Monthly Archives: April 2007

Which Way We Are Facing

Mick Hall • 28 April 2007

When future Historians come to study the minutiae of the PIRA insurgency, which began in 1969 and finally came to an end on the 26th March 07, when the SF President Gerry Adams sat alongside Ian Paisley at Stormont Castle, to hear the United Kingdom’s ‘Governor General’ in the north announce that a power sharing Executive would be formed to administer the UK’s Irish statelet, there will be those who will claim that the PIRA’s ‘long war’ was never about the completion of the Irish National Revolution, but was an unnecessarily violent insurgency that began in the tradition of the Irish Defenders, and culminated in a struggle for the democratic and human rights of the minority Catholic community within the northern state-let, whose democratic and human rights had been continuously repressed by Stormont governments after Ireland was partitioned by the British government in 1922.

Due to the outcome of the recent conflict, this slipshod analysis of the struggle is already gaining ground — not only amongst Revisionist Irish Academics and English Establishment types, but also Dissident Republicans, leftists like the journalist Eamonn McCann and [off the record] members of Sinn Fein, who are increasingly using this argument to justify their own accommodation with the British State. McCann, in a recent Sunday Business Post article, wrote the following, which typifies some of those who are coming to support this incomplete viewpoint of the conflict.

The mass of Northern Catholics have never been republicans in the sense in which Sinn Fein has used the word. Commentators frequently refer to the Falls Road as ”traditionally republican”. But Gerry Adams was, in 1983, the first republican ever elected in the area. In the December 1918 general election – which, until recently, the modern manifestation of Sinn Fein insisted was the last legitimate election held on the island – West Belfast was one of only two constituencies in which Home Rule trounced republicanism: Joe Devlin hammered de Valera.
Whilst there is undoubtedly some surface truth in the Defenders/civil rights argument, it is far from the whole picture and for a man such as Eamonn McCann, who is a Trotskyite revolutionary, to attempt to give such a shallow and bourgeois interpretation of these momentous and bloody events, displays a lack of understanding on his part of just how revolutions and popular revolts come into being.

It is perfectly understandable that revisionist historians and UK apologists would attempt to place such a hangman’s noose around the neck of Irish history: it absolves the UK State of all responsibility for the nasty little entity it created and called Northern Ireland, and for the inevitable misery and bloodletting that flowed from it. It is therefore hardly surprising that the British government would wish to obscure in the mists of time what motivated those who joined the insurgency that broke out in 1969. It has no wish to highlight the fact that the northern statelet became a ‘permanent’ entity after the British Prime Minister of the day, David Lloyd George, made the most dire threats of “dreadful and escalating war” if the Irish revolutionaries refused to bow to his demands and sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which the Second Dáil finally ratified on 7 January 1922 by a vote of 64 to 57.

Of course, popular revolts rarely go to order and to make an issue of the fact that northern Catholics and nationalists prior to 1969 in the main supported nationalist and not republican political organizations is to miss the point entirely. If one was to use this yardstick, one would have to dismiss as illegitimate almost every popular revolt in history going back to that of Spartacus, for had not the majority of revolutionaries who rose up along-side Spartacus previously accepted their slavery passively? I will not go that far back but use the example of the Russian October Revolution. Prior to that historic event, only a small minority of the Russians Masses supported the Bolshevik brand of socialism. True, Lenin’s Party had elected parliamentarians within the Russian Duma in the period leading up to WW1, but they were not even the largest party amongst the Socialist Deputies, let alone the political parties who made up that Assembly as a whole.

Yet when the suffering of the Russian masses became intolerable, they reached for Lenin’s Bolsheviks as the nearest vehicle to hand which they thought might offer them some respite from oppression, and give them their best chance to bring their sufferings to an end. Whether their choice was wise is not for this article. My point is when people feel their oppression has become intolerable, they reach out for what ever revolutionary organization is to hand and offers them the best chance of getting out from under the yoke of their oppressor.

For the working class Catholic youth of the north of Ireland who were to become the backbone of the PIRA insurgency, Irish Republicanism offered them their best hope. These young people had grown up with Irish nationalism; many of their parents had been active supporters of it, voting decade after decade for the various northern politicians who sailed under the reformist flag. Far from this lessening their load, they had seen their parents endure political impotency, mass unemployment and sectarian discrimination in the allocation of public housing stock, in which there had been a post-war boom in the UK due to the policies of the Attlee government at Westminister (which in the rest of the UK had brought respite from appalling housing conditions by offering millions of working class people a decent Council House). For many of these young workers the final straw was the brutality dished out to the supporters of the NICRM by the RUC, working under orders from the Stormont government, whilst the UK State turned a blind eye.

No one should have been surprised that the Nationalist working class youth turned to the one organized political force that had not only opposed the northern State since its inception but had always proclaimed that it was non reformable, the Irish Republican Movement. True, in the north and especially in Belfast the Republican Movement had an element of Catholic Defenderism about it, but these people were a minority within the organization nationally. And even those who held a Defenderist outlook never looked across the Irish Sea to Westminster for their salvation, but to the Irish nations as constituted in the Republic of 1916.

Many of the aforementioned young workers soon found themselves in the ranks of the newly formed PIRA, and within a short space of time the British State found themselves fighting a full blown insurgency which could have threatened the very existence of the United Kingdom. The Westminster government quickly took control of the situation, by sending the Unionist administration at Stormont packing and in the process they instigated Direct Rule from London and poured enormous military and economic resources into crushing the insurgency. This in itself makes nonsense of the Defenderist theories, as, if true, the UK State would have quickly conceded to the Catholic minority that which all other citizens within the UK then attained.

Far from the failure of the PIRA’s ‘long war’ proving that the Catholic and progressive part of the population within the north of Ireland were always opposed to Irish Republicanism, the opposite is true. For at a time of great crises and turmoil, by joining and supporting the PRM, the working class and rural youth from within the nationalist community clearly demonstrated that they had absolutely no confidence in reformist Irish Nationalism. The only real conclusion we can draw from the failure of the PIRA insurrection is that the UK State was prepared to sit it out, conscious of the fact that revolts and insurrections have a limited time frame. If revolutionaries are not successful within a comparatively short span of time they will in all probability fail.

There will be those who will deny this by using the Vietnamese struggle for Independence as their example. They would be mistaken however, as the Vietnamese people’s titanic struggle for national liberation was not only a national insurrection, but it was also a link in the chain of the Cold War, then being fought between the United States and their allies and the USSR and the fraternal States that supported it. Thus the USSR and its allies were able to provide much of the economic, medical, human, military and strategic resources, which enabled Ho Chi Minn to lead his people to victory in a ‘long war’. That the Adams leaderships failed to factor in this when they set their movement on the ‘long war’ strategy is one of the main reasons we are where we are in the north of Ireland today.

Finally, I wish to touch briefly on the ‘what if question’ that is often asked metaphorically of Republican hero’s such as the PIRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, as it has some relevancy to the issue under review here. In my opinion, no Irish Republican ever took up arms to usher in human and democratic rights for the Nationalist and Catholic people who live within the UK Statelet in the northeast of Ireland. Just as in Michael Collins’ day, no Republican fought the war of Independence with the aim of partitioning the nation politically.

But as I wrote above, revolutions and insurrections cannot be ordered on Spec, they are always a work in progress. So just as it would be ridiculous to conclude that Bobby Sands or any deceased Republican would have taken up arms for what the leadership of SF has now accepted; that in itself does not, as some Dissidents claim, make what Mr. Adams and his leadership clique have settled for wrong in and of itself, although most progressive people would baulk at their methodology.

For in their own way Adams and his leadership have achieved something Michael Collins and the Free Staters failed to do. When they signed the Treaty in 1922, the Free State government assigned the Catholic and Nationalist people, who found themselves stranded within the new Northern Ireland Statelet, at the mercy of a vengeful Unionist bourgeois ascendancy, who were determined to make the nationalist communities lives a misery; and so they did.

Despite their reactionary methodology, the Adams leadership of SF, knowing the war was lost, have managed to at least gain the means for the Nationalist minority community to defend themselves politically against any backlash from the British State and their northern acolytes, which in truth is something which is not to be regarded lightly, as history shows. As to the political future, the real question Irish republicans and all progressive people on the island must now face up to is not about the rights and wrongs of the GFA, for that will now be for the historians. What we have to resolve is how we move forward to a Thirty Two County Socialist Republic. Perhaps it would do no harm if we all mulled over John Lennon’s words. How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I am facing?

This article first appeared in The Blanket e-magazine. []


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Rhythm, Blues and Anti Racism, Live at the Mingo.

The Flamingo Jazz Club which operated out of a dingy basement in London’s Wardor Street Soho in the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, has become legendary amongst cultural buffs of that city and was recently featured in the BBC2 documentary Soul Britannia, which looked at the history of Soul music in the United Kingdom. The Club is also a sweet memory of those of us who when teenagers spent our weekend’s in its sweaty bowel’s. Although if one reads the odd article on the Flamingo Club that appears these days, one may get the impression it was a Mod club,* which whilst half true is far from the actual story. It is true the more adventurous Mod’s who inhabited London’s West End back then, gradually became regulars at the club and by 1963 the music played within the Flamingo was entirely within the Mod tradition, but this is a chicken or egg conundrum as the claim could equally be made that the Flamingo was a major influence on the music that became inherent within Mod culture rather than the other way around. No, the Flamingo was much more than a club where members of the youth cult known as Mod’s hanged out, it was the precursor of the ethnic melting pot London was to become and this was reflected in the sounds played within the club. Indeed ask any old Mingolian why their anti racist roots are so firm; and it is a fact few who were Mingo regulars ended up as racists, they would not reply with the names of the great men and women of the civil rights and anti racist movement, nor from having been racially abused themselves but because for a short period of time their roots lay within that grubby Wardor Street basement lovingly known to us all as, ‘the Mingo’.

There were two main Soho clubs in the 1960s that could be exclusively called Mod hangouts, The Scene in Ham Yard and the Discotheque in Lower Wardor Street. In both of these clubs the sounds were American R@B with a touch of Jazz and West Indian Bluebeat. Whilst today’s media may go on about how UK bands like the Who, Kinks and the Small Faces provided the soundtrack for the Mod scene, I don’t recall ever hearing any of the music of these bands being played within any of the West End Mod hangouts, although Millie Small, Prince Buster, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Smith, Bo Didley and Cannonball Adderley were regularly blasted out, bouncing off the ceiling and out into the street. However for many of us Mods, neither of these clubs were a touch on the Mingo, the Scene was elitist, look at me am I not a face, an edgy place with a certain violence lurking beneath the surface, which often erupted outside in HamYard . Whilst the Disc as it was known was more of a rough and ready joint, it had old mattresses along one wall, more welcoming that the Scene; and for me it provided a taster of what was to come, whilst the music was Black, the cliental of both the Scene and Disc were almost exclusively white.

Just up the road from the Disc was the Flamingo Jazz Club, around the door of which grouped throughout the night its then cliental having come up for a breather. Mainly newly arrived West Indian immigrants, plus a sprinkling of black GIs based at the US air bases scattered across the south of England and East Anglia, plus a lesser number of white jazz cats. Us young Mods, who thought back then that we were at the fore of the UK street fashion scene and as hip as hell with our Ben Sherman shirts, mohair suits and blue beat hats, would get a fair bit or ribbing and a little abuse when we walked past the Mingo from the black guys hanging around its stairwell. Most of us Mod’s were then in our mid teens, whilst the Mingo regulars then were somewhat older, early to late twenties. We gave as good as we got although occasionally one of the black guys would chance his arm and half heartedly attempt to roll one of us, on the odd occasion when some blocked up kid new to the scene would hand his cash over whilst in a drugged daze, one of the other brothers would more often than not put a stop to it and return his cash, after deducting a shilling or two as a lesson for the youngsters gullibility.

Before I go on what you have to understand is Britain was far from the multi racial society it is today and most Mods lived in parts of London or the Home Counties which had few black faces; the more so in the New Towns and estates of the south east of England, like Welling Garden City, Hemel Hamstead, Basildon, South Ockendon-Belhus etc, which had been built to take up the housing slack brought about by the bombing of London during WW2 and the determination of the post war Labour Government to at least attempt to build homes fit for heros, and replace the wretched slums that surrounded most big cities in the UK. Thus all these Black guys on the street in Wardor St were something completely new and in truth somewhat intimidating for most of us, or would have been if we were not so young, naive and adventurous in search of a good time [stoned-out too]

Given time many of us began to wonder what it was like down in the Mingo basement; and as tales of fantastic live music down below began to seep along the street, not least that a young organist and his band named Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames were bringing the house down at weekends, the more adventurous of us decided to give it a go. Dube’s [purple hearts]downed we ventured forth, through the crowd hanging at the entrance we went with trepidation, down the stairs to the door where John Gunnell, one of the two brothers who ran the Mingo took your cash, half a quid, normally paid with a ten bob note and then you were in. On entering you were hit by a wall of cheap perfume and roll on deodorant, smoke, sweat and dancing bodies, all accompanied by a throbbing R@B soundtrack. As you pushed your way to the front there were three rows of old cinema seats in front of which there was a small stage for the band to perform on, with Hammond Organ, drums and amplifiers set up. To the left on a raised platform, there was a coffee bar type area from where you could oversee the stage and the rest of the club, a foot or so below and from which you could view the band and check out the girls dancing before you [attempted to] make a move.

John Gunnell always introduced the bands, he is heard doing so on the live album Georgie Fame, Rhythm and Blues Live at the Flamingo, which captures the moment perfectly. Whilst Mr Fame was undoubtedly the star within the stable of Mingo artists,** [most of whom the Gunnell Brothers also managed] we all had our own particular favorites, and I like most Mingolians would diligently get the Melody Maker every Thursday to see who was doing the Saturday Allnighter -12 midnight to 6-am, and in case we had any energy left, the Sunday afternoon 3 to 6 pm slot. My heart used to sink if it was John Mayall, not because he had a crap band, far from it, but he was so self indulgent, a Blues purists who saw himself as a middle class intellectual in the jazz club habitue mold, back then he failed to understand to us mods, black music was not an intellectual thing, but was there to lift our spirits and move us emotionally, to take us beyond our lives as factory fodder or to lighten our days at school, where we were be educated to become the cart horses of capital and with a big stick at that.. So if Mayall was playing the Sunday slot it was a nono, as most of us would be done in from the all-nighter and suffering a vicious come down, so John singing about struggling up another bloody hill was going to do us no good at all.

With the influx of us young Mod’s and our coming together with the black brothers, the Mingo had moved beyond a jazz club atmosphere and John was the wrong band for the club the Mingo had become.. The whirling thump of the Hammond organ and horns is what we wanted, with a singer who punched a whole in our souls, we wanted to be lifted not driven down into our boots. Having said this Chris Farlowe who was one of my favorites got by without a horn section, but he did have Albert Lee on guitar and Dave Greenslande on organ and for some reason, when ever other singers came down to the club it was with Chris and the Thunderbird they more often than not sat in. Remember things were different back then, whilst of course there were many late night drinking clubs in the West end, an allnighter that had live music was very rare. Only Ronnie Scott’s [old club] in Gerard Street, which was directly opposite the Mingo springs to mind. There was Ken Colyer’s Studio 51 which used to have an all-nighter now and again, but it was full of middle class trad-jazzers and was an acquired taste to say the least and for me the atmosphere was a kin to an average students bar of the age, although in truth back then I had never been in a collage let alone a students bar. Thus many musicians who had been gigging around London and the home counties would turn up in their early hours to sit in and blow their horns, Eric Burdon and saxophonist Dick Hecksal Smith were the two I remember most, at his best, long before he became a born again American, Burdon was a wonderful singer. I saw him and Farlowe on more than one occasion bring the house down, not least when dueting with Stormy Monday Blues, just magnificent. Rod the Mod’s mentor Long John Baldry also sat in from time to time, often he was simply on the pull. As to did Jimi Hendrix, just the once mind, fresh off the plane from the US. I also remember Chris Barber the Trad jazz guy often turning up in the small hours to blow his trombone which surprisingly turned out to be a treat.

The first band I saw was Ronnie Jones and the Knight-Timers, Ronnie was one of those GI’s I mentioned above accept he stepped out of the audience onto the bandstand to sing with a sweet soulful voice, Ronnie due to commitments went his own way to be replaced in the Knightimers by Herbie Goings, another American GI or so we all presumed, an R@B belter in the mould of Wilson Picket and I tell you Herb could really shake the Mingo down. Whilst he was to be followed somewhat later by yet another American ‘ex serviceman,’ Geno Washington who teamed up with an outfit called the Ram Jam Band, a real showman but voice wise he never came up to Herbie who had a great voice and a songbook of black music that covered the previous two decades and more, thus he often had the club in the palm of his hand.

Then their was the guy who I thought had the best name ever for a band, Zoot Money and his Big Roll Band and boy did he let the good times roll. Zoot was a bundle of energy with a smile like a cheshire cat, who owed a lot to the show band style of Fats Domino, with a touch of the rock and roll exuberance of Little Richard thrown in and he went down a storm with most Mods, especially in the suburban halls which ringed London and which most of us frequented during the week. But some how the black guys never took to him in the same way as they did Mr Fame, who for some reason they saw as one of their own as too did we Mod affectionardios who frequented the Mingo. Maybe it had something to do with having black guys like Speedy on the Congas or Eddie Thornton on the Trumpet; or that Georgies voice was just right for Bluebeat which took the guys back home. In truth I doubt the Mingo would have become the club it was if Georgie had not graced its stage, he like all great musician had pure style. Whilst on that small stage, Georgie, the Blue Flames and the crowd became as one. If you have only seen Georgie on TV shows like Top of The Pops, it is easy to understand why you might not feel he is anything special, but catch him in a small room, with the right band and the man is pure class; and still is at times to this day. But there is another reason why people like me owe him a debt, he was a working class lad from Wigan, coming from much the same background as most of us mods. Thus his love for blues, pop, soul, jazz, indeed most musical forms, encouraged those of us who admired his music to follow in his foot steps with our very own Sound Venture and in the process many of us acquired wide musical taste.

It was this unity that I aforementioned which instilled in all who went down the Mingo a rejection of the infantile and nonsensical nature of racism, for we had been part of a celebration as a black and white crowd which rejoiced in black music played by white and black musicians, and we were never going to become pawns in any racist politicians hands for we had been as one. What we learnt down in that dark basement room was not to fear difference but to embrace and rejoice in them, test them and if its fine, go with the flow. We learnt to look outside our own sphere of influences, whether in music or life in general; and not to always simply go with the majority.

Of course it is impossible to write about the Mingo without mentioning what fueled it, for back then as today no all-nighter could survive without its punters being on just a little more than thresh air and the odd can of larger, no matter how good the sounds. Amphetamines, Dubes, purple hearts, blues whatever one wished to call the speed of the day was the power source, at least for us Mod’s, that and the music. In the early days they came from being ‘liberated’ by people who worked for French Kline and Smith the major pharmaceutical manufacturer, having been passed down the line until small time pushers did the deal on the street. Different pushers had their shop fronts south off Shaftsbury Avenue, much as I presume they have about the West-end today, one in the doorway of Revels shoe shop in Wardor St, another on the corner at the T junction where Gerald St met Wardor St, etc etc. The Dubes were as easy to get up West back then as Coke is today, it was only when demand outreached supply that bent doctors, breaking into chemist ships and counterfeiting french blues came into play and by then the Mingo had died a death as many of its best musician’s and punters went in search of flower power or a more steady source of income.

* 1960’s fashion trend, popular amongst working class youngsters.

**although after his first hit record I don’t think he played the mingo anymore, certainly not after late 1964-65, no matter as the rest of the bands who gigged there where equally good.

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Getting Away with Murder

The article below was first published in The Sunday Life, which is published in the north of Ireland. I have posted it up as it highlights the criminal collusion that took place between the British security forces and members of para-military groups during the PIRA insurgency, up to and including murder. Thus it is imperative that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is brought into being within the north so that such criminality can be brought into the public spotlight. Without which it is difficult to see how the two communities can reforge their relationship in peace and tolerance.

MP could have been saved
Sunday, April 15, 2007

By Greg Harkin
It was reported last week that MI5 officers and Ministry of Defence officials had started destroying documents relating to past crimes in Northern Ireland – particularly cases where collusion had been alleged.

This is assuming they have any files left to destroy. In June 2003, I reported how thousands of documents on some of the most controversial killings of the Troubles had already been destroyed – even before former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens had asked for them.

Documents can provide a paper trail, leading to embarrassing secrets being uncovered.

Many files relating to the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane ‘disappeared’.

One case that does not require documents of any sort because it is so clear is that of agent and self-confessed killer Martin McGartland.

McGartland was recruited as an informer by RUC Special Branch in the late 1980s before claiming that he made a dramatic escape from the IRA’s so-called ‘nutting squad’.

On June 19, 1991, soldier Tony Carlos Harrison was shot dead by two IRA men who burst into his girlfriend’s home at Nevis Avenue in east Belfast. McGartland drove the gunmen to and from the murder scene. Harrison had been on leave to discuss his future wedding plans with his fiancée. His murder was witnessed by her, her mother and a terrified 10-year-old girl.

McGartland continued to work for Special Branch after the murder in spite of his role being in clear breach of guidelines – not to say, obviously, the law.

In 1997, in a letter to a London newspaper, McGartland admitted his role in the killing, but said he did not have time to tell his handlers.

“I deeply regret what happened, but I accept responsibility for my role in the events of that day,” he said.

He claimed he had spent a month trying to help the security forces to identify who a target in that area of east Belfast could be.

“We were outraged that McGartland was asking for money and desperately hoped his claim (for compensation) would fail,” said Harrison’s father, Steve Seaman, a retired school caretaker from Bow, east London.

“It was sickening that some MPs could support a man who was an accomplice to our son’s murderers.

“Tony would be married now with children. But he is dead and that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

“He had been a soldier for six years and we knew that there was a risk he might die in action.

“But to be shot in the back while watching television with his girlfriend is so worthless, so cowardly.

“He had talked to his mother only an hour or so before, asking how to cook pasta. And then he died, just like that.”

McGartland claims he gave his RUC contacts the names of the two IRA men involved.

The case caused a furore inside the office of the Police Ombudsman in August 2002. Investigators decided – incredibly – not to investigate the murder of Pte Harrison.

They also decided not to question McGartland about the murder – in spite of the family’s anger and frustration.

However, not everyone inside the Belfast office agreed with the decision.

A former investigator told Sunday Life: “I personally wanted McGartland held responsible for murder, but that idea was overruled, and, to this day, I don’t know why.

“It was an open and shut case – man is murdered, man admits murder. I thought it was as simple as that, but it wasn’t.

“Informers and touts have participation status, allowed to commit a crime to prevent a greater one – but the greatest crime was committed in this case. Yet nothing happened.

“It was like deciding not to look at ‘Stakeknife’ when we had the chance more than five years ago. We should have investigated.”

Nuala O’Loan and her investigators have – belatedly – started to look at the role of agents in the Troubles.

Freddie ‘Stakeknife’ Scappaticci is just one of them.

Three others who have never been identified and are still working within the republican movement are also being looked at.

Some agents who believed they had made it to the end of the Troubles without getting caught out will be very worried indeed.

The irony is that it is now republican policy to tell the police everything . . .

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Below is an eloquent piece from Howard Zinn, an excerpt from his new book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, published earlier this year by City Lights.

Sacco and Vanzetti
by Howard Zinn

The following is an excerpt from Howard Zinn’s new book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, published earlier this year by City Lights. For Howard’s upcoming speaking schedule, see the City Lights Web site:

Fifty years after the executions of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts set up a panel to judge the fairness of the trial, and the conclusion was that the two men had not received a fair trial. This aroused a minor storm in Boston.

One letter, signed John M. Cabot, U.S. Ambassador Retired, declared his “great indignation” and pointed out that Governor Fuller’s affirmation of the death sentence was made after a special review by “three of Massachusetts’ most distinguished and respected citizens-President Lowell of Harvard, President Stratton of MIT and retired Judge Grant.”

Those three “distinguished and respected citizens” were viewed differently by Heywood Broun, who wrote in his column for the New York World immediately after the Governor’s panel made its report. He wrote:

It is not every prisoner who has a President of Harvard University throw on the switch for him..If this is a lynching, at least the fish peddler and his friend the factory hand may take unction to their souls that they will die at the hands of men in dinner jackets or academic gowns.

Heywood Broun, one of the most distinguished journalists of the twentieth century, did not last long as a columnist for the New York World.

On that 50th year after the execution, the New York Times reported that: “Plans by Mayor Beame to proclaim next Tuesday ‘Sacco and Vanzetti Day’ have been canceled in an effort to avoid controversy, a City Hall spokesman said yesterday.”

There must be good reason why a case 50-years-old, now over 75-years-old, arouses such emotion. I suggest that it is because to talk about Sacco and Vanzetti inevitably brings up matters that trouble us today: our system of justice, the relationship between war fever and civil liberties, and most troubling of all, the ideas of anarchism: the obliteration of national boundaries and therefore of war, the elimination of poverty, and the creation of a full democracy.

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti revealed, in its starkest terms, that the noble words inscribed above our courthouses, “Equal Justice Before the Law,” have always been a lie. Those two men, the fish peddler and the shoemaker, could not get justice in the American system, because justice is not meted out equally to the poor and the rich, the native born and the foreign born, the orthodox and the radical, the white and the person of color. And while injustice may play itself out today more subtly and in more intricate ways than it did in the crude circumstances of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, its essence remains.

In their case, the unfairness was flagrant. They were being tried for robbery and murder, but in the minds, and in the behavior of the prosecuting attorney, the judge, and the jury, the important thing about them was that they were, as Upton Sinclair put it in his remarkable novel Boston, “wops,” foreigners, poor workingmen, radicals.

Here is a sample of the police interrogation:

Police: Are you a citizen?

Sacco: No.

Police: Are you a Communist?

Sacco: No.

Police: Anarchist?

Sacco: No.

Police: Do you believe in this government of ours?

Sacco: Yes; some things I like different.

What did these questions have to do with the robbery of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, and the shooting of a paymaster and a guard?

Sacco was lying, of course. No, I’m not a Communist. No, I’m not an anarchist. Why would he lie to the police? Why would a Jew lie to the Gestapo? Why would a black in South Africa lie to his interrogators? Why would a dissident in Soviet Russia lie to the secret police? Because they all know there is no justice for them.

Has there ever been justice in the American system for the poor, the person of color, the radical? When the eight anarchists of Chicago were sentenced to death after the Haymarket riot (a police riot, that is) of 1886, it was not because there was any proof of a connection between them and the bomb thrown in the midst of the police; there was not a shred of evidence. It was because they were leaders of the anarchist movement in Chicago.

When Eugene Debs and a thousand others were sent to prison during World War I, under the Espionage Act, was it because they were guilty of espionage? Hardly. They were socialists who spoke out against the war. In affirming the ten-year sentence of Debs, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made it clear why Debs must go to prison. He quoted from Debs’ speech: “The master class has always declared the wars, the subject class has always fought the battles.”

Holmes, much admired as one of our great liberal jurists, made clear the limits of liberalism, its boundaries set by a vindictive nationalism. After all the appeals of Sacco and Vanzetti had been exhausted, the case was put before Holmes, sitting on the Supreme Court. He refused to review the case, thus letting the verdict stand.

In our time, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair. Was it because they were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union? Or was it because they were communists, as the prosecutor made clear, with the approval of the judge? Was it also because the country was in the midst of anti-communist hysteria, communists had just taken power in China, there was a war in Korea, and the weight of all that could be borne by two American communists?

Why was George Jackson, in California, sentenced to ten years in prison for a $70 robbery, and then shot to death by guards? Was it because he was poor, black, and radical?

Can a Muslim today, in the atmosphere of the “war on terror” be given equal justice before the law? Why was my upstairs neighbor, a dark-skinned Brazilian who might look like a Middle East Muslim, pulled out of his car by police, though he had violated no regulation, and questioned and humiliated?

Why are the two million people in American jails and prisons, and six million people under parole, probation, or surveillance, disproportionately people of color, disproportionately poor? A study showed that 70% of the people in New York state prisons came from seven neighborhoods in New York City-neighborhoods of poverty and desperation.

Class injustice cuts across every decade, every century of our history. In the midst of the Sacco Vanzetti case, a wealthy man in the town of Milton, south of Boston, shot and killed a man who was gathering firewood on his property. He spent eight days in jail, then was let out on bail, and was not prosecuted. The district attorney called it “justifiable homicide.” One law for the rich, one law for the poor-a persistent characteristic of our system of justice.

But being poor was not the chief crime of Sacco and Vanzetti. They were Italians, immigrants, anarchists. It was less than two years from the end of the First World War. They had protested against the war. They had refused to be drafted. They saw hysteria mount against radicals and foreigners, observed the raids carried out by Attorney General Palmer’s agents in the Department of Justice, who broke into homes in the middle of the night without warrants, held people incommunicado, and beat them with clubs and blackjacks.

In Boston, 500 were arrested, chained together, and marched through the streets. Luigi Galleani, editor of the anarchist paper Cronaca Sovversiva, to which Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed, was picked up in Boston and quickly deported.

Something even more frightening had happened. A fellow anarchist of Sacco and Vanzetti, a typesetter named Andrea Salsedo, who lived in New York, was kidnapped by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (I use the word “kidnapped” to describe an illegal seizure of a person), and held in FBI offices on the 14th floor of the Park Row Building. He was not allowed to call his family, friends, or a lawyer, and was questioned and beaten, according to a fellow prisoner. During the eighth week of his imprisonment, on May 3, 1920, the body of Salsedo, smashed to a pulp, was found on the pavement near the Park Row Building, and the FBI announced that he had committed suicide by jumping from the 14th floor window of the room in which they had kept him. This was just two days before Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested.

We know today, as a result of Congressional reports in 1975, of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program in which FBI agents broke into people’s homes and offices, carried out illegal wiretaps, were involved in acts of violence to the point of murder, and collaborated with the Chicago police in the killing of two Black Panther leaders in 1969. The FBI and the CIA have violated the law again and again. There is no punishment for them.

There has been little reason to have faith that the civil liberties of people in this country would be protected in the atmosphere of hysteria that followed 9/11 and continues to this day. At home there have been immigrant round-ups, indefinite detentions, deportations, and unauthorized domestic spying. Abroad there have extra-judicial killings, torture, bombings, war, and military occupations.

Likewise, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti began immediately after Memorial Day, a year and a half after the orgy of death and patriotism that was World War I, when the newspapers still vibrating with the roll of drums and the jingoist rhetoric.

Twelve days into the trial, the press reported that the bodies of three soldiers had been transferred from the battlefields of France to the city of Brockton, and that the whole town had turned out for a patriotic ceremony. All of this was in newspapers that members of the jury could read.

Sacco was cross-examined by prosecutor Katzmann:

Question: Did you love this country in the last week of May, 1917?

Sacco: That is pretty hard for me to say in one word, Mr. Katzmann.

Question: There are two words you can use, Mr. Sacco, yes or no. What one is it?

Sacco: Yes

Question: And in order to show your love for this United States of America when she was about to call upon you to become a soldier you ran away to Mexico?

At the beginning of the trial, Judge Thayer (who, speaking to a golf acquaintance, had referred to the defendants during the trial as “those anarchist bastards”) said to the jury: “Gentlemen, I call upon you to render this service here that you have been summoned to perform with the same spirit of patriotism, courage, and devotion to duty as was exhibited by our soldier boys across the seas.”

The emotions evoked by a bomb that exploded at Attorney General Palmer’s home during a time of war-like emotions set loose by the violence of 9/11-created an anxious atmosphere in which civil liberties were compromised.

Sacco and Vanzetti understood that whatever legal arguments their lawyers could come up with would not prevail against the reality of class injustice. Sacco told the court, on sentencing: “I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class.That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class.”

That viewpoint seems dogmatic, simplistic. Not all court decisions are explained by it. But, lacking a theory that fits all cases, Sacco’s simple, strong view is surely a better guide to understanding the legal system than one which assumes a contest among equals based on an objective search for truth.

Vanzetti knew that legal arguments would not save them. Unless a million Americans were organized, he and his friend Sacco would die. Not words, but struggle. Not appeals, but demands. Not petitions to the governor, but take-overs of the factories. Not lubricating the machinery of a supposedly fair system to make it work better, but a general strike to bring the machinery to a halt.

That never happened. Thousands demonstrated, marched, protested, not just in New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, but in London, Paris, Buenos Aires, South Africa. It wasn’t enough. On the night of their execution, thousands demonstrated in Charlestown, but were kept away from the prison by a huge assembly of police. Protesters were arrested. Machine-guns were on the rooftops and great searchlights swept the scene.

A great crowd assembled in Union Square on August 23,1927. A few minutes after midnight, prison lights dimmed as the two men were electrocuted. The New York World described the scene: “The crowd responded with a giant sob. Women fainted in fifteen or twenty places. Others, too overcome, dropped to the curb and buried their heads in their hands. Men leaned on one anothers’ shoulders and wept.”

Their ultimate crime was their anarchism, an idea which today still startles us like a bolt of lightning because of its essential truth: we are all one, national boundaries and national hatreds must disappear, war is intolerable, the fruits of the earth must be shared, and only through organized struggle against authority can such a world come about.

What comes to us today from the case of Sacco and Vanzetti is not just tragedy, but inspiration. Their English was not perfect, but when they spoke it was a kind of poetry. Vanzetti said of his friend Sacco:

Sacco is a heart, a faith, a character, a man; a man lover of nature and mankind. A man who gave all, who sacrifice all to the cause of liberty and to his love for mankind: money, rest, mundane ambition, his own wife, his children, himself and his own life.. Oh yes, I may be more witful, as some have put it, I am a better babbler than he is, but many, many times, in hearing his heartful voice ring a faith sublime, in considering his supreme sacrifice, remembering his heroism I felt small, small at the presence of his greatness, and found myself compelled to fight back from my eyes the tears, quench my heart throbbing to my throat to not weep before him-this man called chief and assassin and doomed.

Worst of all, they were anarchists, meaning they had some crazy notion of a full democracy in which neither foreignness nor poverty would exist, and thought that without these provocations, war among nations would end for all time. But for this to happen the rich would have to be fought and their riches confiscated. That anarchist idea is a crime much worse than robbing a payroll, and so to this day the story of Sacco and Vanzetti cannot be recalled without great anxiety.

Sacco wrote to his son Dante: “So son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother.take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers here and there, resting under the shade of trees.But remember always, Dante, in this play of happiness, don’t you use all for yourself the persecuted and the victim because they are your better friends.. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”

Yes, it was their anarchism, their love for humanity, which doomed them. When Vanzetti was arrested, he had a leaflet in his pocket advertising a meeting to take place in five days. It is a leaflet that could be distributed today, all over the world, as appropriate now as it was the day of their arrest. It read:

You have fought all the wars. You have worked for all the capitalists. You have wandered over all the countries. Have you harvested the fruits of your labors, the price of your victories? Does the past comfort you? Does the present smile on you? Does the future promise you anything? Have you found a piece of land where you can live like a human being and die like a human being? On these questions, on this argument, and on this theme, the struggle for existence, Bartolomeo Vanzetti will speak.

That meeting did not take place. But their spirit still exists today with people who believe and love and struggle all over the world.

This Article first appeared here,

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American labour organisations contribute to James Connolly film.

On Saturday 17 March two American labour groups, the Irish-American Labor Coalition and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, made an investment of $10,000 each towards the forthcoming film Connolly, to be produced by Rascal Productions. At an evening reception Dan Kane Senior, recently elected to the National Executive of the Teamsters, announced that his union was making a donation of $10,000. “We want to do all we can to help bring this film to the screen. For example, the success of The Wind That Shakes the Barley shows that the film-going public is hungry for passionate, truthful films about the Irish struggle.

“James Connolly belongs to the world labour movement. He organised workers in the US, in Scotland, and in Ireland—among both traditions. In America he organised transport workers. He was a working-class hero, a larger-than-life figure. His life can inspire young people. It’s time the wider world, not just union people and not just Irish people, knew about him.”

At its yearly St Patrick’s Day breakfast, Joe Jamison, president of the Irish-American Labor Coalition, declared: “This sum is only a drop in the bucket compared with actual funding needs. We are following the lead of Irish trade unions. In Ireland, SIPTU, the CWU and others have already pledged large amounts. We hope our modest gesture can encourage, firstly, more trade union subscriptions, secondly, the support of the Irish Film Board, and thirdly, independent film private investors.”
This is only the latest effort by the IALC to promote the legacy of James Connolly among the Irish-American community and the American public. It marches behind the Connolly banner each year in the country’s largest St Patrick’s Day parade. It has organised Connolly commemorations. It has helped to build two monuments to Connolly, one outside Liberty Hall in Dublin and one in Troy, New York, where he lived and worked early in the last century.

Visiting trade unionists from Ireland and Britain, including such unions as SIPTU, Amicus, Impact, RMT, and Irish teachers’ unions, were present at the two events. They also pledged to redouble efforts to build support for the film.

The screenplay, the casting and much of the other planning for Connolly have already been completed. Financing is now the last hurdle. More information about the film project and how unions can support it can be obtained at

This first appeared in the April issue of Socialist Voice, Dublin.

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“What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone”

Mick Hall • 19 March 2007

The London and Dublin broadsheets have been full of articles which claimed the elections for the Stormont Assembly, which took place in the north of Ireland on the 7th March, were a victory for the Democratic process. Some even went as far as to claim that the DUP and SF, having emerged from the polls as the two largest parties within the Assembly, ‘had seen off any threat from extremists’. (The Guardian proclaimed in a headline, “Voters rebuff extremists and give hope for Stormont Assembly” [9.3.07.])

Those of us who have followed the antics of the leaders of these two organizations, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley may shudder just a little at this, for in their past practice they have both shown scant regard for Democratic niceties, accountability or practice. Indeed if they had, the six counties may not have descended into what can only described as an in-terminal nightmare of death and destruction, which lasted for over four decades. Whilst neither men can be blamed for creating the fault-line that has been inherent within the northern Statelet since its inception, they both shoulder a great responsibility for violently driving the sectarian wedge into the shifting plates, and thus splintering the two communities asunder.

Whilst the end of para-military violence is to be welcomed, any Stormont Administration which emerges out of the recent election will be far short of being a democratic government —as most who live in Western Democracies understand the term— and to pretend otherwise is to display an absolute contempt for the Irish people. What we will have is an elected sectarian dictatorship that came into being due to the British Government and their Unionist acolytes’ desire to end the PIRA insurgency whilst maintaining the status quo. They have achieved this by covering, with a charade of democratic foliage, the right of the Unionist minority within Ireland to have a permanent veto on the political reunification of the Irish Nation. That the SF leadership were enticed into supporting this by the offer of a Ministerial limo and the trappings of a departmental brief is bewildering —not only for Mr Adams’ Republican critics, but also his friends, although many of the latter have now convinced themselves that when the time is right, Mr Adams will pull a rabbit out of his hat which will still make it possible for reunification to take place by 2016, as he once predicted with such certainty. I fear they are in for a bitter disappointment. In reality all the SF Ministries will contain will be a giant rubber stamp with a crown on its head, and a cash point from which the SF ‘ministers’ will be allowed to finance a small number of pork barreled projects to keep the boyos quiet in their retirement.

The whole point about a democratic system is when one tires of the government of the day, you vote them out. Not in the north of Ireland it seems, for there the best you can hope for is a form of Ministerial musical chairs. If the electorate so decides, true, the First Minister can be replaced if their party is no longer the lead Unionist party, but it is only to be a shuffling of the Ministerial pack, for were he to be dismissed by the electorate, a politician of a similar religious hue and political persuasion would take his place. (*It is always a he with the Unionists.) Far from the departing First Minister being on their way to the opposition benches; if he so wished, he would simply take up another Ministerial seat further down the political food chain.

There will be no opposition within the Stormont Assembly, which, for example, can pass a motion of no confidence; even if there were it would be pointless, for the same people from the same parties would be nominated for ministerial office all over again. True, a few MLAs from the minority Alliance and Green Party, plus an independent member of the Assembly have had the common decency to come together in the hope of performing the task of some sort of opposition, a duty which in any functioning democracy worthy of the name the main opposition party would have filled, but 9 out of 108 MLA’s will never be able to hold the executive to account.

From the UK State’s point of view, things could not have turned out better. They will have in place an administration in the north of Ireland which has all the trappings of a Democracy for the gullible to be enticed by, but it will in reality have none of the powers of such an institution for the reasons I have given, plus the fact that London will control the purse strings. Good or bad, whatever this mockney Stormont administration does, all the main northern political parties will be accountable, for ‘cabinet’ responsibility will prevail. Thus if the DUP ministers enact some paltry piece of legislation the Shinners disagree with, they can hardly object and remain in the Stormont administration. The Shinners, having spent such energies in getting into the Stormont system, are not going to expose its short comings and bring it down around their ears (even if the GFA allowed them to, which it doesn’t). So they will sit fast in their ministerial seats, neutered as the British government always intended, whilst the real show goes on in London, with an odd encore from the Dublin players.

Peace is good, but peace without honour can never be the end game.

First published on The Blanket []

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