Phil Ferguson: a firsthand account of the Irish 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 second instalment. The first instalment is here.

TL: Last time we met we talked about what drew you to Ireland and we talked also about music that you liked. I want to ask you about U2 the band. In 1984 they toured NZ with the album Joshua Tree and they had a sort of progressive spirit, at least that was my perception as a teenager. Bono in recent years, whenever I see him he has another pair of sunglasses. He has sort of become a symbol of everything that is wrong in our culture in general. What was your opinion in the 1980s and the 21st century of U2?

PF: Well politically I never liked them much, and I never liked Bono at all. Larry Mullin the drummer was the only one I could stand. Bono was a little shit in my view. Their music was a bit of a contradiction for me. Joshua Tree was a very good album. The one before that was also very good. Joshua Tree was their cultural high point.

TL: In the 1980s as a kid I thought Bono and Geldoff were on the side of change and progress. Later all I can think of is Bono and his sunglasses!

PF: U2 were Fine Gael supporters which was the most pro-British party before the Progressive Democrats formed, who are equally pro-British. They were like that from the start. U2 were hostile to republicanism. I used to like people like Chisty Moore he was quite progressive, though I think he still supports Sinn Fein. There were bands who were around at the time of the hunger strikes, like Moving Hearts. They were progressive. I couldn’t afford to see live gigs when I was there, but when I was back in Christchurch I saw Damien Dempsy, he’s good, he’s got a great voice.

TL: Talking to friends of mine, I had this picture that there is an alcohol culture in Ireland, particularly more so in the North. Did you see evidence of that?

PF: I used to do quite a few collections for the republican movement. I used to do sales of An Poblacht – the republican newspaper at pubs, we had three in our area. It was quite depressing seeing some old people sitting in the pubs alone, not talking or socialising, just drinking quite a lot of beer.

TL: Did the political movement have a drinking culture?

PF: They had an illegal pub, it didn’t have license. Lots stayed away though because the state watched who went to those pubs and gathered names. Some republicans weren’t drinkers, for instance, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh who was the president of Sinn Fein before Adams toppled him, he never drank.

TL: Ireland has massive literary figures, like James Joyce. Were there writers that were part of the movement?

PF: There were people like Peadar O’Donnell who had been a member of the IRA since the twenties and thirties. There was also Seán Ó Faoláin who was a short story writer, also in the IRA in the 1920s. There was also Máirtín Ó Cadhain an Irish writer. He was famous in the sixties and seventies.

TL: We talked last time about what motivated you to take the step of actively committing to the republican movement. Is there anything you wanted to add about that?

PF: I thought that Ireland was the key to revolution in Britain. It seemed that Ireland was closer to overthrowing capitalism and that it would have an effect in Britain of seriously challenging power because they were so closely linked.

TL: You didn’t perceive that in Scotland where there is another independence movement?

PF: No, and in fact who was Scotland oppressed by? England? Or Wales? I didn’t see Scotland as oppressed, whereas it was very much combined Britain oppressing Ireland.

TL: Would you still back that judgment today? Or would you see it differently now?

PF: I would probably still see Ireland as being politically more advanced than Britain. A lot of the other questions have been swept aside, like abortion rights and gay rights. They have come to Ireland. So those social questions that were retarded in Ireland and had been held back, now they have come about. Unfortunately, to some extent, it has been rightwing bourgeois politicians that have brought in those reforms. The republican movement didn’t take up those issues because they were so bound up in fighting the war and issues relating to that. Like prisoners and prison oppression and so on.

TL: Do you think they would have enhanced status if they had fought for those social causes?

PF: I thought they would have won a lot more support but they sort of held back on it. Now everyone, including the cops, are all for gay rights. It’s not at all controversial or progressive either.

TL: We are in a different position now with those questions, absolutely. Thinking again about the 1980s, There were big strikes and union protests in Britain. Was there something like that in Ireland?

PF: The problem with the miners’ strike in Britain was that the working class was divided. The Labour Party position was not really supportive of the miners although individual members were, and Thatcher was able to fight the miners to a standstill for a year. Kinnock who was the leader of the Labour Party at the time joined Thatcher in putting down the miners. The thing about Ireland, there wasn’t really something comparable to the miners’ strike but the republican movement was a significant movement that had a revolutionary cutting edge that was lacking in Britain. In Ireland there was a revolutionary nationalist movement that was armed and was taking on the British state. In the British Left they were not really taking on the state. They could have a strike and they might win or they might lose but the system was still going to renew itself and easily find a way through.

So if they got rid of Thatcher, so what? A Major or Tony Blair was going to stay. Now Sinn Fein has gone down that road, they are just another bourgeois party. It’s the biggest party in Ireland in the south and the north in electoral terms let alone numerical. They are just part of the furniture now. They have completely changed in terms of their members too. Mary Lou McDonald, for instance, wouldn’t have joined when the war was on. Adams has turned a formerly revolutionary movement – the IRA and Sinn Fein – into just Sinn Fein, and turned them into bourgeois politics.

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