Review- McCann, “War and an Irish Town”

Eamonn McCann, “War and an Irish Town” (1974) – Being a Trotskyite from the North of Ireland… talk about sectarianism inception! Eamonn McCann has fought for justice in Derry, the north’s second largest city, for decades, and has plenty of stories and even more analysis to show for it. It’s lightly surreal- I’ve read more than one account of organizing victories and woes in my day. I don’t think it’s too much to say there’s something of a Trotskyite “house style” of these things that transcends the many divisions within Trotskyism: the minute attention paid to organizational structural detail, the occasional doctrinal sermon aside, the inevitable partial success that would have been a fuller one had others listened to the voice of the people/the organizers doing the writing. What’s surreal is reading about the positional warfare of organizing committees and agitprop in Derry while an actual war, the Troubles, was starting at the same time.

There’s something ridiculous about these small sectarian groups grousing each other and puffing up their importance as though their position vis a vis the massive explosion of sectarian — real sects, with centuries of blood behind them, not the sunderings of Internationals of yesteryear — violence. But, as McCann shows, it’s not like the IRA or for that matter the Protestant paramilitaries were immune from the same sort of doctrinal, strategic, and personal wrangling. At the end of the day, it was small groups of people trying to harness an explosion of popular energy using the best tools they had.

McCann is a good storyteller and is surprisingly generous for a guy with an axe to grind. Unlike other socialists I’ve seen speaking on the Irish question, he manages to make his points against the IRA — ramifiers of sectarianism, insufficient attention paid to class — without missing the obvious part of their appeal. That appeal was simple and practical: the IRA, and particularly the Provisional wing, were the ones ready(ish) and willing to fight when the Protestant mobs came howling to destroy the Catholic communities that had dared to peacefully campaign for their rights (inspired by the black freedom struggle in the US). The various Irish socialist groups from the Labor party on down weren’t and never really were, some small guerrilla cells aside. McCann never denies this, even as he does something of a victory lap in his 2018 introduction about how the Good Friday Accords wrote sectarianism into the constitution of the North and that we’re no closer to a united, socialist (which even the IRA claimed to want, though they played a complicated game with red-baiting) Ireland than we ever were.

The memoirs part, of the rise of the civil rights struggle, the turn on the part of the Orange establishment and the British military to armed violence and the Catholic people’s response, and the atrocity of Bloody Sunday, is probably the best part of the book, due to McCann’s keen storytelling instincts. His analysis of the political economy of Ireland is also pretty good, though not being an expert on the field I can’t judge it too much. His most controversial claim, it would seem to me, is the claim that the Protestants in the North were encouraged to fear union with the rest of Ireland by the ways in which the southern Irish elite, led by walking disaster Eamon de Valera, cuddled up to the Catholic Church, letting them set much of social policy and covering for the political elite’s betrayal of the Irish working class and embrace of capitalism. By insufficiently distancing themselves from the “Green Tories” of the south, the IRA only made everything worse, appearing to be an army for Catholic theocracy to the working class Protestants who “should” have been on the side of overthrowing their social arrangements.

McCann is persuasive here but it gets to the basic problem of class-reductionist approaches to Ireland, or anywhere really. It’s ironic- if anyone should get that sectarianism is a real, material force, it should be Trotskyites, of all people! Did the Protestants of the North of Ireland really require lessons to hate Catholics? The “psychic wage” paid to the Protestant workers by Orange supremacy is never taken into account, though McCann is honest enough to acknowledge that the Protestant working class, presented with the tableau of their police beating the shit out of Catholic working class people fighting for basic civil rights, backed the cops every single time, and soon enough participated in pogroms against the Catholics. That would seem to suggest something not entirely dependent on economic self-interest, or anyway, something that complicates self-interest.

But, in the way of leftist pains-in-the-ass, McCann stubbornly points to issues that aren’t going away by waving the green flag or settling for Good Friday. He persuasively argues that the class structure as it exists on both sides of the line in Ireland can’t allow for a prosperous and free nonsectarian working class- too much of the pie is eaten up by the bourgeoisie, and you’ll seldom find a more crooked and backwards bourgeoisie than either the Green or Orange Tories of Ireland. That the Republic is basically a parking lot for Apple’s loose cash at this point makes it clear enough. To be honest, I don’t see how an independent united Ireland — which I was raised to believe in and still think is a sine qua non for a just future there — can, on its own, sustain itself as a modern, prosperous economy. The only answer is internationalism, as McCann calls for- revolution not just in Ireland but in Britain and everywhere else too. 32 counties of independent socialism is good- add 92 more from Britain and then you’re really cooking with gas. Here’s to the day. ****’

Review- McCann, “War and an Irish Town”

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