says that the national tradition still constitutes a "code for the distribution of posts and resources". That's how Fianna Fail handled it here too.

Fianna Fail fed that two-faced tradition with the cult of 1916. Fine Gael is not going to improve it with the cult of Michael Collins. We now need less group-think about our glorious 1916 dead and more of the awkward individualism that says no to the grim ghosts of our grandfathers.

Admittedly, awkward individualism -- as the Nyberg report reminds us -- is not as attractive as group-think. When I was a republican or a socialist, I was reasonably well regarded. But when I rejected both of them, I became a kind of political leper.

The Real IRA rightly believes that the current consensus against violence is not absolute. A minority of psycho-nationalists will always condone a cruel deed done for the cause. So while the Real IRA waits for a return to the leaky consensus, it can survive -- as criminals survive -- on the support of its own closed circles of family and friends.

Eric Hoffer in True Believer -- Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements has this to say about what happens when we stop being awkward individuals. "There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgement."


Let me finish my May Day homily with some hard words about the forthcoming frenzy of nationalist necrophilia, aka the centenary celebrations of 1916. There are two honourable alternative traditions. One is constitutional O'Connellism, which held sway until Redmond was rejected.

The other is the anti-nationalist socialism to which Jim Larkin and his son, Jim Larkin Jnr (a committed communist), both subscribed. Now I am not sure how far the newly formed 1913 Committee would go in its rejection of nationalism. But I strongly support this statement about the 1916 celebrations in its Bulletin 1.

"There will be much retrospection, showers of pious platitudes and a host of spurious heirs claiming ownership of the past. The 1913 Committee wants to do something different and this bulletin is our tocsin. We do not believe 1913 was a mere curtain raiser for '1916 and All That'."

Neither do I. But I am still sceptical about the ability of Irish socialists to resist the seductions of republican socialism -- a scepticism reinforced by the fact that James Connolly finally followed Pearse's petit-bourgeois beliefs in blood sacrifice.

But at least one serious socialist did not surrender to nationalism. Jim Connell, who wrote The Red Flag, warned socialists against nationalists in stirring lines that are still ring true today.

Despise all the talk of these fat agitators,

Who rave about Ireland or Freedom or worse.

Expect not your rights from political praters

But manfully trust in your courage and force.

Waste not your ready blows,

Seek not for foreign foes,

Your bitterest enemy treads your own sod.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss