Sunday, April 12, 2015

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Tony Catney: The Thinker

Anthony McIntyre's appraisal of the late Tony Catney delivered at the inaugural lecture in memory of the former IRA prisoner who died last August. The lecture was hosted by the 1916 Societies in Dublin on 7 March 2015.
Tony Catney

When first asked to speak here I thought I would talk from the top of my head rather than write anything up. I guessed because I knew Tony Catney pretty well I wouldn’t have to think a lot about what I wanted to say. Then it occurred to me that to do it unthinkingly would in some way not be keeping faith with what TC did. And what he did was think. So rather than speak from the top of my head I ended up writing something from the top of my head instead.

TC would have appreciated the disdain for fidelity, might even have cheekily described it as cheating but because he was no puritan, would have spared me the judgemental. I promised to restrict myself to around a thousand words. But he continues to radiate such intellectual curiosity that my contribution in somewhat rambling and relaxed fashion has meandered into just over three and a half thousand. Mea culpa.

On my right upper arm which you are unable to see there is a tattoo of Rodin’s Thinker. TC was one of the first people I showed it to. While it was not about him or done for him it sometimes reminds me of both him and Pat McGeown when I see it in the mirror, usually in the early mornings during one of those quieter moments that visit us when the mind drains of other things and we experience the solitude of our own company. That pose with the fist beneath the chin is inseparable from my perception of both men. They were thinkers. Serious thinking was what they did. They were contemplative republicans who having fought the war thought the peace in critical fashion. Of course on the night I showed him the tattoo, just to make sure I got no pretentious ideas about myself, TC’s wife Rose told me not that I looked like a thinker, but a biker.

Dublin where we gather today is a city TC was very familiar with. He did much work here. On the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle – what a depressing experience that must have been for him in a thinker free zone – he strategized endlessly over elections and other major policy matters, as well as working on the ground. 20 years ago he drove me at breakneck speed out of the city and back to Belfast after I had just delivered an indictment of the leadership strategy at an internal party conference in the RDS. He drove so fast not because we were escaping the wrath of the leadership, but because that was how he drove. And he was probably eager to get to another meeting. We were in agreement then about the threat to republicanism posed by an increasingly wayward and ideologically promiscuous leadership. Where we differed was on how to challenge it. He felt the battle had to be conducted from within, something for which I had neither the temperament nor inclination. But Dublin was where many of his intellectual battles were waged and where his intellect made its presence felt.

The Panel

So it is an honour to have been invited to this city to make the opening address at the inaugural lecture for the late Tony Catney, a long-time friend and comrade. A similar honour befell me at the inaugural lecture for Brendan Hughes in Belfast. I derive added satisfaction from speaking here today because I was unable to attend TC’s funeral. When he was ill and driving me back from one of those drinking sessions I had with him – subdued on this occasion because he for the first time ever abstained from alcohol - I told him I would not be going to his funeral because my attitude to funerals was simple. It was a matter of non-reciprocation: they won’t be going to mine so I won’t be going to theirs. The real reason of course was the threat of arrest over the Boston College tapes, a trying issue which caused me considerable distress, eased as always by solidarity from TC and others who at least understood the thinking behind the project. But that is what thinking people do. They think rather than rant, rave, smear and scream about thought crimes against the peace process.

I am pleased that the 1916 Societies have hosted this event. I believe it is important that it truly is inaugural and does become a yearly occurrence. It is very much a means of not only acknowledging the intellectual life that TC led but also in perpetuating an intellectual climate that will continuously infuse what remains of republicanism after the hari kari of Good Friday. While on the topic of Good Friday the 1916 Societies with their ongoing activity unfailingly remind us of something very crucial and which seems to have been lost to many republicans: Easter Sunday republicanism and the Good Friday brand are light years rather than two days apart.

Today republicanism grapples with the problems of a new world created by the multiple organ failure it underwent as a consequence of the Good Friday Treaty. In many ways it is a Brave New World, to borrow the title of an Aldous Huxley novel, which requires much more than the courage of those from a Brave Old World to address it. Were courage alone sufficient to advance republicanism, the struggle would have been successfully concluded with the hunger strikes instead of having been allowed to drift on into the parody and farce that it has become, where out unionising the unionists in addition to serving as subcontractors on behalf of Tory austerity in a partitioned Northern Bantustan somehow manages to pass itself off as a republican achievement. TC understood that this is the terminus to where the strategy of a ballot box in one hand and a white stick in the other ultimately takes radical politics.

That a grassroots blindly and unquestioningly follows in footsteps that suck it deeper into the mire it once sought to pave over with terra firma is a damning indictment of its own participation in a conflict that had such profoundly harmful consequences and raises many questions about the so called political motivation that ostensibly drove its activists. Was that motivation ever political or just subcultural, driven less by the unquestionable repression of the outgroup and more by the anonymous pressure of the ingroup? 

This is an important matter because arguably what has depoliticised the republican struggle more than any British state criminalisation strategy is the wholescale unthinking abandonment of the political ideas which were said to have prompted involvement in republican politics to begin with. We are left to contemplate the horrific: that many of us killed and died not because we thought but because we followed.

There is a deeply uncomfortable truth in there for any who want to find it. People easily led are people who can be led anywhere, right up their own Jaxy from the darkness of which they will gushingly praise the dazzling light that some dictator of the proletariat has bestowed upon them and which only they, the chosen ones, can see. Which in the end will only be the flames from the fire at which they burn the heretic who failed to see the light. It is therefore axiomatic that people easily led are people who will easily commit atrocity. A harrowing thought which no amount of political rationale or waving the shrouds of dead hunger strikers can mask. If political ideas are to mean anything then they cannot be picked up or dropped on a mere whim, if for no reason other than that the people whom we as republicans designated legitimate targets deserve much better. You shall die for my whim rather than my firm political conviction born of your despotism has no place in any struggle that wishes to stand on the grounds of ethics and justice.

So when we see a political cartoon of Sinn Fein caudillo Gerry Adams addressing the party faithful with the words “and what do you say to those naysayers and begrudgers who call you sheep?” and the answer is “Baaaa”, we intuit the uncomfortable pointed message signalled by that image. The answer can never be behead the cartoonist because he offends us. It has to be one of keeping our own heads in order to think our way out of the stifling conformity an authoritarian leadership has corralled us into. Scan the audience of sheep in that cartoon as we might, we will not find TC among the woolly faced lot.

This blind deference to leadership was one of the bugbears he constantly came up against. Helping people understand both the obvious and not so obvious was essentially what Tony Catney was about, sharing his vision with them, all the time struggling with the aphorism of Upton Sinclair that it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

When we watch the band of sorrowful sycophants scurrying off to the International Wall on the Falls Road to draw murals of the Visionary leader, we are reminded of the Orwellian world Provisionalism has descended into. What twisted linguist applied the term “visionary” to a character who blinded those he misled to what was going on and who took them to places they swore never to go. The blind alone can see the consistency in that. Rightly are the simple so called. TC was an authentic visionary, not the ersatz one of propaganda. He had the vision to see where things were going and to share that vision with others around him. It is a task he performed persistently and cheerfully.

Even when I had left the Provisional Movement and argued with him about his decision to stay within it despite our being in broad agreement about the trajectory, I often wondered who had the easiest task. He had to stay and listen daily to the bull while carrying on with the not inconsiderable burden of challenging it. I, while not exactly safely immune from the wrath of those who despised an alternative viewpoint, at least did not have to share space with the acolytes and gofers who would gladly have turned up at Dunville Park to catch the 3 o’clock spaceship to take them to a united Ireland if asked to by the leadership.

The essential thing about Tony Catney, whoever tries to claim his legacy, is that whatever the conviction with which he held his views, some of which I was unremittingly hostile to, he was about ideas, discussion, reason, persuasion. He was never about haughty indifference to the opinions of others nor did he assume the loftiness of those who just loved being members of the Do You who I am? gang. Pete Trumbore who interviewed him and who is with us in the audience today, has made this point very clearly. This is why TC played such a central role in ventures, ultimately suppressed, like the Bobby Sands Discussion Group, and why he talked to everybody, republicans, loyalist, former prisoner governors inter alia.

Erudite and articulate, TC worked untiringly to challenge leadership myths, subvert bad authority, and in its place create something different, something that republicans could at least recognise as resembling what they had fought for and what their comrades had died for. At one point in the 90s the leadership response to him was of course to create a cold house for a thinking republican. It placed him in Brussels and seemingly placed the Brussels in leadership.

When I first met him in 1975 he was not much younger than myself. Just sentenced to Secretary of State’s Pleasure (Brit speak for sentencing young people to life imprisonment) he landed in Magilligan. There was no indication then of the mind that was nurturing within this 17 year old brain. It would be 11 years later during a H-Blocks conversation with John Pickering when he asked me had I got a chance to discuss strategy with TC yet. I told him I hadn’t bumped into him since he had come down to the blocks from the cages. But why I asked should I discuss strategy with him: was he not just a head-case like the rest of us? No, Pickles assured me, he was something else.

It was one of those occasions when Pickles and myself were both right. He was a head case but he was also something else. When we got together and began discussing matters, I soon came to appreciate the advice of Pickles. In front of me was no waffler and baffler. There was no strategic dimension of the Provisional Movement’s struggle TC did not converse about. The same with internationalism and the general Irish political scene. It quickly became clear just how deeply he had mulled things over. His field of vision was panoramic. He had an acute eye for both detail and nuance. He would look at a problem from every conceivable angle. In short TC was a 3 dimensional thinker.

The spirit moving the event

So when he died last August one of my first thoughts was that his passing would create a strategy shaped vacuum that was simply not going to be filled. The last time I had that sense was when Pat McGeown died in 1996. Others such as Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price have died in between and while they were sorely missed the vacuum their deaths created was not a strategic one in the way that the deaths of TC and Pat Beag were. If it is possible to tease out a difference, Brendan and Dolours reflected while TC and Pat projected, all four contributing in their own specific way to our understanding of republicanism.

TC was in the avant-garde of ideas which he knew would wither on the vine if denied a strong regenerative capacity. The thing about ideas is that have to be able to be revised rather than revered, otherwise they become shibboleths. To borrow the terminology of our teenage Magilligan days there is nothing groovy about being stuck in the groove. Therefore, what is crucial for the young republicans TC engaged with is not so much what he thought but how he thought.

I am no longer one of those young republicans. Still, there is some benefit in being an old republican. I am glad that I am no longer young enough to know everything. The certainty of youth has long since vanished and I am left to ponder the wisdom of Bertrand Russell who advised that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

The future belongs to the young who step in to replace TC and others like him who were standard bearers in the field. I am now at the point where like the dog at the bottom of the stairs, I am unable to make up my mind if I have just come down or am about to go up. Unlike the following two speakers, I am at the stage where I am well into the return journey from the fair and have much less to offer in terms of years left to me. Being an atheist, that hardly bothers me, taking the view of Mark Twain that I was dead for billions of years before I was born without it causing me a single problem. Being alive causes us problems, not being dead. The problems that life brings nevertheless have to be dealt with. And they have to be dealt with in a manner that is life enhancing and which does not embrace a mindless nihilism. Which in many ways leads us to that hoary old chest nut of armed struggle.

It bemuses but hardly surprises me when I learn of some republicans going into apoplectic mode when confronted with criticisms of armed struggle. In that sense they have aped the Sinn Fein leadership more than they care to admit. Their hostile response invariably followed by the demand that people desist from calling for an end to the current futile armed campaigning that removes people from the streets for no palpable return, echoes the theocratic fascists who demand that nobody criticise their religious opinion. 

Republicanism if it is to mean anything has to mean rule by the people, not the gun. It would be an act of great moral negligence for me to speak here today and ignore the elephant in the republican room. As Henry Ford once stated if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Armed struggle has been described as insane by some of its republican critics, invoking the logic of Einstein that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Just because pacifism is a strategically bankrupt concept in the currency of righting societal wrongs it does not follow that war should be glorified. It must be the last strategic resort never the first traditional one. Armed force, if at all, can only ever be applied for strategic and never for traditional reasons. Again, to quote Russell, the one thing we should learn from war is that it “does not determine who is right - only who is left.” And as we have seen only too vividly, he did not mean left wing.

Republicanism cannot resemble a monarchy with its dictatorial absolutism. It has to be rights driven not power driven. That means accepting that people have rights against republicans and among those rights is the right to vociferously oppose armed campaigns.

Where republicanism is at today in my view is that it has never faced up to the serious strategic consequence of having failed abjectly to defend the pass against the Good Friday Agreement. It was a horse with the Trojan logo stamped clearly on its side, yet collectively we deluded ourselves that here was a trusty steed manned by a republican knight in shining armour, Sir Liealot, that would jump all the fences to a united Ireland rather than it seeing it for what it was: the main fence to a united Ireland. That unpardonable lapse of concentration rendered the death knell for the republican project as we understood it. It has bequeathed to republicans the worst form of a double Greek tragedy, the labour of Sisyphus and the unslaked thirst of Tantalus.

Not only did the Good Friday Agreement satisfy the long term British state strategy of unity only by consent and the unionist desire to perpetuate partition well beyond the lifetime of any Provisional IRA volunteer who fought to remove it, it deprived radicalism of almost an entire generation of activists who had put their shoulder to the wheel and who failed to notice the wheel being changed and the fact that they were now pushing it in a different direction.

The upshot is that the entire strategic terrain has shifted beneath the feet of republicanism yet many seem as oblivious to that as they did to the defeat by stealth visited on them via the Good Friday Treaty. The balance of political forces simply does not allow for a traditional republican solution to the problem of partition.

Considered against that backdrop, the republican project as such might be a goner but only if we consider republicanism as something that must by necessity deliver the Republic before all else. There is no reason in my view why the project cannot be recalibrated to take account of a changing political landscape and rebrand itself as a political oppositional force premised on the logic of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that “the world only goes forward because of those who oppose it.” Essential to that project of course is people like TC and that ability to think and challenge; who will remain steadfast to the principle of leadership if only the concept of leadership can be protected from leaders who in the pursuit of office will strangle any radical project in order to get there. Republicanism should be about asserting the rights of the people against the institutions of government. The republican attitude to places in government in the current international juncture where even Syriza has delivered the Pat Rabbitte punch to its own electorate should be similar to how a dog views a lamppost.

A strategic route for republicans to consider going down is the creation in every arena outside the administration of an unjust society the embryo of a just society, seeking to place its hands on every reverse lever that can block power reinforcing injustice. To enhance the prospects for growth it should unflinchingly endorse freedom of expression, free inquiry and public criticism, allowing its own practices to be scrutinised with the same rigour that it demands be brought to bear on the institutions. It should never shout “shut up, we are offended.”

For all of this, TC unlike myself did not rebuke armed actions in their entirety. He was a revolutionary whereas I am not. I unfailingly mistrust the totalitarian impulse at the heart of revolution once described by Engels as that most authoritarian of things. I have long subscribed to Orwell’s view of revolutionaries that nine out of then are social climbers with bombs. We need look no further than Stormont and Leinster House to see the evidence of that. TC was the one in ten that never sought to climb the greasy pole.

But it is not my intention to go through his ideas on armed struggle or political strategy, focussing instead on the methodology of openness and engagement he brought to the field of ideas. He has left enough of his thoughts on the record through interviews that there now exists a serious possibility for a book to be put together pulling into place all his ideas. There is no need for anybody to author it other than himself. It could easily be published as a posthumous work. Perhaps that is a task the hosts of this event might consider in time for next year’s session.

But before I pass the chair over to my younger panellists it is important to remember TC as not just the republican activist, but the friend who as a member of the IRA and at some risk to himself in 2000 drove myself and my heavily pregnant wife throughout Belfast as we evaded the hate mobs sent out by Sinn Fein to intimidate us; the loyal friend who was by my side for the three weeks I spent in hospital in 1996, the boozing buddy who drove me home after we spent a night consuming 6 pints and seven shorts, praising the ceasefire because it meant an absence of peelers from the Falls Road who would otherwise be pulling us into the side. He was all of that and more.

And as I finally hand proceedings over I can pat The Thinker on my right shoulder and say ‘good on you TC”.

Rodin's Thinker


Peter said...

An excellent speech and tribute to your friend. I enjoy your questioning and logical thinking, so kudos to you, though you seem to be ploughing a lonely furrow between the sell-outs and the die-hards.

sean bres said...

Just finished loading this into our browser Anthony, enjoyed pouring over every word. Brilliant! I wish I could have been there but I was doing a presentation myself that afternoon in Galbally. I came down that evening for the ballad session, hoped you might have hung about, but sadly it was not to be. Toyed with the idea of giving you a shout on the way home, mentioned it to the wife, but the head wasn't up for it - a feed of powers in some night-club in the city centre discussing the future direction of republicanism by the other lad on the panel so to that! Such a night's craic! Enjoyed your talk and heard the discussion from the floor was on the money, there needs to be more of this type of thing I'm sure you'd agree

Niall said...

He was different from the others I met...non-condescending and non patronising and most unusual about him was that he listened...with sincerity....

Henry JoY said...

Great piece of work AM.
Mature and reasoned thinking wrapped around a story of friendship, comradely regard and respect.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A tribute that only a true friend could've composed well done.