A Response

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Stuart Ross

IN SEPTEMBER OF 1992 the British Boadcasting Corporation (BBC) current affairs program “Nation” aired a piece devoted to the question of political violence. Bernadette McAliskey was part of that program’s studio audience and, as it turned out, her invited comments were later edited, summarized and subtitled before the program was shown.

What supposedly called for such blatant censorship on the part of the BBC was that McAliskey said she understood, but did not justify, republican violence in Ireland.

Lawyers acting on the behalf of the state broadcasting corporation decided that such a comment might be in violation of the 1988 Home Office directorve (known as the “Broadcasting Ban”) because the comment could be construced as one which might “support, or solicit or invite support for” a proscribed organization, in this case, the IRA.

This application of the Broadcasting Ban suggested an escalation in the ban’s usage as in the past it had been used almost exclusively against representatives of Sinn Fein (a legal political party).

Just recently Ms. McAliskey lost her High Court appeal against this censorship decision after judges finally ruled that the BBC had in fact exercised its discretion lawfully. Still, regardless of what the High Court ruling might have been, the powers that be had already succeeded in branding her as a “supporter of violence” or of “the men of violence,” and had once again marginalized, if not discredited, any voice of dissent on the issue of British rule in the North of Ireland.

Mr. Justin O’Hagan does not seek to censor Bernadette McAliskey; he says he seeks to “dispute some of the points” raised in Ms. McAliskey’s excerpted speech (“The Irish Struggle Today,” ATC 49.) Nevertheless, like those who silenced McAliskey on the “Nation,” O’Hagan attempts to marginalize, if not discredit, the veteran human and civil rights activist. The “angle” and the methods may be different, but because Bernadette McAliskey speaks out on behalf of the nationalist and republican community in Ireland, the intended effect is the same.

Of particular concern to O’Hagan is Bernadette McAliskey’s alleged “attempt to diminish the IRA’s responsibility” for republican violence over the past twenty-five years.

In not jumping on the bandwagon and going through the all-too-familiar ritual of condemnations that we so often hear when one talks of the IRA, McAliskey becomes suspect. In challenging notions of the nature of violence in Ireland and in trying to place in context some of that violence, McAliskey goes too far. (How ironic that the application of such basic socialist analysis so incenses a “socialist from Northern Ireland.”)

The IRA remains at the center of many of O’Hagan’s disputes with McAliskey throughout the course of his letter. Points on this subject which McAliskey didn’t quite make, and those which she didn’t make at all (she didn’t exactly characterize the IRA as “a `restrained’ and `limited’ `defense mechanism,’” nor did she discuss the IRA’s human rights record) are challenged by O’Hagan again and again.

Still, his facts are essentially correct: the Provisionals have been responsible for the greatest number of casualties over the past twenty-five years; they have targeted those who work for the security forces; they have staged proxy-bomb attacks on border checkpoints; and they have meted out rather severe punishments to those deemed guilty of “anti- social behavior.”

O’Hagan obviously uses these facts simply for their shock value and little more. It would be just as easy to counter O’Hagan with shocking accounts of the violence carried out by the security forces or the loyalist paramilitaries, but that wouldn’t help us understand the origins of the political violence in Ireland, nor would it help explain why that violence might continue — which is what McAliskey actually talked about.

When Sinn Fein becomes the subject of dispute, again it is the mysterious unspoken “points” which are challenged. O’Hagan accuses McAliskey of “twisting the reality” because she “implies that Sinn Fein is a mass political party, akin for example to the Sandinistas.” Of course, whether or not McAliskey actually implies such a thing, it is worth taking a quick look at Sinn Fein’s 1993 performance in the Six County local elections (reported in An Phoblacht/Republican News, May 27, 1993).

The party polled 77,984 votes overall, had the highest first preference total in both Belfast (where in the party’s stronghold of West Belfast they polled 47% of the vote) and Dungannon, won the greatest number of nationalist seats in Belfast, Dungannon and Omagh, increased its percentage share of the vote more than any other party and proved once again that it is very much the fourth largest party in the North of Ireland.

O’Hagan, however, wishes to tell us all about the people who don’t vote Sinn Fein, and hops back and forth between the Six Counties and the Twenty-six Counties with his assorted statistics. He says nothing about the rights of those who actually do vote Sinn Fein — which, again, is something McAliskey actually talked about.

O’Hagan wraps up his letter admitting that “[w]hen Bernadette Devlin McAliskey speaks of the horrific murders carried out by the loyalist gangs, of `the endemic violation of … human rights, the endemic structural, social, economic and political discrimination … institutional violence and the physical and overt violence of the state toward the nationalist community’ she is talking about real and pressing problems.” (This he does after already having “dispute[d]” some of these very same points with McAliskey.)

He then goes on to inform us that the IRA is not the answer to any of these problems — apparently he believes that McAliskey states otherwise. Now how he comes to this conclusion, indeed, how he comes to many of his conclusions, is anyone’s guess (or is it?)

Bernadette McAliskey’s Detroit speech is very straightforward. Knowing that most Americans have received only bits and pieces of information on Ireland over the years (information which first has been censored), she begins her speech by providing her listeners with at least some sort of background or context to the situation.

She confronts “an image of Ireland that is unilaterally and universally violent” by adding the British state (with its army, its police and its laws) to the equation. After commenting on Britain’s human rights abuses, discriminatory practices and violence in the North of Ireland, she talks about how the nationalist and republican community has fought back over the years.

McAliskey’s speech concentrates on the most dominant form of resistance in the North, “non-violent community and political resistance,” and in so doing highlights some of the work done by organizations with which she is affiliated: the Irish National Congress, Equality, and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (NI Civil Liberties Council). “All of that non-violent peace and justice work involves trying to resolve the injustices and by resolving them, to bring peace.”

McAliskey then brings her speech to a close with some comments on the political rights of the nationalist community; rights which have been completely disregarded by the British state. O’Hagan’s letter ignores most of this.

”It’s not very easy to be heard on Ireland,” she asserts. Not only does Bernadette McAliskey’s “Nation” experience bear witness to this statement; in many ways, Justin O’Hagan’s response to her speech does so as well.

O’Hagan misrepresents many of McAliskey’s points, diverts attention away from others, and, like those who censored McAliskey back in September of 1992, ultimately tries to write her off as a “supporter of violence” or of “the men of violence.” This could have been predicted, since as McAliskey put it, “anybody who organizes and takes a position, particularly if they do so successfully, who promotes a question, raises an issue that may or may not be, or is likely to be, or currently is an issue which draws attention to the violence of the state, is viewed as an apologist for terrorism.”

Those of us active in Irish solidarity work have seen this sort of thing time and again. This is the classic way of cutting off the debate on the “Irish question;” it helps insure that it will remain a question and that the war will go on.

Note: Gerry Adams lost his seat in the British General Election of April 1992, not 1991. The contest in his former constituency of West Belfast was highly irregular and very controversial, but O’Hagan never goes into that.

Stuart Ross conducted the interview with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey that appeared along with her Detroit speech in ATC 49.

ATC 52, September-October 1994