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.


Francis Sedgemore said...

Terry is somewhat tardy when it comes to moderating blog comments, and I suspect that is because he is none too fussed about people leaving them in the first place. If you've seen some of the comments Terry has attracted on both his personal blog and the various Canucki online media to which he contributes, you will understand why comments are not actively solicited.

I'm in broad agreement with your critique of Terry's writing on Ireland. One can ignore the tribal references to "my people", but I have to admit that my own antipathy toward such typically North American cultural attachments betrays a lack of national identity on my part, and a general disdain for such.

I would say that Terry's gut reaction against English imperialism is to a degree understandable. The UK government played a dangerous game throughout the troubles. On the one hand it stoked the conflict for domestic political ends, and was at least partly culpable for civilian deaths which could have been avoided. On the other hand the government long had a view to an endgame that would see a negotiated settlement with what cannot be denied was a political force, albeit a sectarian one employing terrorist means.

Governments, even democratic ones, rely on the use of organised violence of one kind or another, and those who live by the sword tend to seek each other out. Violence is their thing. Politicians do not become legitimate by virtue of being democratically elected. Necessary but not sufficient, and all that.

kellie said...

I think Terry has subtly recognised the negative aspect of North American support for the Provos in one or two previous indirect comments. And he was pro the Good Friday Agreement.

And of course you're right, winning a majority doesn't legitimise all subsequent action, there can be such a thing as a tyranny of the majority, and a number of violent actions by British forces have been acknowledged by them as wholly illegitimate.

It would be a grand thing though if more of those beyond these islands understood just how little support there was for the Provos in the island of Ireland throughout the IRA campaign, if they understood that Sinn Fein's political power now is the result both of their dropping the use of unconstitutional violence, and of Northern Ireland being maintained as a distinct political entity. In a united Ireland they would be merely fringe provincials.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Yes, Kellie, but at the same time one should acknowledge that a sizeable minority of Irish people supported the PIRA campaign. As well as Sinn Féin supporters you must include those who voted for constitutional nationalist parties north and south of the border, and whose support for paramilitary action was implicit.

kellie said...

There's some truth in that. Haughey's 'lovable rogue' appeal was no doubt helped by his Arms Trial history. But there was a limit to what people would endorse. Remember that the Republic of Ireland had a PR system throughout, and still the Provos couldn't win seats. Like the characters in Playboy of the Western World, when the effects of violence became too apparent to voters, they pulled back.

Terry Glavin said...

Thanks for your pointed criticisms, Kellie, and your comment is now up at my place; the only defence I offer there is along the lines of, well, if we're going to start enumerating atrocities, it's not at all clear where either of us would end.

To be clear about a couple of things, and not to argue for clemency for myself, but the bit (on my blog and in the National Post) that accompanied my column (in the Ottawa Citizen) was mainly intended as a confession of sorts, an appeal to have a great grain of salt taken with the main course I was offering, to allow that I have more than a mere bias in this, that it's a family thing and so on. I was trying to be completely up front. It's not the usual sort of thing I find myself drawn to comment on publicly.

I do take your objections seriously, as I do those from Francis (with respect, Francis, this isn't so much about "national identity" and I put the bit about "our crowd" in parentheses for the sake of irony). I take my medicine even though I remain convinced of the case Lavin lays out. Hindsight isn't the same as clairvoyance, but for good or ill it is my sincere view that decriminalization and restoration of political-prisoner status had the best chance of a permanent cessation of the "armed struggle." Also, for what it's worth, in hindsight it seems pretty obvious that "physical force" republicanism was illegitimate from probably Sunningdale forward, i.e. 1974 I believe that would have been.

Warmest regards to you both.

kellie said...

Thanks very much for that, Terry. Family loyalty is a strong force, and inseparable from our humanity. Family history no doubt played some part in forming my own views on this subject, much as I might prefer to think they all arose out of rational analysis.

I think a couple of my great uncles on my maternal grandmother's side were involved in the IRA during the 1919-1921 War of Independence, but I don't know the details of what they did. I vaguely remember my mother retelling a family anecdote of one of them hitching a lift with British soldiers when he was running messages for the IRA near the family home in Pontoon, Co. Mayo. The loss the family suffered came after the 1921 Treaty though, in the Civil War:

One encounter in September 1922 involved 150 Irregulars attacking Ballina with an armoured car, ‘Ballinalea’, which had been previously captured from the National Army. The Irregulars took arms and ammunition from the garrison and left the town in two groups. Some made their way towards Bonniconlon; others went to Killala and on to Ballycastle and Belderrig, finally reaching Glenamoy. The National Army were ambushed by the Irregulars at Glenamoy, losing six men in the ensuing battle. Among them were Captain Tom Healy from Pontoon and Volunteer Sean Higgins from Foxford.

My grandmother kept a photo of her brother Tom, posing in uniform, in the front room in Galway, surrounded by small family treasures, souvenirs from her children in Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. She told me once that Tom had ambitions to be a pilot, and had been promised a chance by Michael Collins once the Irish Air Corps was formed. She bitterly referred to those who killed him as "the brave men with guns".

She was, no doubt out of family loyalty, a Fine Gael supporter. My grandfather, of whose family history I know less, was Fianna Fáil. In consequence of their divided loyalties they compromised by buying a British daily paper.

Any risk of me clearly identifying with any form of nationalism as I grew up in Ireland was undermined not only by being constantly identified as Danish, when not being 'accused' of being English, but also being sent at different times to both Catholic and Protestant schools. The Protestant one, being State funded, had the same Government issue print on the wall as the Catholic ones, showing the 1916 martyrs and the Declaration of Independence. I'm still not convinced even that war was justifiable.

Francis Sedgemore said...

My best to you too, Terry.

BTW, if you're free on Saturday evening, the 2013 "Droggy Blink" of left-libertarian deviants and zionist shills will take place at a hostelry of renown in central London. The evening will be dedicated to the memory of our dear and absent friend Shaun Downey.

kellie said...

Oops, Declaration? I meant Proclamation. Must be getting old.

Terry Glavin said...

Francis: I heard about the death of the Poor Mouth, I believe from reading a notice at your place. Raise a glass on my behalf if you would. We only corresponded occasionally but I was a true fan.

Kellie: Great story about your family up in Mayo. It is complicated, isn't it? My own dad was Cork Brigade and broke with the Ard Fheis (as did countless of his comrades) and with the Free State government over neutrality in the anti-fascist war (which came to be called the Second World War) and crossed the Irish Sea to put on "the uniform of the enemy," which in his case was an RAF uniform. That's how he met my ma (Clare people) whose own brother died in a British uniform in the Netherlands; that's how it came to pass that I and my brother Mike were born in England of all places. . . Dad died a fierce republican but a devoted Anglophile as well and all of us growing up were, you could say, "loyalists," too, in the Canadian sense (she's our queen too, you know!). Funny auld world.