The great “Protest the Pope” implosion

It’s been a damp squib so far. Does opposition to the papal visit come only from a liberal metropoli

For the past few days, if not weeks (and sometimes it feels like months), I have had regular email updates from Peter Tatchell detailing his opposition to the papal visit. The latest, only hours ago, informs me that there has been a "Pope cover-up of gay Cardinal Newman".

Never mind that Tatchell is raking over what is by now a very familiar story, and coming up with some rather dubious "proof" for his assertion -- "Newman was not exactly macho. His soft, gentle, effeminate demeanour is typical of what we often associate with some gay men" (!!).

I like Peter, have known him through journalism for around 15 years now, and regard him as a brave man whose one-time militancy has matured into a principled and selfless stance that he has maintained at great personal cost.

Nevertheless, Peter and his colleagues in the Protest the Pope movement do not seem to have enjoyed conspicuous success so far. Areas specifically set aside by the police for demonstrators in Edinburgh were empty when the 24-hour news channels were covering His Holiness's arrival in the Scottish capital yesterday.

The greatest opposition so far seems to have been coming from the Rev Ian Paisley -- and I hardly think he is the kind of ally Peter and his friends want. (In fact, if they wanted to protest against Dr Paisley, I'd join them at the barricades any day. But that's another story.)

Great joy of the faithful

Could it be that large numbers of people, disgusted as they are by the paedophile abuse scandals involving Catholic priests that have been unearthed, are still nevertheless able to distinguish between the evils associated with the Church, and its harsh and inflexible rhetoric on all sorts of sexual behaviour -- and the good that it does, and the comfort and social solidarity it supplies to many people throughout the country?

I merely point out that many of the Pope's most vehement critics, from Polly Toynbee (who wrote a very spirited piece in the Guardian on Tuesday) to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, yes, even Geoffrey Robertson in the New Statesman, are all metropolitan liberals. Members of the middle classes, yes -- but more or less in the same way as David Cameron is, which is to say, part of a privileged minority.

Whereas I bet that if I went to any of the Catholic churches I attended as a child -- in which the congregations were overwhelmingly working class and an RP accent stuck out from a mile off -- the view from the pews today would still be of great joy that the Pontiff has come to the country.

Could it be that, even if coffee mornings, lunches, early-evening drinks and dinner parties across Hampstead, Islington, Holland Park, the newly affluent parts of Hackney and the cutting-edge borders of Peckham were cancelled, the protesting crowds would still be thin during the Pope's time in London?

If so, one might be left with the conclusion that almost the only group that is really, bitterly, foot-stampingly furious about the visit of the leader of the world's one billion-plus Catholics is the members of a metropolitan elite.

I may be wrong. In fact, I must hope I am proved so. Because that would not speak very well of the tolerance of which liberals -- and I write as one -- profess themselves to be such earnest defenders. A tolerance that draws its limits so sharply and aggressively is not worthy of the name at all, surely?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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