By Jim Slaven
It has now been a week since the SNP government passed their Offensive Behaviour Bill in the Scottish parliament. Since then much has been written and said about the draconian and anti free speech nature of that legislation. In essence people have been restating positions which were already well laid out in advance of the vote and not many minds, on either side of the debate, have been changed. If anything the last week has seen opinions become more entrenched as the language has become more intemperate. It is not my intention here to go over our opposition to the legislation all over again. Life is too short and many others, including many I usually disagree with, have done so far more eloquently than I could.
Now is the time turn our attention to some of the wider implication of this law for Scotland’s Irish community and particularly how this new law targets the interconnection between culture and politics for many Irish Scots. It is by now very clear that this Bill is, at least in part, an attempt to drive any reference to the IRA out of public discourse in Scotland. From Salmond’s repeated references to ‘a terrorist organisation’ to the SPL directly linking offensive behaviour to groups proscribed under the British state’s Terrorism Act we can see who it is that is in the sights of the state. This law is aimed directly at the Irish community and instead of protecting a community which is up to six times more likely to be a victim of hate crimes than Scots Protestants, it is attempting to criminalise certain expressions of Irishness.
First of all it is obvious that the Irish community, by which I mean the ethnic, multi-generational group rather than those of Irish nationality, are not a homogenous group. Like other immigrant communities the Irish in Scotland are a complex, diverse (politically as well as economically) and often contradictory group. So, not all Irish Scots will be affected by this law. It follows therefore that the following analysis relates only to a section of that community, that section which identifies with radical republicanism and for many that means the IRA. It is a minority of the Irish community in Scotland for sure, but it is a larger minority than many Scots wish to admit.
When the United Irishmen rebelled against the British in 1798 they were supported by the United Scotsmen. In the various nineteenth century rebellions, whenever Irish men and women have challenged British occupation, Irish Scots have rallied to the cause. This revolutionary tradition continued throughout the various phases of struggle in the twentieth century and continues to the present day. For many this means direct involvement in Irish politics rather than Scottish politics. For others it means a keen interest in Irish affairs whilst engaging politically in Scotland through one of the political parties or the trade union movement.
However for a huge amount of Irish Scots it means a cultural affiliation with the politics of resistance, with the songs and the iconography of struggle. While this culture itself is not an engagement with revolutionary politics, politics cannot be disassociated from this revolutionary culture. For many of us the periods of revolution and resistance (including the IRA) in Irish history are a source of pride and identification. The new law attempts to outlaw certain expressions of Irishness. It seeks to reduce our history and culture to limited, acceptable (to the state), confines such as St Patricks Day. It attempts to exclude the revolutionary content from that history and culture altogether.
It may be offensive to many Scots, and to the Scottish government, but many Irish Scots have a deep connection with Ireland and part of that, for many of us, is a strong sense of solidarity with Irish resistance to British occupation. Our families may have come to Scotland (and as Scots never tire of telling me I was born here) but our interest in Ireland, and Irish politics, remains. This is not unusual and is entirely in keeping with the experience of other immigrant communities in Scotland and indeed with the Irish internationally. Indeed, given Ireland’s history of emigration, the right of the Diaspora to contribute to debates about the future of the nation is enshrined in the Irish constitution.
In most parts of the world this has been accepted and indeed celebrated. In places as far apart as Brooklyn or Birmingham or Buenos Aries the Irish contribution to the host society is welcomed and the community participates in Irish culture or discusses Irish politics and there is not a problem. The same cannot be said of Scotland. Following the IRA ceasefire and the development of the peace process many commentators talked about a ‘peace dividend’. They explained that this would not only boost the Irish economy and promote a more welcoming image of Ireland internationally it would also boost the Diaspora. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I took part in several meetings where this was discussed. I was always very impressed by how the peaceful backdrop created by the IRA had allowed for Irish enterprise and culture to develop globally.
At each of these gatherings I pointed out that no such ‘peace dividend’ would develop in Scotland. My simple rationale was that for many Scots we would always be Fenians. Scotland has a problem, and this law is not part of the solution it is part of that problem. Implicit in the legislation and the political discourse which accompanied it is a view of racism (and bigotry) as psychological and individual phenomenon. More than that it reinforces the myth of Scotland as an egalitarian society, where a progressive (anti racist) consensus exists and is only sullied by the behaviour of a few (mostly working class) football fans.
According to this worldview the state is neutral playing no role in the creation (or reproduction) of discrimination. In fact the state is not a neutral arbiter but is an active participant in these social ills. If the Scottish government wants to end anti Irish racism and bigotry they should start by taking a good look at the state institutions they control. Instead they have given these state apparatus more power over the Irish community including allowing the police to determine what (unspecified) displays of Irishness will be offensive and illegal. As many have pointed out the target of the law is often explicitly stated to be political expression, despite the fact politics by its very nature is contentious. It should also be pointed out that for a party that claims (although only recently) to be interested in ending bigotry the SNP seem strangely reticent about challenging or even mentioning the Orange Order!
The James Connolly Society started campaigning on the issue of anti Irish racism in 1992. Our view then, as now, was that to describe the societal problems labelled ‘sectarianism’ as intra-Christian disputes as the Scottish government does is absurd. Equally absurd are attempts to reduce Irish ethnicity to religion or football. The ethnic and historical dimensions are crucial to developing a better understanding of the problem. In 1992 most people, including some of our own community, questioned whether such a community existed. We have come a long way since then. The Irish in Scotland have gained their consciousness. And part of that consciousness is an understanding of our revolutionary history, politics and culture. The radical Irish tradition in Scotland needs to be contextualised rather than marginalised, or worse criminalised.
As Scotland moves towards independence we also need to move beyond the limited and conservative vision offered by the SNP, of which this law is only one part. Scotland needs to create space for a proper debate to take place about what kind of country we want to live in. For many of us who advocate the breakup of Britain that must also mean an end to monarchy and to British militarism. It will be a Scotland which ‘cherishes all of the children of the nation equally’ and celebrates (rather than criminalises) divergent views. It will be a Scotland of Thomas Muir and Wolfe Tone, of MacLean and Connolly, and of Bobby Sands. We believe in independence not because we believe Scotland is a great country but because we believe it could be. Rather than criminalising expressions of radical republicanism indigenous Scots need to recognise it as a shared heritage for Scotland and Ireland. Its time has come