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The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
- George Bernard Shaw

 

 

Playing Tricks On Paddy Devlin.

 

Anthony McIntyre
14/02/2002

 

Watching a number of scribblers doodle in the new world of the republican leadership's acceptance of the unionist veto/consent principle it seems as if they are preoccupied with the absurd. History for them seems to be little other than what Voltaire claimed it was - an exercise in playing tricks on the dead.

What do their pens run on - doctored ink smuggled across the border by people who believe the armed struggle was the beginning of the peace process? And does this furtively acquired green ink attack independent critical thinking? Or does it just do its own thing subtly subverting the intelligent musings of those using it ensuring that what is originally in the mind never manages to complete the journey to paper? In the case of some writers they seem much too intelligent to believe what they themselves actually write.

There may not be much in terms of a consistent logic to be found but plenty to suggest that perhaps David Aaronovitch was not too far off the mark when he wrote:

It says something for the resilience of the human spirit that, even when confronted by the incredible, many of us soon manage to make events conform to whatever it was we thought or believed in the first place. We take hold of versions that suit our temperaments. We construct or retail myths, some of which are just daft.

Such conformity may make for an easy life but it never seems to lead to good writing. It places those eager to conform in the embarrassing situation of having to concoct new terms such as 'patriotism' for what was previously called 'surrender' or 'consent' for what was always dismissed as 'veto'. Many of the republican writers I came to admire over the years seem to have gone off the boil now that they use their pens to defend the establishment rather than confront it. They do of course attack other elements in the establishment but always in defence of their own part in or support for the same establishment. Radical anti-systemic writing - always more exciting, believable and consistent - seems to have evaporated. No more do we see prominent republican writers do what the late Pierre Bourdieu believed to be an essential function of writers - endlessly slog it out with the politicians.

Many years ago one of the loudest accusations republicans levelled at their detractors was that of revisionism. Anyone who moved remotely from the republican interpretation of history was deemed a neo-unionist revisionist writer falsifying the historical record in the interests of maintaining the imperialist agenda. For the truth we were advised to go to the pages of An Phoblacht/Republican News. No space there for Conor Cruise O'Brien, Eamonn Dunphy, Eoghan Harris, Aengus Fanning and John Murphy. And many of us surely went there precisely for that reason. But now that the paper without the remotest sign of embarrassment can howl from its pages at others to 'keep your word' it has long since been time to move on.

Reading the column of one republican writer this week - it was not in An Phoblacht/Republican News or I would have missed it - it was almost as if the gulf between his interpretive world and mine was as wide as that separating Osama bin Laden from George Bush. Strangely though, apart from reassessing my view of the morality of the physical force tradition (as distinct from feeling that conjunctural protest violence can never be ruled out or delegitimised) I hadn't changed a great deal in my philosophical outlook. As a long time Provisional republican I still think that it is eminently ethically defensible to dissent from the partitioned Northern state and from all those parties and politicians who participate in administering it; that capitalist administrations should be interrogated rather than managed; that censorship and revisionism should be challenged.

The column in question was celebrating the move by republicans to embrace the unionist veto. Only, it is not the veto anymore but consent. Republicanism had supposedly made great strides - even getting a former republican prisoner into government. Reading it I couldn't resist comparing the situation of this republican writer (although he has no racist views whatsoever) to that of a white British racist who had stumbled out of bed one morning to learn that his leader had just announced in New York that white British racists were now in fact black. The immediate response seems to have been one not of saying 'what are you talking about?' but an eagerness to skip breakfast and head for the computer and begin constructing an argument as to why all the white racism of the past was actually designed towards becoming black. Reading this article you could almost be forgiven for coming away thinking that the British actually waged their war to deny the consent principle or to block a return to Stormont as the seat of a power sharing government. And that moreover they held republicans in prison because we objected to them doing any such thing.

The British state throughout the course of the last thirty odd years has been culpable for atrocity and human rights violations against people whom it claimed were British citizens. No government in Western Europe can rival the British on that. But they did not wage a war against Unionist consent or a return to Stormont.

It seems incredibly dangerous when people can begin to woo themselves with irreconcilable logics. Do writers in the republican camp really wish to emulate the trait found in a character like Adolf Eichmann who had the unenviable ability 'to bring utterly incompatible elements into equilibrium without a hint of inner discomfort'. What is the purpose of 'denying Britain authorship of our history' if we intend only to construct one that is equally as spurious?

Authors of revisionist accounts never take well to having their views challenged. It brings to them the pain of the mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale who longed to be a girl but whose feet hurt perpetually because they should have been tailfins. They think pain relief comes in the form of shouting 'rejectionist' at others who see only incongruity between feet and fins. Yet for as long as they persist in maintaining the pretence that republicanism avoided defeat because the British allowed a former republican prisoner to become a British minister, that pain shall haunt them into the small hours. Britain permitted that with Paddy Devlin in 1974. And while he was much further to the left than any government minister at Stormont today, we fought on for another twenty years because then it was a 'defeat' and Devlin a 'traitor, collaborator, opportunist and careerist'.

It seems that a revisionist writing may ultimately come to dominate the historical record. But this reflects a shifting balance of power towards conservative forces rather than it does any qualitative improvement in historicist methodology. Rather than label critics 'rejectionist' or seek to censor them, revisionist republican writers should address themselves to explaining what part broken promises and deceptions played in the trade-off that ultimately led to formerly demonised writers acquiring the power to make their new establishment myths come 'true' against a more consistent anti-establishment brand of writing.

 

 

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