Daniel Baker reflects on the important legacy of Repeater author Dawn Foster
Last weekend was the one year anniversary of the sudden passing of Dawn Foster. Her death robbed us of a rare working class voice in the British media landscape. Her presence was as improbable as it was inspirational, her pinpoint skewerings of the most risible and loathsome aspects of our political culture–from the toadyish venality of political careerists to the assimiliationist emptiness of Sandbergian corporate feminism – hugely valuable interventions, distinguishing her from the bog of mediocrities, beneficiaries of nepotism and purveyors of bigotry that constitute the commentariat.
In an age of increasingly shameless client journalism motored by insider networks still first fostered on elite public school playing fields and at Oxbridge, she wrote powerfully about the human cost of structural injustices inherent within a brutally rigid class society. In doing so she refused to adhere to the faux-civility of craven journalistic conventions, especially on topics of housing, the nativist threat and the consequences of kamikaze centrism.
But Dawn Foster’s presence in the national media had a meaning and resonance way beyond her writing. For those of us marginalised by and alienated from the spheres of the media and academia that in this country have always been enclosed spaces for the financially comfortable and well connected, a Welsh, socialist, feminist, disabled voice pricking the egos of the overpaid and overpromoted all around her was the most joyous of things. She was the rarest of journalists: one whose support, advice and solidarity were experienced by thousands of fellow travellers and admirers, even if “only” on social media, many of whom had come to think of her as a friend despite having only interacted with her via the medium of the post and the reply. Unlike so many of the insufferable blue tick brigade, she devoted her online time to being warmly funny, cutting where it was so richly deserved and endlessly supportive to those whose reach and platform would have made them irrelevant to most of her better-heeled contemporaries.
She remains deeply, sorely missed.
As the British Conservative and Unionist Party gears up for a leadership election in which candidates core strategies are premised primarily around ensuring their electorate don’t doubt they’ll give trans women, migrants, trade unions and benefit claimants a good kicking, there seems precious little need to highlight the fact that the decreasing parameters of what passes for acceptable political discourse in the teetering colonial construction that is the UK have been reduced wildly in favour of a commentariat and media class that are, for the most part, the direct or indirect beneficiaries of historic British imperialism. It is there in their parents’ backgrounds, there in the public schools they attended and the social networks that have sustained their cosy existences. Even those who emerge from these institutions of access and privilege as self-declared Marxists in opposition to them have a tendency toward revealing presumptions that their own ensconced circumstances are reflective of societal experience as a whole.
Dawn Foster was not of this social milieu and nor did she aspire to be accepted into it. For the commentariat, the latter rather than the former factor is what truly infuriated them. Caps must be doffed and the game must be played. Perhaps this is why the ludicrous figure of Giles Coren – a man so emblematic of the of the decadent pestilence at the heart of British comment journalism that his Wikipedia page reads like the fictional biography of a character Peter Cook might have created to satirise a particularly vicious public school prefect—had such an unhinged meltdown in reaction to Foster’s death.
Another upper class journalist who distinguished themselves by the poison of their immediate reaction to Foster’s death was the self-declared British-Irish Unionist and revisionist historian Ruth Dudley-Edwards, apparently still smarting from an encounter the two had during a discussion on the subject of the DUP propping up the Conservatives in the aftermath of the 2017 General Election. This served to highlight an aspect of Foster’s work which was less heralded than her contributions to debates around housing but which further marked her out from her contemporaries: her interest in the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland.
As a writer with a focus on the history of Irish republicanism, inevitably I find the majority of the British media’s coverage of Ireland wholly inadequate. Furthermore, as a Marxist, I regret to say that some of the new left media platforms and the primarily intra-left oriented news and comment sources, while operating in a political tradition that loudly (and correctly, in my view) trumpets anti-imperialist credentials on a vast array of international causes, are also often left wanting when it comes to coverage of Irish politics.
Dawn Foster put in the groundwork and established the contacts in various communities across the country, especially in the north, that enabled her to credibly report on the range and depth of thought and emotion being experienced by her friends and acquaintances in Ireland, often foregrounding the voices of the Irish working class, especially those of working class women.
She was a consistent advocate for the families of those murdered by the British state in Ireland and was ahead of most of her fellow commentators on the British left in covering these injustices so vocally. Her coverage of Irish parliamentary politics was also superior and better researched than most broadsheet hacks and light years ahead of those many rungs above her on the class hierarchy. Appropriately, one of the last media appearances she made before her death was on a then newly launched podcast series from Sinn Fein’s magazine An Phoblacht, who were among the Irish republican organisations that paid tribute to her.
Dispiritingly, few on the British left, outside of a small band of commendable but isolated relaibles seemed likely to take her lead in expressing such clear and well informed solidarity with the victims of the British state. In the year before her passing neither the announcement that there would be no public inquiry into the collusion that aided the UFF’s killing of Pat Finucane in 1989 nor the collapse of the case against the British army paratroopers charged with shooting fleeing, unarmed Official IRA volunteer Joe McCann in 1972, nor even the sickening segue by the British government from their political and media outriders rejoicing in the collapse of the trial of soldiers accused of murder during Bloody Sunday to the announcement of a proposed statute of limitations on charges against the armed forces for their dirty war during the Troubles, much shook the UK left into meaningful reflection of the situation past or present in Ireland.
Since then, the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre has come and gone with the tone of any acknowledgement correctly being deeply sombre and reflective, yet somehow feeling frustratingly consigned to an act of historical remembrance. Yet the very political premise and economic underpinnings of Britain as a concept and the Northern Irish statelet as its direct colonial creation still play a key role in British reactionary identity formation. Prior to this there had been further milestones in the fallout from the four decade war in Ireland that the British state still refuses to call a war.
The case of Dennis Hutchings, a member of the British Army patrol that stood accused of the murder of a 27 year old with a learning disability and fear of uniformed men named John Pat Cunningham, shot in his back as he fled through a field in Benburb, County Tyrone was hovered over by that ghoulish amalgam of Bear Grylls and Patrick Bateman, Johnny Mercer. The one time British Army Captain and current caretaker Minister for Veterans’ Affairs at the Cabinet Office since the resignation last week of Boris Johnson, Mercer has made himself one of the most visible and relentless parrotters of the untruths and distortions that undergird the public spin on the Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill that entered its committee stage two weeks ago, a bill Amnesty International warns will allow “a free pass to murderers and those responsible for torture” during the conflict.
There has been some legal progress for survivors and relatives of those targeted by the British state and loyalist paramilitaries during the conflict – not least the £1.5m out of court sum awarded to Stephen Travers and the families of those murdered in the Miami Showband massacre and the cocnlusion of the coroner in the long-running inquest into the deaths of 10 people shot dead by the British Army during the Ballymurphy massacre of 1971 that the victims were “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question”.But such positive developments are clouded by the spectre of the bill and the fear they may be the last of their kind.
These are frustrating times for those of us trying to impress upon our own comrades and political sympathisers the continuing importance of expressing and maintaining solidarity with the families and communities who are now experiencing retraumatization at the hands of the proposed government legislation.
A generous reading of the British lefts attitude towards Ireland – again, outside of a minority of those well versed in the crimes of empire – would be that there is an awareness of the appalling level of public and popular education on the topic of Irish history in Britain and that most don’t wish to wade into an issue they have relied for most of their lives on the questionable mediation of the bourgeois media for information about for fear of causing offence or revealing their ignorance. A less generous reading would be that we are far more comfortable engaging with the kind of internationalism that can be comfortably exoticised at a large geographical distance.
Both the conservative and liberal arms of the bourgeois media have engaged in a centuries long project of the othering of Irishness, and specifically the bogeyman othering of the figure of the Irish republican. Yet it is worth remembering that the crude ahistorical framing of the Troubles as an ethno-nationalist conflict of which Britain was a neutral arbiter also serves to caricature and strip depth and meaning from the ideological nuances and human experience of Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist Unionist (PUL) communities in the north of Ireland, every bit as much as it limits our understanding of the republican tradition. In both cases vital issues of economic and political inequality, state violence, political oppression and cultural suppression – the material background to the Troubles – are routinely glossed over for the easier, lazier, orthodox British framing of the events as an unavoidable tragedy of history.
The right wing nationalist sentiments of the majority of the traditional British print media preclude them from nuance or historical complexity when it comes to reporting the Troubles and its legacy. For proof of this you need only take a glance at the despicable front pages of the Mail and Express during the Hutchings trial, as they triumphantly doubled down on their framing of legacy prosecutions as a “witch hunt” against British army veterans. Yet the liberal press are rarely any better in this regard, even if their contributions tend to be so insipid and performatively measured that they constitute little more than a buttressing of the orthodox position of the state on the subject. A Guardian editorial on the subject of legacy prosecutions was predicably slight, pathetically insubstantial. Simply put, it regurgitated, with an extra air of liberal condescension, the old canard that the British state was essentially a peacekeeper in the conflict, one flailing in a well-intentioned bid to comprehend the barbarity of the natives (whether Irish or descendents of settlers).
Absent from the account was any conception of the British state as animated by imperialist nostalgia. Indeed, it is very difficult to locate any notion of British agency or self interest at all in these accounts, belying the crucial historical facts that not only were British troops on the ground in Derry and other areas several months before the formation of the Provisional IRA in December 1969, but that they were specifically deployed to prop up and ensure the survival of a state premised on the inequality and oppression of its catholic, nationalist and republican population. The International Committe of Jurists, assembled in mid 1969 to report on social and economic conditions in the region, cited the approving statements of the apartheid-era South African government in relation to the Orange States treatment of its suspected fifth column. It is unsurprising that a paper so attached to this kind of orthodoxy would eventually drop Dawn Foster for having the temerity to criticise a figure as nakedly careerist, unprincipled and wedded to the unwritten rules of the political establishment as Tom Watson.
There is more all of us on the radical and revolutionary left can do to better understand and engage with our Irish comrades, first and foremost listening to them and doing everything we can to materially support the victims of murder and injustice, especially across the Six Counties, via solidarity actions and publicity for their struggles. While the average British leftist is probably better informed on the specifics of Irish history and the Troubles than the average non or apolitical person, there remains much work to do. There are major historic blindspots, or worse still, a tendency to cynically employ the aesthetics of rebellion in Irish history to make vapid and predictable wider points about various other issues on the lefts radar.
This several steps removed indifference and unfamiliarity with events that took place in a part of the world that the British government laid geographical and cultural claim to and has/had some of the absolute worst economic and political injustices in the whole of Western Europe inflicted upon it would be more understandable had that colonial outpost been further afield, or had its periods of violent resistance to British rule been entirely conducted abroad. The British state regularly traded in anti-Irish tropes and ancient anti catholic bigotries in an attempt to delegitimize republican struggles. But this could often be complicated on a local level by a counterweight of critical and conditional sympathy for the cause of Irish freedom from within the Irish diaspora in Britain. Traditional urban Labour strongholds in the post-industrial north such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle Upon Tyne were built by (and off the backs of) a vast pool of immigrant labour, of which Irish people, then still formally subjects of the British Empire, formed a core component.
Irish ancestry and identity is still clung to affectionately in these areas. These are cities with a long and proud tradition of solidarity with Irish causes and which have been historic crucibles for trade unionism and socialism. Yet in many cases, the nearest even nominal leftists in areas like these have come to meaningful, outward leaning discussions on Irish events in recent years has been through the deeply limited prism of Labourism and the ludicrous attempts of the right wing media establishment to cast former party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his allies as some kind of Westminster Active Service Unit.
The characteristically tin eared interventions of Keir Starmer on the question of Irish sovereignty have seemed to spark a little more anger from the left, at least on social media. But there remains the nagging feeling that this is for most, and with honourable exceptions, an outrage more born out of their (entirely justified) dislike of the rightward shift of Starmer’s Labour than it is of any deeper familiarity with Irish history or shared republican ideals. Age may play a part here. Most people in their mid 30’s or older will clearly remember the Troubles as one of the most pressing concerns during their upbringing, not least because it was difficult to uphold the preposterous combination of deliberately simplifying or downplaying events across the water when they had literally exploded onto the British consciousness with semi regularity after the Provisional IRA’s campaign in Britain. State policy on the subject of Britain’s colonial involvement in Ireland is to concoct a convenient and purposeful amnesia in which the British role is simply not discussed. When it is, it almost entirely done so via hysterical reactions to the handful of left leaning cultural depictions of either the War of Independence or the Troubles (Ken Loach, basically) or the kind of sub-Andy McNab memoirs which have such a strained relationship to truth that they are best read as masturbatory fantasy, or better still, not read at all. The recent birth of crowd funded left alternatives to traditional online broadcasters, as well as independent blogging and podcast projects, have helped to rebalance this somewhat, yet it remains hard to argue that most of them satisfactorily cover events in the north of England, let alone the north of Ireland and the other nations the British crown lays claim to.
Despite all their fervent declarations of injustices and talk of witch hunts perpetrated against the paratroopers, in reality only four serving or former members of the British armed forces have ever been convicted for their roles in the war. Furthermore, all four didn’t serve a full term of their sentence and were allowed to re-enlist almost immediately. This is in contrast to the thousands of paramilitary combatants on various sides of the conflict who were arrested, imprisoned, interned, harassed, beaten and recruited as state agents. The farago of the Boston Tapes affair is a reminder that for many paramilitaries, especially those operating outside of the republican and loyalist factions favoured by the state, the threat of prosecution and retaliation remains constant. Yet if you listened only to the bluster of Johnny Mercer, or to the army recruits and veterans happy to parade in T-shirts that read “Bloody Sunday: No Apologies, No Surrender”, a couple of hundred of whom have been investigated over alleged crimes in Ireland with a sum total of zero convictions, or even of cases being built against them, you would be certain that the British soldiers were the ones under persecution.
This deference for militarism is a key element of rhetoric and symbolism within Conservatice party ethno-nationalism. It is also worth remembering that any proposed statute would be one deliberately cooked up to permanently deny justice to the relatives of those killed, at least during their liftimes, an added element of callousness befitting of the colonilast character of the British state, regardless of which faction of the ruling class is occupying its offices.
While it can be difficult to cut through the fug of the dominant hegemony in British politics, the left has a duty to offer unconditional and unflinching solidarity with all those in Ireland who have so tirelessly and bravely fought for justice for their relatives, friends and comrades. Those wishing for an accessible and deeply humane insight into the history behind their campaigns could do much worse than to read, listen to and watch Dawn Foster’s interventions on the subject.