An interesting thing happened in the Dáil this evening. The parties of the political establishment recognised that there are times when it is permissible to defy the authority of the State.
The occasion was the passing of legislation to recognise the ‘bravery and courage’ (RTE) of the men who deserted the Irish army to fight the Nazis during World War II. Such men went to ‘fight against fascism’ and ‘contributed to freedom and democracy in Europe’, according to the minister responsible for the legislation, Fine Gael Minister for Justice and Defence, Alan Shatter.
You may, like me, be suspicious about the motivation for the passing of such legislation. Were all such men really committed anti-fascists? No doubt some of them were, and no doubt some of them made the contribution as Shatter describes it.
But how consistent is this commitment to anti-fascism? As Pádraig Mac Lochlainn of Sinn Féin pointed out in the Dáil, men who went to fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War were excommunicated by the Church and suffered ostracism on their return, whilst the Catholic Church and the Irish Independent were rabidly pro-Franco, and support for the fascist forces in Alan Shatter’s party was near unanimous. In the Dáil, W.T. Cosgrave claimed ‘the fate of European civilisation and everything in it’ depended on Franco. It seems fair to conclude that none of those who went to fight Franco will be given any credit from Fine Gael for doing so. Today, Fine Gael and the Francoist Partido Popular –which has never recanted its fascist past and blocks attempts at investigating crimes against humanity conducted by the Franco regime- are both members of the same grouping in the European Parliament. Both are in government, enacting vicious cutbacks to public spending and attacking social, economic and labour rights, and congratulating each other for the good work they are doing, as was in evidence at Enda Kenny’s meeting with his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy at the start of last week.
So anti-fascism is not exactly in Fine Gael’s DNA. Why would a party normally so insistent on obedience to the authority of the State relent on the matter of deserters who went to fight in the British armed forces, as “the vast majority” (Alan Shatter) did?
Fine Gael’s traditionally pro-British and anti-republican stance is no doubt part of it, since that party has never been shy of currying favour with the British establishment or Northern unionists. Fine Gael supporters in the press have never had any difficulty in likening armed republican formations to Nazis and fascists. The fact that such comparisons served to legitimate the activities of loyalist death squads never seemed to trouble consciences.
Also worth considering, however, is the way an opposition to Nazism –which now looms large as the historical reference point for absolute evil- is an alibi for all kinds of atrocity and criminality.
For instance, imperial aggression, murder, annexation of land, colonialism and subversion of democratic processes are frequently justified by the West and Israel because of some supposed Hitlerite figure at large, whether Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi or Yasser Arafat or Hassan Nasrallah or Ayatollah Khomenei or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hamas or Daniel Ortega or Hugo Chávez. The War on Terror was justified, by the Bush administration and its court scribes, by the need to defeat the metastasised and orientalised Nazism of ‘Islamofascism’.
What is more, at a moment when ruling politicians across Europe are doing the will of finance capital by imposing austerity policies that transfer wealth from the poor to the rich, dismantling the social institutions that were the basis of the postwar democratic settlement, and militarising borders in order to manage the flow of unwanted populations, declaring an interest in defeating Hitler can become an expedient, if rather desperate, way of declaring that you have a sense of right and wrong deep down.
There is also a dimension specific to Ireland’s relation to the European Union, a particular elite narrative in which the unenlightened Irish rabble, unable to see the good sense of balanced budgets and the technocratic dismantling of welfare states, resort to crude nationalist populism and recoil into anti-German atavistic isolationism, much to the regret of elite liberals such as Fine Gael grandee and Goldman Sachs boss Peter Sutherland. To forestall an outbreak of neo-Nazism in Ireland along the lines of Greece, left-wing opposition, street protest and anti-political sentiment must be kept in check, and the population must learn to show sufficient maturity in staying the course of pragmatic obedience to Troika diktats. According to this view of the world, interrupting a public meeting to protest cutbacks and tax hikes to pay for private banking debt is fascism; but using your ministerial power to deny housing to Travellers is democracy.
Nonetheless, it is good to be mindful of the principle articulated by Shatter’s legislation, even if the legislators are unlikely to apply it universally: it is legitimate to disobey the State if your concern is contributing to freedom and democracy in Europe, and you believe the government is engaging in unconscionable policies that engender fascism. That is what this legislation says.
That doesn’t mean official history will absolve you, of course. Nor you should take your cue from the government or Alan Shatter when it comes to disobedience. In fact, if you’re successful, there’s a good chance they’ll arrest you. And label you a Nazi.