Off Their Knees

After a couple of years absence I attended the West Belfast Festival this year and took the opportunity to show a couple of RA members, over for the first time, their way around. Despite the fact that Belfast could no longer be called an actual, it was still, by their own admission, quite an eye-opener for my two colleagues.

Chatting to one of them over a pint during the weekend, I told him he was a rare species indeed, a real trophy. After some strange looks, I explained that despite RA running regular trips for umpteen years that have included amongst their ranks, a grandson of a Black and Tan, an ex-serving member of the British Army, a Rangers FC-supporting Glasgow protestant and a member of West Ham FC's infamous ICF firm; he was one of the few ex-Trots who had been persuaded to make the journey.

And it's funny, thinking about it later, very few of the left have ever really understood the importance RA has always placed on our delegations to Belfast, with one outfit even accusing us of indulging in 'revolutionary tourism'. With their stereotypical images of RA members, I suspect that one half imagined that when we weren't drinking we were getting our photos taken with armed IRA patrols; while the other more jittery half, probably believed we were actually in the hills of Donegal undergoing arms training!

While the incredibly brave individual military acts of the IRA were undoubtedly an inspiration for RA members, they never really represented an aspiration. Our aspirations have always centred around the community itself, rather than the guerrilla army it spawned. The idea has always been to give our members and supporters the chance to observe, at close hand, what a revolutionary, politicised and organised working class community looks like. Where the word 'revolutionary' has a little more meaning than the wearing of PLO scarfs, Che Guevara berets or refusing to shave your legs or say the word 'cunt'.

The advantage of Belfast has always been what can only be described as the normality of the place, a place that can in many ways be easily related to. The conflict was not a thousand miles away in a far-off steamy jungle, but barely an hour from Heathrow; a part of the 'UK' in fact.
As at home, Belfast is a place where the young lads are all kitted out in the latest Arsenal and Man Utd tops and the girls the new Kappa or Adidas tracksuits. The differences with home are often a lot more subtle than simply the war between the British Army and the IRA, but nonetheless just as dramatic.

A chance meeting with an old lady on a street corner, struggling home with her shopping, has led to RA members being taken home for cups of tea and being told of how the woman's home was always open to those fleeing the security forces, and about her own sons and daughters who had either been killed on active service or imprisoned. Getting a ride in one of the community's Black taxis can mean you get involved in a discussion with the driver (usually an ex-prisoner), not on the merits of hanging & flogging and immigration, but of the peace process in South Africa.

While the war in Ireland may be over, the opportunity for RA members to benefit from immersing themselves, if only for a weekend, in a working class community that has climbed off of its knees, cannot be underestimated. Those who have not yet done so should avail themselves of the opportunity. You won't regret it.
Steve Potts
Reproduced from RA vol 3, Issue 3, Oct/Nov '98