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Red Shift

Tom Wall

‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left, by John Mulqueen, Liverpool University Press, 275 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1789620641

Nothing pleasant comes to mind when we hear the word “alien”. Inevitably, some kind of threat is implied. Derived from the Latin alius, meaning “other”, this harmless noun has been transformed into something menacing. Perhaps we think of the terrifying scene in the film Alien when a hideous serpent burst out of John Hurt’s chest. But aliens were out of favour long before then. In 1936, Irish legislators passed an Aliens Act that allowed the minister to deny entry to refugees, mainly Jews, fleeing Nazi persecution. Ireland wasn’t alone in that regard. Later, during the Cold War, something even more menacing featured in the speeches of politicians and priests, the frightful prospect of the spread of an alien ideology: communism. There was no need for further elaboration; the fact that it was an unchristian ideology associated with Russia was enough. The 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made when the purges of Hollywood actors and directors initiated by Senator Joe McCarthy were still in progress, provided a powerful allegory of the consequences of communist infiltration.

Ireland, notwithstanding the Republic’s declared neutrality, did not escape the paranoia. Communist Party meetings were the target of mob attacks. Any hint from within the Labour Party that Connolly’s idea of a workers’ republic might inform its policy prompted denunciations from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and, more alarming for Labour TDs, the pulpit. When in the 1970s Sinn Féin the Workers Party (SFWP) took a decided turn to the left, the Cold War warriors of the right had more reason to be concerned: this time they were dealing with something approaching the real deal. Cathal Goulding, chief of staff of the Official IRA, and some of his close colleagues made no bones about it. SFWP had publicly aligned itself to Moscow.

John Mulqueen, in his ‘An Alien Ideology’ charts the impact of Cold War politics on the Northern Ireland conflict, with particular attention to the leftward orientation of the IRA under Goulding. Based on the author’s PhD thesis, the book draws on British, Irish and US diplomatic archives, supplemented by interviews with some key players and contemporary commentary. The fact that ‘An Alien Ideology’ in the title is in quotes alerts us to the fact that this is not in itself the subject matter. It is merely a slogan, one commonly used during the Cold War to discredit Marxism and communism. The actual subject matter is captured in the sub-title “Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left”. Mulqueen’s book provides fascinating insights into this aspect of the Troubles, one not previously researched, at least not to this depth. In the process it highlights the rapid shift towards mainstream communism by SFWP after the Official-Provisional split. A redshift in astronomical terms measures the extent to which the more remote stars are distancing themselves from other celestial bodies and this could be an apt analogy: as SFWP sped leftward it distanced itself from most of its nationalist republican base.

The late Roy Johnston, who dominates the early chapters of the book, would have understood, if not appreciated the analogy. He was a scientist and his PhD thesis was titled “A study of the unstable particles occurring in the cosmic radiation”, a role he himself could be seen to have played in the republican constellation. Active in left politics as a student in Trinity College, he joined the British Communist Party after his move to England. On his return to Dublin he became a leading figure in the Wolfe Tone Society, where he came into contacting with leading republicans. In 1965, he became “political education officer” within the IRA at Cathal Goulding’s invitation. As Mulqueen reveals, Johnston’s involvement within the republican movement rang alarm bells with US and British embassy staff in Dublin, who both saw it as an attempt to bring the IRA within the Soviet orbit. The truth, as is usual in these matters, is more complex.

Sinn Féin, and more particularly the IRA, much diminished in size and influence following the failure of the border campaign in the 1950s, had begun to move perceptively, if cautiously, to the left during the 1960s. The party became more active in social and community issues, including housing, industrial disputes and angling protests in the South and civil rights in the North. In 1967 Sinn Féin declared itself in favour of a thirty-two-county socialist republic. Yet most republicans remained fundamentally conservative. When Betty Sinclair was suggested as a speaker at a Belfast rally objections were raised on the basis that she was a communist. At commemorative events, the rosary was frequently recited. When Johnston, who had a Northern Presbyterian background, raised objections to this practice, presumably with the encouragement of Goulding, Seán Mac Stíofáin, in a letter in the United Irishman, strongly disagreed, considering Johnston’s intervention to be influenced by “Marxist criticism of religion”.

The IRA Army Council was always the dominant influence in determining Sinn Féin policy and as chief of staff Goulding was determined to shift the movement away from mere military irredentism. From a strongly republican family background, he had become active in Fianna Éireann, the youth wing, along with his friend Brendan Behan, in the 1930s. With the IRA dormant following the internment of most of its members during WWII, Goulding set about re-establishing it postwar. In 1953 he and Mac Stíofáin were caught in possession of a cache of arms stolen from a British army training school in Essex, leading to the two future republican rivals receiving eight-year jail sentences. It is most likely that it was while in Wakefield Prison that Goulding became attracted to Marxism. In any event, it is not the case that Johnston converted him to communism, as the British and Americans may have suspected. Goulding was already a communist sympathiser when he invited Johnston to assist with his project of socially radicalising grass roots IRA recruits.

The bitter split within Sinn Féin and the IRA in December 1969 removed most of the more conservative elements from the Official movement. The immediate cause was the proposal to ditch the policy of abstentionism in order to allow Sinn Féin TDs to take their seats in the Dáil. However, opposition among conservative militarists to alleged communist infiltration also played a part and Johnston’s influence was the focus of much disquiet even if, as Mulqueen states, “many younger activists [who remained within the Official movement] were delighted to see the back of the traditionalists”. The split certainly cleared the way for Goulding, ably assisted by Sean Garland, Des O’Hagan and others, to transform the party into an openly pro-Soviet, internationalist organisation. The Official IRA, however, remained active. The difference between it and the Provisional IRA, according to Sean Garland at that time, was that his party was fighting for a socialist revolution and to this end political agitation must accompany armed struggle: an early manifestation of the ballot box and Armalite strategy. By this stage the violence in the North had escalated and it seems both IRAs were in competition; a contest that eventually led to open warfare between the two. A despairing Roy Johnston took his leave of the party.

A number of Official IRA actions, most notably the bomb at the Aldershot Barracks which killed six civilian workers and a chaplin, caused public revulsion and no little disquiet within the organisation. This contributed to the Official IRA declaring a ceasefire in 1972, although deadly feuds with the Irish National Liberation Army, who had split from the Officials and the Provisionals, meant that armed actions continued. As these conflicts abated, the aim of the Officials, now renamed Sinn Féin the Workers Party (SFWP) moved from “national liberation” to peace and working class unity, North and South. The task was to convince Protestant workers that they were on the same side even by taking their side on issues that risked alienating Catholic supporters. Tough compromises were made, not least the effective abandonment of Official IRA prisoners. Mulqueen generally refrains from polemics, letting the facts speak for themselves. However, on this issue he exhibits an apparent sense of exasperation.

Pretending that it did not have its own ‘political prisoners’ and sending newly convicted Official IRA prisoners into the H-Blocks illustrated ruthlessness on the part of the leadership. Supporting ‘criminalisation’ proved to be a monumental tactical error. By turning its back on the republican tradition here, SFWP allowed the Provisionals to reap the political benefits of this emotional issue in the nationalist communities of the north. The decision to prioritise class politics in Northern Ireland, perceived to have potential before the escalation of the ‘prison war’, sent the party there into oblivion.

It was clearly an error, but was it a tactical one? It did not require the wisdom of hindsight to gauge the likely impact on nationalist opinion of the party’s change of direction. So why did they do it? The author doesn’t speculate, but it can only be due to the Marxist ideology of the party leadership at the time. For a Marxist, all communal conflict has social, economic and class roots and the working class must be brought to this realisation. Nationalism and national revolutions were seen by Marx as an important stage in the advance towards a socialist economy, providing the proletariat achieved political supremacy within the struggle. In the Irish context, this presupposed unity between Protestant and Catholic workers. For Goulding and his comrades, the Provos were undermining this possibility through their ruthless campaign of violence, which was implicitly, and sometimes nakedly, sectarian in nature. SFWP were indeed ruthless in pursuing their policies, and they were undoubtedly misguided, but this wasn’t due to a tactical error, monumental or otherwise. Their objective was no longer one of playing to the nationalist gallery. Their pursuit of class politics failed and the party went into near oblivion in Northern Ireland as a result. But they should be given some credit for at least trying to bridge the sectarian divide. As Richard English conceded, they at least tried to get to the roots of nationalism, “the why as well as the what”. Their answer to the “why” question was to attribute “false consciousness” to the Protestant working class. This disregarded the impact of centuries of cultural and political otherness, culminating in a widely shared sense of national affiliation entirely divergent from that of their Catholic co-workers. Not appreciating the depth and durability of this division was a failure of Marxist reductionist ideology, not one of tactics. Although misguided, it was nevertheless sincere, brave and, to an extent, progressive. The party, in its later manifestation as the Workers’ Party, had more success in the Republic, where along with other post-nationalist groups of the left, it helped to effectively redefine the “national question” as one where the task was to peacefully secure political compromise between the two traditions in Northern Ireland. This has been manifest in recent weeks as the tánaiste sat down with the British Northern Ireland secretary in Stormont as mediators working successfully to bring the two sides together again in a working assembly.

Returning to the main subject of ‘An Alien Ideology’, SFWP strengthened its links with the communist world during the 1970s and these links were maintained after the name change to Workers Party in 1982. For the party, the support of the Soviet Union was a key element of its Marxist reorientation, but it also gave it the potential to obtain international support, politically and financially. Mulqueen states that the Soviets provided “hundreds of thousands of pounds to the WP, ostensibly to pay magazine publishing bills”, information which he intriguingly sourced through “private information”. The Soviets’ attitude towards the party was more mixed. They would have welcomed the unambiguous support of the SFWP/WP and could only have been pleased that a party that was acquiring more than its fair share of young intellectuals, many with influence within the Irish trade union movement, was in their corner. On the other hand, that party’s hostility towards Sinn Féin/IRA was problematic. While distancing themselves from some of the atrocities committed by the Provisional IRA, the Soviets welcomed the opportunities the conflict afforded to criticise Britain, especially during the H-Block hunger strikes. The WP failed in its attempts to temper the Kremlin’s language for, as Mulqueen reminds us, Soviet propaganda made repeated references to British torture, concentration camps etc. Complicating matters further for Moscow was the attitude of their comrades in the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), who broadly supported the Provo campaign. The CPI leadership feared that its position as the official standardbearer of communism on the island was in danger of being usurped. How the apparatchiks in Moscow set about squaring the circle remains to be researched.

The links between the party and Moscow, not surprisingly, attracted the attention of the British and Americans. In the early years of the Troubles the intelligence services in both countries seemed poorly informed about the various political and paramilitary groupings. Their priority was the Cold War and one gets the impression that they were almost relieved to find a Cold War angle to the Irish conflict that made it more comprehensible. Just as important to ambitious young spooks, it would allow them to compile reports that were more likely to be read by their masters. As a result, the Officials received more attention than their participation in the conflict merited.

Another revealing aspect of the story concerns the role of the Irish government and security services during the early years of the conflict. Despite being officially neutral, individuals and agencies in Dublin were more than happy to share information with Britain and the US about republican subversives suspected to have communist leanings. Intelligence information was also shared with the Catholic church, which had its own US contacts. Neutrality, as contemporary Irish politicians and diplomats reassured their British and American colleagues, was purely a matter of militarily nonalignment. There was no question of the country being neutral in regard to communist ideology. 

‘An Alien Ideology’ takes us back to a time when ideology mattered to young men and women in Ireland and when being “sound” on the national question, in whichever direction, determined relationships, and for some was a matter of life and death. Notwithstanding its scholarly features, John Mulqueen’s work is an arresting account and a valuable contribution to the growing body of academic research into the conflict.

1/2/2020

Tom Wall is a former senior official of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and is the author of Dachau to the Dolomites: the Untold Story of the Irishmen, Himmler’s Special Prisoners and the End of WWII, published by Merrion Press last year.

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