Book-cases line the walls, filling up with biographies, histories, political and social theory from anarchist, marxist, feminist and Basque independentist perspective – and some classical literature. On the low central table are children’s illustrated stories and puzzles. One can see samples in the window too.
An alternative Left bookshop has opened in the iconic town of Gernika (Guernica in Spanish and in the title of Picasso’s famous painting of the town’s
bombing and strafing by the Luftwaffe and Italian air force in 1937). Going by the title of Inuri Gorria (“Red Ant”), the bookshop is a medium-sized (as these things go) one-level shop situated on one of the town’s main streets, with passing one-way traffic of private and public transport. Virtually next door is one of those open-front fruit shops and further down the same street, past bars and other businesses, is the nearby Herriko Taberna (literally “Peoples’ Tavern”. That is one of the many such social centre-taverns run by the official Basque pro-independence Left1 but of which many were ordered closed by the Spanish state in recent years on unsubstantiated accusations that they were linked to the armed organisation ETA, which is now dissolved). Once the people running the ‘Herriko’ and the trend represented by the new bookshop were strongly united but no longer, due to the change in direction adopted by the leadership of the Abertzale (pro-national ndependence) Left in recent years. Of course both trends will still attend at some events, particularly demonstrations about Basque political prisoners.
The Inuri Gorria bookshop opened officially on 12th October, which is a bank holiday in the whole Spanish state; called el Dia de la Hispanidad, it celebrates the spreading of the Castillian language as a result of the conquest of much of the Americas by the Spanish Kingdom in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Not surprisingly, it is also the official day for celebrating the armed forces of the State. Also unsurprisingly, the celebrations are opposed by anti-imperialists throughout the territory of the Spanish state and in particular perhaps by those nations still seeking independence. 2 No doubt many in the Gernika area were glad to have something progressive to celebrate on that date, which they did by gathering at the opening to view the books and eat some pintxos, later repairing to a local bar which displays photos of political prisoners from the local area (as does the Herriko). On this occasion some who would still count themselves members of the “oficialistas”, though likely from an internal critical position, attended also. There was also a Basque traditional festival in the town with many dressing in traditional clothing and taking part in cultural activities.
“The material I have here is of an alternative Left and feminist political kind”, said the owner, Maribel Egizabal, when I dropped in again some days later. “I have children’s books and games, of an educational kind about values, sections on feminism and about women, alternative philosophy, social movements, ethnic minorities and racism, city life, ecology, the history and culture of the Basque Country.”
One of the books she stocks is a local history of the nearby Busturia area dealing with the effects of the Anti-Fascist War (1936-1939), a substantial piece of work which she herself had a major part in researching and writing3, produced by one of the groups in which she is active, Laia, a local history group. The history of that period and of the executions and repression that followed the victory of the fascist troops is very much a sharp issue today and not only in the Basque Country but throughout the Spanish state.
The material in Inuri Gorria is mostly in the Euskera and Castillian (Spanish) languages but there are also some 2nd-hand books in French and English and Maribel hopes to add additional material in those languages. “With regard to political philosophy, I stock material in anarchist, marxist, feminist and independentist traditions. I don’t want to just sell books”, she told me “but to also provide a meeting-space for discussion and learning by social and political movements of the people.”
Maribel is a straight-talking woman with a long history in the feminist, Basque independentist and socialist movements, in different organisations, including the Basque internationalist solidarity organisation of Askapena, also Askagintza, an organisation working with people with drug addiction issues as well as the local history group alluded to above. “Inuri Gorria will be interested in material dealing with struggles around the world as well as in the Basque Country,” she tells me, “including of course struggles of other nations within this state such as Catalunya and of movements and organisations within the Spanish Left.”
When I dropped by a third time, the day before my return to Dublin, Maribel was buoyant at the interest in the shop and its material being shown, especially by younger people.
“They are particularly interested in political theory,” she told me enthusiastically. It has long been remarked that the Abertzale Left movement was lacking in political education of its youthful following. No doubt the repression and banning of a succession of the movement’s youth organisations played a part in this but that does not explain the lack of educational materials, study and discussion groups, lecture series etc.4
Gernika is worth a visit on its own and is connected by public train and bus services to Bilbao (also a longer-distance bus service to Bilbao and other areas). The town centre is attractive and hosts the Peace Museum (low charge and well-worth a visit) documenting life before the Anti-Fascist War, during it, including the town’s infamous bombing (which the Fascists tried to blame on the ‘Reds’5) and the ensuing occupation by fascist Spanish, colonial Moroccan and Italian fascist troops. Higher up, the ‘Gernika Tree’ and some of its offspring stand near the Gernika Assemby House (Gernikako Gazteen Etxebizitza/ Casa de Juntas de Gernika), built in 1826 to succeed several other buildings nearby. It was there the lords of Bizkaia (whose original member, according to Basque legend, was a Gael) from medieval times assembled to discuss issues and that the monarchs of the Spanish Kingdom affirmed the Basque rights or Fueros until abrogated in 1876. Entry is free and guided tours are offered by arrangement (but as generally the case with many buildings in the southern Basque Country, it will close between 2pm and 4pm.)
The Inurri Gorria bookshop will normally open 10am-12noon and 4.30-8pm on weekdays and 10-12noon on Saturdays, remaining closed on Sundays but of course may be in use on other occasions by some of the organisations and movements Maribel alluded to.
1Their currrent political parties are Sortu (and the pro-independence social-democratic coalition EH Bildu).
2Ironically, migrants of Latin American origin may be seen celebrating the day also: it is the one day in Spanish calendar that they may feel specifically includes them.
3Busturia 1937-1977 – represión y resistencia de un pueblo (‘repression and resistance of a people’), Maribel Egizabal & Unai Serrano, Busturia (2018), IBSN 978-84-697-8677-2.
4The Abertzale Left is not the only movement one can accuse of such neglect of the political education of youth, one finds the same generally in the Irish Republican movement (both in the Provisionals and in the various splits since).
5Calling all the opponents of the military coup “Rojos” (‘Reds’) was a propaganda policy of the coupist military leaders and fascists (and copied elsewhere, as sometimes in The irish Independent); in fact their opposing broad movement included democratic anti-fascists and constitutionalists, trade unionists, Basque and Catalan nationalists and Republicans as well as Communists and Anarchists. It seems clear that without the intervention of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, aided by the “Non-Interventionist” policy of France and the UK, the popular forces would have defeated the military and fascist insurrection.
The ongoing slaughter by Israeli soldiers of Palestinians demonstrating at the border of the Israeli State for the right to return to their homeland has rightly received media attention and, after a motion condemning Israel in the UN Security Council was blocked by the USA, the General Assembly passed another by a huge majority. The shootings demonstrate the total disregard of the Zionist authorities for Palestinian life and also the degree to which, by refusing to condemn and by supplying finance and equipment, the USA and major European states stand in support of Israel and are therefore complicit in its murderous actions. But the whole history of the right of return of Palestinians raises another issue of international importance and provides a historical and political lesson applicable widely, far beyond Palestine or even the Middle East.
Negotiations, Agreements and ….?
Back in 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was in secret negotiation with Israel in Oslo, with Norway in the ‘honest broker’ role (but a later Norwegian Foreign Office investigation concluded that the Norwegian participants had acted as “Israel’s errand boys” – see link). Later it was to be the USA playing the ‘facilitator’ role — yes, bizarre, given the USA’s major economic and strategic interests in the Middle East and its role in supporting Israel. But then, perhaps the PLO figured they’d best have both their enemies there at the same time, both tied to whatever agreement was hammered out.
What had brought the parties to the negotiation table was the First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. This uprising had begun on 9th December 1987 and had been characterised by repeated street fighting, barricades, refusal to work for the Israelis and strikes and boycotts, along with refusal to pay taxes. The Israeli state had replied with arrests and shootings, killing over 1,600 Palestinians as against 277 Israelis killed. Between 23,600–29,900 Palestinian children required medical treatment from Israeli Occupation Force beatings in the first two years (Wikipedia).
After signing the Oslo Accords in Washington, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO and Yitzak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, were photographed there shaking hands with US President Bill Clinton looking on approvingly, arms almost around them, like a big friendly uncle making peace between nephews. Yizhak Rabin, Shimon Perez and Arafat were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 (a prize already devalued ever since it had been awarded to notorious warmonger Kissinger).
Much was made of the Oslo meeting and the Accords (including later meetings and agreements) in the international media with talk of coming peace in Palestine and a resolution to the conflict etc signposted and not too far ahead. These prediction proved false and hopes were dashed.
But anyone examining the situation cooly would not have been surprised. Leaving aside other issues such as whether a two-state solution was justifiable, or viable even then, or whether the legitimacy of Israel should ever have been agreed to, the right of return of Palestinian exiles had been set aside by the PLO in the final Oslo agreement, a postponement, along with a number of other big issues, such as illegal settlements, to be discussed later. The Palestinian diaspora is today estimated at 9.6 million people (see link).
Since the omissions were of issues fundamental to any solution even within the parameters of the dubious two-state solution, it would have been obvious to anyone who had their eyes open that the Oslo Accords were no solution nor even a step towards a solution. So why were they agreed by the PLO?
A belief in the Accords as a stepping-stone would not have been sustainable on its own (except for wishful-thinking liberals) and the partial withdrawal of Israeli armed forces insufficient, given that Israel controlled all borders (except the Gaza one with Egypt, in which that state colluded with Israel). In addition, the Israeli troops had the capacity to return whenever they wished (and did so many times).
The motivation has to have been status or money.
The PLO, although containing a number of Palestinian organisations at that time (but not Islamic Jihad or Hamas), was dominated by Al Fatah, a secular Palestinian national liberation organisation. Fatah had the prestige of long existence and of having withstood the Israeli armed assault at Karameh in Jordan in 1968 during which, at a huge cost, it had forced the Zionist army to retreat. The following year Fatah had reportedly racked up 2,432 guerrilla attacks on Israel too — for a population with the Zionist jackboot on its neck, that counted for a lot.
Concluding an agreement with the Israelis, who previously said they would not talk to the Palestinian resistance, might have seemed like a status-raising event to Fatah. And setting up the Palestinian Authority, which of course they would run, would definitely give them status in the eyes of many outside and even inside Palestine.
But running the PA, which would be in receipt of funds and in charge of their distribution, also managing employment, would also provide myriad opportunities for corruption and nepotism, unless the organisation were to be rigorously monitored either externally or internally. That monitoring did not happen and corruption among Fatah was rife. Only the people on the ground seemed to mind, the ones who wanted strong opposition to the Israeli occupation and whatever development could be brought about in the infrastructure and communities, along with the longer-term aims of a Palestinian state and the return of refugees and exiles. And who weren’t part of the corruption.
Failure of Agreements and Insurrection
In 2000, after the failure of the Camp David talks in the US and many failures in the Accords in the nine years of their existence, no-one seriously believed in the Oslo Accords any more and the Second Intifada began. An intifada had provided the reason to negotiate for the Israelis, however insincerely intended and now another intifada brought the negotiation period formally to a close.
As observed earlier, Fatah was the organisation to which the majority of Palestinians (certainly within Palestine) had given their support and it was a secular party (although for the first time the PLA declared the “state religion” to be Islam in 2003, where previously there had been no mention of religion whatsoever). We can assume that most Palestinians were happy to be represented by a secular organisation and perhaps even preferred it.
But in the 2005 municipal, most Palestinians voted for Hamas, a fundamentalist Moslem organisation, for the first time pushing Fatah into second place. And in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 2006, again. What brought about that change? Was it a sudden devotional conversion? No, it was that Al Fatah had become corrupt, was not seen to be fighting Zionism hard enough (some would have said was becoming collaborationist) and had given up on the right of refugees and exiles to return. Hamas, though not officially represented in the PLO, was running social programs, its activists seemed disciplined and it was resolutely opposing Israeli Zionism politically and militarily. And it insisted on the right of refugees and exiles to return.
Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections with a 3% lead over the incumbents. Unwilling to accept the popular will, Fatah staged an armed uprising against Hamas which, in the Gaza strip, Hamas decisively won (what the Wikipedia entry on Hamas calls a “takeover”!). For some reason, although Hamas was undoubtedly the winner electorally, they let Fatah hang on to power in the West Bank. And the US-led demonisation and isolation of Hamas in Gaza by the West began, along with a series of Israeli armed attacks from that year until 2014, including full-scale missile and air bombardments and infantry incursions, killing thousands of Palestinians including civilians, women and children and destroying much infrastructure.
Since then, the Gaza population is being squeezed with electricity supply reduced to four hours a day and hardly any fuelto run generators or transport allowed in past Egyptian and Israeli gates, its water supply contaminated by damaged sewage treatment plant, the inshore sea likewise contaminated and Palestinians fishing further out attacked by Israeli gunboats, factories bombed out ….
The message seems to be: “Get rid of Hamas, get back with Fatah and we’ll stop exterminating you.” But a delayed extermination is all it would be, as evidenced from the deeper penetration of Zionist colonist enclaves on to Palestinian land, the Zionist-only roads, the ongoing takeover of Jerusalem, the Israeli Wall, the continual theft of water and the harassment by settlers and Israeli Army of any populations of Palestinians living near to Israeli colonists.
The Processes outside of Palestine
Taking a trip back in time to 1993, we saw the Oslo Accords being hailed as a great step forward by the majority of commentators across the West. These coincided with the new interim constitution as a result of the negotiations in South Africa — so that then two major areas of conflict were being hailed as definitely on the way to a solution, to come sooner rather than later. “Peace process” became a buzz-word, firstly among the participants and some of the commentators, then in the agreed discourse of the rest of the media and politicians.
In Ireland, as the Provisionals’ leadership and the British looked at one another across the dance floor, the former wondered what they could get from the same kind of process but crucially, how to sell it to their rank and file. At the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheiseanna (annual congresses of the party), the ANC and Al Fatah (wearing their PLO hat) fraternal delegates were welcomed by hype from the SF leadership and enthusiastic reception from the floor of the hall. The ANC and Fatah of course talked up their parts of the Processes and no-one seemed to examine critically what either the South African blacks or the Palestinians were likely to get out of them.
And the Pal-African partnership continued to attend congresses, to send fraternal messages to areas of ongoing anti-imperialist resistance, to sing their siren song with a Western chorus backing. The Provisionals joined the actors and took to the stage as they neared and finally accepted the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. But with the Palestinian conflict showing no sign of resolution (unless one considers a kind of genocide of Palestinians) or even a respite — and in particular after the 2006 elections victory by Hamas — the Palestinians were no longer quoted as a good example of the “peace process”. Various actors, including South Africans and Irish, went on to try to sell the “Process” to areas of stubborn anti-imperialist resistance: the southern Basque Country, Turkish Kurdistan, Columbia, Phillipines, Sri Lanka ….. But the Palestinians (or rather Fatah) had been dropped off the billing and bowed quietly out of the Traveling Peace Process Show. They had not even an illusion to portray any more.
However, the show must, as we are often reminded, go on. It failed to deliver in Kurdistan and the Basque Country, not because the leaders of the resistance movements were not amenable but because of the unwillingness to adapt of the Turkish and Spanish regimes respectively. However, the Basque armed organisation ETA threw in the towel a couple of years ago anyway, abandoning their fighters in the jails to seek their own individual ways out through begging forgiveness of the occupiers of their land and oppressors of their people. The Turkish and Syrian Kurds were drawn into partnership with the imperialist allies dominated by the US, in their war against ISIS but also for the overthrow of the Assad regime, though deep Kurdish contradictions continue with the Turkish regime, to which it looks like the US Coalition will abandon them and they may seek an accommodation of sorts with Assad.
The Colombian FARC and MIR swallowed the Processed bait and gave up the armed struggle for a promise of a political one but those of their leaders who are resolute are being hunted by the regime, the quasi-liberated areas terrorised by the Army and assassination squads, the resistance fragmenting and disorientated. The Tamil Tigers didn’t entertain the Peace Process Show but the Sri Lankan Army were able to surround their liberated areas and bombard them to defeat, murdering their leaders and raping, murdering and repressing their followers.
The Phillipines and India? The resistance groups in both these areas are led by a Maoist-type leadership and we wait to see.
And in Ireland, after two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the colonial occupier has the leadership of Sinn Féin, the former resistance, in joint colonial government, the party’s southern arm seeking admittance to the Irish comprador capitalist club, the remaining anti-imperialist resistance fragmented and the country not one step nearer to unity and independence.
The Palestinian lesson for the world
All the issues which led to these conflicts and which the processes of pacification did not address – were never intended to address – will return again, to be struggled over anew, under new leaderships. In Palestine now, that is what has been happening. The Right of Return for exiles and refugees, put to one side by Fatah in the Oslo Accords nearly three decades ago, is being demanded again on the Israeli border, the protesters (along with the ‘collateral damage’ of journalists and paramedics) being bombarded by tear gas and shot down by Israeli snipers. The Palestinians, whose leadership nearly three decades ago were chosen by US imperialism to be among the first to accept the new round of historical pacification processes and to become complicit in being its missionaries, are teaching us the fallacy of the facile promises they were made at the time.
There is another irony here: while refusing the right of return to Palestinians who were themselves exiled or are children and grandchildren of exiles, i.e within living memory, the State of Israel offers “the right of return” (sic) to people who have never been there and cannot even prove that their ancestors were, providing only they can prove their Jewishness. And a further irony: Sephardic Jews, who were expelled by the Christian kingdoms in Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages, were being offered a “right of return” by the Spanish Government in 2014 (see link).
Over time, the people in the other areas of anti-imperialist resistance around the world will regroup, gather strength and return to the resistance. The imperialists almost certainly know this. But they have bought themselves three decades of damage to their opposition and, since they need the people as producers and consumers, cannot eliminate the deep wells of resistance. And capitalism is not about enduring solutions – they work away at undermining the resistance on a temporary basis and as for the future, like Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield, believe that “something (else) will turn up”.
LINKS (NB: I have deliberately chosen most background references regarding Palestine from Wikipedia, which is known to be heavily monitored by Zionist interests and also has inputs from friends of the Palestinians and therefore cannot be said to be completely favourable to either side):
Translation by D.Breatnach of Castillian (Spanish) language article by José Antonio Gutiérrez D (a Latin American activist based in Ireland) first published in Anarkismo, original at this link: http://anarkismo.net/article/30977) La versión originál en castellano se puede encontrar por el enlace previo.
Friday, May 4, saw the swelling of the growing list of victims in the popular movement in times of “peace”1. In the outskirts of his home, in the El Triunfo neighborhood, in La Guadalosa, in the vicinity of Cartagena de Chairá, Jorge Vega Galvis received seven pistol shots from a group of hooded men, who left him there for dead. By a miracle, he survived to arrive at the local health centre, from which he was sent to hospital in Florencia, the area capital, because of the severity of his injuries. Today, four days after this atrocious crime, he is still unconscious and battling for his life.
Jorge is originally from the administrative region of Cesar, from a small town near Poponte in Chiriguaná, where he was born into a humble peasant family, experiencing work from an early age and all kinds of deprivation. So that they would not be eaten alive by the mosquitoes and the midges in the bush, while he was working, he told me once that they had to smear their bodies with petrol and lemon juice, while they worked under the scorching sun. With social ideas instilled in him by his mother, he also knew the meaning of the word solidarity from an early age and while almost a child, he was already participating in the mobilizations for peasant rights.
With the infestation of the Cesar area by paramilitary gangs under the command of Jorge 40 of the AUC,2 Jorge had to leave at the end of the ’90s and head towards Caqueta lands. Little is left of his coastal accent now since he made his home in Cartagena de Chairá, where he makes a living, looking for what is to be had. He works as a taxi driver, sometimes as an electrician, and sometimes on farms. His home is in the midst of a humble shanty town settlement. But in different areas he has stood out as a social leader, promoting the Peasant Workers’ Association of Caguán (ASTRACAMCAG, connected to Fensuagro), being President of the Cartagena de Chairá section; the El Triunfo and Villa Clar neighbourhood, community organizations, and also as a worker attached to the union of motorcycle taxi drivers of the CUT in Cartagena de Chairá. He has also held leadership positions in both the Patriotic March and the Alternative Democratic Pole.
The attack against him is a blow at the heart of the popular processes in Chairá and Bajo Caguán. It is an attack that seeks to continue the disruption of popular processes brought about through the militarization of the region. It is part of the social-murder 3 that is being carried out throughout the territory and which claims the lives of hundreds of social and agrarian leaders. We had already requested, in 2014, that the threats and harassment against Jorge be investigated4. Again in 2016, there were reports of threats received from paramilitaries.
The intimidation directed at Jorge by the troops has been almost continuous. In September 2017, we were suspiciously detained at a military checkpoint in Cartagena de Chairá, in the La Hacienda sector, while returning from visiting trials of peasants. Jorge asked them, “Hey, are not we in a peace process? And you’re doing this …”, to which a soldier, who did not want to identify himself and who covered the insignia of his battalion with a cloth, answered simply,”Of course, that’s why we can do this”5. This attitude, Jorge explained to me, was normal. That night we had to sleep in the house of a peasant in the sector, because the army did not authorize our passage through until six in the morning of the following day, by which we were able to reach the crossing of the Caguán River and reach Cartagena. However, that night we alerted human rights organizations through Fensuagro because we had a well-founded fear that in the darkness of the night, there could be an “attack”.
This time, there was no intimidation: the threats have turned into terrible facts, before the unconcerned gaze, if not complicity, of the civil and military authorities.
It is not enough to ask that Jorge’s life be guaranteed by the authorities. We demand that they stop the bleeding of popular leaders that is happening, if not with their complicity, at least with their connivance and thanks to their calculated lack of action. In addition, it should be noted that with the so-brave militarization of Cartagena de Chairá, the activities of civic and popular organizations take place under constant fear. Guaranteeing the life of Jorge and the other social leaders in the Bajo y Medio Caguán, would lead to ensuring the full return to civil life in the municipality and that the army stops operating what is really a military occupation, in which they act with dictatorial powers.
Enough of this ‘counterinsurgency’ campaign, this militarization and let the parks of Cartagena be free of rifles. Those of us who have had the good fortune of knowing Jorge personally, know how much he has fought for peace with social justice; what a paradox it is now that during the “peace”, they have pulled the trigger to silence him. Certainly, we know that this is not the peace for which Jorge risked his skin. For now Jorge, from your friends and colleagues, we send you a big hug, all our energy and we assure you that we will not leave you alone for a second. We send you strength to keep fighting, mate. Do not leave us.
José Antonio Gutiérrez D.
May 8, 2018
Postscript by D. Breatnach: My information is that Jorge Vega Galvis survived the attack and continues to recover. We wish him a speedy recovery and send our solidarity greetings.
1DB: The “Peace Process” was about reaching a deal between PresidentJuan Manuel Santosand the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army(FARC–EP) to bring an end to the Colombian conflict. Negotiations, mainly taking place in Havana, Cuba, began in September 2012. A final agreement to end the conflict was announced on August 24, 2016 but a referendum to ratify it was unsuccessful, with a slight majority voting against. Afterward, Congress ratified a revised deal agreed between the Colombian government and the FARC. Critics from the Left and from some human rights groups complain that the standing down of the guerrilla forces is allowing the State’s repressive forces and the paramilitary assassination squads to operate with impunity in areas where they would not have dared to previously (or at least would have been punished by the people’s forces).
2 DB: Paramilitary drug-trafficking gang with close relationship to the the Colombian Armed Forces (also supported by local big landowners) which attacked FARC and ELN and their civilian supporters. (For more about “Jorge 40” see link above about Rodrigo Tovar Pupo).
The prison experience and escape of IRA man Seán Murphy as related by himself in book form was launched on 31st March to a large audience in Wynne’s Hotel. Republicans of all shades not part of Sinn Féin (and perhaps some of those too) attended the event, bought copies of Having It Away and queued to have them signed by Seán’s widow, Betty Murphy. Seán O’Mahony, whose assistance with the publication of the book was acknowledged by Sean Murphy’s family, presided over the event.
On 13th August 1955, a party of the IRA led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh raided Arborfield British Army Depot and came away with many guns and ammunition; the party’s members were Seán Murphy, Donal Murphy (no relation), Frank Skuse, Jack Hick, Tom Fitzgerald, Joseph Doyle, Liam Walsh and Paddy Considine. One of the party’s vehicles was apprehended by British police and the weapons later recovered. Three IRA Volunteers of those ten who took part were captured and, after trial, sentenced to life imprisonment. Donal Murphy and Joseph Doyle were two of them, the third was Seán Murphy and the book is his story.
The book is what most people would call “a great read”. Murphy’s descriptions of the grim realities of prison life, his interactions with other prisoners political and non-political, as well as the screws (prison officers) and Governor, are pointed and yet often humorous.
Cathal Goulding was in the jail before Murphy arrived and after an attempted escape was obliged to wear “patches”, these being large and of a contrasting colour, sown on to a prison uniform. A prisoner wearing “patches” was under constant surveillance in the prison and was kept in solitary confinement when not on exercise. The prison Governor tried to get Goulding to promise not to escape, which Goulding felt unable to do, considering it his duty to escape whenever a decent opportunity presented itself.
Murphy’s opinion expressed in the book is that Goulding should have given his promise and then escape when possible, considering that one was not bound to honesty with one’s captors. Murphy’s position is not without rationality and even morality but it is in strange contrast to he and his two co-accused refusing to provide a defence against the charges, since that would have meant “recognising the British court”.
The Republican prisoners considered themselves political prisoners but they did not seek segregation from social prisoners as later generations of Republican prisoners have done. And in fact, Murpy made friends among a number of prisoners convicted of social rather than political offences, some of whom went to some lengths to help him and put their scheduled liberty at jeopardy in doing so. Murphy has this to say about them (and Sean O’Mahony quite rightly included that phrase too in his written introduction): “Taken all round, the circle of friends we had collected in this prison were made up of men, generous and decent almost beyond belief and one would be hard put to find their equals in any walk of life.”
On the other hand, interaction with other political prisoners also forms part of the narrative. These included Klaus Fuchs, a German Communist who had fled Nazi Germany and became naturalised in Britain. He was a physicist and after the War was hired as part of the team developing the Atomic Bomb at Los Alamos in the USA. From there he had passed information to the USSR to help them in their development of the their own atomic weapon. for which he was sentenced in 1950 to fourteen years imprisonment and had his British citizenship removed. Released not long after Murphy’s escape, having served nine years, we went to the GDR (East Germany) where he remained until his death in 1988 at the age of seventy-six.
Although Fuchs was already there when Murphy arrived, other prisoners arrived afterwards from the struggle against the British in Cyprus. These were from EOKA, a Greek-Cypriot guerrilla organisation which from 1954-’59, fought to end British rule in Cyprus and for union with Greece (“enosis”). Many soldiers, guerillas and civilians were killed in the conflict, the British executed a number and also practiced torture on prisoners. In addition, the British recruited their colonial police force exclusively from among the Turkish minority on the island, which helped entrench and deepen communal tensions. Unlike EOKA B, which was considered right-wing, had links to fascist Greek colonels and was responsible for a massacre and rape of Turkish-Cypriot civilians, Eoka had socialist national liberation leanings and one of the prisoners in jail with Murphy went on to translate James Connolly’s writings into Greek. Some of EOKA supporters, like Bishop Makarios, later went on to advocate complete independence from either Greece or Turkey but an attempted EOKA B coup sparked a Turkish invasion and another massacre, this time of Greek-Cypriot civilians. Today the island is partioned between an independent Cyprus and the Turkish state, each area more or less abandoned by the other major ethnic group.
One of the EOKA prisoners sharing Wakefield Prison with Murphy was Nicos Sampson who had a dark history by then and which got no lighter as time went on.
Almost incredibly, one of the Eoka prisoners, serving five years in jail, was a member of the British Army who had deserted and fought alongside the Greek Cypriots – his name was Tony Martin.
The typography of the book leaves much to be desired – something seems to have gone amiss between editing, proofing and checking the galley copy. Punctuation has suffered and occasionally spelling too; sentences are broken up by large spaces and footnotes end up half-way down the the next page. Somehow however, though one is aware of those faults, the narrative grabs most of the attention.
More irritating than the faulty typography are the omissions: what went wrong that of the escape party of five, only one made it? How did those left behind fare? Did the British seek his extradition from the Irish state? What did Murphy make of the subsequent twists and turns in the Republican movement and of its various splits? Some information on the subsequent lives of some players in the prison and escape organisation is provided in two pages of Biographical Notes but I found it nowhere enough to satisfy my curiosity. For example, Murphy rates Cathal Goulding very highly in the book’s narrative yet I am given to understand that he did not support the line taken by what became Official Sinn Féin (and eventually The Workers’ Party) and the Official IRA, led by Goulding.
All that said, the book is very readable and also well worth reading.
Although Murphy’s writing reveals a strong leaning towards socialist republicanism and therefore the comment in the Irish Times obituary that “he did not embrace Goulding’s move to socialism” should be treated with caution. Nevertheless he did not by all accounts support the Official IRA after the 1969 split in the Republican movement; this may have been due to the failure of the IRA leadership to organise support for an escape, while most of those who did spring him seem to have come from the Saor Uladh or Christle faction groups. Murphy appears to have dropped out of active participation in politics after his escape but in recent years was known to be opposed to the Belfast Agreement.
Seamus Murphy was born 1935 and raised in Castledermot, Co.Kildare and joined the IRA while attending Terenure College, Dublin. In 1963, four years after his escape and return to Ireland, Murphy married Betty O’Donaghue from his home county in 1963; they settled down in Bray and had a son, Pearse. Murphy was writing his memoire unbeknownst to most people and though he received some assistance with it he died in 2015, three years before it was published.
Glasgow and Dublin Anti-Internment Committees joined forces on 18th February in a protest against continuing internment without trial in Ireland. Around two score protesters gathered outside the iconic General Post Office building in Dublin city centre’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street. They displayed the anti-internment banners of the Dublin and Glasgow committees and placards against internment, including one against the jailing of Catalan political activists by the Spanish state (also refused bail).
Leaflets of the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland were distributed to shoppers and visitors passing by, along with others about the conviction of Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton (the Craigavon Two), framed and jailed in 2009 and still in jail, serving life sentences. Songs about internment and political prisoners were played on a sound system, as well as Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong and Christy Moore’s Viva La Quinze Brigada.
Despite the official end of internment by the British in 19751and by the Irish state in 19572, Republican activists continue to be jailed without trial in a number of ways: Licence revoked and bail refused or revoked.
When a Republican leaves jail under license, she or he can be returned there without any court hearing or the presentation of any evidence against them; this is what has happened to Tony Taylor and Gerry Mackle, for example. Refusing bail for accused Republicans has become almost standard, despite the fact that this is supposed to be a last resort, for example when there is a serious risk of the accused fleeing the administration, or interfering with witnesses – which has rarely applied to Republicans refused bail. The real reason has usually been revealed when they have been granted bail: they are required not to attend protests, meetings or to associate with other active Republicans. In other words, they are being prevented from exercising their civil rights to express their opinions and to organise politically.
Welcoming the participation of the Glasgow Committee in Dublin, a spokesperson for the Dublin Committee stated that “members of the Dublin Committee have been proud to attend anti-internment protests in Glasgow in the past” and went on to say that “we look forward to future cooperation with the Irish diaspora and internationally against political repression, particularly of jailing without trial of political activists.”
The Dublin Anti-Internment Committee is entirely independent of any political party or organisation and holds regular awareness-raising protests at different locations. The Committee welcomes the participation of other organisations or individuals in their protests but asks them not to bring political party material etc to the anti-internment protests.
On its FB page the Committee also maintains a list of Republican prisoners in jails on both sides of the British Border, updating it from time to time.
1By then more than 1,900 people – only around 100 of them Loyalists – had been interned, many of them tortured; it was during protests against it in 1971 in Ballymurphy and 1972 in Derry that the Parachute Regiment killed 25 unarmed people.
2Introduced by De Valera’s government in July 1957 during the “Border Campaign” of the IRA.
10th ANNIVERSARY OF DEATH OF VOLUNTEER BRENDAN HUGHES COMMEMORATED IN DUBLIN
(From the End Internment FB page, courtesy of the Dublin Committee of the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland)
Irish Republicans (mostly independent) and a number of anarchists and socialists commemorated Brendan Hughes (“The Dark”) today (18th Feb 2018) at the General Post Office building in O’Connell Street, main street of Dublin. Republicans from Glasgow also participated.
Around two score assembled with black flags and portraits of the IRA Volunteer who died aged only 59 ten years ago (2008). Hughes was from a Belfast Republican working class family and entered the struggle, enlisting in the Provisional IRA in 1969. He was arrested in 1973, beaten and jailed but escaped, leaving Belfast but subsequently returning to Belfast, to the Malone Road middle-class area under an assumed name while he continued in his resistance activities.
Captured again in 1974 with a number of firearms at his address he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. In 1973 he was convicted of assaulting a prison guard in the jail and was sent to Long Kesh. This was after political status had been removed from Republican prisoners and Hughes joined the “blanket protest” (refusing to wear prison uniform). Later he led the “dirty protest” (prisoners refused to “slop out” after being beaten by guards and emptied their bodily wastes out the windows until these were blocked up, then out under their cell doors, until they were swept back at them and finally on to the walls of their cells).
Hughes began hunger strike which he maintained for 53 days in 1980, ending with others only after what appeared to be a deal offered by Thatcher. It is believed his health never recovered from his prison experiences; he suffered from problems with his heart and eye problems, in addition to arthritis.
Released from jail after 10 years, he became a serious critic of the “Peace” (pacification) process; according to his brother, Hughes asked that his former comrade Gerry Adams not be permitted any role in his funeral. His brother admitted later that he had bent to pressure and had allowed Adams to carry Hughes’ coffin.
Brendan “The Dark” Hughes died on 16th February 1998.
The annual January march in solidarity with political prisoners, taking place in continuous rain on Saturday 13th January, packed the streets of the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo) with estimates of numbers in attendance varying from 95,000 (GARA) to 100,000 (DEIA).
Numbers on this march are always high (especially taking the total population of the Basque Country of less than three million into account) but may have been boosted somewhat this year by a) the ongoing resistance to Spanish state repression in Catalunya and b) news that the French state is at last moving away from its policy of dispersing its political prisoners far from their home country.
Saturday’s march was organised by Sare, a broad front set up a few years ago and was supported by EH Bildu (political party of the Abertzale Left) along with the Basque majority trade unions ELA and LAB. The political parties PP, PSE and Podemos-Euskadi did not support it, although the latter’s General Secretary Lander Martínez attended in a personal capacity. The Basque Nationalist Party PNV did not support it either (although members may well have done).
Also in attendance were Joan Tardà of the Catalan party ERC; Xabier Sánchez, brother of the jailed President of ANC, Jordi Sánchez; and the writer Kirmen Uribe.
Arnaldo Otegi for the EH Bildu party said the Spanish State should learn from the action of the French one; LAB’s General Secretary Garbiñe Aranburu declared that this year needs to be decisive in the Spanish state with regard to political prisoners and called for new alliances to achieve this. Adolfo Muñoz, Gen. Sec. of the largest trade union in the southern Basque Country, ELA, credited civil society with having achieved the change in French State policy, achieving the transfer of Basque political prisoners to jails near their homes, without waiting for the Spanish state to do likewise.
The banner at the head of the march stated “Elkarrekin aurrera egiteko prest gaude” (We are ready to advance together; human rights, resolution, peace)while, according to media report, throughout the march the following slogans were heard: “Euskal presoak etxera!” (Basque prisoners to home!) and “Presoak kalera, amnistía osoa!” (Prisoners to be free, total amnesty!).
At the end of the march, Sare’s manifesto calling for an end to the dispersal was read out by ETB (Basque TV channel) presenter Kike Amonarriz and Beatriz Talegón, ex-leader of the youth wing of the Spanish social-democratic unionist party the PSOE.
The great attendance in pouring rain is encouraging and once again the Basques show their high level of concern for their political prisoners, bringing at least 3% of their population out on a solidarity demonstration.
The reported (and audible on the video) slogans of “Euskal presoak etxera” (Basque prisoners to home) and “Presoak kalera, amnistía osoa” (Prisoners to be free, total amnesty) being shouted are interesting, given that the Abertzale Left leadership and organisations such as Sare have dropped such demands in recent years, concentrating instead on calling for an end to the dispersal policy and for the release of seriously-ill prisoners. The slogans mentioned above have been raised by the Amnistia Ta Askatasuna (ATA) organisation, whose supporters are highly critical of the changes in policy of the Abertzale Left leadership for some years now but presumably made their presence felt on the demonstration.
Despite the permanent ceasefire declaration of ETA a number of years ago and changes in the policies of the Abertzale Left leadership, the Spanish state has not given an inch, which leaves the leadership with no gains to show, not even the end of the dispersal policy. This policy, contravening human rights and the EU’s own conventions, sees prisoners located as far from the Basque Country as southern Spain, a drive of around nine hoursthere and the same back, on motorways that have already claimed the lives of a number of prisoners’ friends and relatives and injured an average of one a month.
ln the Six Counties, the British colony in Ireland, the sectarian lines are drawn. The Good Friday Agreement did nothing to eliminate them, contrary to the praises of many and perhaps even the wishes of some who supported it. The majority section of the population has a badge of professed faith to identify it, Protestantism, while the other has its own badge, Catholicism. But each section also has other symbols of its own.
Politically, each section has a number of divisions within it but each has its majority representation: the Democratic Unionist Party for the Protestants and Sinn Féin for the Catholics. Both of these parties have overcome others to rise to prominence over their respective sections – the DUP deposed the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin overtook the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP display the symbols of their respective sections and employ them to sectarian electoral advantage.
Apart from professed religion as a signifier, each section also has its own visible symbols: the Tricolour and Harp for the Catholics, the Union Jack and Crown for the Protestants. And to this has now been added language: Irish for the Catholics and Ulster Scots/ English for the Protestants.
There are other symbols too but they are of minor importance, for example for the Catholics flying the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Palestinians and, just because they must oppose anything the Fenians do, the Israeli flag for the Protestants. Soon we may see the Catholics adopt the Catalan Estelada flags and the Protestants, the flag of the Spanish State. But would Unionist Protestants fly the flag of a Catholic country? Yes, it’s quite possible – they already fly one of a Jewish state.
The opposing sections are in this discussion described as “Catholic” and “Protestant”, as though religion were really the issue – however it is not. Some commentators like to speak in term of “nationalists and unionists”, with the more extreme wing of the latter described as “Loyalists”. That particular sub-group of Unionism is more likely to refer to Catholics as “Taigues” or “Fenians”.
There are religious differences in doctrine and in temporal supremacy between both religions: Catholics believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, the mother of the Christ figure and Protestants do not, though she is seen as a saint in their churches also. Perhaps more relevantly, for Catholics the Pope is, notionally at least, the supreme temporal religious authority while for Anglican Protestants, it is the ruling British Monarch (other British-based Protestant sects acknowledge only their own vicars, their reading of the Christian Bible or their own consciences). Currently, that monarch is Queen Elizabeth II Windsor and lest she be considered just some kind of figurehead, albeit with untold (literally!) riches quite apart from public funds allocation and properties, it is well to remember that she is also Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces.
Back in the day, the Pontiff (the Pope) also controlled a fair share of armed force and also brokered deals between the monarchs of different kingdoms. And in that respect, we’ll shortly come to some great ironies with regards to the Six Counties but first there are other matters to deal with.
RELIGION AS A QUESTION OF STATE POWER
Henry VIII of England disestablished the power of the Pontiff in English-ruled domains and made himself head of the Church, which of course required a split in the Christian Church, and the whole process has since become known as the English Reformation. That happened in the 16th Century; Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I continued this policy in the 17th Century and also extended the power of England and the territories under its domain. Of course, none of this was done by those monarchs alone; powerful feudal and commercial interests were involved also. Being Head of the Church of England allowed Henry to dissolve monasteries and confiscate their lands, filling the coffers of the Crown and of the faithful – faithful to the Crown.
Unfortunately for Ireland, a large part of the country was in the possession of England at this time, though not without resistance. And the original “English” colonists, the Gall-Ghael (“foreign Gael” in Irish), the Normans who had invaded from a colonised Wales with their mercenaries, wanted to stick to their earlier religion, continuing to acknowledge the Pontiff as their spiritual leader. They held their lands through conquest of arms under English monarchs (though the first had been a French Norman) but their loyalty to the British Crown was somewhat shaky. In 1366, nearly two centuries after their conquest of the Irish lands they held, the English Normans called them “the degenerate English” and accused them of having become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.1
And what of “the Irish themselves”? They too were of the old faith, although their earlier Celtic Christian Church had been more than a little lax in its application of Roman doctrine, especially in laws and mores around marriage, justice and the status of women. The Roman Church was feudal and Irish society still ran along clan lines.
An uneasy alliance was formed between the Gael and the Gall-Ghael which emerged first for the English king Charles I against Cromwell, in the middle of the 17th Century and later again near the end of that century for King James II against King William III (of Orange). On each occasion the Irish alliance lost.
BATTLE, SECTARIAN LINES AND IRONIES
And here we come to ironies. William of Orange was a Protestant and the victory of his forces at the Battle of the Boyne is considered by Unionists a victory of Protestant forces over Catholic. Actually, there were some Catholics among William’s force and some Protestants among the opposing James II forces but that is not the irony. Nor is the fact that William of Orange was a homosexual and that Rev. Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party and led it until his death in 2014, led a campaign against decriminalisation of homosexuality under the slogan “Save Ulster from Sodomy!”
No, the irony is even greater than those two facts and it is this: William’s armed forces were part-financed by the Vatican, in other words through the Pontiff himself. Although in Ireland the conflict took on the shape of Catholics fighting for freedom to practice their religion (and even Gael and Gall-Ghael holding on to their respective powers), against Protestants forcing their religion and colonial power on others, it was part of a European-wide conflict known to historians as The Nine-Years War. A coalition of forces composed of Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, England and Savoy, styling itself the League of Augsburg, drew up to oppose Louis XIV of France. And James found himself on the side of France and against his own Parliament.
The Pontiff, as leader of the Holy Roman Empire, was very much a member of the League of Habsburg as was the Kingdom of Spain and Savoy – all under Catholic rule. When news of William’s defeat of James’ forces at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690 reached the Vatican, a Te Deum mass of praise was celebrated there and similar demonstrations of praise were practiced in the Spanish Kingdom also. That war in Ireland had fundamentally little to do with religion in reality but everything to do with English state and colonial power and European power struggles.
And of course this is not only an irony for the Protestants, who annually celebrate the Boyne victory on the 12th of July in their most sectarian and anti-Catholic manner, but for the Catholics too, who see James as defending their Catholic faith, of which the Pope was the spiritual leader. Nor is that the only irony in connection with Ireland and the Vatican: it was a Pope, Adrian IV, who issued a Papal Bull (something like a warrant) in 1155 legitimising invasion and conquest of Ireland by Henry II of England. Pope Adrian IV, aka Nicholas Breakspear, was the only English Pontiff ever, true but he was a Pope and he must have had substantial support in Rome to issue such a document.
One of the characteristics of republicanism in the late 18th Century, apart from the abolition of the monarchy, was the separation of Church and State. Freedom of conscience and worship were important principles in the French and American revolutions. The United Irishmen also adhered to those principles with an even greater motivation, which was that the majority of the Irish population was excluded from participation in government, military and civil profession by a religious bar.
The Unitedmen were defeated, crushed. Their Protestant (Anglican) and Dissenter (Presbyterian) leaders and supporters were executed or exiled2 and the remnants for the most part became dominated by sectarian anti-Catholicism. And Irish nationalism, including republicanism, came to contain a strong Catholic bias (notwithstanding the continuing presence of Protestants and true Republicans in the movement).
Despite the fact that the Irish (and English) Catholic Church hierarchy has been publicly and energetically hostile to Irish Republicanism from the 1780s onwards, the majority of the Irish Republican movement of the early 20th Century observed the practices of the Catholic faith and never broke from its religious allegiance nor sought to overcome the dominance of the Church in society. As a result the Republican movement was unable, had it wanted to, to tackle many of the social injustices in the Irish State’s education, health, intellectual, literary, art, gender and sexuality policies and legislation, where the Church held sway.
Liberty of conscience and worship remains an important civil right, a democratic demand. People are entitled to practice their concept of religion or to abstain from it and their choices in this regard should not influence people’s participation in society as a whole. The Catholic Church is losing its power in the Twenty-Six Counties and that is reflected too in the Six. The Presbyterian churches are likewise losing influence. However, faith congregation membership continues to be a communal marker and to be used by the DUP and SF to hold their respective voting blocs together.
If separation of Church and State is an important principle of Republicanism then Republicans should actively campaign for that end. No school that bases its intake of pupils on the practice or belief of any religion should receive State support. But in the unlikely event that Sinn Féin should embark on a campaign to apply that principle, they would find themselves losing their voting block, for that is how their block is identified in the Six Counties: as Catholics, baptised in Catholic church, attending Catholic services to some degree or other and being educated in Catholic Schools.
The Unionists are of course just as careful to look after their own sectarian voting block and at least as sectarian. But they don’t claim to be Republicans.
THE ESSENCE OF THE SYMBOLS
Symbols of course do not merely stand for what they are themselves but, in being a symbol, for something else also. A sculpture or drawing of a lion may represent the animal but when used as a symbol, frequently stands for monarchy and power: for examples, the lion on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom and the lions at base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. And symbols can also change their symbolic meaning and come to mean something else than was originally intended. The cross symbolised martyrdom for early Christians, later came to symbolise Christianity itself, later still the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition …. For the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states of the USA, the burning cross symbolises the power of their organisation and white anglo-saxon ethnic supremacy.
The Irish Tricolour flag was presented to Thomas Francis Meagher of the Young Irelanders by women revolutionaries in Paris in 1848, the Year of Revolutions in Europe (but not really in Ireland, where the fight had been knocked out of the remaining survivors of the Great Hunger 1845-1849). Reputedly the flag’s colours signified peace (White) between the traditions of the Gael (Green) and the descendants of those who had fought for William (Orange). The Unionists see it, however, firstly as a symbol of rebellion against the Crown (not without reason, given its historical use) and secondly as a flag of a Catholic Ireland.
The Harp is an Irish symbol of some antiquity and was reputedly flown on standards in ancient medieval times in Ireland. The Norman and English invaders appropriated it firstly as symbol of a conqueredIreland and incorporated it into their colonial standards and flags. Revolutionary republican grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Cromwellian settlers then appropriated the harp as the symbol of the republican United Irishmen, with the motto “It is newly strung and shall be heard”. After the defeat of the Unitedmen (whose leaders were nearly all Protestant), the Harp became a rather suspect symbol for Unionists, mostly Protestants and besides, it is the official symbol of the Irish State (the only state in the world with a musical instrument as its national symbol). However, it remains within the arms of the United Kingdom, representing the Six Counties colony still in British/ English possession.
The “Easter Lilly” emblem is a symbolic representation of a white lilly with an orange centre, with a green leaf as a background. It was developed by Irish women Republicans in the second decade of the 20th Century to commemorate those who died fighting for Irish national freedom, in particular during the 1916 Easter Rising. For decades it was produced as a simple paper representation for the Irish Republican movement and sold on streets or pubs in the lead-up to Easter Monday, when the Rising would be commemorated. In more recent times it has been worn for up to a week each side of Easter Monday and it has also been produced as a metal badge or pin, which some Republicans wear all year around.
The flag of the United Kingdom, commonly known as the “Union Jack”, embodying a design composed of the symbols of the Crosses of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick, represents the union of the nations through their respective patron saints3: Scotland and Ireland under the rule of England and its Royal Family. It was a forced, not a voluntary union and is therefore a reactionary symbol but Unionists in the Six Counties view it as a symbol of the union with England which they wish to maintain.
The Crown represents the English Royal Family and UK State power. Since it is the same State that imposes its rule on the other nations of Ireland and the British Isles, it is fundamentally a reactionary symbol, also representing the reactionary institution of monarchy.
The Poppy, a cloth representation of the red flower, is worn by many British people in the lead up to Armistice Day, November 11th and sometimes for days afterwards. Many British people apparently believe that the purpose of this symbol is to commemorate the dead in wars or to support veterans and their families. In fact as research has shown, the primary purpose of commemorating ‘Remembrance Day’ and the Poppy is to gather public support behind the Armed Forces of the UK. Unionists seemingly see wearing it as proof of their political allegiance to Britain, England or the Crown – or all three.4
In the most recent history of the Six Counties, the symbols listed above have been those of the respective communities, with the added fact that Crown and Union Jack have also been symbols of the colonial statelet itself.
Recently two other symbols have been promoted, also with sectarian allegiances: Irish and Ulster Scots. Neither of these two languages is spoken by the majority of either community, for whom English (with some words specific to Ulster) is the majority language.
THE IRISH, ENGLISHAND ULSTER SCOTS LANGUAGES
Irish or an Ghaeilge, one of the languages of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages group, was the language of the people living in Ireland before it was invaded by England and remained the majority language in Ireland until the end of the19th Century. It continues as a community language5 in all provinces of Ireland including Ulster but there in parts of Co. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland (and not part of the Six Counties despite the statelet being called “Northern Ireland”).
Irish died out as a community language in the Six Counties from its last refuge, the Sperrin Mountains, sometime in the early decades of the 20th Century (the 1911 Census recorded a majority of Irish speakers in that region but also, interestingly, in the Protestant Sandy Row area of Belfast City). However, some Irish speakers survived and others learned the language so that it continued to exist in the colony after the partition of Ireland in 1921. During the recent 30 years’ war, Irish enjoyed a resurgence and to some extent became a badge of resistance to colonial rule.
English is, more than most, a language composed of a number of different languages. Given that it sounds like and is classified as a Germanic language, it is surprising that its major component is of French language origin with the minor component based on Saxon German. English developed in what became England over a period including the defeat of the Romanised Celtic tribes of the area by the Saxons and Angles and the subsequent conquering of the Saxons themselves by the French-speaking Normans.
A century after their victorious invasion of England, the Normans invaded Ireland. In most of the area they conquered in Ireland, the Normans soon came to adopt many local customs, including the speaking of Irish so that less than two centuries later, their England-based colleagues referred to them as “the degenerate English” who had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”6
Although the invaders failed to enforce the Statutes of Kilkenny, over the following centuries they managed through eviction of natives and plantation of colonists, as well as the exclusively official use of English and legal repression of the Irish language, to make Irish a minority language and to reduce it, as a community language, to a number of reservations in certain parts of the country.
Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, in turn a dialect of German spoken by Saxon colonisers of the Scottish Lowlands (the reason the dialect became known as “Lallands”). The Scottish colonists of Irish lands given to them by James I, Oliver Cromwell and English bankers brought the language into Ulster where it developed into “Ulster Scots”. That too gave way to English over time except in some pockets, without any serious effort to revive its fortunes. Until, that is, agitation began in recent times for rights for Irish speakers and for the teaching of Irish, when some Unionists, seeking an “Ulster”7 “Protestant” equivalent with which to oppose any benefits for Irish, began agitation for the preservation and teaching of Ulster Scots.
However, the real competitor with Irish for dominance in the Six Counties (as also in the Twenty-Six, the Irish State) is of course English.
“PARITY OF ESTEEM”
“Parity of esteem” is a concept that was put forward by Sinn Féin within the atmosphere of the Good Friday Agreement.
To many people at the time, including myself, it seemed like something between “soft” Republicanism and a token demand, something to represent to the party’s following that it was doing something for them in the Six Counties. Sinn Féin would have claimed it was much more than that – and it was.
When some critics of SF or of the Peace (sic) Process claimed that sectarianism was being institutionalised, was being “copper-fastened”, I wondered how that was. Obviously, people in Catholic areas would vote Sinn Féin but how was that any different other than how they would have voted previously, viz. Nationalist or SDLP?
But in the past, except for the brief “power-sharing” agreement8 which the Loyalists had so effectively sunk, no political representative on a Catholic voting base had even come close to carving up the Six Counties on a community proportional basis. Now Sinn Féin have done so – not just in local authorities but in the government of the statelet itself (present difficulties excepted). That is what SF has achieved, after some years of civil rights agitation, Catholic communal resistance to repression and nearly three decades of armed struggle – a sharing out of the spoils of office. Power-sharing. Parity of esteem. A sectarian carving out of areas of influence.
And every power-base must have its symbols. Recently the Irish Language has become one such. Obviously the Irish language is entitled to support and its speakers have civil language rights. Clearly the sectarian opposition of Unionist politicians to concessions in this direction is fundamentally wrong. Of course a Language Act is needed so that Irish speakers can use it to push for their rights where the institutions oppose and block them. But that is not why SF has come so late into this struggle. It’s another symbol of their ethnic power-base and another stick with which to beat the Unionists.
And of course there are Irish language speakers and campaigners who are Sinn Féin members. They made clear you knew that during the huge demonstration in favour of Irish language rights, the Dearg le Fearg9 demonstration of 2014 in Belfast, when they were the only political party displaying a banner in violation of an understanding that no political party would do so.
But what does Sinn Féin do in order to forward the language among its own members and activists? Are its public speakers obliged to be competent Irish speakers? Are its Ard-Choiste (Executive Committee) meetings conducted through Irish? Its cumann (branch) meetings? Its Ard Fheis (annual congress)?10 No, none of those. Is the party even running an Irish language instruction program to overcome this deficit at some point in the future? No.
Apart from some enthusiasts among its activists and a vague nationalist emotional attachment, Sinn Féin as a party is not really interested in the language. In the Six Counties, it is interested in a sectarian carve-up which will keep it at the power table and the Irish language has now become useful for that. Just as, in the Twenty-Six Counties state, it is interested in coming to power in a different kind of power-sharing.
THE EASTER LILLY AND THE “REMEMBRANCE” POPPY
And the latest symbol to be sullied by joining this war of symbols is the Easter Lilly. In times past the Easter Lilly, commemorating in particular the dead who fell fighting for freedom in the 1916 Rising, was worn by many in the Twenty-Six Counties state who were not Republicans. In the latter decades of the last century, few wore it apart from Republicans and, in the Six Counties, it was asking for trouble from the colonial police or Loyalists (often the same thing) to display it. The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954-1987) there empowered any police officer to decide it was likely to lead to “a breach of the peace” and to remove it by force; conviction of a breach of the Act was punishable by a fine of up to £500 (sum equal to about £15,300 in 2017) or up to five years in prison.11
The Act, the repeal of which was one of the demands of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s, was finally repealed in 1987 but of course, any signifier identifying a person as a Republican or even a Catholic in the Six Counties is at the very least an invitation to less favourable treatment by the authorities and at worse to harassment and assault by Loyalists or colonial armed forces personnel.
It is of course right that people should have the right to wear the Easter Lilly but to pose it as an equal right to wearing the Remembrance (sic) Poppy is to devalue the Lilly, to putting an anti-imperialist and Irish Republican history emblem on the same level as an imperialist military-glorifying one. But that is exactly what Sinn Féin is now doing12. And Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish state, recently publicly agreed with that notion.13
And is that not the same project as those of the “Museum of Free Derry”14 and of the Glasnevin Cemetery Trust15, one on each side of the Border, commemorating dead British colonial force members side-by-side with their victims and those who fought against them? As though they are of the same worth to commemorate? As though the objectives of each were (are) of equal value?
What more effective way to undermine the power of an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist symbol than to equate it with its opposite?
THE IMPORTANCE OF SYMBOLS
I once heard an organiser of a British-based left-wing party, himself of Irish parents, declaim against Irish political commemorations in London as “only of symbolic importance”. How little he understood of human beings to say that! Outside of urgent situations, natural surroundings and chemical reactions, symbols are the only things that convey meaning to human beings.
This page is covered in printed symbols, which we have learned to decipher into words which, in turn are symbols to convey meaning by association. If I write the letters h,o,u,s,e joined together, or say “house”, a symbol in sound, the listeners construct the shape of a house inside their heads, based on the culture and structures to which they have been exposed in their lives, to understand what I mean. If I write or say instead “tent”, they will visualise something else. If I write or say “party” the listener may struggle between visualising a festive occasion or a political party but should I have preceded that word with another, “house”, confusion disappears and the only question is whether the listener’s experience or understanding of a “house party” is the same as mine.
A nod of the head is a symbolic gesture which in most cultures signifies some level of agreement, a shake of the head its opposite. We understand symbolic hand gestures, shrugs, grimaces, smiles, winks, the lift of an eyebrow, bodily posture. Shapes of body or posture can convey sexual availability and induce arousal, or convey threat and give rise to fear. Symbols haunt our dreams, according to Jung and Freud, communications from our subconscious. Symbols are crucial to conveying and understanding meaning.
WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS NOT
It is right and proper that people should uphold the symbols of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial historical resistance, including the Irish Tricolour (although more appropriate to my thinking is the Starry Plough of the Irish Citizen Army16). Another symbol of that resistance, the Easter Lilly, is equally valid. It is right and proper that people should
value the cultural and political history embodied in the symbol of the Irish Harp. It is a matter of great cultural world importance that the Irish language survive and flourish. These are important symbols and, in the case of the language, an important thing in itself. These are not things to be equated with symbols of oppression, colonialism and imperialism.
The Union Jack, the Crown and the Poppy deserve to be shunned by all progressive people, because of the values they symbolise and the continuing effect of those things today. The English language, on the other hand, is worthy of a place in a bilingual Irish society.
Let Republicans and others promote the wearing of the Easter Lilly and the display of flags of historic Republican resistance. Let them never place them in the same context or on equal status with the symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Let many promote the use of the Irish language and rights for its speakers but let it not be used as a crude political weapon, much less to further the prospects of a party which actively colludes with and shares in colonial rule by an invader and has done nothing in reality to promote the language even among its own ranks.
1The Statutes of Kilkenny sought to halt this “degeneracy” with 35 Actsforbidding the “intermarriage between the native Irish and the native English, the English fostering of Irish children, the English adoption of Irish children and use of Irish names and dress. Those English colonists who did not know how to speak English were required to learn the language (on pain of losing their land and belongings), along with many other English customs. The Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” were to be dropped and pursuits such as archery and lancing to be taken up, so that the English colonists would be more able to defend against Irish aggression, using English military tactics.
“Other statutes required that the English in Ireland be governed by English common law, instead of the Irish March law or Brehon law and ensured the separation of the Irish and English churches by requiring that “no Irishman of the nations of the Irish be admitted into any cathedral or collegiate church … amongst the English of the land”.
“………. Statute XV, which forbade Irish minstrels or storytellers to come to English areas, guarding against “the Irish agents who come amongst the English, spy out the secrets, plans, and policies of the English, whereby great evils have often resulted”.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statutes_of_Kilkenny
2 e.g William Orr, Edward Crosbie, Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald, Edward Hayes, Henry Joy McCracken, Henry Munroe, William Aylmer, Thomas Addis Emmet, Bagenal Harvey, Joseph Holt, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet ….
3 Ireland has in fact three patron Christian saints: Patrick, Bridget and Columcille.
5 By use of the term “community language” here I mean a language used by a community settled on an area, as distinct from say a community of people separated by distance but united by use of a language, or a language used by a few families separated from one another by a majority not speaking that language.
7 A misnomer constantly repeated not only by Unionists but also by British public commentators: the province of Ulster has nine counties, of which three are in the Irish state and six in the British statelet.
8 The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which proposed power-sharing between Protestant and Catholic communities in the shape of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, was overthrown by the Loyalist action of the Ulster Workers’ Council (and Ulster Army Council) strike of 1974, including armed intimidation of Catholic areas, with British Army troops and RUC police standing by (or in the latter case openly colluding) .
9 Literally “Red with Anger”, a campaign of demonstrations organised both sides of the Border, against administrations of both states, by Irish language campaigners and speakers. Connradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League, an organisation part-funded by the Irish state) took part in organising this but it was only one of many much more grass-roots organisations across the country involved. It had been agreed that political party representatives would not be speakers (this was violated in some instances) and that political party banners would not be displayed (violated by Sinn Féin on the Belfast demonstration).
10 This is very different from comparable movements for national independence in Catalunya and the Basque Country, where their own national languages dominate their political discourse, despite repression (until the 1980s) and lack of state support.
This Autumn I made myself available to give talks in the southern Basque Country (i.e. in the Spanish state) on the situation of Irish political prisoners and a series was arranged for mid-October for nearly two weeks.
As well as having private conversations, I gave a total of five public talks to audiences ranging in size from ten to over forty. The composition of the audiences varied from youths to older middle-aged; in some places the latter predominated and in some, the former.
All the meetings I spoke at were arranged by an organisation called Amnistia Ta Askatasuna which calls for total amnesty for Basque political prisoners. This was also a demand of the whole movement and of the leadership of the Abertzale Left until fairly recently and the Gestoras pro-Amnistia organisation had been created under the Abertzale Left umbrella but then banned by the Spanish State. But the Abertzale Left’s leadership have now dropped this demand from public discourse, saying the conditions are not ripe for it and concentrating instead on the end of the dispersal. (More about this and the Basque prisoner situation later).
I had not intended to confine my talks to those organised by ATA but it was they who organised the talks on dates that were offered, with the exception of one from an independent source that unfortunately clashed with one I had already accepted elsewhere.
The types of venues for the talks were community cultural centres (two), occupied buildings (two) and one local (a space for which the users’ association paid rent and used for their activities). Geographically, the talks were held in Gernika and two in Bilbao (Bizkaia province), Etxarri (Nafarroa) and Ibarra (Guipuzkoa province). There were none in Alava province (although earlier this year I gave interviews to Hala Bedi pirate radio there, in Gastheiz/ Vitoria). On this occasion also I gave a video interview to a rapper who also makes videos for Hala Bedi, though he is located in Bizkaia.
From conversations and discussion it became clear that all the older people in the audiences were veterans of the Basque struggle over decades and a number were ex-prisoners. Some had relatives in jail. The youths had come to political activity or thinking in recent years.
For the content of the talks I briefly reviewed the more distant history of political prisoners in Ireland, moving on then to the Good Friday Agreement and the release of
most Irish Republican prisoners in the Six Counties under its terms. The re-arrest and jailing without charge of a number of these ex-prisoners was part of the talk, in which the specific examples given were of Marian Price, Martin Corey and Tony Taylor. I also dealt with the procedure of arrest on ridiculous charges and refusal of bail, or granting it under undemocratic and restrictive conditions, for which I used Stephen Murney as an example. These were all members of different organisations or none. Conviction on charges which the evidence does not support is also a category I mentioned, giving the Craigavon Two as an example there. Arrest on possession of arms charges is also a feature on both sides of the Border.
With regard to the 26 Counties, i.e the Irish state, I discussed the Special Court, Membership-of-an-illegal-organisation charges and charges of obtaining arms or having assisted terrorism. I mentioned the planned second Special Court in particular in the context of the State’s failure to convict most of the Jobstown protesters on charges that included “false imprisonment” (i.e kidnapping).
While noting that splits had occurred before in the Republican movement – the Provisionals themselves having emerged from such a split in 1970 – I noted that since the GFA, splits had multiplied and listed a number of the resulting organisations, including those that had existed already at that time.
Listing the number of Irish political prisoners (at the latest count then 79) and reminding the audience that the Irish had extended solidarity to Basque political prisoners, I asked the Basques for solidarity towards our political prisoners too. And I did so not only as a moral issue of internationalist solidarity but also in recognition that internationalist solidarity is one of the first casualties (i.e aspects to drop or weaken) by those who are seeking to surrender the struggle or even to become collaborators.
I timed the talks to give sufficient space for – and encouraged — questions and comments, even critical ones.
It was interesting that the same questions tended to come up again and again:
Did the different Republican organisations cooperate with one another inside and outside the jails?
What were the conditions in the prisons like for the prisoners?
How are political prisoners in ill-health being treated?
Is there a dispersal issue with regard to political prisoners?
Did the population support the prisoners?
What were the conditions for their release under the Good Friday Agreement?
Did INLA prisoners sign the GFA release agreement?
Are there armed actions continuing in Ireland?
Are the youth involved in solidarity actions and campaigns?
What was the attitude of Sinn Féin towards the political prisoners?
Are prisoners “on the run” still in danger of arrest and imprisonment?
In one meeting, one of the smaller audiences and containing only youth, I was asked about the role of women in the national liberation struggle in Ireland today.
Some of the questions asked reflect the situation of the Basque political prisoners and also of the censored and inaccurate information about Ireland that reaches them, including through the Abertzale Left‘s (the “official” umbrella organisation) daily newspaper, GARA. At a number of times in the past spokespersons of the Abertzale Left’s organisations had claimed that there were no longer Irish political prisoners, a claim repeated in GARA. More recently, the tendency is to ignore their existence or to represent them as very few, without a program other than return to armed struggle and without a support base (i.e Sinn Féin’s line).
The new direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership, which included a “permanent truce” and disarmament of their armed organisation ETA (formally declared in January 2011) was said at the time to have been agreed by the Basque political prisoners in their organisation EPPK. There have been persistent claims by friends and relatives of some prisoners and by some prisoners released in the last couple of years that they had not even been consulted.
A number of people to whom I spoke claimed that the prisoners’ collective no longer really exists, with prisoners left to act individually; some others said this was true to an extent but not completely. Certainly one feels a general air of disillusionment and uncertainty – and also of anger. And it is true that a small number of prisoners have formally denounced the leadership and left the collective.
From figures collected in 2003, up to 30,000 Basque activists out of a total population of less than three million) had been arrested, 8,170 were accused of being members of ETA and roughly half of those convicted and imprisoned. The prisoners’ relatives and friends’ organisation Etxerat (also under the Abertzale Left’s umbrella) in its July-September report of this year (2017) recognises 315 Basque political prisoners, of which 310 are dispersed through 61 prisons, with only two in 2 prisons in the Basque Country.
In 39 prisons in the Spanish state, 239 Basque political prisoners are being kept and 68 in twenty prisons of the French state. There are 212 (68.85%) Basque political prisoners in prisons at distances of between 600 and 1,100 km of the Basque Country; from a distance of 400 to 590 km from their country there are 67 (21.75 %) and between 100 and 390 km of home another 29 (9.40 %).
The strain on relatives and friends is considerable, road accidents are frequenton their journeys to visit prisonersand a number have been killed.
Twenty-one prisoners (21) are diagnosed as being seriously or terminally ill and according to the states’ own penal codes should have been released on parole to home or hospital but instead of reducing the number of sick prisoners the total is climbing (almost doubled in recent years). I accompanied ATA comrades to the port town of Ondarroa to participate in a demonstration organised by a broad platform calling for the release of terminally-ill Basque political prisoner Ibon Iparragirre.
The Spanish state has rejected all the “peace process” (sic) overtures of the Abertzale Left leadership and says that ETA should just disappear and prisoners wishing to be pardoned and released must repent their previous actions, apologise to their “victims” and give information on their previous activities and comrades. It also says that all still at liberty and wanted for past illegal activities will continue to be pursued.
COMMENTS AND CONTRIBUTIONS
These too tended to be of a kind to come up again and again throughout the tour:
The situation in Ireland with regard to the liberation movement and prisoners is like that in the Basque Country or that which the latter will face as time goes on
The prisoners’ cause is being deserted by the Abertzale Left leadership
Their media and leadership had lied to the movement about the situation in Ireland
The leadership is only interested in penetrating the institutions and is neglecting the politics of the street
Otaegi and Adams are alike and McGuinness was a traitor when he asked people to inform on paramilitaries
The Abertzale Left did not of course comment on the talks – why would they? However, in Ibarra, I saw posters for the meeting torn down in areas where other political ones remained and according to my hosts, this was the work of the “oficialistas” (i.e followers of the leadership’s line) in the town. It was notable too that with a few exceptions, a number of people within the Abertzale Left but whom I know to be very critical of the change of direction, did not attend the talks held in their areas. Since some had previously attended a meeting at which I spoke a year ago and engaged in discussion critical of the Abertzale leadership, I took it that these either disapproved of the ATA organisers or did not wish, for whatever reason, to be seen attending a meeting held by the organisation.
At all the talks I was received with friendliness and courtesy and after some I had a meal in company in a txoko (Basque building — or part of one — owned or rented by a gastronomic association) or the home of my hosts for the evening. Although I invited criticisms with genuine interest in hearing them, none were voiced publicly, whether of the content of my talk or of the Irish people generally — although there were some questions as to why the people “in the south” had not supported more widely the “struggle in the north”. I explained that what they call “the north” is one-fifth or the country and also divided in its population; in addition the Republican movement had left the social and economic concerns of the people in the other four-fifths largely unaddressed and in fact had opposed some social reforms in earlier times. People in the 26 Counties had given a lot of support but without mobilising them on their own concerns and specific conditions this was likely to be a minority activity and to decline over time.
CATALUNYA: SOUTHERN BASQUE ATTITUDE TO THE STRUGGLE THERE
Inevitably, the struggle in Catalunya came into the discourse at some point – after all, I had arrived in Euskal Herria just under two weeks after the Referendum.
The Catalan national flags, the esteladas (both versions) were in evidence across the Basque Country as were some solidarity banners and posters. The two solidarity demonstrations I witnessed (and in which I participated but for a while – each having been called for the same evening as my talk locally) in Nafarroa and in Bizkaia appeared to have been called by the “official” movement and were fairly small and quiet. The largest, of over fifty people, did not even have a flag, placard or banner, which was puzzling.
It was reported to me that some time back, the Abertzale Left had been close to the militant CUP (Catalan left-wing and independist popular movement) but now were moving closer to the Eskerra Republicana, often perceived as being less militant and closer to the Catalan bourgeoisie. Among the critics of the Abertzale Left leadership and others there seemed to be a doubt that the Catalan leadership was serious; however, both the “officials” and the “dissidents” had sent people to help the Catalans in their referendum.
After the Spanish police violence on October 1st there was a feeling that the Catalans were enduring what the Basques had endured for decades so why the great shock now? When two leaders of the Catalan movement were arrested and jailed without bail and called “political prisoners”, of course the Basques pointed to their own hundreds of political prisoners (and also to two Catalans who were ETA prisoners). The failure to declare a Republic on the promised day seemed to bear out those with a more cynical view but actions since then and the application of the repressive Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution are bound to raise feelings of respect and solidarity across the Basque national liberation movement, whether “official” or “dissident”.
It is clear that there is interest in the Irish situation and of that of the prisoners in at least some sections of the broad Basque national liberation movement. It is also clear that there is a substantial discomfort with the direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership since 2011 (and for some since even earlier). Frustration is also evident as is a great concern for the political prisoners and a worry that they are being left without leadership, to come to their own arrangements with the Spanish state or to endure many more years in jail or die there (as Kepa De Hoyo did in August and as Ibon Iparragirre faces now).
This level of concern, disquiet and even distrust is not currently reflected in great numbers attending pickets or demonstrations organised by ATA, as numbers attending the talks showed in some areas but as the talks also showed, there is a network of support for ATA across the southern Basque Country. It was clear that a greater lead-up would have resulted in talks being hosted in further areas, including the province of Alava which was not included on this occasion. The general composition of the movement represented by ATA is healthy in its spread across generations, comprised of veterans (including ex-prisoners) and youth new to the struggle.
From a personal point of view it was an interesting if somewhat hectic and stressful period but also one that increased my understanding of the reality.
From a political perspective I hope it helped build some links for solidarity between the struggles in each of the two nations and an awareness that pacification processes are not an alternative but only another face of repression. For the struggles in which so many have sacrificed so much to succeed, we need to raise our awareness of these processes. In these processes political prisoners, often seen by their populations as heroes and people to be cherished, are used by the repressive power as hostages and often too as bargaining counters, the temptation always there for some of those in struggle to use them in kind.