By Jim Slaven (of the Edinburgh-based James Connolly Society)
“Fellow-workers, stand by the dignity of your class. All these parading royalties, all this insolent aristocracy, all these grovelling, dirt-eating capitalist traitors, all these are but signs of disease in any social state - diseases which a royal visit brings to a head and spews in all its nastiness before our horrified eyes” - James Connolly
So Martin McGuinness has finally met Betty Battenberg. It is obviously a matter for Sinn Fein who they meet but from the outside this looks like another ‘leadership initiative’ which has nothing to do with improving the material conditions of the working class or advancing towards the Republic. It does however put republicans outside Ireland in the position of having to decide whether to show solidarity with this act or not. For our part the James Connolly Society have been critical of the SNP leaderships decision to come out as monarchists and abandon their party policy of holding a post independence referendum on the future of the monarchy. This is because we believe monarchy, and hereditary power and privilege they represent, have no place in a democratic society and the role of republicans is to actively oppose monarchy and advocate the establishment of a republic where people are sovereign.
While Sinn Fein have not went as far as the SNP their decision to meet the British monarch is one many of us outside Ireland are unable to support. Many people have sought to justify this decision on the basis that the meeting is just symbolism. This is disingenuous in the extreme. While the constitutional role of the monarch in the UK state may be symbolic the British monarchy also plays a key ideological role. The monarch’s visits to Ireland (and Scotland) like their weddings or jubilees are used by the state to reinforce its influence and power. The monarchy serves to strengthen and legitimise British hegemony on these islands.
This meeting has been on the cards for some time and the JCS have been discussing its inevitability and its consequences. During one of these discussions one joker pointed out that I had actually led the way on this issue as I had met Betty Battenberg back in 1999. The occasion was the opening of the Scottish parliament and I should clarify something at this point by pointing out that we were not invited but thought we had something to contribute anyway.
The JCS thought it was disgrace that the British monarch was invited to open the new Scottish parliament and decided to let her know. At the same time the residents of Garvaghy Road were living under siege from so called ‘Loyal Institutions’ such as the Orange Order and we decided support for the residents should be central to the protest. The whole story of that day has never been told and sadly there is not room to tell it here. However this protest was organised with the full knowledge of Sinn Fein who at that very time were in negotiations with the British government and Unionist leaders at Stormont. In fact the JCS had made a decision the previous evening to call the protest off if an agreement was reached in those overnight negotiations. On the morning of the protest we spoke to Sinn Fein who confirmed no deal had been reached and the rest as they say is history.
All the protesters were resplendent in JCS ‘Disband the RUC’ t-shirts and ‘End the Siege of Garvaghy Road’ placards. Evading the cops we made our way over the barriers and past the royal protection squad. Once I was on the carriage I saw old Phil trying to get out the other side and noticed Betty could not take her eyes off my Disband the RUC t-shirt. I only found out later that Charlie was sitting opposite. He was very quiet. I still had the placard in my hand and despite the best efforts of the armed cops in fancy dress on the back of the carriage me and Betty shared a moment.
The conversation must remain between the two of us (for now at least) but suffice to say I made my point robustly. Our discussion was interrupted by one of the JCS shouting my name and just as well really as I was about to be attacked by a horse or more accurately someone dressed as a Beefeater on a horse. At this point I decided to make my excuses and leave. What happened next is for another day but it involved special forces, a gun on a string, refugees in Kosovo, terrified cops, handcuffs that didn’t lock and Tommy Sheridan.
All of that was thirteen years ago and as many people never tire of reminding us much has changed in the intervening years. And indeed it has but much remains the same, such as the British state’s continued denial of the Irish people’s right to national self-determination. Another thing that remains the same is the JCS’ commitment to the political philosophy of James Connolly and our commitment to working with others to end the monarchy and breakup the British state. At this political-economic conjuncture the UK state is in constitutional flux and desperately trying to reconfigure itself for the 21st century. Now is the time for republicans to be bold, principled and ambitious not to pander to anachronistic and sectarian manifestations of Britishness and elitism such as monarchy.
Had Martin sought my advice one tip I could have given him was that if he wanted to speak to Betty Battenberg in a language other than English he would have been better brushing up on German. I also could have advised him that, in my experience of such meetings, republicans would be better taking the James Connolly Society’s approach rather than Sinn Fein’s when it comes to meeting monarchy.
“What is monarchy? From whence does it derive its sanction? What has been its gift to humanity? Monarchy is a survival of the tyranny imposed by the hand of greed and treachery upon the human race in the darkest and most ignorant days of our history. It derives its only sanction from the sword of the marauder, and the helplessness of the producer, and its gifts to humanity are unknown, save as they can be measured in the pernicious examples of triumphant and shameless iniquities.” - James Connolly