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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A Socialist In West Belfast

Anthony McIntyre • 8 August 2004

One of the more prestigious annual political events of the West Belfast Festival is the Frank Cahill memorial lecture. Despite the oppressive humidity of the evening, the hall in St Mary’s College where Arthur Scargill was delivering this year’s lecture was bunged. A friend in England later told me on the phone that it would no longer be possible for the NUM leader to fill a hall like that in Britain. The radical tide is out in many places it seems. Social democrats and Conservatives have the field to themselves. And neither school is primarily concerned with the eradication of inequality. Some such as Michael McDowell call for even more of it – it being the engine of progress in his neo-liberal view of the world.

The last time ‘King Arthur’ addressed a Belfast audience I went along. In terms of the British state Scargill remains an unapologetic recusant. It, the courts, media, and police have all traduced him. Reason enough to feel affinity. Accompanied then as now by Tommy Gorman, it was just a matter of months ago and the hall was packed also. That evening a socialist introduced the fiery miner. In St Mary’s it was the turn of a nationalist; Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, kicked off proceedings. Although often ribbed about his lack of fluency in the Irish language, he spoke effortlessly in the Gaelic tongue before going on to repeat it in English. The main theme of his brief introduction was to illustrate, through reference to the work of Brigadier Frank Kitson, the highly integrated composition of British state counterinsurgency strategy towards working class resistance. Adams sought to show common purpose between the struggle of the miners in Britain and republicans in Ireland.

Certainly a gelling factor was the shared hatred of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In 1984 while Scargill and the miners were trying to bring her to her knees by strike action republicans were trying to blast her into eternity. One of the stories to emerge from the era is that some miners who had lost their jobs were later retrained and recruited into the prison service. One man in their keep was Pat Magee who was convicted of trying to kill Thatcher. It is said that they treated him with the respect reserved for a comrade. If true, a fitting symbiosis of two struggles.

I was more impressed with Scargill last time I heard him than I was at St Mary’s. Perhaps, speaking to nationalists tempers the sharpness of the critique. There are fewer feathers to ruffle when advocating socialism in front of other socialists. In Transport Hall in May he seemed less concerned about the prejudices of his audience and delivered a no-holds barred address. In West Belfast, I sensed he was on his guard in case he said anything too radical that might make his Sinn Fein hosts look uncomfortable. He restricted himself to telling the story of the miners’ strike and kept his polemics against capitalism so generalised that even the nationalist party could applaud what he had to say.

There was no mention of the Sinn Fein managed assault by profiteers via the Private Finance Initiative on our health and education services. And for one with a long history of immersion in trade union struggles, it seemed out of place that he should be introduced to his audience by the leader of a party with links to Chuck Feeney who made his many millions by securing the franchise on a range of duty free shopping concerns across the world’s airports in which unionised labour was banned. I wondered also if Scargill was aware that while his fellow trade unionists were being murdered in Colombia because of their fight against Coca Cola, attempts to organise a solidarity campaign in Ireland were undermined by one of Sinn Fein’s leading figures, Anne Speed. She led the reactionary charge against the students of UCD who wanted to boycott Coca Cola’s products. Even when Scargill broached the current topical international concern, and thundered against the war in Iraq, he raised not an eyebrow in admonishment of the Sinn Fein president for having openly refused to protest the recent visit to Ireland by George Bush.

No matter what some may have hoped for or had a right to expect, Arthur Scargill was never going to sail too close to the issue of trade unionism in West Belfast. For the Yorkshire Marxist to have properly grasped the nettle he would have found himself in conflict with his hosts. The suppression of trade union activity is inseparable from the issue of gangster capitalism in West Belfast. Nevertheless, the most notorious firm of construction sharks imaginable were given the contract to build the Sinn Fein offices on the Falls Road and the offices of the Andersonstown News on Hannahstown Hill. This firm has long exploited people the length and breadth of West Belfast, refused to allow unionisation amongst its workforce, forced workers to labour in the rain without the aid of wet suits – the alternative was the sack on the spot. For their labour they were often paid £2 an hour. Yet both Sinn Fein and the management of the Andersonstown News knew all this before they contracted the work out. And try as they might there is no evading culpability. There had been a litany of complaints stretching back years concerning this particular building firm. Sinn Fein councillors and leading party members openly and actively lobbied against exposure of its activities. An Phoblacht/Republican News with typical lack of fortitude suppressed reporting on the matter.

What then is the purpose in bringing Arthur Scargill to West Belfast? It is to allow Sinn Fein to disguise itself in the clothing of such an anti-systemic character, when in fact the party has become everything Scargill has spurned. Sinn Fein, cuckoo-like, wishes to build radical credentials in the nest of Arthur Scargill because it no longer has a radical nest of its own. Bob Pitt, a Marxist in the British Labour Party, in the 1990s criticised Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party because it had a Stalinist style constitution barring from membership "individuals and organisations" who engage in "the promotion of policies in opposition to those of the Party". Maybe now we are beginning to approach an understanding of what Sinn Fein and Arthur Scargill have in common. There is little else.







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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

8 August 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

An Ireland of Equals!
Kathleen O Halloran

A Socialist in West Belfast
Anthony McIntyre

A Living Tapestry of Tongues
Sean Fleming

Paranoia is Healthy: Michael O'Connell's Right Wing Ireland?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

'The Labor of Reading'
Liam O Ruairc

Seamus Costello, Joe McCann and myself...
Liam O Comain

Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?
Cecilie Surasky

4 August 2004

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



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