It’s complicated

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The “Dual Destiny” monument outside the Winston County Courthouse

I spent the last four days at a camp in rural northern Alabama learning some of the finer points of singing and leading songs in the Sacred Harp tradition. Part of camp included a field trip to the Winston County Courthouse in Double Springs where the above monument stands.

I was thinking about this today in the wake of the horrible incident of white supremacist terrorism that occurred in Charleston, SC, on Wednesday night and after reading my friend Steve Saideman’s blog post in which he argued that the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, typically but inaccurately called the Confederate Flag, is a simple hate symbol.

I’m not going to argue that Steve is wrong here, only that his characterization is incomplete, an over-simplification of a complex reality in which history, identity, memory, and commemoration are deeply intertwined. Steve is right when he contends that the flag has been embraced by unreconstructed racists and white supremacists, and is seen by the African-American community as a symbol of that racist bigotry. For Steve that settles it: When both the racists and their targets agree on the meaning of a symbol that meaning is set. Often this is where the debate over this particular symbol ends. I’d like to continue it for a moment.

Now to be fully transparent, I grew up in a small town in rural central Florida, a place where local lore had it that the Ku Klux Klan provided the color guard for the annual Labor Day Parade up until the 1970s (while I never saw it, I believe the tale).  As the child of Yankee parents, I have long thought of myself as “from the South” though not necessarily “of the South,” if that makes any sense.  I have no innate love for the Stars and Bars. And while I have never had the desire to fly one myself, I have never made the mistake of assuming that every display of that flag is intended as a statement of unashamed racial hatred or longing for a time in which “those people” knew their place.

Let me return then to the monument depicted at the top of the page and what it represents. Winston County* was, in 1860, home to fewer than 3,500 people, mostly poor white farmers. Of that total 122 were slaves.  It was also a place where opposition to secession ran strong, where the Confederacy was viewed by many of the residents as intended to cement the political dominance of the state’s wealthy planter class over everyone else.  When the Alabama Secession Convention in January 1861 voted by a two-to-one margin to secede from the Union, the county’s representative to the Alabama Secession Convention refused to sign. A vocal pro-Union supporter, he was arrested and spent most of the war in prison. At a meeting held back in Winston County, a resolution was passed declaring that if Alabama could secede from the Union, the county could secede from the state of Alabama.

Many of the county’s residents refused induction into the Confederate Army, and when the Union Army invaded northern Alabama in the spring of 1862, many who had refused to fight for the Confederacy enlisted in the Union Army’s 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment, earning honors at the battles of Monroe’s Crossroads and Bentonville in Mississippi.  The regiment lost 482 enlisted men and five officers killed in action before it was mustered out of service in 1865.

The monument, known as “Dual Destiny,” commemorates this history. Both Union and Confederate flags fly, and the soldier depicted, when you look closely, is seen to be wearing half a uniform from each army.  The monument is about politics, that is true. But it is also about sacrifice, for causes both noble and ignoble.  And here is where I think we need to think more broadly about the meaning of the Confederate Flag.

In my experience, that flag is flown across the South (and I will reserve my comments to that context rather than try to make sense of its use by, for example, Kid Rock and his legions of cutoffs-and-tank top sporting fans) for racist reasons, yes.  But it is also often flown at cemeteries and battlefields and historic sites to honor men who are thought to have fought bravely and honorably even if the cause for which they fought and died was profoundly unjust.  It is a recognition that good people may go to war for the worst of reasons and to fight to advance immoral policies made by men typically far removed from the realities of the battlefield. We should remind ourselves that such cases are not only found in the distant past.

In short this is more than just nostalgia.  It should not be reimagined by the rest of us as no more than willful disregard for or ignorance of the complex reality that what the Confederacy was fighting to support was the enslavement of one group of humans by another.

The American South, like Northern Ireland, is a place where long memories lie buried too close to the surface. Symbols of heritage, identity, and sacrifice for one community are seen as symbols of oppression, hatred, and violence for another.  What’s missing from both places, it seems to me, is the ability of each community to understand and acknowledge the perspective of the other.  And until that happens these symbols, whether Confederate Flag, or Union Jack, or Irish Tricolor, will continue to inflame, incite, and divide.

*This history of the “Republic of Winston” is taken from the Wikipedia entry of the same name, as is the history of the 1st Alabama Cavalry. I’m not proud of taking this shortcut, but it’s nearly summer and the weather outside is lovely.

Killing for — and by — the state

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This was a dirty little war* fought with calculated brutality on all sides.

I always knew this about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but for a long time, and until relatively recently as a mostly casual observer, I largely dismissed the accusations that the British government had a direct hand in facilitating if not orchestrating Loyalist paramilitary murder and mayhem.

I was aware of the accusations but had accepted the official denials that were reinforced in the academic work on the subject that I was reading. For example, Steve Bruce argued in his otherwise excellent work on Loyalist paramilitaries that there was a key distinction between the Loyalists and the government death squads killing political opponents with impunity in places like El Salvador and Guatemala.  The UVF, UDA, and Red Hand Commando were “for the state” but not “of the state” like their Latin American counterparts. Any ties between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the state were unofficial, informal, and unsanctioned.

Paul Larkin’s 2003 book A Very British Jihad was the first to get me to challenge that convenient (for the British) narrative.

A bright spotlight will again be turned on these charges in an investigative report to be broadcast tonight on BBC’s Panorama program in which Northern Ireland’s former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan claims that “hundreds and hundreds” of people died with the complicity of undercover state operatives. Panorama explored this territory before, in a two-part investigation aired in 2002, but the scale of collusion depicted in those reports is dwarfed by what is apparently to be revealed in the new story. Official damage control is already under way, with the PSNI’s chief constable preemptively casting doubt on the claims to be made.

Near as I can tell from the pre-broadcast reporting, there is one topic that looks like it will receive much less scrutiny than it ought to, the role of British operatives on the Republican side of the conflict. And that is a serious problem given what is already known about the IRA double agent known as Stakeknife, who as head of the IRA’s internal security unit, the “Nutting Squad,” is said to have been involved in up to 40 murders while under the protection of his British handlers.

In short, a full accounting of collusion in Northern Ireland cannot only focus on state involvement with Loyalist paramilitaries. It must also include coming clean on what remain extremely sensitive topics: the use of informers within the Nationalist community and the ranks of the IRA, responsibility for the fate of informers whose activities were discovered (one of the nagging unknowns in the tragic murder of Jean McConville), the involvement of informers and state agents in IRA killings and other acts of terrorism, and the extent of the penetration of the Republican Movement by agents of the state, especially at the highest levels.

The mural is right. Collusion is state murder, and it matters not whether the gunmen on the payroll were Loyalist or Republican.

*As an aside, I take great pains to explain to audiences on my side of the Atlantic that this was a “little” war only if we remove the raw numbers of casualties from the context of Northern Ireland’s tiny population base. As a proportion of the population affected, the roughly 3,300 killed and 40,000 injured over the 30-year course of the conflict would be the equivalent of more than a half million dead and nearly 7 million wounded had the war been fought in the United States during the same period.

Bitter sauce indeed

This is an update to my post of late last week: “Sauce for the gander?

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Dee Fennell being arrested this morning. Photo from BelfastLive.

Dee Fennell, a young Republican activist from Ardoyne in North Belfast was arrested this morning for the speech he made at the Easter Rising commemoration in Lurgan more than a week ago.

Here is the news report from The Guardian:

A prominent dissident Irish republican has been arrested in connection with a speech he made at Easter supporting “armed struggle”.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed on Monday that they had detained a 33-year old-man after a raid on his home in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast.

The man in custody is Dee Fennell, who told hardline republicans at a gathering in Lurgan on Easter Sunday that “armed struggle must be a contributory factor to a wider struggle”.

Fennell also described armed attacks as legitimate during his speech to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising.

He said: “The use of arms prior to 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms in Easter 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms after 1916 was totally legitimate.

“In the existing political context of partition, illegal occupation and the denial of national self-determination, armed struggle, in 2015, remains a legitimate act of resistance.”

Unionists have been demanding that Fennell be arrested, with the Ulster Unionist party election candidate in Upper Bann, Jo-Anne Dobson, describing his remarks as disgusting.

A PSNI spokesman said the suspect had been taken for questioning at the police’s serious crime suite, at Antrim.

Det Supt Karen Baxter , from the serious crime branch, said: “Detectives are also searching a property in north Belfast and one in Lurgan as part of the same investigation. Our enquiries are continuing.”

Fennell is one of the most prominent dissident republican spokesmen and also represents a residents’ group opposed to a contentious Orange Order march past the Ardoyne area, where he lives.

 

Sauce for the gander?

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Continuity IRA member fires a shot in salute at an Easter commemoration in Lurgan.

When former revolutionaries become the establishment certain compromises are inevitable. Nowhere is this more clearly on display in Northern Ireland than when the issue of armed struggle comes in to the public eye, as it does every Easter season when the Republican Movement commemorates the 1916 Rising. Here’s an example:

I also want to pay tribute to the bravery, leadership and commitment of the IRA in this generation who fought in the streets of our towns and in the highways, byways and fields of our countryside. If courage was the measure of success then Ireland would have had her freedom long ago … I think I can speak for many thousands of Irish republicans who came through the conflict when I say that we are proud of our time as volunteers in the Irish Republican Army.

And another:

Armed struggle must be a contributory factor to a wider struggle. The use of arms prior to 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms in Easter 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms after 1916 was totally legitimate. In the existing political context of partition, illegal occupation and the denial of national self determination, armed struggle, in 2015, remains a legitimate act of resistance.

And now back to our first speaker:

There are small groupings within the Nationalist community opposed to the peace process and opposed to Sinn Féin.  These groups have every right to disagree with our strategy but they have no right to carry out armed actions, the vast majority of which are directed against unarmed civilians, in the name of Irish Republicanism. These small groups are not the IRA. The IRA fought a war against State combatant forces and fought it to a conclusion.

So who’s who in these conflicting takes on the legitimacy of continued armed resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland? The first speaker is Gerry Kelly, a famed IRA veteran (part of the team that planted four car bombs in the center of London in 1973) and one of the highest-profile members of Sinn Fein, serving on its national executive and as an MLA representing North Belfast at Stormont.

Kelly is currently running as Sinn Fein’s candidate for a seat  in the British parliament at Westminster. His comments were delivered as part of the Easter commemoration oration he gave at the Republican plot in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, the resting place of many an IRA volunteer killed on “active service” against the British state that Kelly attacked in 1973 but today serves as a member of the Stormont government.

The second speaker is Dee Fennell, a young Republican community activist from the Ardoyne neighborhood of North Belfast.  I heard him speak in Dublin in early March during an event held by one of the faster-growing “dissident” Republican groups. In that setting he skirted around giving the kind of open endorsement of armed struggle that he voiced in his Easter oration at the Republican plot at St. Colman’s Cemetery in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. Video of his statement had been posted to YouTube but has since been taken down.

From Kelly’s perspective the need for armed struggle is over. The IRA, his IRA, fought the British state to a standstill. The movement now can accomplish its goals through exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

From Fennell’s perspective the need for armed struggle is as real as it has ever been. People like Kelly, who may have once fought with honor and distinction, are now no more than cogs in the engine that perpetuates partition and foreign occupation. A new IRA, which Fennell said is increasing in its capabilities and effectiveness, will pick up and carry on to finish the job that Kelly’s IRA failed to complete.

What’s fascinating about the positions espoused by Kelly and Fennell is not on how much they differ, but on how much they agree. Both accept the legitimacy of armed struggle. Both believe it can be used effectively to bring about desired political change. Both agree that the work of achieving a united Ireland free of British control is unfinished. Both refuse to categorically reject the resort to arms to achieve that goal.

From Fennell, the dissident, this is understandable.  From Kelly it is a little more difficult, but not impossible to fathom. It is a reflection of what happens when a revolutionary movement trades its berets and balaclavas for suits and ties, the barricades for the board room. For Sinn Fein to categorically condemn armed struggle  would amount to rejecting the very revolutionary means that brought them to the positions of political power they hold today.  And that’s a step they seemingly cannot bring themselves to take.