Joined up thinking for the Irish Left
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NAMA Wine Lake >>
From Peking to Aubane
Tuesday January 02, 2007 12:55 by Danny McGrain
The British and Irish Communist Organisation were a Maoist influenced group who in the 1970s were almost unique in supporting Ulster Unionism. They were prolific publishers and claimed an influence over large numbers of both left and right wing individuals. During the 1990s the core members of the group have embraced a neo-nationalist position and become prominent in debates on Irish historical revisionism.
The roots of the British and Irish Communist Organization lay in Irish émigré politics in London during the 1960s. A number of Irish emigrant radicals became involved in far left politics in London in that era. Some were former republican prisoners such as Gerry Lawless, others young northern students like Eamonn McCann and Mike Farrell. Another young emigrant who entered the milieu was a gravedigger, Brendan Clifford. Many of the activists came together in the Irish Communist Group in the mid 1960s, which was broadly critical of both the Irish republican and pro-Moscow Irish communist traditions. However soon the ICG was torn apart by bitter arguments and split into Trotskyite and Maoist factions. Brendan and Angela Clifford and Jack Lane were among those who endorsed a pro-Peking position and formed their own Irish Communist Organization in 1965. The ICO saw the mainstream communists as ‘revisionists’ who had deserted the revolutionary road after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin in 1956. The group began to publish detailed critiques of ‘revisionism’ in Ireland and elsewhere. They charged that the southern Irish communists had tailed Catholic nationalism since the 1950s and were in essence no longer revolutionary. They were also strongly anti-Trotskyite. The writings of Stalin became the touchstone for the ICO’s politics and remained so over the next decade. The organization even went as far as to state that the most important thing about Stalin was that in important matters he was ‘never wrong.’ (Stalin and the Irish Working Class). However the ICO also placed itself in the Irish radical tradition and reissued forgotten or unavailable articles by James Connolly and Liam Mellows. At this point the ICO maintained that Ireland remained oppressed by British imperialism and that the six counties were held, illegitimately, by British military force. By 1969 the organization had gained a few supporters in Dublin and Belfast and was active in housing campaigns and trade union politics. It took a pro Chinese and Albanian position in international politics. However as for all on the Irish left the events of August 1969 transformed the ICO. Initially the group considered that the Loyalist attacks on Catholics in Belfast and elsewhere were ‘fascist’ pogroms and that Catholics had a right to military defence. By mid 1970 this view had altered dramatically. The ICO began to argue that the British Army was in fact playing a progressive role in the north by virtue of its preventing a sectarian civil war. The ICO then began to formulate a view, based, they claimed, on Stalin’s writings on the ‘National Question’ which argued that there were two historic nations in Ireland, a Catholic nation in the south and a Protestant nation in the north, both of which were equally entitled to self-determination. By 1971 this view led to the ICO changing its name to the British and Irish Communist Organization (BICO). The adoption of the two nations theory saw BICO completely reject any claim by Irish nationalists to a unitary state as reactionary. They argued that socialist and republican organisations which supported a united Ireland were allied with the ‘Catholic, Nationalist bourgeoisie of the Republic.’ The cause of trouble in the north was ‘not Unionism or the Unionists. Responsibility for it lies at the door of the Southern ruling class which, on the basis of ‘one historic Irish nation’, has pursued a reactionary policy of national oppression for the past 50 years.’ BICO argued that capitalism had developed more rapidly in the north east of Ulster than elsewhere, producing a socially more progressive and dynamic entity. However the south had remained backward and dominated by the Catholic Church. The organization then poured forth a plethora of pamphlets examining the historic roots of capitalism in the north east of Ulster, the ‘right wing’ nature of Irish nationalism and the ‘mythology’ used to justify republican violence. Their research led them to conclude that historically in fact Ulster Unionism was a more progressive and dynamic ideology than Irish nationalism and that as the choice facing Ulster Protestants was between a ‘secular democratic British state’ or a ‘reactionary 26 county Catholic state’ BICO would defend their right to choose the former.
The BICO circulated these ideas far and wide publishing over 50 pamphlets by 1971 and setting up Athol Books as their publishing house. They also put their money where their mouth was, refusing to campaign against internment, arguing the measure was justified in a war situation. BICO contended that the civil rights movement, directed by the IRA, had pushed northern Protestants into a position where they feared the ‘war of 1922’ was being resumed and understandably reacted accordingly. By 1972 the group saw both wings of the IRA as the cutting edge of an irredentist Catholic nationalist movement to subdue Ulster Protestants and felt resistance to them was justified.
BICO were nothing if not iconoclastic and in their vast output of pamphlets and magazines, which included Communist Comment, The Communist, Northern Star and Workers Weekly they exposed the links between the 1940s IRA and the Nazis, the anti-Semitism of 1930s Sinn Fein leader JJ O’Kelly (Scelig), the right wing politics of border campaign martyr Sean South and the inconsistency of any Irish republican claims to socialism. BICO charged that there had been a sectarian aspect to the Tan War IRA’s campaign, especially in west Cork. James Connolly’s support for Imperial Germany was used to illustrate how poor a role model for the Irish left he actually was. BICO claimed that historian Desmond Greaves had invented an acceptable ‘anti-imperialist’ Connolly in order to help the pro-Moscow Irish CP influence the republican movement. Claims by nationalists that Ulster Protestants had an Irish speaking tradition were mocked relentlessly and the anti-Catholic views of many of the United Irish leaders produced as evidence of their lack of connection with twentieth century republicanism. For BICO the most progressive 98’ men were those like Samuel Neilson and William Drennan who eventually became Unionists, because they realised the connection with Britain offered ‘the best framework of social progress.’ The BICO did not suffer from a lack of self-esteem; often presenting their arguments in terms that assumed the whole world was listening. Their critics were not taken seriously with BICO claiming that ‘the minds of our bourgeois opponents are so predictable that their ideas are destroyed in the (Workers) Weekly before they form in their little minds.’ Indeed Brendan Clifford boasted in 1974 that the group’s ‘social influence’ was growing among ‘large numbers of people who have never read a BICO publication.’ Whatever about those who had never read a BICO publication it was true that some of those that had, were indeed suitably impressed. David Trimble, then a Vanguard activist, was an avid consumer of BICO material, as were young academics Paul Bew and Henry Patterson. Jim Kemmy in Limerick took onboard their analysis of the national question and certainly Eoghan Harris ‘borrowed’ much from BICO’s writings, often passing them off as his own insights. Typically BICO even claimed that Conor Cruise O’Brien had stolen his own two-nations theory from them. The organization remained small but it did attract some young members, among them Jeff Dudgeon, Kate Hoey, Carmel Roulston, Brian Girvin, Rosheen Callender, Manus O’Riordan, Peter Cassells and Mick Raftery. However the BICO’s Stalinism was a bit off putting to the wider public and they had more success with their front organization the ‘Workers Association for a Democratic Settlement in Northern Ireland’ which attracted some support for its campaign to delete articles two and three from the southern Irish constitution. Similarly the Campaign for the Separation of Church and State and later the Socialists against Nationalism organisation were influenced by BICO while presenting their views in more palatable forms. Of course many remained unimpressed and Belfast wits referred to the organisation as the ‘Peking Lodge of the Orange Order’ and the ‘British and Irish Communist Orangemen.’
However along with the exaggerated sense of their own importance perhaps the least appealing aspect of BICO was their ugly vitriolic rhetoric, which at times bordered on anti-Catholic sectarianism. While they saw the assassination campaigns of the UDA and UVF as counter productive and un-necessary they were, according to BICO, ultimately only a response to IRA provocation. Loyalist ideology was never subjected to the vitriolic denunciations that all varieties of Irish nationalism were. For BICO Irish republicanism was simply ‘the malevolent insular ideology of a tatty-rag bag crowd of altar hugging gombeen men.’ (Workers Association, 12/10/74). BICO publications tended towards character assassination, waging a particularly vindictive campaign against Seamus Heaney, who they saw as the cultural embodiment of the back ward Catholic peasantry. They hailed that Ulster Workers Council strike of May 1974 as a triumph of Protestant proletarian solidarity against Dublin and SDLP rule. In fact BICO actively took part in support for the stoppage, distributing thousands of their bulletins in east Belfast, arguing that the SDLP, rather than any Loyalist group represented the closest thing to ‘fascism’ in Ireland. Brendan Clifford reacted to left wing criticism of the strike by declaring that ‘Catholics had never been safer’ in Belfast than during the period of the UWC stoppage. BICO actively sought contact and discussion with both the UDA and UVF, regarding them as having much more progressive potential than any republican group. When the IRA killed 21 people in Birmingham and Irish people in the city were attacked in response, BICO argued that such a reaction was ‘not totally unjustified’ because most Irish emigrants had refused to break from Irish nationalism, the ‘vicious ideology’ that bred ‘Ireland’s right wing terrorists.’ Unless Irish people in Britain rejected this ‘revolting’ Catholic nationalism then they would unfortunately be targeted by British workers looking for revenge after atrocities, just as innocent Catholics had borne the burnt of legitimate Loyalist anger in Northern Ireland. BICO instead called on British and Irish workers to ‘smash’ IRA terror.
Having decided that the left was entirely wrong about Ireland the BICO also took them to task on other questions. They were among the first to argue that the European Economic Community was to be welcomed, not rejected. While the left almost universally backed the Palestinians, BICO argued that Israel not only had a right to exist but that Zionism had a democratic potential completely lacking in Arab nationalism. Critics of Israel were accused of pandering to backward Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. Stalin had, after all, supported the setting up of the Zionist state in 1948. When the left opposed the rise of racism in Britain, BICO published How Right are the Racists? putting forward a Marxist case for immigration controls. Whisper it quietly but when the world recoiled in horror from the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia the BICO argued that Pol Pot had been not entirely wrong.
But by the 1980s the shock value of the organization was wearing thin and those talented or lucky enough, departed to more profitable climes; trade union officialdom, gay rights activism and the British and Irish Labour parties. Peking and Tirana were abandoned and the Ernest Bevin Society formed, for reasons still unclear. The BICO soldiered on, denouncing supporters of the Birmingham Six as ‘professional Paddies’ seeking redress for ‘pub bombers.’ (Workers Weekly, 30/2/88) They even suggested that nationalists targeted by Loyalists were ‘asking for it’ in the tense atmosphere after the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. That year Brendan Clifford became embroiled in a legal action with Mary McAleese after he accused Queens University Belfast of appointing her to a position, though she was not (in Clifford’s view) the most fully qualified candidate, in order to appease nationalist pressure groups. The disappointed Unionist (and presumably qualified) candidate for McAleese’s post? One David Trimble. In the early 1990s Athol Books published Pat Walsh’s Irish Republicanism and Socialism a comprehensive demolition of any claims by republicanism to progressive politics. Walsh argued that Arthur Griffith, Scelig, Brian O’Higgins and Sean South were more representative of Irish republicanism in the 20th century than James Connolly, Peadar O’Donnell or Liam Mellows.
However Walsh’s book was perhaps the last of the old style BICO publications. At some point in the mid 1990s, coinciding perhaps with the IRA ceasefires, the Cliffords, Lane and their supporters re-constituted themselves as the Aubane Historical Society. Workers Weekly was subsumed into the Irish Political Review. Then a conversion, unparalleled since St. Paul on the road to Damascus or at least since Mo Johnston signed for Glasgow Rangers, took place. Athol Books began to publish furious attacks on revisionist historians and commentators such as Paul Bew and Eoghan Harris and to defend popular nationalist history such as Neil Jordan’s movie Michael Collins. But the temperature dramatically increased when the Canadian historian Peter Hart published The IRA and its Enemies in 1998. The Aubane Historical Society began a campaign, continued to the present day, to present Hart’s work as part of a broader British inspired plot to destroy the historical memory of the independence struggle in Ireland. Along the way they questioned the right to Irish nationality of those from Anglo-Irish backgrounds, accusing Fianna Fail’s Martin Mansergh of being, in effect, a pro-British influence in that party. By 2006 the Irish Political Review was uncritically supporting Sinn Fein’s political project, dismissing critics of the party as inspired by ‘securocrat’ sources. Indeed the IPR was possibly the only journal to suggest that the blame for Robert MacCartney’s death lay with the activities of his ‘drug dealing’ friend, rather than with the IRA. Now Zionism was most definitely out and the Islamic world in, the Angelus on RTE seen as a sign of political independence and Athol Books published a largely uncritical study of JJ O’Kelly (Scelig). Connolly’s support for the Kaiser now became evidence of his historical correctness rather than his weakness. All of which is both greatly surprising and entertaining for those of us who remember them in the old days but raises the obvious question as to why? Some cynics conclude that it is simply a gigantic intellectual jape on the part of Brendan Clifford, who having convinced all manner of guilty southern liberals during the 1970s that the Protestants of the north deserved their own state, has now decided to see if he can convince old style southern nationalists that the time is right for a revival of 1940s Fianna Fail republicanism. Having spotted the growing southern trend to wash its hands of the north during the 1970s and seeing how an intellectual justification could be provided for the abandonment of northern nationalists, the artists formerly known as BICO have decided that its time to jump on the bandwagon of John Water’s type resentment at ‘liberal’ Ireland. Indeed if their current campaign to rehabilitate the memory of Charles J Haughey succeeds it will probably exceed any achievements they may have had in influencing David Trimble’s or Conor Cruise O’Brien’s world view during the 1970s!
Note: A wide variety of BICO and their various front groups publications are available in the National Library of Ireland, Dublin and the Linenhall Library, Belfast