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Phil Mac Giolla Bhain and the Problem of Objectivity


If I were to give myself a label, it would be as a historian. I’ve written two books and a couple of dozen articles for a variety of academic journals, online journals and newspapers.

Everything I do is, in some way, aimed at establishing an accurate picture of the things that I write about so that sometime in the future, someone might pick up a book or access an article that I’ve written in order to learn more about the thing that I’ve spent considerable time researching and be at least part of the way towards fully understanding it.

As a historian, you are also challenged by the fact that you are creating personal relationships with the people you are researching. You are naturally inclined towards sympathy for those who give up their time and, in some cases, invite you into their homes to help you understand their own personal histories. Former IRA volunteer Marian Price was one of the friendliest, most generous interviewees I have ever met. Former IRA volunteer Danny Morrison invited me into his house and fed me tea and biscuits while I asked him questions relevant to my research. I have become close with former hunger striker Gerard Hodgins and I was close with former UDA man Sammy Duddy. But you have to handle the accounts that these sources provide in as objective a manner as possible. The phrase “according to” is important, as is the word “recalled”; we have to remember that established fact is very much the holy grail of history.

We can all take online blogs with a pinch of salt, but the Rangers Standard itself is a serious attempt to shift important debates about the club beloved by the vast majority of contributors into a more scholarly, and therefore reliable, forum.

In the future, people will read the Rangers Standard (even if the site does not exist in 100 years, somewhere in the great vaults of cyberspace, every word will), in the knowledge that by and large, these views were representative of the supporters of Rangers Football Club in the 2010s. The feedback on the message boards will emphasise this fact.

For the historian of 2012, the most important starting points for just about any research projects are the books and articles that have already been written about a topic, or at least written about a topic close to the topic at hand. Reading these books and articles helps frame your understanding of how a topic or issue is understood in broader circles.

Historians of the future will still use these forms of publication to start their own research, even if the publication happens to be in electronic form. They will also have access to incredible levels of micro-history in the form of the 175,000,000 currently registered twitter users. They will have to be cautious in terms of their selectivity, but the access and range of sources will be as rich as has ever been seen. The issue of objectivity is at the heart of everything.

Journalist Ed Moloney, an important commentator on all aspects of the Northern Irish troubles, has recently encountered serious problems over his Voices from the Grave project, which is based and administered from Boston College. Participants were sourced from both loyalist and republican paramilitary factions in addition to, potentially, all sides of the conflict, and assured that in exchange for their complete honesty, their accounts would not be published until after their death.

The problem with having Moloney in charge of the Boston College project is that his most recent publication, A Secret History of the IRA, while one of the leading studies of the Provisional IRA, is deeply critical of Gerry Adams. Opposition to Gerry Adams and the Adams agenda for Irish republicanism since he rose to the top of the republican movement in the mid-1970s is a central tenet of what has been termed “dissident” republicanism.

The question is therefore asked in some circles as to whether or not Moloney is entirely objective in his assessments of the IRA and therefore, whether or not he is the best person to be compiling the Voices from the Grave series. So, the question is posed: can you really write objectively about something you feel very strongly about?

In the two books I have worked on to date, I have written about the Irish Republican Army, a group which, among other acts, killed two little boys when it bombed the Cheshire town of Warrington in March 1993. Three-year-old Jonathan Ball was shopping for a mother’s day gift when he was killed in as an IRA bomb exploded. Twelve-year-old Timothy Parry died five days later. What I have attempted to do, when writing about IRA attacks on innocent civilians, adult and child alike, is to try to frame these attacks in the context of the wider IRA strategy. It is not an easy task. The deaths of Ball and Parry seem so senseless that it almost drives me to tears, even today.

Most importantly, in my view at least, I try not to approach the wider subject of the IRA campaign with contempt for any side. I think it is fair to start from a position which declares that violence and killing people is wrong. I understand how the IRA formed out of wider social issues which were not adequately resolved in time to prevent violence from breaking out. I also understand that many people saw no alternative to violence, particularly in the context of events world wide during the late 1960s. What is important is that we understand (a) what happened and (b) why it happened. This seems to me to be a fairly solid grounding upon which to produce works of historical value.

Therefore, as a football fan and a historian, it is a matter of both interest and concern that journalist Phil Mac Giolla Bhain has decided to write a book entitled Downfall: How Rangers FC Destructed.

This is an important book. Or, more accurately, this is a topic which must be written about. Questions absolutely must be asked about the way in which Rangers FC was managed in recent years. The book claims to “detail the failure of corporate governance by the SFA and SPL”, another worthy task indeed; questions clearly need to be asked about how these bodies have conducted their business.

So, with that established, is the author who has produced this book the best person for the job? We must ask this question in the knowledge that once this book is on the market, other authors who might try to emulate it will face the obstacle of its existence: the question publishers will ask is “why do we need another book on the downfall of Rangers, we already have this one?”

Mac Giolla Bhain’s personal website/blog describes him as a “freelance journalist capable of consistently producing high quality articles”. The majority of his recent articles seem to appear on his blog. In April 2011, he wrote a “comment is free” piece for The Guardian entitled “It’s still not easy being Irish in Scotland”, which challenged Kevin McKenna’s assertion that the latter was more comfortable as a person of Irish lineage in Scotland.

In this relatively short piece, he focused on a few issues of the day as were relevant to the discussion, still at the time framed by concerns over persistent sectarian attitudes in Scotland. Notably, he claimed that the “famine song” was a “taunt [towards] an ethnic group about a famine that extinguished a million lives and forced another million into permanent exile? What other community is told to "go home" by tens of thousands of football supporters week in week out in soccer stadiums across the country?

I won’t go into detail about the “famine song” here, far more in depth discussion is to be had in Graham Walker and Ronnie Esplin’s Rangers: Triumphs, Troubles, Traditions. It is, however, safe to say that Mac Giolla Bhain felt strongly about the fact that it was sung and subsequently “remixed” (rather regrettably and far more controversially) on Youtube.

A full year later, on his personal website/blog, Mac Giolla Bhain wrote a piece entitled “The Incubator”. The Incubator remains accessible on the website for anyone to read, but the following selection of quotes have defined the piece for many Rangers fans:

“Dodgy DNA…it wasn’t in his plan that this creature would do much listening anyway…no intellectual distraction or moral dilemma be allowed to contaminate the controlled environment…it could be programmed to hate any ethnic minority…this was a truly horrible weapons system…the illiterate, drunken, urinating brain dead rioter would define urban combat in the 21st century.”

After The Sun newspaper reneged on its deal to serialise Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall book, Professor Roy Greenslade of City University London quickly published an article on the Guardian’s website in which he claimed that “The Incubator” blog post was “a satire on the bigotry of many Rangers’ fans” and that Mac Giolla Bhain himself felt the post was “so obviously satirical”.

To give some credit to Greenslade and Mac Giolla Bhain,“The Incubator” is indeed a rather absurdist piece. The imagery of Professor Struth creating a monster to terrorise the footballing towns of the world is bizarre and, if taken at face value, not really worthy of hand-wringing. Had someone else written the piece, they would have probably expected some abuse from Rangers fans, but undoubtedly many would have seen it as banter.

But in the context of Mac Giolla Bhain’s earlier comments on the “famine song” as well as other comments he has made, which have been researched online by the huge internet Rangers fan presence, accusations of inconsistent application of the “satire” label have been made.

Does Mac Giolla Bhain really think that Rangers fans are “illiterate, drunken brain dead rioters”? I seriously doubt that he does. But then, do Rangers fans really seek the repatriation of all Irish migrant communities which settled in Scotland in the mid-late 1800s? Is it not unfair to claim one to be a joke and yet declare the other to be the unequivocal position of the other side?

This brings us to the key point regarding this new book on Rangers: can a person who would write something which conveys such obvious contempt for Rangers and Rangers supporters possibly write an objective book which properly details exactly what went wrong at Rangers?

I should emphasise that I have not read Downfall. Indeed, I don’t think it is available at present. My concern, as a historian, is that it should appear as a dispassionate, objective analysis of recent events at one of Scotland’s largest football clubs and provide answers to researchers of the future who come to examine exactly how Rangers happened to end up plying their trade in the bottom tier of the Scottish league. With the evidence available to me, can I guarantee that Mac Giolla Bhain is going to provide that? Unfortunately, I cannot. I do, however, hope that I am wrong.

Andrew Sanders is a Research Fellow at University College Dublin. He is the author of ‘Inside the IRA: Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy’ and co-author of ‘Times of Troubles: Britain’s War in Northern Ireland’.