Mike Burke
 with the third in a  five part series on the theme of Irish Unity and the methods being suggested to thwart it. 


3: Croppies Lie Down

My analysis in this section is an extension of the notion of nationalist inferiority that I discussed in relation to Mallon’s proposal and the other GFA fixes. There, I examined the inequality and lack of reciprocity of proposals to alter the Agreement. Here, I address unionism’s view of nationalism’s place in the social, political and constitutional order.

An overall orientation within much of unionism holds that nationalism is and should be subordinate. Unionist arguments of this general type take two main forms: that the exercise of nationalist political rights should be constrained and that nationalism as a system of political and constitutional beliefs should be diminished.

For some unionist pundits, nationalists have the abstract right to aspire to a united Ireland but should not make Irish unity a concrete political demand (Foster, 2018a & 2018b; Kennedy & Green, 2005). Others similarly suggest that nationalists and republicans should wait for unionist acceptance of a united Ireland before they begin actively pursuing their constitutional objective (Walker, 2017 & 2019). Eoghan Harris, for instance, says that even to talk about Irish unity is wrong because it violates what he calls “the Seamus Mallon principle: that there should be no pressure for unity before both sides massively desire it” (Harris, 2019a, n.p.).

This position is stronger than are the formula fixes demanding consensus or a unionist-specific veto for constitutional change. It’s stronger because of its singular emphasis on nationalists and republicans suppressing their constitutional beliefs by keeping them out of the political arena. According to this orientation, any discussion or advocacy of constitutional change cannot even begin until there is prior unionist agreement on moving to a united Ireland.

The main problem with this argument is evident. If nationalists and republicans must wait for unionism to acquiesce in a united Ireland, they will be waiting for a very long time, probably forever. The precondition of unionist assent ensures that a suitable time for Irish unity will never arrive.

The argument is also conspicuously one-sided in that it lacks reciprocity. Among all the urgings for nationalists and republicans to tone down or turn off their demands for Irish unity, there has been no equivalent call for the British government and unionists to moderate their constant reaffirmations of the “precious Union.” Quite the opposite: John Wilson Foster explicitly couples his plea for nationalist silence and passivity with an appeal for unionist outspokenness and activity (Foster, 2017a & 2018b).

A final flaw in this position is that it’s hard to discern the process by which unionists will come to accept a united Ireland while the entire topic of constitutional change is off the agenda. If change cannot be broached, how does change occur and when will we know it has happened? We will, of course, never know how or when because this argument rules out change. Its principal effect is to stop any advance towards a united Ireland.

There is a second, more general and long-standing form of the unionist orientation that relegates nationalism to a subaltern position. This argument’s central characteristic is its refusal to accept nationalists as nationalists (or republicans as republicans). It demands that nationalists drop any pretense to a united Ireland. It is unlike the previous argument, which, abstractly at least, allowed nationalists their constitutional aspiration. No such allowance is made here. Instead, this position strips nationalism of any political and constitutional elements not compatible with unionism. And it confines nationalism to the realm of culture. Nationalists must be unionists in regard to the north’s constitution; but they can express their “non-political Irishness” in sport, dance, music, media and other recreational and cultural activities (Kennedy, 1995, pp. 35 & 36).[45]

Liam O’Dowd of Queen’s University Belfast captures well the inequality and lack of reciprocity of this position. He notes that unionists “consistently demand from Irish nationalists that which they reject for themselves: the separation of culture from politics and the shelving of their national rights and aspirations” (O’Dowd, 1998, p. 89).

The unmistakable supremacism of these unionist arguments is reason enough to reject them. But I doubt such rejection will have any impact on the continued articulation or acceptance of unionist ascendancy. The premise of superiority is deeply embedded, even within so-called liberal unionism. It is so ingrained as a taken-for-granted assumption that many unionists seem incapable of apprehending it.

Unionist superiority is never more apparent than when unionist academics and writers are denying its centrality. The introduction to a 1995 edited compilation of arguments in favour of the Union noted that none of the contributors questions “the legitimacy of the desire, peacefully pursued, of some citizens in Northern Ireland to see come into being a united Ireland sundered from Great Britain” (Foster, 1995a, p. 5).[46] This statement is patently untrue. The editor himself, John Wilson Foster, advises nationalists to “cease clamouring and plotting for it [Irish unity], since not to demand unification is obviously the only chance for it some day to happen by consensus” (Foster, 1995b, p. 63). One contributor, Dennis Kennedy, argues that the equal legitimacy of unionism and nationalism is fine in theory but not in practice. He says to nationalists that “you must forego your objective of a politically united and independent Ireland, and make the most of the real circumstances in which you find yourselves—living as Irish people on the island of Ireland but within the United Kingdom state” (Kennedy, 1995, p. 33). Another, Richard English, explicitly questions the equal legitimacy thesis, and suggests a more thoroughgoing revision of Irish nationalism:

… it might be argued that revisionist nationalism has not gone nearly far enough. Instead of holding the same irredentist aims but altering the means, it might be more honest and more politically mature to accept that the united Ireland objective itself is simply not a valid one at all, given the religious, economic, cultural, and political divisions which exist on the island of Ireland (English 1995, p. 138).

Many nationalists and republicans might fail to appreciate the distinction between, on the one hand, unionists not questioning the legitimacy of the nationalist desire peacefully to pursue a united Ireland and, on the other, unionists telling nationalists to shut up about reunification, to forego their aim of Irish unity and independence by coming to terms with partition, and to accept that the united Ireland objective is not at all valid. I, too, fail to appreciate this distinction. That so many unionist observers seem to hold this untenable position is testament to how firmly inscribed is their presupposition of superiority over nationalism: they just do not recognize blatant expressions of their supremacism.

The work of Richard English is an especially inveterate and unreconstructed example of this troubling incapacity. In a 1996 article, he directly refutes remarks by Luke Gibbons and Declan Kiberd, both of whom alleged English was subordinating nationalism to unionism. English says he “was not advocating any form of supremacism, but rather was asking what a state should do in the face of a serious public-order problem” (English, 1996, p. 271). He has some recommendations for the state. He suggests that British government policy should recognize that unionism is superior to nationalism and should say so publicly; and that London needs to curtail nationalists’ constitutional expectations, ambitions and hopes as a way of managing potential disorder by unionists. He also has some advice for nationalists. He says that nationalists will never be full citizens in the north—their grievances will never be seriously addressed—unless they accept partition. It’s hard to believe that English cannot discern the deeply supremacist core of these remarks. But apparently he does not see them that way. In the face of such a deep-seated and obdurate sense of superiority, it’s next to impossible to address issues of equality, legitimacy and parity.

4. (Part of Part of) Ulster Says No

That unionists are neither making a strong, positive argument for the Union nor convincingly refuting the nationalist and republican case for unity is a constant theme of Alex Kane’s ubiquitous observations on northern politics (Kane, 2019). He is not alone. John Wilson Foster seems to recognize that his 1995 edited work articulating the pro-Union position has not been sufficiently advanced (Foster, 2017a, 2018a & 2018b). Former Minister Nelson McCausland recently called on the DUP to take the lead role in countering the initiatives for a united Ireland by “crafting the arguments for the Union” (McCausland, 2020, n.p.) It is, of course, entirely legitimate for unionists to argue their corner by justifying why they say “No” to constitutional change. And nationalists and republicans should be prepared to respond to such arguments.

As I’ve suggested, the various arguments that proceed from the assumption of unionist ascendancy are quite disturbing but easily refuted, analytically if not politically. The same can be said for the recent interventions of Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson.

These authors take up the challenge of making the case for the Union. They suggest that unionism needs to grasp “an imagined future” by developing arguments extolling the benefits of “an agreed Northern Ireland” and the virtues of Britishness (Spencer & Hudson, 2018, n.p.). Unionists, they suggest, need to construct a bottom-up approach to defending the Union by reaching out to working-class unionists and loyalists, young unionists, Catholic unionists and those citizens with a Northern Irish identity or hybrid identities that are favourable to the Union. This outreach needs to centre on a vibrant sense of Britishness founded on “a very British tendency towards diversity and inclusiveness” (Spencer & Hudson, 2020, n.p.).

A very conspicuous group left out of Spencer and Hudson’s outreach programme is northern nationalists, republicans and others who consider themselves Irish. The authors’ “agreed Northern Ireland” is based on a tightly constrained view of diversity and a very selective version of inclusivity. Their notions of diversity and inclusiveness extend only to those citizens whose identities are congruent with the constitutional imperatives of unionism. Their Britishness is founded on a limited recognition of difference. An “agreed Northern Ireland” is to include only the unionist family. If you’re not part of the family, you’re an outsider and a stranger, and the north is not for you.

Spencer and Hudson are innovative, though not alone, in their attempt to inject working-class energy and leadership into unionism. But for nationalists and republicans, there is little new in the product the authors are selling.

Their view is considerably weakened by its comic-book understanding of Britishness that simply wishes away all the troubling aspects of contemporary UK politics and imperial history. This analytical weakness is glaringly exposed in the setting of northern politics, where a malign Britishness has had and continues to have a disabling effect on political life. It was, after all, the beating of peaceful protesters demanding citizenship rights—in a public and unequivocal denial of the so-called “very British tendency towards diversity and inclusiveness”—that started the conflagration in the north. Emma DeSouza’s recent five-year battle with the British Home Office to secure recognition of Irish citizenship rights in the north demonstrates clearly the inability of Britishness to accommodate Irishness. An especially crude example of this tendency is MLA Jim Wells, a sometime member of the DUP, telling Emma DeSouza that if she wished to be Irish, she should go across the border to Donegal (DeSouza, 2020).

The freezing out of nationalism and Irishness supports the marginalizing agenda of the leaders of unionism’s two largest political parties, who are especially concerned with diminishing any advance towards reunification. The DUP’s Arlene Foster regards any talk of a border poll on a united Ireland as inherently divisive, and she want to shelve the issue “for generations to come" (Gordon, 2017, n.p.). Likewise, Steve Aiken of the UUP finds the reunification debate destabilizing and vows that his party is determined never, ever, to discuss Irish unity (News Letter, 2020).

This political narrative, and the questionable concepts of diversity and inclusiveness at its root, remind us that the northern regime has never accepted nationalists and republicans for the people they are. An “agreed Northern Ireland” based on Britishness emerges not as a fresh initiative but as part of the conventional unionist orientation sustaining nationalist subordination. Spencer and Hudson’s proposal is reminiscent of the enduring unionist elision that equates “the people of Ulster” with “the unionist people of Ulster.”[47] Nationalists were never fully part of the north, and probably never can be for as long as it remains under British sovereignty.

Such attempts to develop arguments for the Union have failed to resolve one of unionism’s central contradictions: unionism refuses to make a full and equal place for nationalists in the north while at the same it tries to bar them from seeking constitutional change. Unionism’s answer to nationalism is a double ‘No’. In imposing a constitutional “loyalty test” on nationalists, unionism continuously denies that the nationalist right to full democratic citizenship includes the right to pursue and promote Irish unity (O’Dowd, 1998, p. 79).

The Agreement’s references to “parity of esteem” and “equally legitimate political aspirations” are, for these unionists, nothing more than empty rhetoric. Richard English may be partially correct in asserting that parity of esteem is “a concept that has become extremely pervasive despite the fact that nobody really believes in it” (English, 1996, p. 271). Certainly, many unionists aren’t true believers (Mac Ginty & du Toit, 2007). Nationalists and republicans, in contrast, strongly prefer true parity of esteem to subordination; but they are increasingly frustrated by the inability of unionists, the British state and the Agreement to deliver it.[48]

5. Play the Orange Card

To play the Orange card, in this its modern version, is to warn nationalists and republicans that their continued pursuit of a united Ireland, even if carried out peacefully and democratically, will cause a violent loyalist backlash that could easily spin out of control. This argument trades on instilling fear as it attempts to coerce nationalists and republicans into relinquishing or indefinitely delaying their constitutional ambitions.[49] One of its distinguishing features is that it curtails nationalists’ democratic rights as the principal means of dealing with the possibility of illegal and anti-democratic loyalist upheaval. It also uses fear to induce the British and Irish governments to refrain from implementing their legal and international obligations on constitutional change.

The Orange card is often played in speculative discussions of a narrow win for Irish unity in a border poll. Lord Kilclooney (John Taylor), deputy leader of the UUP at the time of the Agreement, warns:

Assuming … there was a 50.1% in favour of a united Ireland, in no way would one dare have a united Ireland. Because the reality on the ground in Northern Ireland is there would be civil war.
You cannot force Northern Ireland out of the UK by a 1% majority. Can you imagine the loyalists in Belfast taking it quietly? I couldn’t (News Letter, 2017, n.p.).[50]

Eoghan Harris likewise asserts:

We could not cope with a sullen minority of nearly one million created by a 50%-plus-one majority. … What would we do next morning after a 50%-plus-one result, especially if we got an equally narrow result in the Republic from a Brexit-style referendum … Forget the €10bn we'd have to find. Forget the gloating of the Sinn Fein gauleiters. Forget even loyalist force. How could we cope with a mass Protestant civil resistance? That is why I believe the campaign for a border poll could more honestly be called a campaign for a murder poll as it is bound to end in bloodshed (Harris, 2019b, n.p.).

When Harris invites his readers to forget loyalist force he means for them to think of loyalist force as the vanguard of a larger and bloody reaction to a murder poll.

Kilclooney and Harris make the same general point as Mallon, who also played the Orange card in warning of widespread loyalist-inspired violence in the north, south and Britain. Peter Robinson thinks otherwise. He would accept the results of a border poll in favour of unity and thinks that the unionist community would too (Gallagher, 2018, n.p). Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly believes the vast majority of unionists would accept or could live with the results of a pro-unity border poll (Daly, 2019a, p. 7).

The Life and Times survey sheds some light on the potential for violence in the aftermath of a constitutional referendum supporting a united Ireland. This annual survey monitors the values, attitudes and beliefs of the people of the north on matters of public importance. Since 1998, it has been tracking popular acceptance of the outcome of a border poll. The survey asked respondents who did not support Irish unity how they would react “if the majority of people in Northern Ireland ever voted to become part of a United Ireland.” The 2019 results show both a polarization of opinion and increasing uncertainty. Polarization is evident in three ways: the number of respondents who say that they would find a pro-unity poll “almost impossible to accept” is at an all-time high (28%); and the percentages saying that they “could live with it” (30%) or “would happily accept the wishes of the majority” (22%) are at historic lows. These results are particularly pronounced among Protestants who did not support unity, with fully 41 percent saying “almost impossible to accept” and only 12 percent saying “happily accept.” Uncertainty is shown in the 20 percent of people saying they “don’t know” how they would respond after a pro-unity poll, a number that is four or five times higher than the usual result (ARK NILT, no date (n.d.)).

The 2019 survey is the first time this border-poll question was asked since Brexit, and we may be seeing in these results the impact of Brexit on the intensification of public debate about a constitutional referendum. Certainly, the 2019 figures are sharply different from the 2014 (pre-Brexit) survey results, which showed much higher levels of acceptance of a pro-unity border-poll outcome, both in the northern population generally and among Protestants and Catholics. The 2014 results also showed many fewer people reporting that they “don’t know” how they would react to a referendum win for a united Ireland. It’s perhaps not surprising that, as speculation abounds of the imminence of a poll, the unionist population is becoming both increasingly anxious and less certain. As we have seen and shall see again below, there are many analysts keen to feed that anxiety and uncertainty.

We can take as given that there will remain significant unionist opposition to any pro-unity poll. And fevered rhetoric will ensue. Some opposition might be violent, especially within certain segments of Orangeism, marching bands, and young Protestants/Unionists/Loyalists (Daly, 2019a). But there is no evidence to suggest that opposition to unity will take the form of massive civil unrest and prolonged violence as in 1968-1998. It’s likely that an overwhelming number of people who say that a pro-unity border poll would be “almost impossible to accept” would limit their opposition to non-violent means. The admittedly scanty survey evidence shows limited tolerance for loyalist violence. The 1998 and 2007 Life and Times surveys found that very few Protestants (3%) had “a lot of sympathy” with “the reasons why some Loyalist groups … used violence during the troubles” (ARK NILT, n.d.).[51] And Spencer and Hudson think it unlikely that the three main loyalist paramilitary organizations will return to violence (Spencer & Hudson, 2019).[52]

The dystopian visions of mayhem and murder are less based in considered analysis than in the reckless use of fear to buttress flawed arguments and questionable political agendas. Mobilizing communal fear, as I’ve said above in regard to Mallon’s position, is an extremely risky strategy that may encourage the use of violence to stop democratic constitutional change.

QUB academic Colin Harvey says it’s irresponsible and illegitimate to use “the threat of force” as an argument against a majority poll in favour of a united Ireland. Instead, he wants public discussion to focus on addressing real concerns about Ireland’s future. (Moriarty, 2019, n.p.). McKearney also believes that advocates of Irish unity need to engage productively with the unionist population. He adds that:

making it clear that a majority vote would be vigorously upheld would offer positive benefits. In the first instance it would become clear that violent resistance is futile while simultaneously strengthening the case of those advocating positive engagement (McKearney, 2020a, n.p.).

6. Home Rule Means Rome Rule

John Wilson Foster sees the south as a relatively mild part of a rising international tide of theocratic reaction against secularism and humanism. But he suggests that Ireland’s benign nature may be only temporary: a 32-county Republic could easily join the reactionary swell and revert to the kind of illiberal practices that made it a cold house for others (Foster, 2017b & 2018a). We saw in the last section that playing the Orange card instills fears primarily in nationalists and republicans. Here, the imminent return of Rome rule generates fears mainly in unionists and loyalists. Foster plays on sectarian stereotypes to mobilize opposition to a united Ireland.

Foster ignores much in his use of disagreeable social falsehoods. Even the most unremittingly negative view of the history of Irish nationalism in the south is careful to note the emerging secularist trends of the 1960s and southern nationalism’s modern heterogeneity, with its pluralist and liberal dimensions (O’Mahony & Delanty, 2001). Foster seems unconcerned with these developments. The Irish government was, of course, an integral part of the “carnival of reaction both North and South” that James Connolly predicted partition would bring. But things have changed in ways that Foster refuses to recognize. There remains, of course, plenty of room for more progressive change.

To be brief, Foster’s position is groundless. In reviewing the historical case for contemporary unionist fears of a united Ireland, Marie Coleman concludes that while loss of identity may be a real concern, fears about the policy power of the church “are unfounded and based on anachronistic and inaccurate interpretations of the past” (Coleman, 2019, n.p.). Such is the nature of Foster’s position.

Foster also dismisses much too easily, as uncharacteristic of unionist politics and culture, how the carnival of reaction unfolded (and continues to unfold) in the north. And he does not sufficiently consider that northern unionism, not Irish nationalism, is the main repository of religious fundamentalism on the island of Ireland. Finally, he ignores the manifest signs that the principal threat of anti-humanist reaction in the archipelago comes from little England, not modern Ireland.

Foster is particularly concerned that what he sees as Sinn Féin’s malignant vision of a united Ireland might be achieved, and that, as a result, he will be forced to flee the island (Foster, 2018a). He doesn’t specify which parts of the party’s vision are repulsive to him; malignancy it seems is a characteristic so permanently attached to all things Sinn Féin and republican that no elaboration is necessary.

In 2016, two years before Foster wrote his piece, Sinn Féin published a discussion document that began to sketch the outlines of what a new, united Ireland might look like. Elements of the party’s reimagined Ireland include: citizens having the continuing right to hold British citizenship and the right to pass on that citizenship to their children; “constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity;” measures to express “the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy;” “recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation;” “changes to the Irish Constitution to remove the overt influence of any one church or faith;” and “a constitutional guarantee of a pluralist education system” reflecting nationalist, unionist and other identities (Sinn Féin, 2016, p. 8).

There are valid reasons to interrogate the party’s positions in this document. But those positions do begin to address directly many of Foster’s main concerns. But Foster gives no indication that he is familiar with any of Sinn Féin’s positions. He enthusiastically criticizes the party’s vision of reunification, in blissful ignorance of what Sinn Féin is actually saying about a future united Ireland. Foster’s account lacks integrity. He offers a lazy, insubstantial and politically illiterate ‘argument.’ In the place of analysis, he relies on dubious assumptions, empty assertions, scaremongering and the repetition of divisive myths.

7. Fenian Bastards

The notion of malevolent republicanism that we see in Foster is also a general form of argument that is turned against the project of Irish unity. In short, the argument is that republicans are such bastards that you can never trust them, and your first impulse must be to oppose every political initiative remotely associated with them.

Eoghan Harris regularly practices this form of ‘reasoning.’ Here are the staple terms he uses in reference to Sinn Féin: Nazis, Hitler, Stalin, fascism, proto-fascist, godfathers, squalid terrorist, triumphalist, sectarian, tribal, atavistic, and fanaticism (Harris, 2019b, 2020b, 2020c & 2020d). Ruth Dudley Edwards wholeheartedly agrees with Harris’s interpretation, using many of the same terms (Edwards, 2020). Michael Gove, currently Minister for the Cabinet Office and responsible for overseeing the consequences of Brexit, is an avid participant in the “Fenian Bastards” view. In his diatribe against the GFA, he likened the appeasement of republicans ‘terrorists’ in the peace process to the appeasement of Nazis in the 1930s (Gove, 2000). Mallon too engages in this form of argument, with his propensity to see the “hobnailed boot” and the “cudgel” whenever he sees Sinn Féin or republicanism (Mallon, 2019, locs. 4300 & 4358).

Mallon employs this suspect reasoning in another way, which I examined above in my discussion of how he implored nationalists and republicans not to visit on unionists the same abuse that unionists had imposed on them. Liam Kennedy is also fond of this tit-for-tat argument equating contemporary republicanism with evil. He warns:

Some republicans might … see merit in compounding the pressure on Protestants by making the social and cultural environment of Northern Ireland as uncomfortable as possible for unionists with a view to promoting Protestant out-migration (a cold house option unionists were happy to visit on Catholics in the days of Stormont)” (Kennedy, 2020).

As I said in regard to Mallon, there is no evidence suggesting that this kind of threat is real. Certainly, Kennedy does not bother to substantiate his argument that republicans aim to force unionists or Protestants from Ireland. For both authors, playing on easy and odious stereotypes seems preferable to bearing the burden of meaningful analysis.

This tendency to regard Irish republicanism as the incarnation of evil was recently demonstrated in the furor over the nature of the relationship between the Provisional IRA’s Army Council and Sinn Féin. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, formerly of the RUC, sparked the controversy by a highly political intervention in the post-election talks about government formation in the south. Two weeks after the inconclusive Dáil election in early February, in which Sinn Féin surprisingly led the field in first-preference votes, he said the Garda view of IRA-Sinn Féin relations does not differ from the assessment of the northern police and British security service: the Army Council continues to oversee the party. Harris was referring to the report entitled “Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland” that the PSNI and MI5 co-authored and that the Secretary of State published in October 2015.

Mary Lou McDonald challenged the assessment by saying that: "Nobody directs Sinn Fein other than Sinn Fein members and the Sinn Fein leadership. I'm the leader of Sinn Fein, I know who runs Sinn Fein” (Breen, 2020b, n.p.). Many other senior party personnel—Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Pearse Doherty, Mickey Brady—also rejected the PSNI-MI5 conclusion, either when it was initially released in 2015 or when Drew Harris mentioned it again in the aftermath of the southern election.

But much was made of Commissioner Harris’s remarks. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar demanded that Mary Lou McDonald disband the Army Council and sever all links with the IRA. Eoghan Harris asserted that Sinn Féin is “the puppet party of the Provisional army council” (Harris, 2020b, n.p.). The UUP’s Justice Spokesperson, Doug Beattie, noted “that the IRA has not ‘gone away’.” And he reminded southern voters that the same unelected Army Council that organized the IRA’s ‘murder’ campaign on both sides of the border “still exists and now directs Sinn Fein’s political strategy” (McGovern, 2020, n.p.).

Lost in the hyperbole is what the 2015 paramilitary assessment actually said. It noted:

PIRA members believe that the PAC [Provisional Army Council] oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus. …

The PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall. It is our firm assessment that PIRA's leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means. (PSNI & MI5, 2015, paras. 13 & 14).

One major point to consider is that the PSNI-MI5 assessment does not bear the weight that Varadkar, Eoghan Harris, Beattie and many others have placed on it. The report says that it’s IRA members who believe that the Army Council oversees Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy, that the Troubles-era IRA has gone away, and that the IRA leadership is firmly committed to politics and peace.

We need to ask why so many politicians and commentators prefer the second-hand version of what the security forces believe IRA members believe to the version voiced directly by many Sinn Féin members who have publicly denied Army Council control of the party. Certainly, untangling vested interest from accuracy is a problem common to both versions. One possible explanation for the preference of the commentators and politicians is that the PSNI-MI5 view fits their pre-determined narrative while the Sinn Féin view does not. Or, more accurately, they use an abbreviated and misleading version of the assessment to reinforce their already-established position. The important question of the veracity of the assessment simply does not matter to them.

The UUP’s Beattie is repeating his party’s continuing hesitancy about sharing power with Sinn Féin, which for years was manifested by its futile policy of “no guns, no government” and by David Trimble’s triggering of multiple suspensions of devolved government. The latest incarnation of the party’s persistent doubts is its calls for a “voluntary coalition” to replace GFA-mandated power-sharing (Belfast Telegraph, 2017). Everyone understands that “voluntary coalition” is doublespeak for excluding Sinn Féin from the northern Executive, a position that has garnered support from across unionism.

Political unionism will not fully accept republicans until they formally renounce their republicanism and give official sanction to the unionist worldview. The first step in this unionist-scripted surrender is for republicans to support the permanence of partition. The next steps involve, at least, republicans agreeing with unionists that IRA ‘terrorists’ were responsible for the conflict, that the RUC and British Army bravely upheld the rule of law, and that the definition of victims must exclude ‘terrorists’. The manufactured controversy over the role of the Army Council is merely a public relations opportunity for unionists to express their continuing doubts about republicanism as a whole.

The reaction in the south to Commissioner Harris’s comments is governed entirely by the continuing electoral-political threat posed by Sinn Féin, illustrated most recently by the party’s strong performance in the February poll. In a fit of jarring illogic, Eoghan Harris likened the election outcome to a near coup (Harris, 2020c). The reaction of the two main southern political parties is equally illogical, and especially self-serving and hypocritical. The general position of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is that Sinn Féin is fit for government in the north but not in the south. Neither party explains why they so thoroughly discount Sinn Féin voters in the south nor why they think crossing the border so abruptly changes the meaning of party suitability for government.

Let me return again to the paramilitarism report, which was one catalyst for the recent storm of faux outrage. It’s perhaps sadly ironic that the same report that helped to resolve a crisis in the north in 2015 by confirming Sinn Féin’s place in power-sharing government is being used in the south in 2020 to exclude the party from government office (Emerson, 2020; Gallagher, 2020). But such is the impudent absurdity of the “Fenian Bastards” view.

Tommy McKearney brings up another essential point in this affair:

In reality, [Drew] Harris must know that, even if the Army Council still existed in its old military form, no group of seven persons could exercise control over thirty-seven popularly elected members of the Dáil. But fear of a secret army was never really the issue here. Raising the spectre of subversion is the political equivalent of the cardsharp distracting punters as he performs the three-card trick. While attention is focused on a non-existent terror threat, the issues that won Sinn Féin a large slice of the vote are being played down (McKearney, 2020b).

He is referring to such issues as housing, homelessness, healthcare, inequality, workers’ rights and the generally precarious state of public services that Sinn Féin raised to great effect during the election campaign. McKearney is correct. That Sinn Féin are, or are under the control of, “Fenian Bastards” is an argument whose main effect is to delegitimize and deflect attention from any republican proposal, programme or policy.[53]

The process of delegitimization also extends to the project of Irish unity. Eoghan Harris, for instance, draws a straight line from Sinn Féin participating in government in the south, through the Army Council using its influence to roll over unionist concerns about a united Ireland, to “prolonged sectarian violence” (Harris, 2020a, n.p.). Harris does not offer any form of reasoning to substantiate his increasingly sensationalist claims. For him, the evil of Irish republicanism is true by definition; it is an inherent characteristic of republicanism that transcends time, space and context.

Mallon also explicitly ties the “Fenian Bastards” argument to the project of reunification. He suggests that the IRA’s armed campaign has disqualified the republican movement from participating in northern discussions about Irish unity. Unionists simply have no confidence in Sinn Féin and will not be persuaded by the republican case for unity. He argues that, on the nationalist side, the lead role in unity talks should fall to the SDLP, working with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.[54]

A major flaw in Mallon’s position is its clear hypocrisy. While he says that unionist mistrust of republicans is sufficient to exclude Sinn Féin from discussions about unity, he also calls on unionists to work respectfully with the party. He says that unionists “have to accept that the only way for Northern Ireland to work as a peaceful and consensual society is for unionists and their leaders – notably the DUP – to work alongside nationalists and their leaders – notably Sinn Féin – in a spirit of equality, respect and parity of esteem” (Mallon, 2019, loc. 4051). He doesn’t explain how or why the imperative for unionists to work alongside republicans in a spirit of equality and parity ends precipitously when discussions of Irish unity begin. Presumably, there is also a need for a united Ireland “to work as a peaceful and consensual society.”

A further flaw is that Mallon does not address the problematic question of how the new roles he assigns to Sinn Féin and the SDLP relate to the parties’ levels of popular support. But his proposal is clearly contrary to democratic logic: it eliminates the larger electoral party from any part in discussions, and rewards the smaller electoral party with a dominant role. In effect, Mallon is saying that, in northern elections, SDLP votes are worth more than Sinn Féin votes. Mallon’s system of political-constitutional stratification is becoming more and more elaborate, with nationalists subordinate to unionists, and now republicans subordinate to nationalists.

There is another way of expressing this deficiency in Mallon’s thought. His position violates a cardinal principle of any negotiation: each party to the negotiation gets to choose its own negotiators. A similar violation arises in the sentiments of some of Paul Gosling’s interviewees. Gosling has held extensive discussions with community and political leaders about Ireland’s future. He notes that: “One point made by several interviewees is that Sinn Féin cannot in the north be successful advocates of a united Ireland. History prevents them from winning over many of the people that need to be won over,” namely, “Protestants, former unionists” (Gosling, 2020, pp. 118 & 119).

Republicans need to resist any suggestion that they are less than legitimate participants in the process of constitutional change. It’s not up to constitutional nationalists or unionists, however much they dislike “Fenian Bastards,” to say who can legitimately or successfully represent republicans in discussions of unity. It’s up to republicans, and republican voters in the north and south have spoken pretty clearly. Mallon’s stance and the position of Gosling’s interviewees devalue republican votes and voters.

It’s noteworthy that no one has suggested that the UUP be disqualified from participating in talks about Ireland’s future because of its 50 noxious years of sectarian one-party rule, or that London be excluded because of the British state’s terror campaign against nationalist and republican communities, or that the DUP be turfed out because of the social and political destruction wreaked by Paisleyism. A real challenge of any such talks is not to determine who should be excluded, but to find ways to represent the full diversity of opinion on all sides.

Notes

[45] Other prominent unionist academics who take this view include Arthur Aughey, Richard English, David Dingley, and Patrick Roche (Burke 2017 & 2020).

[46] The introduction has no author.

[47] The title of this section, “(Part of Part of) Ulster Says No,” is meant to indicate that those saying “No” are only part of the people in the north, which is itself only part of the 9-county province of Ulster.

[48] This frustration is evident in Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister on 9 January 2017. See McGuinness (2017a & 2017b) and Feeney (2017a & 2017b).

[49] Conor Cruise O’Brien’s employed this reasoning in his constant invocation of the threat of civil war. One of his aims was to redefine Irish nationalism by stripping it of its irredentism (O’Brien, 1972).

[50] Humphreys (2018, p. 92) first alerted me to this quotation.

[51] Hayes and McAllister (2005) note the existence of constitutional and extra-constitutional political traditions in the north, and caution that: “Only a sustained period of peace is likely to negate this historical tradition of political violence” (p. 614). But their study, like the Life and Times surveys, found only a small number of Protestants (4.6%) had “a lot of sympathy” with Loyalist violence (p. 607).

[52] Although they did not specifically consider a post-border-poll situation.

[53] Willy Maley examines how critics of republican violence themselves use aggressive and intimidating tactics to bully opponents and silence dissent (Maley, 1999).

[54] SDLP leader Colum Eastwood made a similar point in announcing his party’s New Ireland Commission. The Irish Times reported: “The conversation around a united Ireland, the SDLP leader said, could not be led by Sinn Féin. ‘They're toxic to unionists and that's the reality, and I think we have a responsibility to do a lot of the heavy lifting on it’” (McClements, 2020, n.p.).

⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.

Stealing Irish Unity ➖ The Repertoire Of Thieves @ Part 3

  



A Morning Thought @ 835

William Costello
responds to a piece by Brandon Sullivan.

Apologies for the belated response to this piece and thank you to Christopher and Anthony for bringing it to my attention. I made the decision to not use any of my Sunday to pay much attention to it as I was busy playing a Gaelic football match. Ironic given the Ian Paisley comparison.

Well…so much for me thinking my article appealed to incels, normies and even feminists alike. It was bound to cop some flak eventually. Nothing like an ad-hominem, guilt by association, straw man ‘critique’ to let me know that I’m doing something right. Although I must say that an ad hominem critique about ‘who I Might have been in the 1980s’ is quite novel.

“I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member” - Groucho Marx.

I suppose to address one of the first guilt by association jabs, had Brandon listened to my appearance on the ‘Just Checking In’ men’s mental health podcast (first of a number of shameless plugs I will use this rebuttal as an opportunity to provide) he would have heard me clarify my stance on A Voice For Men and the wider manosphere. The ‘manosphere’ incidentally is not a monolith and rather contains multitudes of ideological thinking. As such, there are elements of AVFM and the manosphere that I agree with and disagree with. I have not encountered any ‘figure head’ from within the men’s rights community that expects me to have all the same views as them. The reason I don’t classify myself as a Men’s Right’s Activist is because I am not an activist in the same way that someone doing great work for men’s rights like Elizabeth Hobson is. I am just a commentator who is interested in men’s issues and the dynamics between the sexes. It just so happens that this is one of the articles of mine which has garnered most traction. I don’t however consider this association to be a slur. To sum up on this point I will reiterate my closing remarks at the Battle of Ideas 2019, where I spoke about tribal politics (shameless plug number two)

I ended my debate by quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, “Small minds talk about people, average minds talk about events and great minds talk about ideas”.

I think it’s indicative of your mind that much of your argument consists of guilt by association slurs.

“Lies, damned lies and statistics!” - Mark Twain

That’s a selective quote about statistics. You criticize my use of ‘selective academic statistics and quotes’. I don’t really know what to say here other than to highlight that this is generally how one goes about making an argument, i.e. backing up your points with wider reading and research that serves as evidence of the ideas you’re expressing. Feel free to critique the validity of any studies referenced or refute them with statistics or quotes of your own.

Much of your ‘critique’ is full of assumptions and speculation about my intent, motivations and stances so can you specifically highlight what you think is a ‘dog whistle’ and to what end? This might be enlightening to readers…most of all me.

I don’t understand why the premise that we (manosphere and wider society) need to do more to support vulnerable men is laughable? Do you not agree?

I care about incels because I feel they are very misrepresented due to the most extreme voices within their community. We quite rightly rail against other minority groups being defined by extremists within their community e.g. the harmful stereotype of Muslims as terrorists, however we are reluctant to do this when regarding incels. In society, we usually try to help or at least have sympathy for the most disenfranchised minority groups but we don't seem to do this when we discuss incels. In response to my article, I have seen people who are usually extremely kind commentators say things like, "life is hard...get over it". I think this is a disservice to the vast majority of incels who do not meet the trivialised caricature description used by most media. This caricature of inceldom can lead to the temptation to dismissively shun incels from polite society but this doesn't help the problems they face and represent.

It’s somewhat disappointing that you didn’t find the article informative or valuable but I recognize it’s a pretty divisive and evocative topic.

However, the response has been extremely positive from incels, normies and even feminists alike.

Thus far the article has led to the following,

  • I was invited on to a men’s mental health podcast to discuss the article and wider gender politics issues.
  • I was invited on to the Incel Project podcast with Naama Kates and my episode has been downloaded over 6k times. Your ‘critique’ will likely lead to more so thanks for that.
  • A female and feminist academic who is writing a book about incels reached out to me and after informal discussions we are now planning to engage in a formal wiki.letter exchange on the topic.
  • I have been invited to record an episode of The Sex & Censorship Youtube channel with Jerry Barnett. 
  • The article has been republished by the academic Psychology blog Psychreg with an invitation to record an episode of their Youtube channel.
  • Psychreg have also invited me to expand on the piece and to rewrite it into a more formal academic style for publication in their academic journal. I plan to explore this when I start my MSc in Evolutionary Psychology next week.
  • I have been invited to speak at the International Conference on Men’s Issues 2020

I think all of this is indicative that you are the outlier in not finding it valuable.

You’ve got your mind set on me

Another quote to grate on you. This time an adapted lyric from the George Harrison song. I think your criticism of my Twitter feed gets more to the crux of why I think your argument is in bad faith. It seems you have decided everything you need to know about me already and would rather argue against a straw man version of me built upon your assumptions about who I am rather than engage with any of my ideas or see me as an individual with a collection of different views.

I’m not going to play your ugly game of identity politics, rather I’ll set the record straight on certain aspects of what you’ve said that I think could be misleading to readers.

Ultimately, I quite like my Twitter feed and would encourage anyone to follow me @CostelloWilliam to make their own mind up about my content.

My twitter consists of a huge variety of content including aesthetically beautiful Gaelic football pitches, anecdotes about my own life, articles I find interesting, sometimes Irish republican sentiment and more often than not it’s just funny memes and GIFs.

You could have linked to any of my tweets that you found problematic, but you neglected to do so, why is that? Where are the ‘calls to arms’ you describe? That’s quite the accusation to level at someone. I regularly tweet about the dangers of Islamism and the importance of separating critic of ideas and ideology from bigotry against Muslim people. As an atheist I often tweet out content that is critical of all religions…including Islam. As a free speech absolutist, I have tweeted out about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the bigotry of low expectations many seem to apply in making excuses for these Islamist attacks.

I think the fact that you’ve tried to use the pinned tweet with Pepe the frog imagery as evidence of some nefarious intent on my behalf is extremely telling of your goals and lack of rigor in ‘investigating me’. The pinned tweet is a link to this very article you’re ‘critiquing’. The Pepe/Joker frog meme logo was one I used for my article and I think it’s quite artistic and fitting. The sad/lonely pepe frog is certainly synonymous with the centrality of ‘shitposting’ to life in the online incel community. The joker element to the image is an allusion to the moral panic about how many incel attacks were going to happen in response to the release of the Joker movie…as it happens this ‘terrorist wave’ never manifested. Islamist terrorist responses to cartoons are in fact more likely than an incel terrorist attack in response to a comic book movie.

To summarise on this point, your characterization of me couldn’t be more wrong and in the short time that I’ve been writing, I have covered topics such as identity politics, polyamory, the ‘Karen phenomenon’ and Nick Sandmann. I am currently planning on writing a piece about how gaelic football can be an amazing vehicle to combat racism as it goes. Not what you would have assumed I imagine?

“I disagree with what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it.”

In relation to your objection to the publication of my piece, well firstly you obviously did think it was worth the time and effort but you haven’t offered much of a critique or refutation so much as a personal attack. You haven’t actually engaged with any ideas in the piece. Your gripe seems to be with me or rather who you think I am or worse again, who you think I might have been had I been born in the 1980s. You also take issue with the publishers over whether the piece should have been published or not. The publishers (and others) obviously thought it had merit, you’re free to disagree and say so. My article was published (here and in various other outlets) and so was yours. I must give credit to the publication for creating fertile ground here for the genuine exchange of diverse ideas. I think they have justified their decision in the following comments and I’m happy to let them speak for themselves. I also admire their conviction and fortification in defending their decision and in drawing my attention to your screed here.

I do however want to address one additional piece of criticism from ‘Lucy’ the comments that I feel ties in with the overarching free speech & platforming theme of the debate that has been happening in the comments.

It’s Pepe the frog. It’s the weaponisation of liberal principles of discourse by the Right. Got to hand it to them – they’ve moved the Overton window in a way we might have thought unimaginable a decade ago. When we give their ideas a platform in true liberal Voltairean spirit we are obediently dancing to their tune; fearing the spectre of an accusation of hypocrisy that never especially seems to trouble them. So, perhaps we should stand for something other than simply letting everyone speak. And Costello’s ideas have dark implications that can be traced directly to the soil of overt manosphere misogyny that clearly nurtured them; not least the idea of sex itself as a commodity to which men have the right of “access”, and a predictable but distressing demand of further emotional labour from women to solve the issue.

The notion that I am far right or even right wing doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. There is so much about me that would make me unwelcome on the far right. I am a free speech absolutist, sexual expression and sex work advocate and have expressed sympathetic views to polyamory. I am pro immigration and an immigrant who lives with a mixed race immigrant. I voted Yes in the same sex marriage and Repeal the 8th referendums in Ireland. I spend a lot of time socializing in the gay village district of Birmingham. I was a remainer and have positive views towards post work utopian worlds of super abundance and universal basic income. Seeing as my Twitter content is the subject of such speculation I am conducting a Twitter poll about how people would characterise my political leanings. At the time of writing the results are,

  • Far Left: 8.3%
  • Centre Left: 50%
  • Centre Right: 41.7%
  • Far Right 0%

I also, for entertainment value, decided to take the political compass quiz. My answers placed me firmly in the Left Libertarian quadrant.

More specifically, I don’t quite agree with viewing sex as a mere commodity, however, there absolutely has always been a transactional nature to sex. This topic is well explored in this Quillette article, ‘The Price of Sex’. However, I go to explicit lengths in my article to stress that I absolutely do not think that men should have the ‘right of access’ to sex. Here is a direct quote from my article:

However, to have sympathy for incels does not equate to advocating women be ‘given to them’ as their entitlement… Every time I discuss incels with any semblance of sympathy, I am met with a chorus of, ‘‘boo hoo, woe is me, poor men, they’re not entitled to sex or women you know!” This is of course true. I am not and have never at any point suggested that women should be made lower their standards to reduce the plight of the incel.

It's grating to be described as one of 'them' purely for writing an article Because I don't want the issue hijacked by nefarious actors on the far right, which is precisely what happens when we resign this conversation to the dark corners of the internet and label anyone discussing it as far right. I thought/think I can bring a new level of sensitivity and sophistication to a topic that I think sorely needs it. If you feel I haven’t brought sufficient sensitivity or sophistication then fair enough, I am open to critique. However, we shouldn’t keep the issue completely off the table or label someone as far right because they think it needs discussion.

“It was acceptable in the 80’s” - Calvin Harris

The speculation about who I might have been in the 1980s is truly bizarre. I was born on October 29th 1989. A few days later they took down the Berlin Wall … what does that mean? Given your speculative nature I’m sure you can conjure up some significance to this fact.

Your assumption that I treat people as monoliths couldn’t be more misplaced. I have written in depth about the corrosive nature of identity politics and how it goes against universalist and enlightenment values of individualism. I believe in the philosophy of Maajid Nawaz, “no idea above scrutiny and no person beneath dignity”. If I do have a gripe with ‘woke’ ideology, it is that it divides people along identity lines of immutable characteristics and distracts from class divides which have a real impact on their lives. In that we might even agree more than we disagree.

My piece doesn’t mention woke, cancellation or BLM. It certainly does not mention Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn so again you’re setting up a straw man for yourself to argue against.

My piece doesn’t directly mention feminism but it does refer to feminism with one Frank Furedi quote. Is there something about Frank Furedi that makes me guilty by association too? My piece also references feminist journalist Louise Perry who is quite an outspoken feminist and the work of Dr. Francesca Minerva who I understand also identifies as a feminist. If you or other interested readers want to hear my views on the range of sporadic topics you can read or listen to more of my work e.g. I do discuss feminism in a debate at Goldsmith’s University last year.

All of this is indicative that it is in fact you that is the one that sees people as monoliths because you assume a full suite of my other political views because of one. You make 2+2=5 and run with it. You’re arguing into the ether about a version of me that doesn’t exist outside of your incorrect assumptions. Quite honestly it’s very weak and in really bad faith.

You haven’t done your homework and it shows.


William Costello is an Irish writer studying Evolutionary Psychology at Brunel University London. William has debated publicly at Universities around the UK about feminism and gender/identity politics. William writes opinion pieces for various publications and you can follow his work on Twitter: @CostelloWilliam and Medium.

A Response To My First Hatchet Job

Christopher Owens writes on the crucial need for writers to critically review the work they observe.  

"I am unattractiv, sexually immachure, lazy, stupid and meen. What career would sute me best?

Journalism. If you fail there, try music journalism."
The Sisters of Mercy


♜ ♞ ♟ ♜ ♞ ♟ ♜ ♞ ♟ ♜ ♞ ♟ ♜ ♞ ♟  

A few years ago, I went to see Power Trip. I'd been a fan for a number of years, and seeing them play Belfast would certainly be exciting. After paying in, I watched each support act. Not a big deal, I hear you say and it certainly isn't. But I like to get my money's worth and I like to check out bands I haven't seen before.

One particular support band was, I thought, dreadful. Derivative, hollow and no excitement in the music. But hey, at least I watched them. As a good lot of people do, I posted on my personal Facebook page about the gig and gave a run down of each band on the bill (as a good lot of others do as well).

Said band (none of whom were "friends" with me on Facebook) weren't happy that I hadn't enjoyed their set and proceeded to make various posts about me and talked about how they couldn't care less about what I thought. That I could write my "shitty review and no one would care."

Anyone with half a brain can see that they did care (otherwise why would they talk about it in the first place), and it got me thinking about the relationship between a band and a critic. Is it not necessary anymore due to the internet giving everyone a voice? And, if so, why do artists still get bent out of shape over criticisms?


A little context: I've been writing reviews in some shape or form since 2012. Like other writers on the Quill, I'm not a hired gun. I simply feel like contributing to the site by reviewing books/albums/films I've bought or gigs that I've been to. And I've been honest in my reviews as to whether I've enjoyed them or not.

I've had various metal, hardcore and indie fans throw hissy fits over my reviews (including one which was, ultimately, a positive review). At no point did I set out for this to happen. I simply try and give my opinion in a way which, I believe, is informative and honest.

Responses can reveal a lot about people, and this particular one still stands out for me after all these years:

Can Christopher Owens please stop writing reviews of albums he doesn’t expect to like in the first place? By fuck is it unprofessional.

What I can draw from that is:

  1. I'm only allowed to review albums I like.
  2. Being even slightly critical is "unprofessional."
  3. The author of that particular quote has no concept of how reviews work.

It could be argued that the above post is a variation on the age old question "is there any point in a bad review?" 

The most obvious response to that is: what constitutes a "bad" review?

To me, a genuinely bad review is a poorly written piece that gives me no indication about what the band are like and the reviewers' thoughts on them. I've read various reviews that have been positive towards the band, but have employed the most generic language imaginable, with the end result feeling like a rewritten press release.

With reviews like that, I get no sense of passion or excitement for the medium (even if it's expressing how bad or bland something is). Everything's brilliant and each band/artist deserves five stars for trying.

That, to me, constitutes a bad review.

So, to answer the "is there any point in a bad review" question (which in this context is used to denote negative reviews), the answer is yes.

Aside from the obvious fact that someone will have an opinion on whatever form of art you put out for public consumption, it's also interesting to read/hear how you come across to other people. While some bands may genuinely believe that their drummer is a boundaries pushing pioneer, it might just sound to others that said drummer can't keep time.

On top of that, there is usually a desire within artists to prove critics wrong because of these reviews. When Charles Shaar Murray wrote that The Clash were "the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, preferably with the engine running", the band wrote 'Garageland' in response. Using the song as a chance to respond to their critics in the press and in punk circles, it was a setlist staple until their demise.

And would they have done that without a "bad" review? Unlikely.


In 2020, the word 'critic' is synonymous with 'troll' or 'hater' in the minds of the youth. As far as many of them are concerned, people offering an interpretation that doesn't coincide with their own are nothing more than mouthy keyboard warriors.

We've seen pop stars like Jessie J, arena sized rock bands like Bring Me The Horizon and underground heroes such as Asomvel write songs about them, and I find it highly indicative of the modern age that this is the subject which riles people to create art and/or music about.

And why is this: are these people so highly strung that a simple "I don't like their music" is an affront to them? Or has the role of critic become so debased and devalued in the minds of many that anything other than a glowing endorsement can be construed as negative?

Of course, it's a bit of both. Bands are notoriously thin skinned and, while they may feel justified in mouthing off about a particular topic, they don't like being called up on it. And they understand the power of a negative review: it permits them the opportunity to unite their followers on social media, allowing them to build up mass "outrage" that someone could say such a thing and leads to various spats on a variety of internet platforms (be it YouTube comments, tweets, Facebook posts, "hilarious" TikTok shots).

Obviously, the free for all that is the internet has given people a voice. And people will use that in whatever way they want. The advent of social media allows people to portray themselves in an idealised fashion, meaning that it's a highly narcissistic concept. By framing your Facebook feed to your tastes, it allows you to live in an online world where no one challenges your preconceptions. Hence the outpouring of variations on the "haters gonna hate" line when someone implies they don't share the same opinion as others.

As well as that, this online bonanza has allowed people to participate in various aspects of culture that may have been previously shut off to them. Music is an obvious one, but criticism is a lesser cited (yet as crucial) example.

Let's put this in context: for years, people read reviews by professional critics to gage the general thought on whatever was due out. Whether they agreed or disagreed with them was a different matter. The main thing is that this was the main way (besides word of mouth) that people consumed opinions.

With the rise of sites like IMDB, people were being encouraged to leave reviews of films or television programmes. So film buffs, whose previous outlets would have been fanzines or published letters in magazines, could submit a well written review and have it up on the site for others to see without any delay.

"Hey" everyone said, "this is easy. Anyone can do this." And then there were even more ways to consume opinions.

With the passing of genuine characters in criticism, such as Portadown born Alexander Walker (who once described 'Fight Club' as a film that "uncritically enshrines principles that once underpinned the politics of fascism") and the struggles of printed media to adopt to the online world, we've seen a rise in the number of papers using bloggers as reviewers. It's a win win situation for them as the former are seen to be talent spotting, and they don't have to pay the latter.

The problem here is that, while these bloggers are undoubtedly passionate about their subjects, a lot of them don't have the same insights the way a professional critic does in terms of theory, technical ability and the overall picture. There's a big difference between blogging and writing a review for an esteemed newspaper. Different mediums and different expectations altogether.

Bear in mind that there's now a generation who have grown up without a larger than life critic informing them of their opinions on whatever album/film/book is out that week. Add in the bubble that is online life, bands being thin skinned, and you can see where they're coming from. There's no doubt that, if Alexander Walker was alive and reviewing today, he'd be branded a "jealous hater" by artists and fans alike.




Naturally, there are people out there who are employed as professional critics that give the profession a bad name: I believe that a big European metal label had one of its staff members working as a writer for Metal Hammer Germany and I've heard various stories of how certain bands were profiled in NME: the London labels simply ploughed journalists with booze and +1's for gigs and, if a small label couldn't afford to do that, they could kiss goodbye to any chance of being featured.

These anecdotes give people the perception that ALL critics are professional liggers who spend the gig they're meant to be reviewing drunk and write a review before listening to the album (who can forget the infamous Black Sabbath live review of a gig that was cancelled at the last minute).

But that leads me to ask, what about the person writing reviews for their own zine, or contributing to a website, writing blogs or uploading podcasts/videos? Not for monetary gain, but because they've been moved by a piece of art and feel the need to comment about it. Are they liggers whose opinions are null and void?

I certainly don't think so.  

Another, equally important, factor is that this country has a small music scene, as compared to somewhere like England.

Certainly, in regards to Belfast, sites such as Metal Ireland, Chordblossom and radio shows like Across the Line have been at the forefront of pushing local bands of a variety of genres. On one hand, it means bands are given an extra leg up in terms of public perception and creates a very favourable view of the Irish music scene to people in other countries.

But what also happens is that some bands develop an attitude from it and believe what's written about them. So when they get a not entirely complimentary review, it leads to a certain amount of toys being thrown out of the pram. It can also give them unrealistic expectations, believing they're destined for greater things after playing Voodoo a few times.

And, with it being such a small scene, there's a very good chance that they know who you are. Hence why there's an element of walking on eggshells in certain reviews for local acts.

I can't remember reading a single negative review of bands like Desert Hearts, Robyn G. Shields, Slomatics or Malthusian, for example. I'm certainly not saying that there aren't any at all, but they're few and far between (as far as I can see). And I'm certainly not slagging any of those bands off.

But I wonder if there are people who feel obliged to "like" them because all three have built international profiles through well executed releases, intense live shows and a strong image?

Some would argue that the bands are doing what they want on their terms (they're paying for the rehearsal spots, they're hauling themselves around the country to play to five people) and should be exempt from criticism.

Once again, give them 5 stars just for trying.

Doesn't work like that in real life, I'm afraid.


"Opinions are like assholes: everybody has one. And they're full of shit." - with apologies to Clint Eastwood.

So, after all that, does criticism still have a place? 

Of course it does. In fact, I'd argue that it's needed more so than ever. 

While it's commendable that Jim from East Kilbride can let his followers on Twitter know that the new Five Finger Death Punch album "roxs", what is really needed is someone who is familiar with that strand of music (in terms of influences, history and expectations) and can articulate them to the reader (or listener). 

Do I have to agree with them? No, but as long as there's clear passion in what they write/talk about (either for the music or the criticism, preferably both) and their argument isn't a rewrite of a bland press release (aren't they all, I hear you say), then I'm willing to give them the time of day. 

How many times have you struggled with an album, until you've read something that gives you a different perspective on it? Happens to me quite a bit. Case in point: 'Red Mecca' by Cabaret Voltaire is often regarded as their most politically aware record (because it's release coincided with the Toxteth/Brixton riots). 

I certainly never heard any of that in the music, and really couldn't get a firm handle on it. Some moments stood out, but the political interpretation completely mislead me. It wasn't until I read a retrospective on the band in The Wire magazine, that described it as their most psychedelic. 

With that in mind, I gave the album another go. And it finally clicked. 

That is the power of well informed criticism. 

Ultimately, the relationship between bands and critics is a complex one. Both are art forms in themselves, both (when done well) stay in the memory bank and both cannot exist without each other. 

Critics are not meant to give you their opinions as FACT. They exist to challenge what you think yourself, and help inform your own opinion. And that, I think, is the prime factor for bands getting bent out of shape over reviews. That good critics can see beyond the bluster, and get to the heart of what works and what doesn't. 

Besides, if critics are irrelevant to bands, why do they share positive reviews to their fans? 






 

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist. 

Critics Of Faith And Devotion



A Morning Thought @ 834

Matt TreacyIf there was an award for “brass hypocrisy”, to borrow Mattie McGrath’s term, then Sinn Féin would be short odds favourite to land the spoils.

McGrath was referring to the party’s call to move Dáil proceedings back to Leinster House – after they had previously refused to support him at a Business Committee meeting where he made the same proposal arguing that the use of the Convention Centre was costly to the taxpayer.

SF Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn called McGrath “charlatan” in a heated off-camera exchange in the Dáil – but McGrath’s version of events was confirmed by the Ceann Comhairle and An Taoiseach.

The same ability to speak out of both sides of their mouths, was once again today on display. Sinn Féin displayed their consummate skill in hunting with the hounds and running with the fox when supporting the Government in voting against a motion brought by the Rural Independent Group’s calling for the annulling of the Covid-19 restrictions placing onerous responsibilities on pubs and restaurants.

Just 15 TDs voted for the motion while all the Sinn Féin TDs voted with the Coalition despite once again spending their speaking time attacking the restrictions on pubs, hotels and sports. As another opposition TD pointed out, it would actually have been difficult to know what way they might have voted given the content of their scripts.

McGrath challenged the Shinners to “pony up” and referred to the “bizarre” and “illogical” restrictions which he said were threatening to devastate not only the businesses and sports targeted, but “the very spirit of our community way of life.”

Sinn Féin jibbed once again and resorted to attacks on the framers of the motion and the claim that the alternative to the latest restrictions would be to have “no regulations at all.”

Matt Carthy TD concluded with a strange reference to the regulations having “created confusion” and stated that they “cannot continue to exist.” No more confused than himself obviously given that he has voted for them twice.

Michael Collins summed up for the Rural Group with a very pertinent point: “We must live with Covid 19 and we can live safely with this curse upon our people.” That is the nub of the issue.

If there is no immediate sign of a vaccine becoming available and cases continue to rise over the coming months we need to make a choice. We have to come to terms with what threat exists, and protect those most vulnerable, who are older people with underlying conditions.

We also have to start to allow our communities to live a normal life again. If we do not, then we are facing the prospect of a period of increasing authoritarian restrictions that damages every aspect of economic, cultural and social life. The statistics on suicide and domestic abuse are just one indication of that.

In a world where huge numbers of people die from preventable diseases – often the consequence of our own actions with regard to alcohol and smoking in the more developed world; or from diseases brought about by poor housing and sanitation that could be addressed like malaria and cholera – we need to be apply some perspective in the manner in which Covid 19 is being tackled. Few here seem to be willing to do so.



Matt Treacy has published a number of books including histories of the Republican Movement and of the Communist Party of Ireland.
He is currently working on a number of other books; His latest one is a novel entitled Houses of Pain. It is based on real events in the Dublin underworld. Houses of Pain is published by MTP and is currently available online as paperback and kindle while book shops remain closed.

“Brass Hypocrisy” Says McGrath As Sinn Féin Vote To Keep Covid-19 Regulations

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Labhrás Ó hArgáinA few weeks back an online right-wing media site based out of the lofty halls of Trinity College Dublin published an article entitled “The Fall of Antifa: A message to Left Republicans”. 

This article provided a right-wing analysis on the state of the “left” in Ireland, those subscribing to the “antifa” label, and the position of republicans within this cohort. Central to this piece is the offering of an olive branch to the latter to join the “nationalists” in their onward march to a white ethno-state which will presumably abandon science and best medical practice, topple our health service with mass deportations of the non-native frontline workers and row back on the few progressive gains achieved over the past decade or so. Whoop it up for liberty!

Firstly from the outset I wish to stress the fact that Irish republicans have always been, and continue to be, the vanguard of the Left in Ireland. Our anti-colonialist nationalism is in no way contradictory to our internationalist socialism. You simply cannot be an Irish republican and refuse to show solidarity with those marginalised in our society, and you cannot be a socialist and ignore the centuries of colonial oppression our nation has suffered. The cause of Labour and the cause of Ireland are inseparable, and this truth is undeniable, despite how the aforementioned article attempts to paint it otherwise. But for all the fallacies within this article it does however offer a interesting critique of some of the faults within the anti-fascist movement in Ireland. A critique which is clearly framed in a class-focused manner, plagiaristically usurping the language of the Left, but offering some valid points nonetheless.

With rhetoric such as stating that “there’s no loyalty in bourgeoise capitalism and woke liberalism”, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking you are reading a socialist self-critique, which is no doubt an intentional ploy. When your ideology is based on ethic-supremacy, how else do you attract popular support but for drawing on the politics of working-class empowerment? But they do hit a few home truths with some of their analysis, particularly in presenting what they label the “new Left” as frail, weak, and treacherous – to both the working-class and those of us from the Fenian tradition. And the sooner the genuine anti-fascist Left collectively call-out these posers (ie those who developed their “socialism” on Twitter or Uni as opposed to the factory floor or the council estate) who are contributing to the isolation of left-wing politics among the working-class the sooner we can challenge the so-called ascendency of the Right.

Of course, this article isn’t entirely correct in its claims. There are, as mentioned above, a number of fallacies. Primarily the lie that the Left can’t match the Right on the streets or in a physical engagement. After all, the Left were central to the anti-water charge movement which harnessed the anger of the masses and brought a temporary halt to the neo-liberal plans of the capitalist parties only a few short years back. Apart from a number of catch-all protests which drew support from a lot of working-class people with genuine (though sometimes misplaced) concerns the Right has never actually had a significant show of strength. And apart from attacking smaller groups of well-intentioned but utterly unprepared anti-fascists, they have in no way proclaimed their dominance on the streets. Sure enough, the recent rallies orchestrated by the Right did draw respectable crowds, but they were organised under such emotive sloganism as anti-paedophilia, a stance which all decent people hold! However, they would never receive such support had their marching rally been “Send The Foreigners Home”, which we all know is central to their vision.

Unfortunately, from a Republican Left perspective, the Twitter brigades of the new Left played right into the hands of the Right by organising counter-demos to these events, and some got battered around the gaff for their efforts. I offer full solidarity to those victims of right-wing violence, but this is what inevitably happens when you keep reacting and playing on the enemy’s chosen field; you set yourself up for a loss every time. And what inevitably happens when you allow Yank-orientated middle-class university-based posers to present themselves as the face of left-wing politics; you push away the working-class. Many of these people on the new Left offer nothing to the working-class but contempt and derision and are exactly the reason why the working-class are buying the bullshit that the conmen on the Right are selling. Of course, the emerging Irish right-wing cabal, despite their attempts to present themselves as the face of the working-class, also offer nothing to those of us struggling under the weight of the capitalist boot. But they are claiming the causes that the liberals who front as socialists haven’t got the courage, or the care, to touch.

The new Left have inadvertently reduced socialism to a soft and fragile force, modelled on Yank campus politics, and focused mainly on identity issues with an almost complete abandonment of class-consciousness and empowerment. This is not to imply that being a “hardman” is the answer, but certainly, being able to handle yourself is a necessity for any genuine anti-fascist. And of course, being concerned with equality among those communities most oppressed in Ireland is not a problem. But being concerned Only with that, and telling the average working-class man that he cannot experience oppression under the capitalist system, is a problem. What has come to pass as the public face of the Left in Ireland today is truly pathetic at times. While they “cancel” working-class socialist heroes like Damien Dempsey on Twitter and spend more time calling out poor grammar on social media than classism in society, the Right are fronting as the protectors of the “ordinary man”. It is this absence of class politics among the new Left which is directly contributing to the rise of the Right, and until they acknowledge this and stand beside the working-class, they will not be able to mount any real opposition. So it begs the question: is the goal of the these people to truly represent the collective interests of the working-class? Or is their goal, if they honestly reflect deep within themselves, about individualist self-promotion for their own social status, within an exclusivist clique?

No doubt many will read this as an attack on the Left, I expect as much and welcome debate. But these are the harsh truths that we need to face if we are going to consolidate our strength and take back the ground conceded thus far to the Right. And we can only do that by taking back the ground conceded to the woke liberal “left”. Of course, these people are not the enemy, but they are an obstacle which needs to be addressed. Crucially, their importation of US “culture wars” politics into Ireland (much the same as what the new Right are doing) will ultimately only serve to weaken the Left by further driving a wedge between the working-class and socialist politics. For as history can profess, the importation of foreign solutions to indigenous problems is never widely accepted by the people.

We have a revolutionary political movement in this country which is centuries old, and no other political force in Ireland has the potential to unite the working-class. The Right know this, which is why they try to usurp the symbols and legacy of Irish Republicanism. But the Republic of Tone, of Connolly, of Miriam Daly offers no quarter to the ideologies of hate, and in the honour of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” offers shelter and equality to All of the Irish people, who Connolly rightly defined as “the native-born Gaels and the strangers within our gates”. It is now time for the Republican Left to step up and recognise the dangers which are beginning to emerge. Actual fascists with links to British Fascism and Loyalism are marching down O’Connell Street with imposters leading colour parties under our Republican flag and violently dealing with anyone who opposes them.

This carnival of charlatans is without pedigree or legacy, and can only gain a foothold by unashamedly latching onto an ideology whose history of sacrifice is ingrained in the hearts and minds of the working-class. As socialists and republicans, our patriotism and our anti-fascism are not a conflict of interests, they are one and the same - for nothing is more patriotic than opposing the politics of hate. To be a patriot is to be anti-fascist, to be a patriot is to be anti-racist, to be a patriot is to be anti-imperialist, and to be a patriot is to stand in solidarity with the people of no property; the working-class. Beir bua!

⏩Labhrás Ó hArgáin is a socialist republican. 

A Carnival Of Charlatans – Patriotism, Anti-Fascism And The Republican Left