Free Derry Museum and Tour

Today I visited the Free Derry museum and attended the Free Derry tour, given by a local resident and ex-combatant who grew up in the Bogside. The museum is wortwhile – it tells the story of the civil rights struggle, and while it doesn’t continue beyond operation motorman it does cover what are essential the founding events of the modern republican movement in Derry, which give you a strong sense of how the community was motivated to support the republican cause as what seemed the only option to oppose the injustices of anti-catholic discrimination and pursue the cause of a united Ireland.

I could talk about the facts, the dates, the names like “Battle of the Bogside” and “Bloody Sunday”, but you can read those elsewhere. What’s essential about visiting the place is getting a sense of the atmosphere of siege and war which was thrust upon the Catholic community in Derry when they demanded their rights. The civil rights struggle was essentially peaceful and non-sectarian, but it was driven to violence by the violence of the sectarian RUC and the failure of the British Army to stop sectarian attacks on the Catholic community there.

Probably the most striking thing is the way the Nationalist Catholic community, which prior and during the early part of the civil rights struggle was much larger than the republican community, did not oppose British rule or the presence of British soldiers – initially they were seen as keepers of the peace who would protect them from sectarian mobs. But due to their cooperation with sectarian attacks and the policy of internment the catholic nationalists were pushed towards the republican movement and the ideology of armed struggle, which in the context of the siege on their community appeared the only way to have their voices heard. The “Free Derry”, both in reality and idea, is a practical anarchism of self-determination which eschews the paternalism of the state as colonizer and asserts the right of a community to govern its own affairs. It’s a radical idea, but it happened here through the will and organization of the people, and it was popular and initially did not rely heavily on paramilitary organizations – they grew in response to a need for community defence, not the other way around.

The overwhelming sense I get here as I do in Palestine (although to be fair the sense doesn’t overwhelm the soul as much here in a post conflict situation as it does there in the middle of a conflict), is the sense that if I had grown up under such conditions I would have been radicalized too. The violence of the oppressed is the violence of the oppressor turned back on them, and the ideological commitment to the state’s exclusive right to use political violence is a blindness which prevents rather than helps the reconciliation or de-escalation of conflicts.

When I asked the tour guide about the difference between nationalism and republicanism and what is the essential difference between them, I got a kind of anti-philosopher’s answer. I try to define the differences between groups conceptually, in terms of the ideas they wish to achieve and then secondarily in terms of the tactics they use to achieve them. I therefore see a lot of continuity between nationalists (SDLP) and republicans (Sinn Fein), especially since republicans have denounced violence and turned to the method of nationalists – constitutional politics – to achieve their ends. But the answer I got was in terms of tradition – the nationalists and the republicans have different traditions and they are proud of their traditions. While the republicans denounce violence today, they do not denounce it in their past – they remain proud of the armed struggle and they believe it achieved the improvements for the Catholic community that do manifestly exist today – equality with Protestants in the north of Ireland. The tour guide clearly even believe that the Canary wharf bombing had been essential to the peace process – that it was the cause of major British troop withdrawal in the North of Ireland – that up until that bomb Britain had been slow to demobilize the north, and that when the bomb went off not only the IRA but also Britain was criticized for its lack of commitment to the peace process.

This emphasis on traditions rather than current policy expresses something we don’t have very much in Canadian political process – an understanding of history and the placing of political movements within long term goals. Do any Canadian political parties have long term goals which they genuinely wish to achieve, and which stretch beyond their class allegiances? Or are they stuck in an endless mud of incremental back and forth? Certainly there are momentous events in Canadian history which changed the country forever – the introduction of socialized medicare and the advent of multiculturalism being two that come quickly to mind. But what goals are political parties today moving towards which would constitute similarly drastic transformations? I suppose this is just a property of living in a post-ideological world, or rather a world which thinks itself post-ideological but is actually neo-liberal.

Thinking about my research topic, part of which is exploring the relationship between resistance and liberation, I asked the ex-combattent what place he saw for the Unionist community in a United Ireland? His response took me aback – he said that just as you can live in the North of Ireland without a British passport (he has an Irish passport), Unionists could live in a United Ireland without an Irish passport – they could retain their British Nationality. In his words, “Just because it’s born in a stable doesn’t mean it isn’t a pig”. Now that I write that, it sounds offensive, but I don’t think he meant it that way. I also asked him about what potential role Loyalist paramilitaries could play in preventing a United Ireland, if such a thing were to come about by democratic, constitutional means. His answer, perhaps a typical militant republican opinion, was that the Loyalist militias were only effective due to collaboration with British forces, and shouldn’t be compared militarily with the provisional IRA, which had to carry out its campaign while being attacked and surveyed by the British. Thinking about the position of loyalist paramilitaries, I wonder if they are the true “subaltern” in the Irish conflict – certainly on the side of power, but not in power themselves – and with their power reliant on British support but with potentially diverging goals, and therefore wavering support. The lack of de-mobilization programs has allowed them to remain armed, and the drug trade has given them a sustained income and need to defend territory. I wonder if the relationship between the Unionists and the Loyalists – the first quite quick to turn their back on the other if it seems to be in their best political interest, could facilitate a democratic transition to a United Ireland. Perhaps loyalist resistance to a democratic united Ireland, in the absence of the kind of unionist politician who in the 1960s stirred up sectarian hatred towards the catholics, could remain marginalized and kept down. Perhaps they really should be compared to Israeli settler paramilitaries – who appear to have a lot of power only because they are effectively treated as extensions of the army doing things the army can’t be seen doing itself, but with no real power if the army cuts them loose.

But, aside from all this talk about the relationship between communities and the use of force, it always strikes me how republican ideas of a United Ireland tend towards socialism and inclusion. Even the provisional IRA, which broke away from the socialists in 1969 because of their marxism and non-violence, eventually themselves moved towards socialism and non-violence. I didn’t ask why there was never a reconciliation between Sinn Fein and the workers party, but I suspect it has more to do with the way the Workers Party became a fringe nothing with no supporters but the die-hards who would want nothing to do with Sinn Fein anyway than with a substantive difference of values between them.


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