Politics and Travel in Northern Ireland with People Before Profit

Date:

Photo by Joe Allen.

Many people are aware that I spent eleven days in Ireland in early October. I was invited by the organizers of the People Before Profit (PBP) to speak at their Think Left conference in Derry and was later added to their All That’s Left conference in Belfast. I did workshops on the U.S. labor movement, the far right, and a night time welcoming panel in Belfast with other speakers, including TD Paul Murphy. Here’s a report on my impressions of the PBP and some comments on the general political situation in Ireland, which is potentially on the cusp of major political changes. Talk of a new Ireland is in the air, including the possibility of a united Ireland, despite the huge obstacles that remain in the way. The Gaza crisis also broke while I was there.

People Before Profit

People Before Profit (PBP) is an all-Ireland party, an alliance of several socialist organizations, though people can join individually. Comrades in the Socialist Workers Network, an affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) are the heart of the PBP. Its media outlet is Rebel and its theoretical magazine is the Irish Marxist Review (IMR). The late John Molyneux explained the history and the political strategy of PBP in the IMR, available here. Though PBP had suffered some electoral reversals on the local level last year, it still retains four Teachta Dála (TDs) or deputies, including such nationally known figures as Richard Boy Barrett and Bríd Smith, in the Irish Parliament or the Dáil Éireann. There is rarely a week that goes by where either one of them is not quoted, interviewed by a major media outlet or gives a major speech in the Dáil.

I can’t think of any other group associated in the past or present with the IST that has achieved the electoral successes of the PBP, while maintaining their revolutionary socialist principles, including what had been its largest affiliate, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). A few IST affiliates and former groups have done some electoral work, but none have achieved what PBP has, so far. The only thing comparable in the U.S. is Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, who is not running for reelection, during her decade-long tenure as a Seattle City Councilwoman. I can’t think of any DSAer that can compete with her record.

Ireland is a country where the long legacy of British imperialism still shapes the politics of the country. It remains a partitioned country where the six counties of the north remain part of the UK, while the twenty-six counties of the south made up the Republic. While it is still an island where two currencies prevail, the border that divides the country is nearly non-existent due to the Good Friday Agreement. Travelling north by bus to Derry from Dublin airport, the only way you know that you’ve entered Northern Ireland is the Union Jacks and Loyalist paraphernalia put up by Loyalist gangs at the former border checkpoints, that are now all gone from what I could tell.

The countryside was in many ways what you would expect it to be, a lot of sheep farming because of meat and wool exports. It was incredibly lush given the wet climate but climate change has begun to have an impact. The weakening of the Gulf Stream may mean harsher winters in Ireland. I was struck by the effort by the Loyalist gangs to display their flags and banners throughout the countryside. I was told by comrades these were clearing meant to signal who was welcome in these villages and who was not. It was very common to see Presbyterian churches, Orange Order lodges, along with well-kept up Presbyterian cemeteries all along the way until you got to the outskirts of Derry.

Derry

I spent most of my time in Derry, where the PBP has a vibrant presence. Long time ISO member Shaun Harkin, for example, is the PBP councilor for the Foyleside on the forty-member Derry City/Strabane District  Council. There are few campaigns that go on without some PBP participation. Derry is the most political city I’ve ever been to. I’m not a global trotter by any measure but I’ve lived in several American cities with radical histories, visited London, Barcelona, and Melbourne. None compare to Derry.

It has gained worldwide attention in recent years due to the Derry Girls series streamed on Netflix, which has proved to be a boon to its tourist trade. Despite its small size, roughly the same size as Waukegan, Illinois, it has played a huge role in Irish politics. Derry was the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement, where the Battle of Bogside and Bloody Sunday took place. Its proud history is memorialized everywhere with murals, monuments, and museums. Our longstanding comrade and lifelong Derry resident, Eamonn McCann, chronicled its history in his classic book War and an Irish Town.

The Think Left conference began on October 5th with a memorial walk for the late Dermie McClenaghan, one the founding activists of the civil rights movement in Derry. Eamonn McCann spoke movingly about his friend Dermie that he had known since he was eleven years old. The walk began with about one hundred people at the Waterside Train Station, proceeded across the Peace Bridge to the Free Derry Monument and finished at the ornate Guild Hall. The walk drove home to me that Derry felt like our city, a Catholic/Nationalist city with a long history of labor and socialist politics. The Loyalist section is fairly small and has little impact on the politics of Derry.

Later that night the PBP organized ‘Liquid Gold, the true cost of water privatisation‘. It was chaired by former PBP Derry City and Strabane District Councillor, Maeve O’Neill and featured Feargal Sharkey, the former front man for the Undertones, Derry’s famed home town, post-punk band, in conversation with Eamonn McCann. Sharkey, a long time record executive, has made a name for himself as a campaigner for clean rivers and against water privatization. Lough Neough (pronounced “Lock Nay”) is the largest lake in Ireland and supplies over 40% of the water supply across the island, and was the center of the discussion The Lough is under duress from many angles. I’d say over 200 people attended the lively meeting.

To get an idea of what Feargal Sharkey is like, here’s the link to  a short interview he did from three weeks ago. The Undertones, despite the acrimonious breakup of the band, are the only real cultural rivals to the Derry Girls. When Fergal’s father Jim died in 2014, hundreds attended his funeral, including Dermie  McClenaghan, who told those gathered that, “Jim was a Labour man, was a member of the ETU (Electrical Trades Union) and the Old Derry Labour Party. He supported Labour politics all his life and also marched with the Civil Rights movement in the city in the late sixties.” The continued popularity of the Undertones can be seen here with 700 Derry school kids singing “Teenage Kicks.”

The rest of the conference was held at St. Columbs Hall, an important meeting place since it was built in 1886. Many of the conference workshops would be familiar to us: growing inequality, gender based violence, attacks on immigrants, the growth of the far right, and Palestine. But, there were others that are very specific to Ireland, not surprisingly. The Why the Irish language Belongs to All was really interesting, the panel included people from a broad range of backgrounds, including speakers who come from a Unionist family and PBP member and former council candidate Darragh Taiwo Adelaide. The PBP position on the Irish language movement is available here.

Overall, I’d say about 500 people attended the entire Think Left conference. I could help but notice that there was very little overlap between workshops. It was like they drew from different audiences, except for the jam packed meeting with Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd soon after Hamas launched their attack. I spoke on the struggle against the Far Right and what’s happening with the U.S. labor movement with Niall McCarroll, the current chair of the Derry Trades Council, and Nuala Crilly, both are members of the PBP. I was surprised at the extensive and favorable reporting of the workshop by The Derry Journal, available here.

One small disappointment was that Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, tested positive for Covid and couldn’t participate in a panel called, “Can A New Ireland Be A Socialist Ireland.” The rest of the panelists did a good job. For those who haven’t read her autobiography The Price of My Soul, please make time to read it, you won’t be disappointed. It was written when she was a 22 year old member of the British Parliament. She’s a real hero of Derry with her image featured throughout the city.

Gaza Crisis

The Gaza crisis broke during the Derry Conference and has provided a big opportunity for PBP throughout Ireland. I was at a demonstration in Derry that began at the world famous “You are now entering Free Derry” monument and marched to the beautiful Guild Hall. Cosponsored by the PBP and the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), it was an overwhelming working class demonstration that brought out the small Arab and Muslim community, a relatively new community of immigrants in Derry. There were about three hundred people on the first Gaza march, with speakers from the PBP, Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), and contributions from individual Arab and Muslim speakers.

The history of Ireland and continued colonial status of the north deeply inform how people view the Palestinian struggle. After all, Ireland was England’s first colony and the model of settler colonialism pioneered there was carried throughout the world by them. The Ulster and Derry Plantations were models for Plymouth and Jamestown, as well as the Zionist settlement in Palestine. Remember the Balfour’s declaration purpose was to create a “loyal Jewish Ulster” on the Suez Canal? This means Palestinian flags are proudly displayed in Nationalist working class neighborhoods, while Israeli flags are flown in Loyalist Neighborhoods.

Familiar and different

For many Americans travelling to Ireland it is simultaneously a very different country from the U.S. and a familiar one. While Ireland has a strong connection to the United States due to two centuries of emigration, there are more direct links. Until it closed in 1977, the U.S. Navy had a base on the Foyle River in Derry where two generations of Irish women met their future husbands. Probably, the most famous was Brigid Sheils Makowski, who met her husband stationed there and moved to the U.S., but she returned to Ireland after the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. Makowski rose eventually into the leadership of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). Her life was recounted in Daughter of Derry: The Story of Brigid Sheils Makowski, available here.

Here are a few examples I encountered. One of the first comrades I first met off the bus in Derry told me that her sister married an American sailor and moved to Rockford, Illinois. Another comrade I met at Sandinos pub after a meeting asked me, “What that’s accent?” I told him I’m from Boston, and he rattled off where his uncle owned a pub in Quincy, and all the cities on the South Shore he’d worked in. I asked him, if that was an U.S. Army Airborne tattoo on his arm? He said, yes. “I joined up in 20002 when I was really broke.” It was like talking to a younger version of someone I went to high school with. Ordering a coffee one day, a Barista asked me where I was from? I said Boston. “Oh, my husband is from Boston.”

I was prepared for the American connection to Ireland to be a bit older and more frayed, yet it was young and alive. Outside of the Loyalist community, where at least the older generation thought all Americans were IRA supporters, Americans are viewed quite favorably in Ireland. Walking Derry’s City Walls one day, I looked at the landscape and it struck me how it reminded me of the New England mill towns of my youth. It was like looking into the past. But, Derry is very rooted in the present. Despite being in the far northwest corner of Europe, you never for a moment feel remote from the world.

Belfast

Travelling from Derry to Belfast was an unexpected treat. The two hour train trip took me through the lush countryside of small farms and villages, but then shot north along the coastline for some dramatic ocean vistas. Yet, there was one incident that reminded me that, despite the low to nearly non-existent visible police presence in Derry, the Orange state is never far away.  About an hour into the trip, four heavily armed cops marched through the carriage. It was very jarring. My first thought was, Who are they looking for? Apparently, no one in particular. A patch on their uniforms called them something like the “Traffic Safety Team” or something equally Orwellian. I felt pretty safe until they showed up.

Cruising along we stopped at Coleraine, which is the location of Northern Ireland’s second university campus built in the 1960s. It was another example of the historic discrimination against Derry. Stormont chose Loyalist Colerain not Derry, the North’s second largest city. Entering Belfast we passed by the giant cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyards. They built the ill-fated Titanic. It was a reminder of Belfast’s past era as a world class shipbuilding center. The Derry-Belfast train dead-ended at Great Victoria Street, and you immediately felt you were in the big city. I was met by Brian Kelly, one of my oldest friends and a longstanding member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) member. Brian’s been living and teaching in Northern Ireland for several decades and is a well-regarded historian.

Belfast is the Capital city where the dysfunctional Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly, is located and looms over the city center. The PBP’s Gerry Carroll is a Member of the Legislative Assembly or MLA. After putting my luggage away we walked through the city center to meet Brian’s daughter for lunch and we stumbled across a statue of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I wasn’t expecting this. The statue was unveiled in July, and as BBC NI reported, “The city has become the first in Europe to honor Mr. Douglass with a statue. It is located at Rosemary Street, close to where he addressed crowds in 1845.” It’s a reminder that Belfast was not always a center of Orange/Loyalist reaction.

I was in Belfast for only a few days but I got a good feel for the city. Leaving the city center, you immediately feel that Belfast is a much tougher place than Derry. While the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was welcomed by large majorities of the Catholic/Nationalist and Protestant/Loyalist communities because it largely ended the military conflict, the scars left by the war years, for me, meant that Belfast had a more mournful feel to large parts of it. I never felt “down” in Derry, but Belfast made me reflective of the cost of the struggle, despite Derry being the site of the Bloody Sunday Massacre. It’s also a funny thing how “The Troubles” have become a tourist attraction for Northern Ireland.

Traveling up and down the Falls Road in West Belfast, you still have “peace walls” or military grade fencing that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, though it has come down in many places. Murals adore the Falls Road where the Nationalist murals prominently display its heroes and martyrs, along with identifying with the historic figures of the African and African-American Freedom movements. Like in Derry, Palestinian flags are flown in Catholic/ Nationalist neighborhoods, including from apartment towers. While in the Protestant neighborhoods, Israeli flags and murals are prominent, along with displays of loyalty to the British Empire.

The struggle in Belfast had a more civil war like feeling, where the Loyalist violence was up close and personal. Memorial gardens were constructed by residents in Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast in the years following the GFA. I found them very moving. Here’s a few pics, available here and here. Brian introduced me to his friend Mike McCann, author of Burnt Out: How the Troubles’ Began. Mike works as an auto mechanic. In his student days at Queens he was told early on that he would never get a degree. They didn’t appreciate him challenging his professors who tried to blame the Troubles on the Catholic population and the Civil Rights Movement. I read a good chunk of his book on the flight home. It was fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

The first night I was  in Belfast, Gerry Carroll was on The Nolan Show, the highest rated program on BBC Northern Ireland, and known for its pro-Unionist slant, it is the equivalent of a Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson show for an American audience. Gerry squared-off against Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) leader Edwin Poots. The DUP was founded by and led for decades by internationally known bigot, the late Ian Paisley. The Gaza crisis had just broken and the atmosphere was thick with hatred for anyone supportive of Palestine. I thought Gerry did a great job. A snippet of his appearance is available here. Shaun Harkin also had a successful appearance on The Nolan Show a week later.

Gerry’s appearance sparked one of  the Loyalist gangs to threaten to shut down All that’s Left conference, most comrades thought it was less that a gang would show up than the police and the Queen University administration would use it as an excuse to shut it down. Luckily, nothing came of it. I was able to squeeze in a visit Milltown cemetery, where many well-known Republican leaders and martyrs are buried, and the Connolly museum, which was great. Ironically, the Connolly Museum that has many American union benefactors, including the former head of the Laborers’ Union and Clinton family ally Terry O’Sullivan.

The All that’s Left conference was held at Queen’s University. The campus reminded me of a leafy New England college town with older brick buildings and lots of green spaces. I was only able to participate in the Friday opening night of the conference, the turnout was much more made up of students, a setting familiar to former members of the ISO, who did political work around campuses. I did a workshop  on the U.S. labor movement and a welcoming panel. I was originally paired with Eddie Conlon, one of the PBP’s long standing trade unionists, but he tested positive for Covid. Eddie’s article on the Irish working class today is well worth reading and later posted in Jacobin.

Many of the workshops were similar to the Derry  conference. It was good to see Mike Gonzalez, historian and author. Mike was a longstanding member of the SWP, who these days is a RS21 member. He spoke on Frida Kahlo. At the opening panel PBP TD Paul Murphy spoke on the ecological crisis and Catherine Curran Vigier spoke on the struggles in France. When it was my turn, I spoke in support of the Palestinian struggle, how the social crisis in the U.S. could break in either direction politically, and that the UAW strike was the most significant labor struggle in decades. Paul Murphy asked me later who I was affiliated with, and I said, I was a member of the ISO for four decades and Tempest, which I thought was clear but maybe not.  Murphy said he was affiliated with Reform and Revolution. I said we disagree about the future of DSA.

PBP and Tempest

The Gaza crisis has provided an opportunity for PBP to expand its national presence in Irish politics. They successfully shamed Sinn Fein into calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, and have reinvigorated the BDS movement across the country. The PBP strikes me as having a more ecumenical attitude towards relations with other revolutionary socialist groups across the globe than the IST they are formally affiliated with. The prospect for big political changes in Ireland are great but not certain. The PBP’s pamphlet The Case for a Left Government:  Getting Rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was given an unexpected boost when the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar denounced it in the Dáil. I think we would benefit from a further exchange of speakers, articles, and discussions on the future of the revolutionary left.

Share post:

Subscribe

Popular

More like this
Related