Policing remains the key issue for nationalists

Ken Keable reports on the contributions and discussion at the fourteenth Desmond Greaves Summer School, held in Dublin towards the end of August

ONCE AGAIN, the place to be for intelligent discussion on Ireland was the Desmond Greaves Summer School in Dublin, held, as usual, on Britain’s August Bank Holiday weekend to facilitate attendance from Britain. Dublin artist and nationalist Robert Ballagh, who chaired the Friday evening session on

‘Art and Politics’, insisted that all art was political, even if only by omission. The point was taken up by the composer Raymond Dean, a last minute replacement for novelist Ronan Bennett. While perhaps only two of his 80 compositions were overtly political, he said, all of his art had “a political dimension”.

Dean argued that most modern Irish novels were, despite the new forms pioneered by Joyce and others, essentially 19th century in form, but with modern content and questioned whether it was possible to create a genuinely politically-radical novel within a conservative structure.

Discussing the role of the sponsor in art, Dean stressed that it did not automatically make the artist a hypocrite -- “You do what you do, and take what you can for it,” he said. Robert Ballagh pointed out that only Britain and its ex-colonies have Arts Councils. On the Saturday, Eugene McCartan, general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, chaired the session on ‘Democracy and the future of the European Union’.

Democracy and national sovereignty were under severe threat, he insisted and it was important that people such as Mick O’Reilly -- the former secretary of the Irish region of the T&G currently engaged in a reinstatement battle with the union’s London-based leadership -- were able to bring these issues into the heart of the labour movement, as Connolly and Larkin had done.

After being introduced as a champion of democracy and national sovereignty, Anthony Coughlan, reminded the audience that he based his approach on the ideas of the late Desmond Greaves who had described the European Community as an attempt to roll back the legacy of the French revolution -- the democratic nation-state.

The nation state had become a barrier to the needs of the trans-national corporations and remained the best foundation for democracy, he said.

In simplified terms, he said, the ‘European project’ was an attempt by five former imperial powers who had lost their colonies in the second world war -- Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands -- to become one new imperial power. However, the EU project was historically doomed -- though it might last many years -- because the member peoples did not form a single nation and therefore would not have the solidarity required to hold the EU together through the economic and political tensions that would inevitably arise.

The euro would also cause enormous strains due to its undemocratic governance and the emergence of conflicting interest-rate and exchange-rate policy needs within the euro zone. Characterising the Nice Treaty referendum debate currently raging in the Republic of Ireland as “the people versus the élites”, he said that it was the No side in Ireland who were championing the interests of the applicant states and of democracy throughout the EU. Providing an assessment of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, Seán Redmond, a former national organiser of the Connolly Association in the 1960s and executive member of the (British) National Council for Civil Liberties, said that the Connolly Association had effectively launched the civil rights movement in 1958.

It had done this when it sent lawyer John Hostettler to the six counties to observe the Talbot Mallon trial and to write a report on the Special Powers Act.

This had been the fruit of Greaves’ idea to question the Special Powers Act, and hence the very existence of Northern Ireland.

The Association had also arranged for three Labour MPs to attend the civil rights march of October 1968. The Stormont regime had reacted with violence to the just demands of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, whose campaign had split unionism.

Whatever one might say about the IRA military campaign, it was undeniable that this had been a major factor, along with the civil rights movement, republican’s acceptance of the need to modify their policies, international support and changed attitudes in the Dublin government, in bringing about change.

In the interesting discussion that followed, involving other veterans of the civil rights movement, it was said that public opinion in Europe is totally in support of nationalist aspirations, and that more use could be made of this fact.

With Irish Democrat correspondent Robert Heatley in the chair for the school’s final session, Sinn Féin Councillor Eoin Ó Broin spoke about ‘Stevens, collusion and the future of policing in the north’.

Representing Old Park ward, in North Belfast, Ó Broin stressed that he was in close touch with these problems.

He emphatically rejected the suggestion that Sinn Féin’s arguement for remaining outside the new Policing Board, though correct, had been lost.

The police’s behaviour towards the nationalist population had been a major reason why young people had joined the civil rights movement in the 1960s, he insisted. For ordinary ‘non-political’ nationalists this remained the litmus test of whether the peace process was bringing results.

For his constituents, life had got worse, not better, since the Good Friday agreement, resulting in a groundswell of support for Sinn Féin’s position. An increased vote for the party in the May 2003 elections would force the issue while a Sinn Féin presence on the police board, at this stage, would only give it credibility, he insisted.

The Patten Report, after raising expectations among nationalists, had been watered down by the ‘securocrats’ within the British state.

Opposition to genuine police reform had come not from unionist politicians -- who had spoken only about symbols -- but from the British government. The Policing Board was “effectively a gerrymander” while the office of Ombudsman as “deeply truncated”, he said.

Patten had promised “a new beginning” on policing and Sinn Féin were committed to this. Because the RUC had always had a political function, not a public service function, there must be deep-rooted structural change, not just ‘more Catholics’.

On the question of collusion, he stresed that it took many forms, and that politicians were ultimately responsible for creating the situations in which it took place. Britain was deliberately dragging its feet on the investigation of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC and British Intelligence, he said.

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