My address to the Planet K conference in Venice: Some years ago IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands wrote a great poem called ‘The Rhythm of Time’. In it he paid tribute to the uprising of the Roman slaves under Spartacus, to the Aztecs and Incas who were butchered by the Conquistadors, to the native Indians in North America and to Irish republicans who had fought British rule. In this canvas which covered the history of the world he points out that oppressed people will fight for freedom because they know that their cause is right.
In another poem, called ‘I Would Like’, the Russian Yevgeny Yevtushenko also pays homage to internationalism. In his poem he says that he would like to be born in every country and have a passport for them all and he would like to speak every language.
“I would like to be
reincarnated as a man
in any image:
a victim of prison tortures,
a homeless child in the slums of Hong Kong,
a living skeleton in Bangladesh,
a holy beggar in Tibet,
a black in Cape Town,
in the image of Rambo…[!]
“And I would like happiness,
but not at the expense of the unhappy,
and I would like freedom,
but not at the expense of the unfree.”
Revealingly, in the last lines of this long poem he confesses that when he dies, despite his internationalist sentiments, there is only one place he wants to be laid to rest and that is in his “Russian, Siberian earth, on a still-green hill, where I first felt I was everyone.”
Yevtushenko is acknowledging his love of his homeland and the magnetic pull of the homeland, and that we are precisely who we are because of parents and brothers and sisters, and that the strongest influences on us are what we learn at the hearth and in the home and how we locate ourselves in the land, the town, the country of our birth and the history with which we identify.
Eva Hoffman left Poland for the USA when she was fourteen and later wrote a book called, ‘Lost In Translation’. She wrote:
“The country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love… All it has given me is the world, but that is enough. It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colours and the furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured: no geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations.”
Historically, displacement, dispossession, bullying by superior powers is part of the sad and tragic history of humankind.
But we need to distinguish between two main types of human migration.
There are those who march into other people’s territories heavily armed, who seize control, who try to make the conquered territory in their own image by colonisation and who then write history to justify the ‘inevitability’ of their actions, almost as if they were carrying out the will of God [and they usually claim that God is on their side!].
We know they are actually carrying out the will of man – greedy, avaricious man. Traditions will be outlawed and the native tongue banned and criminalised in order to produce a uniform society, a society which is obedient but actually culturally impoverished because the more languages, books and literature there are in the world the richer it actually is.
Those natives who resist being evicted from their homes or driven off their land or being subjugated as slaves in their own land are demonised as being savages or criminals or, if they rebel, ‘terrorists’.
Although the ‘wretched of the earth’ as Franz Fanon described them, have often been either driven into the squalor of ghettoes, reservations and (allegedly, temporary) refugee camps, and felt some safety in their numbers, the real inventors of borders and those who decide to partition nations are outsiders, are imperialists, the ruling classes, those with power and fire-power. And to seize and control land and resources they will use all means from genocide to cultural imperialism. For them those with lesser powers are “lesser people, with lesser rights, morals and claims.”
It is this oppression that provokes resistance and armed struggle: the need for people to morally assert themselves even if means suffering, imprisonment and death.
The second type of migration is that of people fleeing poverty, pogrom or oppression – or even in pre-history just seeking new pastures because the productivity of the land has been exhausted and could no longer sustain the population. At first people went on foot; later, the introduction of efficient means of transport allowed people to travel vaster distances, to other continents.
When people migrate in large enough numbers they actually change the demographics of the new land. And although they have known what it means to suffer and hunger they often ignore the rights of those who were there before them.
They ignore what Yevtushenko said:
“I would like happiness,
but not at the expense of the unhappy,
and I would like freedom,
but not at the expense of the unfree.”
These immigrants can be as brutal towards the indigenous people as the imperialists with whom they often act in conjunction when their interests coincide. It happened to the native people of the Americas: it happens today before our eyes in Palestine. In many cases, the colonists, ironically, often become “natives” of the land they occupy and within a few generations often break away from the ‘mother’ country, so to speak.
My grandparents were born in an Ireland that was united, where there was no border. Of course, the people who dominated politics, the land, the economy and the military were the minority who originally came from our neighbouring island, Britain, dispossessed the natives and settled in Ireland. They were Protestants, the native Irish were Catholics, and these Protestants believed that their interests lay in union with Britain. Initially, the British, or English, banned and tried to stamp out the Catholic religion because it was linked to Irish nationalism. Later, it was Irish Republicanism, the IRA and Sinn Fein, which Britain tried to suppress.
As the British parliamentary system began to be reformed and the right to vote was increasingly extended to Irish Catholics the Unionists/Protestant minority realised that democracy threatened their privileged position.
In the war of independence the IRA fought the British and there were negotiations in 1921. But Britain then decided to partition Ireland and an artificial state was created – Northern Ireland. It was a sectarian state handed over to Protestants. Catholics, who made up one third of the population, suffered discrimination and violence. They were second-class citizens in their own country. Their votes did not count. Many of them had to emigrate to find work.
The border – as borders notoriously do – cut through people’s homes and farms. At the home of a friend of mine in south Armagh, the border ran through his bedroom which meant that when he goes to bed his head is in the Republic of Ireland and his feet are in the North of Ireland!
When I was young, and growing up in the North of Ireland, it was an offence to fly the Irish national flag, the Tricolour. We were not allowed to celebrate our culture. We were not allowed to march in Belfast city centre. Even our marches in our own areas to commemorate our patriotic dead were banned and attacked by the police. Irish sporting events were not broadcast on local BBC radio or television. The unionist government was hostile to all things Irish, including the Irish language.
The Irish language had been in decline for a long time, due to restrictions under British rule and, of course, the language suffered a devastating blow in the wake of the Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century when a million people died and two million other people emigrated to escape disease and poverty.
But there were those in the Irish language movement who kept the native language alive, even in the North.
The greatest boost to the Irish language in the past 25 years actually came from the prisons. There, Bobby Sands and his comrades who died on hunger strike, and other IRA prisoners learnt and spoke Irish so that their jailors would not understand what they were saying. When prisoners were released they taught their children Irish. Irish schools were opened and have now flourished so that there is an important revival and even in West Belfast, where I live, there is a quarter in the Falls Road dedicated to promoting the daily use of Irish in coffee shops, in business and transactions.
As a result of the peace process and the Belfast Agreement which established a power-sharing government, there is financial support for the Irish language. In fact, the Education Minister is Caitriona Ruane, a fluent speaker and a member of Sinn Fein.
When I consider other struggles for freedom and nationhood that are still continuing I realise how lucky we in the IRA were. Although the complete independence of our country has yet to be achieved we were able, firstly, through a peaceful civil rights movement, then through armed struggle when peaceful protest had gone to its limits, to force our enemy to the negotiating table.
It was a long, hard struggle and involved many sacrifices. The dead were many. The injuries many. If you add up the total time spent in prison by our men and women since 1970 it comes to over 100,000 years.
All that suffering and death was completely unnecessary: the deaths of civilians, British soldiers, police officers and IRA Volunteers. It was unnecessary because had Britain and the unionists given at the beginning which they were forced to give at the end then there would have been no conflict – or at least no conflict of the magnitude which took place.
What Britain refused to do was to talk to us, was to engage with us. It claimed that to enter into talks was to give legitimacy to its enemies, without realising that what interests and is important to those engaged in struggle is justice for their people and not for the enemy to recognise them as freedom fighters in some sort of perverse ‘beauty competition’.
There is nothing to lose by talking. But by refusing to talk, governments and states protract conflicts and usually calculate that to delay the inevitable is to their advantage – that their opponents will be weaker and will accept less than what they have been fighting for or what they are due.
Our peace process in Ireland is still going on even though we have a power-sharing government which includes former IRA guerrillas. We are still linked to Britain but we are also linked to the rest of Ireland, even though there are two separate economies and political cultures which are each eighty years old and which it is going to take time to change.
But we have changed things to the extent that the state I now live in is not the state I grew up in. Opportunity is open to all our people. We got rid of the unionist police force, the RUC, and have a new policing service. The British army is no longer in occupation on our streets There remains a lot of work to be done – in community relations and in reconciliation, in social and economic harmonisation – and although there are some Irish republicans who oppose the new deal they are in a minority and do not have sufficient support to affect the overall situation.
Recently, a friend of mine from Canada was visiting us and we were driving from Belfast to County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. My wife and I decided to play a game with her. It was very simple. She was to guess when we crossed the border. Two hours later we arrived on the west coast of Ireland, looking out over the Atlantic, and she asked, “I thought you said we had to cross the border?”
We laughed. She hadn’t noticed. Nor could she.
There is no marking. No customs posts. No British army barbed wire checkpoints. Of course, the border and partition still preoccupies and obsesses the minds of many unionists, but the border, as a frontier of divide, as a bulwark against the Irishness of this island no longer exists.
For those still in struggle, still fighting for independence and freedom and an end to outside interference we Irish republicans offer our well wishes, offer our solidarity and can share with you the lessons we have learnt in the struggle for peace and justice.
Illustration is by Kurdish artist Ilter Rezan, ‘Untitled 2009’