The Left and Identity Politics

Adapted from last night’s Twitter.

Eric Hobsbawm

I realised this past few days that I haven’t a notion what people are talking about regarding ‘identity politics’. I mean, I hear all these people talking about it but they never bother to specify what it is.

So I decided to do some reading. OK, it was one article, but it was interesting considering current controversies. It’s Identity Politics and the Left, by Eric Hobsbawm, from New Left Review 217 in 1996. Hobsbawm was (among other things) a historian of nations and nationalism, a communist, and a Jew who was witheringly opposed to Zionism. Those things seem to have some bearing on what he defines as identity politics, but also, on what he defines as the Left.

It’s a 20-year-old article but Hobsbawm is pointing out that identity politics has already been around for 30 or so. He highlights the emergence of three variants of identity politics in the 60s: ethnicity, the (post suffragist) women’s movement and the gay movement, and ponders why these have become central.

One surface reason is to do with elections: ‘constituting oneself into such an identity group may provide concrete political advantages’. But a deeper factor is an ‘extraordinary dissolution of traditional social norms, textures and values’, following a weakening of the nation state, and a weakening of class-based political parties and movements. ‘Men and women’, he says, ‘look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting.’ Citing Orlando Patterson, he states that they ‘choose to belong to an identity group’, predicated on ‘an intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice’.

Hobsbawm emphasises a negative, exclusive dimension to identity politics: not them, us. We are Insiders, they are Outsiders. One example he provides is ‘Unionists and Nationalists in Belfast’. There’s something worth reflecting on here, which Hobsbawm doesn’t appear to consider in his example. Irish nationalism normally encompasses Irish republicanism. But republicanism as a political ideology is not exclusive in its claims. In certain expressions, which have had varying levels of prominence over time, it means a republic for people in Ireland, not a republic that is Irish in essence. That is, it draws on universalism, not particularism. More of that later.

(Reading this, I did wonder how much of this is influenced by his holiday home getting burnt down, reputedly, by Welsh nationalists.)

Hobsbawm continues: ‘identity politics assumes that one among the many identities we all have is the one that determines or at least dominates our politics: being a woman, if you are a feminist, being a Protestant if you are an Antrim Unionist’. Whether it is adopted by individuals depends on the context: ‘paid-up, card-carrying members of the gay community in the Oxbridge of the 1920s who, after the slump of 1929 and the rise of Hitler, shifted, as they liked to say, from Homintern to Comintern.’

Hobsbawm contrasts the particularist, exclusivist character of identity politics, as he defines it, with the universalism of the Left. The latter embodied ‘great, universal causes through which each group believed its particular aims could be realized’. But he recognises that identity politics also manifests itself within the Left. For him, the ‘proletarian identity politics’ of ‘Militant ‘economist’ trade unionism’ was a factor in the rise of Thatcher, since it ‘antagonized the people not directly involved in it to such an extent that it gave Thatcherite Toryism its most convincing argument’.

The Left ‘is universalist: it is for all human beings’. ‘It isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody’. Against this, ‘identity groups are about themselves, for themselves, and nobody else’, since ‘they are not committed to the Left as such, but only to get support for their aims wherever they can’, and since ‘’whatever their rhetoric, the actual movements and organizations of identity politics mobilize only minorities’. Hobsbawm advances these claims as ‘pragmatic reasons to be against identity politics’.

‘The decline of the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment’ has ‘saddled’ both Left and Right with identity politics. As a remedy, Hobsbawm proposes citizen nationalism, which he calls a ‘comprehensive form of identity politics’, ‘a common identity’. It’s interesting to encounter this post-Podemos, post-France Insoumise, and with Corbyn’s Labour Party in election campaign in flow. These have all sought to mobilise, in different styles, a Left citizen nationalism, seeking to contest the nationalism of the Right.

Some thoughts on all this. First, Hobsbawm’s conception of identity politics relates mainly to representation: the building of parties and the formation of governments through representative elections. Second, he has little to say about how ‘the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment’ have been used to suppress and exclude. He was no longer with us when the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, which addressed the murderous racism of the US state repressive apparatus, was countered with the phony universalism of ‘All Lives Matter’. It would be interesting to get his thoughts on this morning’s news, in which the mayor of Paris has called for a black feminist festival to be banned, claiming that it was ‘prohibited to white people’, and the prefect of police promising to protect the ‘rigorous compliance of the laws, values, and principles of the republic’ – the republic being one of the ‘great, universal causes’ (according to Hobsbawm). However, he was around for French colonialism.

Hobsbawm does not have much to say in this article either, on how the Left’s claims to be for everyone in theory often fall a great deal short in practice -and nothing on the initial revolutionary outlook and activity that drove the 60s movements that he focuses on. A ‘Homintern vs. Comintern’, between public and private spheres, did not apply here.

It’s worth pointing out that universalism predates the modern Left. For example: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)’. But you could hardly say the Catholic Church has operated ‘for everyone’, whatever its claims. So, we can’t presume that claiming to embody a given set of ideals means that you act according to them. From this perspective, ‘identity politics’, specifically the post-60s movements cited by Hobsbawm, have narrowed the gap in many cases between image and reality regarding the Left’s claims to universalism. Still, Hobsbawm is against ‘identity politics’.

All this may seem to bear a very dim relation to the criticisms levelled at ‘identity politics’ in contemporary controversies. There are some echoes, though. Consider this Jacobin article, proposing, against ‘liberal identity politics’, ‘a unified “we”’, ‘beyond the regulation of the logic of identity’. The trouble with this, I think, is that the universalist logic of the State -which ends up featuring in ‘citizen nationalism’- also regulates. It produces ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups, with the latter having to fight for recognition and for freedom from oppression, usually under adversity. To allow such struggles to be lumped together as forms of ‘identity politics’ can only reproduce the phony universalism of the State.

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My Straight White Male Life

“Down with the system! But keep it in place!” – El Roto, El País, 25th April

You have only my word for this, but I wasn’t born straight, white, or male. In fact, I wasn’t even born. I arrived later, probably after an encounter between an infant and a mirror. When that happened, I probably had learned some of the ropes for being male. That started when someone in the hospital had a look between my legs and placed me in that category. After this confirmation, people began treating me with that fact in mind. My aunt got a telegram in Greece from my grandmother that read ‘BOY OK’. I learned to read early and by age 5 my grandmother had bought me an illustrated book on Julius Caesar. Not as early career guidance, I imagine. The point is I doubt my sister got something similar on Alexander the Great.

I don’t know when I properly realised I was straight. I mean, straight as a description probably came in my late teens, but things like the Beano’s Dennis The Menace, who would dish out beatings to Walter the Softy who liked to play with dolls and had a poodle called Foo-Foo were an early instruction manual that there were some boys who were not really boys but something else masquerading as a boy and that it is was ok to visit them with random and arbitrary violence. It became clearer to me that I was straight after I began to get abuse, as many other boys did, for being ‘queer’. ‘Queer’ was the insult that came with doing well in tests at school, with playing a musical instrument, with having long hair, and maybe carrying an art folder around. My closest friend at the time got the same: we were both ‘queers’. Despite the occasional scrape the insult did not bother us much since it did not feel like any kind of attack on who we were and I can’t say that it fostered any great empathy with people who were properly marginalised by such disciplinary violence since we didn’t know anyone in that situation, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

Realising that I was white is a different thing: the first black people I remember seeing were Floella Benjamin and Derek Griffiths from Playschool, Uhura from Star Trek, and Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. Also, St Martin de Porres from those magazines that my childminder would deliver. There was a Sikh doctor who attended to me once, one dark-skinned boy at school, but for the most part, life in the flesh was white as a norm, punctuated occasionally with racist jokes -I laughed- and a feeling fostered that we were living in the civilised world and not wherever the missions money collected at school was going.

I don’t identify as straight, white or male. I don’t see any virtue in any of these things. I don’t feel part of a straight community, or a white community, or a male community. Although: most of my friends are straight, and white, and male, and the institutions of the society in which I live favour the straight, the white, the male, because they were built to that purpose. When Gardaí board the train after crossing the border and make a group of black people get off the train, I know it is not I who am not in danger. It is other people who are being targeted, not me. When someone daubs a swastika on a gay bar, I know that it isn’t me they want to eliminate. When the laws of the state exercise ownership over women’s bodies and prohibit them from having an abortion, it isn’t me who is compelled to endure an unwanted pregnancy and labour. And in every such case, being straight, white and male, I can opt to do nothing. I can opt to say “this is not about me”, which is a substantial privilege, an access to a security beyond the reach of others, and a form of glue that maintains systemic oppression.

In fact, I can, along with many other straight white men, act as if none of this has anything to do with heteronormativity, or racism, or patriarchy. I can look upon acts of oppression and violence -homophobia, racist attacks, misogynist violence – as bad things done by bad individuals, the result of bad ideas lodged in certain people’s heads, in a society where the straight white man is just one category of individual among many: neither good nor bad. I have a wealth of resources to call upon for this. I can open any newspaper, for one.

I can also consider these things – heteronormativity, racism, patriarchy – as secondary questions. Bad, for sure, but secondary to the overall problem of class exploitation under the specific historical social form known as capitalism. What’s more, since I’m relatively free from the effects of these things, and not required to endure them and struggle against them on any given day, this gives me relatively more time to analyse them with a view to how I might raise the consciousness of others. I can ascend above the fray, all the petty disputes that cloud the bigger picture, name things for what they really are, and make my prescriptions.

But what happens if no-one listens? Or worse, they can’t fathom what I’m trying to get across, or are appalled by it? A problem here with being straight, white and male is that no-one may have led me to consider how the categories and the language I use to understand the world, along with the way I move freely around in it, though they appear natural to me, are a longstanding product of domination, and patriarchy has been around a lot longer than capitalism. If someone confronts me with this, I may dismiss it as weak-minded and silly nonsense, and I’ll probably find plenty to back me up on it. The dominant usually find it easier to present themselves as clear-sighted and grounded, as opposed to what appears to them as garbled or infantile or abnormal or unnatural. I can survey the mess and conclude I had no part in it.

What are straight white men supposed to do, then? Learning to listen, recognising habits and trying to undo them, and trying to grasp that a better world cannot and should not be made in their image or in the sound of their voice alone might be good for starters. Given how so much of this operates unconsciously, they (me included) will be very bad at it and may never become good at it, but even trying probably helps. It seems inevitable that doing this, and even talking about it, will be made appear by some as the start of some endless cycle of feeble-minded self-flagellation, or betrayal and capitulation to the forces of collapse. But there is an entire order that deserves to be collapsed.

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Cop on Comrades

We are a group of activist women from a wide variety of backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Last week, a good number of the left-wing men we work and organise with seriously disappointed us. These men – our friends, our fellow trade unionists, activists, writers, organisers, and artists – shared and commented on a reductive and damaging article written by Frankie Gaffney, which was published in the Irish Times.

We live in a world where our advantages are tangled up with the things that disadvantage us – some of us are working class, some queer, some of us are poor, some of us come from minority ethnic groups or have disabilities or don’t enjoy the security of citizenship. As well, some of us have had a multitude of opportunities in our lives while some of us have had to fight our way through. It is an obligation on all of us to honestly look at our different positions within the structures of oppression and privilege under patriarchal racial capitalism. It is only by acknowledging all these differences that we have any chance of imagining and building a better world that includes us all.

Working-class ‘straight white men’ in Ireland don’t have it easy these days. They never did. They are ignored by a political class that couldn’t care less about them. They should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, but they often don’t.

However, that doesn’t make them immune to critique. We all have to examine ourselves as oppressor as well as oppressed – because we are all both. The response to the article felt like a silencing to us and we are writing this because we are way past putting up with that. You will see from the names on this letter that we are women who have been in the thick of things. Whether in political parties and organisations, education, trade unions, or grassroots and community-based movements, we are tired of being accused of ‘bourgeois feminism’ and of betraying the struggle when we raise our voices. No campaign in this country could survive without women, without us – our work and energy and knowledge and organising have been instrumental in all the progressive movements in this country. When we say we need to be recognised and respected within our movements, we need you to listen.

The article expressed the view that identity politics is good for nothing except dividing movements, using language and narratives that have been made popular by MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) groups and the alt-right. According to such narratives, straight white men are the new most oppressed group. This ignores the struggles of women and others at the sharp end of misogyny, racism, anti-trans and anti-queer violence. It aims to silence those who will no longer tolerate the violence, abuse and marginalisation we have suffered for so long. These alt-right arguments have been used by people on the left to support the view that women, and feminists in particular, are to blame for the rise of the far right – for instance, for Trump’s election – and for neoliberal capitalism, which is seen as having damaged working class men in particular.  

In this version of events, straight white men are made to feel uncomfortable about being ‘born this way’ by social media-fuelled ‘political correctness’. They are too afraid to say what they think or express opinions for fear of online retribution. Men who claim to be silenced in this way might try a week or even a day as a vocal woman or person of colour online and see how they deal with the rape threats and threats of racist violence that follow.

We are not concerned here about one opinion piece by one person. Rather we have all been aware of the increasing trend towards this particular new type of silencing of women from our supposed fellow activists on the left. The arguments mounted here and elsewhere are apparently to criticise some of the worst aspects of ‘call-out culture’, as well as the lean-in type of so-called feminism that disregards class and race. Yet they seem to be used now by some of our left-wing activist comrades as an excuse not to deal with the complexities of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in our political organising. These excuses, when accepted, prevent us from seeing clearly the state of our movements – who is taking part in them, who is heard and represented, who is doing the work. These are massive issues that have to do with how we are creating mass movements, which need to be addressed and faced to ensure that people of different classes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation and gender have not just a voice but leading roles in our struggle. Without this solidarity in working together, we are simply imitating the oppressive structures we want to fight – the structures that say “not now, your life comes second.” It is not the straight white men who are being silenced when this argument is made.

We are working-class women, women of colour, migrant women, trans women, Traveller women, disabled women, queer women, women who are sex workers, women with children, and women who are none of these, active in our communities and committed to an anti-capitalist struggle. We are well aware that a right-wing, neoliberal distortion of feminism and what is called ‘identity politics’ exists. We know this because it erases our experiences and struggles and we resist this erasure through our work as activists every single day. It is distressing and enraging that we also have to fight against the bad faith of fellow activists on the left – mostly men, sometimes women – who, for their own reasons, blur the distinction between this kind of middle-class neoliberal faux-feminism, and a truly radical feminist politics that has class struggle at its very core. This hurts us because it erases and undermines our realities, our suffering, our analyses, and our organising, and gives more strength to the powers that are ranged against us. For many of us, it is heart-breaking to look at some of the men around us and realise that they are nodding in agreement with this erasure of their working class women friends and comrades.

Most of us have grown up learning to appease men. How to give them our space, how to deal with the fact that they dominate any political discussions, that they are paid more, heard more and believed more.  However, most of us expect that the men we work with in all the social justice movements we are part of should have at least considered how they are complicit in this domination when they refuse to recognise that it exists. Patriarchy forces men into roles that damage them as well as us. Most of us have men that we love, admire and respect in our lives and for that reason, not only because it damages and diminishes the life experiences of women, we should all be fighting patriarchy together.

Niamh McDonald

Zoe McCormack

Jen O’Leary

Aline Courtois

Emily Waszak

Theresa O’Keefe

Sinéad Redmond

Aislinn Wallace

Hazel Katherine Larkin

Linnea Dunne

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Maggs Casey

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Sarah Clancy

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Emily Duffy

Clara Purcell

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Aoife Frances

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Dearbhla Ryan​

Michelle Connolly

Siobhán O’Donoghue

Aoife FitzGibbon O’Riordan

Stephanie Crowe Taft

Denise Kiernan

Aisling Egan

Donnah Vuma

Kate O’Connell

Natalia Fernández

Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird

Mary McAuliffe

Marie Mulholland

Margo Harkin

Avril Corroon

Juliana Sassi

Ailbhe Smyth

Kate McGrew

Ciara Miller

Aoife Dermody

Emer Smith

Francisca Ribeiro

Jerrieann Sullivan

Marie McDonnell

Kathleen Gaul

Liz Martin

Laura Lee

Roisin Blade

Kerry Guinan

Gráinne O’Toole

Edel McGinley

Máiréad Enright

Erin Fornoff

Sarah Fitzgibbon

Cliona Kelly

Ciara Fitzpatrick

Bronwen Lang

Shonagh Strachan

Dervla O’Neill

Hilary Darcy

Jane Xavier

Emma Campbell

Clara Rose Thornton IV

Linda Connolly

Nomaxabiso Maye

Rosa Thompson

Liz Nelson

Eavan Brennan

Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Elaine D’alton

Anne Rynne

Elaine Crory

Jodie Condon

Clare Kelly

Catriona O’Brien

Meireka Radford

Lisa Keogh Finnegan

Fiona Dunkin

Lelia Doolan

Jacinta Fay

Mary O’Donoghue

Mariel Whelan

Aine Treanor

Flavia Simas

Meabh Savage

Noirin Lynch

Claire Brophy

Liz Price

Linda Kavanagh

Linda Devlin

Aileen O’Carroll

Anita Koppenhofer

Vicky Donnelly

Marianne Farrelly

Aisling Walsh

Ronit Lentin

Sarah Ferrigan

Neltah Chadamoyo

Aine Ni Fhaolain

Rosi Leonard

Tara Flynn

Sinead Kennedy

Anna Visser

Taryn de Vere

Marese Hegarty

Tracey Ryan

Orlagh De Bhaldraithe

Eimear O’Shea

Jen Fagan

Aoife Martin

Lorna O’Hara

Nicole King

Laura NicDiarmada

Maeve O’Brien

Maija Sofia

Izzy Kamikaze

Karen Mulreid

Niamh Byrne

Sophie Long

Gormla Hughes

Mary McDermott

Mary Cosgrove

Amy Moran

Chamindra Weerawardhana

Sarah Vanden Broeck

Karen McDonnell

Kate Quigley

Charlotte Gordon

Kerry Cuskelly

Susan O Keeffe

Inga Wójcik

May Watson

Máire Ní Giolla Bhríde

Maria O Sullivan

Gillian McInerney

Claire McCallion

Deirdre Flynn

Janet O’Sullivan

Alexandra Day

Jeannine Webster

Ann Farrelly

Georgina O’Halloran

Zoe Lawlor

Angela Coraccio

Kathryn Keane

Sorcha Fox

Anastasia Ryan

Sinéad O’Rourke

Kerri Ryan

Mara Clarke

Chelley McLear

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Breda McManus

Ceile Varley

Kate Quigley

Gala Tomasso

Louise Kelly

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Lily Power

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Sinéad Mercier

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Some Questions

“We are increasing surveillance, the population may now close its eyes”

Some questions –

A garda used a mobile phone to record CCTV footage of Dara Quigley being arrested under the Mental Health Act. Reports indicate that he shared this on a WhatsApp group with other gardai. This footage was in turn shared on Facebook, and other sites, before it was removed from Facebook following intervention from a senior garda.

Did the garda with the phone record the footage as it was shown live on CCTV?

Or did he check video archives to find it?

Suppose it was the latter. How did he know to go looking for it? What information was he given, and what information did he seek out, so as to find the footage? For example, did he have any contact with the gardaí shown dealing brutally with Dara in the video? Was he one of them?

The GSOC investigation into the events surrounding the leak of Clare Daly’s arrest on drink-driving charges in 2013 found that 145 people ‘potentially had knowledge of the incident on 29 January via Pulse or via the email containing information’.

In Dara’s case, did word spread through some Garda network that there was footage worth seeing? Did the guard look up details of Dara’s arrest on Pulse to see what time it happened? When he went to record the footage, did he know the name of the person whom he was recording?

Is the garda reported to be suspended on full pay the one who in fact recorded the footage? He may not be. Remember, there are members of An Garda Síochána who tie rats to the doors of other members.

The ‘rotten apple’ hypothesis can be persuasive, even when we know it to be wrong. We may be inclined to look for singular culprits, when the genesis of a vile act spreads far wider than that. For starters: if it was the garda now suspended on full pay, did he act alone in making the recording? If not, was there some concerted decision that he would be the one to go retrieve it?
Suppose it was the former. A lone officer. Watching the live feed. He doesn’t know who it is, but thinks: I have to record this. The lads will want to see it. It will please them, they will admire me for it.

Little does he know that the rest of his colleagues will be appalled. They are committed to dignity and respect for everyone. They will see their colleague’s actions as a gross violation of the rights of the person in the video. They will recognise how these actions are motivated by a misogyny that pervades their institution and wider society. They will be shaken by the abuse of power. Committed as they are to respecting the rights of people with mental illness, they will notify senior authorities about this horrific breach.

That is how it might unfold, in a dream world.

In a world closer to reality, his colleagues will not be appalled. What is the WhatsApp group for anyway if not for communication among like-minded people? They will say nothing, even though it is their job to prevent violations of fundamental rights. Some may have qualms, but they will remain silent, as they always do. Others may post cry-laugh emojis. An espirit de corps will gel around the feeling of power they have, the way they can do this to whomever they like. An Garda Síochána, where we do what we want.

Do you reckon any of the individuals in the WhatsApp group will be taking part in the Garda Four Peaks Challenge, for a mental health charity? Do you reckon any of those who put their hiking boots on will, in a moment of reflection, speak among themselves about the general role of An Garda Síochána in heightening mental harm? All the laws they uphold that keep people deprived of proper care and support, all the laws they uphold that produce unbearable stresses, all the violence they unleash against people with mental illnesses: do you think they will think about that?

Do you think they think at all?

One of the most pernicious myths about CCTV and other systems of surveillance and recording is that they are there to protect us. They are there for our own good. If not for them, our world would become nasty, brutish and short. We are led to imagine that their functioning is neutral, and that there are accountability mechanisms that prevent them from abuse. But what if they are not a means against abuse, but instead, a means to its extension into every facet of life? And the people who operate them -with their sordid, resentful desires obscured from our view- are the nastiest, most brutish of them all?

Do you think any of the investigations currently underway will get to the heart of these problems?

And if not: what will it take to expose them for what they are?

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A Goodbye to Dara

“To have courage, you have to be discouraged. To get up, you have to know how to fall down. To win, you have to know how to lose. And you have to know that this is what life amounts to, and you fall down and you get up many times. And there are some who fall down and they don’t get up ever again, who in general are the most sensitive, the ones who are easiest to hurt, the people whom it hurts the most to live. The most sensitive people are the most vulnerable. On the other hand, those fuckers who dedicate themselves to tormenting humanity, they have the longest of lives, they never die. Because they are missing a gland, which as it happens is quite rare. It is called conscience, which is what torments you at night.”

-Eduardo Galeano

Dara Quigley’s funeral service was held today in Dardistown Crematorium, just across the road from the airport. It was a ceremony filled with warmth and light and some laughter. Her coffin was brought in to the strains of Bad Girls by MIA, and it moved out the room to the sound of Cosmic Dancer by T. Rex.

Dara’s parents spoke of their beloved daughter’s sensitivity and boundless curiosity about the world. Her brother and sister spoke of their big sister’s caring presence and her indomitable irreverent humour. Her partner told of how Dara’s favourite flower was the sunflower, not only for its colour, but for how it turned towards the sunlight. The civil celebrant read her words, shared now many times, envisioning how ‘we are all starlings, producing intricate, amazing patterns all arising from one fundamental rule: no one bird is allowed to get lost’. Harry Browne spoke beautifully about the bravery and explosive rhythms of her writing. Even if she might not have been a Bruce Springsteen fan, Harry noted, she was no doubt a kindred spirit to those standing -in Bruce’s song We Are Alive– “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart”.

“Is it wrong to understand / the fear that dwells inside of man?”, sang Marc Bolan as Dara’s coffin moved out through the curtains. Dara was a regular reader of this website, and we were in touch regularly over the past few years. We would chat about writing, and politics, and everyday life. There were times I spoke with Dara when for all her irreverent exuberance and her insistence that everything was grand, it was clear she was afraid of something. I don’t believe we always need look inside to understand such fears. There are so many real things that can produce fear in us, things that promise a pain of isolation, abandonment, illness. It is not enough that each person should learn to confront such fears themselves. To feel that you have to do that alone is a way of compounding those fears. I believe Dara knew all this, and that is why she wrote what she did, with such courage, despite what she told me was her “crippling self-doubt”. “Got ta present the flaws up front otherwise people go looking for em”, she told me before she published her last post back in September. I’ll always be grateful to her for that, even if I can hear her making a big ‘pffft‘ noise as I write this.


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Football, Fish and Flags

Pescado frito

This weekend just past I took my 9-year-old son to a football match in England. It was a Manchester United match, but even so, it was still a recognisably English setting, I think. He is interested in food these days, and spends a lot of time in the kitchen helping prepare meals. He tells me that if he doesn’t make it as a professional footballer he will become a food critic. He was delighted to have a full English breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7 in the morning. He stacked his plate with egg, bacon, sausages, black pudding, and a grilled tomato. What, he asked, is the difference was between a full English breakfast and a full Irish breakfast? I said it mostly depended on where you were sitting. At midday, we were out at Old Trafford, milling about.  He wanted to get something to eat before we went into the stadium. We went to a chip shop. He ordered a chicken fillet burger, I ordered fish and chips, something I might eat once every five years. He finished the burger before I got half way through the fish. I saw him eyeing up the fish, and gave him a piece. It was a bit too greasy for my liking but he was willing to polish the whole thing off, the hungry hoor.

I told the food critic that the fried fish you get in fish and chip shops originated from Jews who made their way, from central and southern Spain, via Portugal, and on to England, after their decreed expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. He liked that: not the expulsion, but the way the fish was cooked in the same way as in his Spanish grandmother’s house, and, as he recalled with some relish, in the restaurant in Cádiz where he devoured my fried fish a couple of years back.

The match was a nil-nil draw.

On the way over to England, I wondered about the passport situation. I was travelling on an Irish passport, and he on a Spanish passport. What would it be like next time? Would the border authorities let me pass, but keep him out? Would I get arrested on child trafficking charges or something? None of these scenarios would ever come to pass, mind you, since if a stricter border regime along these lines arose, we would just not bother going.

The following day, an article by Kelvin MacKenzie was printed in the Sunday edition of The Sun. MacKenzie, for those who do not know, was responsible for printing front page lies about Liverpool supporters crushed to death -through unlawful killing– at Hillsborough. The Sun still sees fit to publish the opinions of a man who accused Liverpool fans of ‘urinating on the brave cops’. MacKenzie’s article concerned the current diplomatic controversy over Gibraltar arising from Brexit negotiations. In it, he claimed that Spain had become a wartime enemy, and that Theresa May ought to threaten, among other things, the expulsion of the ‘125,000 Spaniards…working in the UK. Say adios, Manuel.

It’s hardly a surprise to me that pond scum like MacKenzie should come out with the likes of this. What makes it new for me, though, on a personal level, is in seeing such racism directed at my children. In this case, the object is ‘Spaniards’, but this assertion of ultimate sovereign power could just as well be directed at any grouping identified by Brexit Britain as essentially dangerous.

I have seen people on social media, responding to the piece, calling for MacKenzie to be ignored, and boycotted, and so on. Whilst I agree entirely that The Sun should be boycotted, it is an error to treat MacKenzie in isolation, as some kind of outlier. The violence of his proposals -and the suggestion that such violence is to be enjoyed, that it is only a bit of fun– is entirely in keeping with the way in which the Brexit referendum was conducted, and how debate over its implementation is taking place. According to this view of the world, there is a sovereign British ‘people’, whose will was expressed in a referendum and whose decisions are unimpeachably final. It is tacitly assumed -not only by the Tory right and its media- that this sovereignty entails a power of life and death over any grouping it proclaims as dangerous.

20 years ago, The Sun’s circulation was nearly five million. Now it’s a third of that. There is no doubting its noxious effect on public discourse in Britain, but its power and influence are nowhere near as significant these days. Today’s Gibraltar cover, and the maniacal racism of Kelvin MacKenzie’s column, are imbued with a longing to recover what it sees as the glory days when it could whoop it up for British military power as with the sinking of the Belgrano, or at least to retain the older readers who revel in the paper’s chauvinist ignorance. But if the influence of The Sun itself might have dwindled, there is a far greater array of voices, able to make themselves public, delighting in the kind of unbridled racism and militarism in which The Sun was once the market leader.

Former Tory leader and Home Secretary Michael Howard’s intervention on Gibraltar -summoning the spirit of Margaret Thatcher and highlighting the remarkable ‘coincidence’ regarding Spanish-speaking countries- was calculated to rouse a bout of jingoist chest-beating from The Sun and the rest as a means of distracting from the threadbare and risible situation Britain has created for itself. In the absence of concerted anti-racist action, it would be inevitable that this whole process will intensify the scapegoating of migrant populations, both through legal measures designed to placate ‘the people’, and through extra-legal violence conducted against everyday people who commit the offences of speaking a language other than English, or of simply not being white.

Against all this, a host of liberal voices in Britain sound their one-note trumpet for ‘legitimate concerns’ about ‘immigration, jobs and welfare’. The order of priority here comes from Stuart Maconie in the current New Statesman, but it applies to a large swathe of liberal opinion, wont to calls for progressive patriotism and the like. They are quite content to throw this rough racist beast more red meat, and congratulate themselves on their bravery in so doing. The New Statesman cover presenting an imperialist butcher like Kitchener as a figurehead for democratic renewal reveals the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of those who look upon themselves as voices of moderation and progress. One might be inclined to laugh at this pathetic rooting around in the bric-a-brac of imperial nostalgia if the likely consequences of this were not so dire.

From where I stand, there is no view that can be improved by sticking a union jack on it. One effect of Michael Howard’s séance for Thatcher, for instance, is to present the history of Britain as one of great patriotic adventures led by great political leaders. The flying of the union jack serves to consign to oblivion the social and political struggles conducted by working class and immigrant populations, and how they shaped the everyday life of the country. One irony in the treatment of Gibraltar this past couple of days, its festooning with union jacks and the chest-puffing assertions of unshakably British character, is how the history of the rock is far more multi-layered and interesting. When the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, the British were supposed to keep Jews and Muslims out, in line with the demands of the Spanish. As Henry Kamen writes in The Disinherited, the British ignored the Spanish and allowed immigrants of all religions in. Yet the same forces proclaiming the importance of Gibraltar to British national pride are precisely those most concerned with keeping Britain free from the supposed threat of encroaching Islam. Strangely, I could not find anything detailing whether more liberal voices among the British had called for the ‘legitimate concerns’ of the Spanish on immigration to be entertained.

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Men of Peace

Checkpoint on Bloody Sunday, 30 Jan 1972, Derry, Northern Ireland. Photo by William L. Rukeyser. Source:

A few weeks after I got my driving licence, and a few weeks before the IRA ceasefire of 1994, I was driving along a country road in mid-Armagh, with no particular place to go. I came to a British Army checkpoint. Such checkpoints were routine; in fact, during my driving test, the Army stopped and searched the boot of the car on the way back to the test centre (the test centre was right beside an army base). Here, again, they asked to search the boot. No problem. The soldier -carrying a rifle, of course- called in the registration number on his radio. He then asked me to pull over. So I did. Then he asked me to get out of the car.

He walked back a few yards up the road to the rest of the patrol, who were waving other cars on. I stood waiting. To begin with, it was no big deal to me. Five minutes passed. Then ten. It felt like longer. At first I put the delay down to my new driver’s licence and cross-checks or something. It was not as if I had ever been involved in anything. Then I started to wonder if they were taking the piss. Then, wondering whether they were waiting to see if I would react in some way. I remembered what had happened to Karen Reilly, shot dead at a checkpoint in West Belfast, and what had happened, maybe back in the 80s, when my father had his boot searched by the soldiers one night. “How do you explain this, sir?”, asked the soldier, returning from the boot to the driver’s window, holding a rifle he had supposedly found in the boot. “How many people have you tried that on tonight?”, my father asked, not before it crossing his mind that maybe he had been driving a car with a gun in the boot. The soldier laughed, and let him pass.

All this went on in my head, but I was trying to make sure I was showing no outward signs of unease, anything that might mean having to stand there even longer. I figured that if I asked what was keeping them, it would only make them more inclined to make me stay put for longer. And they were the ones holding the guns.

After about 25 minutes, I was told I could go. There was no “thank you”, no “sorry for the delay”, nothing.

On a scale of individual acts of military repression conducted by British armed forces in Northern Ireland, this delay must rank down somewhere between the infinitesimally trivial and the non-existent. But it lies nonetheless on a continuum: I had no intention of doing harm to anyone, but I was made to do what I was told for no apparent reason other than the presence of a group of armed men with guns. In my head there was resentment beginning to simmer, a feeling, in addition, of weakness at having to submit.

It isn’t hard for me -now- to understand how others, on witnessing or experiencing things that were immeasurably worse, or on joining all the little things and all the big things together and seeing them as part of an overall picture of repression and domination, might have opted to join the IRA.

At that point, the airwaves in Northern Ireland had been saturated for as long as I can remember with ways of speaking about the conflict that divided the place into a peaceful majority and a violent minority. A majority, you were told, wanted peace, but the violent extremists ‘on both sides’ were engaged in a ‘tit-for-tat’ ‘cycle of violence’. In the midst of this was the British Army and RUC, who were apparently defending society againg ‘the terrorists’. ‘BLAME THE TERRORISTS’ is what a sign read at a checkpoint in the middle of Cookstown. Absent from this, of course, was the violent role of the British State, whether in the form of internment, torture, operating death squads, or just a generalised presence of armed groups of men patrolling the streets with guns.

This morning, the airwaves and newspapers have been full of analysis of Martin McGuinness, following the announcement of his death. Many commentators are, in a a regurgitation of cliché, classifying him as someone who began as a ‘man of war’ who then became a ‘man of peace’.

And now I’m wondering: what makes you a person ‘of peace’? From what I can recall, being in favour of ‘peace’, back in the 80s and 90s, simply meant that you abided by the rule of law. You would frequently hear statements from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or Conservative Party and Unionist MPs to the effect that the majority of Catholics were ‘law-abiding’. All this meant is that as far as they were concerned, they did not mount any challenge to the rule of law, and the rule of law, day-to-day, meant things like that whenever a soldier with a rifle told you to get out of the car, you got out of the car, and you kept quiet. To be ‘peaceful’ in this regard does not mean that you have rejected violence: on the contrary, it just means you have accepted its imposition as a self-evident necessity.
I wonder about other things too. I have yet to hear any analysis, nearly 23 years on from the IRA ceasefire, about how the Britain has moved from being a ‘State of violence’ to a ‘State of peace’. For many opinion-formers, the guiding assumption, still, is that it has only ever been the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Is the re-imposition of a hard border in Ireland, brought about as part of a drive to ‘take back control’ in Britain, likely to test that assumption? Somehow I doubt it.


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