Sean O’Callaghan is an author. He was a senior member of the IRA. After becoming disillusioned with terrorism, he became an agent for the Irish police. His autobiography is The Informer: The True Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism.
The fanatics who carried out the recent murders in Paris may not be representative of most Muslims, but they are certainly of Islam, and they most certainly are not radicals but fanatical zealots. We seem to find it strange – weird, even – when people don’t just express strong beliefs, but actually act on them, and nothing disturbs our western secular mind set more than a belief in God. They believe they have a direct line to God. This is the certainty which attracts them, and in a more religious age or setting than ours it would be instantly identified as zealotry or fanaticism.
Writing in 1711, Joseph Addison stated that “Zeal….is a great ease to a malicious man, by making him believe he does God service while he is gratifying the bent of a perverse revengeful temper. For this reason we find that most massacres and devastations which have taken place in the world have taken their rise from a furious pretended zeal.’
And yet if truth be told we are often admiring of such people when they serve our belief system. He might be a bastard – but he is our bastard! Who cannot but admire the man or woman who sacrifices everything for their belief?
I recently wrote a book about such a man. James Connolly was a Marxist, and a leader of the 1916 Rising in Dublin – executed after the surrender of the insurrectionists. A former British soldier, he was born of Irish parents in the Cowgate, an Irish Catholic slum in Edinburgh, in 1868, and devoted his entire adult life to the cause of revolutionary Marxism. Connolly liked to describe himself as a ‘revolutionist’, and wrote that as long he lived he ‘would have no rest, only working, organising, educating, fighting to destroy the forces that create poverty’.
He was as good as his word, whether in Ireland, England, Scotland or America – where monuments in New York and Chicago honour his contribution to the American Labour movement. And to crown it all, he led his small Irish Citizen Army into the Easter Rising in 1916, along with a motley crew of extreme nationalists to, in his words, ‘light a torch that would set a fire in Europe’. To the end, Connolly was true to his Marxist Catechism. Just days before the Rising, he gathered together his group and told them that if, by some remote chance, they won ‘to hold on to your guns as those we are fighting with are only out for national freedom.’ Connolly, the ultimate True Believer and malcontent, was already planning his first Marxist purge!
Leaving school aged about ten with a barely basic education, he went on to write and edit innumerable pamphlets as well as several books, and has been described by Eric Hobsbawm as one of the only two original left-wing thinkers in these islands, the other being William Morris. He was an extraordinary polemicist, words pouring forth like an artillery barrage, pages burning with fervour. Militaristic in nature and structure, the words are infused with the rhythm of marching men, swinging along as they storm unstoppably towards that shining city on the hill where all men will be equal and “there will not be a despotic throne or government left upon the world”. Wonderful, stirring stuff – and all garbage: the nonsense and noise which infects men’s minds when they are actually foolish enough to believe that they have a solution that will bring certainty to the condition or story of humankind.
There is nothing new or even unusual in this. Connolly just behaved as True Believers have always done. They know what your problems are, they know how to fix them and they will do so – whatever the cost. They will always be with us because they are of us. Fanaticism or zealotry is not a phenomenon solely of our times.
Most of us have enough wit to understand that no matter how clever we think we may be we have no ‘solution’ for the human condition, and nor should we seek one. To do that is to seek perfection; the elimination of whatever or whoever spoils our contemplation of perfection. We are familiar with it as the ‘Final Solution’.
James Connolly drank of the ‘cool aid’ of his day as deeply as any jihadi, and his pursuit of a Marxist caliphate was born and powered of the same old sentimental and ugly pursuit of absolutism. There is much that is different in the causes that are adopted by fanatical Islamist zealots, but also much in common. Above all they share a hatred of the liberal state, an inability to co-exist with the complex liberal mind. What they most certainly are not is radical. That often honourable tradition is horribly tainted by such association. Can you not hear Orwell screaming at such slovenly and irresponsible use of language?
If I had one thing to say to those charged with dealing with such fanaticism it would be this. Scrap your dangerous and stupid deradicalisation programmes. There are no radicals to de-radicalise ,and it is patently irresponsible to attach such a tag to young people who will google it and think “What’s not to be proud of?” Such programmes are infested with woolly thinking – at best – and also serve as a cash cow for chancers, so-called security experts and fifth-rate academics.
You simply have to make up your mind about what is the best deal in town, and then promote and defend it. Along with the vast majority of people in these islands I believe that this deal is liberal democracy – flawed as it must and should be, and I want you to defend it unequivocally and proudly. Along the way, we will need our own True Believers to do the dirty work for our pampered selfie generation. Unlike the fanatic, however, we can distinguish between ends and means.
James Connolly: My Search for the Man, the Myth and his Legacy is published by Cornerstone Publishing.