Century of Endeavour

Notes on Brendan Clifford

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

I had an exchange of letters with Brendan Clifford in August 1990, after having reviewed his book on the Belfast press in the 1790s. I was supportive of his analysis and interested to probe his views on the current scene. He was one of Desmond Greaves's 'betes noirs', to be classed dismissively among the 'Trotskys and Potskys and Maos and Bow-wows', and I wanted to get the measure of him as an egregious critical historian. I wrote to him early in August 1990 as follows:

Dear Brendan / I got your address from Dave Alvey. Janice is active in the Church and State, and I picked up that you had seen my review of your book on the Belfast press in the 1790s, which mentioned Canon Sheehan in passing, and I asked for some more. Dave passed us on your AFIL material, which I found fascinating.

There are 2 more issues on this trail which need to be taken up, and I am trying to find the resources to do so. One is the history of Horace Plunkett and the co-operatives. This was solidly under Protestant leadership, and had incipient links with the English working-class via the consumer co-ops, but these were nipped in the bud by the small-town gombeen elements. The link with the North persisted, but was in the end killed by partition. A key person was Father Finlay, another liberal priest; I wonder were he and Canon Sheahan on the same wavelength?

The failure of the co-ops to develop the education system (like they did in Denmark) can be ascribed to the fact that the Churches got in first. This however led to the atrophy of the co-op movement, to the extent that all the major co-ops are now going explicitly capitalist, having been implicitly so for decades.

The other issue is technical competence. Because Catholics were not allowed to go to the 'godless colleges' there were few if any scientists or engineers; they began to emerge only in the 1900s via the College of Science. Science and engineering were a Protestant preserve. Many of them were national minded, like Tony Farrington (who was Secretary of the Academy in the 30s), but the post-1921 governments mostly neglected the sciences; there was perhaps an element of 'not for the likes of us' in the thinking, possibly even some 'doing down the Prods'.

There is a link between the two issues, in that Anderson (who was the IAOS secretary) went to Denmark to see how they did it, and came back with the discovery of quality control for butter. He pulled in a biologist called Houston to develop a QC system.

Houston subsequently taught science in St Enda's. He and de Valera were the only participants in the 1908 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science who had any connection with the national movement. The list reads like a society who's who.

There was the makings of a technically competent and patriotic national bourgeoisie among the southern Protestants, typified perhaps by Purser Griffith, who pioneered much of the ground subsequently covered by the ESB and Bord na Mona. They are largely unsung.

There were even among the Northern engineering entrepreneurs people who looked forward to Home Rule. Ferguson (of tractor fame) built an aircraft (on the Bleriot model) and exhibited it at the Sinn Fein exhibition in Dublin, in or about 1911. I picked this up from Mrs Czira's memoirs, which alas I have mislaid. No-one has analysed how the Ulster Liberal Home-Rule-supporting bourgeoisie was emasculated; it certainly existed and my father Joe Johnston would have counted himself among them. He wrote a pamphlet against Carson in 1913, exposing the disastrous consequences of the Larne gun-running, from a 'Home Rule within the Empire' position (which was the staging-post that the AFIL were promoting).

Regarding the consequences of the Larne gun-running: have you ever looked into who the people were who did the Howth gun-running? Was it perhaps a foreshadowing of the way Mountbatten handled India: ensure a religious divide, and see that both sides are armed? I often wonder. Might not the Asgard crew be regarded as the sort of upper-class adventurer such as the British dirty tricks department might recruit for a nefarious purpose? And they ensure Childers gets killed in case he spills the beans? This of course is pure speculation, and most heretical, so please don't quote me on it, but if you are poking around in interesting areas of suppressed history, as would appear to be your speciality, you might just bear it in mind as a hypothesis in search of evidence.

I look forward to hearing from you: feel free to look in if you are in Dublin; we are in 22 Belgrave Road. The future is with people who are not shackled by obsolete paradigms. There is a new one waiting to break out, and people with open minds might recognise it. I am not saying I know what it is.

Yours sincerely / Roy Johnston

Brendan Clifford replied on August 25 1990 as follows:

Dear Roy / I was very surprised to hear from you. It must be over twenty years since we last encountered. I supposed that we had gone our separate ways for good.

I have had little to do with Dublin since the early seventies, except to pass through on the way to Cork. I addressed a meeting on Canon Sheehan in Buswell's Hotel a couple of months ago, but only because Dave Alvey asked me to. I spent much time at meetings in Buswell's Hotel twenty years ago, when it seemed worthwhile. It proved not to be worthwhile. Prom my viewpoint, at least, Dublin got worse under the shallow and disoriented liberalism of the seventies than it had been under honest clericalism of the sixties.

I heard you had reviewed my book on the French Revolution in Books Ireland. Again, I was surprised.

I have been trying to insist that none of my books be sent to Books Ireland or The Irish Times, but people in Belfast keep on sending them. I saw Books Ireland reviews of The Rise Of Papal Power and Mangan. They were not reviews at all. Nobody could have suspected from either review what the content of either book was. I found twenty years ago that, if you step even slightly out of line with regard to the North, you can only expect to be caricatured in the Dublin press, especially in The Irish Times - at least that's all I can expect, as the first who stepped out of line, from the go-ahead nationalists of the Belfast People's Democracy, who have made successful careers in Dublin. I accepted that condition of things and carried on regardless. And I don't see why they should have my books free. They have all sold without reviews.

Books Ireland asked for a review copy of Angela's history of the Constitution and was sent it. It was not reviewed, not even in a snide paragraph. Yet it has all but sold out in two years at 15 a copy.

We're getting it through to people in Belfast that sending review copies to the Irish Times or Books Ireland is only throwing money away. And though I gather that your review of the French Revolution was straightforward, I don't think I can regard that as more than exception - an event unlikely to be repeated in the Dublin media.

I seem to remember that we had some disputes about Connolly and about Marxist political economy in the late sixties.

I think I have rescued Connolly from his 'interpreters' - Leninist, Social Democrat, or theological - and restored him to the position which he made for himself. Of course, CD Greaves' book is the one that is found in all the bookshops. Yet I think that my pamphlets have had more effect in the vital part of the world where things are done. I know that because of them a number of people who would otherwise be in the IRA are not in the IRA.

I settled accounts with Leninism in politics and law during the seventies, and I demonstrated, at least to my own satisfaction, that economic determinism is (or in view of recent events, I suppose I should say 'was') a dogmatic philosophy of state rather than a description of the process of history. I was in contact with some elements in the CPGB (Monty Johnstone and others) in the mid-seventies and tried to persuade them that their distinction between Stalinism and 'true Leninism' was not a real distinction in actual history and was not a workable distinction in current politics. Leninism as a system was an apparatus, a hulk, with internal life. It had purpose in the hands of purposeful dictators, Lenin and Stalin. Left to itself as a system without a dictator it was a hulk waiting to collapse. Though I filed up the evidence that Leninism and law were contraries, they held to their beliefs. And they were horrified when I treated Solzhenitsyn's Gulag as the most worthwhile thing produced in Russia since Stalin's time, because it was a destructive onslaught designed to undermine the system in the sphere of imagination - the curbing of imagination being all-important in totalitarian systems. If I had not been preoccupied with something else this past year, I might have had a grand time saying 'I told you so' to the London left.

The British left had rendered itself impotent on other grounds long before the house of cards fell. But it was a pity that the Workers' Party, which had made itself into something on other grounds, had continued to live in that house of cards until the final moment of collapse.

I was from the first very disappointed in Marx as a historian, but regarded the description of the kaleidoscopic economic process of capitalism in Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital as one of the intellectual wonders of the world.

In the early seventies I became aware, through contract with some New Left Review intellectuals and a brief, though close, acquaintance with a Welsh professor whom I notice appearing much on television of late, Gwyn Williams, that I had always read Marx into a background of philosophical commonsense gleaned from Locke and Kant, and that I had discounted as mere flourishes of rhetoric passages which they spun into a comprehensive and systematic philosophy. I was certain that humanity could not live within a mere systematic elaboration of the Preface to a Critique of Political Economy. The New Left gave Marxism its highest development as a pseudo-science in the middle and later seventies. They did this with great commercial success, and their jargon saturated the British Labour movement, with the result that it became incapable of empirical thought and Thatcher took over. All I have heard in politics from the New Left since Thatcher took over has been silence. Gwyn Williams seems to have combined rhetorical Welsh nationalism with echoes of Marxist pseudo-science in order to become a TV personality.

A group of us campaigned as actively as we could in support of the Bullock proposals in 1977. The whole spectrum of scientific socialism was arrayed against us, as were the trade union leaders of both left and right - and the Institute of Workers' Control, ie, Ken Coates using Bertrand Russell's money. We said that, even though Bullock might be describable in doctrinaire terms as 'peoples' capitalism', the only alternative on the cards was a revival of capitalists' capitalism. And we said they were greatly mistaken about the nature of English society, if they thought it would allow the situation to continue indefinitely in which trade union power made management impotent. If management was not made effective by being made the responsibility of the workforce, then sooner or later capitalist management would be made effective again. But I did not expect the capitalist resurgence to happen so quickly - within a couple of years of Bullock being rejected.

I have not been following Marxist affairs at all closely these last few years. But from what I see the Marxist collapse seems to be total - political, moral and intellectual. Only the Trotskyist version retains any vigour. And the Militant variety seems to be the expression today of what remains of the half sensible traditional militancy of the English working class.

What I see of Irish Marxism in Belfast is individuals of the Communist Party, or Tony Cliff's Socialist Workers' Party, or the People's Democracy that was, who have given up all attempt at sustaining a political movement, and who hold highly paid jobs in the establishment structure and are immensely powerful in matters of patronage. They occasionally drop jibes at us as the hacks of the Orange bourgeoisie, even though we keep going entirely out of our own wages, or dole money. And they know very well that the Orange bourgeoisie is a figment, especially where patronage is concerned.

For about a year and a half, from the start of last year, I was preoccupied with a libel suit brought against me by Mary McAleese, who used to be a Trinity lecturer and an RTE presenter. She was appointed to a strategically important job in the Northern Ireland legal structure a couple of months after she lost an election in Dublin in which she campaigned for the abolition of Northern Ireland. The appointment was made in blatant disregard of the Fair Employment guidelines. I published an article to this effect in a small circulation periodical called A Belfast Magazine. She threatened the main bookshop with libel action unless it undertook never to sell the magazine again. It caved in on the instant. And she issued a libel writ against me. Having no more means now than I ever had, I had to defend myself. (No offers of support were forthcoming from 'the Orange bourgeoisie'.)

It took her high-powered battery of solicitors and barristers over a year, and half a dozen court appearances in which I compelled them to give substantial discovery, despite all the legal trickery they could deploy, before they faced up to the fact that I might well win at the trial, and that I would probably do her irreparable damage even if I lost. Then they settled without costs or damages, and at enormous financial cost to her.

For my part I did not want to win, though I would have had to do my best if it went to trial, because I knew that most of the Protestant part of the legal profession, who would not lift a finger to help me, were gloating in anticipation of what I would do to her before a jury. (And by the way, despite all the propaganda about non-jury trials in the North, she tried to spring a non-jury trial on me.)

I know that for must of a century Southern Protestants have felt considerable antipathy towards Northern Protestants. I find the Protestant middle class in the North contemptible, but for the opposite reason to what might be supposed. As soon as they become slightly cultured, they become disdainful of the culture of the mass of the people, and they segregate themselves into Cultra or Malone Road or Hillsborough. They become nice people and wash their hands of vulgar practices. At the same time they remain Unionist. But they do nothing to make the Union civilised. And they leave it to upheavals of the uncouth masses to ensure that the Union stays.

I'm afraid that the element that is unashamedly Orange is the only element I have a shred of respect for.

All the institutions of civil society have gone by default of the respectable Protestant middle class into nationalist hands. Since Protestant society remains thoroughly Loyalist - at the end of the day, even Cultra is fount to be crudely Loyalist - that is a thoroughly unhealthy state of affairs. It means that the feelings of the mass of the people are given expression only in the demagogy of party politics. Virtually everything else in the institutions of society is manipulated against them. That would be well enough if there was a probability of their will being broken. Twenty years ago, in debates and private discussions with supporters of both wings of Republicanism, I disagreed with the view that their will could be broken by the combination of physical force and political cleverness. It was not broken. It was only made to turn vicious.

The Mary McAleese affair could not have happened in reverse in Dublin. But that sort of thing happens all the time in Belfast. And every incident reinforces the feeling of betrayal in the inarticulate but strong willed Protestant mass.

As to the South, it seems to me that there is a great deal of academic publishing to no useful purpose. I hardly ever read Dublin books any more. I saw all the fuss about Roy Foster, and thought there might be something new there. But I have just had occasion to look at his Oxford Illustrated History, and it's the same old bit and pieces.

Like it or not, the coherent social movement of Catholic nationalism, which was born in the Veto controversy, moulded Irish social development for a century and a half, displacing the older, more traditional more human Irish Catholicism of the 18th century. Foster gives no expression to that fact. if he had done, he would be a less popular historian, though a better one.

It seems to me that southern Ireland has fallen apart intellectually since 1970. Fragments that had almost been rendered extinct in the era of Catholic-nationalist coherence have revived somewhat, but there is no prospect of them becoming a nucleus of a new development. I am occupying that part of myself by producing a dispassionate history of Catholic nationalism from the heroic days of Walter Cox and JB Clinch, and of the two significant resistances to Catholic-nationalism, The Nation and The Cork Free Press. And I don't know there is much else I could do. It is Angela who has worked out a secular programme and given it political currency in the Church & State magazine during the part eight or nine years. It has been very interesting seeing the lines of thought she and others work out in the magazine make their way into the public mind at a lapse of about two years.

I'm afraid I can't help you regarding Plunkett and the Co-ops: I think I dealt with him to some extent in a large pamphlet I published 20 years ago, called The Economics Of Partition, but I do not recall anything on the spur of the moment. But I may be going over the material next year for a new edition.

The Co~op stores in Belfast seemed to be of a kind with those in London, and they held up better in the recession of the late seventies and early eighties. But the main Belfast store closed last year.

When I was young I worked as a labourer for a Creamery Co-op in North Cork. It was a thriving collective capitalist enterprise, and I believe it still operates independently despite all the mergers in the surrounding areas of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. What strikes me about it in retrospect is the strict equality between farmers of different sizes which the system maintained.

I found the non-Ascendancy Protestant elements in the south around the turn of the century interesting individually, but it did not seem to me that they were capable of constituting a social force. And the AFIL despised those of them who allowed themselves to be used by Redmond to make debating points against the Ulster Unionists.

I think the Home Rule element in the Northern Protestant bourgeoisie was grossly exaggerated. I went into the case of JB Armour, who was always cited in that connection, and found that he was only a Home Ruler on the understanding, which I think was a fundamental misunderstanding, that Home Rule would be just a kind of enhanced local government within the UK.

I recall reading pamphlets by a Joseph Johnston published around 1920 Could he be your father?

The campaign against the Godless Colleges must have had the effect you mention. I took it up last year in a debate with Bob Cooper as a factor leading to imbalance amongst employers in the North. And I asked why his FEA in its analysis of the "normal" factors in the causation of the differential employment pattern between Protestants and Catholics, so that the "discrimination" element could be specified, had taken no account of the lack of Catholic entrepreneurship. I said that discrimination could not account for the lack of Catholic entrepreneurship. All were equally free to be obsessed with industry and devote their lives and their savings to small business and dedicate themselves to making it larger. But, if virtually all the entrepreneurship came from one community and that community as a whole had an obsession with science, technology and thrift, one could not in the normal course of events expect the result to be an even distribution of employment in both communities.

This point had been made a number of times in Workers' Weekly in comment on FEA reports. Cooper made no reply. But in live debate his failure to reply would be very obvious. He had clearly put his staff to work to devise a reply for him. The bright idea they came up with was that potential entrepreneurs were in exactly the same position as potential employees. They were equally subject to religious discrimination. The banks were Protestant and they would not lend money to Catholics for business purposes.

This was merely asserted. It seemed to me to be highly improbable. And, if the FEA researchers had formed the idea through finding evidence of it, I'm sure that evidence would have been broadcast all over the world.

It's a long time since I read Plunkett's dispute with the Catholic clergy about the industrial consequences of Catholic education and culture, but I think his reasoning was essentially on the same lines as mine. And one of the things I liked about Canon Sheehan was his brisk attitude on this matter. He said that if Catholics didn't stop whinging and get on with doing they would continue to be the cause of their own misfortunes. And he pointed out how the Jews managed to do things under forms of oppression entirely beyond the experience of Irish Catholics.

My debate with Cooper was a couple of days after I had spoken about Canon Sheehan down in Newmarket. And I began by quoting Canon Sheehan on whinging. Cooper, a good Protestant who beats his breast unceasingly for the sins of his people, has an adoring following of nuns. And they did not think at all kindly of Canon Sheehan that day.

Regarding Harry Ferguson and Sinn Fein - I don't know if you've ever come across a Sinn Fein novel published about then: The Ring Of Day. I came across it by accident a few years ago and I've been meaning to do a review ever since. It was written by a Protestant woman whose name escapes me. It's a stirring heroic and romantic novel about a new Ireland which many Protestants under the influence of early Sinn Fein imagined was being forged. It reminded me of Disraeli's novels. It was Young Ireland about to materialise.

That movement - or illusion - existed amongst the Dublin intelligentsia and some elements in Belfast. But they seem to have taken no interest in the AFIL, which was the only actual social movement at all capable of realising Young Ireland. John Eglington published a dismissive article on Canon Sheehan in Dana around the time of the Land Act. All he could see was a reactionary priest.

The Redmondite movement took some trouble to string along the Protestant liberals. And I think they were all too willing to be strung along.

What I remember about the Larne and Howth gunrunning is that the former was done with the maximum secrecy and the latter with maximum publicity. The former seemed to be done for an absolutely earnest military purpose and the latter as a piece of Redmondite exhibitionism. Childers was an overt imperialist at the time of the gun-running. And he was obviously an imperialist in 1914-18. I don't know what he was at the end.

But I don't think there can have been a high level conspiracy to arm both sides. At any rate I don't think the Government connived at the Larne gun-running. The English ruling class was genuinely split over Irish policy and both sides were in earnest. But in any case, because of what the Home Rule Party was and the Ulster Protestants were, I think there was no possibility of constructing an all-Ireland government then. The North would undoubtedly have been much better governed, and the prospects of North/South co-operation would have been much better, if the conflict had run its course to a Partition settlement in 1914/15, because Dicey, Balfour, Carson and the best of English Tory aristocracy would have been centrally involved then and were not involved later. But this letter is too long already and I can't start off on that now. By the way, could you note my new address above. Yours sincerely / Brendan Clifford.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999