Lost in Brussels

AL Kennedy on the perils of visiting Brussels, how to spot the British amidst a foreign crowd and on

Sadly, I missed getting hit on the head by police batons at the anti-Bush protests. (Why is it - and I’m asking seriously – that police are so very suggestible ? Dress them in riot gear and they do like to bust things up. Mix them with US enforcement and they get all Vietnam on your ass.) And, as we know, the police usually try to bully crowds if they are not composed of football supporters and then get pre-emptively tense about the consequences of their own actions. Inflicting head wounds with metal bars isn’t what I’d call an appropriate response to a peaceful demonstration, but then what do I know about democracy…? Depressing.

Why wasn’t I in London being prevented from walking up Whitehall in a perfectly legal manner ? Because I was working. (Ish) I had to go to Europe – by train. (Indulging my own irrational fears without hitting anyone at all.) So, up at the crack of dawn, down to London, through the Chunnel – a huge undersea chimney within which I could sample the delights of being drowned, crushed and incinerated, perhaps simultaneously. And yet I doze peacefully through it - perhaps due to lack of oxygen: many others seem to doze, too – and am relaxed as a drugged puppy. Then on to Cologne and on even further by car to Bitberg which is in Eifel, which has its own international literary prize. (Imagine Berwick having its own international literary prize, or Kettering – we just don’t do culture, do we ?)

The journey out wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d anticipated. First I had to negotiate the mingled British and non-British crowds at St Pancras – duly noting that the two groups were instantly recognisable – the non-Brits weren’t pissed, tense, whining and hitting their toddlers with shoes. Then I had to negotiate Brussels Midi, not the world’s easiest or loveliest railway station. Many of its platforms are ridiculously long and curved which means you (or indeed I) could be waiting docilely on the correct platform while a train sneaks in invisibly around the curve, hides and sneaks out again without you. (Or indeed me.) Having missed my first train, I then descended to the ticket office, where you have to take a ticket to stand in the queue for a ticket, then conduct extensive negotiations to have your ticket – the first ticket – turned extremely slowly into your third ticket, before running up to the platform in order to miss another secretive train and repeat as necessary. There was a point at which I believed that a) I would never leave Brussels again and/or b) I had died and would never leave Brussels again and/or c) I was taking part in some kind of perverse psychological experiment and would begin stress-induced gnawing at my own limbs within minutes.

But – on the bright side – Bitberg was friendly, The folks were delightful and gave me their International Prize in return for making a small speech, while lavishing me with free food, much of it asparagus-based. (It is the season for it.) The only blot on the landscape was provided by the German football team who have managed to qualify for something or other – this causing me to have to converse about football in German, when I cannot do so in English and lack essential vocabulary like goal, nippy winger and I’d rather pluck out my own eyes and throw them in a blender. That’s a fib, actually – I know how to say the last one in many languages, because it comes up so often.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser