“The terrorist is always the one with the smaller bomb.”
– Brendan Behan
Today is not the day for long obituaries or to debate the pros and cons of the peace process, nor is it the time (as the British media have done all day long) to wheel out opponents of the IRA to dance on the memory of the leader of Irish nationalism.
TAL Fanzine has its views on all of the political twists and turns that have taken place as a result of the eternal peace process. However, on this day, we send our sincere condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Martin McGuinness.
Former IRA blanketman, H Blocks PRO and author of ‘Blanketmen‘ & ‘After Lives’, Richard O’Rawe reviews the new film about Bobby Sands, ’66 Days’.
‘Drama at the absolute rawest edge it could possibly be,’ was how journalist Fintan O’Toole described the IRA/INLA hunger strike in Brendan Byrne’s new film, Bobby Sands – Sixty-Six Days. No one who was around at that time could argue with him.
I went to the premiere of this film in West Belfast along with my wife, Bernadette. Accompanying us were Dixie Elliott and his wife, Sharon. Dixie, a former cell mate of Sands’, had been interviewed for the film but his contribution did not make the final cut.
Unsurprisingly, the cinema was packed with Sinn Féin members and supporters. Equally unsurprisingly, many of those present cast their eyes into the darkest reaches of the cinema rather than in my direction. The reason why? Because I wrote a book called Blanketmenin which I said that a committee of republicans, led by Gerry Adams, had control of the hunger strike. I also said that, before the fifth hunger striker Joe McDonnell died, this committee rejected an offer from the British government that the prison leadership believed to be acceptable. Consequently, six more hunger strikers died on the fast.
Richard O’Rawe – ‘Was it (Sands’ death) worth it? It pains me to say that I don’t think it was.’
Notwithstanding the preponderance of Sinn Féin members in attendance at the premiere, this is far from a pro-Sinn Féin film. In fact, one viewer later said to me that he thought Byrne had gone ‘a bit too far’ by using Fintan O’Toole as linkman(O’Toole is not known for his Sinn Féin sympathies).
Byrne also afforded speaking rights to former prison officer, Dessie Butterworth, Tory Cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, and Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore. As well as that, he did not shirk from raising the despicable IRA murder of a young mother and census collector, Joanne Mathers, two days before the electorate of Fermanagh/South Tyrone went to the polls to elect either Bobby Sands or a Unionist as their M.P. To some of us prisoners, it seemed as if someone wanted to sabotage Sands’ chances of being elected.
I have to say, I found this film challenging. For example: Sands gave an interview to reporter Brendan O’Cathaoir of The Irish Times on the third day of his hunger strike.
Commenting on the interview, O’Cathaoir told Byrne: ‘He spoke fluently about how they felt compelled to start the hunger strike. And he made it pretty clear to me he was likely to die. He talked really in terms of laying down his life for his comrades, and of course I am conscious that his protest was in the tradition of positive resistance, immortalised by Ghandi. His most memorial phrase before we parted was: “If I die, God will understand.”’
I later gave some thought to O’Cathaoir saying that Sands’ fast was‘in the tradition of positive resistance, immortalised by Ghandi’. Ghandi and Sands certainly had things in common: they shared the same imperial foe, they had a great love of their people, and they had iron will.
But unlike the pacifist Ghandi, Sands was committed to armed struggle and, while both revolutionaries may have used the tactic of hunger strike to achieve a political aim, they were altogether different entities.
Another thing that struck me was Fintan O’Toole saying that, ‘Ultimately Bobby Sands’ life effectively marks the end of the tradition of armed struggle because what he said is: There is no justification or need to kill people.’
This is simply not true. The Bobby Sands with whom I lived for three years on the blanket protest was committed to the armed struggle tradition; he never, during any of his talks with his fellow-prisoners, gave the impression that he viewed constitutional politics as a viable alternative to armed struggle: he was a committed IRA man, with all its attendant violence.
He died believing that his death would enhance the armed struggle, not diminish it.
Moreover, he had absolutely no idea that his death would lead to the peace process. If he had known, I doubt if he would have given his life so freely.
Despite Byrne’s attempt to strike a balance by giving anti-republicans a wide platform, this film is about a republican who died on hunger strike and his testimony. There is skilful use of animation, historical newsreels, and an excreta-covered, H-Block prison cell, complete with two men covered with blankets and lying on dirty mattresses on the floor.
A powerful rendition of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike diary from actor, Martin McCann leaves one with a feeling of utter helplessness, as does Mrs Sands being interviewed beside a van outside Long Kesh where she tells the world that her son is dying and, holding back her tears, appeals for no violence when he dies.
This is a film that people should go and view if for no other reason than that it has very coherent insights into Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, from both sides of the argument. It is also thought-provoking.
And always, at the back of my mind as I was watching this movie, is the question: Was it worth it? It pains me to say that I don’t think it was.
“Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”
Given to his daughter Nora Connolly on eve of his murder by the British.
To the Field General Court Martial, held at Dublin Castle, on May 9th, 1916:
I do not wish to make any defence except against charges of wanton cruelty to prisoners. These trifling allegations that have been made, if they record facts that really happened deal only with the almost unavoidable incidents of a hurried uprising against long established authority, and nowhere show evidence of set purpose to wantonly injure unarmed persons.
We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believed that the call we then issued to the people of Ireland, was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any call issued to them during this war, having any connection with the war. We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe.
Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.
I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives if need be.
Commandant-General, Dublin Division,
Army of the Irish Republic
In Ireland at the present time there are at work a variety of agencies seeking to preserve the national sentiment in the hearts of the people.
These agencies, whether Irish Language movements, Literary Societies or Commemoration Committees, are undoubtedly doing a work of lasting benefit to this country in helping to save from extinction the precious racial and national history, language and characteristics of our people.
Nevertheless, there is a danger that by too strict an adherence to their present methods of propaganda, and consequent neglect of vital living issues, they may only succeed in stereotyping our historical studies into a worship of the past, or crystallising nationalism into a tradition – glorious and heroic indeed, but still only a tradition.
Now traditions may, and frequently do, provide materials for a glorious martyrdom, but can never be strong enough to ride the storm of a successful revolution.
If the national movement of our day is not merely to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history, it must show itself capable of rising to the exigencies of the moment.
It must demonstrate to the people of Ireland that our nationalism is not merely a morbid idealising of the past, but is also capable of formulating a distinct and definite answer to the problems of the present and a political and economic creed capable of adjustment to the wants of the future.
This concrete political and social ideal will best be supplied, I believe, by the frank acceptance on the part of all earnest nationalists of The Republic as their goal.
Not a Republic, as in France, where a capitalist monarchy with an elective head parodies the constitutional abortions of England, and in open alliance with the Muscovite despotism brazenly flaunts its apostasy to the traditions of the Revolution.
Not a Republic as in the United States, where the power of the purse has established a new tyranny under the forms of freedom; where, one hundred years after the feet of the last British red-coat polluted the streets of Boston, British landlords and financiers impose upon American citizens a servitude compared with which the tax of pre-Revolution days was a mere trifle.
No! The Republic I would wish our fellow-countrymen to set before them as their ideal should be of such a character that the mere mention of its name would at all times serve as a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land, at all times holding forth promise of freedom and plenteousness as the reward of their efforts on its behalf.
To the tenant farmer, ground between landlordism on the one hand and American competition on the other, as between the upper and the nether millstone; to the wage-workers in the towns, suffering from the exactions of the slave-driving capitalist to the agricultural labourer, toiling away his life for a wage barely sufficient to keep body and soul together; in fact to every one of the toiling millions upon whose misery the outwardly-splendid fabric of our modern civilisation is reared, the Irish Republic might be made a word to conjure with – a rallying point for the disaffected, a haven for the oppressed, a point of departure for the Socialist, enthusiastic in the cause of human freedom.
This linking together of our national aspirations with the hopes of the men and women who have raised the standard of revolt against that system of capitalism and landlordism, of which the British Empire is the most aggressive type and resolute defender, should not, in any sense, import an element of discord into the ranks of earnest nationalists, and would serve to place us in touch with fresh reservoirs of moral and physical strength sufficient to lift the cause of Ireland to a more commanding position than it has occupied since the day of Benburb.
It may be pleaded that the ideal of a Socialist Republic, implying, as it does, a complete political and economic revolution would be sure to alienate all our middle-class and aristocratic supporters, who would dread the loss of their property and privileges.
What does this objection mean? That we must conciliate the privileged classes in Ireland!
But you can only disarm their hostility by assuring them that in a free Ireland their ‘privileges’ will not be interfered with. That is to say, you must guarantee that when Ireland is free of foreign domination, the green-coated Irish soldiers will guard the fraudulent gains of capitalist and landlord from ‘the thin hands of the poor’ just as remorselessly and just as effectually as the scarlet-coated emissaries of England do today.
On no other basis will the classes unite with you. Do you expect the masses to fight for this ideal?
When you talk of freeing Ireland, do you only mean the chemical elements which compose the soil of Ireland? Or is it the Irish people you mean? If the latter, from what do you propose to free them? From the rule of England?
But all systems of political administration or governmental machinery are but the reflex of the economic forms which underlie them.
English rule in England is but the symbol of the fact that English conquerors in the past forced upon this country a property system founded upon spoliation, fraud and murder: that, as the present-day exercise of the ‘rights of property’ so originated involves the continual practice of legalised spoliation and fraud, English rule is found to be the most suitable form of government by which the spoliation can be protected, and an English army the most pliant tool with which to execute judicial murder when the fears of the propertied classes demand it.
The Socialist who would destroy, root and branch, the whole brutally materialistic system of civilisation, which like the English language we have adopted as our own, is, I hold, a far more deadly foe to English rule and tutelage, than the superficial thinker who imagines it possible to reconcile Irish freedom with those insidious but disastrous forms of economic subjection – landlord tyranny, capitalist fraud and unclean usury; baneful fruits of the Norman Conquest, the unholy trinity, of which Strongbow and Diarmuid MacMurchadha – Norman thief and Irish traitor – were the fitting precursors and apostles.
If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.
England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.
England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed.
Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.
It would be tantamount to a public declaration that our oppressors had so far succeeded in inoculating us with their perverted conceptions of justice and morality that we had finally decided to accept those conceptions as our own, and no longer needed an alien army to force them upon us.
As a Socialist I am prepared to do all one man can do to achieve for our motherland her rightful heritage – independence; but if you ask me to abate one jot or tittle of the claims of social justice, in order to conciliate the privileged classes, then I must decline.
Such action would be neither honourable nor feasible. Let us never forget that he never reaches Heaven who marches thither in the company of the Devil.
Let us openly proclaim our faith: the logic of events is with us.
Yesterday marked a historic event in world politics; two great heroes of the revolutionary struggle – Ho Chi Min, who led the Viet Cong forces to victory over American imperialism in Vietnam; and Malcolm X, who defined the struggle of Black America against oppression – shared a birthday, separated by 35 years, on 19th May.
We remember them both with pride and awe.
Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, also met Prince Charles Battenburg (Mountbatten) Windsor, the heir to the British throne… 19th May, 2015, Galway, Ireland.
Malcolm X describes the difference between the ‘House Negro’ and the ‘Field Negro’…
Transcribed text from audio excerpt.
“So you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called “Uncle Tom.” He was the House Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the House Negro and the Field Negro.
“The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house–probably in the basement or the attic–but he still lived in the master’s house.
“So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.”“We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.
“But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses – the field Negroes were the masses – they were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.
“If someone came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” naturally that Uncle Tom would say, “Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?” That’s the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” he wouldn’t even ask you where or how. He’d say, “Yes, let’s go.” And that one ended right there.
So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He’s just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was 100 and 200 years ago. Only he’s a modern Uncle Tom. That Uncle Tom wore a handkerchief around his head. This Uncle Tom wears a top hat. He’s sharp. He dresses just like you do. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. He tries to speak it better than you do. He speaks with the same accents, same diction. And when you say, “your army,” he says, “our army.” He hasn’t got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say “we” he says “we.”
“Our president,” “our government,” “our Senate,” “our congressmen,” “our this and our that.” And he hasn’t even got a seat in that “our” even at the end of the line. So this is the twentieth-century Negro. Whenever you say “you,” the personal pronoun in the singular or in the plural, he uses it right along with you. When you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, we’re in trouble.”
But there’s another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, you’re in trouble.” [Laughter] He doesn’t identify himself with your plight whatsoever.
SOURCE: X, Malcolm. “The Race Problem.” African Students Association and NAACP Campus Chapter. Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963.
A short time ago I was asked by TAL’s editor if I would consider writing a short piece about Brendan Hughes. As readers of TAL will doubtless be aware Brendan Hughes figures prominently in the narrative of modern Irish Republicanism, and much has already been said and written about him. What else, I pondered, might usefully be added to the wealth of material that already exists? Moreover, there is a sense in which the effort to recollect causes much more pain than pleasure. Why inflict more discomfort by revisiting the past? Perhaps it would be far better to press on without glancing backwards.
As it turns out Talman posited the question at precisely the right time because recent events have made remembering an obligation for anyone who claims to profess adherence to the Republican creed. It is not the gradual and insidious elision from principled armed resistance to pragmatic parliamentary politics that has precipitated my desire to comment, although that particular, sorry story is shameful enough – it has been the careless vitriol recently directed toward Brendan himself by people who should know better. The leader of Sinn Fein, not content with presiding over the somnambulant drift of his party into the arms of the British state, recently saw fit to describe Brendan Hughes as a “liar”. Indeed, certain individuals via contributions to social networks and assorted websites (I will not dignify them with a name) have even suggested that Volunteer Brendan Hughes was an informer! A perfect moment, therefore, to reflect on the personality of the man himself.
I will not dwell on the biographical detail of Brendan Hughes’ life and the contribution he made in the effort to free Ireland from imperialism and oppression. That information is a matter of fact and public record. Not even the pro-Unionist “Republicans” ensconced safely in Stormont could seriously cast doubt on his credentials as an armed volunteer. The people of west Belfast and across the occupied north were well aware that if even half of the folk-tales were true about Brendan, then he was a volunteer to be reckoned with, and to be remembered in the same breath as Bobby Sands. This is not the substance of my modest intervention. I am writing to tell you something of the man I knew, who stayed in my house, who laughed with us, debated with us, and the man whose coffin I helped carry around the narrow streets of Belfast. I considered the “Dark” a good friend and comrade.
Yet we need to be brutally clear and honest in our assessment – Brendan was a man with faults and frailties, and he wrestled with his conscience over decisions that would have destroyed lesser men. He made mistakes too, as all human beings have. The crucial point, however, is that Brendan would have recognised those weaknesses and acknowledged them. It may seem slightly odd to emphasise this observation. Why would I focus upon this aspect of his character, when there are so many tales to be told about fighting “Brits” and attacking the forces of the state? I could recount many, and a few would provide ample evidence to confirm the old aphorism that fact is far stranger than fiction. Many of these incidents and events have been recorded for posterity for the benefit of future generations. So why not make an icon of a man who, as much as anyone, is deserving of retrospective veneration? Why not allow the reputation of Brendan Hughes the IRA Commander to evolve into another cult of the Republican soldier? There are several inter-related reasons why great care should be taken over how his legacy is handled.
Firstly, Brendan would not have wanted a celebration of his deeds. He was clearly aware that the manipulation of commemorations could serve a variety of purposes, not all of which would be endorsed by those who were being commemorated. Moreover, turning “the Dark” into a “fallen soldier” to be worshipped as such would seriously diminish and distort the nature of the politics which underpinned his contribution to the Republican struggle.
Politics should take priority in any account of Brendan Hughes. “Darkie” was an unreconstructed and unrepentant class warrior, and as such he did not fight for a utopian united Ireland as some kind of mystical national entity which would somehow automatically resolve all social, political and economic contradictions. Che Guevara mattered much more than Cuchalain and “the Dark” had his eyes focused firmly on a further horizon, his vision fixed – the Republic would be egalitarian or it would be lost. People may not be aware that one of Brendan’s bitterest disputes with Sinn Fein was about the pay of building workers in Belfast. The fate of ordinary working class people, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, formed the very epicentre of his perspective on the world. Securing a living wage, decent housing and quality healthcare for everyone were the focus of his attention, rather than the misty and maudlin fixations of “mother Ireland”. Portraying Brendan as anything other than a man of the people would be a gross distortion of historical reality, and a sad betrayal of his political legacy. He believed in ordinary people, and he belonged to them alone.
Secondly, Brendan Hughes knew that violence should only ever be tactic (not a principle), and the glorification of war is, at best, unseemly. Brendan was a gentle man, despite having a righteous temper, and would only ever countenance the use of an armed strategy in the service of the noblest ideals, against the rich and powerful. He would never have sanctioned the use of violence to intimidate the weak, unlike some who have used the epithet “soldier” or “freedom fighter” to obscure the evil essence of their malevolent misdeeds. Brendan Hughes was not a bully. It might also be added, nevertheless, that Brendan would never have traded the right to resist as a bargaining chip in a tawdry compromise with the bitterest of political enemies. Brendan may have been a reluctant soldier, but he was not a fool.
The other related point of identifying and emphasising very clearly Brendan’s own capacity for critical self-reflection is this – he was an honest man. If he made a mistake he was prepared to acknowledge it. In that sense he had the humility of a fallible human being trying, as we all are, to do what is best in onerous circumstances. He also accepted other people as they were, with all their faults, and was hugely generous in giving his time and consideration to others. He was never arrogant or self-obsessed, and incredibly diffident – despite the fact that he had very little to be modest about. Brendan was generous, decent and honourable. This is why the accusation of deliberate duplicity is so utterly grotesque – the very word “liar” as applied to “Darkie” Hughes should choke those who have the temerity to deploy it against him. Men who have compromised, conceded the moral high ground and capitulated to the enemy now make accusations that would never, ever have been made to Brendan’s face. Such accusations are a desperate and despicable ploy to destroy the reputation of a principled political adversary. The suggestion that Brendan’s so-called “demons” somehow invalidate his ideological perspective is not only specious, it is the work of the most unscrupulous gombeens, a cheap and spurious knave’s trick designed to deflect attention from his legitimate critique of Sinn Fein. But the political ideas expressed by Brendan will not be marginalised by the self-serving insinuations of those mercenaries who are now content to administer British rule on behalf of businessmen and bankers. If the firing squad in Kilmainham jail could not silence James Connolly, then the political assassins who now take aim at the reputation of “Darkie” Hughes will have to think again.
In many ways now, as the consensus constructed around Sinn Fein’s “peace strategy” begins to crumble, the people who perpetrate this foul calumny are more to be pitied than scorned. Their project is being progressively dismantled. Nevertheless, those people who remain committed to the path of pro-Union constitutionalism should seriously reflect on the nature of a leadership which is willing to do such a wretched dis-service to the memory of a good man. Of course those who have led the strategy have far too much to lose by retracting their vile revisionism. To concede that the calculated character assassination of Hughes is morally reprehensible would cast considerable doubt on the rest of the story they have cynically concocted to justify their discredited political strategy. Feeble men – it must be cold for them, standing there in his shadow.
When I think of Brendan I recognise neither the “warrior” icon of Republican mythology, nor the cruel misrepresentations cast by his political opponents. I remember a person of the utmost integrity, but also an activist full of passion for the pursuit of a political ideal that some of us steadfastly refuse to relinquish. His enemies will never be able to degrade his reputation because, to paraphrase Bobby Sands, they can call him whatever they want – the people call him a man!
And I would take the opportunity to make one final point to the politically motivated purveyors of half-truth and crass distortion – if you take issue with him, then you take issue with us all. We will not be silent, because the “wee Dark” still walks among us…