26 June 2003 Edition
Always look on the bright side
When is a 17% reduction in support, being overtaken by your political rivals and winning a by-election you should never had to fight (SDLP infighting, wouldn't you know?) greeted as "an excellent result"? When you happen to lead the SDLP, that's when!
Because that is exactly what happened in the by-election in South Down and that is how the SDLP leadership responded. Just how the SDLP leadership can view a one-third decline in the party's vote from 51% to 34%, and an increase in support for Sinn Féin from 26% to 34.5%, in an area that has traditionally been an SDLP stronghold, is beyond me.
With leadership like this, I can now understand how the SDLP have managed to respond to the fact that Sinn Féin is now the largest republican and nationalist party. They think being overtaken by Sinn Féin was an "excellent result".
Where have the working class gone?
Justin Moran's excellent article (An Phoblacht, 19 June) Left Turn Needed, on why Sinn Féin must come out of the cupboard with socialism, shows the way forward to political power.
But Justin has one serious fault that he is not aware of - his use of words. He uses the words "Working Class" eight times. I counted.
Let me explain. It was in the mid-1970s in England. I was attending a summer school for Labour supporters. At the school were two apprentice plumbers from Newcastle. The subject came up and I asked them what class they were - upper class, middle class or working class.
"Middle class," they both promptly said.
"Oh, dear," I thought.
I realised Labour was going to drive these apprentice plumbers from Newcastle into voting Tory.
At that time, Labour's public message was "We're the party of the working class". But out among the voters there weren't any working class left. Not, at least, among young working people. A few older people in the council estates called themselves "working class" but they were very much a minority.
The Labour Party had lost touch with ordinary people.
I was an election agent at the time. I chopped all reference to the "working class". We didn't do too badly.
But it was a different story for the party nationally - 18 years of Thatcherism before they realised their mistake.
Now I'm not saying drop socialism like the turncoat Tony Blair, just smarten up and use the words people use themselves.
In Ireland today, everybody describes themselves as middle class. What we want is socialism and equality for the great middle class mass of Irish people.
The problem with the 's' word
Kudos to Justin Moran on a thought-provoking article on Sinn Féin's left-wing credentials. However, there are many pitfalls in what he suggests, although the general thrust is commendable.
Firstly, I do not think we should do ourselves the disservice of comparison to the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP is a rag-tag organisation, led by an opportunist, who will never hold power.
Secondly, in being overtly socialist, are we going to attract the type of grandstanding activist who is attracted to the other 'socialist' parties, ie. middle class students with a social conscience, which quickly dissipates with the first whiff of a salary.
It's also arguable that if the result is the same, it doesn't matter about the terminology. Preaching 'socialism' may be akin to shaking a hornets' nest, brim full of the problems of the last century, and not of our making. Instead, we may argue for equality on the same basis, without the negative connotations.
It is also impossible to discuss socialism without recognising the profound effect of the prevalence of capitalism, the primacy of the US, and the collapse of the USSR.
It is worth remembering that the 's' word is a red rag to the bull on the other side of the Atlantic. It is much harder to argue against equality. To win the peace, we must outsmart the forces of reaction.
It's the way you teach it
Paul O'Connor's piece on republicanism and the Gaelic language was balanced and fair, I thought. He mentioned that his Irish teacher would apologise for 'inflicting' Peig Sayer's book on his students, which he told them would be 'only for one year'. The old adage comes to mind that 'a bad carpenter blames his tools'.
Whilst Peig quite often had a propensity for rambling on, it is well to remember that she was first and foremost a renowned seanchaí whose gift was in telling stories with such skill that she could weave a spell around her fireside audience. The lowly hearth was her theatrical arena but many of her themes had an international resonance. Her stories encompassed the perennial themes of love, despair, revenge, bravery, joie de vivre, etc.
Her mind was steeped in a vibrant oral tradition redolent with numerous cross-cultural references, so that 'Ou sont les neiges d'antan?' became 'Cá bhfuil an sneachta a bhí anuraidh ann?'
The point is that a good teacher, such as I luckily had, would (a) be professional enough to do the richness and relevance of the text justice and (b) enthuse the students by the quality of his or her teaching and knowledge.
Seamus O Muirthile
Taking to task
With reference to An Phoblacht's editorial of 12 June, who or what is 'the nationalist political establishment'?
Bertie Ahern and a couple of SDLP politicians tried to convince us that the North and South referendums, not the Good Friday Agreement itself, represented a legitimate act of national self determination. Obviously this was nonsense, given the Irish people in the Six Counties are still subject to British rule.
According to your editorial, Sinn Féin rejected Bertie Ahern's interpretation. To the best of my knowledge, on one occasion Gerry Adams briefly stated that we had not achieved self determination.
The point I would like to make is that Sinn Féin was as much involved as 'the nationalist political establishment' in the 'long and arduous negotiations' which produced the GFA. It follows that Sinn Féin is equally to blame.
Another point, your editorial stated 'the term Irish republican is often used in a narrow sense to describe members and supporters of Sinn Fein, but a broader definition is required which embraces all those who share a commitment to the complete freedom of the Irish people'. What happened to the idea of abolishing certain names and substituting the common name of Irish people?
Where Irish culture is at
Paul O'Connor's 19 June article in An Phoblacht, titled Gaelic and Free, was certainly a timely and compelling piece, but I must express my objection to some of the central assumptions and arguments he makes, and the logic with which they are expressed.
O'Connor's criticism of the "primitivism" and obfuscating "Celtic mists" that have often marred the efforts of Irish language enthusiasts is certainly merited, but his argument follows similarly depressing lines of thought. Indeed, it seems to me that the over-politicisation of the Irish language, a practice in which O'Connor engages, has repulsed the interest of potential learners more than the much-derided Peig could ever have done.
The rhetorical exaggeration of his argument - the proclamations that if we are to neglect the language we are "condemning all those generations of Irish-speaking men and women to silence forever" (monuar! and ochón! ochón! indeed), and that the language exists as a "declaration that we Irish are still here in spite of every effort to crush us as a separate people" - do little to inspire. We shouldn't use the language to "restore the past", he says, but why, then, should we be trying to save "those generations" of which Peig was a very representative exemplum, from "silence"? Doesn't he want to shut Peig up?
Silencing has largely been conducted by the elites of society, since time immemorial. History has been recorded from 'above' and, thus, we know little of the vast body of people who inhabited our past, because we tend to focus on the figureheads. The habitual, banal world of a Peig or Tomás Ó Criomhthain, their lives of perpetual drudgery and pain, hold little interest in historical terms - or so the prevalent convention says.
So, if Peig, and the majority of our ancestors who lived just like her, are not where Irish culture is at, who is? Cúchulainn, says he, "defending his land from his enemies" is "an emblem of defiance and heroic courage". Samuel Beckett's frenzied character Neary, in his novel Murphy, crazily dashing his head against the buttocks of the Cúchulainn statue in Dublin's GPO, registers the kind of frustration I feel when I hear this kind of gobbledigook. Cúchulainn, as an "emblem of defiance and heroic courage", has indeed been used in recent UDA murals. Do we really want to invoke such a parallel?
I agree with O'Connor that Irish must be part of a "vibrant popular culture", but it has to be fun - not some museumised heirloom we drudge up from the past and superimpose on a present that is largely oblivious to it. It can't be associated just with the Cúchulainns or even the Peigs, but with the here and now. We can cherish and enjoy tradition without making it staid and anachronistic.
This was the success of the Revival, to some extent, tapping into the youth culture of the time, making Irish an exciting part of a general cultural phenomenon. But we must not make the mistakes of those revivalists who alienated Douglas Hyde by portraying the language as the preserve of an ethnic group of which he, as a Protestant, was not a part.
Irish, then, in my opinion, cannot be merely a "badge of distinctiveness". It can form part of an effort at distancing in a globalised consumer culture, but this part must not be contrived or artificial, or else it will bore and fall flat on its face. O'Connor pithily re-contextualises Virginia Woolf's call for women to find "a room of one's own", but didn't she also say that "life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged"? Identity is not as simple or straightforward as a mathematical equation, as O'Connor's simplistic claim that "English is the language of global capitalism and the Disneyworld culture that accompanies it". Eurodisney is in France - are we to reject French as well?
This fundamentalism is tired, and a little silly. It is the equivalent of the UKUP's Bob McCartney, on a recent programme, claiming that he and his people own Shakespeare. I presume I'm not included in this gang, but don't I own Shakespeare as well? And for that matter, what about Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, Yeats, Swift, Goldsmith, Behan, OíCasey...?
Yet he asks us to "foster cultural diversity and distinctiveness on the island"! The fact is that the "hoary antique" from a Connemara cottage, indeed, that social history, or 'writing from below', of Peig, is just as much a part of Irish culture as Shakespeare, Shaw, or Eminem (sadly, the latter may now take precedence), or, indeed, anything O'Connor would like to resurrect. He talks of a homogenous "Irish culture" - but what about Irish "cultures", what about recognising that there is a huge diversity in what Irishness can mean? The Irish language will thrive if it is allowed to stand on its own merits, not as some adjunct to a political project. Languages are just a means of expressing ideas. It's the ideas that count.
Do we want an "Ireland Gaelic and free"? O'Connor fails to answer the question he sets himself. Free, certainly, but Gaelic? As a Gaeilgeoir and someone who very much enjoys that language as well as the one in which I write, I think we should be cherishing diversity rather than placing boundaries on what is or is not Irish. Our hybridity is nothing to be ashamed of - if we're mongrels, it's better than being inbred.