The Blanket

It Was Our First World War Too, You Know

Anthony McIntyre

Voltaire once prayed ‘Oh Lord make my enemies ridiculous’. If Sinn Fein were to have been among those enemies then his prayers were answered. The party laying wreaths at Belfast City Hall to honour the dead storm troopers of British Imperialism at the battle of the Somme brought a wry smile to the face of many. Nothing was seen like it in Belfast republicanism since party members assembled outside the UUP headquarters in Glengall Street a couple of years back to roar something about maintaining Stormont after Trimble was threatening to bring it down. It seemed at the time the type of thing that ought to have been done on red nose day but not as a serious political protest.

Their own embarrassment at the time was evident. Some I talked to sensed they would never be taken seriously again and tried to blame it, very unfairly, on Jim Gibney. ‘It was his idea’ they mumbled by way of explanation, ’even Gerry Adams thought we were idiots’. Adams may have thought that just as Gibney may have devised the scheme but when it was pointed out to those who took part that they still did not have to go, they shifted uncomfortably indicating that there were other things they would rather talk about. The truth was that they were just the type who would always do what they were told and who would flock back down in the morning if asked to, and then blame Jim Gibney after it. Gibney at least, if responsible, would stand over it and provide some explanation for it. Just as he did on this occasion when he wrote a piece covering the event.

As for the City Hall spectacle there is little to be found in the republican tradition but plenty in the Redmondite one that would support it. This became all the more evident when endorsement was sought from outside the tradition. DNA defying claims were made as all manner of dead grandfathers, great uncles and distant ancestral half cousins were being pulled out as those seeking reason to support the line rather than show any evidence that they really believed it sought to justify the latest ‘revolutionary’ shift. At one time it was Irish Soccer managers who spent their time discovering tenuous family connections to justify their squad make-up and producing such quintessentially Irish stars as Vinny O’Jones.

I am relieved that my old friend, the former Sinn Fein councillor Sean Hayes did not suffer the indignity of having to perform the shameful shuffle and pretend that some aunt‘s great uncle’s step-brother’s half-nephew fought at the Somme to get a better deal for Ireland. Already carrying the mark of Glengall Street he has since been put out to graze in order to allow Alex Maskey to take a South Belfast council seat. Some clouds do, at least, have that silver lining.

It is merely decent and common courtesy to be alert to the sensitivity of people revering the memories of those who are deceased. And in that sense there is nothing wrong with honouring the dead in a personal capacity. But it is a different matter to honour them by way of a political spectacle if the actions which led to their dying were anathema to the political values which we hold. Would we honour the Waffen SS, the butchers of Sabra and Chatilla or Lennie Murphy? (Although this is not to equate those who died at the Somme with the war criminals just mentioned). And why have republicans never honoured the Gardai whose claim to have died for Ireland over the past thirty years is considerably stronger that that of those who perished at the Somme? No, we would rather bob and weave when pressed regarding the events surrounding their deaths.

It is plainly not the fact of dying that was being honoured at the City Hall otherwise all the dead would be commemorated there and elsewhere. In the area where I live some people go to great lengths to ensure that the dead they do not approve of are not honoured. It is the cause for which this particular set of dead forfeited their lives which has allowed them to be placed on a pantheon. And that pantheon can not be disinvested of the meaning behind its construction. Put at its starkest they died to keep Africa white and British.

Those dead being honoured are no more honourable now than they were a couple of years ago. But when Tom Hartley turned up at some commemoration he was subjected to internal party ridicule and backbiting of the worst possible sort. Yet he was a mere stalking goat tethered to some tomb stone in order to draw the fangs of the critics. Little mention was made of the fact that Hartley (along with Gibney) had to his credit for years been trying to reach out to the unionist community in a genuine way. There were few votes in that. But then Hartley does pound the streets in the rain nowhere near election time (when the "once a term" men and women usually turn up), calling on constituents to take their complaints about broken spouting. Maybe because he may genuinely believe he is there for his constituents rather than they being there for him we will not see any meteoric rise up the party ranks for him.

Leading his band of merry councillors up the garden path to lay the wreath I sensed that Alex Maskey only had to raise his hand to scratch his head and the rest of them, misinterpreting his action, would have saluted the monument, such is the pervasiveness of sheepish uniformity. Although one female councillor looked as if she was on the verge of shouting ‘hallelujah’, many seemed distinctly uneasy. There was a sense of ‘we know we should not be here but Comrade Napoleon says we must and Comrade Napoleon is always right’. Although Comrade Napoleon managed not to be there. Yet none broke ranks. The sad thing is that amongst those who formed ranks are some radically minded people not exactly endeared to the party’s lurch to the right. But obedience rather than critique has the call.

Sinn Fein did not go to the City Hall to lay wreaths because they had a sudden change of heart, or as a result of Alex Maskey seeking to represent all the people of this city. Nor was it about being sensitive toward the unionist community. The party went because it is fast becoming the Catholic establishment party. And turning up at such things is exactly what the Catholic establishment expects. Furthermore, a deeper strategic rationale is that the party wants to convey a sense of confidence in its own strategy to the unionists thus disconcerting the latter - never that hard to do. If republicans appear at ease doing what they had previously bombed others while doing and present it as magnanimous then elements within unionism can go into a tail spin. They have this strange ability to see a white flag just as a bull would a red one.

One positive aspect of the affair was that those honouring the imperialist dead walked away after the ceremony. Nobody from the physical force IRAs detonated a bomb against the ‘British war machine’ and blamed it on electronic signals deliberately sent by the securocrats as was done in Enniskillen in 1987. And there was little disagreeable to be found in the comments of a long time republican yesterday when he said ‘better that they pretend to mourn than to blow up those who genuinely mourn’. That alone is more significant than the rest of the waffle the public have had spewed at them in the past week or so.

Overlooked in the commentary on this weeks events was the courageous and imaginative ways in which some are seeking to find new ways of describing somersaults in terms other than ‘courageous and imaginative’. Jim Gibney opted for ‘bold and correct’; Danny Morrison preferring ‘controversial and unprecedented‘; Mary Holland clearly sick of the unimaginative way of saying ‘imaginative’ used ‘difficult and brave‘. A goldmine for the wordsmiths - watch how many permutations we get out of those six words over the next year.



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The person who stands up and says, ``This is stupid,'' either is asked to `behave' or, worse, is greeted with a cheerful ``Yes, we know! Isn't it terrific!"
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

7 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


It Was Our First World War Too, You know

Anthony McIntyre


No To Isolation

Trade And Employees' Unions and TMMOB


The Orange Relic
Sean O Lubaigh

Remember the Dishonour

Davy Carlin

Danny Myers


4 July 2002


Is Class Politics a Possibility?

Billy Mitchell


What Values Drive Irish Republicanism Today?
Paul Fitzsimmons

Ministers of Silly Words

Anthony McIntyre

Has the Peace Process Delivered?
Davy Carlin




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