The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Tommy Gorman, Radical Thought

The Tom and Vita Cox Memorial Award

Anthony McIntyre • 3 August 2004

When Tommy Gorman first told me about a week ago that he was to receive an award for pushing radical ideas under the auspices of the West Belfast Festival, I thought he was joking. So too did others. One man I spoke to yesterday said, 'Gorman is mixing', when I enquired of him would he be going to today's presentation of the Tom Cox Memorial Award at Conway Mill. West Belfast being the capital of censorship on the island, it is understandable that few believe that there are prizes given out here to those who promote freedom of opinion. It is not that long ago since the stupid white men (and women) swarmed like George Romero's undead outside Tommy Gorman's home in a bid to muzzle him and have him conform to their bizarre beliefs. Yet it was true, he had indeed been selected for an award.

Having it confirmed did little to attenuate my sense of amazement. While books are routinely launched during the festival and their authors are competent, they are not normally what would be viewed as the outflow from independent minds. The individual perspective of their creators rarely appears out of step with the orthodoxy. For all their literary acumen they tend not to raise questions of the established inequitable order that currently prevails in West Belfast. Moreover, many are invited from near and far to speak or sit on discussion panels - including the unionists. But those real life denizens who actually reside in West Belfast, are republican, and who do not support the party of the local MP, seem never to feature on the lists of those asked to contribute. Conformity opens doors in West Belfast. The rewards and sanctions system maintains the hierarchical order of things. Those who think independently must always swim against the tide and risk being marooned by tidal waves of resentment. This makes this year's Tom Cox Memorial Award all the more significant.

The award that Tommy Gorman received has its origins in the human rights advocacy of Tom and Vita Cox. At today's presentation Des Wilson explained something of the background to this US couple. It was their belief that the struggle for human rights in Ireland was a beginning not an end. They encouraged people to think outside the narrow groove. In keeping faith with their own commitment to the promotion of radicalism they set aside some money to underwrite acknowledgement of the work carried out by radicals. Springhill Community House was nominated to 'talent spot' and arbitrate in the event of a photo finish. On his death bed Tom Cox told Des Wilson, 'tell the people to keep the faith.' Catholicism wasn't the faith he was referring to either. It was faith in the human intellect to think autonomously, to kick aside the suffocating boundaries of censorship.

Tom Cox was a prolific writer, producing many plays and books throughout his life. He crafted books on Erskine Childers, Michael Collins and on Fenian prisoners in British jails. He also gave of his considerable energy to press for the truth behind the 1984 RUC killing of Sean Downes. In the late 1990s Springhill Community House began its work of presenting the Tom Cox Memorial Award.

Before announcing that this year’s choice was Tommy Gorman, Des Wilson gave the audience a glimpse into the life of the Lenadoon republican who has steadfastly refused to be cowered either by the British or by West Belfast orthodoxy which seeks to conceal the paucity of its own position by suppressing those who might by their commitment to openness expose it as threadbare. I was honoured to sit in an audience gathered to pay tribute to this republican activist. I have known him for 26 years, first meeting him on the Blanket protest in H4 in 1978. I had known of him for much longer - his 'wanted' boyish face gazing out from our television screens as the British state launched a massive manhunt for him and six of his comrades after they had swam to freedom from the Maidstone in 1972.

Freedom was always central to the being of Tommy Gorman. Not merely freedom from prison walls and the panoptical gaze of British security installations, but freedom from those insidious and invasive techniques of mind control. The standard line on anything was never something to be swallowed by him. When others on protest were saying 'political status is just the other side of the hill' because some communication came around from the camp leadership saying so, Tommy never failed to show that the hill was a steep mountain. It could be crossed okay, but not on faith alone.

Des Wilson referred to Tommy's exploits including his prison escape. He then switched track and spoke of his work in promoting cross community relations at a time when it was not in vogue. For this Tommy was called 'half a Prod' and derided by others. But of real significance were Des Wilson's comments in relation to the unpopular stance taken by the Lenadoon republican when it came to the politics of the peace process. From the outset Tommy raised the questions that few wanted to hear. On the day that the Provisional IRA ceasefire was announced in August 1994, he rang Bernadette McAliskey to endorse her comments that 'the good guys lost.' An hour later he declined to go to the flag waving farce through West Belfast. There was nothing to celebrate. It was a mere exercise in fanning away the whiff of defeat through the vigorous waving of tricolours. That is more clear ten years after the event than it was at the time as is evidenced from recent comments by Gerry Adams that 'the British state in the North is a unionist state. Its symbols and emblems are unionist. So are its agencies. And its management.' With that as backdrop it comes as no great shock to learn that Tommy Gorman has challenged the logic of a process that has bequeathed this to us.

When it was his own turn to take the podium he, in a voice laden with emotion, expounded on his attitude to the unfettered expression of ideas. Refuting any suggestion that people should prostrate themselves at the altar of Francis Fukuyama who proclaims the end of history and the eternal hegemony of liberal economics, he called for more sustained efforts to widen debate and to respect a multiplicity of voices: 'If you see something that is wrong, speak out and suffer the consequences.' This is asking a lot from those more inclined to believe the exact opposite of what they believed twenty four hours earlier merely because some leader hit the reverse switch in the back of their necks.

Those who chose to make this award to Tommy Gorman deserve every praise. It takes courage to reach out to the margins and engage with those there rather than seek to draw them into the centre on the terms of the centre. It would have been much easier for Des Wilson and his colleagues to have opted for a safe writer, one who never strays from the comfort zone of the peace process and uses the pen to smudge rather than construct accuracy.

In the audience were members of Tommy's family who shared his burden over the decades. They experienced his prolonged absences while he sat in his second home in Long Kesh. They watched his isolation and ostracism. They heard the whispering campaigns. His wife Anne faced the wrath of the undead gathering outside the family home to protest their opposition to truth. She knows only too well the averted eye contact, the silences and the myriad expressions of disapproval from those who pronounce 'there shall be no alternative to us.' Today's award acknowledges their support and loyalty throughout Tommy's challenging political life. His fellow writer Jim McCann was also there today. McCann would hardly agree with Gorman's take on political events but he found it within himself to acknowledge the validity of differing perspectives. By contrast, outside the hall were people who had served time alongside Tommy Gorman in the H-Blocks but who for one reason or another decided not to stray off course by stepping over the threshold into a room where diversity was lauded.

On the drive home I asked Tommy how he felt.

I am overwhelmed. When does anybody ever give people like ourselves prizes for showing that there are opinions other than the official one? I am honoured to have received it from Des. It is all the more special for that.

Tommy Gorman's retention of the rough edges that imbued him with radicalism, spurned him into opposing censorship and challenging despots are the very qualities that any radical project should extol and value. Who benefits but the powerful when such accoutrements are buffed and polished into mediocre conformity by the peace process? Tommy Gorman's contribution to critical discourse has brought him into conflict with conservative forces whether of the British state, unionism or the current conservative nationalist status quo. Yet his endeavours in pushing at the boundaries have been a powerful intellectual analeptic which at all times functioned as the antidote to the mind numbing sedatives so lavishly applied to the thought processes in West Belfast. In this sense it will never be said that his award was a backhander for silences rendered.







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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

4 August 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Tommy Gorman, Radical Thought
Anthony McIntyre

The UnHung Hero
Dolours Price

State Republicans and Totalitarian States
Kathleen O Halloran

Informers Everywhere
Mick Hall

Now Here's A Political Platform
Fred A Wilcox

Political Theatre
Danielle Ni Dhighe

Energy Crisis in Argentina, FTAA Goes One Game Up
Víctor Ego Ducrot and Martín Waserman
translated by Toni Solo

30 July 2004

Summertime and the living is easy...
Eamon Sweeney

The Strip
Anthony McIntyre

The Provisionals: A Repeat of History
Liam O Comain

Free Seamus Doherty
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA

Sartre Review
Liam O Ruairc

Bollix: Barriers and Borders
Matthew Kavanah



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