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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
Communism Is Brilliant - Interview With James Stewart
by Ruth Graham
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RG: How did you start to become politically aware?
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JS: I was born in Ballymena and my family were Unionist minded but at school I was particularly interested in Irish History. It was through my reading of Irish History and in particular one book - T.A. Jackson's 'Ireland Her Own' that things began to make sense to me. That book was my first introduction to Marxist literature and I soon went on to read Lenin and Marx amongst other things. Later on, as a student, I met my wife who came from a Communist family and I became politically active. I joined the Youth Organisation of the Communist Party in 1955 and became General Secretary of the Youth Organisation in 1957. From then on I was deeply involved in working class politics.
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I think one of my most influential 'universities' was the industrial section of the Party and the meetings I attended with trade unionists. It was there that I learned the basics of what life was about and received a thorough education in working class politics. In 1964, I became Deputy General Secretary of the Party and I remained in that position up until 1984 when I became General Secretary and in the year 2001 I stepped aside from that and am now National Chairman of the Party.
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My experience of working class politics here and also of International politics has been very exciting. I took part in many campaigns, for example, against the War in Vietnam, supporting Cuba and the Campaign For Nuclear Disarment. I was also involved in the Anti-Apartheid Campaign and we held numerous public meetings, which reminds me of one humourous incident. We were saying things like "Don't buy South African products - there is blood on its hands" "Don't eat South African food!" One of our members got carried away and he shouted, "DON'T EAT ANY BLOODY FOOD!" Everybody turned and looked at us as if we were daft.
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I've never regretted joining the Party. Despite major setbacks such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, I'm still convinced that socialism is the future, although it's obviously going to take longer and will be more difficult than anticipated.
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Communism Is Brilliant - Interview With James Stewart
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RG: Nowadays, with globalisation and all the problems associated with that there might be even more of a place for socialism.
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JS: Exactly - in the long-term, once the working class organisations and their allies can improve their work on an international scale then I can see things changing. It is difficult because grass roots organisations don't have the resources that the multi-national companies have but I think people are becoming more aware of the issues at stake. One thing that showed that was the tremendous opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
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RG: There were a lot of young people involved in that.
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JS: A lot of young people who had never been interested in politics before. I think these are the types of things that are making a difference and you can begin to see the challenges that are being made to the status quo. For example, the Labour Party Conference is going on at the moment and Tony Blair is being roasted on his policies - education, health, etc. The struggle is never easy but I think it will have a positive result in the long-term. It's not an easy task. You are up against the mass-media. They used to talk about Communist brainwashing but the real brain-washers are the mass-media in the type of society we live in.
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RG: Going back to trade unions- some of the new union leaders are challenging the Government on a number of issues - what do you think their chances are of making a difference?
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JS: For quite a while some of the major unions were full of those who were compromising with the establishment - the Blairites in other words. Some of these leaders had never been at the coalface - they were university graduates and reached their positions through that path and I think it had a negative effect on the trade union movement as a whole. When you look at what's happening with transport, education, health, etc. it's a natural reaction for the trade union movement to elect leaders who are more aware of their class position whereas some of the others could have been called careerists.
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RG: I think that was Tony Woodley's election pledge - "no more career trade unionists".
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JS: That's right and his election is a very positive development.
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RG: I can also see quite a lot of hope within the local Trade Union Movement, especially in relation to providing disincentives to sectarianism.
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JS: During the years of 'The Troubles' the Trade Union Movement played a positive role in neutralising, if not overcoming, the worst aspects of sectarianism. Despite attempts made to establish a Loyalist trade union there was never such a thing as a Catholic union or a Protestant union. It is also important that the Trade Union Movement is an all Ireland Trade Union Movement. The Unionist Controlled Government tried to prevent recognition of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions but they had to give in eventually because of pressure from the workers themselves.
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RG: Did you ever have problems getting a job because of your political beliefs?
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JS: I was a teacher for about 15 years, teaching on the Shankill and the Upper Shankill and I didn't have any problems with the staff, so there was no discrimination that way. I don't think that the educational establishment were particularly enamoured with me but I did my job so they weren't able to find any reasons for getting rid of me. I left teaching to go into full-time Party work in 1970 but that was voluntary - I wasn't pushed out or anything like that. No, I couldn't say I experienced any real discrimination. However, my wife was the secretary of Civil Rights Association and she suffered from a lot of pressure and at one stage had to leave teaching because of her role in the Civil Rights Movement.
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RG: Were there any formal links between the Civil Rights Movement and the Communist Party?
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JS: Some of the leadership in the Civil Rights Movement were Communists. Betty Sinclair, from Belfast Trades Council was involved and my wife as well, but a variety of parties were represented in the Civil Rights Association. We had difficulties with some of the ultra-left - they saw it as the dawn of the revolution and the first step towards the reunification of Ireland and all this simplistic stuff - we didn't see it like that - we saw the Civil Rights Movement as a movement for the entire working class and not just one section. What a lot of people didn't realise was that we had raised the question of "One Man One Vote" in 1966 after the Malvern Street shootings took place, long before the Civil Rights Movement was established. But we worded it "One Person One Vote" so we were ahead of them on that question.
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The Protestant working class were discriminated against too. In the local government elections, unless you were a ratepayer you didn't get a vote. You could be living in a house with your family and be the age to vote but you still couldn't vote because you weren't a ratepayer - that discriminated against working class people across the board. You had the businessmen who had their business vote as well as their home vote so all working class communities suffered from that type of gerrymandering. The challenge was to get that across to Protestant working class people, which became difficult because of the attitude of Paisley and his strong sectarian message. Of course many of the right-wingers knew this and those who wanted the status quo to remain, exploited the situation. They thought that the Unionist monolith could continue forever - they were so arrogant that they really thought it would.
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It would have been easy for them to make the concessions that the Civil Rights Movement were asking for but they were too stubborn. Then the Republican Movement split, the Provisional IRA was formed and they started their armed campaign. That actually destroyed the Civil Rights Movement because you could no longer get support from both communities. It played into the hands of those who were using sectarianism as a tool to maintain the status quo. It was a pity we hadn't the political maturity to develop the Ghandi approach on the question of Civil Rights because that was the way forward.
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RG: There was massive international support for the Civil Rights Movement at the time.
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JS: Tremendous mass support. The thing was that the attitude of the Unionist establishment led to the split in the Republican Movement and the development of the Provisional IRA and the March in Derry when the paras went in. All of that contributed to the development of the armed psychology.
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RG: After the Civil Rights Movement and that sense of togetherness was there a low period for the left in Ireland?
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JS: It was a difficult period for the left because the issue was to try and overcome the sectarian question - to try and persuade people that politics was the answer and not violence. We as a party always took the standpoint against the use of force. I remember at one meeting after the pogrom in Belfast in 1969 and one of the ultra leftists started shouting "Arm the Workers!" The problem was that the workers were armed - both sections of them - but the guns were facing against each other.
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At one stage, before the Republican ceasefire, we ran a debate in Unity on the question of the 'Armed Struggle', which we said was counterproductive and we also sent a letter to the Provisional IRA. We got no official reply but we had unofficial responses from individuals and we eventually used that and published it as a pamphlet. I think that debate helped. We gave those forces within the Republican Movement who realised that there was another way forward the ammunition to win the battle within the Republican Movement. I'm not claiming that we were responsible for the ceasefire but we certainly were an influence to those who wanted to go down the political route.
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RG: There have been many changes in Belfast recently apart from the ceasefires - there is a lot of redevelopment going on in the City Centre and I wondered what your thoughts were regarding the way it is being carried out. There is an emphasis on benefits to the local communities and a focus on the arts while at the same time the developers often price existing groups out of these areas.
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JS: I think it's good to see development taking place but at the same time it is important to look at how the development is planned. In some of the areas you can see that it is primarily for big business, for the chain stores, rather than for the local indigenous shop keepers and that's one of the negative sides of it. As to the arts, one of the downsides is that it can wipe out the independent groupings and what you get instead is a grouping which is acceptable to the establishment or to those who wish to control society. I think it's good to see areas of Belfast being developed but questions do need to be asked.
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One of the big problems we face here is the state of our 'Industrial North', (a slogan used by the Unionists in their fight against Home Rule). Another saying was, "If you get Home Rule there will be grass on the shipyards". Well there's grass on the shipyards now. The textile industry has gone, the linen industry has been wiped out - the Unionists helped to wipe that out when they brought in the likes of Dupont and all the artificial fibre industries. They gave them huge grants, factories - rent free and so on, then they pulled out at the end of their rent free period. We no longer have an 'Industrial North'. In fact, in the South, the 26 Counties, the Republic, whatever you want to call it, you now have greater industrial development - albeit that a lot of it is new technology.
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Worldwide trends of course have had an impact but it was also because we didn't have an accountable government here who were prepared to face up to the problems. I'm not saying you could have stopped the process but more efforts could have been made to defend local industries.
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If you looked at the houses in the Shankill Road and the houses in the Falls Road - they were the same. The same working class conditions. Catholics, of course, were heavily discriminated against in terms of jobs. When the Unionists came to power, the fact that there weren't enough jobs to go round meant that they were able to use jobs as a political weapon in the same way that they used housing because there weren't enough houses. So the whole upshot has been, that the working class has been used, and used cynically, by the Unionist administration. They tried to convince the Protestant working classes that they were better off than the Catholics. They were very slightly better off, but they were being used and discriminated against as well.
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In the shipyards there was certainly discrimination in terms of fair employment but it wasn't only the Catholics who bore the brunt of this. Anyone who challenged the status quo was a target.
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RG: Yes I remember reading that when there was any big trouble going on it was the Catholics and the Socialists who were put out of the shipyards.
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JS: That's right - when left-wing shop stewards were becoming strong and influential, what they used to do was move them to what they called 'The Deep Water'. That was to isolate them from the main workforce and then they would eventually get rid of them. That certainly went on. But there have been periods in our history where the sectarian question has been overcome, for example, the Outdoor Relief Strikes in the 30s, and I am quite convinced that this will happen again.
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You still have sectarianism - for example, the people who are stirring things up against the schools, but that type of thing is a result of what we have come through over the last very violent period and I think that it is becoming more and more redundant. Now you are getting a lot of the community organisations in Catholic and Protestant working class areas who are coming together. Alright they are coming from different viewpoints but there is talking going on and when the talking starts, that's where people can start understanding the other point of view. So I would say - there's no magic wand or quick solution to it but I think the question of sectarianism can be pushed further back.
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RG: What about your thoughts on the education system - in your experience was there a big difference in the way Catholics and Protestants were taught about their history?
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JS: I think a lot of it depended on the individual schools because some Catholic schools weren't noted for their Irish history education - some were, but not all. Most Protestant schools weren't noted for it because they were state schools and they concentrated on European or British history. But at the same time, I remember when I was teaching in the Shankill and I got one of my classes to take different periods of Irish history and use the reference library to prepare their equivalent of a thesis. They certainly got their eyes opened when they discovered that King Billy and the Pope were in alliance - that the Pope took mass in the Vatican and illuminated the place with fireworks in celebration of the Battle of the Boyne. It shook them rigid - they couldn't get their heads around it. It also horrified them when they read about what the Black and Tans had been doing and of course they found it all out for themselves. Nobody could accuse me of spinning them a line.
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I think the question of how history is taught in schools needs a lot of attention. This applies to both the Catholic schools and the Protestant schools. After partition, all the schools were either Church of Ireland, Presbyterian or Catholic for a while then after the war they established State schools and the Catholic Church opted out. If the Catholics hadn't been treated the way they were by the Unionist establishment, everybody would have gone to State schools - they would most likely have divided for their religious education classes, but they would have been educated together. That didn't happen and the segregation is bad because kids don't know what the other side is really like.
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Communism Is Brilliant - Interview With James Stewart
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