John McAnulty remembers the Silver Jubilee celebrations, 25 years ago
One of the unfortunate things about being long in the tooth is that you occasionally have to confess to being present at historical events. I have to confess to being a political activist at the time of the last jubilee, 25 years ago. In fact, following a broad meeting of republican and left activists, I had the honour of being appointed chair of the Elizabeth Windsor welcome committee in Belfast. The title indicates the rather light-hearted approach that we took. A series of counter-events would surely expose the arrant nonsense of this feudal relic ruling over us.
Internment by remand
Unfortunately the British state did not take such a light-hearted view. A few days later the RUC smashed their way into my home at 5.00am, arrested me, interrogated me for several days in the notorious Castlereagh torture centre, charged me with possessing information likely to be of use to terrorists, and held me on remand for the next six months. I was released hours before the British would finally have had to produce evidence in court to justify my imprisonment. This was a common practice at that time, generally called
internment by remand.
The other members of the committee continued with the organising work and by the time of the Windsor visit they had built a mass demonstration of tens of thousands of people that marched down the Falls Road and attempted to enter the city centre to protest the visit. The British state took an even less light-hearted view of this. Not only did they launch a vicious attack on the demonstrators, they did so after surrounding the demonstration on all sides and ensuring that there was no escape. Everyone, from young babies to pensioners, cowered in crushed groups of 20 or 30 in tiny terraced houses while those left on the street were spread-eagled on the ground and systematically beaten. I learned then that the Windsor dynasty was not some leftover relic of the past but a vital component of the British state, forming a number of vital functions.
Some of these functions were particular to the North of Ireland. Here the symbols of royalty were also the badges of sectarian privilege and of sectarian discrimination and consciously used by the state in mobilise a loyal Protestant militia. Members of the Royal Family were used as a sort of opium to pacify loyalism when it became restive. The sight of loyalist thugs swelling up with a boozy sentimentality would have been funny if it were not for the horrific reality.
In addition you had the usual run of gongs, bells, medals and titles designed to cement politicians and minor state functionaries even more closely to the throne. Usually this involved only the most loyal of
Castle Catholics, while the rest of the Catholic middle class looked on enviously and cursed their inability to join in.
Denial of democracy
Above all, of course, the Royal Family represented a denial of democracy. Undemocratic in their own right, they were doubly undemocratic standing under the soil of Ireland and claiming dominion there.
It is important to recognise however that when we oppose the Royal Family we oppose its modern incarnation as a mechanism of capitalist rule. The institution of royalty represents the right of capital to rule directly without any necessity for elections or parliaments. The armed organs of the state swear allegiance to the crown.
What was refreshing about the mass struggle in Ireland, what wedded socialists to republican activists was what Lenin called the
general democratic content of the programme of revolutionary nationalism. As a sentiment this is alive and well in the North of Ireland but it lacks any major form of political expression. As with so much else in mainstream republicanism democratic principle has been recast as culture. Catholics respectfully keep their distance while respecting Protestants right to be slaves of the Windsors. The idea that there is a democratic principle that seeks to unite
Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the banner of revolution has been lost in the capitulation to bourgeois nationalism.
The infrequent hurried royal visits to the North, buried under the cloak of secrecy are to be replaced by a leisurely 3-day triumphal tour in May.
Even so the coming Jubilee visit to the North still attracts some nervousness. In the early ‘60s, when opposition to British rule seemed totally crushed, the Queen made a visit to Belfast. Two republican workmen were arrested after a brick fell from high above Royal Avenue onto the Royal cavalcade.
I am far from suggesting that a well-placed brick can replace class struggle as a means of resolving the feudal elements of the British state or the British occupation of Ireland. The sentiment that aims the brick is however a good starting point.