Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Martyrs and murderers

Terry Glavin is a writer I’ve enjoyed greatly, and I’ve written previously of his powerful book, Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan. He is very strong on describing the confusions of anti-imperialists in the West that often cause them to support or excuse murderous illiberal forces that oppress rather than liberate.

However when it comes to Ireland, “it’s kind of personal” he writes. Family history and family loyalties seem to mean that a similarly robust analysis is to be avoided.

Here’s his most recent post, on Margaret Thatcher and Northern Ireland: At best, a slightly lunatic mediocrity. Now I have no objection to anyone attacking Thatcher, whether for her role in driving a divisive political culture that victimised the weakest in society, her support for homophobic legislation, or her relationship with Pinochet, to give some key examples. But Terry’s chosen area of criticism is her policy towards the 1981 Provisional IRA hunger strike.

Here are his opening paragraphs.
At her worst, Margaret Thatcher was bloody-minded, incompetent, sadistic and vindictive, as I point out in the Ottawa Citizen today. And nowhere was her brutishness more a menace to decency and peace than in Ireland.

I admit, it’s kind of personal. My late dad was a leading figure in the Irish Prisoner of War Committee here in Canada during the 1980-81 hunger strikes over which Maggie so ghoulishly presided. It probably skews things a bit too that I happen to have been named after Terence MacSwiney, who died on the 75th day of his hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920. But on the occasion of Baroness Thatcher's death, it seems to me these names should be remembered as well:

Bobby Sands, died May 5 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike. Francis Hughes died May 12, after 59 days. Raymond McCreesh, May 21, 61 days. Patsy O'Hara died May 21, 61 days. Joe McDonnell, July 8, 61 days. Martin Hurson, July 13, 46 days. Kevin Lynch, August 1, 71 days. Kieran Doherty, August 2, 73 days. Thomas McElwee, August 8, 62 days. Michael Devine, August 20, 60 days.
In this, and in all that follows in the post, something is missing, namely any mention of the people killed by those ten men before they went on to martyr themselves for the cause.

I left the following comment a couple of days ago, though it has yet to pass moderation. Terry may be busy elsewhere.
Where do we stop with names, Terry? If we’re going to list dead hunger strikers, are we also going to list the names of those they killed before they were sent to prison? For example those killed by Raymond McCreesh and his comrades?

From the Belfast Newsletter via Slugger O'Toole:

In 1977 McCreesh was convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms with intent to endanger life and PIRA membership. He died on hunger strike in 1981. Last year the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team linked him, along with two others, to a string of IRA murders committed with the Armalite he was caught with, including the Kingsmills massacre in 1976.

In that attack 10 Protestant workmen were stopped on their way home from work and gunned down. An eleventh man survived.

The Armalite McCreesh was arrested with was also linked by HET to:

- the murders of RUC Constable David McNeice and rifleman Michael Gibson (Royal Jackets) at an ambush at Meigh in 1974;

- the attempted murder of Protestant farmer Samuel Rodgers at Camlough in 1975;

- the attack on a military helicopter and attempted murder of security force personnel at Carrickbroad, Forkhill, in 1976;

- the attempted murder of security force personnel at Mountain House, Belleek, Newry, in 1976, where the Armalite was recovered.

Wikipedia’s account of the Kingsmill massacre includes the names of the dead:

On 5 January 1976 just after 5.30 pm, a red Ford Transit minibus was carrying sixteen textile workers home from work in Glenanne to Bessbrook. Five were Catholics and eleven were Protestants. Four of the Catholics got out at Whitecross, while the rest continued on the road to Bessbrook. As the bus cleared the rise of a hill, it was stopped by a man in British Army uniform standing on the road and flashing a torch. The workers assumed they were being stopped and searched by the British Army. As the bus stopped, eleven masked gunmen with blackened faces and wearing combat jackets emerged from the hedges. A man “with a pronounced English accent” then began talking. He ordered them to line-up beside the bus and then asked “Who is the Catholic?”. The only Catholic was Richard Hughes. His workmates—now fearing that the gunmen were loyalists who had come to kill him—tried to stop him from identifying himself. However, when Hughes stepped forward the gunman told him to “Get down the road and don’t look back”. The lead gunman then said “Right” and the other armed men immediately opened fire on the workers.

The remaining eleven men were shot at very close range with AR-18 and L1A1 SLR rifles, a 9mm pistol, and an M1 carbine. A total of 136 rounds were fired in less than a minute. The dead and wounded men's bodies fell on top of each other. When the shooting stopped, one of the gunmen walked amongst the dying men and shot each of them in the head as they lay on the ground. Ten of them died at the scene; John Bryans, Robert Chambers, Reginald Chapman, Walter Chapman, Robert Freeburn, Joseph Lemmon, John McConville, James McWhirter, Robert Walker and Kenneth Worton. Alan Black survived despite having eighteen gunshot wounds.
That’s what is known of McCreesh. You can research the other hunger strikers for yourself, I haven’t the stomach for it right now.

There is one other aspect of Terry Glavin’s post I want to mention. He quotes approvingly the following from an article by Timothy Lavin of Bloomberg, blaming an escalation in Provisional IRA violence on Thatcher’s policy towards the hunger strike:
So what had Thatcher’s steely resolve accomplished?

Most visibly, it boosted Republican terrorism. Violent deaths related to the conflict rose to 101 in 1981 from 76 the year before, including 44 members of the security forces. Injuries rose to 1,350 from 801. Shootings increased to 1,142 from 642, and bombings reached nearly 400 that year. Far from demonstrating that the IRA’s struggle was a lost one, Thatcher only intensified its opposition to rule by what it considered an ever more brutal occupying force. The horrific campaign would culminate in the IRA’s attempted assassination of Thatcher herself at the Conservative Party Conference in 1984. The prime minister narrowly escaped, but five others were killed.
This kind of argument, blaming terrorists’ violence on the democratic politicians they oppose, should be all too familiar by now. The example that immediately springs to my mind is the notorious New Statesman cover for a John Pilger article on the 7/7 London bombings headlined “Blair’s Bombs”. Similar arguments regarding the Mumbai massacre were pulled apart at the time by Eamonn McDonagh in an article to be found here. Terry seemed to agree with Eamonn at the time, so what’s the difference this time?

For anyone unfamiliar with the 1981 hunger strike, it’s important to note that all the prisoners had been convicted in court. The hunger strikers were demanding political prisoner status with attendant privileges, not disputing their convictions or sentences. In general I’m in favour of prison conditions being as civilised as possible, but I’m not in favour of one murderer getting more favourable treatment than another because of a claimed political motive.

Also for those unfamiliar with detail, it’s important to note the low level of electoral support for the Provisional IRA’s political wing (Provisional Sinn Fein) throughout their campaign of violence, not just in Northern Ireland but even more so in the Republic of Ireland. This was a group that repeatedly failed to get a democratic mandate. The campaign of violence had no moral legitimacy, was not defensive in its tactics, and it deliberately and repeatedly targeted civilians.

With all that in mind, have a look at this Twitter exchange with Jeremy Scahill.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rolling for the revolution

Thursday next week in Oxford, historian (and friend of this blog) Evan Daniel is going to be talking about the shifting politics of 19th Century Cuban emigré communities of New York and Florida, a story of anarchism, nationalism, and the craft of cigar rolling.

Having heard him talk on the subject last year (at The Coal Hole, The Strand, London) I think it promises to be a very interesting tale.
Annexation, Autonomy, or Independence? The Politics of Cuban Identity in the Émigré Communities of New York and Florida, 1840s-1890s

Thursday 18th April 2013, 2 pm – 3.30 pm

Seminar Room, Pauling Centre, 58a Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6QS

Hosted by the ESRC Centre on Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS)

More details at Poumista. Read some of Evan Daniel’s work on the subject here.

Top image from Firecured: All things Tobacco. Another image of the Kerbs & Spiess Mermaid cigar brand here.

Below, from the State Archives of Florida’s Florida Memory website, Cuban volunteers in the barracks, 1898. According to the website, “Many of these were cigar makers at Tampa. The ‘Army of the Cuban Republic’ was made up from 40 Cubans from Jacksonville, 200 from New York, and 150 from Key West. They set sail on the ‘Florida’ to join the rebels on May 21st.”

See more images at Florida Memory of cigar making, the Spanish-American War, and Cuban independence.