The ongoing refugees crisis in Europe has dominated headlines for the past few weeks. This humanitarian disaster has prompted many republicans in Ireland to get involved in support for these refugees.
This short article will argue that this is based on something more than just private horror or humanitarian concern. Fundamental to Irish republicans' concern for refugees is what Luke Gibbons called "an ethic of analogy".(Luke Gibbons, Prefiguring the Past: Re-imagining the Archive in Irish Studies, 73. Available here.
This in fact is based upon a long tradition. Let us look at some historical precedents of Irish republican involvement in the plight of refugees and immigrants. In May 1945 former IRA Chief of Staff Andy Cooney took a position with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (and later the International Refugee Organisation) in Europe where according to official estimates of 18 September 1945 there were 1 240 000 Displaced Persons in Germany alone, of whom 8% were children. (Michael MacEvilly (2011), A Splendid Resistance: The Life of IRA Chief of Staff Dr. Andy Cooney, Dublin : Edmund Burke Publisher, 289ff) Leslie and Tom Barry dealt with refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia in Cork and she represented the Irish Red Cross at international conferences in Toronto, Oslo, Monaco, New Delhi, Geneva, Vienna, The Hague, Athens, Istanbul, Prague. (Meda Ryan (2003), Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter, Cork : Mercier Press, 317-318) Dorothy Macardle was deeply involved with the problems of refugees and displaced persons and published in 1949 Children of Europe. A Study of the Children of Liberated Countries : Their War-time Experiences, their Reactions, and their Needs with a Note on Germany (a book praised by the Marxist writer R.M. Fox) an exhaustive and harrowing account of the predicament of the youngest casualties in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy. (Nadia Clare Smith (2007), Dorothy Macardle: A Life, Dublin : The Woodfield Press, 116-122).
Dorothy Macardle, Andy Cooney and Leslie Barry's humanitarianism "did not arise despite (their) memory of oppression but because of it". (Gibbons, 73) For Macardle, the resources of her republican past were a means of opening up, rather than closing off sympathies with others in the catastrophe of the Second World War. This is where the strength of the republican tradition lies. When she devoted almost a complete chapter of Children of Europe to the massacre at Lidice inflicted as a reprisal for the assassination of Heydrich in 1941, one should read this contrapunctually and keep in mind that she was also the author of Tragedies of Kerry (1924), an account of reprisals by Free State traitors which contained a vivid account of the Ballyseedy massacre in 1922. (Anakana Schofield, Getting women's perspective on Irish history, Irish Times, 30 May 2015) This is the formal condition of possibility of an ethics of analogy:
Analogy does not depend on similarity but also works through juxtaposition, contrast and contextualisation. ... It is precisely through analogy, the operation of analogy through difference as well as similarity, that the grievance of the past does not turn into embittered repetition, but opens new possibilities for transnational or cross-cultural solidarity" (Gibbons, 73-74)
The work of people like Dorothy Macardle, Andy Cooney or Sean Mac Bride can be located in the tradition of secular Irish humanitarians and human rights proponents, such as Roger Casement and Alice Stopford Green. At the heart of Irish republicanism lie internationalism, humanitarianism and anti-imperialism This is the tradition with which republicans working for refugees today can affiliate themselves with. It is not one of narrow nationalism but one of transnational and cross-cultural solidarity.
Closely connected to "ethics as analogy" is the imperative of "an ethics of rememberance" (Gibbons, 79) Ireland is a First World country with a Third World memory. It is said by some that the Irish pay too much attention to the past. But an ethics of rememberance has never been so appropriate : the sinking refugees boat in the Mediterannean today clearly recall the Famine ships of the 19th century.
The catastrophist nature of Irish nature which so-called 'revisionist' historians at best relativise and at worst deny should be a call for solidarity with those from countries facing disasters. When commemorating the Famine for example, it should be recalled this crime was a result of the application of free markets economics, and , should act as a solidarity call with the countries starved by IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes. (Ibrahim Warde, Quand le libre-échange affamait l’Irlande, Monde Diplomatique, June 1996).
An ethics of rememberance is not about neurotic obsession with the past, but about solidarity today. This article will have reached its aim if it succeeds in drawing attention to the importance of a republican ethics of analogy and an ethics of remembrance.