Ireland must be anti-racistAn Phoblacht, 16th April 1998
Marcas Conchúbair speaks to International Brigades veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Mick O'Riordan, about the growing racism in Irish society and the lessons from his own political experience
``We have two experiences of racism and Fascism in this country,'' Mick O'Riordan says. ``There is the British anti-Irish racism in which we were depicted as apes and referred to as `Paddy the Pig'. And certainly there was racism experienced by the Irish in America. The other example we have is the 1930s Blueshirt movement in Ireland. The Blueshirt movement was a very Catholic movement, and it became very popular, but then it was beaten off the streets.''
The question arose then as it does today, says O'Riordan, of whether Fascists should have free speech. He says those involved with the International Brigade who fought with the socialists against Franco's troops agreed, as Anti Fascist Action and current anti-racists do today, that speech advocating racism and fascism should not be tolerated. With the rise of European Fascism and the Nazi Third Reich in Germany, the world ``saw Fascism not only deny free speech, but deny life to millions of people in concentration camps.''
O'Riordan spoke of the Catholic Church's support of the Franco rising, and the blessing of the Irish who fought for his regime in the Spanish Foreign Legion. He said that the Church's influence resulted in many confused Irish Catholics supporting the ``backward'' fascist regime. ``Those of us who went to fight for the International Brigade issued a statement,'' he said, ``saying that we were fighting out of a patriotic duty to save the good name of our people who had fought for a long time for their own independence, and whose honor was being besmirtched by the Blueshirts and others who were fighting for Franco's fascism. Also the question of international solidarity was most important. Most of us came from working class backgrounds where the key slogan is, `an injury to one is an injury to all.'''
He said the International Brigade saw the injury inflicted by Spanish Fascism wasn't just a Spanish concern, but a concern of the world, a view that was shared by the 40,000 volunteers who came from 53 countries.
He said the result was to negate the question of Ireland supporting fascism, but that result didn't come immediately ``because we were in almost a pogrom position. The Church was very much pro-Franco. Only one priest in this country, Fr Michael O'Flanagan, stood out in sympathy with us.''
O'Riordan also recognises a connection between Northern Loyalists and Fascism. ``The Loyalist groups in the North at a certain stage did have very good relations with the British union of Fascists, but peculiarly enough, the British Fascists never actually formed a branch in the North.'' He said it wasn't necessary for the British Fascists to do this because the imperialist policy of divide and conquer has always enabled Loyalists to have their own special forces of sectarian violence to perpetuate British rule. He says there was a national Irish Fascist front, but it has never been that large. ``But it's poison, and you don't need a lot of poison to do a lot of damage.....But never underestimate the ability of Fascism to rise again, and to be encouraged to rise again.''
He pulled out a copy of the 3 March issue of the Irish Times, where on page 3 there was a picture of schoolgirls walking past a ``White Power'' slogan spray painted above a swastika on shutters in Harmony Row, Ennis, Co. Clare. Then he turned to the editorial page, pointing to a reply from Jo Anne Tobin of AFA to a Young Fine Gaeler's letter which had attributed ``anti-Fascist'' credentials and ``democratic ideology'' to Fine Geal. Tobin's reply referred to Eoin O'Duffy and Fine Gael TDs ``enthusiastically giving the fascist salute at mass rallies throughout Ireland'' in the 1930s, and asserted that, if the need arises, AFA would do what is necessary in the future to drive fascists off the streets again.
``The most extraordinary thing about the Blueshirts,'' O'Riordan says, ``is that people came together to defeat them.'' Which is why he's confident that the people of Ireland will stop any threat of Fascism in current times as well. ``It was a happy experience to listen to the young people [of AFA] express their solidarity with the refugees who've come to this country,'' he said. ``If you look back at the progressive movements in any country, in any shape or form, it's the young people who always play the vanguard in these situations.....that's the first criterion, the first basis for the development of an anti-Fascist movement.''
O'Riordan added, however, that he didn't want to make the current threat of racism and fascism seem larger than it is. ``I don't want to say we're immediately confronted with the possibility of fascism,'' O'Riordan says, ``that would be overstating the case.....I don't see the question of politics in Ireland [as being thought of] in terms of Fascism and anti-Fascism. It's there, it's an element, but we've also got to recognise that it exists in the conditions of the serious situation in Northern Ireland.''
He recalled the 1914 quote of James Connolly that ``if there is a partition in Ireland, it will be the beginnings of a carnival of reaction,'' which he believes is a good assessment of the situation today. ``But I am convinced that the unity of working class people, Protestant and Catholic, is going to forge a new lease of life.'' That doesn't mean that the two communities are united strongly enough today to oppose British rule as they did under Wolfe Tone in 1798, but the ironies of that historical event also point to the need for unity and the absurdity of sectarian bigotry that stands in the way of freedom and peace.
``There are certain lessons of the 1798 rebellion,'' O'Rordan says, such as the fact that Wolfe Tone and ``many people who advanced the Republican movement were Protestant, and the Catholic Church was actually anti-Republican, pro-British.'' In the face of this irony, he said that if the leaders of the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches were serious about peace and unity they ``should have organised a joint ecumenical funeral'' for the two lifelong friends, Damien Trainor who was a Catholic, and Phillip Allen, a Presbyterian, who were murdered together in Poyntzpass on 4 March. ``The way to end British rule in Ireland is for Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter to unite as Irish people,'' he says.
There's no telling exactly what direction the current political climate is going to take the Irish nation, but as O'Riordan recognises in the lessons of history, the young people standing for justice in the 26 counties, as well as Republicans throughout the island, are right to embrace diversity in every area of life as the struggle goes on for a united Ireland independent of foreign colonial power.