The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
University Challenge
Seaghán Ó Murchú • 12.12.03

I’ve been mulling over Mick Hall’s observation, from his 30.11.03 article ‘Doing Well for Themselves Alone’ about Sinn Féin’s recent tendency to back formally educated representatives. Hall notes: Sinn Fein's younger activists and those chosen to be electoral candidates increasingly come from lower-middle or middle class backgrounds like the SDLP. Having had University educations like their counterparts in the SDLP, when at one time it was a proud boast of SF that there was not a degree amongst its leadership. Apart from, that is, revolutionary studies, awarded by the University of Long Kesh.

From a working-class family myself, I’ve always suspected those who romanticize the proletariat or those who criticise those with degrees. And vice-versa. I received government grants for ‘low-income’ students. I achieved the first (and only) degrees in my family. My teaching in the inner-city and now at an urban institution full of first-generation degree earners has been to serve that same demographic. I sympathise with Hall’s thesis, pointing out the danger in SF’s members following the path of SDLP. Mark Ryan in his book nearly a decade ago, War and Peace in Ireland, prophesied that the Shinners would wind up as the ‘radical wing of the SDLP’. And, Ryan, Hall, and I would agree, the ‘radical’ qualifier itself might be the only part of the prediction that has (or will) not come to pass.

Radicalism does diminish with education for many students, as they distance themselves from the dirty work and pursue high-tech. This may be inevitable, lament it though we do. If you’re from a poorer family, the money’s not to be made as an activist, or for that matter an instructor—as my own family lamented when I chose a doctorate rather than a law degree. I’m unsure, however, if the alternative that Hall and many Blanket readers might wish—that today’s students will necessarily find themselves in solidarity with the trade unions and their own families’ beginnings—can be a given anymore than before. The cruelty of the job market makes their investment in education--and the crippling burden of loans most of my students carry along with jobs and often families to support—a commitment that demands a quick payoff.

Having wearily graded last weekend nearly ninety essays by students at my university (a version of what pre-Thatcher would have been called a polytechnic), I’m reflecting on their stories. They wrote an account of their family’s background relating to technological advancement—how they and their predecessors had or had not benefited from globalisation, mechanisation, immigration to the city; how their cultural attitudes towards such technological change may or may not have contributed to their own choice to pursue a technical or business-based higher degree. I read more than one narrative of escaping from the Khmer Rouge, the Viet Cong, or Marcos’ thugs. Nearly all of the essayists had come from farms—or at least their parents had. Out of the ninety, perhaps two were from landowning families—and these owners were killed by communists.

Now, only decades later, these sons and daughters of fishermen and washerwomen were all finishing university degrees. True, I know that only one of them desires a political career. But, the expectation from the ‘60’s—when students like Bernadette Devlin could for the first time earn a degree—seems to have dimmed. No talk of community service when debts must be paid and incomes generated immediately. These are not students ennobled by the legacy of the liberal arts. They have no ivy-covered halls to stroll chatting Marx or Marcuse with the dons. (I’m the token, full-time but never to be tenured, humanities professor in their numbers-driven, machine-whirring curriculum.) Out of the ninety students, nearly all will leave their parents’ lifestyles behind. I doubt if any of them would want to go back to where they were raised. The careers they choose will draw them elsewhere. That’s part of the whole appeal of their upward mobility, and ironically enough, the hope that their families push them to achieve, often as the first graduates in their household.

I verified, just this week, that my great-uncle represented smallholders in the late ‘40s and early 50’s in the brief heyday of Clann na Talmhan, a tiny party that lasted from 1938-65 which represented farmers in Galway, Mayo, and his own Roscommon. (I know of its rather simple prejudices and its battles with self-proclaimed nationalists and republican veterans who took their titles more seriously than their responsibilities to an economically beleaguered constituency, but that’s another article.) Jack Finan never had a degree when he entered into the Dáil, the Seanad, or the county council. I estimate few in the Dublin government half a century ago had graduated from universities. He and his party colleagues represented people like themselves from nondescript Connacht villages and market towns. Then, as with SF now, grassroots energy boosted their prominence.

In 1943, the CnT gained 10.3 of the popular vote; thirteen seats were filled at Leinster House. But infighting and the difficulty of sustaining a nation-wide expansion of the party meant that subsequent popular vote gains resulted in fewer seats. Although 1948 found the CnT entering the interparty government, its power kept declining. Its working-class members were outmanouevered by savvier FF, Labour, and FG rivals. By 1954’s coalition, the CnT was fading, and its remnants drifted into FG by the mid-60’s. (Luckily, Jack wasn’t around to see this!) Perhaps Jack and his colleagues might have gained more for their floundering but well-intentioned populist movement if they had more negotiating skill and a broader base of knowledge with which to battle the careerists against whom they tried to push their rural-based agenda only to be submerged into first a coalition and then political irrelevance?

Isn’t the claim of class-based activists that the promotion of higher education is crucial to progress and the achievement of a truly equitable system for all? Republicanism aspires to class solidarity and educational advancement—informally in the Kesh when necessary, formally in a more peaceful time—bunscoileanna or QUB (a name change I trust is in the works?) Certainly Anthony McIntyre’s study of ideology or Pat Magee’s thesis on ‘troubles fiction’ serve as valuable reminders that graduates of the University of Revolution can transfer their credits to more traditional establishments and continue to serve both academia and the republican community by their educational pursuits. I’m not saying that any party should neglect its roots, especially when republicans claim allegiance to the streets. But I remind you that university graduates Pearse and McDonagh fought and died along their working- and middle-class comrades. SF, or any other entity claiming republican representation, should be ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally,’ to quote the Proclamation. We all have our part to play, and those with or without degrees can bring their smarts to the same struggle. Leaving out any cadre, we republicans risk sharing the fate of the earnest but unskilled labourers-turned-politicians from Clann na Talmhan.



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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.
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Index: Current Articles

13 December 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Right Road to Power
Anthony McIntyre


University Challenge

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Money Talks
Mick Hall


Bloody Sunday Inquiry
Liam O Comain


Stalemate for the GFA
Paul Mallon


The GFA and Other Fairystories
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh


Dies IRAe
Ruth Dudley Edwards


Conversion of Constantine
Terry O'Neill


Republican Prisoner Attacked in Hydebank YOC



Civil Rights Veterans on Prison Situation
October 5th Association


8 December 2003


Electing to Disagree
Brendan O'Neill


The GFA Revisited

Gerry Ruddy


The Problem With the Kurds
Pedram Moallemian


Even Northern Ireland Has Global Responsibilties
Anthony McIntyre


Rafah Today: The Tent
Mohammed Omer




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