Johnny White: an appreciation

I recently missed marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Johnny White in 2007. Below is the oration delivered at his grave on May 2, 2007 – video of funeral, here – by Johnny’s close friend and comrade Terry Robson:

Comrades and friends:

We are gathered at this place to mourn the death and to honour and celebrate the life of our friend and comrade Johnny White.

In celebrating his life, we are expected to say that he lived life to the full and that we are able to remember the good times as well as the bad. His family will be left to mourn a man of generosity, of simple pleasures who was most at ease in the company of his own family and of his friends. But we also know that Johnny’s life since the death of his wife Maura was one of sadness and of loneliness. Although he was always comforted by the closeness of his sons and daughters, the light in his life flickered and never really recovered since the death of Moria.

But as many of you who stood at this same spot some three years ago will remember and who observed the effect on Johnny of the deep tragedy of Moria’s death and the pain that was evident in his face, there was also a realization that we were probably witnessing the beginning of the end of Johnny’s life as well.

There is a deep irony in claiming to be wise after the event, but there were those of us who knew him well who quietly looked at each other and understood instinctively that the man mourning the death of his wife was confronted by a deep and painful agony with which he was to grapple from then until now.

But just as it is important to express and make clear the hurt of this loss suffered by all of us and especially by his family, it is also important to make clear that Johnny White was no ordinary man and that in our individual and collective grief we should be able to record for posterity, our admiration for his intellect, our respect for his political commitment and our gratitude for his loyalty and devotion to his friends and comrades.

This connection with Johnny goes back a long way and in my case for almost forty years. During the heat of political debate and in the confrontations of street conflict, it was Johnny White who made it clear to me and to others that what was taking place in the struggle for civil rights in the North was both a struggle for national self-determination and a struggle for the freedom of the Irish working-class.

To those of us in our confused and undeveloped way who believed instinctively that we were involved in a class struggle, it was Johnny and others who introduced us to the socialist republicanism of James Connolly and who made it clear that the national question and the class struggle were one and the same – not just two sides of the same coin – not separate, but related and everlasting. It was a view which he held for all of his adult life.

It was the simplicity of the message we received in those early days when we all felt that we were riding on the crest of a revolutionary wave in which fundamental political change seemed inevitable, which made Johnny so unique, so uncluttered, so reasoned and so consistent.

For him, society consisted of two great opposing classes and that the class interests of the minority were used to deny the class interests of the majority. This led him to declare in the tradition of Connolly his unapologetic support for the Irish working class and his hatred of bigotry racism, sexism and sectarianism. In so many ways this uncomplicated approach to politics was the mark of the man which set him aside from others and which demonstrated his talent and ability for leadership at critical periods in our history.

Johnny White had a long and distinguished involvement as a republican fighter. But for those who still believe that Irish Republicanism is confined to the expulsion of the British presence and that the struggle for working class emancipation is a distraction, let it be said that Johnny White represented a broader political consciousness, characterized by an internationalist perspective in which a rejection of exclusivity, of bigotry and of sectarianism would have been at the core of his political consciousness. He would have supported the tactic engaging in electoral politics, but he would never have agreed to an alliance with Unionism. Johnny never wavered from this view. He was for all of us a perfect example of the disciplined professional revolutionary.

Such a distinguished political involvement brought him through the ranks of the republican movement; as a member of the IRA Army Council and to act as Officer Commanding the Derry Command, Official Irish Republican Army during the most critical periods following the erection of the barricades in 19769 and in 1971 and in response to the widespread use of internment powers by the Unionist administration Johnny took part in several engagements against the forces of occupation.

But as important and significant as that particular role may have been, it needs to be remembered that Johnny White was also central to many of the political initiatives which led finally to the collapse of the Stormont regime during his chairmanship of the James Connolly Republican Club.

He was a founder member of the Derry Citizens’ Defence Committee, established as a peoples’ response within Free Derry to the uniformed invaders of the RUC and B Specials and acted in defence of those barricaded areas.

He was active in the formation of the Derry Housing Action Committee which highlighted the abuse of the landlord system and the sectarian mismanagement of local housing provision.

He took part in the many demonstrations of the Unemployed Action Committee, formed to highlight the problem of enforced emigration and long-term unemployment.

During all of this period whilst he continued to support the non-sectarian programme of the Civil Rights movement he argued forcefully for a class analysis of the situation in the North whilst forming alliances with other like-minded radical groups such as the Derry Labour Party, Derry Young Socialists and the Peoples’ Democracy, fore-runners of the anti-imperialist broad front strategy.

After being forced over the border because of his leadership role as the most senior Official IRA man in Derry, Johnny and his family continued to lead a life of permanent and perpetual harassment by the Garda Special Branch as they moved from Buncrana to Letterkenny and then to Dublin.

It was during this time when, in exposing the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Goulding-led leadership of the Official IRA, he joined with Seamus Costello and others in the formation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, serving for a time on its first national executive. The leadership of Costello and Johnny White also resulted in the coming together of former IRA volunteers in a new revolutionary armed initiative, the Irish National Liberation Army, in which Johnny served as its first Adjutant-General.

It was also during this period that he and Costello were praised for their contribution during a conference in Amherst in the United States when they vigorously debated the political programme of socialist republicanism with representatives of Unionism and loyalism.

But these were difficult times in the movement and the debates which took place within the IRSP in those early days on what he saw as the dominant role of the army in the democratic process led Johnny once again to move with others in the creation of the short-lived Irish Committee for a Socialist Programme and the Independent Socialist Party. It was a move which Johnnie was to deeply regret whilst for the fledgling IRSP it meant the loss of one of its most able organisers.

Since then he returned to Derry, involved himself in community work, acted as a welfare rights adviser, becoming active once again in trade union work.

His decision to give evidence at the Bloody Sunday tribunal with other former members of his IRA staff was to be no narrow contribution to a British-established inquiry. On the contrary, Johnny saw it as an opportunity to set the record straight – to confirm the defensive role of the IRA on that day, to expose the dishonesty of the British government and to reject the duplicity and hypocrisy of former priests that the ‘Officials’ were driven by an alien ideology and tainted with accusations of criminality.

Let there be no mistake, to the end Johnny White was a man of principle whose primary aim was the creation of a party of the Irish working class. To many of us he was one of the real heroes of the struggle for freedom and democracy in Ireland. The fact that he suffered pain and loss in later years merely confirms a real sense of humanity of the man. He was one of us and we shall always remember him for his contribution, for his commitment and for his comradeship.

To those of his family, his daughters Patricia, Roisin, and Maria, sons Sean, Kieran, Liam and grandchildren, his brothers Tommy, Willie and Bobby and sisters Tillie and Kathleen, who have lost a father, a grandfather and a brother we extend our deepest sympathy.

We have lost many comrades in the past and we loved all of them. But this one was special and we loved him because of who he was and, especially, because he was one of us.

Finally, let me use the words of a another revolutionary on the death of Malcolm X, the champion of black liberation and socialism recalled by Bernadette McAliskey on the death of Johnny’s friend and comrade, Seamus Costello:

“Without Johnny, we feel suddenly vulnerable, small and weak, somewhat frightened, not by the prospect of death, but of life and struggle without his contribution, his strength and inspiration.”

Thank you.



Posted on July 24, 2012, in Civil rights movement, Commemorations, General revolutionary history, IRSP, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Johnny White: an appreciation.

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