From the East End to the West: The Political Journey of an Irish Londoner

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Book Review: Maybe It’s Because by Vincent Wood, Kindle, 91 pages, €5.00

Like many families that lived around harbours, my mother’s went to sea. At least three generations of them. And most of them went to sea in Royal Navy ships. On top of that, the Great Depression, coupled with De Valera’s Economic War drove all of my mother’s siblings to England, one way or the other. The two girls went nursing. The three boys joined the navy. Four of them never came back; one went down with the Neptune in a mine-field off North Africa, three of them married and settled and were quite content to stay there, apart from holidays ‘at home’. The fifth came home to die.

This is the story of generations of working class people and poor farmers and labourers in every country of the world since the industrial revolution. I heard the same stories in Naples. In one of the opening scenes of Il Postino the actor Massimo Troisi looks in disbelief at a postcard from America, unable to accept the relative affluence of his cousins there. It could have been shot in Connemara. Recently a Nigerian taxi-driver in London described his home place in exactly the same terms that my uncles used.

As a consequence I do not believe in nationalism or race, except that we are all members of the human race itself. But I think my English cousins feel these things differently and more intensely. The emigrant is always conscious of the crossing and how things look different once you step ashore in a new home. The challenge for those who remain behind is to understand this transformation and how it affects the traveller, the migrant and the children of people who belong profoundly in two places. Once we can make that effort of understanding we can never think of migrants to our own land as anything other than the mirror image of our children, our ancestors or ourselves. They are us going the other way.

Vincent Wood, who will be well known to readers of Irish Left Review, addresses this challenge in his introduction. How, can you live in England or the USA and be Irish? His answer, understandably for a socialist for whom ‘nationalism can be a negative thing’, is complex.

Wood grew up in the England of the welfare state – now widely regarded by people who benefited from it, as a dirty word. He quotes approvingly from the 1945 manifesto of the Labour Party:

The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that – it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable, labour-saving homes that take full advantage of the resources of modern science and productive industry. It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them.

This perspective seems both radically obvious and radically other to what we hear now. It is impossible to imagine New Labour stating the case in such simple yet profound terms – in fact the recent pronouncements of its leader on his liking for capitalism would have been correctly regarded as right-wing twaddle by the framers of the 1945 manifesto. Whatever the Irish Labour party might say, it prosecutes a different strategy in power, as witness the conditions that led to the resignation of Róisín Shortall. Wood tells us that the people he grew up among had a clear understanding of why working people had achieved improved working conditions and social benefits – not because of the benevolence of the elites, but because they had organised and because the elites were afraid of the Soviet Union and communism. He is clear that the struggle for these conditions was a long one and the achievements perilous and, in fact, soon to be undone – the first indications came when Margaret Thatcher, then Minister for Education in Ted Heath’s government, withdrew free school milk. Wood describes his childhood in the East End of London but also the move, under Thatcherism, of the white working class away from places like Canning Town and into Tory-voting suburbs like Basildon.

So, the question arises: What is a young London-born lad of socialist background, albeit with Irish ancestry, doing in prison for IRA activities in his 20s? Wood himself poses this question in the introduction, but his answer isn’t completely clear. He explains how he became interested in republican politics in response to Thatcher’s treatment of the hunger strikers and seems to imply that he ‘became involved in activity in [his] home town’ without explaining what that activity was. At the time of the Baltic Exchange bombing, the first really big attack on a commercial centre, he reflected on the human cost – his sister’s husband knew the doorman killed in the attack – but he supported the campaign against Britain’s economic interests. All of this seems normal enough, though there are suggestions that he was more of an activist than a supporter. Then, suddenly it seems, in October 1992, he was arrested and charged with possession of explosives and conspiracy to cause explosions. A tea-chest containing Semtex, timers and a map showing John Major’s house had been traced to him. We are not told whether the explosives were his or not. He was brought to trial and sentenced to twenty two years. Immediately the chapter moves on to his experience of prison. Where did the Semtex come from? Was he in an ‘active service unit’? What was his role in storing or handling the explosives? We are not told.

This void in the narrative is unsettling. The reader will want to know, one way or the other, whether Vincent Wood had handled these explosives and whether or not he was in fact conspiring to blow up John Major’s house. There may well be some reason – legal for example – why this coyness is necessary, but the book would be stronger if Wood were prepared to trust the reader with even the limited truth. Inevitably, as Sinn Féin moves on and those who were involved directly in the IRA struggle fall silent one way or another, our interest in the motives and actions of the activists increases. It’s a pity that Wood did not choose to enlarge on this episode in his life.

In any case the book recounts his time in Full Sutton prison and later in Porlaoise and then his release under the Good Friday Agreement. With the assistance of friends he made the transition from prisoner to worker and eventually to Director of Elections for Sinn Féin in Mayo as that party was making progress towards its present significant position in politics here. In time, the politics would bring him into contact with his future partner. Having calculated that his sentence would keep him in prison until he was forty and he was, therefore, unlikely to ever have children, he now found himself a father at 35.

The book goes on to analyse the problems facing Sinn Féin as an organisation west of the Shannon. Wood rightly remarks that no area of Ireland is in greater need of radical politics. Plagued by poverty, migration and emigration, and poor infrastructure, the people still cling to the old parties. Ironically, as he observes, ‘the one piece of infrastructure built in the 1980s that has thrived – Knock Airport – has been and remains a busy place’. His involvement with the Shell to Sea movement has taught him, though, that a change is possible.

As a radical socialist, Wood laments the fact that all policy in this country is formulated within a certain discourse, beginning from what we have, rather than imagining what we could have.

Maybe It’s Because tells the story of one man’s political education – Gramsci’s concept of an organic working class intellectual. We follow the thought processes of a young man attempting to come to terms with the political problems posed by working class struggle against nascent neoliberalism and his move into what he saw as an anti-colonial war of liberation. He finds his way in politics through reading and debating, particularly during his years in prison. In time we witness his disenchantment with the party-political system and his despair that such a system can produce a true radical outcome. In a sense, Woods comes full circle, beginning with the trade unionism and socialism of his parents and returning to that place via the nationalist struggle. But the struggle is the same no matter where it begins or ends: whether it’s Thatcherism or the neoliberalism of the Irish political class. This short book is a valuable contribution to understanding the thinking of those who took part in the IRA war and of present day Sinn Féin activists.

 

 

 

 

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William Wall is the author four novels, the most recent of which, This Is The Country (2005), has been described as a 'broad attack on the Celtic Tiger'. He has also published poetry and short stories.