From Solidarity 3/4, 29 March 2002
By Sean Matgamna
The House of Commons is a strange place, governed by its own sometimes incomprehensible rituals.
In the early 1990s the Unionist MP Ian Paisley was suspended from the House for shouting "liar" at a minister who denied that the government was having secret talks with Gerry Adams and the IRA. Everybody knew that what Paisley said was true: secret talks - ultimately they led to the Good Friday Agreement - were taking place and those who denied it were, indeed, liars.
Truth was less important than the fact that Paisley had overstepped the bounds of the gentlemanly language which the dignity of Parliament demands. A strange place.
Just how strange and mysterious was demonstrated once again on 6 March, when junior Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw launched an astonishing attack on the Labour MP George Galloway calling him an "apologist and a mouthpiece" for Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.
It was one of the most dramatic confrontations Parliament has seen for a long time. Galloway immediately jumped to his feet shouting "Liar". To say I am a "mouthpiece" for "a dictator", he said, his orator's voice trembling with emotion, is to impugn "my honour".
George Galloway's voice and manner on this occasion brought vividly to my mind a scene recorded by the BBC cameras in Iraq eight years ago.
In January 1994 Galloway, his voice vibrating with deep feeling, his body language and manner strongly suggestive of awe and respect, stood before the Iraqi Hitler, Saddam Hussein, in a Baghdad palace and praised his courage, strength and indefatigability.
"Sir," said Galloway, standing within smelling distance of the mass murderer, "Sir - we salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability".
Galloway was one of a delegation of European MPs who took it on themselves to present Saddam Hussein with a pennant from Palestinian youth in the Israeli-occupied territory, from which they had just come.
Having praised "Sir's" courage, strength and indefatigability, Galloway went on to inform Saddam Hussein that the people he had visited in Palestine were naming their children after him. And not only were the Palestinians with him.
Galloway ended his speech with the words: "We are with you," and then some words in Arabic, which the BBC translated as "Until victory! Until Jerusalem!"
This was not quite three years after Saddam Hussein had rocketed bombs on Israel during the Gulf War, and used poison gas against Iraq's Kurdish people.
The left-wing paper Socialist Organiser, in an article entitled 'The Old Left Continues to Rot', described Galloway's performance as "the latest putrescent manifestation" of the decay of the left, and advocated George Galloway's expulsion from the Labour Party.
Afterwards, Galloway tried to insist that his words were addressed not to the mass murderer in whose presence he stood, but as a salutation to the Iraqi people. Galloway then, under pressure, admitted that the words which began with "Sir", were addressed to the "indefatigable" and "strong" butcher.
In the House of Commons on 6 March, Galloway's voice trembled not with awe and respect in the presence of "your courage, your strength, your indefatigability", but with anger and indignation at being called an apologist for the courageous, strong and indefatigable Saddam Hussein.
After the dramatic confrontation it looked as if, the following day, Galloway would be suspended from the House of Commons for 'unparliamentary language'. But no. Drama on the 6th was followed on the 7th by anti-climax. Soft words of reconciliation were spoken on both sides. The Minister more or less retracted his statement; Galloway more or less apologised for his intemperate response. The Minister had accused the MP of being the equivalent for Iraq of an old-time Stalinist apologist for the USSR - something like a modern D N Pritt MP, who was expelled from the Labour Party for it; the Labour MP had accused the New Labour minister of being a "liar" and a slanderer. But now they settled down together once more to polite co-existence as New Labour party comrades. End of episode. The House of Commons is indeed a strange place.
For a moment it looked as if the exchange would result in the spotlight being put on Galloway and offered reason for hope that answers would finally be forthcoming to questions that have long intrigued people on the left. Questions such as: what motivates George Galloway (who has let the bourgeois press, the Daily Telegraph for example, call him "the MP for Central Baghdad")?
Not the least intriguing part of this question is what exactly it is that attracts George Galloway to Iraq. Many of us oppose sanctions against Iraq. George Galloway appears to have a special, positive devotion to Iraq. Even if right now the first responsibility is to oppose war, Galloway's attitude has been no different for many years. Why?
Light on what motivates Galloway might do something to dispel the impression that Galloway confuses the Iraqi regime with the Iraqi people, and that he favours the Iraqi Arab Sunnis and the Sunni-based regime, which oppresses a majority of the state's people - Shia Muslims and the Kurdish national minority - over the rest of those living in the Iraqi state - the sort of impression that led Ben Bradshaw to think he could get away with dismissing Galloway as "an apologist and mouthpiece" for Saddam Hussein (thus intentionally smearing the whole anti-war movement).
The Iraqi Arabs are no doubt a very admirable and loveable people. So are the Iraqi Kurds - and for that matter the Israeli Jews: and they are surely not less loveable than the Iraqi Arabs.
Galloway, of course, does not back 'dictators' and he is a 'democrat'. He would strengthen his position vis-à-vis the likes of Ben Bradshaw if he were to make public certain facts about his record: to help him I will pose some of the obvious questions.
When and where, and for how long, did he give support or encouragement to Iraqi working class or bourgeois democratic opponents of Saddam Hussein?
Has he ever supported the Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein? When? Where? How?
Has he ever put his standing as an unflinching and invariable friend of Iraq unequivocally at the disposal of the working class and other democratic opponents of the Iraqi dictator - he whose "apologist and mouthpiece" George Galloway is not, because that would be "dishonourable"?
George Galloway is still considered a man of the left. He graces the Trafalgar Square platform at anti-war demonstrations. The organisers of these demonstrations testify by having George Galloway on their platforms that they reject the scurrilous charges of Bradshaw (and others outside the House of Commons who do not have Bradshaw's immunity from libel action by the litigious Galloway), that they have faith in George Galloway - and that they do not think him so closely identified with the Iraqi regime that decent socialists would not want to be seen dead with him.
The left is a very strange place - but that is another story.