The life and career of Martin McGuinness will fit neatly into Derry, a tale of two sieges

More than we could have  realised as children,  the generation of Martin McGuiness, Gregory Campbell and people like me was shaped by the physical contours of a city which more than anywhere defines  historic division in reality and metaphor.

I was brought up in the shadow of the siege cathedral  at the highest point in what was  very much London’s Derry. We lived next door to the Georgian townhouse of the old city’s 17th century founders, the Honourable the Irish Society of City of London livery companies, who are still landowners in chief. Opposite us, the Regency courthouse still very much in business today; across the street, the massive bulk of the palace built by the bishop who was the grandest of English 18th century magnates, the Earl of Bristol. The buildings proclaim what had once been the richest diocese in Ireland sustained by tithes,  landowner rents and concessions. By the mid 20th century, the revenues had largely  dried up and it had become  a pale shadow of its former self. The inherited pride of us Protestants as children of the Glorious Revolution was great but entirely vicarious.  Real life lay just outside the city walls in the Fountain, where my father’s generation was born and reared. Its long demolished little early Victorian streets have been fondly memorialised in mural photographs to soften the harshness of the peace wall.  By a well observed but unspoken compact, this was not natural McGuinness territory. He records that he took his mother up on the walls for the first time in her eighties.

From the Fountain and my old home, St Columba’s Long Tower where Martin McGuinness’s funeral mass was celebrated, is fully a two minute stroll and a world away. As the name Temple Mor implies, it is the oldest ecclesiastical site in the city, being traditionally the site of Colmcille’s first monastery. Beside the retaining wall of the churchyard, steps lead down to the  Bogside, to a point then known less evocatively  as the junction of Rossville St, Lecky Road and Stanley’s Walk. On the immediate left  the Gasworks, reeking and functioning in my youth, commandered later as an IRA headquarters and now imaginatively transformed into a Neighbourhood centre with childcare and educational facilities. Two minutes to the right, Cable St and a Sinn Fein office and Martin McGuinness’ home nearby.   Ten minutes up the hill and to the left, the City Cemetery.

In my childhood, from St Columb’s Church of Ireland cathedral the  curfew bell still rang out –    but ceremonially only by now; 9 pm Catholics out of the walled city, 9 am Catholics allowed back in. It was the lingering legacy of that old prohibition that on 5th October 1968 prompted the ban on the civil rights march from entering the city centre, while new members of the Apprentice Boys order were being inducted inside the walls, as their rule required. This was the flashpoint that ignited the Troubles.  Londonderry the Unionist town had a Catholic majority, as I had been  quite late in learning. From that moment it ceased to be tolerated.

In his book War and an Irish Town Eamonn McCann captures the sense not so much of oppression, as affront and outrage that required the challenge of demos  inspired by socialist vision. This after all was the age of worldwide student rebellion.  In those comparatively innocent days, the war that transpired was beyond contemplation. James Doherty’s butcher’s boy had failed the 11 plus. He felt a deeper sense of rage that must have lasted 20 years.

After his resignation, outside his home and with tears in his eyes, he spoke to the crowd of his  fundamental love of the place. Great sentimentality about roots he shared with Gerry Adams. Deep in his mind and perhaps in expiation for  the ruthlessness that  put his own people through so much, was he thinking that he did it all for Derry?

At his funeral, the brutality  was briefly acknowledged and the subsequent peace commemorated with national and international celebrity. Compared to the old days of the huddled slums and then the cauldron of conflict among the 1960s flats and courts now largely gone, the Bogside itself has become a half empty  post-Troubles heritage centre.   The walls here commemorate a later and different version of freedom from the old walled city above. A lonely gable end proclaims Free Derry Corner retained to commemorate  the siege of our time, of no go areas and fateful military incursions. A longer siege than 1688-89 and like it, in part self imposed.  A comparison of sieges is irresistible :  some Protestant freedoms won in 1690, Catholics freedoms won in 1998. Was either of them worth it?

The scene has shifted. As Miriam Lord describes it, the historic walls became a mere vantage point for onlookers at the funeral scene below. Sinn Fein stewards were fully in charge, not an official uniform in sight, despite Bill Clinton’s presence.  With just a little of the edge taken off, the Protestant DUP MP Gregory Campbell gave his response to the death of the fellow Derry man, ex-IRA leader and professed devout Catholic with whom he will forever be compared.

On a green hill not far away overlooking the whole scene, Martin McGuinness lies buried near the  Republican  plot, a couple of hundred yards away from my baby brother, my grandparents and a great- grandfather.  Apart but close by. In life, so in death.

  • Nevin

    “Eamonn McCann captured the sense not so much of oppression, as affront and outrage that required the challenge of demos inspired by socialist vision. The war that happened was then beyond contemplation. This after all was the age of worldwide student rebellion.”

    Eamonn understood only too well the divisive nature of confrontational street politics:

    Yesterday in Derry, after Catholic workers became enraged by the Paisleyites waving the Union Jack at them, they made for what we call the Fountain area, which is a Protestant working-class ghetto. As a group of Catholic workers, they instinctively made for a Protestant working class area once their emotions had been aroused, and they left no doubt in anyone’s mind that when they got there they intended to beat the daylights out of any Protestants they found. I believe that we have failed to get our position across in the last six months. It is perfectly obvious that people do still see themselves as Catholics and Protestants, and the cry ‘get the Protestants’ is still very much on the lips of the Catholic working class. Everyone applauds loudly when one says in a speech that we are not sectarian, we are fighting for the rights of all Irish workers, but really that’s because they see this as the new way of getting at the Protestants. .. New Labour Review, 1969

  • Oggins

    Fantastic read Brian, thank you

  • MalikHills

    Derry is a funny place, growing up there you can’t think of any place less dreary and backwater could possibly exist (in my defence the only experience I had of Monaghan was driving through it on the way to Dublin), the only thing you can think of is getting the hell out and getting as far away as possible.

    When you do so you feel wonderfully liberated, you can stop walking around with your shoulders hunched and your hands stuck in your pockets, you can have conversations that are of more depth and substance than vacuous wise-cracking showing all how cynical and street-smart you are.

    You can openly express emotion (when sober), discuss matters of depth and intelligence (even though you knew in Derry that the people with whom you were passing the time in meaningless drollery were in fact highly intelligent and very well read), you can appreciate the arts and music (even though in Derry arts and music thrived but in a quiet almost shamefaced way “sure we’re just havin’ a bitta crack”).

    You can wear bright colours, hang out with friends of the opposite sex and gay people (even though in Derry you had plenty of gay friends, it’s just none of us would ever speak of it). You are free.

    And yet, and yet.

    You come back to it. Whichever route you choose to arrive in Derry presents a heartbreakingly beautiful vista, clouds scudding over the hills of Donegal “in sunshine and in shadow”. The majestic sweep of the slate grey Foyle and the streets tumbling down to it from both banks. They dinky spires of the churches and cathedrals, and even the little green cupola of Austins. You take a dander around, your shoulders involuntarily hunch, your hands slip into the pockets and you listen to the vacuous catcalls of men passing each other in the street, and you are home. Like a comfortable old pair of shoes it just slips back on.

    In many ways the experience of growing up in Derry is a microcosm of Ireland itself. A place full of wonderfully creative, intelligent, cultured and artistic people. Attractive people, full of fun and laughter, but who seem to be congenitally afraid to show their own genius, to liberate their own ambitions, doomed to either emigrate or bury their native ingenuity under a hard carapace of banal cynicism and drink.

    Well that was then, I was back a couple of years ago and things seemed to be changing, young Derry people seemed to be more sure of themselves, more free from the self-imposed emotional shackles of their parents’ generation. I salute them, who knows? I might even think of moving back in my old age.

  • MalikHills

    Oh, and before anyone points it out I did borrow heavily from Paul Theroux and Eamonn McCann in my description of Derry’s cityscape, they are both so much better writers than I.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, is this from the interview with the PD in the New Left Review no 55, May/June issue of 1969?

    The interesting thing here Nevin, might be to try and see exactly what point Eamonn was making in this and to compare it with the point you are seemingly making in quoting it? Are you suggesting through his words that every Catholic in Derry was polarised against every Protestant and that accordingly any attempt by anyone to press for any equal rights for the minority community must have inevitably led to bloody warfare? I’d re-read Eamonn’s comments myself as something we had all observed at the time, that “Models and Mirrors” style, the rapid escalation into violence occasioned by Bunting Senior’s bullyboys encouraged a very similar polarisation in parts of the Catholic working class in the north who defaulted to an exact knee jerk to the threat of violence.

    But the simple fact remains, in our community during the late 1960s where the much vaunted reforms of Captain O’Neill were simply focused on an economic modernisation without any real intent to make structural changes to the dominant Unionist political status quo in any manner, are you perhaps suggesting that NICRA and the PD were entirely wrong to press for any genuine political rights and a redress of grievances? Would it perhaps have been better if the minority in the north at that time should simply have improved economically while tugging the forelock and knuckling down to try and become simply good Catholic Unionists, as any affirmation of a desire for equal treatment was going to be political dynamite given the refusal of Unionism to meaningfully change and its clear willingness to employ popular violence to resist any change? Forgive me if I am in any way misrepresenting your intent in posting this quote, but as it stands here so entirely out of its historical context that is the impression I’m getting.

  • Nevin

    Seaan, Eamonn’s quote speaks for itself; it’s in contradiction to some of the points made by others in that interview.

    As you well know, the NICRA campaign was never about rights issues; they were simply a smokescreen promoted by the likes of Desmond Greaves to promote a 32-county socialist state.

    The antics of unionist, nationalist and socialist rabble-rousers opened up old sores and set folk at each others’ throats.

    Eamonn and I enjoyed similar educational privileges in the same era and neither of us were/are given to forelock tugging!

  • 05OCT68

    A description of the frustration of the Catholic working class, Protestant workers (many of them trades unionists) would have been seen as traitors of the working class. Happy to benefit from trade union membership re working conditions & pay, unwilling to accept the concept of international brotherhood & suffrage. Joining a union to them was the same as joining a lodge. “When one says in a speech that we are not sectarian we are fighting for the rights of all Irish workers” He was highlighting the hypocrisy & sectarianism of the protestant, disenfranchised working class, a people accepting gerrymandering to ensure Protestant/Unionist over-representation in Derry. Brian Walker paints a rose tainted view of the Fountain, it was a ghetto of poor housing & outside toilets. In a normal society the Protestant working class would have joined the NICRA, sectarianism might explain why they didn’t.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘Would it perhaps have been better if the minority in the north at that time should simply have improved economically…’
    At that time they were only just experiencing the reforms to UK social security which created, in effect, a demand-led system as opposed to Beveridge’s insurance-based system. The result was that very many Catholics were priced out of formal employment which rather reduced the attraction of economic improvement.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, the point I’m making is that while you imagine “it speaks for itself” it clearly does not. Is Eamonn saying every Catholic working class person was ready to attack every Protestant, or is he making a quite different point that in a particular situation Catholics were responding to Bunting Senior’s lead by an answering violence which let down Socialist idealistic thoughts of working class solidarity.

    As someone personally involved (and we’ve had this discussion before) NICRA WAS to anyone engaged always about Civil Rights, something which is now generally recognised by pretty much all serious commentators. NICRA was certainly a broad church with republicans, constitutional nationalists and socialist of many hues, even quite a few of the genuinely liberal Unionists active in its ranks and represented on its committee, but that old canard of being somehow simply an IRA plot to destroy NI has long been recognised as the myth it always was, something fostered by an IRA very keen to claim “ownership” of the Civil Rights tradition and only supported outside of this propaganda by the fantasies of a (clearly) not unbiased Unionism whose dominance any serious grant of Civil Rights threatened to finally erode.

    You’re of course very welcome to come along to the Linen Hall Library on 4th April at 1.00 and show Prof. Paul Arthur that he’s been entirely wrongheaded in his rather more complex analysis of NICRA these past fifty years! I’m sure he’ll be more than interested to be finally put right. I’d look forward to the crac……

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you 05OCT68, excellent description of what we socialists were really thinking at the time about the sectarian flare ups.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Of course Old Morality, I’m ironically paraphrasing what I remember of O’Neill’s thinking, as it was described to me through my many Unionist relatives at the time.

  • 05OCT68

    Ye redeemed yourself in your final paragraph MalikHills, by the way men shouting greetings to one another across a street is what’s great about Derry. Mon Back!

  • Brian Walker

    Distance makes the heart grow fonder?

  • Brian Walker

    I record accurately the memorialising which I admit is partly nostalgic for happier days long ago in some worse housing. Not all.

  • Brian Walker

    I record accurately the memorialising which I admit is partly nostalgic for happier days long ago in some worse housing. Not all of it was poor actually

  • David McCay

    Enjoyed reading that – really made me think about ‘home’. Derry is a funny place, and most of us who have left are probably conflicted in some way in our thoughts and memories of the place. I loved growing up where I did, in the high flats, and then in the new estate of Carnhill – was a great happy place for a child to grow up. We might have grown up in what some would consider poverty, but everyone was the same and so we had no idea we were ‘poor’. Would I want my kids to grow up in Carnhill today though ? …..hmmm.
    It’s only when you travel and live in other places that you realize that Derry is in many ways, a lot greyer, a lot more violent, a lot less tolerant of difference than it really should be. Being ‘the same’ was the way to survive when I grew up, being ‘different’ was a sure fire way of putting a target on your back. Even in recent years, the stories of violence in the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights is something truly frightening for those with kids of a certain age. It’s getting better though I hear, and it will always be home – and the pull of home will probably get to me in the end and I’ll move back there.

  • 05OCT68

    Interesting comment about educational privileges. McCann is still campaigning for University expansion in Derry. It’s ironic that the sectarian motivated siting the NUU in Coleraine led young Catholics seeking third level education accepting places at Queens & Trinity, gaining what some may have regarded then as a “better” education. McCann went to Queens, wee Gregory the UU. One will be remembered as an author, journalist, politician, political activist & social commentator, the other remembered for wanting curry in his yogurt.

  • 05OCT68

    Weekend violence is a problem but I wouldn’t say it was sectarian, it Is a result of drunken messes concentrating around William St for a fish supper & a taxi home. It could be tackled by staggered chucking out hours & better transport to get people out of the city centre efficiently.

  • Brian Walker

    O’Neill did rely on the vogue for planning like the Housing Trust that would in time have replaced allocation by councils. Council reform by the Macrory commission did in fact scrap the old patchwork of councils and centralise most powers in Stormont. But it was too little too late and was overtaken by events.

  • David McCay

    Agreed – it’s not sectarian at all. A few years ago it was its very randomness which was most frightening – people just getting jumped and battered to a pulp for no reason whatsoever. I think things have improved since then. Part of the problem was probably just the fact that there was no police force as such in the city centre at night as their presence would likely only inflame things. People could therefore do what they wanted safe in the knowledge there would be no risk of getting arrested or getting a conviction. Probably a fairly unique scenario in the western world.

  • 05OCT68

    Thanks Seaan. I’m immensely proud of the fact that as a 4 year old child I was on the Oct 5th rally, taken there by me Ma & Auntie. The fact that women took their weans is proof of the peaceful intentions of the rally.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Brian, I’m strongly reminded of that line in the Pressburger/Powell movie “I Know Where I’m Going”:

    “We’re not poor, we just don’t have any money…”

    I was, of course, reading “The Uses of Literacy” in the 1960s at school, gifted by a working class English teacher as a corerctive to the high art of my engrained family background, and most gratefully absorbed.

  • woodkerne

    that and false consciousness …

  • woodkerne

    McCann’s remarks in the context of the times (Mai ’68, Grosvenor Square, anti-Vietnam demo, etc.) and the journal his eye-witness piece is published in, relates to the inapplicability of left-wing appeals to class solidarity, pointing out the obvious, that socialism wouldn’t wash in a circumstance where sectarian cleavages override the customary socioeconomic determinants of classic marxist critique.

  • 05OCT68

    I had t look it up woodkern, thanks for giving me something else to explore.

  • woodkerne

    No problem. Assuming your interest is serious and scholarly, a good source if it’s Marxist key concepts you’re exploring, is Tom Bottomore (ed.), Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Blackwell, 1991 (2nd edition). Or online, the Marxists internet archive

  • 05OCT68

    I’m not as well read as you woodkern, for me Gene Hickman’s charterer in Mississippi Burning sums it up. “If you ain’t better than a n*****, son, who are you better than?”

  • Damien Mullan

    ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, how right Phil Coulter was. I must say Gerry Anderson’s autobiographical documentary ‘A City Dreaming’ paid wonderful homage to Derry. I love this city and especially it’s people, like many families in this town mine is a confluence of the sectarian divide, a liberal Presbyterian grandmother forced to convert to marry her catholic boyfriend, I like to think I get my steely independent and liberal streak from her, and my sense of belonging and community from my grandfather and the cultural Catholicism I was born into. That’s not a unique trait of mine however, but a stalwart feature of the stories of this city and it’s people.

  • 05OCT68

    Aye Damien & the peace bridge has done a lot to get the two communities into the city centre. Protestants socialize in the city centre although I don’t know how many would drink in Waterloo St. The town is full of potential & It’s a cop out just to have the city centre a shared space. As a product of mixed heritage I want every part of our city to be owned by us all.

  • MalikHills

    Well I will be back later this year, the last time I was back I was impressed by how bright and clean the old town looked.

    Taking my kids around the beautifully restored walls was a real treat. My memories of the walls in my youth were dark, moss-covered decrepit old things, faintly sinister with the omnipresent barbed wire, corrugated iron and sand-bagged Army sangars.

    The only thing kids did on the walls in my childhood was gather on them to drink Carlsberg Special Brew and Strongbow “snakebites”. I would love to say “happy memories” but no, they weren’t happy.

  • MalikHills

    My mate lived in Carnhill, his house was our refuge at lunch-time slipping out of the College back gate to pick up “lunch” of crisps, Coke and a Mars Bar at the “mobile” and then on to watch TV in his house.

    Carnhill was by no means a poverty-stricken place, statistically I am sure it might have been described as “deprived” in broad UK-wide terms, but in no way could you describe the families living there as deprived.

    The houses were all immaculate (although I hate using that cliche term about working class homes, as if working class people wouldn’t be clean), the children were well-fed, happy and healthy, how could they not be living in such a beautiful location with the bracing breezes and rolling fields just a walk away and gorgeous Inishowen only a few minutes’ drive away?

    It was a place that had a very strong sense of community and despite a lack of policing was (with the exception of Troubles-related events) crime free.

    I would be sorry to hear that things had declined there today, have they?

  • MalikHills

    I think Anderson’s recollections, charming and funny though they are, are testimony to the dreadful waste of talent that Derry produced.

    In recalling amusing conversations with characters in a bar Anderson is clearly painting a portrait of incredibly intelligent men whose lives are wasted and who recompense by propping up a bar corner and occasionally letting slip a sign of great erudition before rapidly returning to the race pages of the Daily Mirror.

    Anderson himself was one such man, although he finally broke free, he was clearly a talented, cultured, sensitive, intelligent man but he could only get his break in earlier times by portraying himself as a placky, what-about-ye-hi!, wee Derry man, who covered up his talent behind shallow humour and wise cracks.

    We can point to the enormous talent that Derry produced, but my God how much was wasted?

    For all the genius of James McCafferty and Mary McLoughlin for drawing out musical talent, for all the Josef Lockes, Phil Coulters and Fergal Sharkeys, how many instrumentalists who could have graced any philharmonic orchestra wasted their days in the back of a Bedford van travelling between ballrooms of romance in the Irish midlands playing in some forgotten showband? How many sopranos who could have been on stage in Milan or London opted to work in a shirt factory and sing in a bar on Friday night and the church choir on Sunday?

    As I say above though, things are improving now. It’s a better place now.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, Brian, the Captain was always something of an opportunist on such matters, and very willing to assume the public mantle of an apparent political reformer, something which raised Catholic hopes on issues of little substance, while at the same time frightening his critics into believing him to be willing to go far further politically than was in fact the case.

    It is now generally assumed that Paisley’s opposition from 1965 to O’Neill was because he was willing to be politically liberal on the minority community issue, when in fact it was the rather more circumscribed issue of his contacts with Lemass on economic matters which made right-wing Unionism so uneasy, the simple fact of talks with “themuns” in Dublin arther than of any genuine wish to address the problems buikt into the system by Craig in the 1920s! The vaunted five point reform programme of 22 November 1968 which persuaded NICRA to relieve public pressure on O’Neill still fell well short of the “one man one vote” which should have been the baseline, with only reform of company votes in council elections actually envisaged, and the other plural votes left in place. Notably, O’Neill was still considering the possibility in October of simply suppressing NICRA dissent with the RUC and the Specials, something he had discussed in London with Wilson, as David McKittrick makes clear in his 2002 “Making Sense of the Troubles” (p.43). The Captain’s reputation as a willing reformer is quite undeserved, something those of us making decisions in the PD in December to continue pressure for one man one vote were well aware of at the time.

  • woodkerne

    A well-intentioned film, whose politics though are highly dubious, don’t you think, as that quote, spoken by a white actor in a script which although ostensibly sympathetic to the cause of the civil rights movement nonetheless underlines the impression that social change in the US in the early 1960s was primarily due to the actions of white liberals. By contrast, am reminded of a quote dating from the same era evoked by Parker’s revisionist text. Explaining why he was refusing the draft, Muhammad Ali reportedly said, ‘No Vietcong ever called me ni**er’. As with political-speech in general, the intention and meanings-derived by the viewer/reader are surely always context-specific. Comradely best wishes.

  • Brian Walker

    Richard Hoggart was important to me too Outside influences that strike a chord are essential for sanity.

  • Brian Walker

    Neat concept from Frantz Fanon but use with care.

  • woodkerne

    The surviving b&w footage (shot by an RTE cameraman) of a middle-aged man at the head of peaceable march being truncheoned in the groin by a big B-Special on Craigavon bridge (I think) encapsulated for a global audience the reality of everyday thuggery in the Orange State, which no amount of official propaganda thereafter could contradict.

  • Brian Walker

    Well Seann you have it all neatly tied up to your satisfaction. Without raking over old ashes, all I would say is that while O’Neill was no radical reformer, there was a glimmer of light there that was snuffed out by the drift to state and popular violence.There had been a drift to institutional reform that quite possibly would have been halted anyway. O’Neill was already under internal pressure before CR took to the streets.
    However the demos immediately exposed the fragility of the so-called monolithic regime. The fiendish difficulty of replacing it durably followed.

  • Brian Walker

    Woodkerne, ( revealing nom de guerre!)
    A lot in that, undeniably. But remember as you still use angry terms like Orange thuggery that there were other thugs about and that the supposed monolith cracked fatally within 8 months and was swept away three years later. The fragile replacement took over 40 years.
    The nuances of course get forgotten because they were nowhere near strong enough to halt the drift to disaster. What you call official propaganda was as weak and ineffective as the agovernment handling of a situation growing rapidly out control.

    A good academic history of the late 60s is Belfast and Derry in Revolt by Geoffrey Warner and Simon Prince.

  • woodkerne

    We’re not seriously going to contest the historical record are we? Farrell’s account of the formation of the ‘Orange State’ has angry elements, I grant you, but the evidence base is indubitable and the indictment and the corresponding designation of the state formed in violence and maintained by sectariarian practices ingrained in the fabric of the state, economy and society cannot be doubted. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • David McCay

    Agree 100% with your descriptions of Carnhill – I’ll always remember it as an idyllic place to grow up, full of really good people who all looked out for one another. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the same these days – got my car broken into on one visit maybe 10 years back – something which would never happen when I grew up (as you say, it really was crime-free at that time). My view is probably coloured by that one incident, but like most places drugs have probably had an effect, and the closeness of community is probably not what it once was. For all the difficulties of the troubles, there is no doubt that the sense of solidarity and community fostered in difficult times was something special, and something which really help people get through any challenges life brought.

  • woodkerne

    Fanon adopts and adapted the term in a psychoanalytic understanding, to analyse the internalised inferiority complex customary of the postcolonial subject (‘Black Skins, White Masks). The term derives from Marxist politics of the period of the Second International.

  • woodkerne

    Hoggart was a left-Leavisite and important for that (notably in establishing the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, and for employing Stuart Hall). He was not himself a fan of popular culture as perusal of the Pilkington Report will show. His preference was for ‘modern literature’, notably DH Lawrence. Hoggart came to renown as the main literary authority in the Lady Chatterley trial. He defended the book as art (including the ‘dirty bits’) against the prohibitions of the state censor – a watershed moment in the liberalization of 1960s Britain.

  • woodkerne

    NLR search results: Discussion on the Strategy of Peoples Democracy

    Liam Baxter,
    Bernadette Devlin,
    Michael Farrell,
    Eamonn McCann,
    Cyril Toman in

    NLR I/55, May-June 1969,
    pp. 3-19

    Subjects:

    Ireland,
    Nationalism

  • woodkerne

    For an account of the provincialism of pre-1968 Derry, off from the mainstream currents of the emergent popular culture of the time, celebrated music journalist, Nik Cohen’s teenage testimony, sojourned ‘In Derry’ for family reasons, is revealing:

    ‘Nothing had prepared me, not remotely. Derry in that era, before the Provos and long before Bloody Sunday, was very much a backwater, some thirty to fifty years adrift of the moment, and proud of it. As for Magee itself, its isolation was almost monastic. … In theory it was a training school for Calvinist ministers; in reality, with its high stone walls and imported tutors, more like an unarmed encampment; and its isolation from the town was absolute.

    Dimly one was conscious of the hatred outside, with its perpetual roundelay of Catholic ambuscades and Protestant reprisals, Black Masses and Orange Parades. But they seemed to carry no reality. Even when I was blown out of bed by the concussion of a detonated radio tower, or when a pitched battle raged at the army camp and an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) sergeant had the lobe of his left ear shot off by an IRA sniper, it felt like some yarn out of Hot Adventures. ‘If it had not been for Tiggle, the aforesaid janitor, my only link to life as endured beyond Magee’s walls, I would hardly have been aware that men, when shot, did actually bleed.’

    Ball The Wall: Nik Cohen in the Age of Rock, 1989,

  • SeaanUiNeill

    That’s it, woodkerne. I have the New Left Review the article is in somewhere as a rather tattered survivor of my own teenage library. I imagine that Nevin has it also, going by the number of times he refers to it in Slugger posts. But while I knew the people (particularly Cyril) and accordingly easily caught their nuances of meaning, Nevin is quoting as someone only familiar with them through text, going by our earlier exchanges on this article. He frequently has fine insights and is a dogged campaigner against local political obscuration, but in this case I’m seriously divergent from him on his readings of something I feel I know rather more about from direct first person experience.

  • Brian Walker

    Contest it? Not fundamentally, but discussion of the record goes on. Farrell wrote a fine contemporary book which is still indispensable. I don’t wish to gloss over anything but its essential by now to employ detachment and as as wide a perspective as possible. And that includes an understanding of unionist positions which polemics obscure.

    Most states emerge from a state of nature involving violence. To explain absolutely everything in terms of either class analysis or unionist sectarian domination is not satisfactory, certainly not to the variety of historians who were not born at the time and come to it fresh. The rush to violence generally that marked the last century in Ireland is open to examination as is the role or lack of it of the British and Irish governments. Northern Ireland may have behaved like a sovereign state but of course it was never that. Defensive unionism which always felt under pressure real and imagined, should never have been the sole arbiter of its course.

    But yes, history will surely continue to show that maintaining for so long the unionist system set up to form the state in the emergency conditions of war after 1918, was to say the least, disastrous for its own stability during the subsequent decades of relative peace.

    .It is interesting to ask whether implacable unionism could have been the only result of partition, Recent history and first hopes for state suggest maybe not but it’s a delicate argument.

    The mantra of my generation of bourgeois protestants and catholics alike was, if only they had made a few concessions to start with, these would have easily bedded down,we would have escaped serious violence and then proceeded to the next step, Watery I know for stern ideologues and determinists alike, but quite widespread and heartfelt just the same. .

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I was in the interesting position of being active within the PD (and the Labour Party Young Socialists which it grew out of) but with family and their friends well informed about Unionism. My grandfather was a friend of Bunting Sr (despite strong disagreement) and the brother of a close friend of mine was an early candidate in the 1970s for way would develop into the DUP. O’Neill’s reluctance to seriously reform anything which might challenge his parties hegemony was a steady topic of discussion in my own circles after 1965, with strongly Unionist cousins supporting him solidly on the very grounds that the suggestion of any engagement with political reform was a sham! And these were serious and analytical participants in local politics, who had links across the whole party.

    The glimmer of light was there but much misunderstood by the minority community at the time, and since, which saw far more liberalism than O’Neill ever intended. While O’Neill was delighted to absorb Catholics into his own brand of Unionism so long as they supported the Union, the 1920 Constitution and perhaps even voted Unionist, he had no interest whatsoever in supporting them in the development of any other form of political engagement, as was clear from his comments at Corrymeela in the late 1960s, ” I believe we have the right to call upon all our citizens to support the Constitution.” (“Ulster at the Crossroads”, pp.128/9) While this looks innocuous enough to anyone outside of NI, it of course clearly states that anyone whose political beliefs are at odds with the 1920 partition settlement finds no acceptance of their right to dissent from this in O’Neill’s thinking.

  • Brian Walker

    You forget the Anderson orchestra that accompanied annual performances of Gilbert and Sullivan and the Messiah by the City of Derry Musical Society! The family have a violin recently identified as a Stradivarius.

    There was also the Londonderry Feis which everybody went in for, and Feis Doire Comcille for in reality Catholics only. I resented that as a child. The discrimination was noticeable as I went to a Catholic music teacher. I was however selected to go on an American tour by James McCafferty’s Little Gaelic Singers. They played the White House and Madison Square Garden but my Mammy wouldn’t let me go as it was my 11 plus year. The wonder is how I avoided becoming a seething mass of complexes.. ,

  • woodkerne

    In electing to use terms such as ‘polemics’ and ‘stern ideologues’ – inferring that my critique of the historical record is somehow ‘unsatisfactory’ (less satisfactory than yours!) because allegedly lacking a ‘detached’ ‘wide perspective’ – you’ve preferred liberal rhetoric over evidence-based argument. Okay.

    Anger, to be clear, in itself is not incompatible with reasoned evaluation of evidence (as you infer). Liberals get angry too – as the recent history of liberal interventionism attests and as your final sentence seems to concur. My preference in talking about Ireland is for a disinterested deep-perspective and long-view on the causes and consequences of our present circumstance. That means, minimally, not reducing the complexity of a conflicted history to one damned thing or another or to seek to delegitimise opposing points of view by denigrating motives or predisposition.

    Socioeconomic class is germane within a long-history including colonial occupation by a settler class, a ruling class strategy of divide-and-rule, systemic discrimination against natives and dissenters, an uneven experience of capitalist development on the island, an unfinished cultural revolution of ‘national-salvation’ and civil war, as well as the peculiar epistemological formation of Irish republicanism (notably the sanctification of violence and general absence of class analysis) and Irish unionism: local species respectively of early twentieth century nationalism and subaltern-imperialist particularism (both interests embodied in ‘passionate attachments’, to be sure).

    And, as a result of this unsettled history, Ireland is marked by an absence of the otherwise ‘normal’ development of social democratic values and institutions of civil society typical of modern capitalist democracies. Instead Ireland remains mired in a politics and culture of tribalism, schism and ethno-particularism.

    in the north, the creation of a protestant parliament for a protestant people could not reasonably contain the one-third of its unwilling citizenry systematically disadvantaged by the state’s sectarian character. The argument that more and sincere concessions by the liberal unionists who were in power at the time could have prevented the subsequent irruption of political violence, I’m not persuaded by. First, because it was the quotidien violence of the Orange state and quasi-state militia over decades that necessitated the intervention of British troops. Which is to say, Ulster unionism wasn’t reformable. Second, tragically, the British state’s failure was not to realise this. Its refusal to act in time to impose a solution when conditions were propitious (1969/70) compounded a mere crisis into a catastrophic calamity for the British state in Ireland. And worse was to come. By instead propping-up the Stormont regime up to and including internment in August 1971, the armed forces of Britsh state became synonymous with the actions of the Orange thugs. By 1972, the provisional movement was entrenched as a communalist defender of catholic neighbourhoods in Belfast and Derry. Internment was a profound error that galvanised the PIRA and support for it, giving life to the re-emergence of a nativist discourse of national rights over civil rights (reinforced in the nonsectarian public mind by the exercise of bad faith on the part of British towards the civil rights agenda). Sunningdale was only half-heartedly put forward and not imposed as it could have been. And by then it was already too late to stop a war that their inaction and earlier indifference contributed significantly to starting.

  • woodkerne

    Like most of us, although no doubt chastened by experience, McCann’s essential position hasn’t changed a great deal in the intervening years. He was and is a republican socialist (and antipartitionist) of a Connollyite inclination. A substantive strand of argument within the class-active politics of revolutionary period and since that is too often sidelined in the margin of nationalist priority. In this respect, PBP is an interesting and fitting politics to come home to.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hoggart’s distain was for commercial popular culture (“Mass Art”), with its manipulation of the working class, but his passionate description of the fertile self-generated culture of working class communities (in the first half of “The Uses of Literacy”, up to chapter VI,) is some considerable distance from Adorno’s demand that only High Art is genuine art.

  • woodkerne

    Pretty much all popular culture is commercial (it is the culture of capitalism, after all). Hoggart’s liking was for what he regarded as ‘authentic’ manifestations of working class culture, by which he had in mind a romanticism for the collectivist forms of the industrial age of full-employment and proud trade unions. It’s a nostalgia, I share, but he was wrong about the equation of commerce with inauthenticity and of mass media with pap.

  • MalikHills

    I don’t wish to minimise Derry’s musical heritage, none but a fool would do that.

    My point is that what emerged was the tip of the iceberg that was there, a tip uncovered by giants like James McCafferty and his counterparts in both communities (the protestant contribution to Derry’s musical scene is often overlooked).

    There was so much more musical, artistic and intellectual talent in Derry that was suppressed by the possessors of that talent. That is what I was getting at.

    By the way Brian had you gone on the Little Gaelic Singers tour you would have gone with my mother, may God rest her.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Woodkerne, I’ve personally experienced examples of a “popular culture” genuinely cut free of Capitalism both here and in the United States (the California “Ren Fayre” for one thing is a perfect example of sustained “dropping out”), and as an old hippie who cynically saw the commercial Pop Culture and TV/Film in Britain from the management side, I’m less inclined to dismiss Hoggart’s strictures viewed from the perspective of some of the meetings I’ve attended.

    But then, Hoggart himself shared my own passion for Music Hall, and as my great-uncles proudest boast was that he shared a Belfast stage once with Willie John Ashcroft you can fill in the rest yourself…..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Eamonn was always rather more “traditional” than us Frankfort School influenced boys and girls in the PD in Belfast, but as you say,”PBP is an interesting and fitting politics to come home to.”

    But while Connolly is still fun I still wish Eamonn had fully absorbed Horkheimer, Marcuse and Walter Benjamin………

  • Brian Walker

    It was an RUC constable in Duke St followed by County Inspector Meharg wielding his blackthorn stick of rank. A tragic overreaction after earlier cooperation. B specials were not deployed on the streets until 13 August with disastrous results at the insistence of the British government and the reluctance of Stormont . It was a last throw before the army were sent in.

  • Brian Walker

    You clearly want to lead this thread on all fronts. My critique as you call it is pretty standard. You should write a book using your own name!

  • woodkerne

    Fair enough, on the blackthorn-wielding RUC thug. Hardly any less sectarian for being in the full-time pay of the Stormont regime, am sure you’ll agree.

  • Brian Walker

    Very interesting.. but you have to take account of the fact that Terence was leader of the Ulster Unionist party coping with the collapse of his waning authority which duly happened in 5 short months.

    Despite his political and personal limitations he at least backed unofficial unionist candidates against his own party slate in the Feb 69 election . I remember as a student in England the brief hopes that rose than died. Reforming unionism might have gone a bit further than Terence….but then again maybe not. Just possibly the hardliner Faulkner might have achieved a bit more on the Nixon goes to China argument. He was pretty brave in 1973-4. But I don’t insist. The Unionist mindset remained in a state of selfharm for at least another 20 years..Politics of even a faintly recognisable kind were subordinated to the cycle of rising violence.

  • Brian Walker

    Ah sorry for your loss. I hope it was one of the highlights of her life. I lost my mother to cancer the same year of the trip. I think that was the real reason she didn’t want me to go..

  • MalikHills

    My goodness, to lose your mother at such a young age must have been awful for you. Having lost my mother in comfortable middle age I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for you in your tender years.

    I suspect you have a point when you say that enjoying your company while she still could was probably her main motivation behind stopping you going on the tour. I am sure in hindsight you must be glad that you were able to enjoy what time you had left together even if it did mean missing out on -what I am sure before your BBC career must have seemed like- a trip of a lifetime.

    I enjoyed your piece above, sorry if I have gone off-topic a bit in the comments.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I suppose that as something of an insider through my family contacts, I’m suggesting that those “brief hopes” were misplaced in a man who waas only driven to any serious look at political reform by people on the streets, and that his reputation just after his fall from power was based on a generalisation of economic reforms into something more generious politically to the minority. I was at art college at the same time you were at University from what you say, but hearing feed back from Unionist relatives pressing me to understand that the party would never support O’Neill in the sort of reforms Wilson’s government were demanding he should make. But they were very clear that he had little will to make these reforms left to his own devices. Anecdotal I know, but from what I saw of O’Neill at the time, highly believable. It was in this climate of Unionist intransegence that the PD pressed for serious reform to UK standards of political equality beyond the inadequite five point plan the NICRA was willing to accept.

    As you say, “The Unionist mindset remained in a state of selfharm for at least another 20 years” but the tendency to suggest that O’Neill himself offered an opportunity to drive through a politically liberal agenda before the troubles started, an opportunity willfully destroyed by the impatience of leftists, must inevitably die away under the full light of reality when his stubborn unwillingness, even in 1968/9, to even begin to reform the local political quagmire without the driving force of external pressure is properly recognised.

    Interesting what you say about Faulkner. He gave my uncle’s friend David Bleakley a post in a “ten year too late” attempt to reverse the major tactical error of O’Neill’s campaign to marginalise NI Labour after the 1962 elections (“a vote for Labour is a vote for Dublin” really!) I now wonder how much advice Faulkner had from Westminster in making policy, but did not follow the invaluable family gossip as I was embarking on my film career at the time over the water. I did hear one inconsequential tit-bit about him during his years as minister of commerce though. When the father of one of my school friends bearing what was usually assumed to be a “Catholic” name was accepted for membership of the north Down Hunt he was genially greeted by Faulkner with the words “This is the first time one of your religion has been made a member.” That the family had produced a few C of I bishops and, like my own, could claim an unbroken membership of the Anglican communion since the plantation simply had not even begun to occur to Faulkner! But that was Unionism in the 1960s…..

  • woodkerne

    fabulous, first-hand account

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, Woodkerne. There has been so much inaccurate myth built up around the O’Neill premiership, it requires some serious “putting straight.”