Jim Slaven, Secretary of the James Connolly Society, reflects on the events surrounding this year’s Bloody Sunday commemoration and the task of republicans in Scotland
Opposition to commemoration
Following the furore over the recent Bloody Sunday commemoration in Glasgow it is perhaps time to reflect on the political questions raised. Why did the BNP and the Orange Order target this particular march? Why did Strathclyde police behave in such a blatantly partisan manner? And what does it say about devolved Scotland that hundreds of people would gather in George Square giving Nazi salutes and singing ‘Beautiful Sunday’ at relatives of Bloody Sunday victims? Oh yes, and where are the Scottish Left?
Just days before the 2005 Bloody Sunday commemoration in Glasgow the First Minister responded to questions from the media about the event, which was to be the first republican march through Glasgow city centre for a generation, by stating
people want to see fewer of these marches. In fact there are only about ten republican marches in Scotland each year. These events are spread throughout the country and throughout the year. Only four are in Glasgow and only one through the city. The Orange Order have over 1500 marches, dozens through the city of Glasgow and sometimes several on the same day. So people may want to see ‘fewer of these marches’ but the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration would not be high up on their list.
What Jack McConnell and other politicians were doing, intentionally or not, was legitimising the BNP and Orange Order plans to oppose the event.
They were siding with those who wish to deny the Irish community in Scotland their right to mark such a significant event. Several diverse but connected interests were beginning to coalesce around opposition to the Bloody Sunday commemoration.
Firstly the BNP needed to portray itself as the defender of the unionist working class, able to confront republicans on the streets. The Orange Order meanwhile was outraged that we had the temerity to go through our own city centre. All of this has a familiar ring to it of course. The BNP had been behind attacks on previous Bloody Sunday marches in London. And the Orange Order fought tooth and nail to keep nationalists out of Belfast city centre and indeed adopted the same exclusive position in Edinburgh in the early nineties.
Engaging with civic Scotland
For the state it was an opportunity to put republicans on the back foot. Cairde na hEireann had continued to break new ground, establishing cumanns in working class areas throughout the country. Irish republicans had also decided to engage meaningfully with civic Scotland. For the first time local and national politicians were being challenged on their failure to properly represent our community. When Jack McConnell decided to tackle the issue of sectarianism in Scotland, marches was one of the first areas he and others identified as a problem. While recognising this as another attempt by the state to attack republicans and indeed the rights of the wider Irish community we none the less decided to engage positively with the Executive and John Orr’s Review of Marches and Parades.
We made this decision because we agreed that sectarianism was a major problem in Scottish society and we, as republicans, had a responsibility to play our part in challenging this anathema to all we stand for. It was also an opportunity to offer our analysis of anti Irish racism and to represent our community who have to live with the consequences of this multifaceted problem.
In its written submission to the Orr Review Cairde na hEireann set out our principles on the issue. Including our defence of the right to march and our support for community involvement in the decision making process. We also placed the current discourse in its political and historical context. Finally, consistent with our view that all of these issues can only be resolved through dialogue based on the principle of equality, we offered to meet with the Orange Order and discuss both organisations calendar of events and issues of concern to both communities. As expected the Orange Order refused the offer of talks.
In tandem with such political developments we also instigated our own changes to the way our marches are organised. Recognising weaknesses and taking responsibility for our decision to take to the streets. Three years ago republican marches were small affairs organised locally and taking place largely in peripheral housing schemes. Strathclyde police had insisted that people attending must stay on the pavement and merely observe the bands. No political speeches were held at the end and on the whole no one knew or cared that such events were taking place.
Now Cairde na hEireann marches are the largest independently organised political marches in Scotland (or England). Those attending well publicised and overtly political events are no longer spectators but now participate. We have initiated training for stewards and a hugely successful political education course run for young people throughout the country. The positive impact of this strategy can be seen in the fact the 3000 people attended the Bloody Sunday commemoration at less than a weeks notice.
It is against this backdrop the Strathclyde police’s actions must be seen. For eighteen months we have been challenging the Scottish Executive about the way the Justice system, and Strathclyde police in particular, interact with the Irish community. As our events have become more successful and better attended, the police response has become more irrational. In 2005, by their own estimates, there were 400 BNP/Orange Order protesters at the Bloody Sunday commemoration. They were recently forced to admit that despite the march being attacked at several points through the city Strathclyde police arrested no one.
This year Strathclyde police appealed to Glasgow council to ban the event on the basis of secret intelligence reports of planned violent protests. When the council gave the march the go ahead the police responded by publishing the revised route and time on their website and releasing a daily press statement in the run up to the event outlining their worst fears. This ‘I predict a riot’ approach served only to heighten tensions when others were trying to calm the situation.
On the day the police delayed the start by half an hour for no reason and then delayed it a further ten minutes when we were within sight and earshot of the fascists.
All of which only added to an already tense and dangerous situation. So how many of those launching missiles and abuse where arrested this time: Three. And if that is not bad enough, six marchers were arrested for responding to the provocation, mostly by taking photos on their mobile phones. Political policing of this kind has been going on in Scotland for generations. You are still more likely to end up in court and in jail if your ethnicity is Irish.
We have written to the Justice Minister demanding an inquiry into Strathclyde police’s handling of these matters.
So where are the Scottish left when all this is going on? It is hard to imagine any other ethnic minority being subjected to this treatment without plenty of rhetoric from socialists of all shades. When you add the BNP into the mix it’s difficult to explain the absence and silence of the Left. Or is it? Scottish society remains, as novelist Andrew O’Hagen said,
a divisive and bigoted society .
In such a country revolutionaries must tackle national fault lines such as sectarianism and racism with principle not populism. Pandering to working class bigotry on the basis that they might vote for you is an abdication of responsibility. Claiming both sides are as bad as each other, as some on the left do, is not a flawed analysis it’s a lack of analysis, both of the British state and of power.
Battle for hearts & minds
What we are engaged in is a battle for hearts and minds. Gordon Brown’s call for the Union Jack to be embraced was certainly heeded by those in George Square. The debate about Britishness is one we should relish. Unionism, whether in Ireland or Scotland, is reactionary and inherently racist.
Scottish socialists should not be running justice campaigns for the forces of imperialism. We must be on the side of the marginalised, the silenced or as Wolfe Tone said the people of no property. If we are going to build a Scotland of equals we must expose and challenge intolerance wherever we find it.
The political landscape has been transformed since last year’s IRA initiatives. We all occupy a new and challenging reality. If we are going to take advantage of these new and exciting vistas we must be prepared to build new alliances and develop new strategies for the battles ahead. If those of us, republicans and socialists, who want maximum change in society do not occupy the space created others will. That would be a travesty for the people of these islands. We will not improve the lives of the people of Scotland or Ireland in fancy dress or with empty slogans.
This year is an important one for Irish republicans as this month marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the 1981 Hunger Strikes. We will be holding several events throughout these islands to commemorate the sacrifice of ten republican volunteers, including a march in Glasgow. A priority for our commemoration events will be the need for discussion and education not just on the prison struggle but also on the kind of Ireland that these men died for. Socialists should use this opportunity to enter into debate and critically analyse their role in building a new Ireland of equals.
Unbroken chain of resistance
James Connolly was the first Irish Hunger Striker of the twentieth century. This year, marking the 90th anniversary of his execution, reminds us of the unbroken chain of resistance to British rule in Ireland and reinvigorates us in our determination to bring the struggle to a successful conclusion. In order to do that republicans and socialists must work together in Ireland and Scotland against the common enemy. That socialism and republicanism are not contradictory but in fact complimentary has been true every day since Connolly said it. Let us find a way of recognising the commonality of our struggles.
Starting this June when together we march through Scotland’s capital honouring one of Ireland and Scotland’s greatest revolutionaries. And bringing to life Sorley MacLean’s famous lines
The great hero is still
sitting on the chair
fighting the battle in the Post Office
and cleaning the streets of