Tag Archives: Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness & dispelling sectarianism

On my way back to Dublin with a parcel of other 13-year-olds from a three-month stay in the Gweedore Gaeltacht in 1961, I paid my first visit to Derry to switch from bus to train.

Even for a boy who was well used to seeing the Dublin tenements, Derry was like something out of the distant past. No sign of development or modernisation but all the signs of poverty. I particularly remember a street of single-storey cottages of the sort featured in old photos of 19th century evictions, maybe mud-walled. Hovels. Ragged children, and ragged mothers. Another country.

My parents had told me about that other country. During the war, freshly married and with no ready employment in Dublin, my father had got work with Thompson & Nutt’s motor works in Garvagh in Derry, reconditioning truck bodies at a time when no new trucks were available because of the war effort.

Son of a 1916 Volunteer, and a committed republican, he worked with a mainly Protestant work-force without any problems at all. When he was the subject of a serious external death-threat, it was his Protestant workmates who sent out the message that not a hair on his head was to be touched, and that was the end of the matter.

He stayed in touch with Thompson, Nutt and his workmates for decades after, and he and my mother made regular trips north of the border from then on.

So, they made sure their children knew from an early age what the set-up in the Protestant State for a Protestant people was, and the conditions I saw in Derry in 1961 confirmed that there was no place at the table for Catholic nationalists.

The six-counties didn’t have to be a sectarian state. That was a choice, and it wasn’t made just by six-county unionists, it was a choice made in Westminster, and sustained by Westminster. And it was a choice made in Dublin and sustained through studied neglect by Dublin. Better a hegemonic conservative Catholic 26-county state than a 32-county state in which Protestants would have to be accommodated.

When the civil rights marchers were assaulted by the RUC and Loyalists at Burntollet Bridge in 1969, no surprise. When Sammy Devenney died as a result of a gratuitous beating from the RUC in Derry, no surprise. When Bombay Street in Belfast was burned to the ground in the same year by a Loyalist mob with RUC support and we had a refugee family living with us in a normal three-bedroomed house in Dublin, no surprise. When Harold Wilson sent in the British Army and it turned on the nationalist community, no surprise. When that army slaughtered civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry, no surprise. When internment of nationalists, and torture, were carried out, no surprise. When the RUC, British Army and Loyalists colluded in the murders of nationalists, no surprise. When the Orange Order repeatedly paraded their bigotry on the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree Church year after year, without state sanction, no surprise.

When Martin McGuinness and others stood up to that repression having, of necessity, armed themselves to defend their people, no surprise.

And there is no surprise either in the brutality that ensued. That is war, wherever it occurs, and civilians always bear the brunt of it. The real crime is that it lasted for decades. That was the politics of failure. Or, more exactly, it was the politics of imperialist obduracy. Westminster was going to beat Irish nationalists back come hell or high water. Hell came and went, and high water too, but the republican movement was still standing its ground, still undefeated but without the possibility of fighting the sort of decisive battle that would drive the obdurate imperialists from Ireland. And even if that had been possible, full-blown civil war would have ensued, and the imperialists would have stoked that. They have form on this island in doing that.

Stalemate is not a solution. Achieving your ultimate ambition is a solution. For republicans, that ambition is the establishment of a true 32-county republic.

Every year republicans go to Bodenstown, to the grave of Wolfe Tone, one of the principal architects of Irish republicanism. They don’t go as a single body of republicans, but in separate groups because they have fallen out with one another. Internecine disputes become more important than realising the republican ambition.

Wolfe Tone, and the other Protestant men who founded the republican movement in Ireland, left a fundamental tenet of republicanism for us to follow. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”.

There is no other way to create a true republic encompassing all of this island than by following that tenet. No republican could over-ride the will of unionists by imposing a republic on them without their assent. No republican could even contemplate expelling the unionist population from the land so as to create a republic. If they did either of those things it would be self-defeating. It would not be a republic. It is therefore necessary to persuade unionists that they have nothing to fear from the sort of republic that their Protestant ancestors laid out in Belfast in 1791, but that they have much to gain from it.

That is the project that Martin McGuinness and the rest of the willing republican leadership and rank-and-file set out on over two decades ago. Others had and have a right to a different opinion and a right to resile from that decision. Many of us have had to swallow very hard when symbolic gestures were made by republicans that went against the grain, other than as part of an overall strategy of moving towards a ‘brotherhood of affection’, or to put it the other way a ’parity of esteem’.

As Sinn Féin engaged with the political process, the party was rightly criticised for not being sufficiently ‘of the left’. Republicanism is intrinsically of the left. James Connolly stated that to be republican was to be socialist and to be socialist was to be republican, that the two are the same in terms of the social, economic and political outcomes that they should produce if they are true to their doctrines.

But political progress depends on public support, and the fact is that on either side of the border the population is conservative in outlook and cautious in the face of change, the result of a century and more of exposure to right-wing, anti-republican, anti-socialist propaganda from church, state and press. Many of the social and economic problems that people on both sides of the border endure would be solved by the left, but still the left struggles for support.

One reason for that is the presence of often bitter internecine disputes across the left, between socialists and republicans but also within socialism and republicanism. The right unites to hold power, the left fractures all over the place to avoid power. Another crucial reason is the absence of any form of progressive national media, not just now but since the imposition of partition and the creation of two sectarian states. Solving the latter is probably far easier than solving the former.

Has progress been made north of the border over the past two decades? Have attitudes changed? Has sectarianism diminished? Have the two sides moved towards better accommodating one another? Has Brexit made a difference to the question of the border? Could Scottish independence play a part in moving the border question on? Would the English ditch the six-counties to concentrate on their own post-Brexit situation? Has the 26-county political class been forced to engage with the border question in a realistic way for the first time since 1922? Is it within the left’s capability, republican and socialist, to make significant political advances over the next five or ten years on either side of the ridiculous border? Is it more possible than it was twenty years ago to imagine that republican vision that Tone and the other Protestant republicans had, coming into being?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is yes.

Are we significantly closer to “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”?


His detractors will not acknowledge Martin McGuinness’s contribution to that progress, but I do.

That snapshot I saw of a filthy sectarian six-county state in 1961, and the filthy sectarian 26-county state that I was going home to, are memories.

It is a very different country.

And I am grateful for that.

Work done, Martin McGuinness. Rest in peace.

Work to do, for the rest of us.


A Revolution in Thought or Feeling

Every revolution has a secret history difficult to discover and to disentangle. The Irish rising of 1916 is no exception.’                                 (F.S.L. Lyons 1971)

In 1992 in the course of a conversation with a friend, Barry Dunne, I remarked to him that my father, born in 1918, had been christened Patrick Pearse O’Rahilly Stokes as a tribute to two of the heroes of the 1916 Rising in which my grandfather, John Stokes,  had fought as a rank and file volunteer at Boland’s Mills. Barry expressed amazement and said that his father, born in late 1916, had been christened Joseph Pearse O’Rahilly Dunne, again in tribute to Patrick Pearse and The O’Rahilly. His grandfather, Joe Dunne had been a member of the GPO garrison in Easter Week. The possibility that this choice of names for their newly born sons was mere coincidence became less likely as more details emerged. Both were members of the Irish Volunteers, were about the same age and were interned in Frongoch prison camp after the Rising. Both worked as hackney cab drivers. The strong likelihood is that they knew one another well. Seventy-six years later, their grandsons would, by pure happenstance, partially rebuild the story, too late to verify the details since both men are long dead.

This, it seems to me, illustrates the secret history of the 1916 Revolution. Two young married men left their homes in working class areas of Dublin, said good-bye to their families, possibly, they must have thought, forever, and went to do battle with the mightiest imperial power in the world at that time. Several hundred other men and women did likewise, but their stories have been allowed to dissolve away over time.

The attention of academic historians has been concentrated on the leaders of the Rising, and on the elite group that surrounded them before the revolution and survived them after it. And even when dealing with the executed leaders, the details of their lives were rearranged where necessary to serve the needs of others. James Connolly’s birthplace was moved from Edinburgh in Scotland to Monaghan, one suspects to make him really Irish. His Catholic death was highlighted but his socialist life was obscured. The other leaders have been judged in different ways at different times depending, it seems, on the exigencies of the moment. In the process, the struggle has shifted from the GPO, and has become instead a battle between what Nietzsche describes as monumental and critical historiography, the former giving us positive images of historical figures, the latter concerned with dismantling the past so as to re-evaluate it from a ‘modern’ perspective. Even within these there have been shifts of emphasis. Writing in Eire-Ireland in 1994, Kathleen Nutt made this point:

‘The healthy condition of antiquarian history is not shared by monumental history. Because such figures in the nationalist historical tradition as Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, have been hijacked by republican paramilitaries, academic historians have been quick to direct their passionate iconoclasm against them.’ 

Critical historians have played their part in this too. In a rush, it seems, to distance themselves from events in the six counties in the last quarter of the last century, some have tended to focus, for instance, on the language of leaders such as Patrick Pearse, and to judge it by the standards of today, thus removing it from its context.

Nutt, in pointing to the negative effects of this form of historiography wrote that:

‘Critical history… dismantles heroic deeds, crushes ideals, and displays goodness and altruism as mere egoistic hankering after self-interest… Thus, heroes of the past are demoted, models no longer exist to be aspired to, little is left to feel proud about, and a community may feel cut off from its past and alienated from itself.’

Nutt points instead to other approaches, instancing  Paul Feyerabend’s notion of ‘the partial, multi-perspectival characteristics of “mini-” or fragmented narratives’ and also to the materialist theory of Jurgen Habermas which recognises the notion of a critical hermeneutic ‘which would incorporate into the interpretation of the past an acknowledgement of and critical reflection upon the scholar’s own historical and geographical vantage point’.

It does seem to be perfectly reasonable that in offering an interpretation of historical periods or events the scholar would illustrate in some way the personal perspective which must in some way inform the work. It equally seems to be reasonable to present history, not as something which happens due to the presence of one monumental figure or other, but as the sum of many fragmented narratives. Those voices which have been lost or excluded need to be heard again so that we may more fully understand ourselves as a people. It is not good enough that we should define ourselves by the actions or reactions of an ‘elite’. Writing on the shortcomings of conventional historiography in 1991 Margaret Ward had this to say:

‘Who are the people who make history? The argument rarely seems to touch upon the human content of the narrative. Conventional historiography has given us kings, with the odd queen thrown in, and rebellious chiefs and politicians, with the peasantry popping in and out of the picture. In the last couple of decades the working class has managed to shoulder its way onto the scene and the history of the Irish working class is now rapidly unfolding, thanks to the diligence of a new generation of historians. But it is all strangely woman-free.’

Since Ward wrote that, much has been done to bring the women and the central role they so often played in the revolution back into the narrative. The other significant group left out of the narrative, the working class, are edging back into it although much more work needs to be done on both (often overlapping) groups.

Very often over the past thirty years or so it has been from within the area of cultural studies that much of the work to liberate the silent voices has come. Rather than concentrating on ‘High’ literature, scholars from the cultural studies area of sociology have foregrounded the importance of popular culture in shaping people’s view of themselves and their societies. As Desmond Bell put it in 1993:

‘Significantly the major re-excavation of our past and reassessment of its significance for contemporary sensibilities has been undertaken by literary scholars rather than by academic historians… Criticism has been first along the pathways where historical determination, cultural formation and popular experience intersect.’

In the past, great emphasis has been placed on the role of the ‘High Art’ of the cultural revivalists such as Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and others, in impelling the Irish people towards independence from Britain. But the majority of those without whom the 1916 Revolution would not have happened, the working and lower middle classes, were more likely to be found in the stalls of the Queens Theatre partaking of Irish historical melodramas rather than in the Abbey Theatre, and more likely to get their information and ideas from the pages of some newspaper or magazine which they could buy for a halfpenny or a penny than in some leather bound volume of poetry, even if it carried Yeats’ name. Some shift in the imagination changed a sufficient number from being, at the end of the nineteenth century, broadly supportive of Parnell and the Home Rule movement, into participation in the early part of the twentieth century in a revolutionary movement, and prepared to fight and evidently to die for the republican ideals laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

As Peter Costello put it in 1977 in ‘The Heart Grown Brutal’:

‘Revolution, like tragedy, takes place in the imagination. A revolution in thought or feeling – that is, in what people know about themselves or imagine that they know – is the prerequisite for any revolution.’

As we approach the centenary of the 1916 revolution it is worth applying Costello’s assertion to the possibility, however weak, that today’s citizens might take on themselves the responsibility of completing the work of the stalled revolution – the re-creation of the Irish Republic, put into a state of suspended animation by the counter-revolution of 1922-2011. Do today’s citizens have the information to understand what is at stake and are they open to experiencing a ‘revolution in thought or feeling‘?

Over the past 30 years and more the project of historical revisionism has taken hold and has been paralleled by the active participation of many  of the senior academic historians involved in that project either as guests or very often as contracted commentators in the mainstream media. Too often the revisionist line has been used not for scholarly investigation but as a battering ram against republican activity in the ‘Troubles’, while at the same time these senior academics were engaged in the ‘education’ of future teachers of history to second and third level students.

The two byproducts of this have been the turning away of a significant number of citizens through distorted media coverage from the notion that 1916 was ‘a good thing’, or that it was even a ‘legitimate action’; secondly, by the teaching in our schools of  a version of the story of the revolution corrupted by the political exigencies of today. The very breath was taken out of the story, an element of shame was falsely attached to it, and the people that it should have inspired have been so uninspired as to leave school in large numbers ignorant of the part the 1916 revolution in both the forwarding of the ‘republic’ as a concept and of their own status as citizen, not subject.

Despite the presence of some good, professional historians  in the history departments of the various universities, it is too late for them to rescue the situation in time for the centenary. It will take as long to revise the revisionists as it did for the revisionists to create a corrupted historiography. Recent and imminent retirements of failed senior academic historians may help the next generation, provided care is taken in appointing proper historians in their place, historians who understand that ‘passionate iconoclasm’ should not be part of their tool-kit.

Despite the work of a small number of fine, ethical journalists and commentators, there is no chance, given the right-wing media hegemony that it seems we must endure in the immediate future, that the citizens at large will be properly informed through that channel of the relevance, indeed the central importance of the 1916 revolution in their lives, and of the need to investigate and understand its core meanings and significance.

The ‘revolution in thought or feeling’ can only come about outside of the mainstream media and despite a corrupted academia. We cannot rely on any more that a couple of Presidential candidates, most likely Martin McGuinness and Michael D Higgins, to engage the citizens with the notion of a ‘republic’ and what it should mean.

It falls, therefore, to artists, activists, trade unions,  social media users, working class and women’s groups and so on to engage with the centenary of the revolution, and with what that centenary will celebrate – the establishment of a genuine, progressive, enlightenment republic, the Irish Republic.

It is time for that ‘revolution in thought or feeling’.

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