of the more prestigious annual political events of
the West Belfast Festival is the Frank Cahill memorial
lecture. Despite the oppressive humidity of the evening,
the hall in St Marys College where Arthur Scargill
was delivering this years lecture was bunged.
A friend in England later told me on the phone that
it would no longer be possible for the NUM leader
to fill a hall like that in Britain. The radical tide
is out in many places it seems. Social democrats and
Conservatives have the field to themselves. And neither
school is primarily concerned with the eradication
of inequality. Some such as Michael McDowell call
for even more of it it being the engine of
progress in his neo-liberal view of the world.
last time King Arthur addressed a Belfast
audience I went along. In terms of the British
state Scargill remains an unapologetic recusant. It,
the courts, media, and police have all traduced him.
Reason enough to feel affinity. Accompanied then as
now by Tommy Gorman, it was just a matter of months
ago and the hall was packed also. That evening a socialist
introduced the fiery miner. In St Marys it was
the turn of a nationalist; Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein
president, kicked off proceedings. Although often
ribbed about his lack of fluency in the Irish language,
he spoke effortlessly in the Gaelic tongue before
going on to repeat it in English. The main theme of
his brief introduction was to illustrate, through
reference to the work of Brigadier Frank Kitson, the
highly integrated composition of British state counterinsurgency
strategy towards working class resistance. Adams sought
to show common purpose between the struggle of the
miners in Britain and republicans in Ireland.
a gelling factor was the shared hatred of the then
British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In 1984
while Scargill and the miners were trying to bring
her to her knees by strike action republicans were
trying to blast her into eternity. One of the stories
to emerge from the era is that some miners who had
lost their jobs were later retrained and recruited
into the prison service. One man in their keep was
Pat Magee who was convicted of trying to kill Thatcher.
It is said that they treated him with the respect
reserved for a comrade. If true, a fitting symbiosis
of two struggles.
was more impressed with Scargill last time I heard
him than I was at St Marys. Perhaps, speaking
to nationalists tempers the sharpness of the critique.
There are fewer feathers to ruffle when advocating
socialism in front of other socialists. In Transport
Hall in May he seemed less concerned about the prejudices
of his audience and delivered a no-holds barred address.
In West Belfast, I sensed he was on his guard in case
he said anything too radical that might make his Sinn
Fein hosts look uncomfortable. He restricted himself
to telling the story of the miners strike and
kept his polemics against capitalism so generalised
that even the nationalist party could applaud what
he had to say.
was no mention of the Sinn Fein managed assault by
profiteers via the Private Finance Initiative on our
health and education services. And for one with a
long history of immersion in trade union struggles,
it seemed out of place that he should be introduced
to his audience by the leader of a party with links
to Chuck Feeney who made his many millions by securing
the franchise on a range of duty free shopping concerns
across the worlds airports in which unionised
labour was banned. I wondered also if Scargill was
aware that while his fellow trade unionists were being
murdered in Colombia because of their fight against
Coca Cola, attempts to organise a solidarity campaign
in Ireland were undermined by one of Sinn Feins
leading figures, Anne Speed. She led the reactionary
charge against the students of UCD who wanted to boycott
Coca Colas products. Even when Scargill broached
the current topical international concern, and thundered
against the war in Iraq, he raised not an eyebrow
in admonishment of the Sinn Fein president for having
openly refused to protest the recent visit to Ireland
by George Bush.
matter what some may have hoped for or had a right
to expect, Arthur Scargill was never going to sail
too close to the issue of trade unionism in West Belfast.
For the Yorkshire Marxist to have properly grasped
the nettle he would have found himself in conflict
with his hosts. The suppression of trade union activity
is inseparable from the issue of gangster capitalism
in West Belfast. Nevertheless, the most notorious
firm of construction sharks imaginable were given
the contract to build the Sinn Fein offices on the
Falls Road and the offices of the Andersonstown
News on Hannahstown Hill. This firm has long exploited
people the length and breadth of West Belfast, refused
to allow unionisation amongst its workforce, forced
workers to labour in the rain without the aid of wet
suits the alternative was the sack on the spot.
For their labour they were often paid £2 an
hour. Yet both Sinn Fein and the management of the
Andersonstown News knew all this before they
contracted the work out. And try as they might there
is no evading culpability. There had been a litany
of complaints stretching back years concerning this
particular building firm. Sinn Fein councillors and
leading party members openly and actively lobbied
against exposure of its activities. An Phoblacht/Republican
News with typical lack of fortitude suppressed
reporting on the matter.
then is the purpose in bringing Arthur Scargill to
West Belfast? It is to allow Sinn Fein to disguise
itself in the clothing of such an anti-systemic character,
when in fact the party has become everything Scargill
has spurned. Sinn Fein, cuckoo-like, wishes to build
radical credentials in the nest of Arthur Scargill
because it no longer has a radical nest of its own.
Bob Pitt, a Marxist in the British Labour Party, in
the 1990s criticised Scargills Socialist Labour
Party because it had a Stalinist style constitution
barring from membership "individuals and organisations"
who engage in "the promotion of policies in opposition
to those of the Party". Maybe now we are beginning
to approach an understanding of what Sinn Fein and
Arthur Scargill have in common. There is little else.
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