French Algeria and the lessons for future conflicts.

This was originally written as an essay for my Masters degree in Culture and Colonialism. 

Does France’s war in Algeria (1954-1962) hold lessons for the understanding of other colonial cultures and conflicts?

‘The Algerian War of the 1950’s was one of the most brutal and exhaustive decolonization wars of the post-World War II period. The French state and groups associated with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) mobilized massive resources to fight the war’.# The more one examines the sheer numbers involved in the conflict, the more one realizes the truth of this statement. It involved over two million French soldiers along with thousands of aircrew, sailors, and police# in combat against Algerian forces estimated by some to number up to one hundred thousand.# The war saw a enormous variety of actions, with both urban and rural guerrilla actions taking place, as well as some aspects of conventional warfare along Algeria’s borders. Not only did the war see combat between France and Algeria, but also combat within both sides as ideological and personal conflicts combined to create bitter civil wars, both in Algeria and Metropolitan France. With such an enormous scale of conflict, it was inevitable that large numbers of casualties would result and the eight year’s of warfare saw massive loss of life, particularly on the Algerian side- the Algerian government today claims over one million of the countries population perished in the conflict.# The war, despite initially having little impact on the citizens of Metropolitan France, cause much governmental instability and eventually led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic. The enormous scale of the war is not the only reason it has achieved such prominence in postcolonial studies however- it has also been heavily researched due to its many parallels with other struggles around the world, and its contemporary relevance is stronger than ever. Algeria was one of the first examples of an insurrection by a predominantly Muslim population against a western power, a situation which has been witnessed many times in the decades since, and can still be seen in Iraq and Afghanistan today. It also provides an example of the boundaries between colonizing state and colonized territory becoming blurred, a situation mirrored in many other regions of the world. In this essay I plan to examine these many parallels, and determine what the results of the Algerian War of Independence have to say about the wider issue of colonialism and the violence which results from it. I will use the works of contemporary Francophone authors such as Frantz Fanon, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to support my arguments and shed further light on the significance of the war. These three individuals all came from very different backgrounds and all offered unique perspectives on the conflict.

The status of Algeria within the French Colonial Empire was a very complicated one as it contained a large minority of European settlers, commonly referred to as the Pied Noirs or ‘black feet’. These settlers formed over one million of Algeria’s entire population of ten million, and only a fifth or so were actually of French descent with the majority originating from other Mediterranean countries most notably Spain, Italy, and Malta#- according to a contemporary analyst there were whole districts in Algiers and Oran where more Italian and Spanish is spoken than French’.# The presence of such a large minority of French citizens was related to a second stumbling block in decolonization- ‘Algeria had never been regarded as a colony. Ever since 1848 Algeria had been categorised as an integral part of France, three French departments no different from Languedoc or Alsace-Lorraine.’# It is noteworthy that Albert Camus, despite a steadfast commitment to equal rights for both European’s and native Algerians, still ‘viewed Algeria as a land belonging equally to the pied-noirs and the Arabs‘, seeing it as his homeland.# He also often referred to the groups as ’French’ and ’Arabs’ regarding both as being Algerians.# Despite Algeria‘s apparent integration into France, the privileges of citizenship were rarely ever extended to the native population, who were for the most part disenfranchised and poverty-stricken, a situation perpetuated by the attitudes of the Pied Noirs- ‘The settlers could not even imagine that the Algerian’s could have equal rights with them’.# The presence of this large European minority was to make any efforts at withdrawal by the French highly problematic. Any attempts at negotiation with the FLN were opposed and this culminated in the formation of the Organisation de l’armée secrete or OAS which originated in opposition to the referendum initiated by Charles De Gaulle which proposed allowing Algeria to secede. The OAS participated in armed insurrection, attacking members of the both factions in the conflict, as well as indiscriminately assaulting the Muslim population of Algeria. This situation can be compared to several other struggles around the world not least the colonial status of Ireland within the British Empire, as it was formally a constituent country of the United Kingdom, complete with a substantial minority of Unionists descended from British settlers. The six counties of Northern Ireland have only remained in the United Kingdom due to the resident majority of unionists and not without considerable dissent amongst the nationalist minority.# The Other notable parallels can be found with the former British colonies of South Africa and Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe) both of which had substantial white settler minorities. Rhodesia declared independence from Britain to maintain white minority rule- an act criticized by one contemporary author as ’an advance by the forces of racialism, fascism and indeed, colonialism in Southern Africa’# -and South Africa was for many decades a officially segregated state with the notorious Apartheid system enforcing the rule of the wealthy white minority- ‘In South Africa there is no longer even the pretence that citizens of different races are equal before the law, or in social or economic rights or duties‘#. However both of these systems gradually collapsed through combinations of internal resistance both violent and peaceful, and international condemnation.## Comparisons have also been drawn with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Tony Judt argues that Israel’s refusal to assimilate the Palestinians will inevitably result in the formation of two separate states with expulsion of Israeli settlers from Palestine- ‘De Gaulle, Judt observes, pulled France out of Algeria. Why can’t the Israeli’s realize the inevitable and do the same?’.# The prior experience of the Pied Noir’s and several other groups certainly appears to suggest that small settler minorities cannot indefinitely retain control of a colonized territory and a withdrawal is often inevitable.

This ambiguous status of Algeria, led to a reluctance to categorise the ongoing conflict as a war. After the initial attacks of All-Saints Day 1954 ‘the revolt in Algeria did not arouse the greatest public interest’ in France.# Little information about the conflict was allowed to circulate, with severe restrictions on press freedom enacted- ‘Almost from the beginning the Faure government responded to criticism of the war or the policy of “pacification” by seizing the offending papers’.# The government continually refused to acknowledge the situation as a war often attempting to characterize it as a ‘problem of maintenance of order’ or a ‘judicial-policing matter’.# On the international this evasiveness was replicated as the French attempted to portray the conflict as an internal affair-’successive French governments, much like the other European colonial powers, generally refused to admit any UN jurisdiction in matters of Empire’# Efforts were also made to portray the FLN as a communist group with Soviet backing# (A view supported by Camus)# despite the French Communists Parties support for some degree of French rule over Algeria# and the Soviet Unions recognition of Algeria as French territory.# Fanon, an active participant in the Algerian rebellion, described characterization of it as a communist uprising as a complete myth.# At no point did the French government admit that it was facing an anti-colonial war that was ‘bloody, violent, dangerous and undeniably militarized‘.# This refusal to acknowledge the conflicts true nature continued after its end- ‘The Algerian War was not one of the most glorious episodes in French history and it is not surprising to find that scarcely a few months after its conclusion some manifestos did their best to forget it.’# Until 1999 it was officially denied by France to have been a war and was commonly referred to as ’The War with no Name’.# Veterans of the war, whether French, Pied Noir or native Algerian (Over a quarter of a million of whom served for the French and were commonly referred to as Harki’s coming from the Arabic word for ‘war party‘) were given little recognition, with many Harki’s abandoned by almost certain death at the hands of the triumphant FLN# and Pied Noirs being made unwelcome in their alleged mother country# – such an outcome was predicted by Camus who felt that at best, Algerian independence ‘would make the country’s humble white folk.. Into foreigners and second-rate citizens’.# In addition to this the events of 17th October 1961 in which a peaceful demonstration of Algerian’s was attacked by Paris police resulting in the deaths of between two and three hundred individuals, went virtually unreported and was mostly forgotten about by mainstream French society despite its deep significance to the North African immigrant community. It only received widespread coverage when Maurice Papon, the police chief responsible, was tried for unrelated war crimes committed under the Vichy regime.# This refusal to acknowledge the wrongs committed through colonialism did not go unnoticed by Fanon who remarked that ‘In 1945 the 45,000 dead at Setíf could pass unnoticed; in 1947, the 90,000 dead in Madagascar could be the subject of a single paragraph in the papers; in 1952, the 200,000 victims of the repression in Kenya could meet with relative indifference’.# Similar instances of authorities refusing to admit that they are engaged in warfare can again be seen in Ireland with the use of what ostensibly police officers to combat the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War, or the characterization of both that conflict and the later struggle in Northern Ireland as ’troubles’ rather than war. However the experience of Algeria suggests such efforts fail to convince many.

During the war the issue of French troops behaviour towards Algerian civilians became highly important. From the beginning of the war instances of unruly behaviour by ill-disciplined soldiers were commonplace, with instances of vandalism and looting.# This behaviour can to some extent be explained by the fact that the French troops which were initially tasked with combating the FLN were not properly trained or equipped, facing a harsh existence particularly in the rugged mountainous regions of the Aures and Kabylia.# However, as the war continued to escalate, more sinister forms of behaviour emerged, and torture quickly became a routine interrogation method- in March 1955 a report by a civil servant named Wuillaume recommended that torture should be institutionalised due to its already widespread adoption by the authorities and its alleged effectiveness.# Its widespread use was largely due to the influence of soldiers who had seen combat against the Viet Minh in the recently concluded First Indochina War, many spending ‘humiliating months as prisoners of the Viet Minh. This experience had provided them with the opportunity to make an intimate study of the victor’s technique.’# The most prominent of these individuals was General Jacques Massu, commander of the 10th Para division, who assumed ‘full responsibility for maintenance of order’ in Algiers from January 1957.# He was despatched at the height of the Battle of Algiers which took place in 1956-57, during which the issue of torture was to become highly prevalent. This was not the pitched battle that its name implies, but rather a bombing campaign by the FLN which targeted Pied Noir civilians. Such indiscriminate killings provoked very different reactions in Camus who argued for a ‘civil truce’ in which both sides would avoid targeting civilians#, and Fanon who claimed ‘No one takes the step of planting a bomb in a public place without a battle of conscience’# but that for the colonized life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler’.# In 1958, with great foresight Edward Behr commented that the French had operated with ‘a ruthlessness and a brutality which may temporarily have staved off the worst bouts of urban terrorism but which in the long run may prove fatal to French interests in Algeria.’# This indeed proved to be the case, with widespread condemnation from around the world- ‘The human rights violations that occurred during the battle for Algiers aroused strong reactions in Whitehall, on the floor of the House of Commons and in the British press.’# Much criticism also came from within France, with increasing unease over the methods of counter-insurgency being used motivating many French citizens to oppose the conflict particularly the 1959 revelation that torture was being used on suspected FLN operatives within France itself- ‘Many described this as the last straw because it showed the capacity of the Algerian war to cross the Mediterranean and do untold harm to democratic structures on mainland France’.# Probably the most damaging impact that the widespread use of torture had upon French rule in Algeria was its alienation of all Muslim’s moderate or radical- ‘In the first place indiscriminate bombing, torture and the like have immeasurably swelled the ranks of the rebels… At the same time, such methods systematically alienated from France that very élite from which, it might have been hoped, some form of moderate, enlightened leadership would have come.’# Camus and Sarte, although both in favour of reform of France’s relationship with Algeria had highly differing opinions on this issue, with Camus often been criticized for ‘complaining about Communist repression in Hungary but not protesting the use of torture by French troops in Algeria’# while Sartre strongly criticized such use of torture# but often showed a distinct reluctance to criticize the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union#- both appear to be displaying the prejudices resulting from their backgrounds and ideologies. Fanon on the other hand, clearly shows a distain for the practice of torture in his writings describing it as a terrible act which harms both the tortured and torturer, inflicting severe mental damage.# Aside from the devastating impact it was to have on public international and intellectual opinion, the effectiveness of torture has often been debated and the Algerian perspective offers contradictory viewpoints. As previously mentioned, its effectiveness was claimed by the Wuillaume report and many high-ranking army officers promoted its use with Colonel Charles Lacheroy of the ‘Centre for Training and Preparation in Counter-Guerrilla Warfare’ remarking that ‘one does not wage revolutionary war with the Code Napoléon.’# However as previously mentioned the use of torture radicalized many moderate elements of Algerian society, undermining any effect it had in dismantling the FLN networks. Its usefulness in gathering information has been called into question by Horne who says that ‘From a purely intelligence point of view, experience teaches that more often than not the collating services are overwhelmed by a mountain of false information extorted from victims desperate to save themselves further agony’.# It certainly appears from the experiences of some French military units that it was possible to ensure better co-operation from Algerians by showing respect towards both civilians- ‘The population was convinced that the army was going to protect them and above all else respect them’#- and rebel POW’s- ‘a fellagha POW was a future ally because this was a counter-insurgency war’.# The tendency for harsh measures by occupying forces to result in an upswing in support for insurgents is one that can be observed in many other conflicts- Once again a parallel can be found in Ireland, with the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland which, although intended to weaken the IRA, actually drove many moderates to support them.# The recent ‘War on Terror’ has seen severe criticism of the treatment of suspected terrorists in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base- ‘The type of justice meted out at Guantanamo Bay is likely to make martyrs of the prisoners in the moderate Muslim world with whom the West must to ensure peace and stability’.# Although there would be debate as to whether these conflicts would be categorized as colonial, they are anti-insurgency campaigns like the Algerian War and therefore lessons could have been learned from the experiences of the French- as Horne said of their use of torture ’the humiliation was double-sided’.#

It is clear that the Algerian War of Independence exerted a massive influence on the world, one which can still be witnessed today. A struggle at the forefront of the decolonization process, the clash between European and Arabic cultures and the chronic instability of the French Fourth Republic, it has become one of the most analyzed conflicts in recent history. The enormous impact it had upon French thought is unmistakable with many theorists and authors other than those I have examined in this essay all voicing their opinions on the issue. Its impact upon later anti-colonial struggle or anti-insurgency actions is also very apparent, with practitioners of both taking their lead from the FLN or the French military. For these reasons the decolonization of Algeria offers many lessons for colonial conflicts and cultures across the globe.

Korea and Ireland’s historical parallels.

I moved to South Korea to teach English just over three months ago. In that time we apparently came close  to nuclear annihilation, a threat I never took particularly seriously. Most Koreans didn’t seem overly concerned and I decided that I wouldn’t panic until they did.  And since nothing of note really happened and since I’m not an expert on North-South relations on the Korean peninsula, I won’t be writing on that topic.

No, instead I’m writing about the far more boring topic of the  historical  and cultural parallels between Ireland and Korea which I’ve observed recently. At first glance they would not appear to be nations with a great deal in common and indeed much of their respective histories could scarcely be more different from one another. Ireland spent most of its history as a divided island at the fringe of Western Christendom, whereas Korea was for many centuries a unified kingdom which was firmly a part of the Sinosphere. There is one key point of comparison between them however and this is their relationship with their colonizers to the east. Ireland came firmly under English (Later British) rule in the seventeenth century with Korea being forcibly annexed by Imperial Japan in 1910. Both Ireland and Korea came under the sway of island nations to their east which were ascendant naval powers and who portrayed their colonial subjects as racial inferiors. In both cases the culture of the colonized people was undermined, with attempts made to eradicate their language (An attempt which all but succeeded in Ireland).  And more recently both Ireland and Korea were far poorer than their neighbour, with both making undergoing enormous economic growth in recent decades and now being among the wealthier nations  of the world (Although Korea’s growth was far more impressive  than Ireland’s and the resulting prosperity has endured for longer.)

One interesting point of contrast between the history of the two nations which receives surprisingly little attention is the interaction of various religions within them. Although many Koreans are irreligious, there is a significant population of Christians in the nation as well as a large number of people who still practice Korean Buddhism.  Japan is a less religious society and although most of its citizens are nominally Buddhist or Shintoist, few actually practice any form of religion. The most noticeable difference from Korea is that Christianity has had a negligible influence on the country and is practised by a tiny minority of Japanese. It would appear that the religious differences between the two nations were highly relevant during the colonization of Korea, with efforts by the Japanese to integrate Korean Shamanism into Japanese Shintoism . This parallels the well-known efforts to impose the Protestant religion upon the population of Ireland. In both cases however, the situation is considerably more complex than a simple clash between two religions. In Korea the Japanese government supported Buddhism (Which had been repressed by the Confucian Joseon dynasty) and encouraged the development of temples in the Japanese fashion. Therefore the current popularity of Buddhism within Korea owes much to its use as a tool of control by the Japanese colonial government. Similarly, the wars between Ireland and Britain have never been strictly a battle between Catholicism and Protestantism- there are many episodes in history displaying this, but I feel the most notable is Pope Alexander VIII’s support for William III at the Battle of the Boyne. It appears that in both nations, religious conflict is often more about political power than anything else- this is certainly the reason behind the hostility that the Joseon Dynasty, the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restored Japanese Emperors all displayed towards Christianity, fearing its teachings would undermine the control that Confucianism had given them over their territories.

Major contrasts like these have  been made before, although I believe that they have yet to be examined in full and that there is a book waiting to be written on the topic. Perhaps if I ever became fluent in Korean (Which is highly unlikely, given thirteen years of studying Irish left me barely able to speak the language) I’d be able to undertake this ambitious task. In the meantime, there’s plenty more for me to learn on culture and politics of this country which unfortunately, like much of Asia, I learned little about in my previous studies in Ireland.

Southern journalists and the flags issue- Defending the indefensible.

I’ve written before on the how some Irish journalists feel a compulsion to criticize any display of Irish nationalism, while praising any such gestures from bigoted unionist groups such as the Orange Order. Of course, with loyalists currently rioting night after night in Belfast, such attitudes are again to be seen in the papers. In the Irish Independent the typically obnoxious Ian O’Doherty claims that ‘Belfast is part of the United Kingdom regardless of what the nutters on the nationalist side would have you believe and for them to be the only part of that political entity not to fly the flag with pride is, to be frank, absurd.’ Meanwhile in the Sunday Independent Eoghan Harris bizarrely claims that the riots mark some form of class war between the middle-class members of the Alliance Party and the loyalists from poorer areas who have been ‘left behind’ in the peace process (This is perhaps the first time Eoghan Harris has shown concern for the welfare of the working class in several decades). Similar sympathy for the angry unionists of Belfast can be found in Victoria White’s piece in the Irish Examiner. 

I think it is quite obvious to anybody familiar with O’Doherty or Harris that they would have considerably less sympathy with nationalist riots, especially if they were over something symbolic such as a flag. Harris in particular has a track record of only criticizing violence or bigotry in the north if it comes from the nationalists community- As I detailed in a previous article, he’s quite a fan of the notoriously bigoted Orange Order. But even if we leave this aside, they both show a remarkable lack of intelligence in their description of the controversy. O’Doherty claims that is absurd that Belfast would be the only place in the United Kingdom to not fly the union flag with pride, ignoring the fact that the Union flag currently flies as often over Belfast City Hall as it does over Stormont, Buckingham Palace or any British Embassy (Something which White, to her credit, recognizes even though she immediately decides that this is somehow irrelevant). Belfast is flying the flag as much as anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Harris appears to feel that having the union flag continuously fly over the City Hall is somehow a sign of pluralism, despite the fact that a large proportion of the city’s (And statelet’s) population despise the Union flag as a symbol of an historical oppressor.

All of these journalists appear to be in such a rush to support unionists, that they forget Belfast is in no way a typical city of the United Kingdom. Unlike London, Manchester Cardiff or Edinburgh a large proportion of the cities population have not historically identified themselves as British. The flying of the union flag over the city hall is therefore not remotely akin to the it flying over London or the tricolour flying over Dublin. Unionists are of course used to only having their identity represented in the north, having spent decades with complete control over all political institutions. Faced with an increasingly confident and powerful nationalist minority who, thanks to the end of gerrymandering and other forms of discrimination, are more and more able to use these institutions to their advantage, loyalists  are now engaged in a savage backlash. That they are angry at much more than the flag issue, is evidenced by the demands for a return to direct rule which have been made by so many of the protest organizers. In other words, a return to unionist domination of the north and an end to power-sharing with nationalists. 

Whether or not the decision to restrict the flying of the flag was correct (I personally think it was), it is to hoped that the council do not give in to the idiotic violence the most reactionary elements of unionism. In the meanwhile, we would do best to ignore the nonsense spouted by so many southern journalists who as usual attempt to justify the bigotry of northern unionists. 


Some advantages of persecution…

Earlier today, I read some of Homage to Catalonia before discussing Christmas celebrations in Korea with my mother. As it happens these activities proved more related than I would have thought.

The discussion of religion in Korea led to a discussion of Ireland’s high level of religious observance compared to other developed nations, with both my mother and I agreeing that in decades to come it would fall to the low levels seen in other European countries. When she complained about the hold that the Catholic Church once had over Irish peoples lives, I made the point that this was the voluntary choice of majority of Irish people themselves- after all, Ireland has been a parliamentary democracy since independence and while literary censorship was once fierce in the country, people were free to organize politically and campaign against the repressive tendencies of the state. Diverse political parties deeply opposed to the Catholic ruling elite ran in several elections- there is no reason Irish people could not have voted for socially liberal candidates. The reason that they did not and that socially repressive policies were enacted in their names, was that they voluntarily chose to support deeply reactionary policies for much of the twentieth century. I do not accept arguments that they were ‘brainwashed’- many of the most conservative elderly people I know spent years living abroad in more liberal societies such as Britain or the US and so they were certainly not ignorant of the possibility of a less repressive social order. Nor do I accept arguments that Ireland was not a democracy during this time- for all its faults, Ireland remained a democracy throughout the twentieth century. How the politically unstable, priest-ridden, economically stagnant Ireland of the 1930’s did not go the way of most of the better nations of Europe and fall to fascism may never be adequately explained, but somehow the democratic system managed to remain more or less intact. That Ireland was in fact a democracy (Although one suffering from a tyranny of the majority) rather than a theocracy, is evidenced by how quickly church domination has collapsed over the past two decades or so, solely through people voluntarily choosing to ignore the dictates of clergy.

Thinking about the democratically enacted Catholic domination of Ireland, made me think about the contrasting example of Spain, where Catholicism was the religion permitted throughout most of the countries history. The Spanish Inquistion was only abolished in 1834 and between 1851 and 1931 priest’s salaries were paid by the state. Similar practices resumed under Franco but during the brief rule of the Second Spanish Republic between 1931 and 1939 we saw what many Spaniards thought of the religion which had been imposed on them. The church was rapidly disestablished and Catholic schools ceased to receive state support. During the resulting Civil War, in which the church supported a Fascist coup, 7’000 priests and nuns were killed by Republican forces. The peasantry of some regions, particularly Catalonia and Aragon, appear to have been supportive of the secularization of Spain- Orwell remarks that

To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.

Examples of anti-clerical sentiment in republican revolutions can also be seen in France, Portugal and various Latin American nation but never in Ireland. Why is this? Because the Catholic Church had a history of official persecution in Ireland and therefore many Irish Republicans saw practicing the Catholic faith as being an integral part of rebellion against Britain. Although the Catholic hierarchy never supported armed rebellion against Britain (And in previous centuries had often support British invasions, from Pope Adrian IV’s Laudabiliter bull to Pope Alexander VIII’s support for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne) the Catholic faith became an integral part of the Irish national identity. And so, the Irish church found it unnecessary to impose its will upon anyone. While in countries such as Spain the supporters of Catholic repression found it necessary to violently coerce their countrymen, those in Ireland who wished for Catholic repression merely had to go to the polls and vote for it.

Religion and the hypocrisy of the Left.

The recent controversy surrounding the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar has in my opinion, provided a very revealing insight into the attitudes of many people on the far-left of Irish politics towards religion. I have observed many photos of the demonstrations demanding legislation in accordance with the X-case (A cause which I myself support) as well as having read many articles on the issue written by members of far-left groups. Throughout, I find a continual hostility towards the Catholic Church as can be witnessed in the following picture from the ‘Galway Pro-Choice’ Facebook page:


Similar sentiments can be seen in many other photo’s with placards reading ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries’ and ‘Politicians and priests make crappy doctors’. If one examines the websites of far left political organisations it is not difficult to find more examples of the Catholic church being blamed for Ireland’s outdated legislation on abortion such as on the websites of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party. I personally agree that the Catholic Church has long been a malign influence in Irish society, having tried to prevent every positive advance in Irish society for decades. Indeed, I’ve long been a harsh critic of the intertwining of Catholicism with Irish national identity and the church control of many state bodies, so this post is not a defense of Catholicism. When Salvita was allegedly told she could not receive an abortion because Ireland is a ‘Catholic country’ then it is entirely justified that people will feel anger towards the church. I do feel it is slightly hypocritical however, that so many of the people currently decrying Catholicism are the most stringent defenders of Islam.

The intertwining of left-wing causes with radical Islamism is a problem which has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade or so. Because of the racism which is often directed towards those of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Western society and the conflicts between radical Islamist groups and the occupying armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become common for those on the left to immediately any criticisms of Islam as being ‘Islamophobic’ which they use as a synonym for racism. An example of such logic can be seen here, with it being claimed that criticisms of Islam by atheists are used to reinforce the racism of right-wing groups. The Socialist Workers Party in Britain (Of which the Irish party is merely an offshoot) has long defended Islam against any criticism, with this article providing a good example of their outlook. The British SWP even went so far as to form part of the Respect Party alongside George Galloway, a man who has yet to find a religious fundamentalist he doesn’t like. Meanwhile Richard Boyd Barrett of the Irish SWP has been so supportive of Islamic fundamentalists such as Hamas and Hezbollah that he has been approvingly quoted by Al Qaeda.

Not only is such defense of Islam misguided, its also inconsistent with the treatment of Christianity by many of the same groups and individuals. Too often have I seen people on the far left criticize Ireland as being backward due to the lack of separation between church and state while at the same time expressing support for radical Islamic organisations such as Hamas, a group who support the subjugation of women and the strict censorship of all forms of artistic expression. While any mocking of Islam is viewed as being an act of racism, the mocking or insulting of Christianity is entirely acceptable. Here is an example from the Workers Solidarity Movement facebook page:



This comment has been on the page since the 16th of November and has met with no criticism. Imagine a comment referring to Muslim opposition to abortion (Which is a widespread viewpoint) as ‘terrorist’ (In fairness to the WSM however, they did publish this article in 2003, which criticizes the illogical alliance between socialists and the very worse Islamic fundamentalists).

Of course, I’m not advocating hatred towards Muslims. Nor am I mounting a defense of Christianity. What I am advocating, is a consistent and common sense approach towards religion by people on the left. Any religion which acts as a barrier to freedom and social progress deserves to be criticized and Islam is in many ways currently acting as a restriction on individual freedom in many areas of the world. The rights of women and LGBT people are infringed upon in the name of Islam and it is only fair that such repression receives the condemnation it deserves, together with the intolerant practices of many Christians throughout the world. People must be able to speak freely about the damage caused by an ideology without instantly being accused of racism. It is not racist to criticize the damage caused by an ideology. If socialists are to remain consistent to their supposed belief in equality and freedom they must cease this defense of religious fanaticism.

Anti-nationalist myth-making and the Boundary Commission.

I’ve written before on ‘a common trap for Irish journalists and academics- the belief that bringing about peace in Ireland require berating the past violence of any Irish nationalists while justifying or even sanctifying that committed by the British government or its pawns in the unionist community.’ This trend does not merely occur among the Irish intelligentsia however, nor is it restricted to the apportioning of blame for the violence of recent decades. It also occurs in the form of many untruths about British rule in Ireland and how it came to an end which, despite being complete lies, are often repeated. The people who spread such myths, often in the sincere belief that they are true, are usually Irish people who believe that they are objectively embracing the truth and leaving behind the divisions of the past. In fact, they are ignoring the plight of the colonized and adopting the lies of the colonizer.

A prominent example of this relates to the Boundary Commission which was established by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. I have often heard it claimed that the recommendations made by  this body were ignored by the Irish government because the transfer of territory would actually have resulted in a net loss of both land and people for the Free State. This is completely untrue. The findings of the commission, which are discussed here, recommended a net gain for the Free State. The reason that the Irish government rejected the commission’s findings (Which if adopted, were to be a permanent settlement) was that the area to be transferred from Northern Ireland to the Free State did not come anywhere close to their expectations:



While some areas such as South Armagh were to be transferred as expected, the Commission did not transfer large nationalist-majority tracts of counties Tyrone and Fermanagh and seemed reluctant to transfer any urban centres- Newry and Derry City were both to remain in the northern statelet. There were various reasons for this,  among them being a concern that a massive alteration of the border would lead to instability. A more sinister reason may be found in the composition of the commission- Eoin McNeill was the sole Irish member and felt that he the two members appointed by the British government had actively worked against his nationalistic aims. Whatever the reasons and whether or not you feel these actions were correct the fact remains that at no point did the commission propose to take more land from the Free State than it was to gain.

There are many other examples of such lies and misrepresentations, many of which I plan to write about in future. Of course, nationalists (In particular, Catholic nationalists who attempt to link Catholicism with Irish identity) have long been guilty of peddling myths about the history of this country, and I do not condone any efforts to distort the truth about the past. The key difference however is that the Irish media often criticizes the white-washing of  history by nationalists but it is seldom pointed out that unionists and their fellow-travellers are also capable of being disingenuous.

An Incomprehensible Isle

The sheer variety of regional accents and colloquialisms within Ireland is astounding. When you compare the sing-song accents of Cork or Kerry to the low dour voices of Ulster, or the slang heard on the streets of Dublin to that in the small towns of Connacht it is difficult to believe that they all originate from an island with a population that is less than that of the city of London. Any outsider who hears a Waterford native refer to a ‘summer drink’ (An ice pop) or a Galwegian threaten to ‘creel’ (beat or otherwise injure) somebody will realize the massive extent to which Ireland is separated by a common language. Of course, examples of this occur in every nation and I’ll never claim that other English-Speaking countries such as Britain, America or Australia don’t have a wide variety of regional expressions. What is particularly noticeable however, is the lack of a common slang amongst Irish teenagers or young adults for common things or practices. When an American says they were ‘making out’ with somebody, the meaning is understood by virtually everyone. In Ireland however, there are several phrases referring to the same thing. ‘shifting‘, ‘meeting’ and ‘getting with’ all refer to exactly the same thing but most people would exclusively use one of them, which one of them usually being determined by geographical location. Even as a younger child I was often confused to hear pupils of other schools refer to games such ‘Red Rover’ and ‘World Cup’, only to find that they were the games I knew as ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘ Copies’. Despite being only a few miles apart, we were using an entirely different language on the playground.
I have an entirely speculative and untested hypothesis as to why we have such a great variety of slang on this island. I believe that is related to the dominance of our popular culture by foreign media particularly from America, Britain and to a lesser extent Australia. It is a controversial idea to suggest that the mass media aids the survival of regional culture but it is only in nations such as Ireland that this is taking place. Within America the popular culture is almost entirely dominated by domestic productions. Hollywood films and network television have aided in the formation of a common slang used by young people across the nation. A teenager in Wyoming, although being vastly separated from the centres of the US media in New York and Los Angeles, still recognizes the characters in his favourite films and shows as being his countrymen. To use the same general slang with such elementary terms as ‘making out’ seems natural. For a person anywhere in Ireland however, using such terms appears false and artificial. British terms fare little better. To the best of my knowledge the only region of the country in which the term ‘mate’ is commonplace is in County Laois- in my mid-Connacht homeland any Irishman using the phrase would be met with puzzled glances. This is despite British television, music and print media being widely consumed in Ireland and substantial cross-migration between our two islands. So if we do not pick up foreign slang from our consumption of foreign media, why have we not formed common set of terms of our own? For the simple reason that there is no universally consumed mass media for such terms to spread by. There are remarkably few domestically produced fictional television programmes or films which are widely viewed by the young people of Ireland. Every town or county develops its own phrases and they do not often spread. Some terms do manage to travel out of their home area- an example being the escape of the term ‘legend’ from South Dublin- but their progress is slow. The playground games I mentioned earlier are a good example of this- we only ever heard of them in person, never through any television programmes or films. The games which we shared in common with the characters of American cartoons, we called by the same name- ‘tag’ for example. It is because of our heavy consumption of foreign media that people in towns fifty miles apart find each other mutually incomprehensible during certain conversations, while it is due to America’s cultural dominance that Americans thousands of miles apart have a much closer set of slang terms.
There is however a change occurring in the slang used by young Irish people. Formerly regional phrases are spreading outside of their native territory and becoming commonplace across the country. In my opinion two factors are responsible for this. One is the increased number of people in third-level education since the introduction of free fees in 1995. Naturally this leads to increased contact between young people from all over the country- During my own time in NUI Galway I became friends with people from Louth, Wexford, Kildare and Limerick all the while unknowingly adopting aspects of their dialect while they adopted many aspects of my own. A second and more surprising element in the increasing uniformity of Irish slang is the internet, specifically social networking such as Facebook. Although it does little to convey pronunciations Facebook can spread slang terms to people who have rarely left their hometown. An example is the term ‘naggin’ meaning a two hundred millilitre bottle of whiskey or more commonly vodka. Naggins have become an ubiquitous part of Irish youth culture, representing a cheap way to get drunk quickly and a easy method of smuggling drink into pubs or clubs. The term itself however, has only recently become universal- previously there were other names used such as ‘quarter-bottle’ in Donegal (Despite the fact a naggin does not contain a quarter of any other common size of spirits bottle). The internet, primarily through humorous Facebook pages, has managed to spread the term and make it a massive part of youth culture, a feat which would already have been achieved by cinema or television in most other countries. So with increased interaction between the youth of all parts of the country and increased spread of so many slang terms across county lines, will we eventually see the demise of our many accents and dialects? To quote every Kildare person I have known, ‘that’s debatable’.