Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
A recent walk at a local beach revealed to me how fast coastal erosion is affecting local communities. This area where I live is essentially a peninsula with two large popular beaches, Donabate beach and Portrane beach which are joined by cliffs, on the coast of north County Dublin, Ireland.
I have already written about erosion at Donabate beach and erosion at the cliffs over the years but, in a far worse condition, is Portrane beach.
As can be seen from photos I took in 2013 compared with the ones I took a few days ago, coastal erosion is happening at a significant rate.
Portrane Beach (looking south), 2013 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Portrane Beach (looking south), 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
According to one local resident, David Shevlin, “We live in the midsection of the beach and our property has lost upwards of about 20 metres of established garden since 2018. […] At the current rate of erosion, our garden was 30 metres and it’s gone to 20 metres in two years so it doesn’t take much to calculate that we don’t have very long.”
Portrane Beach (looking north) 2013 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Portrane Beach (looking north), 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
The local council has tried to stem the rate of erosion with concrete Seabees before more permanent groynes are constructed. A groyne is a structure built perpendicular to the shore, that interrupts water flow and limits the movement of sediment and can be made out of wood, concrete, or stone. According to a local spokesman the Seabees will be “an interim solution pending the installation of specially designed Y-shaped groynes structures which will be complemented by a beach renourishment scheme in order to achieve a suitable beach level. This will reduce incident wave energy along the coastline by limiting the prevailing water depth and thus mitigating the threat of erosion.”
The seriousness of the problem can be seen as the Seabees are almost completely submerged at high tides.
Seabees, Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
The Housing and Planning Minister, Darragh O’Brien, has commented that:
Around Ireland, it’s projected that by 2050, the impact of coastal erosion could potentially affect up to 2 million people who live within 5km of the coast, all the major cities, and much of the country’s industry and infrastructure and utilities, including transport, electricity and water supplies.
A European Commission document describes Irish vulnerability to climate change:
Ireland is the third largest European island. It is situated at the north-west of continental Europe. The coastline measures 4 577 km, bordering the Atlantic Ocean on the north-west and the Irish Sea on the south-east. More than 50% of the population lives within 15km of the Irish coastline. Most of the population is concentrated in cities, with the major coastal cities being Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.
Approximately 20% of Ireland’s entire coast is at risk of erosion. Sea Level Rise (SLR) combined with an increase in severity and frequency of coastal storms is expected to exacerbate the problems, especially along the Atlantic coast.
Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Historically, vertical seawalls were common but now flat-sloped revetments (sloping structures placed on banks or cliffs in such a way as to absorb the energy of incoming water) using rock or unusual shaped concrete units are used to reduce impact on beaches.
It is interesting to see that “in the US hard structures such as revetments and groynes are no longer allowed in many states because of potential negative impacts on the beach and coastal protection is provided by nourishing the beach with sand brought in from external sources. This is called beach nourishment and is now the most common method of coastal protection worldwide but is rarely used in Ireland and it needs to be repeated every three to five years to replenish lost sand. This recurring cost does not fit well with how Irish projects are funded.”
Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
It can be seen that engineers are under serious pressure to come up with new ideas to deal with coastal erosion and, maybe over time and with more experience and newer technology, they will be able to limit erosion with more success. However, we know the seas are rising and despite efforts to hold back the waters, it seems that what is really needed is global action now before large swathes of the planet become uninhabitable.
Symbols are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our self-image,our way of explaining ourselves to others. Symbols in turn determine the kinds of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and remake.
— Mary Robinson, Inauguration speech as President of Ireland, December 3, 1990
Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes […] the Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monument of their subjugation; before the senate house, the statue of their conqueror, within the walls tapestries with the defeats of their fathers. No public statue of an illustrious Irishman has ever graced the Irish Capital. No monument exists to which the gaze of the young Irish children can be directed, while their fathers tell them, ‘This was to the glory of your countrymen’.
— Dublin University Magazine (1856)
On the night of the 8 March 1966 a massive explosion was heard in the centre of Dublin and Nelson’s Pillar came crashing to the ground in hundreds of tons of rubble. No one was hurt and a stump was all that could be seen of the 157 year old monument. It was not the first time that monuments had been attacked in Ireland and certainly not the last, at least figuratively, with a series of later monuments accruing many derogatory nicknames from the Dublin people.
The recent spate of attacks on monuments in the US and the UK has opened up the debate on the cultural issues they provoke, ranging from those who can’t believe the attacks hadn’t happened sooner to those who see their destruction as mob vandalism.
Here, as everywhere, the public sphere is a highly contested one and not just culturally. For example, when the Irish Republic unilaterally declared independence in 1919, the Dáil Courts (Republican Courts) were set up, creating for the time being, a parallel (and popular) judicial system that frustrated the colonial power by undermining British rule in Ireland, and continued until independence.
Similarly the imposition of British cultural history in Ireland, through its monuments, was resented and these monuments became the focal point for the beginnings of a new public cultural space after independence. By wiping the slate clean, presumably it was thought it would be possible to create a new progressive space based on Irish revolutionary figures. However, it did not quite work out like that. As in the political sphere, the public sphere remained a highly contested arena with successive conservative governments using different tactics to defer, reject or hinder progressive sculpture in Dublin
I will look at the fate of some of these British historical monuments and the possibilities for future monuments that would more accurately reflect Irish peoples’ historical struggles for freedom and independence.
‘Removing’ colonial history
‘Attempt to blow up the Albert Statue, Dublin’ (Illustrated Police News, June 1872)
Prince Albert statue
This early attempt on a Dublin statue followed controversy which saw the statue’s location being changed from a central position at College Green, according to Donal Fallon, to finding “itself ultimately in the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. It may surprise some of you to hear the statue is still in Dublin, though now it is inside the grounds of Leinster House.”
The William of Orange statue was smeared with tar several times
William of Orange (1928)
In 1928 the statue of William of Orange (1701–1928) at College Green (in front of Trinity College) was damaged after an explosion on the anniversary of Armistice Day in 1928 and subsequently removed.
Donal Fallon quotes from the brief commentary on the statue that comes from a book, Ireland In Pictures’, dating from 1898:
This equestrian statue of William II stands in College Green, and has stood there, more or less, since A.D 1701. We say “more or less” because no statue in the world, perhaps, has been subject to so many vicissitudes. It has been insulted, mutilated and blown up so many times, that the original figure, never particularly graceful, is now a battered wreck, pieced and patched together, like an old, worn out garment.
Final demolition of William statue (Irish Press 14 September 1945)
If there was one statue that was not going to survive Irish independence this was it. William of Orange defeated James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and ever since William and his victory has been twisted to suit political circumstances of the day. His victory had been celebrated by Unionists in the provocative 12th of July Parades in Ireland through the 19th century and he became a despised figure for Irish Catholics and Nationalists who saw William as a symbol of repression and discrimination. In 1928, the inevitable happened and the statue was blown up. Needless to say it wasn’t rebuilt.
In August 1849, Queen Victoria witnessed her statue being hoisted on the highest gable of the new Queen’s College, now University College Cork. There it remained until 1934 when it was taken down and replaced by Finbarr, Cork’s patron saint. The Victoria statue was put in storage for some years and then bizarrely buried in what was admittedly UCC’s classiest location, the President’s Garden.
The statue of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, Kildare Street (1904–1948) was removed in 1948 as part of moves by the Irish State towards declaring a Republic, and eventually shipped to Sydney, Australia in 1987 where it is now on display on the corner of Druitt and George Street in front of the Queen Victoria Building.
The anger towards British colonialism in Ireland could be seen in newspaper reports of the time, for example:
In 1895, The Nation newspaper noted that Irish migrants in New York had celebrated Victoria’s Jubilee with “the most appropriate celebration”, staging demonstrations and distributing political literature to highlight their view that: “some of the benefits conferred upon Ireland during Victoria’s murderous reign: Died of famine 1,500,000; evicted 3,668,000; expatriated 4,200,000; emigrants who died of ship fever, 57,000; imprisoned under the Coercion Acts, over 3,000; butchered in suppressed public meetings, 300; Coercion Acts, 53; executed for resisting tyranny, 95; died in English dungeons, 270; newspapers suppressed, 12.
The statue of George Howard (Earl of Carlisle) in the Phoenix Park (1870–1956) was blown off its plinth in an explosion in 1956 and moved to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The pedestal remains in place as a memorial. George Howard (1802–1864), the 7th Earl of Carlisle, served under Lord Melbourne as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1841.
The Gough Monument in the Phoenix Park (1880–1957) was blown up in 1957, it was later restored and re-erected in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, England, in 1990. Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough (1779–1869) was a British Army officer born at Woodstown, Annacotty, Ireland. Gough’s colonial credentials are impeccable, serving British forces in China, India and South Africa where he “commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War. After serving as commander-in-chief of the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander-in-Chief, India and led the British forces in action against the Marathas defeating them decisively at the conclusion of the Gwalior Campaign and then commanded the troops that defeated the Sikhs during both the First Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Anglo-Sikh War.”
The attack on the Gough Monument demonstrated that being Irish-born was no guarantee of immunity from denunciation and execration. Indeed, the assaults on colonial monuments also became a subject for Irish writers over subsequent decades too. The well-known Irish writer, Myles na gCopaleen, commented on a previous attack on the Gough monument when it was beheaded on Christmas Eve 1944. Writing in his column, Cruiskeen Lawn in The Irish Times in January 1945, he commented:
Few people will sympathise with this activity; some think it is simply wrong, others do not understand how anybody could think of getting up in the middle of a frosty night in order to saw the head of a metal statue. […] The Gough statue in question was a monstrosity, famous only for the disproportion of the horse’s legs, its present headlessness gives it a grim humour and even if the head is recovered, I urge strongly that no attempt should be made to solder it on.
Gough statue head found (Irish Press April 11, 1945)
The head was eventually found in the River Liffey, the main river running through the centre of Dublin. The fate of the Gough statue is also known because of a poem believed to have been written by another Irish writer, Brendan Behan (though some attribute it to poet Vincent Caprani):
Neath the horse’s prick, a dynamite stick
Some Gallant hero did place
For the cause of our land, with a light in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face.
Then without showing fear, he kept himself clear
Excepting to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And made the poor stallion a mare.
Nelson’s Pillar, O’Connell Street (1809–1966) was blown up in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The head of Nelson’s statue was rescued, and is currently on display in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. His naval victories around Europe, Egypt and the Canaries brought him much fame in Britain and an early death at the age of 47. The remaining stump was blown up by the Irish army to the delight of gathered Dubliners who according to the press “raised a resounding cheer”.
The destruction of the pillar soon became the subject of two songs which both went into the Irish charts. The first called “Nelson’s Farewell” was the first single by The Dubliners and was released in 1966 on the label Transatlantic Records. The gist of the song was that because of the explosion, Nelson, atop the pillar, had been launched into space:
Oh the Russians and the Yanks, with lunar probes they play
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
And I hear the French are trying hard to make up lost headway
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
But now the Irish join the race, we have an astronaut in space
Ireland, boys, is now a world power too
The other song was called “Up Went Nelson”, “set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and performed by a group of Belfast schoolteachers, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for eight weeks”:
One early mornin’ in the year of ’66
A band of Irish laddies were knockin’ up some tricks
They though Horatio Nelson had overstayed a mite
So they helped him on his way with some sticks of gelignite
Despite the regularly re-engineered cityscape of Dublin, the way was not cleared for a spate of representations of Irish national heroes. What was erected tended to be mythologisations of Irish history (the Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance, Cú Chulainn in the GPO: see my 1916 article) as if Irish elites feared the posthumous visages of its bravest and the effect their presence might have on the Dublin populace. What revolutionary figures that do exist in statue form (Tone, Emmett, Connolly etc) tend to be tucked away in parks or on side streets while the main bourgeois nationalist heroes stand on large plinths on Dublin’s main streets (O’Connell, Parnell etc).
The lack of a major monument on a major street in Dublin commemorating, for example, the Great Hunger or the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation shows that, despite the decades of resistance to an imposed history, we are still not allowed to commemorate our own.
Justin Trudeau is campaigning aggressively for a seat on the UN Security Council. Over the past month he has called about two dozen world leaders and recently organized calls with groupings of UN ambassadors from the Americas, Africa, Arab states and Asia. Just prior to the pandemic the PM attended the African Union Summit in Ethiopia and met with all African ambassadors in Ottawa to make his pitch for Canada’s Security Council bid.
Why devote so much energy to winning the seat? Some have labeled it a “vanity project”, which is not far off the mark. A more apt description of the objective, however, is that a Security Council seat serves the government’s branding. It would help the Liberals distinguish themselves from the Conservatives who lost their bid for the Security Council in 2010. Soon after winning the 2015 election Trudeau announced Canada’s candidacy for the UN’s most powerful decision-making body and declared “many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back.”
Part of Trudeau’s appeal is that he is liked internationally. With many Canadians considering it important that people elsewhere like their country, Trudeau has sought to capitalize on that healthy, if somewhat amorphous and easily manipulated, desire.
The second major dynamic driving the bid is Global Affairs’ — and the Canadian state more generally — interest in more power. Institutions tend to seek power for the sake of it. For individuals within the bureaucracy — say an ambassador or the head of a country desk at Global Affairs — the greater the clout of the government they represent the more respect officials elsewhere tend to show them. Most diplomats appreciate that. And with the two main forces shaping Canadian foreign policy — the US Empire and Canadian corporate interests — happy to have Canada garner more clout through the Security Council, why not.
Expanding Canadian power is widely backed in the political culture as well. All the main political parties appear to support the Security Council campaign. People who want Canada to be a force for good in the world should consider this an affront. Canada’s competitors, Ireland and Norway, have far less damaging foreign policies, as highlighted in this story on “10 reasons Canada doesn’t deserve a seat”. Ireland and Norway have half Canada’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions; They have consistently voted for Palestinian rights at the UN; They are derelict on fewer international conventions; They aren’t part of the imperialist, Venezuela-focused Lima Group or Haiti-focused Core Group. Basically, if you oppose rich nations dumping their trash in poor countries, support nuclear disarmament and reducing greenhouse gas emissions you should prefer Ireland and Norway win the two Western Europe and Others seats.
Still, the NDP and Greens back Canada’s Security Council bid. Even former NDP MPs identified with the left of the party were mostly unwilling to support the #NoUNSC4Canada open letter while former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis has sounded like a cheerleader for Canada’s Security Council bid in a number of recent interviews.
Not only are Ireland and Norway better candidates for the two positions than Canada but losing the seat would deliver a blow to Trudeau that could benefit the NDP and Greens. A loss would be harder on Trudeau than Harper since the Liberals base supports the UN and the international body is closely linked to how they market their foreign policy.
If Canada loses the seat it will be interesting to see if the NDP and Greens continue their ‘Team Canada’ approach to the Security Council bid or if they take the opportunity to criticize Trudeau’s anti-Palestinian voting record, failure to sign international conventions, indifference to nuclear disarmament, etc. If they pass up the opportunity to embarrass Trudeau on the issues it would be a devastating comment on the power of ‘Team Canada’ foreign policy ideology.
Canada will never become a force for good in the world until its citizens stop blindly cheering for ‘their side’ and actually pay attention to what governments are doing in their name.
The last of a series of gigs I’ve been doing over the past six weeks on the road was last night. I don’t always manage to collect my thoughts on the experience into a blog post, but I will this time.
For a very long time now I have usually been doing two tours of this length or longer, every spring and every autumn. Sometimes my lack of a blog post at the end is because I have no particularly new or trenchant observations to make about the places I’ve just been — at least not ones that are so distinct from the sorts of observations I made on my last pass through a given place. Other times, I just don’t find the time. It is frequently the case that the morning after my last gig on a tour, I’m flying home. I tell myself I’m going to write in the plane, but then I usually find the conditions are too cramped, and the prospect of a nap and a couple of movies is more attractive, under the circumstances. Then, getting home, I have several children to reconnect with after their father’s long absence, and the tour fades away from the sharpest parts of my memory, replaced with slides, swing sets and climbing walls.
The fact that I have two days free at the end of this tour to spend on a travelogue is part of the story of the tour, to be sure. The length of the tour — a little over six weeks — was shorter than my usual two months. This was intentional from the start. Two months is too long to be away from young children, I decided a while ago. But even filling these six weeks up with gigs proved to be a challenge, one which I failed to meet.
I don’t want to dwell on this depressing point, but it’s actually worse than it sounds. Spending a week working on my upcoming album in Ireland was already part of the tour plan. So really it was more a five-week tour. Despite the fact that it had been about a year since I had been to any of the countries I toured in this time, I wasn’t even able to fill every available Friday and Saturday night with gigs. In the end, I had 15 paying gigs, along with several protests to sing at, the album project, etc. This was a good ten fewer gigs than I was originally hoping to have, and which I certainly could have fit in to my schedule, if they had materialized.
I won’t try to analyze why the tour went this way, because, thankfully, in Europe at least, this is not a trend, it’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. If it happens again in the spring, I’ll call it a trend — and a devastating one at that. If it is a trend, then it will be following in the wake of what has already happened in the United States, for me. Despite the fact that around half of my listeners in the world are located in the US, according to all the online platforms where people find my music these days, and despite the fact that I live in the infamously artistic and theoretically progressive city of Portland, Oregon, I’m barely ever able to find anyone in the country who is able and willing to organize a gig that I can afford to do without losing money in the effort of getting there.
And while that trend also most certainly continues, that’s the last I’ll say about it. Now, we move on from the “poor me” section of the travelogue, to other things.
The tour began with a flight to St Louis, a night in a Motel 6, a rare phone interview with a community radio station the following morning, and a drive in a rental car several hours to the southeast, to Carbondale, Illinois. Two organizers I’ve known for a long time, Anne Peterman and Orin Langelle, and the organization they have been spearheading for many years, the Global Justice Ecology Project, were part of a collective effort to attempt to rise to the occasion, in this age of flood and fire.
I can’t say, from my limited vantage point, how this extended weekend of workshops and meetings and such went, overall. What was abundantly clear was the organizers had managed to bring together a collection of some real heavy-hitters from all over North America and a few from even further afield. People who were or had recently been on the front lines of local, national and international campaigns of civil disobedience in defense of their threatened homes and homelands. Water protectors from Lakota lands and from the bayous of Louisiana. People trying to protect forests, forest people and forest economies in Brazil from massive corporations intent on assassinating leaders and razing everything around them for short-term profit, while doing it all with a bizarre eco-friendly fig leaf. People trying to prevent logging and mining operations from destroying the last of the privately-owned forest lands, along with all the clean water in places like southern Illinois.
It was, for me, a reunion with many environmental activists I had not seen in ten or twenty years, who I used to see more often, when times were different, when there were student organizations with budgets to organize gigs of the sort that used to keep many of these activists on perpetual speaking and organizing tours, along with many like-minded musicians, such as me. (Oops, I said I was done with that topic.) Despite the many recent battles fought, we’re unquestionably losing, again and again, and the feeling of defeat among the ranks of those in attendance was pervasive. I would rather say something different, and I know the organizers would surely rather I did, but that would be lying, and there’s no point in that sort of deceit. There was little optimism anywhere to be found that weekend in what was once Shawnee country. I was not there to attend meetings, and I did not attend any of them, but I was on the periphery of them enough to feel the treacherous, divisive winds of Extreme Identity Politics blowing from many directions, the toxic ideology of many lost people, particularly among the youth. It’s nothing new, though the words change. Me and many of my friends were similarly lost when we were young, suffering from the same lack of intergenerational coherency of radical thought that most of the US has been suffering from for most of the past century. It’s also nothing new that in the absence of an optimistic, forward-looking social movement, we tend to turn in on each other.
In stark contrast to this air of defeat, strangely enough, was Mike Africa, Jr. He and I were two of the musical guests for the weekend. Sometime in the late 1990’s was the last time I had seen Mike, and it was from a distance. It was in his home town of Philadelphia, and he was on a flatbed truck of some kind, part of a march in solidarity with death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Someone pointed him out to me at the time. “Those are Move kids,” I remember someone saying.
I was probably around thirty then, and Mike would have been around eighteen. At that time, his parents had spent eighteen years in prison. They would go on to spend 22 more years in prison between that day in Philadelphia and the next time I would see Mike, in Illinois, this time much more up close.
I spent most of two days talking with Mike, rediscovering his brilliant poetry and music, which, I learned, had been basically on hiatus since the last time I had seen him, so long ago. After raising several children and ultimately, in 2018, seeing his parents finally freed from prison in Pennsylvania, Mike is ready to start touring again. We talked about politics, life and history, but mostly we talked about the logistics of being an independent touring performer and how to attempt to make a living at it in the modern age, while remaining firmly connected to social movements — a tricky thing in so many ways (and I’ll leave it at that). We quickly decided we should tour Europe together in the spring of 2020.
Aside from the logistical aspects — that I think I can interest people in Europe in organizing stops on such a tour, because Mike is a great hiphop artist with a fascinating life story that is, I can already report, of great interest to many people in Europe and elsewhere — what is also so compelling about Mike is the optimism in his words. The importance of optimism in times like these cannot be overstated. It’s the only thing that can change the world. Not that optimism alone can change the world — just that without it, we’re surely doomed.
After my few days in Illinois, the tour took me to Germany, Ireland, Scotland and England. I’ve noticed an increasing number of people on Twitter refer to themselves as “space travelers, like you.” It seems appropriate to use a term that is evocative of another, fictional kind of travel, because space travel can often be a lot like time travel.
It’s not that Germany in 2019 feels exactly like traveling in time to somewhere else. But it bears many similarities, along with the differences. Singing at massive rallies organized by unions, that’s something I’ve never experienced in the US, which is a fairly common part of my experience of Germany (not that there were any on this particular trip). Other things, like singing at a small protest through a sound system in solidarity with a Latin American country — in this case Venezuela — was an experience I used to have frequently in the US, but not since 2006 or so. Singing at such a protest while someone was filming it, who then put the video up on YouTube, was an experience that has long since gone out of fashion in the US, in my little world. It’s been years since anyone did that, that I can recall. It used to happen almost daily.
In Freiburg, the Squatting Days series of events folks were having at the venerable KTS squatted social center beside the train tracks on the outskirts of the city were going to culminate in the squatting of a new building. The organizers decided, if I was up for it, to change the plan for the concert, so instead of having it at KTS, we’d do it at a newly-squatted building.
The building in question was a three-story structure with six two-bedroom apartments, very solidly built, as is typical in Germany. Because of some kind of legal dispute involving the building, it had been vacant for years. This band of squatters intended to change that, at least temporarily. As it turned out, very temporarily. The occupation lasted about a half hour before most of the occupiers, including me and my musical collaborator on the occasion, vacated the premises. I am happy to say that it took several cops a very long time to look the foreign musicians up in their computers, which may very well have allowed a lot of squatters to casually leave the area without being noticed.
It was my first visit to the Hambach Forest, or what little is left of it, there beside the biggest coal mine in Europe, since Steffen Meyn fell to his death a year earlier. More time travel — to two years earlier in the same place, or to the early 1990’s in California or Idaho. The death of Steffen Meyn, combined with the rising activism around climate chaos that has been sweeping Europe and elsewhere in recent years, bears more and more resemblance to what we might call the heyday of what was known as the radical environmental movement in the US circa thirty years ago. It also bears much of the same disconnect between punk, cop-despising treehuggers, and many average people who don’t understand their priorities. These are not the Yellow Vests, or their German equivalent. Many of them, like their Earth First cousins in North America, would not be embarrassed to admit that they prefer the company of squirrels to that of most people. Their experiences with the police has not helped with their misanthropy at all.
Although I have deep affection for humanity in every society in which I have encountered the species, very much including both Germany and Ireland, there are so many contrasts. In Germany, as in the US and other countries with a deeply imperial imprint on the planet, to be a nationalist is to be a racist and a xenophobe. In Germany, if you have too great an interest in the folk music of your region, you will draw suspicion from people who identify as left-wing. Anyone who wears those traditional German trousers is assumed by any black-clad resident of Kreuzberg to be a closet fascist.
In Ireland, it may be a complex and fraught thing for someone from a Loyalist neighborhood in the northern Six Counties to have an interest in the Irish language or in Irish music, but for most anyone else on the island, having an abiding interest in your native language, your native music, your native country, and your native culture is to a very large extent wrapped up in the concept of Irish nationalism, which is itself completely historically wrapped up in internationalism and international solidarity.
The deep interest in Irish culture that is pervasive in Ireland has none of the flavor of identity politics that you’ll find throughout North America, and none of the genocidal intentions that can be lurking in the shadows — or often very much in the open — in German, US or British nationalism. It is the nationalism of a people who have been told for centuries that they are not a people, or if they are, they are an inferior sort of people who should change, and stop speaking their language, singing their songs, playing their music, dancing their dances — for a long time, on pain of torture, imprisonment, death and/or exile.
Being there among my friends and within their communities, I feel like I can breath fully. Which could be a strange thing to say, when you consider the fact that most of my friends in that part of Ireland have had friends and relatives tortured, killed or imprisoned for decades. This is not so much history, as very recent, living memory, and also a simmering back-burner sort of present. Rumors are everywhere, including in the press, that Loyalist militias are stockpiling weapons again. Throughout the Cooley Mountains, where the album project was taking place, the metal signs are riddled with high-caliber bullet holes, along with the low-caliber ones. (It’s easy to tell the difference. The high-caliber bullets go cleanly through the metal, while the other ones just make dents.)
Despite what to many might feel like an ever-present threat of violence, there is, for me, a much more powerful presence of a deeply felt identification by a people with their own culture, history and place. A culture which at least some people on the island have managed to not only preserve, but which continues to evolve, to interact with other cultures freely, and to continually produce world-influencing content (to use a modern term) of all kinds.
I was in Ireland this time for one purpose — to make an album. I had run into Pol Mac Adaim in the summer in Denmark, which is when he mentioned that he had access to a home recording studio in Ireland. Given that the musicians I most wanted to make an album with live in Ireland and Scotland, and included Pol, and given the fact that Pol was making this offer out of a desire to promote what he calls folk music (which is not defined the same way by the music industry, let’s just say), it was an easy decision for me to make.
Lorna McKinnon, Kamala Emanuel and I landed in Dublin, rented a car, and headed north to Ma Baker’s Pub in the ancient Norman village of Carlingford, in County Louth, just south of the border with County Down, and what people refer to as the North, the Six Counties, the Occupied Six Counties, or Northern Ireland, depending on who you’re talking to. It was after midnight by the time we managed to get there, and Pol’s gig was over. We followed him home, deep into a network of narrow little roads, eventually ending at a house surrounded by forested hills and fields dotted with sheep, quietly munching the grass around them. This would be where we’d spend six 13-hour days recording guitar and vocal parts for the album, for which Pol has since been laying down pipe and whistle tracks, in preparation for the final phase of the process, that of mixing and mastering.
The recording experience was magical. Or at least that’s what seems like the most appropriate word to use, when the sum of the parts equal so much more than any mathematical calculation would ever deliver. Lorna and Kamala’s months of work on creating complex vocal arrangements, combined with Pol’s insights and abilities as a producer and engineer, were together creating a musical experience that was nothing like what any of the songs could ever have accomplished with just my voice and guitar as vehicles.
When we weren’t recording, we were often talking. Pol is the only one among his brothers who has not spent decades in prison. He and his siblings grew up in Ardoyne, a particularly hard neighborhood in Belfast to grow up in, surrounded as it is by often very hostile Loyalist neighborhoods. The conversations, along with some refreshing of my knowledge of certain events in recent Irish history, led to a song that I finished soon after I left the island.
The beautiful northern region of the larger island to the east, Scotland, is a place of many contradictions, all of which seem to be at the very forefront of people’s attention these days. This is also very much the case lately in England. Most of the fissures in society and politics are the same, but they play out somewhat differently.
Scottish society was recently riven by the question of Scottish independence, which the voters ultimately voted against. Then came Brexit, which most Scottish people also voted against, but which they are now stuck with, along with Northern Ireland and, for obvious reasons of history, sovereignty, culture, trade, geography and politics, the rest of Ireland as well. Brexit may not be itself a massive dividing issue in Scotland, since most Scots opposed it. But what is almost as divisive in Scotland as it is in England in recent months is how you stand on voting for Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labor Party.
The issue in both Scotland and England is distressingly and confusingly not a simple left-right issue. To dip into it a little: most, but by no means all, Scottish left-wingers supported Scottish independence. But even if they didn’t, they still are interested in political devolution, or local autonomy, whatever you want to call it. So they’re interested in promoting Scottish political parties that will look out for the Scottish working class, among other things, naturally enough.
But many radicals in England have joined the Labor Party in the very recent past, because of the new leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which many people in England are wildly excited about, quite understandably, since he represents the most left leadership to challenge the neoliberal status quo of the party, and the government overall, since the 1960’s, at least. Scotland now has plenty of Labor Party organizers trying to convince people who would normally vote for the Scottish National Party or another Scottish party, to hold their noses and vote Labor. They are viewed alternately as pragmatists or traitors, depending on who you talk to and how much they’ve had to drink.
The contradictions of life for many people in Scotland, for Scottish history, to some extent, seem to be fairly well represented in the family history of one young man I met in Dundee, at my first of four gigs in Scotland on the tour. He was related to two of my songs. One of his relatives was a factory worker in East Kilbride who refused to repair the Chilean Air Force jet engines. And one going further back was a member of the Scottish military regiment that put down the Welsh uprising of 1831.
First of all, I need to share my favorite songs that I heard people sing while I was there. I had opening acts at most of my gigs, many of whom seemed to think their main job was to depress the audience in preparation for my set. In stark contrast to these depressing, preachy left-wing guys and sometimes gals who kept on opening for me in various places, the best musicians I heard in my travels were at the two open mics I played at, where I was the feature act. Here’s one I had to record, after getting her to do it a second time, a brilliant song about gentrification in London, recorded with my phone at Archie Shuttler’s open mic at the Telegraph.
One of the other highlights of the tour on a musical level was hearing a musician I’ve now known for many years who is currently going by the stage name, Morning Crush, singing one of my songs on the streets of Kingston-Upon-Thames, where he can frequently be found busking. He first heard my music when he was 14 — one of several folks I met at various gigs who first heard me when they were 14.
England, more than anywhere I’ve been lately outside of the US, is in some kind of convulsive state. It’s infinitely exacerbated by the entirely servile media, from the Guardian to the BBC to the rampant Murdoch tabloid press and tabloid TV, which continually paint Jeremy Corbyn alternately as a clown, a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, or some other such nonsense. As with the US media and bipartisan political establishment and its relationship with Bernie Sanders, the British media and establishment would prefer to have some form of fascism over having anyone in power who dares to talk about nationalizing industries like health care or — gasp — housing. The need for people to have medical care and housing are massive industries — nationalize them, and anything could be next. Which is true — and the rich are aware of this fact, unfortunately.
Complicating matters massively is, once again, Brexit. The much-hated current Prime Minister, Boris Eton Johnson, has long been championing the Brexit cause, which most of the population of the UK voted for in 2016. Although Corbyn and many other socialists have long been more interested in a government that serves the interests of the working class and the environment rather than banks and oil companies, whether it’s a government based in London or in Brussels, he has effectively been shoved into the Remain box, becoming the de facto representative of the European Union, an institution which is about as popular as Boris Johnson.
The widespread optimism that characterized England a year ago, the last time I traveled in the country, is gone. The love of Corbyn among his base, the recent Labor Party converts from the left, and most of the Labor Party members, is still there, but the optimism that accompanied his unexpected election to party leader, that this might somehow be transformed into a Labor majority in parliament and a Corbyn-led government, is no longer. Perhaps he’ll win in the upcoming general election, but if he does, it will be a surprise to the entire political spectrum in the UK, as it is currently constituted on paper.
Despite the glum mood, and the fact that so many people I know are canvassing for the Labor Party, starting just before I landed in Britain, all of the gigs that I had in England were really good. Some of the venues were too small to fit everyone who wanted to come, partly because we’re losing some of the bigger venues. The Islington Folk Club in London was packed as it always is, but since it was forced to relocate to a smaller space, packing the club now requires about a third as many people as it used to (and, of course, the gig pays much less than it used to as a result).
One of the new and very poignant experiences of playing in England on this tour involved the reactions by audiences to my new song about the pogroms in 1969 in the Six Counties. There were various interesting aspects to the experience. Audiences were always listening extra intently to that song. Many times, applause afterwards was more sustained than usual, as if to quietly make the point, we understand. Many English people thanked me for writing about this important subject, specifically. Many people from Belfast, Derry or other northern Irish towns who were at gigs in England shouted their approval, talked to me after the show, and told me how moved they were, how important it was that this was being talked about, and how much they had suffered from discrimination in England over the decades that many of them had been living there.
Pol Mac Adaim had talked to me about how well the British establishment had kept the truth of the occupation of Ireland and other brutally occupied colonies of the empire hidden from the average British subject. But, he added, some people know the truth. The soldiers who occupied his country live there, and they know. It was these ex-soldiers that I also kept meeting at every gig where I sang that song. They’re everywhere, and many of them, even though in many cases they’re in their sixties and seventies by now, they’re still too traumatized by the experience to talk about it much beyond letting me know they were there, and thanking me for the song. The remorse is palpable, though apparently unexpressable.
The last time I had been in London I sang at a vigil outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Julian Assange was then essentially imprisoned. Some great filmmakers present that day made some great clips on Twitter out of the event. I contacted one of them to see if he wanted to do some kind of thing in front of Belmarsh Prison, where Assange is now being held, as they consider extraditing him to the United States. I realized the best thing would be for me to write a new song for the occasion, and the resulting music video that came of this collaboration is already a highlight of my career, such as it is. I’ll sign off with that, in case you missed it…
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
— John F. Kennedy, Remarks at Amherst College on the Arts, October 26, 1963
Poetry is often associated with genteel people and laid-back lifestyles, yet over the decades since the Enlightenment many poets have been actively involved in the most radical of political and art movements. Setting up a solid foundation for such attitudes was the poet extraordinaire, Alexander Pope. In this essay I shall look at the connection between poetry and socio-political struggles over the centuries. From Pope to the Chartists, and from the Irish revolutionary poets to the postcolonial writers of Africa, poetry has played an important part in social change. The recent explosion of global demonstrations and rallies has also been connected with radical poetry as will be seen in Chile, for example.
The New Augustans v Medievalism – ‘shall not Britain now reward his toils?’
Imagine being one of the generation of poets to follow Shakespeare. The Enlightenment poets response to Shakespeare was that they believed that Shakespeare was good but not perfect and so looked back to Roman times, to that of Augustus for a more political and satirical model for their poetry. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was highly influenced by the poet Horace (65 BC–8 BC) whose work was created during a momentous time when Rome changed from a republic to an empire. Pope’s poem Epistle to Augustus (addressed to George II of Great Britain) initiated The New Augustans, as they were known, and they created new and bold political work in all genres as well as sharp and critical satires of contemporary events and people. Pope’s best known works The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism made him famous in his own time for their biting criticism and wit. Equally satirical but with more emphasis on prose than poetry was his contemporary, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, pamphleteer, poet and cleric whose A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729) led to the creation of the term ‘Swiftian’ for such sharp satire.
The Augustan era was also known by other names such as the age of neoclassicism and the Age of Reason. It was a time of increased availability of books and a dramatic decrease in their cost. This in turn meant that education was less confined to the upper classes and that writers could hope to make more money through the sale of their works and therefore be less dependent on patrons.
The greatest patron of the arts throughout the Middle Ages was the Church. Patronage was also used by nobles, rulers, and very wealthy people to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all looked for and received the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.
Alexander Pope, painting attributed to English painter Jonathan Richardson, c.?1736, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The sales from Pope’s works allowed him to live a life less determined by other people’s wealth, and this independence is reflected in his lines from Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot:
Oh let me live my own! and die so too!
(‘To live and die is all I have to do:’)
Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,
And see what friends, and read what books, I please.
While Pope read a lot of philosophy, his concerns were mainly poetic. As David Cody writes:
Like many of his contemporaries, Pope believed in the existence of a God who had created, and who presided over, a physical Universe which functioned like a vast clockwork mechanism. Important scientific discoveries by men like Sir Isaac Newton, who explained, in his Principia, the nature of the laws of gravitation which helped to govern that universe, were seen as corroborating that view. “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night,” Pope wrote, in a famous couplet intended as Newton’s epitaph, but “God said, Let Newton be ! and All was Light.” This view of the universe as an ordered, structured place was an aspect of the Neoclassical emphasis on order and structure which also manifested itself in the arts, including poetry.
Pope was famous for his biting criticism which spoofed the mores of society or mocked his literary rivals. His critical political savvy was also on show in lines like:
T is George and Liberty that crowns the cup,
And zeal for that great House which eats him up.
The woods recede around the naked seat,
The sylvans groan—no matter—for the fleet;
Next goes his wool—to clothe our valiant bands;
Last, for his country’s love, he sells his lands.
To town he comes, completes the nation’s hope,
And heads the bold train-bands, and burns a pope.
And shall not Britain now reward his toils,
Britain, that pays her patriots with her spoils?
In vain at court the bankrupt pleads his cause;
His thankless country leaves him to her laws.
Pope’s poetry reflected the Enlightenment popularisation of science through scientific and literary journals, the development of the book industry, the promulgation of encyclopedias and dictionaries, and new ideas spread like wildfire through learned academies, universities, salons and coffeehouses. The Enlightenment period can be dated from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV (1715 ) until the turn of the 19th century but was soon followed by the Romantic period from about 1800 to 1860.
Chartism v Romanticism – ‘How comes it that ye toil and sweat?’
The Romantics preferred intuition and emotion to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and placed a high value on the achievements of “heroic” individualists and artists. They turned inwards, seeing art as an individual experience and emphasising such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. Romanticism looked backwards to folk art, ancient customs and medievalism. As the bourgeoisie achieved their main aims of wresting control of land and power from the aristocracy, the responsibility for continuing the struggle for the principles of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ fell upon the organisations of the working classes.
In England, Chartism was a major working class movement called after the People’s Charter of 1838 and was a movement for political reform in Britain until 1857. The movement’s strategies were constitutional and they used petitions and mass meetings to put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. The Charter demanded: a vote for every man twenty-one years of age, secret ballots, payment of Members (so working people could attend without loss of income), equal constituencies, and annual Parliamentary elections. The Chartist movement was a reaction to the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property. The political leaders of the working class felt that the middle class had betrayed them.
In conjunction with Chartist demonstrations and strikes, the Chartist press as the voice of radicalism existed in the form of The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s and was succeeded by the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser between 1837 and 1852. The press covered news, editorials, and reports on international developments while becoming the best-selling provincial newspaper in Britain with a circulation of 50,000 copies. It also became an organ for the publication of working class poets and poems.
Front page of The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 1837
With such a wide circulation, it was no wonder that so many sent their poems in for consideration. According to Mike Sanders:
The Northern Star’s poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear.
It is believed that up to 1,000 poems by up to 400 Chartist and working-class poets were published in the Northern Star between 1838 and 1852. Michael Sanders notes that:
Most have names, but a high percentage are published either under initials, under a pseudonym or anonymously, presumably by writers who would fear reprisals, such as dismissal or blacklisting, if they were known to be writing for the Northern Star. By and large, we know nothing of these people. They are permanently lost to history. But these poems show us that poetry was once central to the way working-class communities expressed themselves both politically and otherwise.
Ordinary people used poetry as a way of demonstrating their humanity in the face of grinding poverty and dehumanising industrial capitalism. By composing poetry they showed they could produce ‘beauty’ as well as surplus value.
An example of an anonymous poet’s endeavour is AW’s poem To The Sons Of Toilpublished in 1841:
How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor’s rod
For cruel man who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress and, leech-like, suck
The life’s blood of a brother?
We still don’t know anything about AW but he or she is an example of many men and women who turned to poetry to express their desires for social justice. However, several important poets did arise out of the Chartist movement such as Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869) novelist and Chartist. In 1845, Jones ‘joined the Chartist agitation, quickly becoming its most prominent figure, and vigorously carrying on the party’s campaign on the platform and in the press. His speeches, in which he openly advocated physical force, led to his prosecution, and he was sentenced in 1848 to two years’ imprisonment for seditious speeches. While in prison he wrote, it is said in his own blood on leaves torn from a prayer-book, The Revolt of Hindostan, an epic poem.’; Thomas Cooper (1805–1892) poet, leading Chartist and known for his prison rhyme the Purgatory of Suicides (1845); Gerald Massey (1828–1907) was an English poet and only twenty-two when he published his first volume of poems, Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love (1850); George Binns (1815–1847) was a New Zealand Chartist leader and poet.
There was Ebenezer Elliott (1781–1849) who was an English poet, known as the Corn Law rhymer for his leading the fight to repeal the Corn Laws which were causing hardship and starvation among the poor. Though a factory owner himself, his single-minded devotion to the welfare of the labouring classes won him a sympathetic reputation long after his poetry ceased to be read; and John Bedford Leno (1826–1894) was a Chartist, radical, poet, and printer who acted as a “bridge” between Chartism and early Labour movements, he was called the “Burns of Labour” and “the poet of the poor” for his political songs and poems, which were sold widely in penny publications, and recited and sung by workers in Britain, Europe and America.
The Poets’ Revolution v Modernism – ‘Viewing human conflict from a social perspective’
The connection between the radical poets and the working class continued into the twentieth century even as Romanticist modernism took hold. Modernism rejected the ideology of realism, while promoting a break with the immediate past, technical innovation, and a philosophy of ‘making it new’. As such:
Modernist poetry in English is generally considered to have emerged in the early years of the 20th century with the appearance of the Imagist poets. In common with many other modernists, these poets were writing in reaction to what they saw as the excesses of Victorian poetry, with its emphasis on traditional formalism and overly flowery poetic diction. […] Additionally, Modernist poetry disavowed the traditional aesthetic claims of Romantic poetry’s later phase and no longer sought “beauty” as the highest achievement of verse. With this abandonment of the sublime came a turn away from pastoral poetry and an attempt to focus poetry on urban, mechanical, and industrial settings.
Despite the modern context and simpler language, Modernist poets moved further away from Realism as they developed literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, as well as the use of multiple points-of-view, undermining what is meant by realism. Thereby moving further away from the kind of narrative and descriptions of external reality that seekers of political change and social justice use as an art form to create and propagate awareness of their social conditions.
The Chartist tradition of radical politics associated with radical content in poetry was continued in Ireland whose revolutionary radicals perceived in the First World War an opportunity encapsulated in the slogan, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. The culmination of nationalist and radical politics of the previous centuries was demonstrated in the Easter Rising of 1916. Indeed it is often described as the The Poets’ Revolution as three of the men who signed the Proclamation in 1916, Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett, were published poets, while many other participants were also writers of plays, songs and ballads. The leader of the Irish Citizens Army, James Connolly wrote:
Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls! But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.
The leaders of the Irish revolution were generally a young, artistic group of revolutionaries and their executions by the British colonists sent shock waves throughout Ireland leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Civil War (1922–1923).
Later in the 1920s and 1930s a more politically conscious working class poetry developed. In the United States the combination of influences from the Soviet Union and the Great Depression led to the growth of many new leftist political and social discourses. Milton Cohen summarised the aesthetic, stylistic, and political concerns being debated at the time. He noted that poets were expected to:
(1) View human conflict from a social perspective (as opposed to personal, psychological, or universal) and see society in terms of economic classes.
(2) Portray these classes in conflict (as Marx described them): workers versus bosses, sharecroppers versus landowners, tenants versus landlords, have-nots versus haves.
(3) Develop a “working-class consciousness,” that is, identify with the oppressed class in these conflicts, rather than maintaining objective detachment.
(4) Present a hopeful outcome to encourage working-class readers. Other outcomes are defeatist, pessimistic, or “confused.”
(5) Write simply and straightforwardly, without the aesthetic complexities of formalism.
(6) Above all, politicize the reader. Revolutionary literature is a weapon in the class struggle and should consciously incite its readers if not to direct action then to a new attitude toward life, ‘to recognize his role in the class struggle.’
These ‘proscriptions’ ran straight in the face of every tenet of Modernist poetry which emphasised the personal imagination, culture, emotions, and memories of the poet. Major poets of the radical movement in the United States include Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Kenneth Fearing (1902–1961), Edwin Rolfe (1925-1954), Horace Gregory (1898–1982), and Mike Gold (1894–1967).
Post colonial poetry v postmodernism – ‘The bitter taste of liberty’
As the United States suffered under the heightened political repression of McCarthyism in the 1950s the mantle of radical culture moved to the countries who wrestled themselves out of British colonial stranglehold in the form of postcolonial literature. The English language was imposed in many colonised countries yet came to be the language of radical anti-colonial poets during the liberation struggles and afterwards in the independence era. African poets, for example, were able to use poetry to communicate to the world not only their “despairs and hopes, the enthusiasm and empathy, the thrill of joy and the stab of pain … but also a nation’s history as it moved from ‘freedom to slavery, from slavery to revolution, from revolution to independence and from independence to tasks of reconstruction which further involve situations of failure and disillusion’.”
David Diop’s poem Africa weighs up past and present political complexities:
Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs ….
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun…..
That is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.
The development of the postcolonial in the South paralleled the development of the postmodern in the West. However, the philosophical bases of postmodernism would not sit easily with the practical contingencies of newly achieved nationhood. Postmodernism rejected the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, and like modernism, called into question Enlightenment rationality itself. The tendencies of postmodernism towards self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence would make it an uncomfortable bedfellow with the socialist and revolutionary nationalist exigencies of the newly decolonised. As the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o notes:
Literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum; it is given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a particular society. The relationship between creative literature and other forces cannot be ignored especially in Africa, where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Our culture over the last hundred years has developed against the same stunting, dwarfing background.
In a way the radical political changes wrought by anti-colonial struggles kept the culture tied down and anchored to the values and aspirations of the masses. Postcolonial ideology was relevant to society in a way that postmodernism was not. It could be argued that postmodernism actively sought to remove itself from political relevance by decrying grand narratives and elevating relativism.
Radical poetry today? – ‘only injustice and no resistance?’
Until relatively recently it seemed that the sentiments of Bertolt Brecht’s (1898-1956) poem To Posterity had become almost universally true in the 21st century:
For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.
However, there has been a sea change in attitude with people demonstrating on the streets in many cities globally in only one year: the Yellow Vests in France (October/November, 2018), Sudanese Revolution (19 December, 2018), Haiti Mass Protests (7 February, 2018), Algeria: Revolution of Smiles (6 February, 2019), Gaza economic protests (since Mar, 2019), Iraq: Tishreen Revolution (1 October, 2019), Puerto Rico: Telegramgate (8 July 2019), Ecuador Protests (3 October, 2019), Bolivian protests (since Oct, 2019), Chile Protests (14 October, 2019), Lebanon Protests (7-18 October, 2019).
The eruption of protest and violence in Chile started with students demonstrating against the proposal to raise the subway fares. This was unexpected as Sofía del Valle noted:
Economists have long called Chile’s economy “the miracle” of Latin America, where GDP per capita has noticeably grown from $2,500 in 1990 to $15,346 in 2017. However, these numbers hide a fundamental problem: they do not account for inequality. Chile’s late poet Nicanor Parra said it best: “There are two pieces of bread. You eat two. I eat none. Average consumption: one bread per person.
She also states that the people themselves are starting to participate in political activity with the “proliferation of “cabildos ciudadanos,” or self-organized participatory meetings of citizens that have gathered to discuss problems and solutions for the country we dream to be.”
This has led to the connection between the masses and poetry, similar to Chartist times, being restored to Chile. According to Vera Polycarpou, the people on the streets are “singing the songs of Victor Jara, listening to symphonic music in the squares, making street theatre and reciting the poems of Pablo Neruda, declaring that it will not tolerate military rule, repression and injustice again.”
Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) was a Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet-diplomat who wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems from a very young age. Neruda was living in Madrid at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) and with some friends had formed the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals bringing popular theater to the people, plays from Cervantes to Lorca. The assassination of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), a friend of his, a month into the war had a profound affect on Neruda. According to Mark Eisner:
Beyond the horror of a friend’s assassination, Lorca’s death represented something more: Lorca was the embodiment of poetry; it was as if the Fascists had assassinated poetry itself. Neruda had reached a moment from which there was no turning back. His poetry had to shift outwardly; it had to act. No more melancholic verse, love poems dotted with red poppies, or metaphysical writing, all of which ignored the realities of rising Fascism. Bold, repeated words and clear, vivid images now served his purpose: to convey his pounding heart and to communicate the realities he was experiencing in a way that could be understood immediately by a wide audience.
This shift away from Romanticism can be seen clearly in Neruda’s poemI Explain Some Things:
You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
The demonstrations in Chile have also seen the return of the ‘cacerolazo’ or ‘casserole’ a form of popular protest used globally consisting of people making noise by banging pots, pans, and other utensils at demonstrations. The Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux brought out a song about this form of protest, called ‘Cacerolazo’ (on YouTube) where she raps about cacerolazos as a form of massive protest in defiance of police and military violence describing them as “[w]ooden spoons against your shooting”:
Vivita, guachita, Chile despierta
Cuchara de palo frente a tus balazos
Y al toque de queda, ¡cacerolazo!
No somos alienígenas ni extraterrestres
No cachai na’, es el pueblo rebelde
Sacamos las ollas y nos mataron
A los asesinos ¡cacerolazo!
(Vivita, guachita, Chile wake up
Wooden spoon in front of your bullets
And at the curfew, cacerolazo!
We are not aliens or extraterrestrials
Don’t shit, it’s the rebel people
We took out the pots and they killed us
To the killers cacerolazo!)
The Chartists may not have had the access to the internet or video production of Ana Tijoux but their newspapers achieved large distributions and sales, spreading a similar culture of revolt and opposition. Since the time of Alexander Pope, poetry has played an important part in the struggle for change and social justice and the potential for poetry to consolidate people’s feelings, aspirations and desires has remained strong. The decision by poets, themselves, to participate and apply their art to the issues at hand has reinforced and inspired people the world over.
• All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons
Today I was walking toward the restaurant where I always take luncheon on Tuesdays. I passed the Cafe Imperio in the same street. Since I was thinking about a talk I am to give in Macau the term “empire” crossed my mind more than once. The sign of the Cafe Imperio also said it was founded in 1973. Well, I thought, did the owners imagine that a year later there would be nothing left of the Portuguese empire? In 1974 the Salazar/Caetano regime was overthrown after more than 40 years. The last pretense that the empire was, in the French sense, Portugal overseas was abandoned. Only Macau remained under Portuguese administration until 1999.
In London the recently minted British “Supreme Court” — the replacement for the judicial committee of the House of Lords — declared Mr Boris Johnson’s Cromwellian intervention unlawful, null and void and ordered that Parliament be reconvened. Now that is a rather peculiar change in the British Constitution that Bagehot certainly never imagined. In Britain, a monarchy dressed as a representative democracy, the guiding principal — at least since 1688 — has been parliamentary supremacy. That meant that Parliament and hence the government (the Crown and Parliament) were subject to no higher authority than itself. The settlement of the royal succession by the Parliament — establishing William and Mary and assuring a continuous Protestant lineage — was ostensibly the end of British monarchy as a governmental system. In fact, it was the absorption of the monarch into the bourgeois ruling class — something the French were unable to do.
Now if I may risk a prediction, Mr Johnson will be forced to expose himself to a confidence vote in the Commons which he is now even more likely to lose unless his backers can whip the votes he needs together. The loss of a confidence vote after the defeat before the Supreme Court means that the fraud surrounding BREXIT could well be defeated if not exposed.
Throughout the BREXIT debate the proponents and opponents have disregarded a point of British constitutional law that Bagehot made quite clear in describing the lack of a constitution (in the US or French sense); namely, that Parliament is only bound by its own laws and every Parliament is free to change the laws of a previous one. Of course, the class structure and the bourgeois monarchy prevent Parliament from becoming revolutionary (except in the sense of revolving). But the so-called Glorious Revolution never completely extinguished the dictatorial strain embodied in the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. It was the Puritan Cromwell and his mercantile, colonial supporters who plunged the deepest wound into Ireland and created the troubles which, in fact, have only subsided by virtue of the EU.
Mr Boris Johnson, despite Eton and renunciation of his US citizenship, is a Cromwellian. That is what confuses his opponents. Unlike his predecessor David Cameron, Mr Johnson is today’s equivalent of the “West Indian strain” — the drug (sugar and slave) barons of the Caribbean who bought their way into Parliament. Today those drug barons are operating legally (as opposed to legitimate) financial institutions — but that is another topic. The BREXIT fraud consists primarily in the fact that there is no constitutional principle which binds Parliament to such a foreign institution as the referendum or plebiscite (its continental version). Even if we disregard the British voting system with all its gerrymandering and manipulative potential, no British Parliament was ever de jure bound by the results of the so-called BREXIT vote. This is the real significance of May’s defeat. Thrice Ms May failed to obtain parliamentary approval for a BREXIT. That meant that it would become a dead letter by the end of her legislative term.
Mr Johnson’s attempt to adjourn Parliament and govern without it — also very Cromwellian — was a recognition of the fact that absent an Act of Parliament, the BREXIT would be imposed when the EU treaty negotiated by Ms May entered into force. The United Kingdom would not have withdrawn from the EU. It would have been de facto expelled.
What has turned a major faction of the British establishment against Mr Johnson? That is the only way that the Supreme Court could have understood its unanimous decision. Permit me to suggest some interpretations.
As much as Britain’s Cromwellians hate Ireland and therefore fight to the death of Catholic Irish, if not for religious reasons today, they cannot make a disruption of the trade and financial benefits of peace between Ulster and Dublin attractive. Moreover, Britain — meaning its elite, including not least of which the Battenberg/Windsors — benefit enormously from EU largesse. Never mind that if strictly enforced the exit would cause a serious reduction in the living standard of average Britons — people who already have a disproportionately low standard of living in the EU (and historically have always had a lower standard of living than most people on the Continent). Then there is the embarrassment of that other country in the North — the far more European realm of Scotland. North Sea oil was Scottish and Norwegian. A future rump England would be reduced to what its owners really have — a quasi-third world country. That would be fine for the simians in the City but if votes still count for anything, it would make Britain singularly unattractive.
Now if we shift to a completely different part of the world, we can begin to imagine the contradictions and parallels. Hong Kong has been subjected to terrorism quite obviously sponsored by the main instigators of such foreign disruption — the CIA (NED) and most certainly other agencies of HM Government. In the scheme of things — as opposed to the ludicrous “internet of things” — it is impossible to say who is agitating in Hong Kong against the local government and the authority in Beijing. However, if we take the long view; e.g., back to the Opium Wars, the patterns are recognisable. Since, as I have argued elsewhere, one of the products of a “public school/prep school” education is that one is indoctrinated with the same historical nonsense of those who founded the schools in centuries past, then it should be no surprise that the terrorists in Hong Kong — presented as “democracy activists” — are behaving in the same way as the representatives of the British East India Company did when they sought the conditions for creating Hong Kong in the first place.
Imagine what would happen if the Irish republicans again insisted (given the prospect of BREXIT) that we in Ulster are Irish and not British! In Hong Kong some of these gangs are beating Chinese for not accepting that they are “Hongkongers”. Well, we know what happened to Irish republicans until the Good Friday Accords. We also know that it was the British Special Branch, MI5 and Phoenix-style units operating with covert support by the British military that “disciplined” those republicans. If the Chinese government were as “democratic” as the British in Ulster there would not only be dead in the street but assassinations galore. To date there have been no tanks or APCs deployed in Hong Kong. If we compare the conduct of the Hong Kong police with that of the NYPD or the St Louis police in Ferguson, Missouri, we will also locate the democracy deficit — not in China.
There are lots of demonstrations these days. The ones that count are quasi-religious like the Swedish “Joan of Arc”/Fatima peasant who is currently paraded through every conceivable forum, like those weeping statues the Catholic Church maintained so profitably for centuries.
When children join their parents to say that Black lives matter, the police have exercised their license to beat or kill non-whites at will. We have not really progressed since Lester Petersen was murdered by the South African Police in Soweto. The venues of white supremacy have merely changed their window dressing. The Anglo-American Empire will keep Hong Kong down to the last Chinese, if allowed. They will keep everything they have stolen over the centuries. And that is why there will be no BREXIT– not for the benefit of the British or Irish but because there is still more money to be made through Brussels than without it. (And meanwhile the arbitrage gangsters bet on both sides and keep raking in their winnings.)
It is all related but the relationships are not easy to see and they shift with the digestive conditions of our elite rulers. So all predictions here are subject to the reservation of how well they ate and drank on the eve of their next rapine excursion through our planet.
The BBC World Service took its listeners to the English cathedral town of Ely, set in picturesque Cambridgeshire, during the course of a hot July 23 in an effort to take the pulse of the country. Well, at least that particular, erratic pulse. It found, for the most part, a certain enthusiasm for Boris Johnson, the fop-haired, bumbling wonder of the Conservatives, a quite literally inventive journalist, former magazine editor and Mayor of London who has become the new prime minister of Britain.
One word kept cropping up in discussions like an endangered species searching for a bullet: enthusiasm. Plain, sprightly, delightful winged enthusiasm. “We need to be enthusiastic; Boris (because, of course, he is Boris to them) is enthusiastic.” Be gone pessimists and Cassandras; farewell such tactical and strategic realities of being in or out of the European common market; in or out of European regulations; ease of access or difficulty on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
With the Conservatives voting on who to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and, it followed, Prime Minister, Johnson won through against Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The margin of victory – 66 to 34 percent of the party membership – was nearly two to one, and came from a system Johnson derided as a “gigantic fraud” when employed by the British Labour Party in 2007.
His victory speech had much of what has come before. It spoke of instincts – the acquisitive standing out (“the instincts to own your own house, to earn and spend your own money”). These were “noble”, “proper” and “good”. Nor should the needy be forgotten, the poor abandoned, in realising them. Words were given like those of a motivational speaker. “Do you feel daunted? I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me. And I think we know we can do it, and that the people of this country are trusting in us to do it, and we know that we will do it.” While he conceded that the campaign of deliver, united and defeat – spelled DUD – did not augur well, detractors had forgotten the E: “E for energise”. “I say to all doubters, dude, we are going to energise the country.”
The October 31st deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union would not change. The “new spirit of can-do” would prevail. Britain, “like some slumbering giant” would “rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.” Metaphors of growth and movement abounded: “fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household”; “more police”.
The Johnson-watchers verged between being worried and thrilled. Comments seem pitched to a sporting register: How will BJ perform on the field? Will he restrain himself, or be unduly foolish on the world stage? As if describing an unusual species, Lloyd Evans remarked that, even at Oxford as a first-year student, he was “weirdly conspicuous – the ruddy jowls, the stooped bullish stances, the booming Duke of Wellington voice, and the freakish white bob crowning his head like a heavenly spotlight.”
James Forsyth, writing in The Spectator, is hopeful the real Boris is partially caged, leaving another version to do get his hands dirty. “This is a risk; will his approach sound flippant when discussing serious issues?” On balance, however, Forsyth felt that there was something to be said about the man being let loose. “When he tried to be a different kind of figure, it didn’t work. It felt forced rather than natural.”
Finance commentator and regular forecaster of economic apocalypse Robert Peston stated the cold, mad justice of it all. As Johnson had been instrumental in creating Brexit, it was only fitting that he now try to own it.
Navigating the gong tormented sea of narratives on Johnson, a few career standouts remain, making his attempt to be Big, Bold and British, unconvincing. The new British PM and Tory leader is a piece of truly befuddled work, one who still manages to play the card of the electable clown.
As a journalist, he fabricated and teased records. In 1987, when employed by The Times courtesy of family connections, he was fired for a story on the discovery of the Rose Palace, built by Edward II. His godfather, Oxford historian Colin Lucas, featured. “The trouble,” he recalled, “was that somewhere in my copy I managed to attribute to Colin the view that Edward II and Piers Gaveston would have been cavorting together in the Rose Palace.” Pity, then, that Gaveston was murdered by the time the Rose Palace was built.
After the sack, he ventured over to The Telegraph, and became a shock trooper for anti-EU sentiment in Brussels, feeding Eurosceptic fanaticism back in Britain and beyond with such choice titled pieces as “Snails are fish, says EU”, “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that EU-manure smells the same” and “Threat to British pink sausages”. Johnson’s feeling about it all? A “rather weird sense of power” that his copy had “this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party”.
His casually racist remarks on foreign powers and peoples have given him an enormous inventory of the insulted over the years, producing degrees of consternation and rib-stitching hilarity. He has deemed Africa a country, its people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, compared women who wear burqas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” and appraised the chaos within his own conservative party as akin to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief killing.”
Other comments have caused less consternation, not least of all his views of the current US president, Donald Trump, whom Johnson deemed “unfit to hold the office of the United States” on account of his “stupefying ignorance”. This, from a man who himself said that becoming UK prime minister was “about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.” We live in jaw-droppingly interesting times.
Britain is in a mess, and the Boris Broom is unlikely to be able to make its bristles more effective beyond tinkering with the May-EU Brexit plan as it stands. The EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has expressed the view that some room is open on reworking “the agreed declaration on the new partnership” but that the “withdrawal agreement” would be more or less ratified in its current form.
On the diplomatic front, Johnson is bound to be confused, if his various stances on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border, or non-border, are anything to go by. Having scolded his predecessor for taking the view that having no firm border between the two would not be in the UK’s interests, he subsequently veered, telling the House of Commons that “there can be no return to a hard border.” BJ’s slumbering giant may well continue to do a bit more slumbering. Over to you, dude!
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949. Established as a peacetime alliance between the United States and Europe to prevent expansion of the Soviet Union, NATO has grown in size and and changed from a defensive force to an aggressive force implementing Western policies of expansion and control.
NATO now has 29 members ranging geographically east to west from the United Kingdom to countries of the former Soviet Union and north to south from Norway to Greece. NATO’s intervention in the Bosnian war in 1994 signaled the beginning of a new role for a force effectively made redundant by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then NATO has escalated its presence on the international scene taking on various roles in Afghanistan in 2003, Iraq in 2004, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in 2009 and culminated in the bombing of Libya in 2011 with ‘9,500 strike sorties against pro-Gaddafi targets.’
The main argument for the existence of NATO was for it to be a system of collective defence in response to external attack from the Soviet Union. Although during the Cold War NATO did not carry out military operations as a defence force, its changing role has now implicated its members in a culture of aggressive war which they had not originally signed up for.
For former colonial powers the NATO culture of war on a global scale is nothing new. The geopolitical agendas of expansionism for Western elites that NATO serves is the modern form of the colonial adventures of the past which have long passed their sell-by date. The culture of war which passes for ‘the white man’s burden’, ‘bringing freedom to other countries’ or ‘saving them from communism’ legitimizes aggressive action abroad while giving a sense of pride at home of a worthwhile military doing a great job.
War as a means to an end and war as culture
The culture of war then is different from culture wars (e.g. competing forms of culture like religion). Since the Enlightenment, war has been described as a means to an end, serving essentially rational interests. The benefits of war at home like ending the feudal system, repelling invaders, etc. were seen to apply abroad too by helping others through systems of alliances; for example, the Second World War alliance to end Hitlerite fascism.
However, there are those who see war as an end in itself, as part of the human condition. Writers like Martin Van Creveld have argued that:
War exercises a powerful fascination in its own right — one that has its greatest impact on participants but is by no means limited to them. Fighting itself can be a source of joy, perhaps even the greatest joy of all. Out of this fascination grew an entire culture that surrounds it and in which, in fact, it is immersed.
However, not all cultures of war are the same. Van Creveld conflates the culture of war of imperial nations with the culture of war of resistance to colonialism and imperialism. Britain’s wars were fought for the benefit of British elites. But Ireland, for example, has a long history of opposition to British colonialism and Ireland’s culture of war has similar symbols and traditions to Britain yet very different content. Over the centuries generation after generation of Irish men and women have taken part in wars of resistance to colonial domination. While the British culture of war may have been a proud culture of successful militarism, in Ireland it was a desperate fight for independence from an all-powerful enemy always willing to throw its vast armory into the fight against ‘treachery to the King’.
In other words, the culture of war was imposed on a people as a way to survive military, economic and political domination. Which brings up the question of whether war really is a part of the human condition.
War and ‘primitive tribes’
It has been a Romantic trope to look back to the ‘primitive tribes’ as a way of understanding our own society and how they may have looked before feudalism and the burgeoning capitalism’s ‘satanic mills’ were set in motion. Yet, it is interesting to see the descriptions of ‘primitive people’ from our history books, as Zinn writes:
When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. […] These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing.”
Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba, wrote:.
They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.
Their resorting to violence and killing was a form of defence which ultimately failed:
On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.[…] Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.” The Indians’ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed.
Thus, we can see that while there was occasional violence against other tribes these tribes lived in peace until faced with the extreme violence of their invaders.
Development of warrior societies
Recent research in archeology seems to suggest now that we don’t need to look to ‘primitive tribes’ abroad anymore but can see similar experiences in research on our own ancestors here in Europe and nearby regions.
Ferguson closely examines excavations of early human settlements in Europe and the Near East in the Neolithic era, when our ancestors started abandoning their nomadic ways and domesticating plants and animals. Ferguson shows that evidence of war in this era is quite variable. In many regions of Europe, Neolithic settlements existed for 500-1,000 years without leaving signs of warfare. “As time goes on, more war signs are fixed in all potential lines of evidence—skeletons, settlements, weapons and sometimes art,” Ferguson writes. “But there is no simple line of increase.” By the time Europeans started supplementing stone tools with metal ones roughly 5,500 years ago, “a culture of war was in place across all of Europe,” Ferguson writes. “After that,” Ferguson told me by email, “you see the growth of cultural militarism, culminating in the warrior societies of the Bronze Age.”
It seems then that the history of the development of warrior societies and their enslavement of peaceful peoples is the basis for our cultures of war: the wars of those imposing slavery on people and the wars of those resisting.
The idea of a inherent human condition of war promoted by Van Creveld may be covering up for the felt need or desire for a culture of war to dissuade those who may be thinking of imposing slavery or dominance on a people, as a form of defence in an aggressive, militarized world, for example, the Jews in Nazi Germany .
The Irish people have a long history of resistance to British forces and Ireland’s long experience of foreign aggression has led it to be wary of foreign military associations. Thus, today Ireland is still not a fully paid up member of NATO. In the nineteenth century the British used every form of simianism and Frankensteinism to depict the Irish people who had the gall to combine against them.
Ridiculing resistance: “The Irish Frankenstein” (1882) and “Mr. G O’Rilla, the Young Ireland Party” (1861)
This all changed during the First World War when Britain desperately needed new recruits and issued posters now depicting a proud Irishman as a country squire. Guilt was the weapon of choice in these posters as Britain declared to be fighting for the rights of small nations like Ireland, who was not participating.
WWI British Army Recruitment Posters: “Ireland “I’ll go too – the Real Irish Spirit”” and “Ireland “For the Glory of Ireland””
Of course, after the war was over and the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein, won 80% of the national vote, the British government’s reaction was to send in soldiers and criminals to put down the rebellion instead. This strategy failed, leading to negotiation and the signing of a treaty which led to the creation of Northern Ireland.
Ireland’s culture of resistance: the Wexford Pikeman by Oliver Sheppard and IRA Memorial, Athlone
Ireland and NATO
In 1949 Ireland had been willing to negotiate a bilateral defence pact with the United States, but opposed joining NATO until the question of Northern Ireland was resolved with the United Kingdom. However, Ireland became a signatory to NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and the alliance’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1999.
In December 1996, the Peace & Neutrality Alliance (PANA) was established in Dublin. According to their website, ‘PANA seeks to advocate an Independent Irish Foreign Policy, defend Irish Neutrality and to promote a reformed United Nations as the Institution through which Ireland should pursue its security concerns.’A wide range of groups and a growing number of individual are affiliated to PANA. This wide anti-NATO sentiment was reflected in the attack on US military planes in 2003. In February 2003 the Irish Times reported:
The Army has been called in to provide security around Shannon Airport after five peace activists broke into a hangar and damaged a US military aircraft early this morning. It is the third embarrassing security breach at the airport where US military planes are refuelling en route to the looming war with Iraq.
One anti-war activist Mary Kelly was convicted of causing $1.5m in damage to a United States navy plane at Shannon airport. She attacked the plane with a hatchet causing damage to the nose wheel and electric systems at the front of the plane.
In 2018 the First International Conference Against NATO was held in Dublin. The conference was organised by the Global Campaign Against US/NATO Military Bases which itself is a coalition of peace organisations from around the world.
However, there are still forces in Ireland pushing for full membership of NATO. A recent article in an Irish national newspaper stated that ‘Ireland has been free-riding on transatlantic security structures paid for by American and European taxpayers since 1949’ and that ‘very few politicians think much about Ireland’s security in any depth and even fewer believe we should join NATO. None is likely to provide grown-up leadership on national security.’ A combination of realism and guilt that has been tried on the Irish people many times before and rejected. The writer recognises that ‘few people advocate such a course and most are quite attached to the State’s long-held position of military neutrality.’
Conference on the 70th Anniversary of NATO
Getting other nations to develop a similar attitude and leave NATO was the objective of the recent International Conference on the 70th Anniversary of NATO held in Florence, Italy, on 7 April 2019. During the conference Prof. Michel Chossudovsky (Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization) presented the The Florence Declaration which was adopted by more than 600 participants. The Florence Declaration was drafted by Italy’s Comitato and the CRG and calls for members “To exit the war system which is causing more and more damage and exposing us to increasing dangers, we must leave NATO, affirming our rights as sovereign and neutral States.
In this way, it becomes possible to contribute to the dismantling of NATO and all other military alliances, to the reconfiguration of the structures of the whole European region, to the formation of a multi-polar world where the aspirations of the People for liberty and social justice may be realised.”
For the first time in the history of humanity, the technical means are at hand to eliminate poverty if resources were not diverted to making war. World hunger could be abolished with only a small diversion from military budgets. The only luxuries that so-called middle-class Americans would have to forego would be the Blue Angels air show and drone-bombing wedding parties in the Middle East. Yet, military spending is expanding, and with it global poverty.
On November 16-18, some 300 peace activists representing over 35 countries gathered in Dublin, Ireland for the first International Conference Against US/NATO Military Bases to address this tragic paradox of the technical ability to serve humanity and the political proclivity by the ruling circles in the West to do the opposite. Roger Cole of the Irish peace organization PANA identified the twin threats to humankind of global warming and global war, both driven by accelerating militarization.
Ajamu Baraka of the US-based Black Alliance for Peace highlighted the reactionary role of the US and its allies, which have by far the largest military expenditures in the world. The material basis for the absence of peace and the accelerating proliferation of military bases, in his words, is US imperialism.
Guantánamo was the first of the world network of US foreign military bases, according to keynote speaker Dr. Aleida Guevara from Cuba, daughter of Che. Cuba opposes this violation of national sovereignty. Today the US possesses some 1000 foreign military bases with troops stationed in over 170 countries.
Australian Annette Brownlie of IPAN warned of a new Cold War. The recent US National Security Strategy document, focusing on “great power confrontation,” signals open preparations for direct military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia and China.
David Webb of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK explained that the US is the only nation with nuclear weapons based outside its soil. US policy is to develop “usable” nuclear weapons in an enhanced first-strike capacity. Missile defense, he reproved, is the shield for the sword of nuclear weapons. The purpose of missile defense is to protect the aggressor against the inevitable retaliation after a first nuclear strike.
Margaret Flowers of Popular Resistance reported that the recent US midterm elections brought in more Congressional representatives with military or security state backgrounds. The duopoly of the two US “war parties” is united in supporting an accelerated arms race. Well over half of the US government’s discretionary budget now goes to the military.
Unlike so much liberal and progressive political discourse in the US, which is obsessed with the personality of President Trump, the international perspective of this conference penetrated that distracting fog and concentrated on the continuity of US militarism regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
The session on the environmental and health impacts featured testimony on the toxic effects of military bases in Okinawa, Czech Republic, and Turkey. The US Department of Defense is the world’s largest polluter.
National Coordinator of the Irish Trade Union Federation and Secretary of the People’s Movement, Frank Keoghan, described the transformation of the European Union (EU) into a war project with the recent rush to create a single EU army. Ilda Figueiredo from the Portuguese Council for Peace and Cooperation and another activist from France warned that the drive for an EU army would transform all national military bases into NATO bases and would in effect allow “nuclear bomb sharing.”
Margaret Kimberley of the Black Agenda Report chaired the Africa session. South African Chris Matlhako and Kenyan Ann Atambo discussed the dependency of African states on foreign aid, which is used as a tool to facilitate the occupation of Africa by foreign militaries.
Paul Pumphrey of Friends of the Congo described the development of US strategy in Africa, which has used African proxies to allow domination and extraction of valuable resources such as coltan from the Congo. Now the strategy also includes direct occupation by the US military. George W. Bush established AFRICOM in 2008 with just a single acknowledged US military base on the continent, followed by an explosion to some 50 bases and a military presence in practically every African nation under Obama.
The session on Latin America and the Caribbean outlined the immediate threat of military intervention in Venezuela, caught in the crosshairs of US imperialism. Veteran Cuban peace activist Silvio Platero of MOVPAZ condemned the continuing US blockade of Cuba and the colonial status of Puerto Rico. Speakers from Colombia (now a NATO partner), Argentina, and Brazil reported that their right-wing governments are cooperating militarily with the US.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire from Ireland made an impassioned plea for all-out support of WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange, “our hero of truth,” lest he die in a US prison.
The conference concluded on a high note of unity among the international peace forces. Conference coordinator Bahman Azad of the World Peace Council closed with a call to first educate and then mobilize.
Actions are being planned in Washington, D.C., around the 70th anniversary of NATO on April 4th. Coincidentally that is the date of the assassination of Martin Luther King and of his famous speech a year before when he presciently admonished, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.”
Yesterday the Irish Seanad voted in favour of the Occupied Territories Bill which will prohibit the importation of goods or services from illegal settlements in occupied territories, including Israel’s settlements in Palestine which violate the Geneva Conventions. The Bill was introduced by the well-known Irish singer Frances Black whose albums feature both Irish ballads and traditional music. She was elected to Seanad Éireann as an independent Senator on her first attempt in 2016.
The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign welcomed the Seanad vote (25 in favour, 20 against) in support of Senator Frances Black’s ‘Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill. According to the IPSC Chairperson, Ms. Fatin Al Tamimi (a Palestinian-Irish citizen):
We in the IPSC, and Palestinians around the world, warmly welcome this historic vote, the first its kind in any Western country. Once again, Ireland is making history and leading the way in its solidarity with the Palestinian people. We thank and salute all those Senators and parties who have pledged to support the Bill, and we will be asking the Irish people to ensure that these politicians support its passage at all stages of the lawmaking process.
Black has been campaigning for some time now for the rights of the Palestinian people. She states:
I have long been passionate about the struggle of the Palestinian people, which shows clearly how trade in settlement goods sustains injustice. In the occupied territories, people are forcibly kicked out of their homes, fertile farming land is seized, and the fruit and vegetables produced are then sold on Irish shelves to pay for it all. We condemn the settlements as illegal but support them economically. As international law is absolutely clear that the settlements are illegal, then the goods they produce are the proceeds of crime. We must face up to this – we cannot keep supporting breaches of international law and violations of human rights.
Frances Black discusses the Bill that would support banning goods from Israel’s settlements.
According to an explanatory note on the bill’s main provisions:
Under international criminal law, the transfer by a State of its civilian population into a territory it has militarily occupied is a ‘war crime’, as well as a ‘grave breach’ of international humanitarian law. Importantly, it is also a crime under Irish law, no matter where in the world it is committed. Ireland has a duty to ensure these laws are respected and to uphold the humanitarian principles outlined in them. To this end, the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 seeks to prohibit trade with and economic support for illegal settlements in territories deemed occupied under international law. It would restrict the import and sale of goods produced in such settlements, Irish involvement in the provision of services in such settlements, and the extraction of resources from occupied territories without the consent of the legitimate authority of that territory. This economic support underpins the long-term continuation of illegal settlements, established in clear violation of international law. In tabling this bill we are stating that Ireland should not provide economic or political support for them, wherever they arise.
The Bill, inter alia, specifically covers the importation and sale of settlement goods:
6. Importation of settlement goods
(1) It shall be an offence for a person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.
(2) It shall be an offence for a person to assist another person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.
(3) For the purpose of the Customs Act 2015, the import of settlement goods is hereby prohibited.
7. Sale of settlement goods
(1) It shall be an offence for a person to sell or attempt to sell settlement goods.
(2) It shall be an offence for a person to assist another person to sell or attempt to sell settlement goods.
Many Irish politicians believe that the passing of the Occupied Territories Bill will send a strong message that the issue of illegal settlements is being taken seriously and needs to be addressed.
The Israeli Embassy in Ireland has been highly critical of the Bill and commented that:
The absurdity in the Seanad Éireann initiative is that it will harm the livelihoods of many Palestinians who work in the Israeli industrial zones affected by the boycott.
However, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. It was Palestinian Civil Society that called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel as a form of non-violent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights in 2005.
These have been great months for Palestine in Ireland, a country which punches well above its weight when it comes to solidarity. At least seven local councils have voted to support the Palestinian-led global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including Dublin, the first EU capital to take this stand, and most recently Mid-Ulster Council and Fermanagh & Omagh District Council. She said that last month saw the launch of a campaign for an Irish boycott of Eurovision 2019 and noted that barely a week goes by without solidarity vigils or protests outside shops selling Israeli products in Ireland.
As the activist for Palestinian human rights, Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh says:
I find that ingenuity in resistance, the ability to persevere — what we call sumud — to be tremendously inspiring. Our people are able to continue their lives despite the incredible odds arrayed against them and not only to persist but also to find some measure of success. As the graffiti on the wall says, ‘to live is to resist’.