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A Revolutionary Janus

Padraig Yeates

 

 

The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, Penguin Ireland, 688 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1844881208

 

This book is the best so far on Irish paramilitaries and radical republicanism. It is essential reading for everyone on the Irish left, a small constituency granted, but one that is growing once more in the current crisis.

 

The book’s main practical value is as a case study in “how not to build a revolutionary party” – or any sort of party for that matter. At the height of its influence the Workers Party had seven TDs, and when they all left, except for founding president Tomás Mac Giolla, to form Democratic Left it enjoyed a brief social democratic flowering as part of the Rainbow Coalition, led by Fine Gael’s John Bruton. That coalition also included the Labour Party. After Dick Spring retired there was something of a reverse takeover, when DL merged with Labour. Democratic Left leader Proinsias De Rossa served as Labour Party president initially and Ruairí Quinn was eventually succeeded as Labour leader by Pat Rabbitte and then Eamon Gilmore. Another WP veteran, Liz McManus, served as deputy leader of the Labour Party.

 

For an organisation which had grown out of the moribund republican movement of the 1960s and the political violence of the early 1970s it was a remarkable achievement. The party’s evolution was marked by a series of name changes, from Official Sinn Féin in 1970, to distinguish it from the Provisionals, to Sinn Féin The Workers Party in 1977 and just plain Workers Party in 1982. It was all the more remarkable given that its political programme evolved in the process into something akin to that of a home-grown communist party, with a sophisticated critique of the ills afflicting Ireland North and South. At one stage it looked as if it might overtake Labour as the main party of the left and it actually did so in Dublin during the 1980s.

 

However the amalgamation of the two main parties of the Left followed the defeat of the Rainbow Coalition and exclusion from power for twelve years drained it of any immediate benefits from the potential synergies of the alliance. Another reason for the diminished impact of DL on Labour was simply that the activists of the 1970s and 1980s were getting old. They had enough energy to take over much of the Labour Party machine but not the country. Now a new generation of Labour activists, born of the present crisis, seems to be gearing up for that under Eamon Gilmore’s leadership. Meanwhile the old WP rump staggers on, trying to rebuild a base in its former heartlands of Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Belfast.

 

There is no doubt that the collapse of the Soviet Union helped undermine the political viability of the WP before the DL split, but the roots of its destruction as a major revolutionary project go back much further. One of the great strengths of The Lost Revolution is that it investigates those roots in some detail and, unlike most books on paramilitaries, adopts a broad, historical perspective, based on interviews with over 150 people. These were cross-checked against each other and with written sources such as newspapers, official archives and the internal documents of the movement. As with the history of Irish republicanism generally, the oral tradition is crucial because this is a history of the defeated. People involved in illegal activity, particularly in committing serious crimes on which there may be no statute of limitation, tend not to commit their memoirs to the public domain.

 

The only comparable exercises are the work of the Military History Bureau Archive and J Bowyer Bell when researching his Secret Army. Of course the bureau’s work was never intended for publication during the lifetime of participants. Nor did it cross-check the testimony of interviewees or seek to reconcile conflicting accounts – even when interviewees themselves gave very different published versions of events. Bowyer Bell did nowhere near as many interviews as the authors of The Lost Revolution and wrote a history of the movement for the decades before the 1969/1970 split, describing an essentially different movement in a different era.

 

Among the authors’ achievements is the demolition of a number of myths, most notably the one that the movement was taken over by a coterie of Marxist intellectuals in the 1960s who deliberately reduced its paramilitary wing to a talking shop, allowing the IRA to be denigrated as “I Ran Away” in 1969 because of its failure to defend the Catholic ghettoes, thus preparing the ground for the birth of the Provos. At a recent seminar in Dublin former Sinn Féin and Workers Party president Tomás Mac Giolla gave an impassioned speech in which he thanked the authors for removing that slur on the handful of poorly armed volunteers who protected the ghettoes in August 1969. The criticism of the IRA for lack of weapons and military organisation is one that could be thrown at every generation of republicans since the 1790s. Anyone who wants to understand the perpetual dilemma of revolutionaries in a non-revolutionary era has only to read Pádraic Pearse’s “The Fool”.

 

It was the political underdevelopment of the movement that allowed it to blunder into the Northern crisis. The truth is that it was groping its way forward from a very low base politically and organisationally in the 1960s. It was entering its most experimental and least militaristic phase, not out of any conscious decision to abandon armed struggle but in order to find a role that would make it relevant in modern Ireland. The Border Campaign petered out unnoticed in 1962 and some of the movement’s loudest critics in 1969 turned their backs on the whole project in the fallow years. Ironically, if the movement they deserted had kept to their barren, traditionalist path it would not have stumbled on the Civil Rights campaign and these largely marginal figures would never have been able to resurrect their own destructive irredentist agenda in the early 1970s.

 

As The Lost Revolution shows, the handful of committed individuals left, such as Mac Giolla, Cathal Goulding, Mick Ryan, Malachy McGurran, Sean Garland, Seamus Costello and Seán Mac Stiofáin, inherited a heroic myth not an organisation. The amorphous nature of the project was its main strength in the mid-1960s and it learnt by doing. Fish-ins, housing protests, ground rent strikes and the emigrants’ rights campaign in Britain were just some of the agitational experiments embarked upon. Their coverage by The United Irishman transformed it from a desiccated historical journal into a campaigning newspaper. Incidentally the extremely popular “Poachers Guide” mentioned in the book was written by the late Sean Doherty, a Donegal man living in Birmingham, much of whose advice was tongue in cheek and potentially lethal to anyone who lacked his expertise. In fact it was very nearly lethal to himself.

 

What worked was built upon by the movement; what didn’t was discarded. The civil rights campaign was one such case. It worked so well it plunged the whole country into crisis. The republican movement was no more prepared for the explosion of sectarian violence in the North than anyone else. It is probably true that the split within the movement in 1969/70 might have been deferred if it had been possible to defend Belfast more effectively. But a split was probably inevitable given the conscious decision of the IRA leadership in Belfast from the mid-1960s onwards to set its face against sectarianism. All the Provisionals needed to create a base was to stoke the fires of communal hatred, and they did.

 

It is hard to overestimate the lure of political violence to revolutionaries in a hurry. A young James Connolly once lampooned “the physical force party – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no point and agree on no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain”. The same man, in middle age, was executed by a British firing party for his part in an abortive armed uprising that he candidly admitted had no hope of success.

 

If the siren call of physical force was powerful enough to lure James Connolly, what chance of resisting had a generation of republican activists reared on a diet of Dan Breen and Tom Barry, or young Belfast nationalists exposed to the terror of a pogrom? The people who had been active before 1969 were at least somewhat better prepared because most of them had read a bit wider than Tom Barry and they knew the reality of the IRA on the ground. Nevertheless, it would be hard to underestimate the emotive power of the pogrom and the war fever that gripped the South in the late summer of 1969.

 

Suddenly the era of political experimentation on the margins of society had collided with events of major historical importance. A group of fairly disparate organisations, ranging from the IRA to Sinn Féin, from the National Commemoration Committee to Na Fianna and stretching to emigrant support groups in the USA and Britain, were transformed from a loose coalition that agreed to differ on many fundamental issues into a resistance movement. It would have taken someone of the stature of Nelson Mandela to keep such a shaky grouping on the road to anywhere, let alone to victory, and unfortunately there were no Mandelas available.

 

Nor was there a shortage of enemies to exploit such a politically naive and disjointed gathering. These included the Catholic Church, which instinctively feared the movement’s nebulous socialist ideology even more than its violent political traditions, northern nationalists who realised a resurgence of republicanism would threaten their own existence and Fianna Fáil, “the republican party” in the South, whose leadership felt their political hegemony was being challenged. The split in the Fianna Fáil cabinet in 1970 over whether to invade the North reflected emotions raging throughout the South. War fever was not restricted to republicans or the young, although as Henry Joy McCracken and Jemmy Hope had predicted, it did not take the rich very long to betray the poor.

 

At the time the atmosphere was intoxicating for activists who had endured years of indifference or hostility trying to sell The United Irishman and Easter lilies. The decision of the IRA leadership to mobilise and then stand down volunteers was accepted by many in the firm belief that the inevitable conflict was only being postponed until they were better prepared. Volunteers, North and South, and in Britain, were thinking in terms of weeks rather than months for the start of a campaign and even the more sober members of the movement thought in months rather than years. The euphoria passed but the republican movement had a new credibility and political currency unimaginable a year earlier. Again its amorphous nature and appeal to so many different constituencies gave it an initial reach beyond that of a conventional political party. Incoherence was, momentarily, strength.

 

But the contradictions caused enormous collateral damage as they played themselves out over the next few years. One major contradiction was the pursuit of a civil rights agenda that if successful might legitimise the Northern Ireland state. This was a crucial issue for many who later joined the IRSP, INLA and Provisionals, and who cannot all be written off as psychopaths or sectarian bigots with guns. They saw the civil rights movement as an obstacle to the Republic. Another major contradiction for socialist republicans was how to build working class unity when over 95 per cent of members were Catholics and the practical consequences of protecting the ghettoes from loyalist paramilitaries and British army alike was to deepen the sectarian divide? But the most critical contradiction was the existence of a dual power structure. There were many rooms in the republican mansion, but the only ones that really mattered were the IRA and Sinn Féin. Initially there was only one, the IRA. However it became a certainty that once serious political debate began the dynamic of a dual power struggle would come into play.

 

It is easy to argue that all the blood that flowed subsequently can be attributed to this flaw at the centre of the separatist, physical force tradition which Connolly once treated with derision. But embracing constitutional politics and renouncing violence in 1969 was not an option. In many ways the existence of the IRA was the main feature that distinguished republicans from other groups in the confused maelstrom of that year. It was not the first revolutionary organisation marked by its attachment to political violence and it will not be the last. Criminal fraternities also exploit such situations and many of them claim legitimacy based on descent from secret peasant and/or revolutionary societies that championed the oppressed in the past.

 

The authors of The Lost Revolution certainly identify the links that emerged between political violence and criminal violence in Ireland from the late 1970s onwards. As Official Sinn Féin evolved into a conventional political party and it became necessary to deny links with the Official IRA, recruiting volunteers grew difficult. This was particularly true in the South, where there was no tradition of communal support for paramilitary subcultures. When elements in the “secret” industrial cumainn of Sinn Féin The Workers Party were inducted into the IRA it was an institutional device to protect them from victimisation in their employments rather than having anything to do with the continuation of the physical force tradition. Ironically, one of the main consequences of this device was to facilitate the promotion of factional interests by people who denied the same right to everyone else. However there was never any question of this grouping engaging in paramilitary activity or other politically inspired violence, although on occasion some of its members encouraged others to do so. To confuse matters further some people who were already in the IRA were also inducted into industrial cumainn.

 

The election of Joe Sherlock as the party’s first TD in 1981 created problems that were larger and more urgent than those posed by the anomalous nature of the industrial cumainn. Because Sherlock was the only party TD in a closely balanced Dáil every decision – from abstaining on the vote for Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach in 1981 to voting against the Budget in early 1982 and helping bring down the Fine Gael-Labour coalition – was critical. Sherlock was not a member of the Ard Comhairle at the time of his election but he did attend meetings on many occasions and was in constant touch with Garland, Mac Giolla and Goulding. Paradoxically, the situation became less charged in the second hung Dáil of 1982, when Proinsias De Rossa and Paddy Gallagher joined Sherlock. If Sherlock erred on the side of caution and Gallagher was always willing to take chances, De Rossa struck a balance between them and soon emerged as the informal leader of the group with the soundest political instincts. All three men were longstanding members of the party, with De Rossa and Sherlock having spent most of their lives in the movement. That changed as the parliamentary party grew and it became increasingly populated by new deputies, some of whom might have had a more natural home in the Labour Party. This accelerated the conflict that always arises when the democratic process rewards with electoral success a party built around revolutionary principles and dedicated to overthrowing the state. It is in effect a shotgun marriage and, like most shotgun marriages, very difficult to manage. Having observed the process at close quarters, I think it was doomed from the start.

 

Official IRA volunteers who were politically active led increasingly schizophrenic lives. They had to combine two increasingly contradictory activities. People engaged solely in paramilitary activities also had difficulty reconciling the two realities and in some cases resented the way they were both taken for granted and treated as second class members in political terms. Some people remained involved in paramilitary activity out of loyalty to an increasingly anachronistic ideal or because they felt that the number of reliable volunteers was becoming critically low and that leaving was akin to treason. Like being on the run, being a member of the IRA was as much a state of mind as a state of being.

 

While such factors helped keep a core “revolutionary” membership in place, that membership continued to dwindle. Whatever status attached to IRA membership in the heady days from 1969 to 1972 was long gone by the late 1970s. The lack of new recruits inevitably meant scraping the bottom of the barrel. Criminalisation was inevitable if illegal fundraising was to continue and there was no longer any military objective to give the army legitimacy in its own right. Of course the only objective that could have given it legitimacy was a military campaign. This was impossible for a movement that not only recognised, but firmly embraced, the concept of unity of the working class as a precondition of military action. Nor, as the authors point out, was it only criminal auxiliaries who were corrupted by a life of crime, although most volunteers preserved their personal integrity, often at great personal cost.

 

As Brecht said, the poor make poor criminals and the fundraising activity of the Official IRA from the late 1970s onwards bears this out. The takings shrink into insignificance compared with recent revelations about the activities of the rich criminals in our political and business elites. They are the ones who have plunged the South into its current crisis. If it turns out to be a pre-revolutionary phase in our history they can take the credit for creating it. Hopefully, they will be suitably rewarded for undertaking such an important historic mission.

 

The understandable attention given in The Lost Revolution to fundraising as the primary operational activity of the IRA from the late 1970s onwards is a distraction from the more fundamental question of what role political violence and the organisations that practise it have had in Irish revolutionary politics. From the Civil War until the 1969/70 split, the IRA had been the dominant organisation within the republican movement. It remained so in the early 1970s and many members saw it as the revolutionary core within Sinn Féin that would ensure the latter evolved into a fully-fledged revolutionary socialist party.

 

However, although it was not inevitable it was certainly probable that once the decision was taken to give primacy to mobilising support through political means the roles of the two organisations would over time be reversed. The problem then was managing the transformation. It was probably inevitable that the Fenian old guard would try to use the army to retain control of Official Sinn Féin and its successors, thus preserving the revolutionary potential of a party with increasingly open social democratic structures.

 

One option in the early years would have been to formalise the dualism of the movement, with the political wing acknowledging the existence of the military wing. It would have been a very difficult double act and would almost certainly have left Official Sinn Féin outside the political fold, as Provisional Sinn Féin was while it supported the “armed struggle”. Provisional Sinn Féin was only able to build a political base in the North’s Catholic ghettoes because that state was built on a sectarian divide. For all their new-found socialist rhetoric the Provisionals needed sectarianism as much as did the Unionists in order to thrive. It was only when the peace process succeeded that Provisional Sinn Féin took off in the South, and now it faces the same contradictions that the Officials faced.

 

The Provisionals’ strategy was also open to the Officials and it would have been relatively easy for them to use socialist rhetoric to camouflage their own tribal base in the 1970s. To its credit the Official republican movement refused to do so. But did it really have to run so far and so fast from that base? Many supporters and eventually many members were not just alienated but driven into the arms of the Provisionals and the INLA. A principled position was possible without pursuing the illusion that the working class Protestant ghettoes were populated by thousands of potential revolutionary socialists only waiting for someone to cast the scales from their eyes. If such revolutionary masses did not exist in the Catholic ghettoes there was no reason to suppose they existed in their mirror image across the peace line. I have to own up to lacking the will and the ability to argue effectively against a political line that became increasingly detached from reality and degenerated from the illusional to the delusional over the years.

 

For a long time people could console themselves with the thought that none of this really mattered while progress was being made in the South. Nor did the dual power arrangement matter when the IRA, barring the occasional incident, was so clearly under the control of the political leadership. Besides, it was an era of high unemployment and the black economy was endemic. Economic warfare against the capitalist state machine was legitimate. Smuggling was one of many activities that generated funds and had the merit of waging war very profitably against both regimes simultaneously.

 

Of course the most spectacularly successful harnessing of violence to political objectives in the twentieth century was carried out by the international communist movement. The attractions of the Marxist-Leninist model in Ireland, including its Trotskyist variant, were immediately apparent because they sprang from the same well from which the republican movement drew. Like Bolshevism, Fenianism could trace its origins to Auguste Blanqui. The visit by Garland, Mac Giolla and Des O’Hagan to Moscow in 1973 was pivotal. Garland came back a convert. As Paddy Woodworth pointed out in his perceptive 1991 Making Sense article, quoted in The Lost Revolution, democratic centralism became a substitute for the military discipline of the past. “The leaders of the Official IRA were courageously dumping their guns, but most of them could not dump the attitudes with which they had held them.” In a sense, most of the old guard never fully understood, and certainly never accepted the consequences of, the process they had initiated. If they had, they would have released control of the Workers Party with good grace to De Rossa and the new guard. By not only attempting to hold onto power but reactivating IRA structures in order to do so they ensured both sides lost out in the long term. The shotgun wedding ended with a discharge of both barrels.

 

In a way it does not matter whether the new guard was aware of continuing IRA activities or not. Once those activities became too public and embarrassing to ignore, constitutional politicians had little choice but to cut the ties. The party would never break into the bright electoral uplands of middle class suburbia with a paramilitary carcass clinging to it. If the old guard wanted to continue operating in the best Blanquist-Fenian conspiratorial tradition they should never have abandoned abstentionism in the first place. The same fundamental problem faces the Provisionals. To that extent Republican Sinn Féin leader Ruairi Ó Bradaigh was right – twice.

 

The truth is that serious political crises breed paramilitaries of left and right alike – and political normality kills them. Ireland was unusual in that the Republic, which was a very stable, conservative society, was living cheek by jowl with a highly unstable failed political experiment as a neighbour. Both parts of the island survived the crisis rather than resolved it. They did so primarily because Britain had the material power and political will to hold the ring in Northern Ireland until mutual exhaustion secured a tribally-based compromise from the protagonists. Meanwhile, paramilitary organisations continue to survive in the border counties and in marginalised communities, where smuggling, drug-dealing, protection rackets and other forms of social crime have seen them morph into increasingly criminal networks. Such networks need different power structures from those of democratically constituted, law-governed states. It may be that the main legacy of latter-day Fenianism will be a peculiarly Irish breed of Mafia.

 

Some people, most notably John Hume, characterised the conflict in the North as a “war” in the normal sense of the word. Taking this at face value, as some peace campaigners do, it can be argued that if countries such as France and Germany can end centuries of conflict, why can people from different traditions in Northern Ireland not do the same? The problem is that France and Germany were states. Even those who committed the most terrible atrocities eventually returned home to become lawyers, postmen or whatever it was they did in civilian life. They did not continue living beside people they tried to murder, or set up for others to kill or maim.

 

Nor can paramilitary organisations be compared to conventional armies answerable to the state. In democracies, armies are law-governed organisations with well-defined structures for inducting, training and demobilising individuals, transforming civilians into soldiers and then returning them, sometimes less successfully, to civilian life. Paramilitary organisations may aspire to such structures and draw strength from the same emotional forces as regular armies, but the reality is different. Even law-bound armies cannot turn organised violence on and off like a tap. With paramilitary organisations the alternatives are more akin to a drought or a flood – a drying up of recruits and resources when the political environment is unfavourable and a veritable flood of violence when it improves. In such structures individual units or activists can easily become mercurial, as various Irish paramilitary groups have demonstrated through spectacular violence over the years.

 

The Official Republican movement can say with some pride that it never descended to those depths, or allowed others to drag it there. The Official IRA was undoubtedly necessary to ensure physical survival in the North and without it, especially in the early decades, the movement would not have been able to play its small but crucial role in transforming Ireland into a modern, secular and partially pluralist society. It is a role well described by the authors and should lead to a wider reassessment of the movement in the future.

 

Reading The Lost Revolution brings back many memories. It is also a reminder that even a book as large and well researched as this one, on a historical phenomenon as small as the Official Republican movement, can only provide fragments and a flavour of the past. Inevitably missing are the boring routine activities that mould individual members and keep organisations alive until they can flourish in a kinder political climate. Nights spent going from pub to pub trying to sell The United Irishman, hours spent sticking pins into fingers and thumbs as well as Easter lilies, weekends spent marching in tiny groups behind large banners, were part of the long induction to struggle, as similar experiences are for every generation of aspiring revolutionaries. If nothing else our leaders perceived the value of self-adhesive lilies before anyone else.

 

And often the things that made a difference were very small. In Birmingham, where I lived in the 1960s, the decision by the local Clann craobh to purchase a Gestetner duplicating machine revolutionised our ability to communicate with the Irish community. Fortuitously we did so at the start of the Northern troubles. It meant that a leaflet drop to pubs and Irish dancehalls on a Friday and Saturday night, and outside Catholic churches on Sundays, gave us a capacity to reach the emigrant community on a scale out of all proportion to our numbers. Similarly the chance discovery by Gerry Doherty, another former Clann activist, that there was a ready market for The Irish People in Dublin pubs on Sunday mornings not only gave the newspaper a new lease of life but helped turn it into an organising as well as a propaganda tool and contributed to laying the foundations for electoral success in many constituencies. One of my regrets is that the leadership of the movement never saw the newspaper’s full potential. In the early 1980s there was a unique opportunity to develop a self-sustaining mass circulation radical newspaper on a scale not seen since Larkin’s Irish Worker and People’s Advocate. It would be much missed in the scandal-ridden decades that followed. Less understandable was the removal of gifted and committed people considered politically unreliable – such as Mairin de Burca – from leadership positions. Her elimination as a candidate for Dublin Central opened the door for Tony Gregory to represent the constituency. He would not have run against de Burca. He went on to become a leading champion of inner city regeneration and the fightback against drugs. If his ideology was close to that of Seamus Costello, there is no denying he served his community well.

 

As the authors point out, there are literally hundreds of other former members of the official republican movement still very active in Irish public life, not just in politics but in state agencies, trade unions, business, community groups, voluntary bodies and the arts. By and large they have given a lot more to Irish society than they have taken, which cannot be said for the “republican” party that has dominated the South for the past eighty years. Fianna Fáil’s era is coming to a close. The era of the Official Republican movement never arrived, which is probably just as well. Hopefully something better is on the way.

 

The only criticism I have of The Lost Revolution is that the footnotes sometimes obscure more than they reveal. In places it seems sources may have been conflated, or confused. But this is a minor point. Students of history and more especially participants in the “Lost Revolution” owe a debt to Brian Hanley and Scott Millar for rescuing this important strain of radical Irish socialist republicanism from oblivion.

 

Meanwhile the book provides a lesson for a younger generation on how not to go about trying to change the world. Above all do not play with guns, explosives or exaggerated notions about the importance of your own historic mission, either individually or collectively. They make an extremely dangerous cocktail.


Padraig Yeates joined the republican movement at seventeen, serving as national organiser for Clann na hEireann in 1971-2 and for Repsol subsequently. He edited Irish People 1977-1982 and served on the national executive of SFWP and of the WP from 1978-1983. He worked as a journalist with The Irish Times from 1983-1989 and with Coalition des Gauches in the European Parliament from 1989-90 for Proinsias De Rossa, returning to The Irish Times 1990-2002.  He took early retirement in 2002 and has worked since as media adviser to various organisations, mainly trade unions.

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