By Eamon Sweeney (from the Blanket)
Gerry McGeough, a former IRA member who was jailed in the USA for the attempted importation of Stinger surface-to-air missiles, conducted a very interesting newspaper interview recently.
McGeough, now a teacher, is a former Sinn Fein National Executive member and by his own admission was a key figure in the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade.
McGeough, who has now left the republican movement, took Sinn Fein to task on various moral issues, including gay marriage and abortion. Claiming that some Sinn Fein members are anti-Catholic in their outlook with these difficult topics, McGeough said, ``I, as an Irish nationalist and a Catholic, never want to see the day when there are abortion clinics in every market town in Ireland. But looking around there is no political grouping willing to take a stand against that. ``
Furthermore he claimed that you would never get a Sinn Fein leader not making anything other than a politically correct statement on issues such as abortion or gay marriage.
In August 1988, McGeough was arrested whilst crossing the Dutch-German border with two AK-47 assault rifles in his car. He was charged with attacks on the British Army in the Rhine and held for four years in a specially built German detention centre.
His German trial was interrupted by his extradition to America on the charges of attempting to procure the Stinger missiles and was extradited to the USA back in 1983.
His subsequent deportation and sentencing in the USA saw him serve three years in American jails before his release in 1996. He has also stated that it was his strong Catholic faith that helped him through his lenghthy periods of incarceration.
In addition to his moralistic viewpoints McGeough has also tempered his outlook with a strong and highly conservative Euro-scepticism.
``Many people, I believe, wish for a society where faith, decency, pro-life convictions and national self-determination within Europe can flourish; and not to be swallowed up in a dictactorial EU bureaucracy. ``
It is odd to say the least that McGeough, who spent the larger proportion of his formative years preparing to and actually succeeding in smuggling large quantities of missiles, guns and explosives into the north, does not appear to see any contradiction between his former activities and his current political outpourings based on his personal moral assessment of his erstwhile comrades. In fact McGeough has not forgotten the conditions and circumstances that led him to become a senior IRA figure in Tyrone and beyond.
He says it was his ``patriotic duty'' to join the Provisional IRA in 1975 and maintains the view that the IRA campaign was a just one.
``I was a soldier. I came into contact with other soldiers and no civilians were involved.''
``I believe it was a ``just war'', and that peoples and nations have a right to defend themselves: that the English have no right to be in Ireland, or any part of it. Bear in mind that the Catholic Church has chaplains in almost every army in the world.''
McGeough remains resolute and steadfast to Patrick Pearse's notion of a Gaelic Catholic Ireland that always stressed the importance of the relationship between culture, religion and nationalism.
The resurgence in recent years of nationalist sentiment in many parts of the world, together with the erosion of national barriers through the rapid expansion of globalizing technologies and economic structures, has made questions on the nature of the ideology more pressing than ever before. Nationalism has always harnessed the past as a tool of its own justification and the course that it's proponents seek to make it take in the future. One point has always been the extent to which people should be permitted to act on the basis of loyalty to those to whom they are specially related. That is, is there such a thing as a benign form of nationalism? The admiration that people link to the past achievements of their countries, either physical or ideological are fine, that is until these highlights become part of a political structure and are then forced upon people who are perceived to be culturally diverse. When they are in turn shackled to cultural justification of these achievements and in turn marshalled by the supposed moral or ethical codes of any given religion, in effect polishing a political system up with a veneer of psuedo-divinity the alarm bells should start to ring at once.
The connection between nationalism and religion is also a dangerous one. Woodrow Wilson, the father of national self-determination, constantly stressed that there is a rigid analogy to be drawn between religious commitment and patriotism. One's nation is the symbol of a rich cultural and linguistic heritage. It involves questions of ultimate individual indentification and legitimacy. There are all sorts of ceremonial and ritualistic celebrations associated with national life. After all, the common perception is that a country is something which are supposed to be prepared to die for.
Therefore we can see how the supposed virtues of nationalistic devotion have a religious flavour to them. If contemporary nation states are conceived of in quasi-religious terms it is little surprise that movements such as the IRA sprang up. It is also why Gerry McGeough feels totally at ease speaking in what appear to be conflicting terms, since he would believe that his views and his past actions are no more contradictory than the ideology of nationalism itself.
Another link between nationalism and religion has to do with the impulse of the modern nation to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force with a given territory. The point of nationalism is to achieve statehood in the sense of political and legal control. This is the essence of the notion of national self-determination.
In effect, religion is typically concerned to set the ultimate standards for the use of force and the conduct of political and legal affairs. This is a subject of deep and sacred significance and it is a fundamental kernel of religious belief and practice.
In Ireland as a whole, but particularly in the six counties a favourite war cry of Unionism that they would be hapless victims of an overtly papist state in the event of Irish re-unification. Despite the supposed secular outlook of the Republican doctrine that stretches back to the 1916 proclamation and the promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally, the ensuing sectarian overtones post 1969 would have done nothing to convince Protestant Unionists of that ideal. Add to this the De Valera constitution of 1937 heavily imbued with the rigid Catholic dogma of Archbishop Mc Quaid and it is little wonder that Unionists kicked viciously against a united Ireland on this level as well as of course as many other levels.
This is why it is surprising to hear people like McGeough still talking in these terms.
Having completed his degree in history of all subjects at Trinity, one wonders what, if any, influence this had on his thinking. Having definite thoughts on issue such as same sex marriage and abortion are his perogative, but to harness it to a criticism of the outlook of a nationalist programme, is derogatory not only to himself but to the ideology which he once carried guns to defend. Modern Irish society has been made the better for the increased level of secularism that it is slowly gathering. The erosion of church power is a boon to the progression towards real peace and eventual national unity.
The United nations resolution on the Elimnation of Intolerance based on Religion or Belief, adopted in 1981, demonstrated considerable distance between religion and the state. It is a radical departure and accordingly, the grounds on the basis of which a government legitimates it's use of force are sharply distinguished from religious belief of any kind. It's relevance of a model for Irish circumstances is perfectly obvious and outstrips the narrow and outdated Catholicism exemplified by Mc Geogh's interview, whose past actions do not equate with his current thinking except with in the confines of his own mind. Patriotism whilst a virtue, has too long been justified by religious codes of all kinds.
There is no need to think that the human rights approach means abandoning religious commitment and belief. But it does, without doubt, require rigourous re-examination of the role of all our religious traditions in the light of our current experiences in the past half decade. Religious nationalism is one of our most staunch demarcation lines and has only been highlighted further and enhanced greatly as a result of the agreement of 1998. McGeough not only narrows his moral and religious views to a political programme but is assuming that all Catholics are nationalists and all Protestants are unionists. As a republican and a history teacher, a case of thorough revisionism may be in order for him.