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‘I Am Protest Incarnate’

June 3, 2016 by  

ChekhovJust finished re-reading Vol I of my favourite short story writer, Anton Chekhov, beautifully produced in a four volume illustrated collection by The Folio Society, London. My favourites in this book are The Steppe and Gusev, but particularly Gusev which was written in 1890.

It is set in the sick bay of a ship returning to Russia from the Far East. The main characters are Gusev, a discharged soldier who is delirious and dreams of going home but is dying from tuberculosis, and Paul Ivanovich, a soldier and a proud member of the revolutionary intelligentsia. Both men will die and Gusev accepts his fate but Ivanovich rails against society and injustice and comes off with some powerful lines:

“Yes, I never mince my words, I fear nothing and no one – there’s a vast difference between me and you [Gusev] in this respect. You’re a blind, benighted, downtrodden lot. You see nothing – and what you do see you don’t understand. People tell you the wind’s broken loose from its chain – that you’re cattle, savages. And you believe them. They punch you on the neck – and you kiss their hand. Some animal in a racoon coat robs you, then tips you fifteen copecks – and, ‘Oh, let me kiss your hand, sir,’ you say. You’re pariahs, you’re a pathetic lot, but me – that’s another matter. I live a conscious life, and I see everything as an eagle or hawk sees it, soaring above the earth. I understand it all. I am protest incarnate. If I see tyranny, I protest. If I see a canting hypocrite, I protest. If I see swine triumphant, I protest. I can’t be put down, no Spanish Inquisition can silence me. No sir. Cut out my tongue and I’ll protest in mime. Wall me up in a cellar and I’ll shout so loud, I’ll be heard a mile off. Or, I’ll starve myself to death, and leave that extra weight on their black consciences. Kill me – my ghost will still haunt you. ‘You’re quite insufferable, Paul Ivanovich’ – so say all who know me, and I glory in that reputation. I’ve served three years in the Far East, and I’ll be remembered there for a century. I’ve had rows with everyone. ‘Don’t come back,’ my friends write from European Russia. So I damn well will come back and show them, indeed I will. That’s life, the way I see it – that’s what I call living.”



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The Bloody Somme

May 19, 2016 by  

Somme 1Former soldier and Shankill Road-born Glenn Bradley responds to criticism about an invitation to Martin McGuinness to attend a Somme centenary commemoration, a service at the Ulster Tower in France on July 1. It has also been reported in the media that some veterans are threatening to boycott the service if Martin McGuinness shows up (though clearly these veterans aren’t actual veterans of the Somme since all survivors are now dead).

THERE are moments, as I live here, that I witness crass insensitivity and gross hypocrisy that is so off the scale I actually cringe, grinding my teeth which with my aging body generates jaw pain.

Martin McGuinnessIt’s been happening today, and over the past few days as I read and listen to some reaction regarding the invitation extended to Martin McGuinness MLA, and Deputy First Minister of this State who is invited to attend the 100 year commemorations of the Battle of the Somme.

The self-righteous drivel being spewed by some of the self-appointed guardians of ‘The Somme’ over the last few days is jaw breaking (for me) and so I jot a few notes which, I hope, are beyond propaganda and myth, rising above the political tribalism others wish to wallow in. I thank Danny for the platform.

The Battle of the Somme was fought by the British & French Empires against the German Empire from July to November 1916, and resulted in the death of around 731, 000 British & French soldiers and around 236, 238 German soldiers. Allowing for other casualties, it is fairly safe to state, over 1 million where slaughtered on an industrial scale in five harrowing months: over 1 million!

Citizens from across Ireland, participated in the Battle, largely through their service with the 16th, 36th and 10th Divisions, which recruited across the 32 counties in droves. Amongst those recruited where individuals who’d put their hand up as Irish and Ulster Volunteers, at the time following directions from the respective political leaders of their Movements, to enlist.

It is estimated by leading academics that 25% of the then Ulster Volunteers enlisted; while 31% of the then Irish Volunteers enlisted to the ranks of the British Imperial Army. The Ulster Volunteers supplemented the 36th, while the Irish National Volunteers largely the 10th & 16th though as with any Army individuals and small units cross-transferred or came under the operational control of others.

An estimated 16,000, that is around 2% of the British and French Empire dead killed at the Somme, where Irish from mainly the 36th and 16th divisions. It is a matter of record that the 36th whose courageous but foolhardy charge on the 1st July morn saw almost 5,500, alone, from the Division killed during the opening three days of the Battle (1-3 July 1916), amongst them my great maternal grandfather, and other relatives who where also West Belfast Ulster Volunteers. It’s also a matter of record, that many of the 36th had advanced so far into enemy lines that they became detached from the wider front of the British advance, and where killed, by their own artillery.

It’s a matter of record that the 16th courageously took the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. In doing so the Division lost almost 4,500 men, and gained a reputation as first class shock troops. A reputation that would inflict further heavy casualties on the Division in later battles as they where ‘sent in first’.

There is no doubt that both Divisions wore unregulated sentimental clothing and symbols going into battle. The Germans reported members of the 36th yelling a war cry of “No Surrender” as they swept through the first German lines, shooting and bayonetting their enemy, many in Orange sashes.

The Germans in Ginchy also reported members of the 16th (having captured their objective) continue to chase after fleeing enemy troops yelling “No Kaiser, For Ireland”, many wearing green ribbons.

Nine Victoria Crosses where won for bravery during the Somme and of these four were to members of the 36th (during the Great War 1914-18 there where a total of 32 Irish VC recipients from all 3 Irish Divisions).

Today, the dead of the Somme, lie side by side, irrespective of their Unit, religion, political ideology or allegiance. All died following their orders, some in their service to the then deceit “that small Nations might be free” while others to their notion of camaraderie, friendship or brethren.

None of us, living today, regardless of our own recent violent experience, can actually know the horror of Trench Warfare or the carnage of the Somme.

While many of us today can claim ancestry or heritage to those that fought, it is pathetically sad that some individuals or body of people, now in 2016, attempt to claim they ‘absolutely’ represent all the dead of the Somme or propose the suggestion that some dead are more ‘credible’ than others.

In 2016, it is befitting that all Citizens, born on this Island, from either present jurisdiction and regardless of political aspirations for the future of this place should pause to remember and/or commemorate the Irish contribution to the Imperial Army, because it was huge.

Thus my tuppence worth: as an Irishman hailing from the proud province of Ulster who once also carried a rifle in service to the Crown, it is right, that an invite was sent to the DFM Martin McGuinness MLA to attend the commemoration at the Somme, France, this July 2016. It is correct that political representatives commemorating from any nation reflect the diversity of the dead of that awful battle. Now, in 2016, it is legitimate and perfect sense that all the Irish dead of the Imperial Army are commemorated.
Fág An Bealach!
Glenn Bradley
18th May 2016



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The Gun Inside The TV

March 11, 2016 by  

BOOK COVERIn the early days of the northern conflict, former Lieutenant-Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell was asked for his advice on how to cope with the IRA.

“The weapon I should like to introduce is the gun inside the television camera. I mean, what I’d like to do is to have a machine gun built into every television camera and then say to the IRA ‘Come out and let’s talk’… and then shoot the lot. Hypothetically, if the Prime Minister – it would be the wisest thing he ever did because he would get the thing off his chest – if he said to me tonight, ‘Mitchell, you are going to Ulster to sort this thing out, what do you want? I should say, ‘Well, the first thing I want are full powers (like Harding in Cyprus and Templer in Malaya) and these full powers would be, first of all, the death penalty for carrying arms.”

Mitchell said he would hang republicans in prison or just start shooting them. “…by the time you have knocked off ten, take my word for it, the other ninety will be in Killarney. They’ll go. They can’t stand up to it. So you have solved the problem.”

Mitchell believed that “it was entirely right that the British should rule a large part of the world.”

And almost every part of the world which Britain ruled kicked them out, the natives not appreciating the ‘civilising agenda’ that was their reward for handing over their land, their labour, their oil, their ports, their language and culture to the British.

I don’t know enough about modern Yemen and the current power struggle being played out in the once busiest ‘British’ port of Aden (first occupied in 1839 as a refuelling station for ships heading to India) except that mistrust and old rivalries again have the various groups in Southern Arabia at each other’s throats.

A Sunni President, recognised by the ‘international community’ (usually code for western interests), has been displaced by Shia Houthi rebels. The beleaguered President is supported by Saudi Arabia which has been bombing both civilians and the rebels who are supported by Iran (Saudi Arabia and Iran being the major regional powers). To complicate matters, the President and the Houthis are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which, has long been the subject of a US drone war. To further complicate matters all of the above are opposed by an affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) which seeks to eclipse AQAP.

It’s a nightmare. Just days ago gunmen stormed a Catholic retirement home in Aden, opened fire and killed at least sixteen people, including old people, nuns, cleaning staff and security guards.

The most recent book on Aden has been written by the historian Aaron Edwards (from Belfast). Edwards interviewed me in 2010 and 2012. On the first occasion he was a Visiting Research Fellow in Politics at Queen’s University and was researching the British Army’s information policy in the 1970s and 1980s and the connections between British military operations and political approaches in the colonial contexts of Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and the north of Ireland. On the second occasion he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield and was planning to write a book, with the working title, Britain’s War Against The IRA.

Since then he has become a Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. No surprise therefore that his latest book, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law – Aden And The End Of Empire*, reads as if it is being addressed to British military students.

Although Edwards includes many criticisms of his subject, Lietenant-Colonel Colin Mitchell, Commanding Officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the book is somewhat of an apologia for the controversial officer, who was so controversial (especially over the Crater affair, of which more later) that Britain refused to decorate him. Ironically, Mitchell, although later a Conservative MP for four years, subsequently set up his own company and did productive work (and presumably not as a spy) clearing land mines from war-torn countries.

My interest in the book was to look out for parallels, comparisons and contrasts between the British government and British army’s behaviour in Aden, and its behaviour in the North of Ireland.

In 1962, in the capital Sanaa, radical army officers overthrew the ruthless, conservative regime of Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin and established the Yemen Arab Republic. Britain, Saudi Arabia (and Israel) armed and financed the dethroned royalists and their mercenaries. Beyond, and including British-controlled Aden, the British Conservative government established the puppet state of the Federation of South Arabia. (The Conservatives lost the 1964 general election and Labour’s Harold Wilson then became Prime Minister.)

Two groups opposed the British: the National Liberation Front (NLF) supported by Egypt’s Nasser (until 1965); and its rival, the Federation for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). Their campaign of assassination, ambush and bombing undermined the morale of the pro-British Federal Regular Army, the Armed Police and the civil administration. The insurgents wanted unity. The Aden Trade Union Congress also opposed the Federation. Its newspaper was closed down, its general secretary and many members were arrested and interned. During a general strike in 1962 the British army fired on marchers, killing a demonstrator.

Hands upOnly 3,666 miles from home, in a country into which they were not invited, here is the arrogant mentality which fuels imperialism: “Arabs should not be left to their own devices”; the Arab was “half rational, half mystical, and wholly oracular.” One British soldier cut through the pretence: “We treated everyone as the enemy.”

Whilst Edwards does concede that some tribesmen showed “great courage and skill’ and were “expert guerrilla fighters” his terminology in the main reflects that used by the imperialist: those opposed to the British were ‘subversives’, ‘terrorists’, ‘ruthless individuals’, whereas the SAS men have “cool heads and steady nerves”. And, of course, the padre was always there to assure the soldiers that “God is on their side”. What a laugh.

The marxist NLF carried out most of the attacks such as assassinating government and administrative figures, attacking and killing by bomb and grenade soldiers drinking in bars, or in the Officer’s Mess (killing, on one occasion, the 16-year-old daughter of a medical officer). The RAF retaliated by bombing villages and rocketing ‘the odd house’.

What is interesting is that many of the chief protagonists on the British side had earlier been involved in other counter-insurgency campaigns. They just can’t get enough of it. Sir Richard Turnbull, the High Commissioner “was relentless in advocating what he regarded as tried and tested ‘experiences’ with Mau Mau terrorists in Kenya.” It was under Turnbull that “a special programme of interrogation began to extract whatever paltry intelligence could be gleaned from detainees.”

During its time there, the British army set up a covert ‘Special-duties squad’ or the Special Branch Squad which operated independently of the main army command, and dressed in civilian or Arab clothes. Sounds like MRF and FRU, doesn’t it, or the Cairo Gang? It was claimed that “they arrested suspects, captured and killed grenade throwers and gunmen, and discovered huge quantities of arms and ammunition.”

Given what we know of the methods deployed by undercover soldiers in the North we can reasonably guess the saintly way they carried out their duties. In Aden the Colonial Courts did not have the authority to try members of the armed forces for ‘offences against the law of the territory committed whilst on duty.’ In the North the state protects its actors through the use of Public Interest Immunity Certificates.


Just think, only four years after being humiliated and driven out of Aden, where it acted repressively, with shoot-to-kill incidents, and had interned many people (including trade unionists), Britain was introducing internment in the North and once again torturing detainees (as it would do in Iraq in the early 21st century).

In Aden the British established a secret network of detention centres (just as there were such centres for the ‘hooded men’ in 1971). For Fort Morbut Interrogation Centre, from which could be heard “bloodcurdling squeals”, read Castlereagh. Medical records frequently note detainees suffering perforated eardrums – a similar and regular type of injury reported by Dr Erwin about Castlereagh detainees. In Aden it was ‘advanced interrogation’ methods; in the North it becomes ‘deep interrogation’. The ‘five techniques’ of interrogation (including the use of ‘white noise’) used against Yemeni and Irish prisoners were first practised by the British in Brunei in 1963.

At the time of the allegations of torture in Aden, the British government came under pressure to order an inquiry, and even refused to let journalists interview those who claimed to have been tortured. The allegations of torture were, alleged the government, part of a dastardly smear campaign! The same defence that was to be used in the North and faithfully repeated by a compliant mainstream media.

Later, the government appointed Roderic Bowen QC, a former MP and Deputy Speaker of the Commons. A safe pair of hands, like Widgery. His task, though, was not to investigate allegations of torture but to come up with recommendations for dealing with complaints by detainees in the future! He patriotically reports that “the allegations of torture were found to be overblown.” Bowen said: “I certainly gained the impression that speaking generally they [the interrogators] discharged their onerous duties with great restraint.”

The North had its very own Roderic Bowen report. Sir Edmund Compton’s 1971 Report into allegations of the torture of detainees ruled that “none of the forty complainants whose allegations the committee had investigated ‘suffered physical brutality as we understand the term’.” Prisoners (having been thrown out of helicopters) and being forced to run over broken glass and barbed wire to get away from snarling Alsatians “may have suffered some measure of unintended hardship.”

What about prisoners being forced to do press-ups for hours on end to avoid being beaten? This “must have caused some hardship but [we] do not think the exercises were thought of and carried out with a view to hurting or degrading the men who had to do them.”

And that is why, when it comes to investigating the past and British violations of human rights and the right to life, it cannot be left to the British government to set the terms, to nominate the judicial investigators, their own cronies.

Edwards is honest enough to describe what happened, or reports or allegations about what happened (“sometimes brutal, interrogations…”), but is loath to conclude that these methods, repression, state torture, murder – are the norms of British imperialism, indeed any imperialism. These immoral methods were the only way the empire could have been established and sustained. So, unless you teach these truths to your soldiers your army is condemned to repeat over and over again the same tried and failed measures, and poor people around the world will continue to suffer and die from the same imperious mentality.

When in 1967 the police mutinied (described as ‘Arab disloyalty’) and attacked the British army, the army was temporarily withdrawn from the rebel stronghold of Crater, home to 70,000 Arabs.

Brendan Behan use to say, “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.”

And so into Aden struts that very peeler, Colin Mitchell, later described by the Daily Express in what it thought was a flattering epithet as “Mad Mitch”, head of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Back in Britain Defence Secretary Denis Healey (one of those “squeamish politicians” according to Mad Mitch), could see that the writing was on the wall and that the empire was actually a liability. They were committed to a policy of decolonisation, preferably installing a government sympathetic to British economic interests. They announced their intention of giving South Arabia (consisting of the colony of Aden and the Federation of South Arabia) its independence by 1968 but were actually forced out and humiliated in 1967.

But before withdrawal, Mitchell’s position was that ‘disloyal Arabs and their terrorist bedfellows’ needed to be taught a lesson. Operation Stirling Castle involved his soldiers retaking Crater (for 144 days), entering Mosques without permission, and bayoneting civilians whom they described as ‘wogs’ or ‘gollies’.

Mad Mitch – ‘protector of the empire’ – loved the press, the publicity. He was a megalomaniac. And delusional: “The Argylls did the best they could to ensure life carried on as normal: that children could get to school, that bills were paid and that food got to the market.”

In 1981 a former soldier admitted that they had been involved in a litany of murder, thefts and wilful criminal damage, and looting; that they stripped the dead of money belts and other valuables. Another soldier later suggested that they slaughtered civilians in Crater as they queued for water at stand pipes.

This was “gruesome stuff”, says Edwards, but was “never substantiated”.

Never substantiated, especially given that a committee of two administrators and a Special Branch officer before withdrawal began burning Aden’s incriminating files, whilst other files sent to London remain under seal to this day.

British servicemen, said Mad Mitch, were ‘Britain’s best ambassador’! Their objective was “to bring ideas of democracy, peace, prosperity and freedom to those who needed our help,” but who didn’t want it or asked for it.

You couldn’t make it up.

You could not make it up.

*Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law – Aden And The End of Empire by Aaron Edwards is published by Mainstream Publishing, £8.99


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Race For The South Poll

January 27, 2016 by  

jamie_askaBy arrangement I met Jamie Bryson in the café of Linenhall Library for our interview. I had read his – now banned – book on Nama (The Three Headed Dog), in which he alleged financial and political corruption within the DUP involving property deals and kickbacks, a charge strenuously denied by Peter Robinson, but a story which is still playing out. I had also been impressed – and I think the DUP were also taken by surprise – by Bryson’s composed and articulate performance before the Stormont Finance Committee last September.

Bryson, of course, is best known as the face of the flag protest, but is now back in the news as the campaign manager for expelled South Belfast DUP Councillor Ruth Patterson in this May’s Assembly election. Patterson, a former UDR soldier and outspoken loyalist, who received 3,800 votes in the 2011 Assembly election, had expected that she would automatically replace her 2011 running mate, DUP MLA Jimmy Spratt, upon his retirement on health grounds last September.

Emma Pengelly

Emma Pengelly

Instead, Spratt was replaced by Emma Pengelly who, four weeks after her elevation, was appointed a junior minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFM/DFM). On Twitter Pengelly’s handle is @little_pengelly.

Little is her maiden name. I have met her. She is a lawyer and an accomplished, professional person, highly articulate and impressive – which explains her meteoritic rise within the DUP and which might explain her initial shyness about her father, Noel, a former UDR man. He was once pictured alongside Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, was arrested in a Paris hotel in 1989 along with an apartheid South African diplomat and a US arms dealer by the French Security Services and served two years in jail. Little, who worked in Short Brothers at Castlereagh, offered South Africa stolen ground-to-air Blowpipe missile technology to destroy Angola’s MPLA and Namibia’s SWAPO, which were supporting imprisoned Mandela’s ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle.

Despite her profile and office Pengelly has yet to be elected, whereas Ruth Patterson had, at the last count, a considerable following of thousands in South Belfast and has the potential to take an Assembly seat.

Ruth Patterson

Ruth Patterson

She has softened her image in recent times with the aim of attracting right-wing, middle-class unionists. Councillor Ruth Patterson was also once in the dock. Sinn Féin was organising a parade in Castlederg, its first in nineteen years. On social media Ruth supported an imagined gun attack on the republican march, and said, “We would have done a great service to Northern Ireland and the world.” She was later charged and apologised.

There are few surprises within unionism and loyalism. Their numbers are few. There was Brian Faulkner’s conversion to power-sharing and a Council of Ireland. And there was David Ervine, a former UVF P.O.W., an Irish passport-carrying loyalist, who was prepared to upend the norms.

In recent years I have watched Jamie Bryson – who is not Sandy Row- or Shankill Road-born, but from Bangor in North Down.

This is our conversation which appears in this week’s Andersonstown News.

“Explain South Belfast,” I asked.

“When Ruth decided to run as an independent she contacted me and asked would I act as her campaign manager. We had known each other from the flags protest but I was also working in the background with her when she was ‘exiting’ the DUP late last year. She missed out narrowly in 2011 and I think that vote is still there. I look forward to the contest and think that personally it will be an opportunity to articulate a better vision to keep Unionism moving forward.

“I’ve made no secret that I have political ambitions myself, but for now my sole focus is on winning South Belfast along with Ruth Patterson,” he said, clearly a reference to the fact that if Patterson does get elected to the Assembly she could ‘gift’ her City Hall seat to Bryson as her replacement.

“You know,” I said, “that the DUP will portray a gain for Ruth as a gain for Sinn Féin which will increase the possibility of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.”

Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness

“That’s a ridiculous argument to make. Robinson, and now Arlene, can’t sign a letter without McGuinness okaying it. Any unionist that doesn’t recognise that is being conned by the DUP. It’s a joint office. That argument plays into the fear politics and it’s aimed at intimidating others, within Unionism, with a different view from standing against the DUP. Even as First Minister, McGuinness will not have any more power after May than he has now. The core problem is the ludicrous system of mandatory coalition that allows that joint office, and it is the DUP that props that arrangement up.

“I hope that as many unionists as possible get elected. And if Emma Pengelly (DUP) is one of those, then great. But on the other hand, if Ruth gets elected at the expense of Emma then I won’t shed any tears over that. I had a long tussle with Peter Robinson and well, Emma is where she is because of Peter’s patronage in my mind.

“South Belfast is a huge challenge. It’s difficult to get an independent elected anywhere. I’m sure the DUP will pour in vast resources to this fight. Ourselves, we are relying on small donations and many voluntary workers, working-class people, middle-class people.”

You have to admit, I said, that you have nothing to offer nationalists.

“Well, if I was a nationalist I wouldn’t think of voting for a unionist! But I am an unashamed unionist. But if a nationalist came to Ruth with a constituent problem then the door is wide open with a welcome.”

I asked him why he wasn’t a member of the TUV and why Patterson wasn’t running under Jim Allister’s banner, which would seem the natural home for them both given their anti-Agreement stance.

“If I joined the TUV the first thing I would be asked would be to condemn loyalists and say that their actions had been wrong and I couldn’t do that.”

So, does that mean there’s room for loyalist paramilitary activity currently?

“No. Absolutely not. There’s no need for any paramilitary activity but there is a need for community activism. Loyalist ex-prisoners and ex-combatants are positively working within the community and that must be supported and encouraged.

“Today the only way forward is through democratic politics.”

If that’s the case, I asked, why doesn’t he accept the democratic results of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement when the majority voted for power-sharing?

“The essence of democracy is the right to challenge the status quo and I don’t accept the status quo of the Belfast Agreement,” he said.

“There is no obligation on me to accept something that I disagree with. There is an obligation on me to obey the law, so long as that is the law of the country, and the only way to change it, to fight it, is through democratic politics and the law. I articulate my opposition to the Agreement within the law.

“I don’t disagree with power-sharing per se. I disagree with the mandatory coalition nature of power-sharing here. The system of government that in my mind perverts democracy. It engenders mistrust between the two communities. In terms of the, let’s say, ‘conflict generation’ there will be many within unionism who will look at people who were active in the IRA and say, ‘I couldn’t trust them, they’ve blood on their hands.’ I am sure many republicans would look at unionists who were involved in the Third Force or UDR and say, ‘they’ve got blood on their hands.’ Now, of course, I don’t agree with that narrative but I can understand why nationalists may feel that way.

Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O’Neill

“When you go beyond that to, I suppose, my generation, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill’s generation, for example, it would be ridiculous for me to say that I couldn’t work with an individual like her because she, or they, do not have the historical baggage. What I disagree with is the very basis of the Belfast Agreement where it says we will always have the mandatory veto for both sides, because you can never ‘trust’ your neighbour to govern. I feel that is wrong.”

I said that the nationalist community doesn’t trust the unionist parties, given their experience since 1920. And that’s why they demand mandatory power-sharing.

“But how long, in that sense,” he replied, “does that go on for?”

“Until there’s a united Ireland,” I said. We both laughed.

“Well, obviously that’s why I say that that mandatory veto is proof of a long-term republican strategy. You are absolutely entitled to strive for a united Ireland, as I’m entitled to oppose you. But are republicans saying that, for now, they don’t even trust my generation to govern, the under-40s? We didn’t discriminate against you.

“Yes, years ago, I would have taken the view, in hindsight a sectarian view, that discrimination and other things were justified, in the sense that unionists at the time of partition had to secure their position, secure the status quo. But when I looked into it I came to the decision that what nationalists suffered was totally wrong. The state was biased in favour of my community and we trampled down another community. Totally unjustified. We could have done things differently to preserve the Union.

“But we now have to trust each other. If I said to Michelle O’Neill that I don’t trust you because of what the IRA did, and she said I don’t trust you because of what unionists did, we would be in a perpetual cycle of mistrust.”

I pointed out that just a year ago Sinn Féin thought they had a done deal with the Stormont House Agreement only to discover, as a result of a leaked civil servant document, that the DUP was deliberately wiping its eye with regard to the actual figures covering those on welfare. Had Simon Hamilton’s paper been passed in the Assembly then unionists would have rolled around laughing as Sinn Féin struggled to explain its ineptitude at the ambush.

“Well, you can’t be fly,” he said. “You have to be honest about what you are doing. You have to place your cards on the table.”

I said that as a republican I am using the Good Friday Agreement and cross-border bodies to create a harmonisation which will make a united Ireland, however it is configured, much easier. But that this process is open and transparent, there is no threat, no duress. I said that in my opinion so much has been achieved regarding nationalists that the gun is no longer justified and we have to make sure that conflict does not break out again.

“But I would like to reverse the Belfast Agreement,” he said. “But not revert to a position of gerrymandering or discriminating. As a unionist, the Agreement gives nationalists an advantage, a number of key mechanisms assist in moving towards a united Ireland and I am entitled to oppose it. For the preservation of the union, it would not be a smart, strategic move to concede to the terms of the Agreement where so much of the trajectory works in favour of nationalists.

“In Gerry Adams’ words ‘equality’ is the republican Trojan Horse, aimed at destroying the union. It’s all about achieving your ultimate goal of creating a united Ireland and I am entitled to oppose it. Take for instance the invitation to the Northern Ireland team and the Republic of Ireland team to a reception at Belfast City Hall. It’s an attempt to create parity. But the Republic is a foreign jurisdiction. To fete the two teams as equal is part of the wider republican agenda to create parity, harmonisation and eventually a united Ireland.

“If republicans sign up to there being no change to the union without the say-so of a majority in Northern Ireland then the flip side of that is that they have to recognise that we are part of the UK and therefore the national team for us is the Northern Ireland team and the national flag is the Union flag and it should have prominence. I respect that you see this as an occupied state. But how can I, as a unionist, willfully concede mechanisms that are going to help you advance your goals. That wouldn’t be a strategically clever move! When I say that I want to reverse the Belfast Agreement I want to reverse it because I see the dangers, the dangers for unionism, and not that I want to trample over nationalists. I want us to be equal.”

Okay, I said. Would you accept a 51% majority in the North voting for a united Ireland?

“I would have to. But I would be a liar if I sat here and said that I’d be happy. It’s easy being a democrat when things are going your own way! How would I feel if that was to happen? I don’t know. That’s the honest truth. At this time, at the end of the day, democracy suits my purpose,” he said, smiling.

I told him of my suspicion, given the original artificiality of the six-county state. I told him about the response of the late Harold McCusker, an Ulster Unionist MP for Armagh, to the question of what if a nationalist majority emerged in the North and peacefully voted for a united Ireland. “We would simply re-partition”, said McCusker. So, nationalists would be robbed again, as they were with the first, second and third Home Rule Bill.

“Yeh, we’ll end up with about two counties!” he joked.

I said, if you’d been cute you would have gone for four counties! “You would have been so secure and confident that you wouldn’t have needed to do away with PR elections, gerrymander or discriminate.”

Flag Protest, City Hall

Flag Protest, City Hall

We returned to the flag protest. I said that the Union flag still flies above the City Hall on designated days, the same as over Buckingham Palace. (He had yet to be interviewed on Radio Ulster’s Talkback when he called for the ending of the weekly flag protest.) I also conceded that perhaps Sinn Féin did not anticipate the magnitude of loyalist anger.

“Well, did it do Sinn Féin much good in the long term? It stalled moving things forward in Stormont. It made life harder for the DUP because you now had people like me and like Jim Allister raising our voices and being heard. The flags protest energised our people and gave us a platform.

“Even before the flags protest I was opposed to the DUP but I was written off as a maverick, a lunatic shouting in the wilderness. But as a result of the political climate created by the flag protests our grievances were aired, we got across our anti-Agreement message with many, many unionists, which made it difficult for the DUP to move.”

I said that the DUP was defending unionism and the union.

“They hounded Trimble about guns and government. They’re now in government and the IRA Army Council still exists and the IRA still have guns! How can they do that? I suppose the DUP and their supporters will always say I took the wrong road and I will always say they took the wrong road. There really is no reconciling that.”

I told him it’s called realpolitik.

“Might be pragmatic, but from my point of view, as someone who wants to take power from them and reverse the concessions they have conceded, it’s a stick to beat them with.”

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Jamie paid for the coffee!

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Who Fears To Speak

January 11, 2016 by  

The Irish Examiner today published a feature I wrote about the meaning of and legacy of 1916. Here it is:

No one, not the IRA, not Sinn Féin, not Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, or any party or organisation, owns or has a monopoly on the Rising or its legacy.

But you can see from the reactions and opposition to the powerful re-enactment of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral through the streets of Dublin last August that someone “fears to speak of Easter Week”, that someone is embarrassed about 1916 and all that.

And you can understand why Irish republicans would want to give due honour to those brave men and women who fought, if others lack the enthusiasm.

The government’s very first foray into the commemoration was disgracefully to produce a video about 1916 which didn’t even mention the names of the signatories and those who were executed. What a glaring but telling omission. It would like be talking about the Cuban Revolution and omitting the roles of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. Or talking about the struggle against apartheid and omitting Nelson Mandela.

But those GPO veterans who the government did manage to include in the video were such strapping physical force republicans as Field Marshall Bono, General Bob Geldof, Queen Elizabeth, David Cameron and the late Ian Paisley.

The government also managed to turn the Proclamation into gibberish by using Google to translate it into Irish. The government is certainly free to do its own thing in its own peculiar way, as are others. But what the government fears most is an analysis and debate about why the Rising was the proper reaction to what was happening at that time. It fears – with some justification – the drawing of certain parallels.

For all its good intentions the failure of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) to understand imperialism and colonialism, that party’s flawed and damaging compromises, showed that its leaders were putty in the hands of the British. It had played by the constitutional rules, had assiduously, peacefully and patiently for decades worked hard for Home Rule and its position had been overwhelmingly endorsed in nine successive general elections across the 32 counties of Ireland.

Unfortunately, the IPP swallowed everything it was told, and that included buying into the War, recruiting and sending 300,000 Irishmen to the trenches of France and Gallipoli who believed, naively, that by fighting, Ireland would get a better post-war deal.

In 1914 Redmond accepted the exclusion of four counties of Ulster, then in talks in 1916 Lloyd George got him to agree to include Tyrone and Fermanagh, bringing the number of excluded counties to six – allegedly, on a temporary basis during the emergency period of the war. However, in talks with Edward Carson Lloyd George assured the unionist leader that the exclusion of six counties was to be permanent.

Easter_Proclamation_of_1916But there were other Irish men and women, like Pearse and Connolly and Markievicz, who had the measure of the British government, and who knew that once the war was over, Ireland’s sacrifices in the trenches would be forgotten. They saw the necessity of striking out at Easter 1916 and staking a claim regarding the freedom of this small nation.

Even before the run-up to the centenary of the Rising we got a taste of the distaste to the honouring of our patriotic dead. Ten years ago at the re-interment of Kevin Barry and nine other IRA Volunteers in Glasnevin Cemetery, one Sunday newspaper asked, “Why could they not be exhumed and reburied in private?” The funerals, wrote another leading commentator, will offer “a great boost to those who want us to feel that the only difference between a terrorist and a patriot is the passage of time.”

So now we are getting to the crux of the matter: whether there are any parallels between the aims, objectives and modus operandi of the IRA during the War of Independence, and the IRA’s armed campaign in the North from 1970 until the ceasefire.

To justify or to sympathise or, at the minimum, to understand 1916, is to justify, sympathise or, at the minimum, understand the IRA’s armed struggle in the North. It is inescapable, regardless of what sophistry is employed to argue otherwise.

But the IRA didn’t need that comparison to justify itself: partition did that.

If 1916 was about the denial of freedom and British misrule in Ireland, the recent armed struggle in the North was about the denial of the same freedom and a more egregious form of British misrule in the form of partition with its ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. Where a Prime Minister could boast that he wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place.

In Ireland’s major cities prior to 1916 there was, of course, extreme poverty and high unemployment. There had been two deaths in baton charges during the Dublin lock-out in 1913, which preceded and helped define the radical nature of the Proclamation. There had been three deaths at the hands of the British army after the Irish Volunteers’ Howth gun-running incident in July 1914.

So what did northern nationalists suffer in comparison? Fifty years of humiliation; the physical persecution of any outward expression of their identity; discrimination in housing, employment and investment; its minority position entrenched; a people denied access to government or power to change government; more deaths than occurred in Dublin prior to the Rising, deaths at the hands of the RUC, B-Specials, loyalists and the British army, long before the IRA re-organised and launched its armed struggle.

Debate around commemoration also exposes just how little successive Dublin governments have lived up to the principles enshrined in the Proclamation or pursued the cause of Irish independence and reunification. Celebrating 1916, triggers certain imperatives, including an examination of the malignity of British rule in Ireland, the divisions it caused between brothers and sisters, families, communities, political parties.
It is easier to repeatedly attack Sinn Féin, and internalise our problem, than it is to confront the British government on collusion, its agencies’ involvement in bombings and assassinations, including the killing of dozens in Dublin and Monaghan.

We have yet to achieve full independence; we are still undoing the damage which partition wrought on our people, nationalist and unionist, who from their respective positions paid heavily for this division and the political mistakes of the past. We have all hurt each other.

But we have, undeniably, come a long way. Peace has come ‘dropping slow’. The state I live in is not the state I grew up in – it has been transformed. But it has not been transformed enough. We still have major problems socially, economically and politically, but none that we cannot redress through skill, good political leadership and patience.

If Sinn Féin and the DUP can share power in the North, given our bloody past, then isn’t it about time that Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour ‘cease-fired’ in the South, stopped using the Troubles as a substitute for political debate, and simply agreed to disagree about the legacy of 1916 whilst honouring the undoubted bravery of the men and women who fought at Easter Week?

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Reflections on WWI

November 13, 2015 by  

In Cork on Wednesday night – 11th November – I was proud to be invited to speak at the launch in the City Library of Conal Creedon’s biography of Michael O’Leary, a Victoria Cross recipient from County Cork. Conal had also asked me would I write the Foreword to the book and I said I would.

In writing it I was forced to think about all those from Ireland (including my relations) who fought believing that their sacrifice was for the freedom of small nations.

So, here it is. The book The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary is published by Cork City Libraries/Leabharlanna Cathrach Chorcaí.


You can almost feel Conal Creedon’s frisson of excitement at his serendipitous find of an old shoe box containing letters and handwritten speeches by Michael O’Leary, the World War I Irish soldier and Victoria Cross-recipient to whose life and times Conal has become compulsively drawn, through family connections and with the forensic curiosity of a writer beholding the artefacts of a man’s history.

I know that feeling of privilege, having once been given a diary, photographs and love letters written by a young Canadian soldier, my wife Leslie’s great Uncle Bob Conklin. His aura infused every page and ink-written sentence, especially his vows of love to his sweetheart Isobel Howes whom he planned to marry. I held in my hand and read the telegram his mother received from the Director of Records regretting to inform her that on the 29th August, 1918, Bob died of gunshot wounds, sustained at the Battle of Arras. It arrived on 6 September, the day on which Bob would have been 21, just five weeks before Germany sent out her first peace note.

Eerily, because of the delay of mail from the Front, the Conklin family kept receiving letters from Bob after they learnt of his death: “Give my love to all and don’t worry on my account”; “Someday I’ll be able to say what I would like to, I think, if all goes well, and then there won’t be any need to close as follows. Well, my news is finished, so I’ll ring off. I will write mother in a few days. Love to all. Bob.”

Conal’s quest to discover the spiritual DNA of Michael O’Leary is an excursion through beautiful Iveleary-Inchigeelagh in West Cork, its folk and folklore, its mysteries, myths and truths, and the omnipresence of history in our lives. The distant past is actually in touching distance, if you think about it. Michael O’Leary was born in 1888. Seems a long time ago. But my Granny White was born in 1884 and knew people who survived the Famine.

Iveleary-Inchigeela, where Michael O’Leary was born, had a tradition of soldiering going back centuries and – until World War I – the stigma attached to those Irish who “took the Queen’s shilling”, as the pejorative expression goes, was fairly muted because the breadwinner of so many hungry families throughout the length and breadth of Ireland either became dependent on this source of revenue to survive or had to emigrate, with or without loved ones.

O’Leary himself hailed from the rural poor and was reared by his grandmother on a few acres, and so deprivation, along with John Redmond’s powerful rhetoric invoking guilt, duty and reward, explain his decision to voluntarily join the British Army.

It is true that down the centuries Irishmen took up arms in military conflicts in Europe and the Americas, sometimes as mercenaries. But I don’t believe that Irish people are predisposed to belligerency any more than any other people. But the myth of the ‘Fighting Irish’ persists, and I have read claims that Irish warriors invaded Greece with King Darius, served the Pharaohs, acted as body guards for Cleopatra, and crossed the Alps with Hannibal!

Robert Graves (who wrote a fine, revelatory and shocking memoir about his experiences in WWI, Goodbye To All That) immortalised this Irish military tradition in his novel Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, based on the journals of the real life figure of Dublin-born Roger Lamb who as an infantryman in the British Army’s Welsh Fusiliers went off to suppress the American Revolution and was eventually taken prisoner.

But it was General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War who, as far as I can see, invented the nickname “the Fighting Irish” in response to the bravery of The Fighting 69th (the Irish Brigade), formed in New York from Irish immigrants.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that given the prevalence of this military tradition, if not a stoic acceptance of its persistence, that nationalism and republicanism would attempt to recruit those Irish in the British Army and exploit their expertise.

Irish history is littered with examples of soldiers and former soldiers putting to use their military training in the service of Irish freedom. The Fenians had 15,000 men in the British Army, 8,000 in Ireland alone, making nearly a third of the 25,000 troops stationed here. IRA men like Tom Barry and Emmet Dalton were former soldiers. In 1921 Sean Murray, ex-Sergeant Major of the Irish Guards Regiment (O’Leary’s old regiment), was the training officer for the IRA Volunteers in Iveleary.

The IRA during the War of Independence had infiltrated Dublin Castle with its spies (in an ironic reversal for Britain, used to being the spymaster) and had, of course, many allies in the Royal Irish Constabulary providing it with information and intelligence.

Even in more recent times the IRA was quick to recruit ex-soldiers for their military know-how. Former paratrooper Paul Marlowe trained the IRA in 1969, became an IRA member and was subsequently killed on an IRA operation. In 1971 after the introduction of internment the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which claimed a membership of several thousand, was set up in Belfast and other nationalist areas with the stated aim of using their former British Army training to protect their neighbourhoods from attack.

(Incidentally, the first soldier to be killed in the North during the Troubles was Trooper Hugh McCabe, shot dead by the RUC, while defending the Falls Road in August 1969 when he was home on leave from the British Army.)

Ireland was not the only colony to supply Britain with military might. The cannon fodder came from all continents, all colonies, and they sacrificed themselves in all theatres of war without their sacrifices translating into freedom for their nations, big or small.

Why? Why did the Irish fight and die in such large numbers?

One quarter of a million Irishmen (including the UVF’s 36th Ulster Division) marched to war under the British banner. Among them was Michael O’Leary, and 4,000 young men from Cork City and County who were to lose their lives.

Think about that: one quarter of a million Irishmen. The nationalist contingent of the Irish Volunteers, a majority of whom had sided with John Redmond, were led to believe by the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party that in fighting for the freedom of small nations such as Belgium they were advancing and securing Irish claims to Home Rule. Factor in the dependents of these men and the many other Irish people working in war-related service industries and you get a sense of the national involvement, indeed the mass political investment in that war; the mass trust in Britain keeping its promise regarding Home Rule. And you also get a sense of the mass disillusionment (if not shame, but certainly deep and bitter regret) that would follow in the wake of Britain reneging on its promises.

From the unionist point-of-view, their men fought to prevent Home Rule and to maintain the union with Britain for all thirty-two counties or, failing that, for Ulster’s nine counties.

While Carson unionist and Redmond nationalist were away at the Front, the Irish Republican Brotherhood struck at home and at Easter 1916 declared a Republic. The Rising was brutally suppressed – how else could an imperial power react to such audacity.

As Yeats put it, dramatically, succinctly: “All changed, changed utterly.”

The writer, Tom Kettle, who was to be killed in September 1916, was appalled by the actions of Pearse and Connolly, denouncing the Rising as madness. Yet after the murder of his brother-in-law, the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and the executions of the republican leaders, Kettle knew his own position with the British Army at the Somme had lost whatever validity it initially had.

That huge disparity in numbers between, for example, those who fought and died in Dublin during the 1916 Rising (318 rebel and civilian fatalities) and those Irish who died during the disastrous eight-month siege of Gallipoli (2,800) inspired Canon Charles O’Neill, the parish priest of Kilcoo, County Down, to write The Foggy Dew whose lyrics contain these bitter, haunting lines:

‘Twas far better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar

Britain’s betrayal of the estimated 35-50,000 Irish who died (the true figure is unknowable), undermined and destroyed Redmond’s Parliamentary Party which became quickly supplanted by Sinn Féin. Britain’s betrayal shattered and overshadowed the lives of returning war veterans who faced public apathy and animosity in a land experiencing a political revolution.

Support for the republican cause was confirmed by the massive increase in support for Sinn Féin in the December 1918 general election, with 73 elected out of 105 TDs. The suppression Dáil Éireann coincided with the rise of the Irish Republican Army, the War of Independence, Partition and Civil War – the ramifications of which are still with us today.

A new narrative was being written, in Irish blood for Irish freedom, and not for the Empire. The story of the returnees, about what they had endured and sacrificed, the loss of comrades, the bloodshed at the Front hundreds of miles from home, was totally eclipsed by a new reality – raids by the Auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, the British Army, the murders and harassment of the civilian population, Collins’ guerrilla war and the activities of Flying Columns, most famously in West Cork.

Though many ex-servicemen would be shot as spies, and some, like Barry would take their military skills into the fledgling IRA, Conal makes the point that a soldier of valour like Michael O’Leary was free to come and go in rebel Cork where he was held in great respect.

My own grandfather, Granda Jimmy Morrison, from the Falls Road, joined the Royal Flying Corps (later known as the RAF) in 1917 and worked as part of the ground crew. I have no information to suggest that he was ever cold-shouldered in West Belfast after he was demobilised. What I do know was that shortly after his return he was arrested and charged with raising funds for the IRA. He defended himself, was acquitted, went south and joined the National (Free State) Army, deserted, returned to the North (where his 11-year-old brother was killed by a British army lorry in 1922, at the time of partition), and married my grandmother Ellen Pyper.

When the 1939 war broke out he re-joined the RAF and was based in Malta during the Luftwaffe bombardment. Towards the end of WWII my father joined the RAF for a short time and was trained in an aerodrome called Long Kesh (where I would be ‘based’ as a republican internee two decades later!).

I am also aware that my maternal grandfather, Granda Billy White, would not let his own brother Paddy cross the door of his Falls Road home when he returned from WWI. Paddy was told: “Come back when you have taken that uniform off and then you can come in!”

I cannot be sure if there were different attitudes in ‘the North’ (which had yet to be established as the ‘Northern Ireland’ state) than in ‘the South’ towards the returnees. Perhaps, there was a greater forgiveness or generosity or dependence in the North, particularly in Belfast, from nationalists who feared for their safety and would require the skills of these veterans in the event of a crisis (which is what did happen).

Unionists, on the other hand, after 1918, scented victory. It dawned on them that the reality of a Catholic-Protestant, evenly-divided Ulster, temporarily opting out of Home Rule, didn’t give them the monopoly on power which they wanted. The Ulster Unionist Party would subsequently ditch its brethren in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in return for ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’ in the six counties. Those in the 36th Ulster Division could take pride in their war and what they had achieved. They made the wearing of the poppy synonymous with their cause, thus creating a barrier for nationalists had they wanted to honour their war dead.

Irish people were not the only ones fooled by British promises. In 1914 India was in a state of growing political unrest and the National Congress was seeking independence. Encouraged to believe that the cause of independence, or at least self-government, would be served by fighting for Britain, Indians flocked to the war. But they too were badly let down. It was to be 1947 before India was granted independence (which included the partitioning of the subcontinent).

In the Middle East, in 1916, Britain promised the Arabs (including those in Palestine) “complete and final liberation” if they would rise up against the Turks. After the war Britain reneged on its pledges, drew borders here and there and partitioned the region regardless of the wishes of the local inhabitants.

The Palestinians are still waiting for their independence.

One hundred years distant from these events we who honour Ireland’s patriot dead should feel able to acknowledge the selflessness and patriotism of those thousands of Irish men and women who participated in World War I. They were quite innocent – they were not to know that their victory would be turned into their defeat. Clearly, they were brave and selfless men.

The difficulty, of course, is to separate commemoration and memory of the war dead from support for the British administration in Ireland or the cause of British military adventurism today. Recently, a former Fine Gael Taoiseach, John Bruton, even argued that 1916 was “a mistake”, shouldn’t have happened, and that because Home Rule was on the statute book (albeit suspended for the duration of the war), a Rising was unnecessary.

Some revisionists put up obstacles to republican participation in the act of remembrance through the invective they use. Some seek to create a sense of public guilt. By exploiting the war dead and war veterans, by making often disparaging comparisons between the warfare and sacrifices of those Irish who fought against the British in Ireland and those who fought with the British abroad, they seek to subtly, or explicitly, demonise the IRA, almost a return to the days when captured prisoners Pearse and Connolly were spat on as they were marched through the streets of Dublin.

In the view of these revisionists/partitionists the IRA’s War of Independence should be rejected, its heroes tarnished (and in the process the cause of Irish reunification). Undoubtedly, some of this is related to their discomfort with obvious parallels between the aims, objectives and modus operandi of the IRA during the War of Independence and the IRA’s armed campaign in the North from 1970 until the ceasefire.

We heard similar commentary in 2001 at the re-interment of Kevin Barry and nine other IRA Volunteers in Glasnevin Cemetery, men who had been court-martialled and executed by British forces in 1920–1921.

“Why could they not be exhumed and reburied in private?” asked the Sunday Times. The funerals, wrote Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, will offer “a great boost to those who want us to feel that the only difference between a terrorist and a patriot is the passage of time.” Kevin Myers, also in the Irish Times, complained that the event was all about reaffirming “a single narrative of suffering and sacrifice.”

Such commentators would have Ireland feel guilty about its past, without begging the same moral question of Britain about its disastrous role in Irish affairs. The funerals, they said, “are sending a dangerous signal to impressionable young people” and “will be widely and dangerously misunderstood”. What they actually meant was that “the people are stupid and we have to save them from themselves.”

It was nonsense to suggest that the reburials made Irish people retrospective conspirators to shootings and bombings, or that it legitimised the most recent IRA campaign, or acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. If you were to ask any ex-republican prisoner or former IRA Volunteer to name who influenced their decision the most to join the IRA, the answer would not be Kevin Barry but would be, “a British soldier.”

I decide for myself how to honour those republicans who fought and died for Ireland. I decide for myself how to honour and do justice to those who fought in WWI believing they were fighting for the freedom of small nations, and those who fought fascism during WWII.

Last year in Malta I visited the Siege Bell Memorial overlooking the Great Harbour of Valletta which was erected to honour the 7000 people who were killed during the German bombardment. On a sunny afternoon I sat alone at a table on a small street café, bought a local beer, a type that my Granda might have liked, and toasted the life of one who took part in two wars only to die from emphysema at the age of 61, the age I am now.

Ten years ago my wife and I, her mother Sheila, her sister Wendy and brother-in-law Terry took the road out of Paris, driving for several hours up the A1, past the road to the Somme. We left the main road and went through Arras and out into the expanse of open countryside.

We turned off for the village of Ligny-St Flochel. There, the old church appeared to have tilted from the plumb, its limestone spire pock-marked as if by shells or gunfire, leaving nooks in which bickering crows were nesting. We took a fork to the left and after a few kilometres came upon a small, neatly kept cemetery of almost seven hundred graves. The day was bright but the wind was cold and cutting, leaving us sniffling as we buttoned up our coats.

We had the number of the grave – Plot II, Row F, Number 22 – and it took only a few minutes to find.

Two photographs were found on Bob Conklin when he was killed. Again, I remember holding these precious photographs which had sat next to his heart. One was of his mother and his sisters Dorothy and Isabel feeding some chicks, taken in June 1918 on holiday on the shores of Lake Ontario. The other was of Isobel Howes and on the back of the photo she had written: “How do you like my ‘wedding clothes’? In 1919, Isobel, broken-hearted since Bob’s death a few months earlier, died in the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept Europe after the war.

Wendy bent down and sprinkled over the small plot some earth she had brought from the grave of Bob’s mother and father in Toronto and took a little from Bob’s grave to bring back to Canada. Leslie buried beneath the soil a copy of the photograph of Isobel Howes in her ‘wedding clothes’ that had survived his shooting. Reunited symbolically.

Sheila was unable to speak. Here she was at the grave of her own mother’s adored brother – the first members of Bob’s family ever to visit Ligny-St Flochel. Terry, noticed a metal casket in a nearby wall. It contained weather-proofed notebooks detailing the names, ages and regiments of all the soldiers buried there who had died in trenches or crossing no man’s land in 1918. Another was for comments from visitors.

The date was 26 March 2004 and Wendy entered into the notebook the simple message: “Sorry it took us so long to get here…Thanks.”

And that is what Conal Creedon has done with this book which is really dedicated to the volunteers who risked everything, who suffered physical and psychological wounds, who were ‘forgotten’. It is to those 50,000 who died, and to Michael O’Leary and his comrades who fought for Ireland at the Somme, Guillemont, Ginchy, Messines, Salonika, Gallipoli, Basra and Gaza.

“Sorry it took us so long to get here…Thanks.”

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The Last Jews in Berlin

October 25, 2015 by  

Back endI read this book, The Last Jews In Berlin, whilst staying at a writers’ residential at Wannsee lake within view of Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the villa where in 1942 the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry. In fact, when I finished the book I cycled over to the villa, my second visit in thirteen months, and am pleased to say that seventy years after that unconscionable event visitors, especially German schoolchildren, throng to the house, now a museum, to learn about the meaning of evil. Before going to Berlin I met 94-year-old Erna de Vries, a concentration camp survivor, who was speaking at the same series of talks to students in northern Germany as myself.

Leonard Gross, a journalist, was not the original writer of this book about those 4,000 who remained in Berlin after 1943 (when Goebbels ordered the arrest of the remaining Jews) and who were hidden by ordinary Germans, Gentiles, who risked execution if they were caught harbouring them.

The book was begun in 1967 by Eric Lasher who advertised in a Jewish community newspaper published in Berlin, and who received eighteen replies from both men and women. But Lasher was unable to finish the book, one reason being that he found the material so upsetting that he developed a stammer. And so, it was Gross who finished it in 1981.

When Hitler seized power in 1933 there were 160,000 Jews living in what was then the politically liberal Berlin. Many emigrated as the situation deteriorated; others committed suicide, many were disappeared and murdered; and some went into hiding.

This powerful book tells the story of twelve of those who were in hiding, were on-the-run, only a few hundred of whom survived, and what a spine-chilling story it is. Goebbels complained that in the final major round-up they had missed about 4,000 Jews because some of their employers forewarned them.

Wilhelm Glaser was one of the most daring escapees of the lot. He came home one night to find two hefty Gestapo waiting in his apartment. Wilhelm thought: “If God is on my side, something has to happen now. Once I’m in the car, I have no chance.” So, he pushed one of the men aside, bolted down the stairs, then threw his suitcase at the other one chasing him, and got out the door before they could open fire. Some months later he was caught and arrested but whilst awaiting transportation to Auschwitz he escaped again.

The resistance portrayed in the book is not that of sabotage, political assassination or guerrilla actions but defensive work – mostly attempts to save the lives of endangered persons, Jews and political dissidents.

The very wealthy Countess von Maltzan emerges as one of the great heroes of the war. She worked in cooperation with the Swedish Church in Berlin to provide a safe haven for Jews, deserters and forced labourers. She eventually married one of those she was hiding, the author, Hans Hirschel, but they divorced after two years. However, they remarried in 1972, and Hans died in 1975.

After the war, and probably as a result of PTSD, she experienced major breakdowns and became a drug addict. But in 1981 she opened her own veterinary practice in Berlin, often treating sick animals for free and worked to improve of the living conditions of immigrants.

In 1986 Israel named her as a Righteous Among The Nations, an award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination.

Incredibly, one Jewish woman managed to stay free because she was helped by a childhood friend, the sister of Horst Wessel, the extreme Nazi, assassinated by two communists, who wrote the Nazi Party’s official song and the secondary anthem of the Third Reich. Other stories tell of sympathetic policemen who supplied food to Jews in hiding, and even in one case that about a Gestapo agent who helped a woman in hiding maintain her secret.

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‘I Am A German’

September 22, 2015 by  

A StrangerA Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada has been described as, ‘An outspoken memoir of life under the Nazis written from a prison cell’ (Independent), but which has also been viewed as an apologia because Fallada decided to live in Nazi Germany instead of leaving as had many other artists. He was in an institution for the criminally insane, the asylum at Strelitz, after discharging a weapon when having an argument with his estranged wife Anna with whom he was still living. In prison he secretly wrote this diary in tiny writing on the manuscript of another work-in-progress, his novel The Drinker. Initially, he shared a cramped cell with ‘a schizophrenic murderer, a mentally deficient and castrated sex offender and another mental defective locked up for attempted rape and murder.’

The book was edited by Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange and translated by Allan Blunden.

Fallada emphasises that he loves Germany: ‘I am a German, I say it today with pride and sorrow still, I love Germany, I would not want to live and work anywhere else in the world except Germany. I probably couldn’t do it anywhere else. What kind of a German would I be if I had slunk away to a life of ease in my country’s hour of affliction and ignominy?’

Re the pronunciation of his surname.

He is approached by some Brown Shirts: “‘Are you Fallada?’ one of them asked. Except that the speaker didn’t say ‘Fállada’ with the stress on the first syllable, which I prefer, because it sounds a bit like a triumphant blast on the trumpet; instead he pronounced it ‘Falláda’, which always sounds like someone who’s about to trip over and fall flat on his face.’

On German Jews:
‘And then came the time when the new regime seized power, and everything changed. Now Paulchen and Leopold Ullstein were always in a huddle, they always had something to discuss, and whenever somebody else came into the room they stopped talking. They were the Jews, and we were the gentiles, they belonged together, and we were the outsiders. During those weeks I came to understand that in the hour of danger a Jew feels closer to another Jew, however much they disagree and differ, than to his truest friend of non-Jewish blood. I realized that the Jews themselves are the ones who have erected this barrier between themselves and other nations, which we refused to believe when the Nazis claimed as much; and that it is the Jews themselves who feel the difference in blood, and insist on it, when we had always smiled at the notion. This realization did not make me an anti-Semite. But I did come to see the Jews in a different light. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. I really hate to say it: but I can’t alter the fact.’

On those exiles who attack he and his like for staying on:
‘I’m sure it was all very fine to be sitting in Paris or Prague and exhorting us German writers to engage in active resistance against the Nazis: ‘Refuse to obey them! Sabotage their initiatives! Call the people to arms! The fate of Europe lies in your hands, you are the spirit and soul of Europe!’ And so on – there was plenty more of this tripe, written from some safe haven. It all sounded fine and dandy, as I say, but to commit suicide cheered on by a bunch of émigrés did seem somewhat pointless to me.’

On writing Wolf Among Wolves:
‘But then I wrote Wolf among Wolves, fired by the old fervour again, I wrote without looking up from the desk, I wrote without looking to left or to right. This was a story, and these were characters, that absorbed all my attention for months!

‘…. Following a long period of complete despondency and creative drought, I had written this long novel in one go; the passion for writing, the rush I get from creating characters and developing them, seem to be indestructible in me.’

A true story that makes its way into Alone In Berlin:
‘The former party comrade was disappointed, and fixed him with a steady gaze: so much for loyalty to the cause! To hell with them all, then! He hesitated a moment, they were about to part, and then he said: ‘Well look, we can still be friends – you go your way and I’ll go mine! But could you do me a favour? I’ve got this great heavy suitcase here. I’ll be back in Berlin in two days, and I’ll pick it up from you then. Could you hang on to it for me until then?’ And Sas, always friendly and ready to oblige, took the suitcase, carried it home, put it down somewhere and forgot about it. Weeks went by, and he suddenly noticed the suitcase again because it was in the way. ‘Well fancy that!, he thought. ‘The good comrade didn’t come back for it in the end – maybe the old fox has been snared by his enemies after all?’ The suitcase really was in the way, and so he put it up in the attic. Then he forgot about it completely.’

…‘And then one day he was arrested without warning; his former comrade had indeed been caught, and now the wretched man had named no fewer than thirty-five people, men, women and girls…

‘The suitcase was discovered, inside was a portable printing press, which had been used to produce Communist pamphlets. A few printed copies were also in the case. But even now all was not lost, the evidence against him was not that damning – despite having been denounced by his former party comrade…’

More on the exiles:
‘And meanwhile these fools are sitting comfortably abroad, not in any kind of danger, denouncing us as opportunists, as Nazi hirelings – blaming us for being weak, for doing nothing, for failing to resist! But we have stuck it out, and they have not; we have lived with fear every single day, and they have not; we have done our work, tilled our acre of land, brought up our children, our lives constantly under threat, and we have spoken a word here, a word there, giving each other strength and support, we have endured, even though we were often afraid – and they have not!’

On lending money:
‘In short, we learned the truth of the saying that the quickest way to lose friends is to lend them money.’

Funny anecdote: ‘A farmer who had had too much to drink told people in the pub that he had a cow in his shed that looked just like Adolf Hitler. The farmer was taken to court and given a lengthy prison sentence.’

Defeat of Hitler:
‘I wanted the Nazis to be defeated, and the sooner the better. Under no circumstances did I want Germany to become the dominant power in Europe.’

‘Inward migration’ – editor’s note:
“This defamation of German émigré authors, which serves first and foremost to justify Fallada’s own decision to remain in Germany, contains the central argument of ‘inward emigration’, which was wheeled out after 1945 in the increasingly bitter argument between ‘those who had stayed behind’ and the ‘émigrés’. So for example Frank Thiess (1890– 1977), who famously clashed with Thomas Mann on the issue, claimed that it had been a great deal harder to live through the ‘German tragedy’ in Germany than to pass comment on it from the ‘boxes and orchestra seats of other countries’.”

“This ‘unpolitical writer’ is here making his first profession of political faith. It is revealing and instructive – but it fails to convince. Fallada is one of that group of artists who did not leave Germany during the Nazi years. So his memoir sets out to justify his actions. With his ‘catalogue of sins’ as a writer he finds himself the target of accusations and reproaches. His account reveals the bitterness and contradictions of those artists who felt they had no choice but to ‘stick it out’ in Germany and do what they could to defend the great German ‘civilized nation’ against the primitive violence of ethnic nationalism and racism. Like Ernst Jünger, Fallada believed that he had shared in the ‘tragedy of his people’. Those who emigrated, fleeing into ‘comfortable’ exile, were ‘slinking away to a life of ease’ in the country’s ‘hour of affliction and ignominy’.”

“The phrase ‘inward emigration’ was coined by Frank Thiess as early as 1933 – he too rejected the idea of German exile from the outset. After 1945 the rift between the émigrés and ‘those who had stayed behind at home’ grew deeper. The claim made by Thiess – that by ‘sticking it out’ in Germany he had acquired a ‘rich store of insights and experiences’ – culminated in the imputation that it had been harder ‘to preserve one’s identity here than to send messages to the German people from over there’. This egregious defamation of German authors in exile elicited an unusually sharp riposte from Thomas Mann. He argued that the literature of ‘inward emigration’ had forfeited any claim to the status of resistance literature. ‘It may be superstition, but in my eyes any books that could be printed at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless, and not the kind of thing you want to pick up. The smell of blood and infamy clings to them. They should all be pulped.’”

Editor says: Fallada “is compromised by the revised ending to Iron Gustav, rewritten along the lines suggested by Goebbels. Indeed, Fallada found himself having a lot more to do with Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry than he was comfortable with – as the Prison Diary also attests. So we see the author who was celebrating in ‘Schlichters Wine Bar’ in February 1933 turning up five years later in the Hotel Kaiserhof, where the Nazi state held court, and where Fallada now took part in discussions about a proposed project with the ‘National Actor’ Emil Jannings. The claim of the authors who had ‘stayed behind at home’ that they had opposed the regime, even if their opposition had to be read between the lines of their texts, was dismissed early on by Thomas Mann as a strategy doomed to failure.”

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Power-sharing and Trust

September 22, 2015 by  

I wrote a feature on Eamon Mallie’s website in response to an article by the loyalist Jamie Bryson who came to prominence during ‘the flag protest’. Here it is:

jamie_askaI was interested in Jamie Bryson’s recent feature, titled ‘Power-sharing, a matter of trust!’

Jamie speaks about “the dysfunctional nature of our power-sharing institutions” and that it is this mandatory power-sharing which leads to “mutual distrust”. This is to ignore several major facts, historical and contemporaneous. There is an abundance of quotes from the 1920s through to 1972 when Stormont was prorogued, speeches in Stormont or at the field on the Twelfth, where unionists boasted about not having a Catholic about the place.

“I recommended people not to employ Roman Catholics, who are 99% disloyal,” said Sir Basil Brooke, Prime Minister (1943-1963). “At a meeting in Derry to select candidates for the Corporation Mr. H. McLaughlin [Ulster Unionist Party, speaking in 1946] said that for the past forty-eight years since the foundation of his firm there had been only one Roman Catholic employed – and that was a case of mistaken identity.”

That’s, Jamie, why we needed mandatory and not voluntary fair employment legislation!

When I hear references to the dysfunctional nature of our power-sharing institutions, I think why stop there? Their ‘dysfunctionality’ is actually a product of the artificiality of the six-county state (based on a sectarian headcount, which is why Ulster’s Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were excluded from the new state – too many Catholics!).

When I hear Jamie talk about the institutions as being “a perversion of democracy”, I think why stop there? Surely when a minority of people, the landed gentry and their officials, were ruling Ireland that was “a perversion of democracy”? Unionism had no problem with a united Ireland when it controlled the reins of power. Ulster unionism gathered apace when the extension of the franchise (that is an increase in democracy) in the late nineteenth century threatened its privileged position. And not only did it oppose majority rule in Ireland when that appeared to being achieved peacefully through the Home Rule Acts, but it threatened civil war, and established an illegal paramilitary army, the UVF, which threatened the will of the British parliament. That’s why I appreciate the irony of Jamie saying there must be no “threat of violence or coercion”. Ah, those change of rules! Those moveable goal posts!

Having said that, let me state my opposition to the armed actions of dissident republicans and my commitment to the use of peaceful means only to achieve my political aspirations.

The Republican Movement was repeatedly assured by successive British governments and sections of unionism that if the armed struggle was ended it would be free to agitate peacefully and through the ballot box for a united Ireland. But now that this is happening it suddenly becomes an attack on “unionist culture” and “our Britishness”. Ah, those change of rules! Those moveable goal posts!

The reason for power-sharing is because when the Ulster Unionist Party had exclusive power it abused it. In other words, because neither it nor the DUP which supplanted it could be trusted, the only form of government acceptable is mandatory power-sharing but one based on power being distributed among parties depending on their electoral strength.

Jamie wants to roll back mandatory coalition to voluntary coalition, which he says is acceptable to unionists. The voting arrangements in Belfast City Hall are along voluntary lines, yet when a voluntary coalition of Alliance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, comprising a majority, voted to support the flying of the Union Flag on designated days, a wave of protest and violence was unleashed by loyalists demanding the flying of the flag 360 days a year. That’s very inclusive, very reassuring, commands a lot of trust! How does Jamie square that one?

The issue of trust for republicans is also one that goes to the heart of peace-making.

From prison I was in correspondence with the journalist David McKittrick discussing all these issues 25 years ago. David was arguing that the IRA campaign was futile whereas I was arguing that the IRA would not ceasefire unless there was the prospect of transforming the situation and creating real justice and lasting peace. I also said that the IRA would not do that in a vacuum and that, “Calling it off would certainly not lead to reconciliation or positive change in the unionist attitude, which would then be: ‘It was close, but we hung on and beat the bastards in the end.’”

And wasn’t there something of that premature triumphalism from certain loyalist paramilitaries in 1994, although there is none of that triumphalism, only complaint and grievance, today?

I also wrote: “When the time for talking does come and everybody’s talking, republicans will have to address themselves to realpolitik – to come to the crucial issue of the unionists, their identity, their rights, their security, their fears and the institutions they would be prepared to support. That is a huge subject and, obviously, one for negotiation.”

Back then, I was firmly of the opinion that “a six-county British state will always make me feel like the vanquished party”. But I swallowed my pride for the sake of peace and compromised to allow for the sensibilities of unionist people, what some choose to call “their Britishness”, and to trust that unionists were not out to wipe my eye or turn back the clock.

The fact that the state I now live in is not the state I grew up in and that so much has been transformed allows me to identify more closely with all the people here and not just nationalists.

Many unionists, former loyalist prisoners and former members of the RUC and British army have told me they also feel that way – that peace has liberated us from former fundamentalist attitudes.

I trust them.

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The Pigeons of Denshawai

September 18, 2015 by  

I wrote this about ten years ago. It’s still an important story.

Though Tony Blair and George Bush installed the interim Iraqi prime minister it was Winston Churchill who installed the first puppet King of Iraq and whose advisors carved its borders out of Mesopotamia, following Britain’s invasions in 1915 and 1918 as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

After uprisings against British rule in the Shia holy city of Kerbala and in Basra, it was also Churchill who authorised the use of poison gas against Iraq’s “uncivilised tribes”, as he called them, thus leaving a bitter legacy which Iraqis have never forgotten. It wasn’t until 1932 that Britain gave Iraq notional independence; though twenty years later the monarchy was overthrown to be followed by a series of coups and ultimately the instalment of the West’s ally, Saddam Hussein.

Recently, I was reading George Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ and in the preface to the book I came across another reference to British involvement in the Middle East and an incident in 1906 which Shaw refers to as ‘The Denshawai Horror’.

Now, you will not find too many references to Denshawai in British history books and, I suppose, as an example of colonial cruelty it is, thankfully, at the lower end of the scale. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Arab nationalists and historians in the Middle East, including Iraq, are well aware of the episode. In Egypt there is a famous poem, ‘The Hanging of Zahran’ about the incident, and an Egyptian film, ‘Friend of Life’, based on the poem was directed by Nagui Riad (one of whose films won first prize at the Cork International Film Festival).

Even fifty years after the event the great Egyptian journalist Muhammed Hassanein Heikal used the expression, “the pigeons of Denshawai have come home to roost”, to describe Egypt’s triumph over Britain’s folly in trying to militarily re-take the Suez Canal along with the French in 1956.

Following its naval bombardment of Alexandria and its invasion of the Suez canal in 1882 the British occupation of Egypt began. It was to last for seventy-two years.

Denshawai was a small village in the Nile Delta where the locals supplemented their meagre incomes through pigeon farming. They had previously complained to the authorities about British soldiers shooting their pigeon stock as game and were given to understand that it wouldn’t happen again.

On June 13, 1906, five khaki-clad British officers with guns, an interpreter and a police official, arrived and began shooting the pigeons. The villagers were furious and remonstrated with them. There was a scuffle during which shots from one of the officer’s gun struck five villagers, including the wife of 25-year-old Abd-el-Nebi, who appeared to be fatally wounded. Abd-el’s grain pile in a threshing house was also set alight by the shots.

Abd-el hit the supposed murderer of his wife with a stick, and 60-year-old Hassan Mahfouz, whose pigeons had been killed, also used a stick on the officers. Other villagers threw stones at them. The officers, two Irishmen and three Englishmen, surrendered their weapons, watches and money to appease the villagers but were still pummelled. Two managed to escape. One of these contacted the British army but the other was smitten by sunstroke and died some distance away. Soldiers who found this dead officer beat to death an Egyptian peasant who had come to help the sick man.

Meanwhile, village elders had intervened and saved the soldiers, one of whom had suffered a mere broken wrist, and they were allowed to return to their base. The following day the British army arrived, arrested fifty-two villagers, including Abd-el-Nebi (whose wife had actually survived), Hassan Mahfouz, a man called Darweesh and Zahran (the subject of the poem). A summary trial (the judges were mostly British) was held and Hassan, Darweesh, Zahran and one other man were sentenced to death for ‘murdering’ the soldier who died of sunstroke. Abd-el-Nebi and another were sentenced to penal servitude for life; and twenty-six villagers were given various terms of hard labour and ordered to be flogged. The officers claimed that they had actually been ‘guests’ of the villagers and had done nothing wrong.

Hassan was hanged in front of his wives, children and grandchildren in the full-view of his own house, along with the others, aged 50, 22 and 20.

Had camcorders been available I have no doubt the British would have recorded the executions to press home their message though they would have suppressed the words of Darweesh on the scaffold:

“May God compensate us well for this world of meanness, for this world of injustice, for this world of cruelty.”Densawai

Shaw said that because “they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure [he was dead] and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging, thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each.”

The House of Commons was later told that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions”, “all possible humanity was shown in carrying them out”, and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.”

The Egyptian police official who accompanied the soldiers to the village testified in court that after Abd-el’s wife had been shot the officers fired twice on the mob. For his testimony he was stood down, brought before a Court of Discipline and sentenced to two years imprisonment and fifty lashes.

Those in parliament who called into question the Tribunal and its legality were accused of being unpatriotic and of giving succour to “the venal agitators” in Egypt, that is, those who wanted an end to the occupation.

(Déjà vu! On Wednesday in the House of Commons when Tory leader Michael Howard repeatedly demanded an apology from Blair for exaggerating intelligence evidence on Iraq Blair went on to accuse him of failing to back British troops: “It would be more helpful if you would back our troops out in Iraq, rather than doing what you are doing now,” he said.)

Shaw warned then, in a message which resonates even now: “If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 – and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats – then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters…”

In a later preface to ‘John Bull’ Shaw wrote, “Nothing was learnt from Denshawai or the Black and Tan terror.”

What Shaw’s story about Denshawai does is remind us that for all the British guff about the unchanging “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and South Tyrone” and our local, allegedly never-ending conflict, there is one thing that truly never changes and that is British imperial arrogance – from Winston Churchill to Tony Blair.

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