I remember the Anti-Internment League by Bob Purdie, 21 May 2013.
I got soaked at Mairín Keegan’s funeral and in the pub afterwards I had a few hot whiskeys. Then I got into the back of an unheated van for a lift to Belfast, to catch the Stranraer ferry. I had already felt groggy in Dublin and by the time I got back to Glasgow I had a raging fever. I lay in bed trying to sweat it out, but I had to go out to buy food and, at the worst point, to sign on for my dole money. It took me a couple of weeks to get over the worst of it and then I went home to my parents’ house in Kirkcaldy. They fed me, gave me a warm bed and allowed me to recuperate. I took their extraordinary tolerance, generosity and love for granted.
While I was recovering I got on with a project, suggested by the IMG, to write a pamphlet about Ireland. It was published as Ireland Unfree and in it I constructed a case for the British left to support the armed struggle of the Republicans, as a step towards a revolution, led by the working class, to unite Ireland and defeat British imperialism. It was tosh, but I pride myself that it was well written tosh. In later years I often, wearily, had to refute arguments I had invented for that pamphlet. I had a bizarre experience in Belfast not long after it was published. The Peoples Democracy had abandoned their anti-nationalist stance after Bloody Sunday and became left Republicans. They rented a derelict shop in Cromac Street in the Markets and, when I visited, I found that the entire window was filled with copies of my pamphlet.
The tragedy in Derry also transformed the Irish issue for the British left. The IMG set up new branches of the Irish Solidarity Campaign and the circulation of the Irish Citizen rocketed. An image, which has been reproduced countless times, first appeared in that paper. It was a cartoon showing the island of Great Britain with a helmet and riot shield about to baton Ireland. It was drawn by a London Irish IMG member Jack Clafferty, who was a professional designer. If he had received royalties he would by now be a wealthy man. He should, at least, be credited as its originator. But success killed the Irish Citizen because IMG members were highly irresponsible and very little of the sales money ever got back to us.
In the meantime the situation in London was transformed by the creation of the Anti-Internment League (AIL) as a mass movement of Irish exiles. I kept in touch with what was happening in the Metropolis because I was back there once a month for meetings of the IMG Political Committee, (the core leadership body of the Group). Géry Lawless and his followers had joined the IMG and they constituted the bulk of those involved in the “Irish Work”. They were making themselves very unpopular in the AIL by insisting that it ought to adopt the ISC’s position of support for the IRA. It was particularly counter productive because they were opposed by the London branches of Provisional Sinn Féin, which provided much of the membership and finance for the AIL I decided to move back to London to sort things out.
I stayed with comrades in Highbury and went to the local Labour Exchange to sign on. I was dealt with by an official who looked like a constipated minor clerk in a British B movie. He told me it was too late in the afternoon for him to deal with me and sent me off to the other side of London to an emergency late-opening office. It was a grim place with filthy grey walls and an iron grid between the officials and the clients. And it was a wasted journey because it was meant for people who were completely destitute, but I had some money and a place to stay. It had been an act of vindictiveness by the constipated clerk. I emphasised that he had not asked about my circumstances before sending me there, in the hope that he would be disciplined, but I doubt if he was.
As Secretary of the ISC I prepared its second conference which took place in the Buxton Hall of Ruskin College, Oxford, where a number of the students were IMG members. But Stormont was prorogued and Direct Rule was imposed shortly before the conference. I realised that the British government was now determined to get a grip on the situation, and it was not going to allow the Ulster Unionists to dictate its Northern Ireland policy. I had assumed that Westminster would continue to back Stormont and that the situation would escalate out of control. I went through that conference pretending that nothing significant had changed, but internally I was more uncertain than I had been before. It seemed to me that the ISC, which was not a genuine united front organisation, was now a barrier to effective solidarity work.
I took charge of the Irish work and began by uniting the IMG’s Irish caucus, which was rent by personal disputes. I then got an agreement to drop the line of solidarity with the IRA and I persuaded the ISC to dissolve itself and to call on its members to join the AIL. Géry went along with this, even though it reversed the line he had been following. The people who were running the AIL found they could trust my word, that I would always work towards a consensus and that my Scottish accent was quaint and attractive. That got me on good personal terms with them and this drew the poison.
After a couple of months I was appointed Organiser of the AIL, I’m fairly sure that this was the result of a back stairs deal done between Géry Lawless and Brendan Magill, the OC of the Provisionals in London. It made my position much more secure because, although I was taken on as a part timer, the salary was more or less what I had earned as London Organiser of the IMG. It was a great relief after the stringencies of life in Glasgow. So I began a close collaboration with Brendan Magill. He was an engaging and humorous man and I came to regard him as a friend. I have reason to believe that he thought of me in the same way.
My first big task was to organise a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We had agreed the date and had made tentative arrangements, including a route that was to begin near St. Paul’s, but I had not sorted out an assembly point. I got a phone call from Sergeant Garnham of the Scotland Yard Ceremonials Office, which regulated demonstrations and public events. He said, “I hear you’re organising a demonstration. I was invited, with other AIL representatives, to a meeting in Canon Row Police Station. The police representatives were far from hostile and an avuncular Sergeant Garnham offered us the open area in front of the Cathedral as our assembly point. Since this is church property I had not considered it and I readily accepted. The deference Garnham’s got from the other police representatives, suggested that he was far more important than a mere sergeant. His office dealt with occasions which involved the royal family, and I suspect that he actually represented the security services.
The march set off with the London Sinn Féin contingent at the front. We had proceeded only a few yards when a uniformed colour party swung out of a side street and placed itself at the head of the procession. Sergeant Garnham asked me who they were, I said I didn’t know and that we had not invited them. He suggested I ask them to leave, since they were breaking the law on political uniforms. I told him there would probably be less trouble if they were ignored, but he could intervene if he wanted. He must have dropped the matter because there were no arrests.
We marched to a meeting in Camden Town Hall, which was not big enough to hold all the marchers, so the speeches were relayed to an overspill rally outside. I chaired the meeting inside, and a large collection was taken up for the AIL. With some relief I saw my salary being funded for the next few months.
Brendan Magill invited me to a Sinn Féin social in the evening. I declined at first, because I was very tired, but he said they wanted to make a presentation to me. So I went along and the late Máire Drumm, Vice President of Sinn Féin, presented me with a leather wallet made in Long Kesh. Brendan announced that I was going to sing a Scottish republican song and I obliged with an anti-monarchist song in broad Scots, “The Scottish Breakaway”, which is set to the tune of “The Sash”, it got a good reception.
Máire Drumm was a phenomenon. I first heard of her as a leader of the women who marched from Andersonstown in July 1970, to relieve the siege of the Lower Falls, with loaves of bread and bottles of milk. Subsequently she was in court for picketing with other Sinn Féin women, carrying a Hurley stick and wearing a black beret and combat jacket. Her oratory was all seething passion. She would stand rigid, with her head thrown back and her right hand extended at a low angle. A stream of raw emotion would pour out from somewhere deep in her subconscious.
I remember her on another occasion surrounded by young Republican women from Belfast, with a hand the shoulder of one of them, as she describing an IRA mother whose son has been interned. The women were in floods of tears as she spoke of the mother’s memories of brushing back the hair falling across her son’s forehead, while he said, “don’t be doin’ that Ma”. She was always warm and friendly to me and I was upset when she was murdered in Belfast’s Mater Hospital in 1976, although by that point I had radically changing my attitude towards the Provisionals. I still have the wallet.
Not long after the demonstration Brendan asked me over to his Irish souvenir shop in Kilburn. He said, “Bob, there will be no more collections like the one in Camden Town Hall.” Only the front of the march had got into the hall so that it had been filled with Sinn Féin members and they had contributed the bulk of the money. He explained that they needed funding for their Volunteers on the run, and for their families, so their members’ money could not, in future, be diverted to the AIL. I reflected later that another IRA commander might simply have put a revolver to my head and demanded that I hand over the money, but Brendan always treated me with warmth and friendship.
One reason for my tiredness after the rally was that there were difficulties in my personal life and the situation in the IMG was causing me considerable stress. I’ll write about that later.