The Miriam Daly mural

miriam_daly03

by Irvine Forgan

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That, which we call progress, is this storm.  – Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (2003, Ch. IX)

Political activity, however professional or well intentioned, can only be fruitful if based on a correct analysis of the problem it confronts. Most people accept that the present flurry has as its objective the attainment of peace: but few have openly examined whether what is desired is the sullen quiet achieved by repression and dissimulation or creative lasting peace based on justice and understanding.  – Miriam Daly – the Irish Times 17th January 1975.

On the gable end of a row of terraced houses in Oakman Street, off the Falls Road in West Belfast, is a well-known mural. Painted in August 1996, the writing — History is Written by the Winner – Miriam Daly—appears above a complex image comprising the open book of Irish history, a mask labelled Revisionism and the female face of a personified Ireland, labelled Truth.[i]  Against the skyline a helicopter is seen ratcheting overhead. Miriam Daly lectured at Queens University, Belfast. She was a founding member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) – the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) – of which she became chairperson, leading the party for two years. She was murdered on the 26th June 1980 at age 51. Her body bound hand and foot and with five bullets in her head was discovered by her young daughter when she returned home from school. The Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) claimed responsibility for her death although there remains considerable doubt as to whether the murder was in fact ordered from within government circles.

Dalymural Miriam Daly Mural

What may at first glance appear formulaic in fact is a sophisticated agitprop on brick. The attack on historical revisionism and the demand for a fresh approach to Irish history based on research invokes the suppositions and presuppositions that code social and political positioning. Walter Benjamin famous announcement has drawn our attention to the conflation of violence with cultural heritage:

“…with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. … Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage … There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism” (Benjamin, On the Concept of History, 2003: Ch. VII.)

Hence the mural voices an emphatic hostility with the mastering convention or by implication to be ‘sprawled underfoot’.  Its power is two pronged, both pragmatic and idealistic, that is to say its use as a political weapon and its vision of the ideology of the republican movement.

The use of a mural as a political weapon arises from its capacity to convey a statement without attracting disinterested contemplation. Although it contains an ideological vision, this is contingent and manifesting its own immanent temporality.  Bill Rolston reports of a republican mural painter who states: “We felt that a mural shouldn’t stay up very long. Once you had a certain supply of murals going, you should paint it out and do something different” (Rolston, 1992: p. iii). The Mexican mural painter and political activist David Siqueiros explained the contentious subject matter of his political murals that were destroyed, and thus the provisionality of his political art as “…more important as a means to fulfill the objectives of the movement than saving the work of art” (Siqueiros, 1975: p. 219).   Its signification is thus a possibility fulfilled in the present tense even if the past is its referent. Siqueiros draws a link between a political programme and the propaganda of the art: “If political conditions do not respond to the subject matter of our murals, then we must join the workers …and fight to achieve the right conditions … The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop was at the service of the working class through the direct agency of the Communist Party” (Siqueiros, 1975: p. 219).  The Black Panther activist and artist, Emory Douglas expresses a similar view stressing the symbiotic relationship between the party’s and the paper’s mission: “Without the party, the [Black Panther] paper wouldn’t have had the same impact”.[ii] The party’s Ten Point Program outlined an agenda that included obtaining full employment, decent housing, education, and health care, and finally “people’s community control of modern technology”. The Panthers’ community programs, like free breakfast for children, clinics, schools and arts events were featured in the paper, representing implementation of the ten points. Most of the back-page posters directly referred to one of the ten points, illustrating tight coordination between the paper, the party and the mission. The leaders believed that The Black Panther was not just reporting news, but causing radical change. Like Emory’s drawings, the paper was a tool for liberation, visualizing violent confrontations with perceived oppressors (ibid).

Ironically however, the programme of the political party seized with progressing republican universalist values, Sinn Féin, has not matched the mural’s autonomy. During her time in the IRSP, Miriam Daly was instrumental in opposing what she and others in the republican movement in general perceived as Sinn Féin’s drift towards Federalism, and its compromising of republican demands for self determination. This understanding is supported by Kevin Bean who, in his perceptive work The New Politics of Sinn Féin, argues persuasively that the Provos, of which Sinn Féin is the political wing, transformed into a constitutional party which became an integral part of the state and institutions it was once pledged to destroy. While many commentators have mostly stressed the internal dynamic of the movement or the actions of individual elements within it to explain this transformation, for Kevin Bean such analyses are limited by their failure to situate the Provisional movement within a broader political, social and economic context. Considering the Provos as a social movement, Bean conceptualizes their evolution as a process of ‘institutionalisation’ (rather than individual betrayal for example); that is the logic through which radical social movements are transformed from revolutionary instruments into participants in establishment politics and thereby become absorbed by the status quo. Bean argues that this transformation has been shaped more by its interaction with the British state, which has shaped the social and economic environment within which the movement operates rather than by processes internal to it. It was not just the political and military parameters of the Provo’s campaign that the British state was able to define. British counterinsurgency strategy also had a social and economic aspect, whereby socio economic regeneration of economically deprived areas and facilities powered by the British state were appended to a specific political agenda, what Northern Ireland Office official Sir Richard Needham referred to as ‘the third arm of the British government’s strategy…the economic and social war against violence’. In Needham’s words, its conscious aim was ‘drawing them i.e. (republicans) into the net’ and making Sinn Féin a ‘part of that very different part-public, part-private partnership which was the essence of our long term solution’ (Bean, 2007: pp.27-33).[iii]

O’Connor Lysaght (veteran Irish Trotskyist) has identified inconsistencies within Irish republicanism as follows:

“Time and again the ‘socialistic tendency’ in Irish Republicanism has come to the surface only to be used as an excuse to abandon its revolutionary perspective. It was so in the New Departure of 1879, in the emergence in turn of Fianna Fail, Clann na Poblachta, Official Sinn Féin and, now, of Provisional Sinn Féin. Why this should be so lies in the fact that Irish Republicanism’s revolutionary content lies precisely in its long term alienation from the Irish state, colonial and semi-colonial, and in its claim to be a state ‘virtually established’ entitled and able to wage successful armed struggle against the usurping authorities. Once it recognizes the need to win effective popular support, the revolutionary illusion fades.”[iv]

The transformation from revolutionary praxis to conventional politics contests the use of peace as a means of disabusing Ireland of British imperial control. Peace is modified by a number of modal auxiliaries. It is thus that Miriam Daly asserted:

“The strength of the Republican Movement lies in the legitimate aspirations of the Irish people for freedom and their latent support for those who have the courage to challenge imperialist might – by force. Peace must be based on justice and must recognize objective achievements. Only collaborators and agents of the Imperial power want peace at any price. A just peace would last and lay the foundations for a great prosperous and influential Irish state (Miriam Daly reported in the Irish Times, 17th January, 1975. pp. 10/11).

The mural therefore has separated from the party political movement. It is not coded towards a peace agreement in which the republican movement would become an integral part of the institution it pledged to destroy. It does not aestheticize or provide a design for a political party, but gains a resurgent autonomy splintered in two directions. On one level the sense of grieving victim which threatens to swamp the mural renders the marginalization and failure of the revolutionary party from which they have sprung.

Yet it is not true of course that all tragic contents are changeable, just as carnival is wrong to believe that anything can be converted to humour. There is nothing comic about gang rape, or Auschwitz, or about torture and hunger strikes. The mode in which the sacred and profane can coexist is the mode of satire where the unspeakable is uttered in the context of therapeutic ridicule. But tragic situations are often unchangeable in at least one important respect – unchangeable for those who are the victims. Hence on another level the mural gains to itself a contingency, a possibility that revives its temporality. It thereby supplants the victim signifier which is otherwise anchored to closure and etched into the status quo. This possibility can be understood when viewed in the light of Kevin Bean’s  argument that not only has the Provisional military campaign to destroy Northern Ireland ended, but a distinct historical period has come to an end: “The conversion of the Provisionals from militant revolutionaries into constitutional nationalists is already passing from the realm of contemporary politics into that of history … It is an accomplished fact for a political generation whose members are too young to remember the Troubles … The Troubles are fading away from memory into history” (Bean, 2007: pp. 247-261). This indicates that not only has the epoch closed but that, with the defeat of republican and progressive forces, the entire history has done so. The state seems to have such a gravitational pull that any attempt to subvert or challenge it will fatally be co-opted. In contrast to those who think in terms of disintegration of the old order and revolutionary change, Bean argues that “. . . today our narratives seem to have run their course; we appear to be at the end looking back to understand, to explain and perhaps to learn from what happened” (Bean, 2007: p. 264).

But the mural rails against the conceptual retreat into diachronic linearity and determinism that is here suggested.  Rather it resonates with Walter Benjamin’s insight that to articulate the past does not mean to recognize it the ‘way it really was’. “In every epoch,” he writes in Chapter VI of Selected Writings, “the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. The same threat hangs over both the content and the receivers: that of becoming a tool of the ruling class.” (Benjamin, 2003: Ch. VI). And Karl Marx famously asserted in his Theses on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it” (Marx, 1969: Ch. XI). Changing the world involves not fatalism, but activism, a belief that revolutionaries must organize social change. It is within this belief that revolutionary art is positioned as a source of empowerment for an audience whose voice has been oppressed.

Isaac Deutscher in The Great Purges suggested that we should “withdraw into a watch-tower” as Isaac Deutscher called it: “To watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world, to be on a sharp lookout for what is going to emerge from it, and to interpret it sine ira et studio’ (Deutscher,1985: pp. 57-58). Deutscher’s insight provides a ground for resistance to the hierarchy of power relationships which the Provo’s have formed with the institutions it once pledged to destroy; this insight also provides the means to imbue the past through political action with retroactive meaning and value in the sense understood by Benjamin. The “watch tower” autonomy emerges in the mural despite all the hopes that had been placed in the achievement of a political art directly linked to revolutionary praxis having (for the moment) been dashed. That this is possible arises from the mural’s contestation with and not submission to the victor ‘writing history’. Historical development is to be understood not as linear evolution but as what Benjamin calls a shocking constellation of disparate epochs. This emerges in the mural through its engagement with violence (her murder), and with the transience of surveillance (the helicopter) which thus admits an unstable series of possibilities to the present realities of peace in the north of Ireland. This understanding is based on present realities and not on vague fantasies about the present. Paradoxically the present is arrested and the hypothesis of permanent revolution resonates both in the revolutionary person of Miriam Daly and, allegorically, in the female face of the personified Ireland. The mural accordingly serves to incite the revolutionary illusion which the conformist political strategies of Sinn Féin have undermined.

References

Bean, Kevin. The New Politics of Sinn Féin. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2007.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected writings 1938-1940, ed. Bullock, Jennings and Eiland, transl. Eiland Cambridge [Mass.]. London: Harvard University Press. 2003.

Deutscher, Isaac. The Great Purges, ed. Tamara Deutscher. Oxford: Blackwell Publisher Ltd. 1985.

Marx, Karl. Theses on Feuerbach. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 1969.

Rolston, Bill.  Drawing Support, Murals in the North of Ireland.  Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications. 1992.

Siqueiros, David. Art and Revolution. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 1975.

 

Endnotes


[i] George Orwell coined the phrase ‘History is written by the winners’ in his essay As I Please in which he ironically conjoins historical ‘truth’ with physical victory ‘In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners’. On line at http://hackvan.com/etext/george-orwell/george-orwell–revising-history.htm retrieved 08/04/09.

[iii] Bean draws attention to the influence of ideological changes in international politics as a key driver in isolating and eventually altering the politics of republicanism. He points out that alongside the impact of the collapse of international anti-imperialist movements on Irish republicanism, the very notion of Enlightenment universalist values rooted in the French Revolution and the United Irishmen also declined in importance. Republican politics ceased to be about grand visions and who should run society, and instead became about the politics of cultural and communal recognition. Whereas the British state had not enjoyed legitimacy within republican communities in Northern Ireland, it now found itself called upon by its old adversaries to take responsibility for ensuring ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘recognition’ for both the traditional Unionist and nationalist communities. By calling for more funding and recognition for the Irish language, or for the re-routing of offensive Orange marches, the republican movement implicitly invited the British government to adjudicate and rule between two cultural groups, hence strengthening the legitimacy of British rule and changing the republican struggle from one against division into a game of one-upmanship underpinned by the politics of grievance. Bean shows how Sinn Féin’s revisionism not only meant that it started to accept political divisions as natural or traditional, but started to accept the right of Britain to rule Northern Ireland.

[iv] On line at cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/people/docs/oconnorlysaght76.htm retrieved 20/06/09.

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Posted on March 17, 2013, in 1981 hunger strike, 21st century republicanism and socialism, British state repression (general), Censorship, Commemorations, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, IRSP, Miriam Daly, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Revolutionary figures, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Miriam Daly mural.

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