SEPTEMBER 8, START OF NEARLY 900 DAYS OF NAZI SIEGE
On 21st June 1941 Hitler broke Nazi Germany’s non-aggression Treaty with the Soviet Union and invaded through Poland, sending roughly 3 million personnel through, in addition to its Finnish and Romanian allies, in a three-pronged attack.
Leningrad was one of the primary objectives as it was the most industrialised next to Moscow, with numerous arms factories among its 600 factories turning out 11% of all Russia’s industrial production, along with being the port of the Russian fleet. For those reasons it was important to the Soviet Union too but there was another very important one: the Petrograd Soviet had played a key role in the 1917 February and October revolutions in Russia.
The Nazi German advance in its various Army Groups through Soviet Russia overcame most resistance fairly easily but in September the advance of Army Group North was finally halted in the Leningrad suburbs. The German and other Axis troops had air dominance and a massive artillery capability. Hitler instructed his troops not only to besiege the city but to wipe it out. The Finnish troops controlled the area to the north and the Nazis placed the División Azul (the Blue Division), the fascist Spanish unit, along the south-east1.
“The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” he wrote in a memo. “It is intended to encircle the city and level it to the ground by means of artillery bombardment using every caliber of shell, and continual bombing from the air.” The memo stressed that requests for surrender negotiations were to be ignored, since the Nazis didn’t have the desire to feed the city’s large population.2
Civilians in Leningrad worked frantically on the construction of defences, digging trenches and constructing antitank fortifications as the Red Army and partisans lost one battle after another. The town of Mga was taken, recaptured and then taken again by the Nazis, severing the city’s last rail connection. With the capture of Shlisselburg in early September, the last road was cut. The only way to supply Leningrad now was across Lake Ladoga.
IRON RING AROUND THE CITY
Artillery and air bombardment of the city began almost immediately; the city could receive supplies only by barge across the lake which could also be targeted by Luftwaffe attack. Incendiary attacks caused huge damage and destroyed vital supplies of oil and food and on September 19th Nazi aircraft dropped 2,500 high explosive and incendiary bombs.
The authorities evacuated around 600,000 civilians before the Nazi “iron ring” closed around the city but 2.5 million civilians still remained inside. It is said that officials had been negligent in stockpiling food, so the only way to feed the city was to bring fresh supplies across Lake Ladoga, the only open route into the city. Transport of Food and fuel was by barge until the lake froze, then by trucks and sleds – all of these frequent targets of Nazi aerial attack.
“By November, food shortages had seen civilian rations cut to just 250 grams of bread a day for workers. Children, the elderly and the unemployed got a scant 125 grams—the equivalent of three small slices.”3
The winter of 1941-’42 was bitterly cold and as many as 100,000 a month died of starvation. “In their desperation, people ate everything from petroleum jelly and wallpaper glue to rats, pigeons and household pets. For warmth, they burned furniture, wardrobes and even the books from their personal libraries. Theft and murder for ration cards became a constant threat, and the authorities eventually arrested over 2,000 people for cannibalism. As the famine intensified, one 12-year-old Leningrader named Tanya Savicheva recorded the dates of the deaths of all her family members in a journal. “The Savichevs are dead,” she wrote after the passing of her mother. “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.””4
And yet the city held out. Another 500,000 civilians were evacuated early the following year, 1942, which reduced the city’s population to 1,000,000. As the city thawed in Spring, the survivors went out to bury the dead lining their streets and cleared bombardment rubble. Courtyard areas and parks were planted for vegetables but even so and despite the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga, food was short.
A number of Red Army attempts to break through to the city failed, with very high loss of Russian soldiers. In January 1943 the Red Army won a land strip from the Nazis and its engineers built a special railway link to run through it which, by the end of the year nearly 5 million tons of food and other supplies had been delivered into Leningrad. Machinery and ammunition were soon being turned out in the factories by a workforce nearly 80% composed of women.
MUSIC OF RESISTANCE
In august 1942 it was played and broadcast towards the Nazi German lines over loudspeakers.
The Red Army finally broke the Nazi blockade on 27th January 1944 and, with the Nazi forces all over Russia in retreat, the city was free. Survivors celebrated but the death toll was huge; some had lost all their family during the siege.
Altogether an estimated 75,000 bombs were dropped on Leningrad during the period of the siege and killed many – but more died from hunger and hunger-facilitated illness.
Because of the declared intentions of Hitler and the Nazis and the effect on the civilian population of the city, many historians categorise this siege as genocide; it was also the longest siege of WWII and one of the longest in history.
“In total, the siege of Leningrad had killed an estimated 800,000 civilians—nearly as many as all the World War II deaths of the United States and the United Kingdom combined. Soviet-era censorship ensured that the more grisly details of the blockade were suppressed until the end of the 20th century, yet even while World War II was still underway, the city was hailed as a symbol of Russian determination and sacrifice.”5
Perhaps the most appropriate accolade to the resistance of Leningrad was penned by the New York Times in 1945: “There is hardly a parallel in history for the endurance of so many people over so long a time. Leningrad stood alone against the might of Germany since the beginning of the invasion. It is a city saved by its own will, and its stand will live in the annals as a kind of heroic myth.”6
Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symhony in 2019 (Russian composition, played by a German Orchestra, conducted by a Finn!) almost 1 hour 25 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB3zR_X25UU
MONUMENT TO THE HEROIC DEFENDERS OF LENINGRAD AND SCULPTURAL GROUPS IN VICTORY SQUARE PETROGRAD
Foster Islamic fundamentalist groups and arm them to overthrow a competitor’s puppet government. Use a nearby ally as a conduit.
Portray the fundamentalist insurgency as a liberation war and keep supplying them with weapons, training, through your nearby ally. This might cost as much as US$20 billion. Have a film made about it in which a former male porn film star is the USA hero with the local fundamentalist Islamic militias (underplay the Islamic part).
When they’ve overthrown the competitor’s puppet, attempt to instal your own puppet instead.
When your Islamic fundamentalist warlords don’t accept this and become a problem, invade the country. You have to get lots of your own soldiers killed because you armed and trained the opposition, they have grown more powerful and why should anyone fight them for you?
Keep telling the relatives of your dead soldiers (and those not yet dead) that they are fighting for democracy and to protect their homes (although they are nowhere near their homes).
Set up your own puppet regime, build a local army, let your investors back home in to gobble up what they can, dispense bribes (even to notorious warlords, torturers, murderers).
Use airpower to bomb your previous allies, even though you will be killing a lot of uninvolved people (and even though airpower didn’t work in the end for the other’s puppet government)
When it’s clear you are not going to win without an even more massive investment of money and your soldiers’ lives (which will make your politicians unpopular at home), pull out. Leave your puppets and local employees behind (shoot some as they try to get on your planes).
Then blame your puppet government for running. Blame the puppet army soldiers for surrendering, ignoring the fact that thousands of them have been killed even when you gave them air cover and that was then withdrawn or that surrounded units fought on for days on promises of relieving columns that never came.
You might lose some superpower status and get criticised at home. BUT your arms industry has increased its profits at least TEN TIMES since the invasion. After all, who really matters in all this?
https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2021/8/17# (For Afghanistan jump to Haran Rahoumi at 17.19 mins. on video to 31.4 mins; and again to from 37mins. with Azmat Khan to 46mins. In my opinion much more informative than ex-US Col. Amy Wright, now in Codepink, Vets for Peace.)
When I read or hear someone say something like: “We should stop supporting Israel” or even “We need to stop ignoring Israel’s crimes”, my hackles rise somewhat and I ask myself “Who are this ‘we'”?
Are you turning a blind eye? No, you are not. Amy I? Are those who post the crimes of the Zionist state and all the others who have “liked” those posts, or the thousands who have demonstrated in Ireland in solidarity with Palestine? Or those who go on solidarity visits every year, braving Zionist surveillance and traveling under cover? Or the unknown thousands who don’t buy goods produced in Israel, so much so that when supermarkets display avocados from Israel they leave off the country of origin and one no longer sees herbs for Israel on sale in their shops (not in Dublin anyway). No matter the limited effect these actions have, clearly “they” are not supporting Israel and are in solidarity with the Palestinians.
This is more than personal protest at being lumped in with the imperialists and their collaborators or even the apathetic in the “we”. More importantly, I am making what I consider to be an essential political point.
I and “we” are not part of the oppressors (nor of the apathetic sections, those who have not yet awoken). To speak in that way is liberalism. It implies that you and I and so many others are part of a society that we order and run and that its rulers represent us. We are not and they do not.
Our society’s managers are representatives of capitalists and worse, monopoly capitalists, whose governing ethos is profit, maximisation of profit and continuation of profit, amen. In pursuit of that they compete with other monopoly capitalists and other monopoly capitalist-run states but also cooperate and collude with them when their interests coincide. Clearly for some substantial time now the interests of the rulers of the EU and other Western capitalist states coincide with those of the USA. And clearly, Israel serves US interests in the Middle East, the only state in that region which is safe from a) socialist revolution and b) take over by anti-imperialist Islamicism.
So if WE are in solidarity with Palestine and WE want to see it free, WE must be against Israel. And if WE are against Israel, WE have to be against the USA. And if WE are for that people and against those powers, then WE are on the other side of a line from the Zionists and their local supporters. The greatest help WE can give the Palestinians in addition to expressions of solidarity is to overthrow the imperial powers and their monopoly capitalist allies wherever WE are.
If we think of those rulers as being part of us, as part of “We”, we are ideologically disarmed and unfit to go into battle against them. In that case, the assistance WE can give the Palestinians will be even more limited than that for which we have the potential at the moment.
A fire in a Bangladesh factory last Thursday killed at least 52, some of them children as young as 11 years of age, according to relatives and neighbours. “Emergency services told Al Jazeera they had recovered 49 of the bodies at the Hashem Food and Beverage factory in Rupganj, an industrial town 25km (15 miles) east of the capital, Dhaka. Three people also died after jumping out of the building.” The police chief of Narayanganj district in which the factory was located, Jayedul Alam, was quoted saying that multiple fire and safety regulations had been breached and that, at the time of the fire, the entrance/ exit had been padlocked, the latter also confirmed by firefighters.
Those who died were workers, part of the world-wide slaughter of workers to satisfy the greed of a few. Every second, every minute of every day, all over the world, workers are killed or mutilated by the capitalist system in accidents at work. They are “accidents” only in the sense that the employers in most cases did not deliberately set out to kill the workers – they merely required them to work in conditions and without precautions that risked – no, ensured — accidents would happen. In fact, as a safety blog writer recommended (see Sources), we should stop calling them accidents – let’s call them mishaps instead, incidents that could have been avoided. And a proportion of those mishaps that were bound to occur would be fatal.
Those left behind to mourn a sibling, parent, partner, friend or – heavens above – a child, are of the workers also. Gone too, an income, a precarious investment in survival. The ripples of the “accident” spread outward through family and worker neighbourhood, ripples that very rarely, if ever, reach the rich neighbourhoods, the place where live those who profit from those workplaces.
From time to time here in the “western world” or the “North” as this sector, more in economic terms than political is variously described, we hear of such disasters in the “other” world, such as that at Rana Plaza in 2013. These are the places around the world where smaller-to-medium local capitalism is at work alongside foreign mega-capitalism. Many of the brand-name products we consume, wear or use are manufactured or processed in those countries. For the capitalists to make the profits their system requires and to compete with one another, consumption needs to be high and therefore the prices to be relatively low. And the wages – much, much lower. And safety conditions? Negligible.
In November 2012 a blaze at Tazreen Fashions in Dhaka, which makes clothes for foreign clients including C&A, Walmart, Sears, Disney and others, killed 112 workers. Commenting on the background to the disaster, in a Guardian article in 2012, journalist Scott Nova, (see Sources) stated:
“In the last two years, fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan have taken the lives of nearly 500 apparel workers, at plants producing for Gap, H&M, JC Penney, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, the German retailer KiK and many others”. Nova went on to comment (in 2012): Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest apparel producer. It did not attain that status by achieving high levels of productivity, or a strong transportation infrastructure; it got there by being the rock-bottom cheapest place to make clothing.
“This derives from three factors: the industry’s lowest wages (a minimum apparel wage of 18 cents an hour), ruthless suppression of unions and a breathtaking disregard for worker safety. The industry in Bangladesh has been handsomely rewarded for its cost-cutting achievements, with an ever-rising flood of business from western brands …… And local factory owners understand that if they do not continue to offer the lowest possible prices, those brands will be quick to leave.”
Added to that is the apparel industry’s indulgence in “fast fashion”, in order to boost consumption still further. No longer is the year divided into four seasons but “52 micro-seasons”. “Fast fashion giants H&M and Forever 21 receive new garment shipments every day. Topshop features 400 new styles every week, while Zara releases 20,000 designs annually” (see Green America link in Sources). To keep up with that demand requires a frenetic level of production, albeit at lower quality, layoffs when each ‘micro-seasonal” demand is filled and of course, even less concern with safety conditions. The factory fire last Thursday is only the latest in a long list and there will be many more.
But lest we think industrial mishaps are a problem only somewhere else, it would be useful to remind ourselves that even in our relatively under-industrialised economy in Ireland, workplace accidents continue to maim and kill. According to the Irish state’s Health & Safety Authority: “Regrettably, 47 fatal work-related accidents were reported to the Authority in 2019, representing a substantial increase from 2018, which was the lowest year on record with 39 fatal accidents. … The number of work-related non-fatal injuries also increased in 2019, with 9,335 reported to the Authority.” And: “the 39 fatalities recorded in 2018 was one of the lowest numbers of workplace fatalities on records. However, despite the current pandemic circumstances, it would appear that 2020 is heading for number in the mid to late 40s.”
As we may imagine, construction comes high on the mishap list but so also do factories, agricultural work, transport and fishing and mishaps occur also in hospitals and care homes, shops, restaurants and even offices. The Covid19 pandemic revealed that many areas of occupation are necessary for our daily lives but are also vulnerable. And revealed also how slowly and inefficiently protective measures for those workers were taken by their management levels or sadly, enforced or even monitored by trade unions.
IMPUNITY OR CRIMINAL PENALTY?
It is reported that the owner of the burned Bangladeshi factory and a number of his sons have been arrested. This is to be welcomed and hopefully the prosecution of those responsible will be followed through. Prosecution of employers responsible for mishaps is one measure that can be taken to extend the protection of workers but the process is rarely in the hands of the workers and in addition deals with structures that are more aligned with the interests of employers than they are with those of their workers.
Such procedures that have been tried have usually been under civil1 law and involved claims for financial compensation alleging negligence; however increasingly criminal law is being invoked, as is presumably the case with the Bangladeshi factory.
Years ago I was associated with a militant organisation by the name of The Construction Safety Campaign.2 If I recall correctly, at the time, one worker was being killed every week on a construction site in Britain, with injuries on a daily basis.
The CSC maintained that every time a fatality occurred on a construction site, work should cease for the whole day. It is indicative of the attitude of the big construction companies and indeed of many subcontractors that such a demand actually required voicing.
Among their other demands was that whenever there was such a fatality, that the main contractor be charged with manslaughter, i.e the crime of being responsible for an unintended fatality through action or inaction. Such a demand was very reasonable but was seen as almost revolutionary at the time. But a few years later a construction company boss did indeed stand trial for manslaughter and, although he was acquitted, a precedent had been set. However it remained a difficult process to even have the employer charged, to say nothing of convicted.
It was not until 2008 that legislation was specifically enacted to facilitate the charging of companies when individual company directors proved difficult to charge with manslaughter in the event of fatalities in their workplaces. The first case under the new legislation took place in 2009 and the sole company director in this case was also charged separately under common law with manslaughter. Seeing alleged culpability of the employer in this case, that he had required a geologist to work in an unshored trench deeper than his own height which, when collapsed, suffocated the geologist, reminded me of the claim of the defendants in the Shrewsbury 24 trials arising out of the 1972 construction strike.3
CONTINUING SLAUGHTER? 6,000 DEATHS A DAY.
“The ILO (International Labour Organisation) estimates that some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year; this corresponds to over 6000 deaths every single day. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.” (see Sources)
Capitalism kills. It kills and maims millions of workers by workplace mishaps, overwork, diseases, psychological stresses, environmental disasters – and let’s not forget wars.
Revolution, we are often cautioned, is chaotic and entails death and injury to many – most of which will be workers, whether in the revolutionary forces, or enlisted by the system, or in one way or another swept into the casualty figures. This is all true. But Revolution killing as many as capitalism? Hardly. And after successful Revolution, production can be organised to eliminate mishaps and unhealthy working conditions. At least, with the mechanisms in the hands of the workers, they have the possibility of removing workplaces from danger or, where danger might be inevitable, to reduce it greatly. Industrial mishaps, let’s not forget, are avoidable.
While we work for revolution and a society under the control of the workers, we have a duty to ourselves and to our dependents to work to reduce the occurrence of mishaps. We can do this by improving conditions and prevention in our own workplaces, by reporting health and safety violations elsewhere to the relevant authorities and by demanding reparations and improvements from the companies whose products we consume through their use of production facilities abroad – such as firetrap sweatshops4.
Under legislation in Ireland and the UK, workers are entitled to elect health and safety representatives, with which management are obliged to consult. These may be coincidentally representatives of a trade union but they need not be even union members – the legal right to health and safety representation is separate from the question of trade union representation. Of course, raising issues of concern that would cost the management time and money to address may necessitate the H&S representatives to ensure they have trade union protection, legislation notwithstanding.
In a workplace years ago, wishing for a period of relative calm, I declined nomination as trade union shop steward and instead accepted that of staff health and safety representative. Quite quickly I found myself in more arguments with local management than the union representative needed to be and across the organisation too, as I pushed for Risk Assessments to be carried out, as we had done in my workplace, examining every operation. The organisation’s Health & Safety Committee agreed the need for the assessments but failed to push for them and unfortunately so did the trade union itself. Health and Safety representatives may find themselves struggling not only with Management but also with their own trade union structures (and at times with their own co-workers). Nevertheless, comprehensive workplace risk assessments are the only reasonable way to avoid or limit mishaps.
Practice fire procedures or drills are necessary too. In another workplace, this time as a manager myself, we made recorded fire checks on every shift and stepped up fire drills from every six months to monthly, from always announced to some unannounced. Who would remember was required after six months? Had there been changes in the building, procedures or staff since the lat exercise? On one of our early drills, the observer we had detailed to follow with checklist and notepad found problems that had never been recorded previously and which required our team to take remedial measures. On the occasion of another drill, I learned that the front entrance had been used instead of the emergency exit. Investigation revealed that in the passage way towards that emergency exit, one of the staff had placed his bicycle for safe-keeping – and he was the staff health and safety representative!
The election of workers’ representatives and the monitoring of their performance in those roles is the responsibility of the workers, not management. All I could do was to instruct the person to remove the bicycle and to make all staff aware that the placing of any obstruction in the emergency exit passage way was a serious disciplinary offence.
As most of us around the world are workers, it is necessary for us to express internationalist solidarity towards one another. Note I said “necessary”, not just desirable. When our labour power is at the mercy of employers who move factories around the world, or contract factories anywhere they find sufficiently profitable, our gains in separate countries can be undermined, we can be undercut and made unemployed. The effective response to these threats lies in internationalist solidarity, so that we assist workers in other lands in their organisation and we target their exploiters when we find them nearby.
In 2015 I joined a picket of major French clothing company Benetton’s shop in the Stephens Green Shopping Centre, Dublin. We also did a sit-in inside the shop, defying threatening behaviour of the Centre’s security staff and likewise the threat to call the police. A subsequent picket and sit-in also took place (see Sources). Benetton was one of the many foreign companies exploiting the workers of Rana Plaza and, after the disaster there, had promised to pay financial compensation to the relatives of the workers killed there. Such offers are often made in similar situations for public relation reasons, usually without admitting culpability. At the time their store in Dublin was picketed, Benetton had still not paid the compensation promised two years earlier.
In contrast to fascists and other racists who advocate protecting our own native workforce above all else, we should extend solidarity to all other workers who are being exploited. When all workers are achieving protection from the worst working conditions and lowest wages, it will be that much harder for our employers to use one section against another. In the past, our employers in every business, industry, city or country tried to treat with us as individual workers but we found that banding together was the only way to improve our conditions and remuneration for all. Internationalist solidarity is the application of that lesson on an international level — the same level as that on which our exploiters operate.
1 Civil law deals with matters like company law, family law, personal injury cases, libel and slander. A number of penalties including financial damages can be imposed and awarded by the judiciary in such cases but not prison terms (however failure to comply with penalties imposed can result in imprisonment for “contempt of court”).
2 I got a bit of a scare when attending one of the CSC’s pickets which was of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, prior to a meeting inside booked by an MP and which we were going to attend. As we went through the security sensors, the construction worker I had been talking to set off the sensor alarms. As we were both political activists and I was Irish in Britain at a time of IRA bombings there, this made me very nervous. The construction worker began pulling nails and screws out of his pockets and piling them into a tray while I grinned nonchalantly at the security police. His pockets emptied, he went through again – and set the alarms off once more. I was sure we were going to be taken into a room and strip-searched. However, once they ascertained that it was the steel toecaps in his construction boots that were setting off the alarms, we were allowed through, me wanting to punch my comrade a number of times.
3 During their trial for alleged intimidation in flying pickets from construction site to site during the 1972 construction strike in Britain, some of the Shrewsbury 24 gave evidence that among the violation of health and safety regulations they had witnessed at sites they had picketed was workers being obliged to work in unshored trenches deeper than their own height. Twenty-four construction trade unionists were charged with serious crimes as a result of their activism during the strike and twenty-two were convicted across three trials in 1973 and 1974 with six, including the later actor Ricky Tomlinson, being sentenced to years in prison. The convictions of all 22 were overturned on appeal earlier this year but a number had died in the intervening years.
4. In view of the reality, it is shocking that a fashion clothing company should call itself, even in some attempt at irony, “Firetrap”. This company is now part of the Fraser Group, with factories in much of the world producing clothing, in particular sports wear. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firetrap
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has described comments by the Government of Israel as “nonsense”. “We all know what happened here. Don’t be hiding behind excuses,” he told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.
Mr Martin said that the action of the Israeli authorities was contrary to decency and democratic values. The Taoiseach said he was worried about the growing authoritarianism in the world. “It was not acceptable. Democratic countries had to stand up.”
Referring to the armed boarding of Irish relief ships bound for Gaza in 2010, he said it had been a “State-sponsored” coercive act, it was absolutely unacceptable.
Mr Martin said he was meeting with Ministers from Lithuania and Greece to discuss a coordinated EU response and a strong response from the EU was now required.
Coveney condemned Israel for ‘hijacking’ of Irish ship
The Israeli armed boarding of an Irish ship amounted to “piracy”, the Foreign Affairs Minister has said. Simon Coveney said the incident in 2010, which saw a relief ship from Ireland to Gaza boarded over a supposed security concern, was a “state-sponsored hijacking”.
Mr Coveney said that the Israeli regime “has no democratic legitimacy” and called on the EU to show a “clear and tough response”. He told RTE radio he “would like to speak to” the Israeli consul in Dublin, but stopped short of advocating the banishment of all diplomats across the EU.
There has to be “a real edge” to any sanctions imposed and the EU must go beyond “strong press releases”, he added.
Yes, reader, you’re right, that response from Irish Government Ministers was regarding the recent Belarus forcing down of a plane and never occurred during the recent Israeli attack on Gaza (nor in 2014, nor in 2008), nor during its illegal armed boarding and seizing control of an Irish relief ship on the high seas in 2010. Because the Irish State generally takes its line from the USA, which in turn backs up Israel. Belarus however has only Russia backing it and the EU and the USA power blocs are opposed to the Russian one.
In May 2010, when the Gaza flotilla relief convoy was seized (and Turkish citizens killed) by Israeli armed forces, the Irish ship was delayed and sailed later but was also seized in June, forced to go to an Israeli port, the possessions of all crew and passengers seized, their computer and phone memories inspected and they were kept in jail until sent back by plane (often without their possessions). The Irish Government did complain but without denouncing the Israeli Government in the same terms, nor did it call for EU-wide action and, once the Irish citizens were returned, quietly dropped the whole matter.
The oppression of the Palestinians led to an outbreak of active resistance recently in Jerusalem, to which the Israeli Army reacted with increased repression, timed to harass Palestinian Muslims during the period of Ramadan and the height of devotees attending the Al-Aqsa mosque, escalating into attacks on worshippers within the temple itself. At the same time, Israeli Zionist settlers threatened dozens of Palestinian families with eviction from their homes in East Jerusalem. Reacting to these events, one of the Palestinian organisations fired home-made rockets into officially Israeli territory, to which the Israeli armed forces responded in turn with drone missiles and missiles from its air force jets on Gaza. As Palestinians in the West Bank came out on to the streets to protest, they were fired on with live ammunition by Israeli soldiers. The death toll has climbed to 200 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1,305 people wounded; while ten Israelis have been killed, two of them children.
The casualty figures once again show the gross disproportion between what the Palestinians and their Zionist masters experience: in civil and human rights, citizenship, in land ownership, electricity and clean water supply, heating, fishing, education facilities, building materials, freedom to travel inside and outside the state, in depth and breadth of surveillance, in arms and defence capability, in states that support them. And in city structural damage: despite the many home-made rockets launched against the zionists, there has yet been no significant damage in Israeli towns, while their armed forces have effected large-scale structural damage in Gaza and bodies are still being pulled from the rubble.
In only one area perhaps do the Palestinians have the advantage over the Israeli Zionists: in support among the people around the world.
PALESTINIAN SOLIDARITY MARCH DEFIES POLICE THREATS
Responding to these attacks on Palestinians the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the main organisation for Palestinian solidarity in Ireland, called for solidarity demonstrations and in particular advertised a solidarity rally to take place in Dublin’s city centre for 2pm on Saturday 15th May, asking those in attendance to comply with measures against Covid19 infection, to wear masks, maintain social distancing and comply with stewards’ instructions.
The IPSC was contacted by the Irish police force, the Gardaí, who told them not to go ahead with the event, that if they did they would intervene to stop it and also made threats of €5,000 fines and prison against the organisers. In a later public statement the Gardaí declared that they “have no role in permitting or authorising marches or gatherings. There is no permit/ authorisation required for such events”! But there is apparently an ability and power to intimidate and threaten progressive organisations to deter them from organising solidarity events.
Or to kettle socialist and socialist republican Mayday marchers and demand all their names, addresses and dates of birth before threatening them with arrest if they did not disperse. Or to threaten Debenham workers and their supporters, assaulting some of them while escorting KPMG forces in to evaluate stocks during pandemic restrictions.
The predicament of the IPSC exposed the vulnerability to this kind of intimidation of a broad organisation that seeks to win friends in ruling circles. The leaders and organisers are placed in a position of not only personal but also of organisational vulnerability. Even should they be prepared to defy the State to fine and/or imprison them, would they also be prepared to damage their organisation, to lose some friends they are cultivating in the circles of political influence? What was one of the strengths of a broad organisation can thus be converted into a weakness, whereas a more radical or even revolutionary organisation, with less influence in influential circles can decide on defiance, risk fines and jail with however perhaps less possibility of influencing official opinion and ultimately, action.
Fortunately in this case one such organisation did step forward and took up the baton: the Trinity College BDS group expressed its solidarity with the IPSC on its treatment by the Gardaí and called their own rally for the exact same place and time as the original one called by the IPSC.
Video of rally at end of demonstration, near Israeli Embassy
Despite concern over Covid19 transmission and Garda threats – and the extremely short notice and much smaller circle of contacts of the TC BDS group — the response was magnificent, both in expression of internationalist solidarity and in maintenance of the right of the people in Ireland to organise such progressive events.
Before the appointed hour, people began to gather in large numbers at the Spire in O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main street and north city centre and, after being addressed by a number of speakers, set off in a march towards the Israeli Zionist Embassy near Ballsbridge, beyond the south city centre. As they marched their numbers grew until, approaching the Embassy, they numbered several thousand. Along the way, bystanders applauded the marchers and passing vehicles blew their horns in solidarity.
Marchers shouted slogans of solidarity with the Palestinians, calling for the freedom of Palestine and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador as a mark of the Irish people’s objection to what is being done to the Palestinians.
Near the Embassy, a number of speakers addressed the crowd and after dispersing, a number of demonstrators boarding public transport to return home were congratulated by the drivers.
LESSONS FOR US
The situation regarding calling and holding the demonstration in Dublin outlined some of the weaknesses of a broad organisation when it faces repression from the State and the greater resilience of a smaller organisation in being able to defy the State. It may be necessary in future to maintain support for both types of organisation, each being appropriate for particular situations.
Also demonstrated was the necessity to openly defy unjust laws and prohibitions at times and particularly around the right to organise, to protest and to show solidarity, which the demonstrators did so well on Saturday. Such situations also reveal the difficulty for the Gardaí in carrying out repressive actions and they are reduced to threatening individuals.
THE FAR-RIGHT MARCHES TOO – FOR WHAT?
Meanwhile, a couple of hundred of the far-Right also marched in Dublin, allegedly in defence of civil liberty. Not in solidarity with the Palestinians’ civil liberties and not in defence of our civil liberty to organise to show solidarity with people in other struggles. No, they marched in defence of the right to defy health protection regulations, in proclaiming the Covid19 pandemic to be a) a hoax or b) greatly exaggerated, in claiming that wearing masks damages one’s health and even intelligence(!), in insisting that vaccinations are a) dangerous to one’s health or b) means of injecting nano-machines into people’s bloodstream in order to control them.
A clip posted by Ireland Against Fascism showed one of the QAnon Saturday screechers for months outside the GPO, Dolores Webster, aka Dee Wall, lately self-declared “digital journalist” (don’t laugh), in total ignorance of the actual reality (but when has that mattered?), broadcast a claim by video from her studio (her car), accompanied by the strains of Abba from the headphones of her head-bobbing passenger, that the “scum in the Dawl” had allowed the Palestinian solidarity march to go ahead to distract from the alleged general removal of freedom and in particular from the far-Right group Irish Yellow Vests to hold their rally on May 1st.
When all the Covid19 precautionary restrictions are removed, what will these elements have to march about? The will need to return to the topics that engaged many of them in the recent past: racism, anti-immigrants, islamophobia, homophobia and anti-socialism, along with their false patriotism. None of that is welcome of course but at least it will be without this false concern for “civil rights and freedom” and closer to the reality of what the far-Right in general stand for – and fascists in particular.
SUPERPOWER BACKING AND IMPUNITY
The current atrocities of the Zionist State, which it carries out with impunity, along with its history, starkly reveals the effect of its main backing power, the USA, and the imperialist alliance dominated by that Power. The USA backs Israel with military aid to the tune of $10 Million daily, which is aside from other direct and indirect aid. Israel is the only state in the Middle East which is not only very friendly to the USA but totally dependent on the support of that superpower. For the ruling class of the USA, Israel is the only state in the Middle East which is totally safe forever from fundamentalist Muslim revolution or from left-wing anti-imperialist revolution and is therefore an extremely important factor in the USA’s plans to totally dominate the Middle East.
This imperialist alliance finds reflection not only in the action/ inaction of governments in Europe, for example but also in the reporting of the mass media. One of the latter’s tropes is the constant emphasis on the numbers of Palestinian missiles fired, without revealing their general ineffectiveness in delivering destruction, in total contrast to the Israeli missiles. Another is their constant repetition of a lie, that “Hamas seized power in Gaza”. The truth is that Hamas swept the board in the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006. The “seizing” that was done was by Al Fatah, which usurped the results in the West Bank and installed themselves there; they tried to do the same in Gaza and, in a short fierce struggle, were beaten.
But the Western powers decided that Hamas was illegitimately in power, seized funds due to it and supported its blockading – by both Israel and Egypt. No explanation is offered in the general mass media as to how a generally politically-secular Palestinian public would turn from its decades of allegiance to Fatah to vote for the fundamentalist Muslim Hamas, which was Fatah’s surrender of the goals of Palestinian independence and freedom and the return of the refugees, in exchange for running a colonial administration with opportunities for living off bribery and corruption and Fatah’s settling down to that status quo.
CASTING A GIANT DARK SHADOW
It was not only in Dublin and in towns across Ireland that Palestine solidarity demonstrations were held on May 15th but by people across much of the world, generally in opposition to the wishes of their governments and ruling elites. It is worth thinking about how this has come about, in particular in contradiction to a mass media hostile to the Palestinians.
The Zionist state of Israel was declared in 1948, its anniversary actually only three days ago – May 14th, the first states to recognise it being the USA and the USSR. In Ireland at the time, there was general support for the new state which continued to the “June War” of 1967 and somewhat beyond. The general Irish population were horrified by the history of the Nazi-organised Holocaust and sympathised with the Jewish survivors. Irish nationalists and even Republicans empathised with the Zionist civil and armed struggle against the British (who, ironically, had begun the process of Zionisisation of Palestine). The 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow purporting to show that struggle, starring Kirk Douglas and a cameo appearance by Frank Sinatra, was widely enjoyed and cheered in cinemas across Ireland. Though some of the film’s characters were based on real-life counterparts, the general narrative was a grotesque distortion, hiding the massacres of Palestinians and the expulsion of thousands as the Zionist state was created.
Many Irish language supporters admired how the new state had brought the Hebrew language, for centuries only spoken in religious contexts, back into everyday usage.
Yet, a few years ago, general pro-Palestinian sympathy across Ireland had become so strong that Israel’s Ambassador to Ireland declared the country “the most anti-semitic in Europe”. That of course is what the Zionists call anyone who supports the Palestinians or criticises the Israeli state harshly and only a few days ago, the current Ambassador accused some politicians of spewing hate towards Israel. He was responding not only to Left and Sinn Féin TDs who criticised the actions of Israel towards the Palestinians, but also to the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister equivalent) Leo Varadkar who commented that Israel’s actions are “indefensible” and Government Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who said at an EU conference that the EU had “fallen short” and failed to project its influence in agreeing a common position in opposition to illegal activity by the Israelis against Palestinians.
The fact that establishment right-wing politicians feel obliged to take a public stand, however ineffectively, against actions of the Israeli Zionists and implicitly against the Zionists’ biggest international backer and world superpower, the USA, is a strong indication of how much Irish public opinion has changed over decades. Since the Cast a Giant Shadow film, the state’s shadow of which we are aware now is indeed frighteningly giant and very dark. In response, the natural cultural and historical feelings of the Irish people have stirred in sympathy with the oppressed Palestinians – and in defiance of threatened police repression at home.
For months the Duque government in Colombia has been unleashing violent repression on its people, in particular those who organise or participate in protests. The statistics are frightening, which is what they are intended to be: 40 dead, hundreds injured (some with loss of an eye), nearly 170 “disappeared”. Yet the people continue to protest.
What all this has exposed is that Colombia, despite its support by western states, has no democracy and that its vaunted “peace process”, like all others elsewhere before it or since, has had nothing to do with peace but everything to do with pacification. Unlike many in other parts of the world however, its acceptance by the FARC was the prelude to intensified State repression, with assassinations of leaders and activists of popular democratic movements. Also exposed is the lie that Colombia and the USA are truly involved in a “War on Drugs”, a commodity the sale of in which most of the political class of Colombia are involved and the profits in which the financial institutions in Colombia and much of the world are active in laundering.
Meanwhile, the people are subjected to economic squeeze, they protest, they are shot, beaten, tortured, raped, disappear ….
In two weeks of protests, statistics from the Defensoria del Pueblo (a kind of Ombudsman), listed 42 dead and 168 reported “disappeared”; of the dead, 41 were civilians and one was a member of the State security forces. A 17-year-old female demonstrator was reportedly sexually abused by four police officers and took her own life afterwards. Protesters burned the station where it happened but the officers themselves remain at large.
Protestors burning the station where police officers sexually violated a 17-year-old demonstrator who took her own life afterwards.
WHO KILLED VILLA?
Lucas Villa Vasquez, an iconic figure in the peaceful demonstrations, dancing and carrying out acrobatic acts, was shot during the General Strike, was declared brain dead in hospital and had his life-support system turned off, his heart stopping finally on 11th of May. Andrés Felipe Castaño, a 17-year-old youth shot on the same day underwent two operations before he could come off the critical list.
Who killed Villa? Not Duque, the President wanted people to believe as he sent a message of condolence to Villa’s family, the first personal condolence he has offered since the demonstrations – and the killing – began, except for the one police officer killed so far. Not the Police, their Director General, Major General Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia insisted, insisting his force is working hard to find the culprits and that a reward for information has risen to 100 million pesos1 for information. But people who know how these things work are only in doubt about one question: was it the police themselves who killed Villa and nearly killed Andrés Felipe, or was it one of the State-sponsored fascist gangs (which have strong links with the police and army)?
Villa has joined over 40 martyrs known to have been killed by the forces of the State; since their names are known only to their families or smaller political and social circles, Villa’s name stands for them all. As did Dilan Cruz before him, shot at close range to the head by a “non-lethal” beanbag in October 2019. And what of the nearly 170 disappeared? Are some of them already dumped into pits or rivers? Others in prison cells, awaiting their next session with the torturers? Or in the case of female prisoners, awaiting their next incident of violation?
Man in blue top and white trousers dancing in some clips was Lucas Villa Vasquez
Two Latin American league soccer matches in Colombia were affected on Wednesday: Visitors from Argentina’s River Plate team had their warm-up in Barranquilla abandoned for awhile due to the volume of police tear gas drifting in from outside and loud bangs could be heard also. That was a Copa Libertadores game and another, between Atletico Nacional and Nacional of Uruguay in Pereira was delayed by an hour due to protests there.
The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) moved matches from Colombia to Paraguay and Ecuador last week to ensure the protests did not affect games but the Copa America is due to be held in Colombia and Argentina next month with Colombia hosting 15 games including the final of the world’s oldest international tournament. The title match is due to be held in Barranquilla on July 10.
“SUSTAINABLE SOLIDARITY” WITH WHOM?
Part of the reason for the protests in the first place was the proposed tax reform by another name: Sustainable Solidarity Law. The Duque Government plans by this system to collect 23 billions in Colombian pesos (US$ 6,300 millions) by extending its tax base, to avoid any further increase in the country’s international risk qualification, to institutionalise the basic income level and build a fund to comply with its environmental protection targets.
Well, ok, but who is going to pay this tax-by-another name? According to the Minister of Finance himself, Alberto Carrasquilla, 73% is to be contributed by ordinary citizens and the rest by the companies.
Art in active resistance
In addition, the law proposes to apply the collection of Value Added Tax, which in Colombia is up to 19%, to basic consumer products such as public services (water, electricity and gas), funeral services, electronic items such as computers and other services that have been exempt until now.
Add to that ongoing State repression in the countryside, the number of unemployed nationally rising to 4.1 million as a result of the pandemic and the country was ready to take to the streets. But not ready for the repression of the demonstrators that followed.
President Duque asked the Colombian Parliament to withdraw the new tax reform which they did but the people are on their feet now, as they say there; now they have martyrs too on top of the issues they already had.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
It is up to the people of Colombia, the workers, civil servants, small business people, indigenous – to free themselves. None else can do it. But we owe them solidarity, just as we in turn have claimed solidarity (and will claim again) from others. It is difficult at the moment to see how our solidarity can express itself in much more than symbolic form, such as pickets, demonstrations, articles and memes on social media. But even those have more than a moral effect, for the Colombian Embassy staff here have as part of their duties to collect information on how the regime in Colombia is viewed in Ireland and to report that to their bosses at home. And since the Colombian ruling class needs to do business around the world ….
The Colombian masses also need to know that they do not stand alone, that others are watching, applauding them, cursing their enemies, mourning their martyrs.
We can also assist by continuing our efforts against another faraway enemy of democracy, the main instigator and protector of reaction, repression and oppression around the world, and main external supporter of the Colombian regime, trainer of its repressive forces – the ruling class of the United States of America.
Solidaridad con el pueblo Colombiano! Dlúthpháirtíocht le poball na Colóime!
TV news report on the general strike, general protests against killing by government forces; mothers and grandmothers of murdered protesters demonstrate against “Public Order” forces; Duque tries to present concern and gives a concession to students at a certain level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xz8ed0hS6OQ
On a gloomy wet and windy day today, Republicans and other anti-imperialists held a commemoration in Dublin’s Arbour Hill of the 14 executed martyrs in Dublin and the remaining two: Thomas Kent shot in Cork and Roger Casement hanged in Pentonville Jail, London. A heavy downpour interrupted the speaker but the event resumed after the cloudburst eased off though it was still raining. Sixteen lilies were laid on the grave patch and a song was sung that named seven of the martyrs, the signatories of the Proclamation.
The event was organised by Irish Socialist Republicans and Anti-Imperialist Action Ireland. In addressing the attendance Pádraig Drummond, chairing the event, pointed out that they were commemorating the Sixteen executed Martyrs of the 1916 Rising but that 15 of them had been murdered. Those had been tried by military court and even the British reviewing the actions later had agreed that the executions had been illegal; therefore Drummond said those 15 had been murdered and General Maxwell1 was a war criminal.
In addition, the chairperson continued, Maxwell had refused the relatives access to the bodies and had them buried without coffins in a quicklime pit in order to prevent their graves becoming martyrs’ shrines2.
When it came to the executions, Drummond said, Maxwell gave firing party duties to soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters, who had been decimated by Irish Volunteers at the battle of Mount Street Bridge on 26th April, seemingly to encourage them to avenge themselves for their regiment’s dead on unarmed prisoners condemned to die.
Pádraig Drummond called on one of the attendance to read out the Proclamation and, after he had done so, sixteen single Cala Lillies were laid on the plot above the quicklime pit.
Diarmuid Breatnach was then called forward to address the attendance; speaking first in Irish and then in English, Breatnach said that he had been asked to make some remarks on the history of Irish uprisings in relation to assistance given from abroad but in doing so, he was not laying down any dictates or anything of the sort, only some reflections. “We should learn from our successes,” Breatnach said but also from our failures and perhaps to focus even more closely on the latter.
Breatnach had not been speaking long when the rainfall intensified. He was protected by umbrella but others in attendance were not; he faltered and looked for guidance to the chairperson of the event when the heavens seemed to burst open and with a nod, the whole ensemble headed for the shelter of a nearby horse-chestnut tree.
When the rain had eased off somewhat Breatnach returned to his theme, recounting how (Hugh) Aodh Ó Néill and Aodh Rua Ó Domhnaill (Hugh Roe O’Donnell) had waged a guerrilla campaign in Ulster but relied on help from imperial Spain to free the whole country from England. Later the Irish resistance had sided with English monarchs against the English Parliament in the mid and late 17th Century, when they believed the monarchs would give them religious freedom and perhaps some of their lands back. The Papacy had supported the Irish in opposition to Cromwell and Imperial France gave military assistance against William of Orange later in the same century.
The United Irishmen in the 1790s had looked for help to Republican France, Breatnach recalled but the flotilla under Hoche failed to land in 1796 and after the Rising was provoked prematurely by the British, by the time General Humbert landed in Mayo with not enough troops, the rising was nearly finished. In 1803, Emmet’s rising took place without the expectation of foreign assistance but was quickly over.
The Young Irelanders apparently believed in 1848, the Year of Revolutions all over Europe that an insurrectionary mobilisation could be achieved peacefully in Ireland and did not look for help from abroad — but were quickly suppressed, the speaker said.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded simultaneously in Ireland and in the United States. In 1866 the Fenians invaded Canada and in 1867 carried out a campaign in Britain, then had a brief unsuccessful rising in Ireland. They had not asked for troops from outside but in their Provisional Proclamation called on the English working class to rise against their exploiters.
The IRB was reformed and re-energised at the beginning of the last century and intended to lead a rising when England was in a war, which was expected soon. WW1 began in 1914 and in 1916 the Irish rose expecting help from Imperial Germany (which they received in armaments but nothing else) and from the USA in political support of which they received little.
The speaker remarked that looking back on all these instances in Irish history, those risings which had not had help from abroad, as with Emmet’s and the Young Irelanders, had lasted the least time.
It would be unrealistic, Breatnach continued, to expect to defeat a powerful enemy such as the UK with its army, navy and air force, without help from an external force. Unless of course the rulers of the UK were struggling with insurrectionary struggles from their own working class.
Looking ahead, the closest areas from which help could come to an Irish insurrection are Britain and the European mainland. In looking for allies it would be necessary to evaluate the benefits and costs of particular alliances. Breatnach felt that when a part of the Irish leadership accepted the deal they were offered in 1921, they had an alternative option of linking with the struggles of the working class in Britain. In 1926 there was a general strike throughout Britain and earlier, in 1921 there had been strike struggles including one in Glasgow, where the local military unit was under lock and key by their own officers in fear that they would join the resistance. Large numbers of British soldiers who wanted to be demobbed after the War were being held back because their rulers knew they would need them to suppress liberation struggles throughout the world. These soldiers were rioting in some areas in Britain. Breatnach remarked that it is difficult to be certain but that if the Irish resistance had combined with the British workers in that period our whole history might have turned out very differently.
In conclusion Breatnach went on to talk briefly about internationalist solidarity, which can be a different issue than alliances; solidarity can be a moral issue but it can also be a practical one, as it is workers that would be required to produce material and load ships being sent against us. He had also noted, he remarked, that often internationalist solidarity would be the first thing dropped by those intending to abandon the revolutionary path; Breatnach exhorted the attendance to treat internationalist solidarity as a duty, a pleasure and a practical help.
Pádraig Drummond thanked Breatnach for his remarks and asked him to sing the Larkin Ballad as a conclusion to the event, which Diarmuid did.
“In Dublin City in 1913,
The boss was rich and the poor were slaves ….”
The lyrics were written by Donagh Mac Donagh, orphan son of one of the executed Signatories of the Proclamation. The narrative begins with the union militancy under Larkin’s leadership, followed by the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and ends with the execution of the Signatories. The participation in the Rising of the workers’ defence militia, the Irish Citizen Army, along with James Connolly being one of the Seven Signatories of the Proclamation, provided an organic link between the Lockout and the Rising.
After the event people took photos and socialised briefly before heading for their homes through persistent rain.
1. General John Maxwell, a veteran of colonial wars, was the officer charged with the suppression of the Rising; he set up the martial tribunals that handed down nearly 100 death sentence to participants, of which 15 leading revolutionaries were actually put to death, the others having their death sentences commuted to prison sentences.
Wikipedia: “Maxwell arrived in Ireland on Friday 28 April as “military governor” with “plenary powers” under Martial law, replacing Lovick Friend as the primary British military commander in Ireland. He set about dealing with the rebellion under his understanding of Martial law. During the week of 2–9 May, Maxwell was in sole charge of trials and sentences by “field general court martial”, in which trials were conducted in camera, without defence counsel or jury. He had 3,400 people arrested and 183 civilians tried, 90 of whom were sentenced to death. Fifteen were shot between 3rd and 12th May. H.H Asquith and his government became concerned with the speed and secrecy of events, and intervened in order to stop more executions. In particular, there was concern that DORA (Defence of the Realm Act, wartime legislation –CS) regulations for general courts martial were not being applied. These regulations called for a full court of thirteen members, a professional judge, a legal advocate, and for the proceedings to be held in public, provisions which could have prevented some of the executions. Maxwell admitted in a report to Asquith in June that the impression that the leaders were killed in cold blood and without a trial had resulted in a “revulsion of feeling” that had emerged in favour of the rebels, and was the result of the confusion between applying DORA as opposed to Martial law (which Maxwell had actually pressed for from the beginning). As a result, Maxwell had the remaining death sentences commuted to penal servitude. Although Asquith had promised to publish the court martial proceedings, the transcripts were not made public until 1999.”
However, it is known that Maxwell insisted on executing two more after Asquith’s caution and these were Sean Mac Diarmada (McDermot) and James Connolly, to which Asquith agreed.
2 In that, Maxwell was signally unsuccessful and between 1955 and 1966 the Arbour Hill site was developed as an important Irish historical monument and at this time of year will be visited by organisations and individuals, precisely in commemoration of the 1916 Rising.
Cumann na mBan (“Women’s Association”), a female military auxiliary and counterpart to the Irish Volunteers, was founded on this day in 1914, one hundred and seven years ago. Its members took part in the 1916 Rising and perhaps even more importantly in keeping up the momentum of the militant movement for independence during martial law after the defeat of the Rising and for years afterwards. They were part of the War of Independence and the Civil War in military and political activities. Many were jailed. The Easter Lily emblem, which many will wear to commemorate the Rising, is their invention. The role of Cumann na mBan, along with that of other women in Irish history, is to this day still not sufficiently highlighted or valued.
Cumann na mBan was formed as a female counterpart and auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers, which had been formed the previous year (as had, separately, the Irish Citizen Army). The inaugural public meeting was held in Wynn’s Hotel, Thursday, 2 April 1914. It was presided over by Agnes O’Farrelly, who was elected President. The provisional executive unveiled at the meeting included Jennie Wyse Power, Nancy O’Rahilly, Agnes MacNeill, Margaret Dobbs, Mary Colum, Nurse McCoy, Louise Gavan Duffy and Elizabeth Bloxham. A constitution was adopted which stated that Cumann na mBan aimed: 1. To advance the cause of Irish liberty 2. To organise Irishwomen in the furtherance of this object 3. To assist in arming and equipping a body of Irishmen for the defence of Ireland 4. To form a fund for these purposes to be called the ‘Defence of Ireland Fund’.
It was not the first organisation of women to stand for Irish independence that century – Inghinidhe na hÉireann had been formed in 1900 as a cultural organisation and had developed a militant Irish independentist political outlook along with a suffragettist one. Inghinidhe formally dissolved itself and joined Cumann na mBan in 1914 but in effect formed one of its branches and continued to represent a trend for greater activism and female independence within Cumann.
Unlike the Volunteers, membership of the socialist Irish Citizen Army, founded in 1913, was open to both genders and the women who joined that tended to disdain the membership of Cumann na mBan because not only did they not have a social program but were, at that time, under the overall authority of the all-male Irish Volunteers.
Prior to 1916, Cumann na mBan took part in agitation and publicity actions, a number of which they organised themselves. Their marching in the procession to the grave of O’Donavan Rosa’s grave in 1915 was apparently what most impressed other women, in particular young women; they had never witnessed a self-organised women’s organisation on the streets before and the Cumann’s membership swelled thereafter. When Redmond promised Irish men to the rulers of Britain to fight in WW1 the minority part of the movement but the most active split in order to fight for independence from the UK. Cumann na mBan split also but in their case, the majority went for fighting against Britain.
In preparation for the 1916 Rising all members of the main female organisation learned First Aid and prepared field dressings for wounds, which perhaps brought them to face the physical dangers of insurrection more than did the training schedules of the Volunteers. They also engaged in anti-British Army recruitment activities which, after Britain declared War in 1914, increasingly meant being assaulted and arrested by the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary. Many also transported secret messages and weapons, often storing the latter. In an informal way, they also provided intelligence they were able to gather. Through their cultural and social activities they provided diversion for male activists as well as a cover for clandestine meetings and other activities. During the Rising, Cumann na mBan members helped deliver arms, ammunition and equipment, construct barricades, set up field hospitals, provided food and water/ tea to combatants, acted as messengers. ICA women did most of that but a number of them were snipers also and one of those, Vol. Margaret Skinnider was gunshot-wounded three times while sniping and in other military activity in the Stephen’s Green/ College of Surgeons garrison area. Most of the Dublin garrisons had Cumann na mBan in them and those in the GPO garrison were asked to leave with some wounded when the building was in danger of collapse. Three women refused to leave with them and were there at the final surrender in Moore Street: Vols. Elizabeth O’Farrell, Winifred Carney and Julia Grenan.
Around 300 women are known to have taken part in the Rising and from the relative numbers of women in CnmB and the ICA, most of those had to be Cumann members; only 157 womens’ names appear on the Roll of Honour for the Rising.
Cumann na mBan was the first organisation of its kind in the world, a point that is often lost sight of: an insurrectionary female military organisation with its own uniform and officers.
The greater role of the women in general and in particular of members of Cumann na mBan however was after the Rising when, even under martial law, they organised fund-raising for relief for families who had lost a breadwinner to death or prison; organised also public commemorations, defying arrest to keep the flame and memories alive, helping to create the sea-change in attitude to the Rising and giving a fertile ground for them to plant the seeds of resistance, along with the male and female prisoners released under amnesty.
In 1918 members of the Cumann worked to help the landslide victory for Sinn Féin in the British General Election in Ireland and then helped in the War of Independence, this time greatly organised into intelligence work but also as before as couriers, carrying and hiding weapons, caring for the wounded, running safe houses and other actions, as well as in public demonstrations and pickets, for example outside prisons. They were assaulted on occasion and jailed, sometimes replying with a hunger strike. They could not easily go “on the run” and were subjected by British Army and colonial Police to invasions of their homes and ill-treatment which included shearing their hair.
In 1921, Cumann na mBan again split over the Treaty but once more with the majority against it and in 1922 took the Republican side in the Civil War, for which they suffered repression, home invasions and imprisonment anew, this time by the forces of the Free State.
In 1926 Cumann na mBan invented the Easter Lily emblem in order to raise funds for the dependents of prisoners and killed in action fighters, in addition to those officially and unofficially executed, abducted an murdered. It is purely as a result of their efforts at this time that the emblem is so widely worn and appreciated in the wide Irish Republican movement, especially around this time of year.
Cumann na mBan ceased to exist soon after the split between the “Officials” and “Provisionals” in 1969 but women continued to be active in the political organisations and also to be recruited into the various military ones.
(note the omission of the Moore Street battlefield at the end, with a Winifred Carney, Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan noted as staying on in the GPO but omitting to mention where they went soon afterwards, or Farrell’s important roles thereafter): https://www.richmondbarracks.ie/women-1916/cumann-na-mban/
Current media news reports quote James McClean, a player for the English Football League club Stoke City and for the soccer team of the Irish State1, protesting against being subjected to anti-Irish racism and his wife Erin also, not so much on her own behalf but in consideration of her three children. McClean points out that while other kinds of discrimination are rightly opposed, anti-Irish racism goes largely ignored by British society and by the football profession. Despite its existence for 800 years and its persistence today, anti-Irish racism has long been neglected in the study of racism and the struggle against it.
James MacClean, who comes from Derry, has been made a controversial figure by his refusal to comply with the expectation that he wear a Remembrance Poppy, which he correctly sees as a promotional emblem for the British Army. As a result he has been subjected to sectarian Loyalist abuse and anti-Irish abuse targeting him and his family.
The origins of anti-Irish racism can be traced back to the writings of Anglo-Norman Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) in the latter half of the 12th Century. Coming from a background of Norman feudal culture and a comparatively recent history of conquest of large parts of Celtic and Saxon Britain2, Gerald found little to admire in Gaelic culture3 or society and much to deride. The feudal Norman visitors were encountering a culture of clan ownership of land, of election of clan leaders and greater kings who might not be first-born, of a Christian clergy that was not celibate and in which women could own their own property before, during and after marriage with the right to divorce. A culture shock indeed.
The writings of Gerald helped justify the 1169 opportunistic invasion of Ireland at the invitation of a resentful overthrown Irish king. With that beachhead well-established and the Irish Vikings of Dublin evicted by Richard de Clare, “Strongbow” in 1170, anti-Irish racism served to justify the official invasion of Henry in 1171 backed up by the authorisation of Pope Adrian IV with the Papal Bull Laudabiliter, a 1155 letter of ecclesiastic authorisation, to bring the semi-independent Irish church to the Gregorian Reforms.4
Despite the early scorn and distaste of the Norman invaders for Irish culture, within less than two centuries they were becoming integrated with it to such an extent as to cause alarm among the English Normans. The latter drafted a number of laws forbidding elements of that integration, the most infamous being the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, forbidding the Irish Normans from adopting native Irish customs, forms of dress and use of the Irish language; they had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, their critics in England complained. Inside the “Pale”, the central enclosures of the occupiers’ power, the Statutes could be enforced but not outside and so Ireland remained essentially Gaelic in culture, with some cultural transference from the Normans.
For the conquest to be secure, Ireland needed to be conquered entirely and plantations of people seemed the way to achieve this: send in settlers, give them expropriated land which they they would have to defend. This was the approach of the Tudor monarchs of England and to a requirement that the settlers would be English-speaking they added the new religion, that of the Protestant Reformation. Settlements had to be capable of defence5 and no “mere Irish” should be employed.
Dispossession, plantation and oppression continued through the 17th Century under Cromwell and King William and through the Penal Laws thereafter up to the 19th.
The native Irish (Gael) and now also the Norman Irish (Gall-Ghael) were the enemy surrounding these settlements outside the Pale, they had been dispossessed and would no doubt recover their lands and their sovereignty if given the chance. And they were by far the majority. Justification for conquest and dispossession required an appropriate ideology and this was found in the assumed superiority of the occupiers’ religions, language, culture and polities. And the natural corollary to that was an ascribed inferiority to everything among the natives: language, religion, cultural habits and mores, dress … Naturally practical physical measures were required also: oppression, discrimination and repression of resistance.
The Irish were characterised as savage, child-like, emotional, untrustworthy (they agreed to treaties when beaten but broke them later6), superstitious, violent (they kept resisting the lawful authority or even uprising), drunkards, dirty ….
Following the scientific breakthrough of Darwinism came “Social Darwinism” and some Victorian pseudo-anthropologists placed the Irish as a Celtic Iberian race below the Teutonic (with which of course they identified the English) but above the “African Hottentot”. The Irish and Latin “races” were described as of “feminine” nature: emotional, weak, charming at times, unintelligent, needing to be controlled; while the “masculine” Anglo-Teutonic “races” were strong, measured, logical and obviously the right ones to be in control.
Irish uprisings increased the sense of insecurity of the conquerors and occupiers and intensified their efforts to justify their oppression and repression of the Irish so that Victorian Britain during Fenian campaigns churned out jokes against the Irish, along with nasty tales and horrible caricatures in popular newspapers. But not just popular newspapers: as the Irish starved in the Great Hunger of the mid-19th Century while their produce fed the British industrial revolution, the London Times, newspaper of record for the British ruling class, exulted in an editorial that the the Irish (survivors) were leaving and that soon an Irishman would be as rare in Ireland as the American Indians on the North-East Coast of the USA.
EXPORTING ANTI-IRISH RACISM
Not surprisingly, a central ideology such as anti-Irish racism accompanied the British wherever they went, despite the number of Irish in their armies and administrative layers. Boston, Massachusetts was particularly known for ant-Irish prejudice and discrimination and that may explain why the Irish community there was reportedly so clannish and defending its hard-won turf against all comers, including unfortunately competition from those considered even lower than the Irish, African Americans7. The anti-Irish ideology made itself felt in the white-ruled colonies, later Dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada too.
A strange case of the dissemination of this virus was its export to Scotland, a nation although of Celtic origin, heavily settled by Normans and Saxons, and incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1707. This was in particular of Ulster origin and took the form of anti-Catholicism. The English occupation had consciously stirred up religious sectarianism in the 1790s in order to break up the growing unity of Protestant Irish of various backgrounds with the Catholic vast majority which was framed in a republican project for greater independence. An important part of that subversion was the creation of the Orange Order in Loughgall in 1795, which became active in helping to suppress the United Irishmen uprising of 1798 and especially in repression afterwards, both against Republican Protestants and Catholics in general. As the Republican element among the Protestants decreased dramatically due to repression and emigration, the Order concentrated almost exclusively on oppression of Catholics and repression of resistance, a role it plays to this day.
But with the decline of the Ulster weaving industry in particular due to Ireland entering the UK in 1801 and British preferential treatment of their own production, many Ulster emigrants came to Scotland and were in competition for work, with the Orange Order being used to infect the already widely Protestant Scottish society against the Catholics which meant essentially, against the Irish. That has continued to this day (see References) and finds its expression in an often violent rivalry for example between soccer football teams of “Catholic” and “Protestant” background8, in Orange marches celebrating the victories of King William in Ireland and in discrimination in other areas such as policing too.
ANTI-IRISH RACISM IN THE 20th AND 21st CENTURIES
Anti-Irish racism was whipped up again during the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish war of Independence (1919-1921), and not just against the Irish in Ireland but against the Irish in Britain, in the USA9 and in Australia10. It raised its ugly head (and bared its teeth) again during WW2 (inflamed by the IRA campaign in Britain and Irish state neutrality) and again during the recent 30 years’ war.
In the 1970s anti-Irish articles, jokes and cartoons abounded in the British press and to this ideological offensive was added the 1971 weekly program of The Comedians (“stand up comedians”), of which a huge proportion of their material was anti-Irish racism, depicting the Irish in particular as stupid. I was London myself during that period and remember that a “comedian” only had to say “There was this Paddy on a building site” and the audience would be already laughing. Bernard Manning was the most infamous of those but there were many, many others.
Those jokes and others were repeated not only by comperes and club comedians but of course also at work, in school, at college and in universities. They represented a deeply degrading ideological offensive on a cultural level against the whole Irish community.
Apart from the Comedians TV program, a number of media personalities made racist jokes about or references to the Irish without any apology from the media or repercussions from their employers. Angus Deaton, for a long time presenter of Have I Got News For You, the popular British TV comedy news and current affairs commentary show, made a joke about the Irish (although participant Paul Merton, who said his mother was Irish, riposted brilliantly). Caroline Aherne, a comedienne who brilliantly played the biting chat-show character “Mrs. Merton”, was one of the few to speak out publicly against the racist “humour” but both her parents were Irish. Billy Connolly, Scottish comedian of Catholic Irish background, while discussing comedy, admitted to having told an anti-irish joke once when feeling lonely on stage, which he regretted. To the urbane Irish presenter Terry Wogan’s great credit while judging a popular British TV talent show, he declared anti-Irish jokes were not funny.
1974 saw the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act and the framing and incarceration of two score innocent Irish people. Apart from raids on homes, spurious arrests without warrants, detention without charge and oppressive interrogations, thousands were questioned at ports and airports, often made to miss their flights at the latter. Though the charges falsely alleged involvement in “terrorist acts” the basis was Irishness, in a way very reminiscent to “Muslim” being considered sufficient justification today.
If a good working definition of racism is “discrimination against and disparaging of another ethnic group from a position of power”, then the Irish should have had no problems in gaining recognition as being racially oppressed and discriminated against. However, so many insisted that the Irish could not qualify because they were “white”. But in fact there already existed a “white” ethnic group which was widely acknowledge as having been discriminated against for centuries – the Jews. That however was explained by some as being a “religious discrimination” at root and not “racism”. The basic fact of the matter was and is that it did not suit the British ruling class or their intelligentsia to admit to anti-Irish racism – and not just because of guilt but for very practical reasons: they are still in conquest-occupation of nearly one-fifth of Irish territory. And the Irish diaspora is the oldest ethnic minority in Britain as well as, until recently perhaps, the largest11.
The British Left, the leading parts of which have either gained access to management of the British State or aspire to do so, for the most part have denied or minimalised anti-Irish racism. It took Liz Curtis to put together a popular illustrated booklet on anti-Irish racism and the Irish in Britain Representation Group, founded in 1981 to campaign against it. The IBRG made official complaints to and about the media and picketed WH Smiths12 until they stopped selling “Irish mugs” with the handle inside. While supporting general equality, the IBRG made complaints to local authorities about racist measures that impacted upon the Irish and sought to have an Irish ethnicity identification choice in the British Census, which was eventually successful.13 An approach of theirs to the GLC convinced the Council, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, to withdraw all their advertising from the London Evening Standard until the latter apologised for publishing an anti-Irish racist cartoon. The Editor refused to apologise and never again received any advertising from the GLC14, at a revenue loss to the newspaper estimated at £2 million.
Mostly the Irish community fought the racism on their own, without the support of most of the British Left or the liberal-social-democratic elements. Even after the 1965 Race Relations Act the widespread feeling was that whether one was for or against the Act, it did not apply to the Irish. The Act specifically excluded shops and boarding houses (i.e places where notices declaring “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”) were widespread but they were included in the 1968 Act15. The 1976 Act was more comprehensive but the assumption of inapplicability to the Irish continued. It appears that it was not until the Killian case against the British pharmaceutical retail chain Boots in 1989 that an Irish person was successful in taking a case for discrimination16 under the 1976 Act.
The anti-Irish racist offensive mostly petered out at the end of the 1990s but flared up again in the British media during the whole Brexit saga. In 2015 Jeremy Clarkson flew into a rage with an Irish co-producer of the Top Gear show, abused him racially and punched him in the mouth. It is a virus or bacteria living deep in the British mainstream psyche; it recedes at times only to be reactivated whenever the British ruling class — or sections of the chattering class — perceive that the Irish are not acting in the best interests of Britain, whatever they perceive those to be.
1In the world of soccer football, there are two “national” teams competing for the championships: “Republic of Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”, a clear example of intrusion of politics into sport, for Ireland is one country and was recognised as such even by the English invaders (the inventors of soccer) from 1169 until they partitioned the country in 1921. Thus what is mostly recognised as the Irish national team has to compete against another team from a part of its own country in order to progress in championships!
2England suffered a Norman invasion in 1066 which gradually extended over the whole of Britain, the south-east of which had been already conquered by the Saxons.
3He admired Gaelic decorative art as expressed in illuminated manuscripts and harp-playing, describing them as “the work of angels”, almost expressing incredulity that they could have come from Gaelic culture. It is unlikely that he learned the Irish language, perhaps conversing with natives through the medium of Latin or an interpreter.
4The Gaels, who earlier had a pantheistic religion moderated by the druidic order, had been largely Christian by the 5th Century; furthermore the transition to Christianity in Ireland was not imposed by conquest and appears to have been largely voluntary; in addition the Christian monks recorded a great many of the pre-Christian myths and legends. During the Early Middle Ages the Irish Church sent out missionaries to many parts of Europe, establishing monasteries similar to universities as far away as Asia Minor.
5Hence the layout of triangle, square or diamond town centres of settler origin in Ireland, rather than native layout of lines of housing following road or river crossing and backing up behind, or congregating around harbour, fort or monastery. See also the design of even the small Protestant churches which look built to be used as forts, with strong doors and narrow windows, some even like arrow-slits.
6Compare this with the long history of conquerors, certainly including the English, repeatedly violating treaties they had made when victorious!
7Of course Boston was far from being the only US City where anti-black racism was the norm in Irish communities but it was perhaps the worst. Of course Irish anti-slavery, labour and civil rights workers also existed, some of them very prominent in their field.
8e.g supporters of Glasgow Celtic v. Rangers, of Hibernians v. Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh.
9The British intelligence services were well aware that the Irish insurgency was receiving substantial concrete and moral assistance from the Irish diaspora in the USA.
10It had existed there before from in particular English settlers but reached hysterical proportions when two attempts to impose conscription in WW1 through referendum – because they feared to impose it otherwise – failed, a fact which was attributed by many to the Irish element in the (white) Australian electorate.