Rise with your class, not out of your class…

Fascinating take from Danny Morrison in Daily Ireland on a series of historical figures, which throws some light on the current thinking within contemporary Sinn Fein, most particularly the addage (curiously also followed by the DUP) never get too far ahead of your people.By Danny Morrison

Even after Fianna Fail broke away from Sinn Fein in 1926, many republicans, including IRA Volunteers, continued to look up to de Valera, continued to admire and probably supported him – until, when in power, he took a hard line against the IRA and proscribed the organisation. Dev had abandoned – that is, if he had ever subscribed to them in the first place – the values of ‘the Republic’ for the gombeen class within a sectarian, partitioned state, the twenty-six counties.

Many years ago Gerry Fitt was a nationalist hero. He came from working-class stock and was a co-founder of the Republican Labour Party. He took the West Belfast seat from unionist James Kilfedder in 1966, at a time that coincided in league football with a Celtic victory over Rangers. Fitt was being carried shoulder-high along the streets of the Falls when he declared triumphantly: “We beat them in politics, now we’ve beaten them in football!”

1966 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising and it was the populist Fitt who unveiled a plaque in honour of James Connolly at a house on the Falls Road where Connolly had once lived. Two years later Fitt was injured during an RUC baton charge against civil rights marchers in Duke Street, Derry, and his status as a champion of the people soared.

But within a decade Fitt went on to defend the RUC, to collaborate with Thatcher and to condemn the hunger strikers. When he lost his West Belfast seat to Gerry Adams, he was quickly given a peerage and took his seat in the British House of Lords where he continued his attacks on republicans. Fitt, the ‘republican socialist’, died a British monarchist.

Among my mates at school there was one who was a bit of a rebel. He smoked dope, led a licentious life, recommended good books and gave the Brits lip when he was stopped. We drifted apart and I didn’t see him for a few years but when I was released from internment he approached me and said he wanted to join the IRA. Anyway, he never turned up to a pre-arranged meeting and then he disappeared. I supposed he had changed his mind.

In latter years I have seen him once or twice and though we had clearly gone our separate paths he would nod and I would nod back and smile, acknowledging, I thought, the close affinity there once was between us when we were seventeen: the parties and the girls, the fun we had, the LPs we swapped, the Kafka, Gide and Woolf books we exchanged.

I learnt just a few weeks ago from people whose judgements I trust that this former rebel is one of the most hostile, arrogant and bureaucratic civil servants that community groups in nationalist areas have had to deal with. All of which suggests that he has become a ‘Castle Catholic’, that breed that the colonial Dublin and Stormont Castles always managed to mould as defenders of the status quo.

We can all be victims of a certain naivety, from the simple assumptions we make about people because of whom they are or where they come from, and the hopes we invest in them, particularly heroes/leaders/role models.

At the minor end of the scale, I remember being disappointed when I heard that the lead singer with Hot Chocolate, Errol Brown, supported Margaret Thatcher and sang John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ at a Tory election rally in 1987 – which was pretty sacrilegious given Lennon’s pacifism and Thatcher’s militarism. How could this Jamaican immigrant support a prime minister whose policies had triggered race riots in Britain, especially in Brixton where young black men were targeted by police using the hated ‘SUS’ laws?

And how could Ray Charles – after all that black people had come through -have appeared at the Republican convention in 1984 and sang Ronald Reagan’s favourite song, ‘America the Beautiful’?

How often have we been ashamed to learn of those Irish immigrants in North America who were cruel to the indigenous peoples of that continent or who were racist towards blacks and other ethnic groups? Our shame is especially acute because we would have expected more from them, a natural empathy, a communal solidarity with downtrodden people because of what the Irish and their antecedents had been through. But it doesn’t always translate like that. And certainly not if one’s politics are based on individualism.

Did Thatcher as British prime minister qualitatively change the position or raise the status of women in society? Did she soften the edge of traditional male/macho rule? She most certainly did not.

There has been talk in the USA that Hilary Clinton has been positioning herself to run as the Democratic candidate for the presidency, though ‘the country’, we are told, might not be ready just yet for a woman president. Doubtless, thousands would vote for her on the sole and vacuous basis that she was a woman.

George Bush made history when he appointed Colin Powell as the first black Secretary of State – and what a disappointment, what a lapdog, he turned out to be, undermining any integrity he might have began with, going along with the concocting of evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Bush also made history when he appointed the first African-American woman, Condoleezza Rice, from Birmingham, Alabama, to the position of National Security Advisor in 2001, and later as his Secretary of State, replacing Colin Powell.

In the USA there is a campaign to have Rice nominated as the republican candidate for the 2008 presidency. It might seem fanciful but think how many blacks would consider voting for her solely because she is “one of our own”.

Condoleezza Rice is a black woman but a white man at heart when it comes to traditional conservative US political values. She once ironically summed up the racist division of spoils, in the telling of a joke, when she said: “My parents had me absolutely convinced that, well, you may not be able to have a hamburger at Woolworth’s but you can be the president of the United States.”

James Connolly had them all sussed out – the de Valeras, the Fitts, the Rices – when he cautioned those with an instinct to lead and with, perhaps, an inclination towards self-aggrandisement: “Rise with your class. Not out of your class.”


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty