Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Over the Bridge

To the Waterfront Hall last night to see Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge, as adapted by Martin Lynch. The play, about sectarianism at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, was first performed 50 years ago, in controversial circumstances as described by Culture NI:

James Ellis, the recently appointed producer of the Ulster Group Theatre, accepted the play for production. However, in May 1959 the company’s directors announced that they were withdrawing the play just two weeks before its scheduled opening; they described the play as ‘full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public … It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’.....

..... His play was finally staged in January 1960 at the Empire Theatre by the newly assembled Over the Bridge Productions, comprising Ellis, Thompson, Henry Lynch Robinson and many of those previously associated with the UGT. It proved a tremendous success, and toured Dublin, Scotland and England. Far from offending audiences, Sam Hanna Bell thought ‘it was possible to detect a quite extraordinary feeling of relief that at last the unclean spirit of sectarianism had been dragged before the footlights’.
Nick and I took the bus through Ballymacarrett in the way to the performance, past the blue plaque marking the house where Thompson was born. We met friends beforehand, and quite by chance were talking about the Milgram experiment, where participants were ordered to deliver electric shocks (without knowing they were not actually doing so) and most continued to do so even when the subject appeared to be in considerable distress. We were all emphatic that we wouldn’t have been the ones to continue to apparently cause pain – and yet, the vast majority did.

On one level, Over the Bridge was a stunningly effective exploration of a tragic workplace sectarian incident with huge local resonance. However, on a deeper level it could be seen as another angle on Milgram. Would you be the one to stop inflicting the electric shocks? And would you be the one to stand by your trade union comrade even if you knew the likely consequence was a violent death? And in each case, if the answer was no, how would you justify it? This is why the play should be toured internationally again. The rather over-long final scene made the point that individuals will always pay a high price for standing by their principles, but that real change would have come if the hundreds of workers who thought the incident was ‘none of their business’ had acted to stop it.

There are two other reasons why the play is important to us in Northern Ireland. First, it reminds us of an aspect of the shipyards’ history which has been airbrushed out of the Titanic Quarter approach to regeneration of the area. I hope the new Signature Project ‘visitor experience’ includes information about the trade union tradition of the yards, and about the periodic sectarian incidents, along with presenting technological achievements past and present. Secondly, the play’s programme was full of trade union messages of support, reminding us that Sam Thompson was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and a trade union activist. Ultimately, in industries such as shipbuilding, sectarianism gave the bosses more power because it divided the workers. There is still no unified working class political party in Northern Ireland, fifty years later, but at least we have a relatively strong trade union movement.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Politics, power and morality

To a New Ireland Group meeting on Saturday morning, to hear Malachi O’Doherty on ‘Integrity in Public and Private Life’. The remit of the talk was wider than this post, and inevitably the discussion concentrated on the Roman Catholic Church, but the event helped me to focus on something I’ve been thinking about for some time. Whenever I think it’s no longer topical, something else happens.

I’m particularly interested in abuses of power by people who are elected as representatives of political parties, or who are involved in politics in some other way. In the political sphere, I would define corruption as use of power in a way that primarily benefits the individual rather than those they have been elected to serve. Codes of conduct for politicians emphasise that it’s also important to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing, for example:

Members should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations which might reasonably be thought by others to influence them in the performance of their duties as a Member of the Assembly.
NI Assembly code of conduct.

Avoiding the appearance of improper conduct is particularly important when decision-making operates in small networks with long histories, as in Northern Ireland.

So how can corruption in politics be stopped?

The most important point is to realise that it can never be completely eradicated. Someone, somewhere will always be seeking to abuse their position. Secondly, to balance this, not all politicians are corrupt. If we assume they are, then people will be put off participating in politics and our decision-making processes will be damaged.

A useful starting point is to recognise that many people seem to find it very difficult to cope with power. All of us have had some kind of power at some point in our lives, and it’s humbling to look back and think about whether we have always used that power wisely. So – if you are in a position of power, can you justify your behaviour to the people who put you there? In the case of politicians, this means the voters, but for elected representatives it should also include party workers, both paid and unpaid. A politician (or party worker) needs to hang on to their moral compass, which can be hard if all around appear to be losing theirs, or if no-one is challenging your behaviour.

That’s what powerful individuals need to do in their day to day lives. People with power also need to be held to account more effectively. Malachi O’Doherty made the very good point that public opinion can be a double edged sword, using the example of Gerry Adams, who is derided for allegedly not reporting child abuse in his family, but not for having been (generally acknowledged as) a senior IRA member for many years. So, in reality, political accountability should be a mix of:

• Listening to public opinion but not necessarily following it;
• Being open about aspects of one’s private life that do not affect the job, such as sexuality or a marriage breaking up. The problem with the Iris Robinson business wasn’t the sex, it was the money and the conflict of interest;
• Following codes of conduct and, er, the law.

To summarise - if in doubt: don’t do it, don’t claim it, and declare everything. If it feels wrong, it probably is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The WLM and me

I’m watching Vanessa Engle’s three-part series on feminism and its impact of women’s lives today. The first episode, last week, cringingly entitled ‘Libbers’, interviewed a selection of women who became well-known in the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) during the 1970s and 1980s, in the UK or the USA. As has been noted by the F-word, it was regrettable that no black women were interviewed. But the authors of many of the key feminist texts of the 1970s were included, reminding me that someone had to come up with concepts that I now take for granted, for example that gender roles are socially constructed (Ann Oakley) or that rape is an expression of male power rather than sexual attraction (Susan Brownmiller). I would like to have seen more attention paid to Sheila Rowbotham’s work on women in history, too; the interview with her concentrated on her political activism as a socialist feminist.

I had other reservations about Engle’s depiction of 1970s/80s feminism, but none that prevented nostalgia from kicking in. I moved to London in 1979 and got involved in the WLM, including membership of a consciousness raising group in East London for about a year. I did benefit from it enormously, not least because I read lots of books about feminism, and never missed an issue of Spare Rib.

And yet…I walked away from radical feminism because it didn’t seem quite real. In the CR group most of us were heterosexual, but the only thing we didn’t discuss was our relationships with men. Adrienne Rich’s influential essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence was helping to make heterosexual women feel like second-class citizens in what was meant to be a liberation movement. Later in the 1980s, black women and working class women would say they also felt excluded. I began to feel that in the CR group we were talking to ourselves and not challenging men enough. So I moved on to a socialist feminist organisation and then to the Labour Party, where it was possible in the 1980s to synthesise class and identity politics in a constructive way. For me, the Women’s Liberation Movement was part of my political journey towards socialism, rather than a destination in its own right – although I’ll always call myself a feminist.

But what has been the impact of the WLM on younger women? Tonight’s programme, ‘Mothers’, was an analysis-free zone consisting of a series of interviews with middle-class couples, where some of the women were full-time mothers and others, er, weren’t. I couldn’t see that it had anything at all to do with feminism. Next week, the final episode is ‘Activists’ – concentrating on ‘a small group of passionate and committed young activists, who believe that the need for feminist politics is now more urgent than ever’. I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

An interview with John Barry

After a long break due to work commitments, see my e-interview with John Barry of the Green Party, over at Irish Left Review.