Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group, part 2

This is the second section of a two-part history of the Manchester branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. For the first part, see here.

The axing of the “Irish Line” radio programme

“Irish Line” was a weekly programme started in 1983 and broadcast by BBC Radio Manchester in collaboration with IBRG. All the work done by IBRG presenters was unpaid. It was a mix of music, sport and “What’s On” which also covered some political issues. “Irish Line” was abruptly axed by the BBC in the summer of 1985 without consultation or discussion

Four of the presenters wrote to the Irish Post newspaper, outlining changes which had been imposed after the arrest of a number of IBRG members under the Prevention of Terrorism Act early in 1985. Those detained included Dr Maire O’Shea, a consultant psychiatrist who was acquitted of all charges at her trial in Manchester in 1986. The presenters said that a poster advertising “Irish Line as presented by BBC and IBRG” was scrapped before it was issued and replaced by one deleting all reference to IBRG. It had been usual to introduce each programme as “being presented by the IBRG from the Irish community in Greater Manchester” but the BBC cut out all mention of IBRG. They had recorded an interview with a member of Bolton IBRG who had been on the International Women’s Day delegation to Armagh prison in March 1985, but this had been excised by the BBC from the broadcast programme. The letter ended by stating that “Irish Line” had been given a “summer break” by the BBC and that none of them had been contacted by the BBC as to the future, and concluded with: “We do hope that Irish Line does not become yet another casualty of the British media’s reluctance to deal in any depth with any Irish issue.” This was an accurate prophecy. The BBC brought the programme back in the autumn, renaming it “Come Into The Parlour” and with new presenters. All political issues were dropped.

Relations with Manchester City Council

In October 1984 Manchester IBRG submitted a detailed report to Manchester City Council on the needs of the Irish, entitled “A New Deal for the Irish Community in Manchester”. They wrote that hoped that it would be the start of a “cordial and productive dialogue between the Irish community in Manchester and the City Council”. The report examined the causes and effects of anti-Irish racism, the lack of recognition of the Irish in the school system, the lack of Irish culture in libraries and other cultural spaces, discrimination in housing and welfare, the lack of recognition given to the experiences of Irish women and finally the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It made a series of recommendations aimed at raising the profile of the Irish and recognising some of the welfare, social and legal problems affecting the community.

In September 1990 IBRG wrote to Terry Day, head of the Equal Opportunities Unit, expressing their dismay at the lack of action by the council on the 1984 report or indeed any other issue concerning the Irish in Manchester. In her response, Ms Day pointed out that the numbers of Irish people employed by the City Council had risen from 3.1% to 3.8% and stated that “the fact that this increase has occurred proves, I think, that discrimination against Irish people had been occurring in the past, and that the measures we have adopted to eliminate discrimination have been at least partially successful in stopping discrimination against Irish people applying for Council jobs.”

Manchester Irish Week 1988

As part of its policy on Ireland, Manchester City Council had pledged itself to organise an Irish week in Manchester. Even from the start there were problems of democracy, accountability, and inclusion in the planning process, which prompted IBRG and other groups to contact the City Council asking that all Irish groups should be included. Eventually these issues resolved themselves (or so it was thought at the time) and meetings to plan a programme of events took place regularly at the Irish Centre in Cheetham with two delegates from each Irish organisation in Manchester (including IBRG).

The committee set up working parties to plan particular events such as history, games, community care and women’s events. The Irish Women’s Group decided on a programme of events including discussion of the issue of strip-searching in Northern Ireland using a video, employment, a play and a women-only social. When this programme was put before the main planning meeting it was treated with what the women involved considered was derision and condescension and voted down, at which point the IBRG delegates withdrew in protest. IBRG protested in the strongest possible terms to the Chair of the Race Sub Committee, Councillor Graham Balance, whilst women members of IBRG and a number of other Irish women attended a meeting with him to express their anger. The Council agreed that all events, no matter which Irish group had organised them, would be included in the official programme.

Tom McAndrew, a leading member of the Council of Irish Associations, then attacked IBRG in the Manchester Evening News, accusing the organisation of “tainting” the festival by including an event on the Birmingham 6. IBRG responded vigorously, arguing that in a week when the Birmigham Six case was being highlighted in St Patrick parades throughout the world, “we see no reason why it should not be raised during the Manchester Festival week, nor do we believe it would ‘taint’ the festival. The majority of Manchester Irish people support the campaign to have these innocent men released.”

IBRG worked in cooperation with the history group, the Irish Women’s group (Mna na hEireann) and other organisations to put together an imaginative programme, putting out their own independent leaflet for the Irish Week in March 1988.

On Saturday 12th March Mna na hEireann held a Irish Women’s Day at English Martyrs Parish Centre, Alexandra Road South in Whalley Range, which was advertised as “A day for Irish women to get together and discuss the issues that affect their lives eg emigration, class and education”. There were workshops on creative writing and discussion on issues of education and identity. The speakers were Moy McCrory, Oonagh ni Cleirig, Maude Casey and May Byrne.

On Tuesday 15th March the meeting on “The British Media and the Birmingham 6 Case” took place at the Green Room, organised by the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and co-ordinated by Granville Williams. The speakers were Charles Tremayne ( a researcher on the World in Action Birmingham 6 programmes) and Bob Woofinden (author of Miscarriage of Justice). The speakers explored the role of the media in both convicting innocent people and uncovering miscarriages of justice. There were also the events at the Green Room with Sean O’Neill & Company and The Jacket Potatoes.

The notion of an Irish Week was revived by the City Council in 1996 (although the 1988 events were accidentally or deliberately forgotten and the event was billed incorrectly as the first such week in Manchester). As their contribution to the Irish Festival in March 1996, Manchester IBRG organised the Irish Heartbeats conference. Thereafter IBRG decided to play no further part in the subsequent Irish Festivals, having concluded that the event was designed to annexe the Irish into the burgeoning heritage, leisure and entertainment industry in Manchester.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

Among the cases taken up by IBRG was that of Kate Magee, a young Irish woman charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act with withholding information. In November 1993 IBRG leafleted a Christy Moore concert at the Manchester Opera House with a leaflet on Kate’s case and subsequently provided support and publicity for her during the long legal process leading up to her trial. IBRG Members attended her trial every day and were relieved when the jury found her Not Guilty.

On 25th October 1990 the branch organised a Repeal the PTA Meeting at St Brendan’s Centre in Old Trafford, one of three meetings held in the North West to support the campaign against the PTA. The speakers at the Manchester meeting were Father Bobby Gilmore from the Irish Chaplaincy in London and Kevin Hayes from the West Midlands PTA Research Association.

Prisoners

In September 1987 the branch wrote to Tony Lloyd MP raising the issue of the repatriation of Irish prisoners to the north and south of Ireland. In his reply he enclosed a response from the Earl of Caithness at the Home Office, adding that he had always supported the case of repatriation as a general principle “and tried to pursue this matter without any great success when the Home Affairs Select Committee looked at prisons in England and Wales.” He outlined some of the current problems on the issue and promised to “continue to support attempts to achieve a more acceptable solution in the circumstances both for the prisoners themselves and for their families”.

In May 1994 IBRG organised a meeting for Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, to talk about his book Cruel Fate at Frontline Books. Sally Mulready, who had been active in the London Campaign for the Six, accompanied Hugh and spoke about the effects of the imprisonment on the men’s wives and families and how very bravely they had taken the first steps in campaigning to get them out.

The War in Ireland

The continuing war in Ireland throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s formed the backdrop against which Manchester IBRG operated and was something they consistently drew attention to in many of their activities. This distinguished them from other Irish community groups who were ready to promote culture, history and Irish Studies but extremely wary of any activities relating to the conflict. IBRG’s view was that it was impossible to talk about Irish history, Irish culture and Irish identity without at the same time talking about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

In October 1988 Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd introduced a broadcasting ban on Republican and Loyalist representatives being heard on TV and radio. The justification was that this denied “apologists for terrorism” a platform to propagate their views. In reality it was another in a long line of propaganda moves by British governments (Tory and Labour) to close down discussion on events in Northern Ireland and win acceptance for their analysis ie that it was all the fault of “the terrorists”. The government did not ban Republicans completely from the airwaves, just their voices, resulting in the surreal situation where their actual voices could not be broadcast but what they had said some hours earlier was voiced over instead by an actor. In time, and with practice by the actors, it become almost impossible to distinguish the “false” from the “real”.

On 25th January 1989 Bernadette Hyland from IBRG spoke at a meeting at which a video of a Channel 4 programme, Mother Ireland, was shown to a packed audience of over 150 at the Manchester Mechanics Institute. The film interlaced music, images and historical film with interviews with a number of women including Pat Murphy, Nell McCafferty, Bernadette McAliskey and Republican Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the SAS shortly afterwards in Gibraltar.

Mother Ireland was the first programme to fall foul of the Broadcasting Ban. In response the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom organised a public meeting to allow an audience to make their own mind up. The meeting was chaired by the North West organiser of CPBF, Granville Williams. In her speech Bernadette outlined IBRG’s opposition to the ban: “It denies British people the right to the facts behind the conflict in the Six Counties, it denies Irish people the right to learn their own history”. IBRG joined a picket outside the BBC on Oxford Road on the 5th anniversary of the ban.

Throughout the course of the war in Ireland IBRG always defended the right of Sinn Fein elected representatives to visit Britain and put their case. In the autumn of 1986, during an official visit by two Sinn Fein local councilors to Manchester City Council, IBRG organized a meeting for Irish people to meet the councillors and listen to what they had to say.

In January 1995 the annual Bloody Sunday March was held in Manchester, the first time that the march had been held in the city . Local IBRG members joined the march, whilst IBRG National Chair Pat Reynolds addressed the rally in Albert Square alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein. The Daily Express attacked Manchester City Council for allowing the rally to take place in Albert Square. IBRG responded in the local Irish newspaper Irish Echo, defending the right to march.

Conclusion

Looking back, Bernadette Hyland, secretary of Manchester IBRG and also IBRG national chairperson for a number of years, reflected that “IBRG really was a community organisation. At its heart were people who had a strong sense of their own identity, a love of their own history and its people and a strong will to ensure that the inequality and marginalization of the community would not continue. For me personally, IBRG meant in the broadest terms a movement reflective of a socialist ideology, encompassing a better world not just for Irish people on these two islands but a better world for all people.”

Article by Michael Herbert

Riotous Assembly – 1998-2001?

In the late 1990s open meetings called Riotous Assembly took place in the Yard Theatre in Homes for Change, a housing co-operative in Hulme, South Manchester. The meetings were intended to be spaces where people involved in radical, direct action, anarchist, ecological, autonomous and non-hierarchical organising could meet, celebrate their activities, network future events and actions and educate themselves about a wide range of issues.

This article consists of the edited transcript of a discussion between two individuals, one of whom was involved from the first days of Riotous Assembly and a second who became involved in helping to run the meetings in their later years. They’re not using their real names.

James: Riotous Assembly was born out of that time when the Manchester Earth First! (EF!) meetings were just too big, they were getting 20 or 30 people every fortnight. And some people just said, OK, there’s obviously a need for a networking forum but we don’t want that function to be taken on by the EF! meetings because we want to be getting on with organising ecological actions. So the decision was taken to set up an activist networking forum, and it was the first of that generation of them in this country. The Rebel Alliance in Brighton got a lot of cred and recognition – but we were first! And there had been similar things a decade or so earlier, there was something called Liberty Hall in Liverpool, but they’d fallen away for an activist generation.

Jane: Who picked the name?

James: I remember exactly who came up with the name [names an individual active in anarchist and direct action politics at the time]. Part of it was about the fact that Riotous Assembly was a criminal charge, which we thought was quite funny. But also that it was an assembly, riotous in the sense of both a riot tactic but also in the sense of riotous laughter, so not just a really full-on thing. But also the assembly was a real attempt to create something, the concept of an assembly – something that wasn’t a group in itself, something no one person or group could take control of.

The slightly fatter-than-bookmark fliers we created for it did say something about No Dogma, we were trying to think of ways that it wouldn’t just be a target for the SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party] taking it over, and would be in form if not in name a truly anarchist way of organising. So if it’s an assembly, not a group, the idea was that there’s no power, there’s nothing to take control of, because any group can come along and say we want to organise next month’s meeting, but they’d only be doing the next month.

The format was quite regular in that there would be three parts. The later sections were a kind of review of what had been happening over the last month, actions and campaigns that people had been involved in, partly to update people but also as a small pat on the back, and to use that energy to move onto the final bit which was what was happening in the next month. That was mostly announcements, some of it was ‘this is happening but we need more people’ – so making ourselves accessible. And the first third could be around an issue of that group’s choice, and we tried to encourage people to do it in creative ways. So one time there was a little play and there might be a film but we’d make sure it wasn’t just a film where people became an audience but that there was active discussion afterwards. I think someone did a banner-making workshop and other creative things, or it could just be a speaker and discussion. But we were really hot on that section not squeezing the other two-thirds, because we really didn’t want it just becoming a talking shop.

Jane: What subjects do you remember being covered? I remember a genetics one, a Zapatista one, somebody wanting to talk about Palestine but it getting shouted down on the grounds that it was a nationalist struggle… but although I was involved in quite a lot of them from 1999 or 2000 – booking them and putting some of them on – I can’t remember many of the talks.

James: I think there was stuff about Strangeways and the prison riots there, there was stuff around racial discrimination, stuff on domestic violence, it depended on the group who organised it – the idea was always to publicise it well in advance and use different issues to pull people in… but I can’t remember all the other issues. Someone will have the fliers somewhere.

But I think I was saying before that the concept was really sound and could still work, although the practical issues meant it didn’t work at the time. I think it was partly around the process of creation, in that it came out of an Earth First! meeting and the ideas came out of that, but before it was actually launched there wasn’t another meeting to try and get more ownership from other groups that might want to get involved, and that was partly because we were naïve about it, we’d got an idea that the concept was sound and that that was enough.

We didn’t want this to turn into an SWP front or get taken over or turn into a talk shop, we want it to be there to promote discussion and action and a sense of movement-building, although that term wasn’t used, and connections between people because there were so many people doing stuff around Manchester but not necessarily in touch with each other. So the concept was sound but I don’t think we brought those other groups in early enough, and if we had done an early meeting to sort things out the danger might have been that it would have decided not to do something like that, so even if we’d done it better from a group work and community development angle we might not have ended up with the same result.

Jane: Do you think the venue was a problem? Because those Earth First! meetings were in the town centre, they were very accessible to a wide range of people, whereas being in Hulme cut it off from a lot of people. Obviously Hulme has been a hub for a lot of direct action and radical politics, but obviously for anyone not on the Chorlton bus routes, getting to Hulme means an extra bus journey on top of the one coming into the city centre, and Hulme itself, certainly then, was quite dark and isolated and scary feeling if you didn’t know it.

James: Yes, I remember a couple of the older people from Greater Manchester who would have to get a train in and then a bus out and then a bit of a walk, so they had to be very motivated, and students at that time certainly felt that it was kind of scary and off the student corridor and Oxford Road. But we still had 60 or 80 people turning up monthly, or maybe 30 or 40 later on…

Jane: Certainly my recollection is that by the time I was more involved, by 2000 or 2001, they were often down to a couple of dozen. But when do you think they actually started?

James: I’m not sure, but it was certainly the time that Earth First! meetings moved to the EF! Office in a flat on the Redbricks. Because we decided we’d got these open, accessible Riotous Assembly meetings and we’d got the squat cafes still, and what we needed was for EF! meetings to be about planning action, not fortnightly meetings where every time you’ve got new people coming along who feel a bit excluded because you’re using shorthand terms or hand signals. So they weren’t meant to be totally private, but a bit more private, so if someone specifically wanted to come to an EF! meeting they’d be collected from a pub or a bus stop and brought in, so people were more aware when there was a new person and could make that effort and explain things more clearly…

Jane: So what’s your take on why Riotous Assembly folded?

James: Well, maybe there are more reasons but my top one would be the old ‘beardies,’ by which I mean the old-style anarchists who weren’t all men and didn’t all have beards but largely were and did. They were people who’d spent decades in tiny meetings with each other, shouting across each other, not able to listen to each other, and never getting beyond little circles of Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation and little temporary groupings. They knew each other but still couldn’t communicate and were still trying to convince each other of things that they obviously weren’t going to shift each others’ opinions on. And suddenly, they had 60 people to play with and be their audience.

A lot of it was that they didn’t have the social skills to understand their impact. One of them accused EF! of running those Riotous Assemblies, and it often was people who’d done EF! who were putting most time into organising and facilitating them, but actually people from EF! were really aware that they weren’t an EF! forum, it shouldn’t be controlled or dominated by EF!, that EF! discussions didn’t discuss Riotous Assembly because we felt that was undemocratic. But for some of those older people it wasn’t just that they objected to Earth First!, it was that it was a new way of doing things that was actually more anarchist – not that I want to get into a ‘I’m more anarchist than you’ fight – but in terms of collective autonomy and groups being able to create and organise what they wanted, and take direct action together, rather than just talk about it. And using consensus decision making as well, and for some of them it was all a bit new and they had trouble adapting. They would try and block things and accuse people of doing things that they weren’t doing, so each time that happened it would drive some people away.

Equally, I have met people who said afterwards that it was really good that they’d heard these discussions and that there may only have been 6 people talking but they were ideas they’d not heard before and were interested in, so they didn’t mind that they didn’t get to talk. But I tend more to wanting people to participate…

Jane: My memory of some of the ‘beards’ is that not only did they not have some of the social skills, but also what a lot of them wanted to talk about was theory. They weren’t people who were actively doing direct action and largely what they wanted to hold forth on were points of theory, and I remember having the sense that there were 5 people there who had 3 anarchist reading groups between them because they just kept splintering off from each other over points of disagreement… and I think those people were a big problem and drained a lot of energy. But the counter-argument might be that if those meetings had been better facilitated and less hung up on feeling that you have to accommodate everybody, however dysfunctional, then you might have just told some of those people to shut up occasionally and they wouldn’t have been able to drain energy the way they ended up doing.

James: Absolutely, but I think that was partly about ownership, and those people who had the facilitation skills tended to be Earth Firsters who didn’t want to assert control over an assembly that no-one was meant to be asserting control over. So they were caught between a rock and a hard place, that we don’t want to rule these people out and tell them they were impacting on other people and that they should go and talk about it in room with themselves, or with the other 5 people you’ve been talking about it with for 15 years. But we didn’t want to exert that control, and it’s really hard because if one person, and it was just one person, is accusing something like EF! of exerting control, you do everything you can not to make that a reality, although you’re sure it’s not reality, you over-compensate. So you put yourself in a powerless position instead of saying, look, this is the original idea, it was working fine, now it’s not working fine because of some people’s lack of social skills and us not facilitating actively and strongly enough… well, it just imploded.

And it was difficult, because in amongst some of those beardies there were people who were really destructive, like the one who kept accusing EF! of running things, and others like X who was really cool and because of his links with other organisations like Solidarity Federation would turn up every so often with a hundred quid to give to ecological direct action. So there was that personal contact that was brought about through it. And we used to learn about lots of other stuff from some of the older activist generations who used to come to Riotous Assembly but wouldn’t have come to an Earth First! meeting and who had been involved in things like trade union struggles. And it was around the time of the Loombreaker [a local direct action/anarchist newspaper], so there meetings were a really good way of collecting information and finding out about other stuff that was going on…

So I can’t remember how Riotous Assembly actually ended, whether it just petered out or whether someone actually took a decision to end it, but for lots of reasons there just weren’t enough groups stepping up to facilitate the next one…

Jane: My memory of the last ones was that it was a very small group of us that dragged it along towards the end, feeling that we had to go out there and find a speaker and that one of us would have to facilitate it, rather than what it was supposed to be, with groups and campaigns taking one on and sorting out the content and facilitator and publicity and us just having to book the venue…

James: And then it had become something extra that Earth Firsters had had to do with a different hat on, but which then stopped them doing the campaigning that they actually wanted to be doing…

Article by Sarah Irving