Category Archives: An Phoblacht-Republican News

’66 Days’ – Some Thoughts On The New Bobby Sands Movie

I went to see the new Bobby Sands’ movie, ’66 Days’ the other night and this is my review.


This is a film full of unanswered questions, or to be precise, unasked questions.

’66 Days’, which I intend here to examine only for its politics rather than its style (which some might also find controversial), is a very thinly disguised attempt to approvingly link Sands’ sacrifice with the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral politics, thus setting in motion the political physics which led to the peace process.

So Bobby Sands equals peace is the essential message of the movie, reinforced by a frankly monochromatic procession of interviews with mostly loyal disciples of the Sinn Fein gospel. No dissenting voices of significance aired here! It is a simple message which, as one colleague observed the other day, would strike a chord outside Ireland where the subtleties are less understood.

But, of course, Sands and his nine comrades did not die so Sinn Fein could grace the corridors of Stormont or Leinster House. They chose painful, slow deaths for a very different reason. They wanted to be recognised as political prisoners, or as prisoners of war, not common criminals, because they regarded themselves as warriors in an ancient struggle against Britain’s occupation of Ireland. And they belonged to a politico-military movement forged in anti-electoralism, which split from its parent in 1969 partly in protest at the embrace of the parliamentary politics that now characterises Sinn Fein.

So the big question that is never asked much less answered in ’66 Days’ is this: would Bobby Sands have so readily endured an agonising two month-long dance with death had he been able to see two of the most striking pieces of archive that were shown near the end of this movie: one of a greying Gerry Adams smirking (triumphantly?) as marchers in a hunger strike memorial trooped past him; the other of Martin McGuinness, the one-time hard man of the Provos, who ‘did the business’ when Gerry wouldn’t, as so many Provos would tell you in 1993, shuffling into a stately room at Hillsborough Castle to do his duty and exchange meaningless pleasantries with Queen Elizabeth (what on earth goes through her/his head during such encounters?)

Or if he had heard Ireland’s savant de jour, Fintan O’Toole – who would scarcely have allowed himself to been seen within spitting distance of the Provos in 1981 – approvingly proclaim that Sands’ achievement was to end the IRA’s armed struggle not legitimise it, his role that of the midwife to a peace process that has stabilised the constitutional status quo, not weakened it.

Or that the making of a film about his life would be shunned by his family, by his son, would be licensed by a Trust that excludes those nearest and dearest to him, whose finances are kept secret, whose beneficiaries are unknown, whose income over thirty-five intervening years can only be guessed at. And not a mention made of this in the entire movie?

Or that it would show former comrades sliming Brendan Hughes for ‘fucking up’ the 1980 fast, while excluding the most sensational and believable claim made since 1981, that an opportunity to end the second fast and save more than half of those who died was sabotaged by the same leadership that blackens Hughes, and that the author of that claim was ostentatiously interviewed for the film about everything except that?

None of these issues were raised or the relevant quesions asked. They should have been. The central assertion is true, Bobby Sands’ death set the stage for the end of the IRA and for Sinn Fein’s entry into electoral politics, power, respectability and, recently, money. But that’s only part of the story.

Bobby Sands set out to win the IRA legitimacy but only secured the conditions for its eclipse. But the most interesting question, which will long outlive this film, is never put: what the man himself might have thought about all this? Would he have traveled the same road had he known where it would end? It would have been a better movie if it had balanced the narrative thus. And that is the failing of ’66 Days’.

Brian Moore RIP

Brian Moore, aka Cormac, who drew cartoons in An Phoblacht-Republican News for over thirty years

I have just learned that Brian Moore, better known as the cartoonist Cormac, died recently in Belfast and reading some of the obits that appeared on the web and elsewhere, it struck me that his role in the development of republican, that is Provo republican, politics was not really given proper recognition by the various writers. He played a small part, for sure, but nonetheless an important one in its way in bringing about the leadership changes in the IRA and Sinn Fein that led us to where we are now.

He was originally a member of one of those Trotskyite groups – don’t ask me which one, but I have a notion it was an offshoot of the post-QUB, Peoples Democracy – which believed that national liberation struggles were more important than class ones, that supporting the Viet Cong and Che Guevara was more relevant than organising in the local Ford plant or giving out leaflets during strikes. In Ireland that meant backing the Provos and so it was that Brian Moore volunteered his services as cartoonist for Republican News and later An Phoblacht-Republican News (AP-RN).

As a cartoonist Brian Moore was strongly influenced by the American underground comix tradition of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s which was especially rich in the San Francisco area. That was no accident since San Francisco was at the centre of the Sixties counterculture ferment which was defined by political radicalism, disdain for mainstream values and liberal attitudes towards sex and drug use, all themes that were meat and drink in the world of underground comix.

The comix were mostly self-published and although they had small circulations the cultural influence of publications like Zap Comix and characters like Fritz the Cat or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was immense and stretched way beyond the west coast. One of the best of the underground cartoonists was Robert Crumb whose work and that of Brian Moore are strikingly similar. Two of Crumb’s creations, Mr Natural and Keep on Truckin’ could easily have jumped out of a Brian Moore cartoon in AP/RN or vice-versa.

Mr Natural, a character created by San Francisco cartoonist Robert Crumb, and an inspiration for Cormac

Keep on Truckin', another Robert Crumb cartoon

It was Danny Morrison who as editor in the mid-1970’s brought Brian Moore into Republican News, the Provisional weekly that was set up by the Belfast Brigade of the IRA in 1970 under the direction of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer, the latter a former Chief of Staff, the former an early Provo icon and veteran of the Thirties and Forties campaigns.

The early Republican News was almost a caricature of the early Provisionals and faithfully reflected the devout Catholicism and fierce anti-Communism of the new IRA’s founders. One of its first editorials railed against erstwhile comrades in the Official IRA, explaining the reasons why people of the calibre of Steele and McAteer had broken with them to set up the Provisional IRA in terms that Joe McCarthy would have been proud of: “Gradually into executive posts both in the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Red agents infiltrated and soon these men became the policy makers”. Its first editor later became a leader in the Tridentine Mass movement which was dedicated to returning the Catholic church to Latin rituals and the dogmas and attitudes of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

By the time Brian Moore joined Republican News, both Steele and McAteer were dead and the IRA in Belfast was moving leftwards under the direction of Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes whose influence was enormously significant even though all three men were in Long Kesh at the time, either as internees or jailed because of escape attempts from internment.

The IRA had just ended a long, debilitating ceasefire which had caused huge dissension within the organisation. The camp led by Adams, Bell and Hughes – then the IRA’s Young Turks – opposed the ceasefire, arguing that the leadership in Dublin had been tricked by the British into believing that withdrawal was on the cards. Instead, they said, the British had used the lengthy ceasefire to build up intelligence on the IRA and to refine their anti-terrorist strategy, notably by criminalising the IRA, which almost resulted in its defeat.

Danny Morrison, editor of Republican News, on a visit to Long Kesh, circa 1981

Danny Morrison had at first supported the 1974-75 ceasefire but was talked round by Adams and then became an enthusiastic convert to the anti-leadership cause. Adams & Co. were agitating to take over the IRA and the centerpiece of their argument was the conviction that a quick military victory was no longer possible, that the war against the British was going to be a long one and to survive that length of time, the IRA would need to become politically relevant to those from whom it drew support. That necessitated both that the IRA move leftwards and that it get involved politically, two ideas that not only would have been anathema to Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer and their confreres but contained within them the mustard seeds of the peace process.

Under Morrison’s editorship, Republican News became the vehicle for this agenda. Gerry Adams and like-minded IRA prisoners were given columns in the paper. Adams chose the Brownie byline (for a detailed explanation, see Voices From the Grave) to protect his anonymity as he pushed his programme, although everyone knew it was him, but others also wrote influential columns, not least Bobby Sands under the nom de plume, Marcella.

Hiring Brian Moore was an inspired move by Morrison and along with allowing the late John McGuffin, a friend and colleague of Moore’s, free rein to write The Brigadier column, an often hilarious send up of the British Army’s officer class, these moves helped make Republican News one of the most attractive and interesting political papers in Western Europe. The Cormac cartoon though was its distinctive feature and as Danny Morrison noted in his obituary of Moore it was often the first thing that readers would turn to.

The contrast represented by Morrison’s Republican News with the staid leadership that had led the IRA into the ceasefire disaster, old men with politics to match, could not have been greater. They were yesterday’s men, out of touch and out of date, whereas Adams & Co., as symbolised by their newspaper, were tomorrow’s young, vibrant and relevant hope for Irish republicans, people who were brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. In the world of political propaganda, hiring Brian Moore and transforming RN was the equivalent of ditching Thompson machine guns for Armalite rifles.

It was no accident either that when Gerry Adams made his move in the late 1970’s to consolidate the take over of the IRA that he and his allies had been long planning, they chose the organisation’s newspapers as a major battleground. In those days RN’s circulation was confined to the North; the IRA’s Southern supporters were sold An Phoblacht (The Republic) which was produced in Dublin and strongly reflected the views of the anti-Adams Southern leadership.

Adams’ victory, and his readiness to wade in the gutter to achieve it, was signaled when, after a fierce battle that involved badly smearing AP’s editor Gerry O’Hare, the two papers were fused. Any doubt as to who had won were settled when the first edition of the re-christened An Phoblacht-Republican News appeared. It was Republican News, in content, style and politics, with a slightly different name; An Phoblacht had been swallowed up and was no more. In this bitter little battle Brian Moore and Cormac had played a not insignificant role.

But what goes around, comes around. I doubt very much whether Danny Morrison’s observation remained correct throughout time and that when AP-RN moved into what can only be described as its Pyongyang Times phase, when pro-peace process political correctness became the stifling order of the day, people still as enthusiastically turned to the Cormac cartoon.

The truth is that, at the end, his cartoons became infected with the same malady, faithfully drawn to conform to that week’s orthodoxy. The cartoon chosen by AP-RN to accompany his obituary was typical of this, celebrating Stormont, once the symbol of partition and a prime target for destruction by the IRA, but now the Holy Grail partly because Sinn Feiners sit in its chamber but mostly because Unionists don’t like that. The cartoon is also, interestingly, a measure of how much sectarianism is now part of the Provo culture. In fact AP-RN became so dull that it is no longer sold as a newspaper, hawked as it once was, door-to-door by volunteers and is now only available on the web where it is read by an ever dwindling audience.

The politically correct Cormac cartoon chosen by AP-RN for Brian Moore's obituary

A Cormac cartoon from the time of the 1981 hunger strikes. More typical of the body of his work.

There was, though, another aspect of Brian Moore’s life that is worth remembering and that was as songwriter and performer for the Men of No Property, an eclectic group which produced original pro-IRA music and songs in the early 1970’s. Two of Moore’s creations, the self-explanatory England’s Vietnam and Jesus and Jesse, the story of Jesus Christ and Jesse James meeting in the Belfast of the early 1970’s, have become classics and also relics of what now seems to be a long-lost age. Their music is still on sale here. Here are those two songs for you to savour:

England’s Vietnam

Jesus and Jesse