Tag Archives: Michael D Higgins

Whatever you say, say nothing – Lockout 2013

There are dates in every nation’s calendar that demand remembrance. When those dates fall on the centenary of a significant event then that demand for remembrance is greatly magnified. A remembrance ceremony marking the centenary of a significant event then becomes an event in itself and enters the collective memory. There is one opportunity on the centenary of a significant event to get it right, or to get it wrong, to honour the participants in that original event, or to dishonour their deeds and by implication the participants themselves, either by distorting the narrative, the manner of its representation, or by grievous omission.

It is the last of these, omission, that was particularly startling in what was billed as the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout on the 31st of August 2013, the centenary of Bloody Sunday on which date the Dublin Metropolitan Police attacked and battered protesting strikers in the main street of Dublin, injuring between 400 and 600 and killing two men, James Nolan and John Byrne.

The National Commemoration was attended by the President, Michael D. Higgins. The President arrived, listened to and watched various performances, laid a wreath at the Larkin statue, led a minute’s silence in memory of those who died and those who suffered during the Lockout, took refreshments in the GPO with other dignitaries, returned to his seat to enjoy other performances, and then departed. Nothing strange about what the President did, but it is what he didn’t do that is strange. The President didn’t speak to the people on the subject of the Lockout during the course of the National Commemoration.

President Higgins has not shown himself in the past to be afraid to address issues that may be contentious. He is a skilled and adept public speaker, well aware of the limitations that his office places on him in terms of straying into the party political arena or on matters of government policy. He has spoken on the Lockout previously. There is no doubt that he has a deep interest in the historical event itself and its use in evaluating the present and projecting into the future. Sharing his analysis and his ideas with the public is, perhaps, what he does best. He is not known to be reticent about using the public platform to stimulate discussion – the opposite is, thankfully, the case, and the public seem to approve of that aspect of his presidency.

And so, the question is why? Why did the President, whose words are listened to and valued by and who enjoys the trust and respect of a significant majority of the people, do the unexpected and remain silent on the subject of the 1913 Lockout on such an auspicious occasion as the National Commemoration of the centenary of that event when the reasonable expectation was, as usual, that he would speak to those present and, via the media, to the nation?

Perhaps there is a simple answer. The President may have been unable to deliver a speech through being indisposed in some relevant way. He may, as one observer suggested, have not wished to take from the community element of performances, but that seems unlikely since there were also professional actors and musical performers taking part at other times in the programme. Perhaps there are other simple answers to the question, but they don’t come to mind easily.

Also present at the commemorations were Fine Gael Minister Jimmy Deenihan, Labour Party leader and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and his party colleagues Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn, the latter under increasing fire for his extraordinary and arbitrary decision to remove history as a compulsory subject in secondary schools, without any public discussion. Could a less simple answer be related to their presence? Could it be that their involvement in the neo-liberal austerity agenda which must have formed part of any serious speech on the subject of the 1913 Lockout and the conditions today of workers, the unemployed, the emigrated, the sick, the homeless and the dispossessed, the under-educated and under-resourced children, and the poor in general, might have consequently led to public embarrassment, and perhaps spontaneous protest against their unrelenting support for failed, deeply damaging government policies?

It is unusual to find four government ministers at an event such as this and to note the absence of even one attempt to take the microphone and to speak on the historical event and the main personalities involved, even if that, as sometimes happens, is no more than empty rhetoric and oily words. Extraordinary, really.

There too were the principal organisers of the event, leading members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and affiliated trade unions. A proper analysis of the Lockout and its relevance to today’s issues, the importance and role of trade unions, and their performance over the intervening century particularly since the inception of Social Partnership in 1987 – the sort of issues that the President could normally be expected to touch on – might have proven uncomfortable too.

Any honest critique of the effects of the social partnership model could hardly avoid addressing in some way issues such as the fall-off in density of union membership in the workforce from 54% in 1987 – the start of social partnership – to 20% in 2007 – the end of the ‘boom’, and the fall-off in membership among young workers, part-timers and the lower skills with a higher concentration today of members in the professional and technical grades – mirroring the change in demographics among Labour Party voters. Trade unions, like the Labour Party, have lost much of their traditional base, to the detriment of vulnerable workers in the case of the unions, and the disenfranchisement of the working class in the case of Labour.

There are those who would also criticise the social partnership model for the political dangers that it can impose. One notorious and similar previous model is that contrived by Benito Mussolini around 1930, which brought trade unions and corporate interests together to work with government – as one of the pillars of Italian Fascism.

It may seem extreme to mention fascism in the context of the Irish trade unions, and that linkage is not the intention, rather the dangers of social partnership in which the driving force may be a government of questionable ethics. While Bertie Ahern enjoyed much popularity particularly during the property bubble, the spectacle of him being applauded to the stage at the ICTU Biennial Conference in Bundoran in 2007 (when there were many indicators that the economy was tanking), where he delivered his infamous remark that he did not know how people who moaned about the economy did not ‘commit suicide’. He was then applauded back down from the stage and out of the conference centre. Some could think that that was a ‘Berlusconi moment’. It was certainly unfortunate.

James Connolly would have ‘got’ that moment, just as he would have ‘got’ social partnership. What did he write in the Irish Worker, two months into the Lockout? “It is war, war to the end, against all the unholy crew who, with the cant of democracy on their lying lips, are forever crucifying the Christ of labour between the two thieves of Land and Capital”.

It is no longer ‘war, war’ between the two rightfully antagonistic forces of labour and capital, but ‘jaw,jaw’, or at least since the disintegration of social partnership, no sign of a return to ‘war, war’ – the strategy that many living in straitened conditions might prefer the trade unions to opt for, and who have often vocally expressed their wish for that change. Where, for instance, is the ‘war, war’ on Zero Hours Contracts, criticised by Minister of State Alex White of the Labour Party thus – “We have a new “precariat” in some sectors of the labour force, with people working on zero-hours contracts, short-term contracts, or for free on unpaid internships. These trends can undermine rights earned by past workers, and the relevant statutory protections may require strengthening, or at least review. Zero-hours contracts shape a life of uncertainty for people where their ability to budget for the future or manage a stable family life is particularly difficult.”?

Again, we might have expected that a dynamic trade union leadership might have nominated their best and most inspiring speaker to seize on the opportunities that the centenary of the Lockout offered to advance the cause of labour. But no, an opportunity rejected, it seems. Why?

‘Tis passing strange’ too, as the man himself might put it, how James Connolly got ne’er a proper mention at the National Commemoration other than in the rendition of the Ballad of James Larkin sung by Jimmy Kelly. Hardly likely that the President would have made that omission, had he spoken, which omission is of itself an insult to Connolly whose role in the Lockout was immense. It is, of course, correct to highlight James Larkin’s enormous role in the Lockout, but extremely churlish to downplay Connolly’s powers and sacrifices in that endeavour. It was not a one-man show. That churlishness brings to mind the Irish Labour Party’s inability or unwillingness to properly celebrate the role that Connolly played in founding that party on its centenary in 2012, or to champion his eloquent and visionary social philosophy which is the envy of others around the world other than in brief references that had a distinctly weasely feel to them.

Like that other National Commemoration forced on a recalcitrant State, the annual 1916 commemoration, this one too seemed smothered by the dead hand of State, or of other agencies or a combination of both, and  starved of the oxygen of honest appraisal and discussion. Perhaps that was the plan, perhaps not.

One lesson learned by those who understand the importance of these centenaries to the nation and to the future is that the state has shown itself to be unable or unwilling to trust the public to own its own great history. By its inept and insulting control of the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout, including the barricading of the citizens, the employment of a private security company of bad repute – G4S – to interfere with public access at the event, the searching even of women’s handbags and men’s eye-glass cases, the state has shown itself to be unfit for the job of commemorating the 1916 revolution. In 1966, a far larger event than this one was, not a barricade was to be seen, the police presence was discreet, citizens were free to approach the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, if they wished, or any other attendee among the ‘elite’. What has changed, other than obsessive control-freakery?

And so the Fine Gael minister and three Labour ministers remained stoically silent on the day. The trade union leadership offered a bland statement via Sallyann Kinihan. So be it. Perhaps it was the safer option.

But can we have an answer, simple or complex, to this question? Why did the President not speak at the National Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout?


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’.

A Proclamation Too Far

The news that Kathleen O’Meara, a former Labour Party Senator, intends to seek her party’s nomination for the Irish Presidential election in October is not particularly remarkable in itself. After all, provided she can muster enough support to secure the nomination, it will be for the electorate to decide whether or not she is presidential material. What is remarkable is her declared desire to fashion a new proclamation to be issued on the centenary of the existing Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 24th April 1916.

O’Meara wants, she says, “…to build a project, a national engagement, a conversation which would take place in every community in Ireland, asking those questions and hearing from the people themselves about who they want us, Ireland, to be.” Admitting that the first proclamation was ambitious and inspiring she concedes that the country has not lived up to it. And so, her solution appears to be to come up with a better proclamation herself – after having a conversation, of course, with the rest of us.

Her ambition does not rest with coming up with a better proclamation. “Amidst the wreckage we are now in, is an opportunity to start again, to preserve the best of what we have created and build a new vision to take this nation forward. The theme of the next presidency, under my leadership, would be building the nation. This is why I am seeking this nomination,” she said. Well now! O’Meara is going to build the nation too, presumably by having a conversation with the rest of us.

Well, if Kathleen O’Meara wants to have a conversation she might start by explaining to us the failure of the Labour Party since 1918 to live up to the reasonable expectations of its founder, James Connolly, that it would be a socialist party and therefore, by his rational definition, a republican party. She might explain why the Labour Party failed to effectively challenge the brutal counter-revolution that began in earnest with the creation of the Free State, and why the Labour Party surrendered its constituency to de Valera’s Fianna Fail, once that party was founded.

O’Meara might enlighten us about the 45 years from 1932 (the year Fianna Fail assumed power) when the Labour Party was led first by William Norton and then Brendan Corish, both of them members of the secretive Catholic masonic order, the Knights of Columbanus. No surprise then that Corish, Labour Party leader from 1960-1977 stated that “I am an Irishman second; I am a Catholic first.…If the Hierarchy gives me any direction with regard to Catholic social teaching or Catholic moral teaching, I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of…the Church to which I belong.”

Another part of the conversation might deal with the Labour Party’s subservience to the two right-wing parties, Fine Gael (most often) and Fianna Fail (once), in always ditching the core values of any proper ‘labour’ party so as to achieve a temporary sojourn in coalition governments in which it played second fiddle to the larger conservative party, and dutifully acquiesced in the implementation of policies that  ran counter to socialist, or even social democratic, principles – time after time.

And it would be most interesting if Kathleen O’Meara explained why the Labour Party turned its back on the republic laid out in the 1916 Proclamation, even though that template for the republic is patently a socialist one, written, without doubt, by the founder of the Labour Party, James Connolly. She might then go on to explain why her proclamation is going to be a better one for the mass of citizens than the very instrument that gave them, and her, the right to be citizens and not subjects – the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. In doing that she will have to explain which line, which word of paragraph four of the Proclamation she has a problem with and would discard. And if she does not have a problem with it, then why is she proposing to write a new one, rather than taking the existing one out on the road with her to promote it, especially since most Irish citizens have some emotional attachment to the 1916 Proclamation, even if they haven’t read it or don’t fully understand its meaning, and many others, knowing what it means and promises, have a rational attachment to it?

A charitable view of Kathleen O’Meara’s dual-ambition to write a new proclamation and build the nation is that it is the product of a rushed decision to seek the nomination and an urgent need to have a ‘message’ or theme to sell to those who will select the Labour Party candidate. The uncharitable might suggest arrogance on her part, but since that might be unfair, let’s be charitable. It is likely, given the evidence of the Labour Party’s record in glossing over the party’s connection to James Connolly so as not to upset its middle-class membership and constituency, and its consistent failure to champion his beautiful vision of the ideal republic, that O’Meara knows only too well that the Irish Republic of the proclamation is too hard a thing a sell to the party, particularly given the party’s unfortunate history of unnecessary compromise with the right-wing anti-republican parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Given the list of other possible candidates for the presidential election it is hard to see anything better than an insincere genuflection in the direction of the 1916 Proclamation coming from any of them – with the possible exception of Michael D Higgins, so long hamstrung by his membership of a less than ideal party for promoting his personal and political values, and David Norris. The rest of them would rather bury the ideas of the Proclamation in a quick-lime grave and compel the mass of Irish citizens to continue on the road to perdition while their own political class maintains and strengthens the political hegemony that denies the possibility of constructing a real republic.

What is certain is that there is plenty more guff coming down the line during the presidential campaign. So swallow hard, gird your loins, let the waffle commence. We already know who will be the losers –  the people, and therefore the Republic, again.

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