Phil Ferguson on radical youth politics and the Irish republican struggle

Phil Ferguson is a founding editor of Redline and was a regular contributor. He has been out of action for the past year after suffering a stroke. He is learning to walk again and hoping to get back to writing. Tim Leadbeater sat down with Phil to talk about topics including what drew him to left-wing politics, his time in Ireland in the 1980s working for the Irish republican movement and his love of music. This is the first instalment.


TL: How did you first get involved in leftwing politics?

PF: Well, my family was sort of quite political. They weren’t particularly left-wing, but were political. When I was 13 or 14, I started thinking about politics. I could never quite figure out why Labour was seen to be a working-class party, but always kind of betrayed the working class. When I was 14, I got Malcolm X Speaks out of the school library. It was about the only political book in the school library. I got it out nine times and it explained to me quite a lot about why the Labour Party is the way it is. That year the Americans invaded Cambodia, and I went on a demo. And I remember me and a friend of mine from school, we were quite nervous and we stood on the outskirts of the demo so we could hop off if anything sort of weird happened.

Then I went to the founding meeting of the Canterbury Union of Secondary Students (CUSS) which was the beginning of the high school movement, and I got involved in that. Then, over time, I got involved in High School Students Against the War. When I was in the fifth form or the sixth form I became the president of High School Students Against the War. Vietnam was particularly important for me.

TL Is that the early ’70s? Can you talk about the first socialist group that you ended up gravitating towards?

PF : I used to go into Progressive Books, which your granddad was involved with. But the People’s Voice was such a boring paper, it was terrible. It was full of jargon, ultra-Maoist jargon. But from Malcolm X, one group on the left that he mentioned, was the American Socialist Workers Party. And the Socialist Action League [affiliated to the SWP] was a group that influenced me.

TL: Was that while you were were you a student at University at that point?

PF: No that is while I was still at school

TL: How did you find them? Did you see people giving out their paper?

PF: My older brother had a subscription and he joined the SAL. He was recruited by Paul Piesse who was later on in the Alliance and now is in the Canterbury Socialist Society. I joined the SAL when I was 16.

TL: And that’s at the same time as there being big mobilisations around the Vietnam War?

PF: Yeah and the SAL was very involved in that. The first demo in Christchurch that I went on was about 600 people, I think. That was 1970, but by ’71 and ’72 there were ten to twelve thousand.

TL: Did you have a lot of other friends at school who were of getting interested in politics as well?

FP: Not really. I went to Aranui High School and some of the teachers who were anti-war wouldn’t say anything nor wear badges. Over time, there were a few, very few, other students. There was a mate of mine who came on the marches, although he didn’t stay involved in anything.

TL: Was there still quite a lot of stigma or fear or hostility towards people who were advocating against the war?

FP: Yes there was quite a lot.

TL: People have a bit of a rosy view about the ’60s and ’70s as being radical and revolutionary and led by powerful hippies who were out to change the world and it was all very idealistic.

FP: People like Tim Shadbolt were around. He was in Auckland and he got arrested just over saying bullshit in public. He got arrested twice in public.

TL: So the culture was still very conservative?

PF: It was the RSA generation and the people who fought in World War 2. We used to have protests at ANZAC events whereas today they go and celebrate.

TL:. There’s the anti-war movement and the obvious kind of cultural change in the ’60s and ’70s, people can understand that. But what was the thing that made you go for a socialist analysis that was more than just anti-war?

FP: It was probably Vietnam

TL: How did Malcolm X link in with that?

FP: Malcolm X had been killed in 1965. He was dead before I was political, but that book Malcolm X Speaks was really influential in my development. I much preferred him to Martin Luther King. It wasn’t until much later that I came to appreciate King more, and see that King wasn’t an Uncle Tom and that he was actually quite good. And that he was involved in a lot of struggles. With Malcolm X it was only really ever the last year of his life that he was. Well part of the problem was he was involved with the Muslims and Martin Luther King was a Christian and neither of those religions did anything for me.

TL: Malcolm X had a kind of a class-based analysis, as well, is that what you saw in him?

PF: Well he sort of developed that just in the last year of his life. He left the Black Muslims and set up a political organisation and a religious one. I was much more interested in the political thing. On my ruler at school I used to write things like “Long Live the Fourth International” and “Long Live Leon Trotsky”. Most people used to write their favourite musicians on their rulers.

I liked the Rolling Stones, and I remember I bought one of my very first purchases Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, the Rolling Stones album. I’d shifted from liking the Beatles to more liking the Rolling Stones. I also liked the very early Jethro Tull, like the first couple of LPs. But then when they did Thick as a Brick and a Passion Play, where one track was 40 minutes long I went off them and turned to an underground group called Van de Graaf Generator. I became a big Van de Graaff Generator fan. Later, my musical tastes expanded a bit. It still included Van de Graaf Generator but I also liked Blues and Rock music generally.

TL: Was that influenced by your peers in the Socialist Action League going to concerts or venues or were you just doing that on your own?

PF: Probably. I remember a guy in the Socialist Action League, who became the branch organiser, and his girlfriend who wasn’t in the SAL, She used to be a big fan of Hendricks and Van Morrison. I liked Hendricks’ Cry of Love, and Some Moondance by Van Morrison, and some other Van Morrison stuff too.

TL: So there’s the culture, the music, the Vietnam War, Socialist Action League, and Malcolm X. That’s quite a good combination. What made you particularly interested in Ireland?

PF: I had an interest in Ireland early on. My mother had a poetry book, and it had a poem about Ireland called After Aughrim. I remember being very moved by that. And then Bernadette Devlan was on TV a certain amount, and she got elected to the British Parliament. I was a big Bernadette fan, although later on, I shifted a bit. When I went to Britain, I was interested in the British Left but I was struck by how insular they were.

TL: Were you in your twenties at this time? And doing your big OE and getting into socialist politics in the UK, going to meetings, and political events?

PF: Yes I was in my early twenties. I joined the UK section of the Fourth International, the international Marxist group, which was the next biggest group, after the British Socialist Workers Party. The Militant Tendency was the third biggest group, but it was mainly sort of studenty. I join the FI but soon left and joined a very small group that started as a split with the International Marxist Group.

In 1981that was when there were the hunger strikes. It was a very big deal for me. It changed my mind on the war. I was supportive of the politics of republicanism but I disagreed with the armed struggle. The hunger strike changed my mind. I felt it was important to take the war to the British Establishment. I was appalled by the British Left, all of them would go to a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march against a war that didn’t exist. A quarter million people on a CND march in London. Then the next week, there would be a solidarity march with the hunger strikers and there’d be 1500 people.

TL: Had the hunger strikers been put in jail because they were planting bombs in public buildings, and because of being involved in the armed struggle?

PF: They generally tried not to kill members of the public, but sometimes … I mean, they weren’t like a professional army. Whereas the British did kill lots of civilians. That was part of the whole thing. But the IRA was a liberation movement, the provisionals.

TL: There was a movie that came out I watched with the hunger strikers where Thatcher was in power and she just refused to do any negotiation at all. And then some of those hunger strikers actually died. Is that correct?

PF: Ten died. Seven provisional IRA, and three INLA died.

TL: What were their demands when they went on hunger strike?

PF: They were political demands like not to have to wear prison uniforms, or to have to do prison work, and for the right of association with other prisoners. Originally, they didn’t have to wear prison uniforms. Originally, they were recognised as political prisoners and not just ordinary criminals. The political status was taken off them. I think it was done under Labour originally. So the Labour Party were real shits to them.

TL: So they were being marginalised because they were made to be seen as not even political, as just purely kind of criminal?

PF: Yeah. All of a sudden working-class youth of the North of Ireland had decided to kill people? No they hadn’t, the British had forced them to fight. They either fought or went on their knees. I looked at Ireland and I looked at where was the republican movement the weakest, and the armed struggle could get to a certain point and they had pretty much got to there. The Sinn Fein was relatively strong in the North but was very, very small and marginal in the South. Like they got about 2% in the vote. So I moved to Dublin.

TL: What was everyday life like in Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s? If you walked down the street, would you see the British paramilitary military in uniforms? Was that a regular thing? Were there roadblocks?

PF: In the north, Yeah. And on the border. Then the South was a very Catholic state, I’m an atheist and I’d be walking down the street one day and I’d see someone with black soot on their forehead. And I’d be about to say something and then I’d see another person and another person and I’d think it can’t be accidental. It would be Shrove Tuesday or something! On Sunday mornings I’d look out the window and there’d be loads of people in the streets. I’d think wow, what the hell? Yeah, that’s right this is a very Catholic country. Then in 1979 there’d been the Pope’s visit with a mass turnout. It was more religious than France or Italy or Spain. It’s quite different today. And of course, there was anti-abortion law, anti-gay and so on, all of which has changed. I remember the X case, the case of a schoolgirl. I think she’d been raped and her parents were taking her to England to have an abortion and the police looked her up and they took away all the English phone books and newspapers so you couldn’t read advertisements of where to get abortion services. Among republicans, they were pro-divorce, which was all totally illegal. There were a sector of republicans who were pro-abortion and a sector who weren’t. Most of them were probably pro-gay rights.

TL: Did you sense that there was something more urgent and more radical in Ireland that you could contribute to, maybe that you could not contribute in England or in New Zealand?

PF: I felt in England they were pretty hopeless. The so-called revolutionary left wasn’t really revolutionary. In Ireland I quite liked Peoples Democracy, (now Socialist Democracy) the Fourth International Group, but they weren’t armed and in the long term quite a lot of their members joined Sinn Fein and turned out to be not particularly radical. So they carried on and they are one of the very few Trotskyist groups I liked.

TL: So why did you end up joining Sinn Fein? Was it because Sinn Fein was the biggest republican organisation?

PF: They seem to me to be in transition from revolutionary nationalism, which was okay, to revolutionary socialism. I was mistaken about Adams and McGuinnes and co. the so called northern radicals.They counterposed themselves to Southern, more conservative republicans. The guy who was the president of Sinn Fein at the time that I joined, slightly before Adams, was Rory O’Bradaigh.

My position when I moved to Ireland, was that I would have joined the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) except a number of their leaders had been murdered – Costolo, Miriam Daly and some others had been murdered. As a political force they had been wiped out and Sinn Fein seemed to have moved to the left. In hindsight they may have moved to the left but long term they were going to the right. I didn’t see that until the early 1990s. I left Sinn Fein in the middle of 1992 but I didn’t definitively break with them until Christmas of 1993.

I’d already decided to go to Ireland while I was in England. One thing I wanted to do before going to Ireland was I wanted to go to Cuba. I went on a work brigade, and picked fruit and worked on the foundations of a toy factory. After that I moved to Ireland. I had a friend who I met while I was in Cuba, and she was from Ireland and I lived in her house when I first went to Ireland. Her father had been in the IRA and she was good friends with Martin McGuinness.

TL: Was Martin McGuinness quite an inspirational figure for you?

PF: Well he was originally. He was Chief of Staff for a while and he was on the council. I only really met him, in a personal sense, because he was a friend of a friend of mine.

TL: I’m curious what the public meetings were like. Sinn Fein was a big group- are you talking about a hall with hundreds of people or something like that?

PF: Well, the national conference – the Ard Fheis – that was like 1400 to 1500 people. They usually held the Ard Fheis in Dublin. The two main parties that have ruled in the South – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – were overtaken by Sinn Fein in the last election. They are starting to talk about reunification now but up to very recently they were basically collaborationists.

TL: When when the IRA would do bombings and things like that, were there reprisals in Northern Ireland, like random acts of violence toward people on the street?

PF: Yes especially towards the Catholics. Northern Ireland was built on a sort of privileged layer in terms of jobs, houses, and so on, being the preserve of Protestants. The Catholics were like the black population in the South while Jim Crow was in power.

TL: So is armed struggle still a contentious disputed issue in Ireland? It doesn’t seem to have the same prominence as it did in the ’80s? Do you have hope for a radical political alternative to armed struggle in the future?

The recent splits from Sinn Fein who have opposed the direction of Sinn Fein there are about three or four splits of small groups. Two have armed wings and the armed wings tend to control politics. I support Eirigi, which orignially was just half a dozen people from Sinn Fein, but now they are much bigger. They were set up in 2006. Eirigi doesn’t have an armed wing. I think it is opposed in principle to having an armed wing because it doesn’t agree with the idea of armed groups setting the scene. Eirigi is trying to build a radical alternative and it has quite militant protest actions that quite often challenge the Northern police. TO BE CONTINUED.

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