Allan Armstrong interviews Jim Slaven, a founder member of the James Connolly Society and currently Chair of the Connolly Foundation. Jim outlines the longstanding campaigns to have James Connolly commemorated in Edinburgh, the city of his birth.
Our own radical tradition is a mystery to us, that we don’t know about our historical links
with people who we should be proud of – we should be proud that James Connolly is an
Edinburgh man, why are we not proud of that? One of the greatest twentieth century socialists
was murdered by the British army in 1916. Why do we not admit what happened with John
Maclean, somebody who was murdered, who was poisoned by the State. Why is he not a
James Kelman, Edinburgh Book Festival, 26th August, 2009
James Kelman’s comments on James Connolly (and John Maclean) at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival seem very pertinent. How did James Connolly first come to your attention?
I think Kelman’s comments at the Book Festival really hit the nail on the head about the ignorance that exists about James Connolly in Edinburgh or John Maclean in Glasgow. Personally, with my own experience coming from Edinburgh, where my family was brought up in ‘Little Ireland’, when they first arrived in Scotland, I would have been aware of Connolly from an early age. I made the connection between James Connolly in 1916 and modern politics in the early 1980’s, at the time of the Hunger Strike, particularly when Francis Hughes died on May 12th. May 12th was the date that Connolly was executed by the British state and the date that this hunger striker died. For me, this connected the history and the reality of politics at the time.
When was the James Connolly Society formed and what was its purpose?
Well, the James Connolly Society grew out of the Rising Phoenix Republican Flute Band which had been formed in Edinburgh in 1984, round about the same time as many republican flute bands appeared in Scotland, in the late 1970’s and early 80’s political context of the prison struggle. The Rising Phoenix organised the first Connolly march in Craigmillar Edinburgh in 1986. It became clear that after that initial march in the city that what was needed was a broader political organisation to take forward the memory of James Connolly as well as some of the Irish solidarity work that was required at the time. So, out of the band, came the James Connolly Society, which was formed in the late 80’s after the first march.
The Connolly march in Edinburgh was the subject of a great deal of official hostility. Why was this?
For us, the primary reason why there was such hostility from the state to the Connolly march was because of its politics. James Connolly was a revolutionary leader who was incredibly important for working class people in Edinburgh, but also important to people in Belfast and other areas of the occupied ‘Six Counties’. We felt that Connolly had been very badly neglected in Edinburgh and that his revolutionary analysis of republicanism and socialism needed to be expounded to a wider audience.
The other element, which shouldn’t be neglected, was the fact that the Connolly march was very mucha working class event, organised by young working class people in the city. That is what differentiated it from earlier attempts in the early ‘80’s to organise Connolly events in Edinburgh. These had been smashed by loyalism. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen when local, young working class people were determined to defend their rights.
Although the struggle for Irish self determination, and opposition to British troops in ‘the Six Counties’, was at the centre of the Connolly marches, the organisers always invited a wider range of speakers. What was the thinking behind this?
Well, consider the Connolly marches principal objectives – one was to show solidarity with the risen people in ‘the Six Counties’. We were very clear that the Connolly march was taking place against a backdrop of ongoing military conflict and this was an opportunity to take to the streets in solidarity with the Irish people and their fight against the British state.
The second principal objective of the march was to try and take James Connolly to a wider audience; to make the connection with other people in struggle. So, it wasn’t just about Ireland, or the Irish in Edinburgh, it was linked to various other campaigns. Sometimes speakers were from some ongoing industrial action, and speakers from Palestine, South Africa or various other international struggles. So, it was important for us that we recognised James Connolly’s work in its totality, and not just one aspect.
Despite state and labour movement recognition in Ireland, and American-Irish and labour movement recognition in the USA, there has been a much greater reticence to recognise Connolly in the city of his birth. Why is this?
We have to recognise the difficulties in Scottish society. At times, Scotland is a terribly nasty, divided, sectarian state. The Irish community in Scotland is under continuing pressure and clearly James Connolly was seen as someone of particular significance. His memory was treated with great hostility by the forces of state, including the police and the council, but also by reactionary elements like the Orange Order and British National Party, in a way that would not happen in the United States, where there would perhaps be greater recognition of the contribution immigrants have made.
Scotland has been very slow to recognise the contribution of the Irish community. And certainly, with the revolutionary politics of James Connolly, some did not take very kindly to the centre of Edinburgh being taken over by people who were expounding these ideas.
Even the Left here is hardly aware of Connolly’s key role in building the first Socialist Movement in Scotland. What do you see as the reasons for this?
I think it has to do with the particular political terrain in Scotland. We have to be honest, the Left in Scotland, in this regard, is a bit of an embarrassment. They showed very little support for the Connolly march at all, which was a disgrace. Even when the annual Connolly march was the only place where the BNP publicly organised themselves in Scotland, with counter demonstrations in conjunction with the Orange Order, publicly encouraging large groups to come along and attack the march, significantly, most of the Left decided to stay away. At times they organised events to coincide with the march to provide an excuse to stay away. They were afraid of the legacy of James Connolly, scared of the conflict that was going on in Ireland, and wanted to keep their heads down, which, as I said, was a disgrace.
When the decision to end the annual march in Edinburgh was taken by the Connolly Society, how did you see the work to commemorate his memory continuing?
We made the decision in 2006, after 20 years of the Connolly marches, that it was time for a strategic departure. The Connolly Society decided it was going to advance Connolly’s memory through other pieces of work and the establishment of the Connolly Foundation, which would be a centre for research, education and advocacy, based in Edinburgh.
It was very important that, although it was the end of the Connolly march, it wasn’t the ending of commemorating James Connolly. Indeed it was about advancing Connolly, perhaps in a way that the backdrop of the march and all the controversy surrounding it, wasn’t able for us to do. So the Connolly Foundation is a new vehicle to achieve this aim.
How is work progressing with the Connolly Foundation, and in particular, with the campaign to have a statue erected in this city to honour Connolly’s memory?
One of the key pieces of work for the Connolly Foundation in the future is going to be to raise the necessary funding and the public and political support for the James Connolly statue. We’ve signed an agreement with Tom White, an American artist, who was recently commissioned to erect a monument to Connolly in Chicago, and who is ready to go ahead with one in Edinburgh.
A statue of Connolly shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself, but as a recognition of the contribution made by the working class and immigrants to the city. There are all sorts of statues in Edinburgh to all sorts of people – mostly distasteful – but there are no statues to working class people or to immigrants. So, it is in that wider context that we want a statue erected to James Connolly.
The Edinburgh Trades Council faced a considerable political battle, both within its own ranks and from the city council, to have the small James Connolly commemoration plaque installed by his birthplace in the Cowgate. However, the recent article in the Edinburgh Evening News, announcing the campaign to have a statue erected was surprisingly sympathetic. Do you think today’s campaign will face fewer obstacles?
We recognise that there will still be obstacles, but clearly we are in a different place to where we were, when we started in 1986. The James Connolly plaque was erected in 1968 at the end of a fifteen-year campaign. We hope that we can get a Connolly statue considerably quicker than that! We think it should be a process which directly engages with the local community.
Connolly himself saw the importance of song in creating a culture of resistance. Both Irish traditional and rebel songs and music have been very important to the Irish struggle. A more recent development, which goes back to Connolly’s own songs drawing on both republican and wider socialist imagery, has been the songs of The Wakes, who are also trying to bridge this gap. Do you see this as significant?
Definitely. One of the important things about Connolly’s life was the way he used different vehicles to get across his political message. So, as well as his political activism and the organisations he joined and founded, he was also a play-writer and a songwriter. I think over the years we have tried to work with various bands, like The Wakes, who have tried to make the connection between socialist song and Irish republican song. It is definitely something we think is significant. Cultural expression is important.
You personally took the decision to get yourself involved in the Edinburgh Peoples’ Festival. Do you see this as important?
I think that the Edinburgh Peoples’ Festival, as an organisation, does a lot of good work in taking the arts to working class communities that are excluded from the official cultural celebrations that take place in this city. I think by drawing attention to James Connolly, we want to work with the Edinburgh People’s Festival in highlighting the hidden histories of this city – the different narratives that exist. I think this is fantastic work and some people are very supportive.
Are there any other ways in which you think the memory of James Connolly could be enhanced in this city or in Scotland as a whole?
I think there are various ways that this can be done. One of the things the Connolly Foundation is keen to do, is to look at some of the research around the experience of the Irish community in this city; but also to focus on some of the problems that exist for that community, looking at material issues like health inequalities, educational attainment and the interaction with the criminal justice system. So the Connolly Foundation is keen that Connolly’s memory is enhanced in the city through improving the material conditions of working class people.
Republic of the Imagination Kelman also highlighted the importance of John Maclean in Glasgow. I think that Maclean is right up there with Connolly as a giant in the Socialist movement in Scotland. I think that it is vitally important that Scotland tries to explore the history of both James Connolly and John Maclean, as well as others. Certainly, the Connolly Foundation would like to work with comrades in Glasgow to try and uncover and celebrate the history of John Maclean. We recognise his contribution in combining the wider struggle for socialism with support for the Irish war of independence.
No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.
James Connolly, from the Introduction to his Songs of Freedom, 1907.