‘Freedom is only a flag’

‘Sinn Fein the Workers’ party’, Ireland’s ‘official’ republicans twisted in the wind, says JAMES HEARTFIELD reviewing the Lost Revolution

The Lost Revolution: A History of the Official IRA and Workers Party
By Brian Hanley and Scott Millar
Penguin Ireland
ISBN 9781844881208

IN THE late 1950s the Irish Republican Army’s campaign to attack the British occupied counties of Ireland from the south failed badly. Licking its wounds, what was left of the movement’s leadership, Cathal Goulding, Sean Garland and Tomas MacGiolla looked to the rising left wing protest movements for inspiration. Side-stepping the Communist Party of Ireland, the volunteers launched a crash-course in Marxism-Leninism that alarmed what was left of the old guard. Romantic nationalism was mocked in the name of scientific socialism. The new ideas that the IRA leadership drew on, though, were the dogmatic and in the end conservative ideology of the Soviet-led Communist parties. Still, re-launched as a demotic left-wing movement Sinn Fein, The Workers’ Party had some success, appealing to Ireland’s emerging middle class, and its growing trade union movement. But its most immediate impact, towards the end of the sixties, was in helping to build a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The NICRA called for equal rights for the oppressed catholic population of the six occupied counties. The Civil Rights protests, however, did not only rock the British state, they split the republican movement from top to bottom, as well.

‘Ulster’ was one colony Britain could never give up without jeopardising the unity of the state, and it relied too heavily on discrimination to allow reform. The repression of the Civil Rights marches pushed its left wing, loosely organised around the People’s Democracy student group, to more audacious protests. Using the wholly protestant B-Special military police—and then later the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force—to suppress the marches, Britain made the conflict into a sectarian one. Under fire, the civil rights protestors wanted their own defenders, and a ramshackle IRA struggled to find the old soldiers and guns. The IRA split into two wings, as northerners and traditionalists wanted to fight, while the self-styled Stalinists feared they were losing control.

bookThe story of the terrible feuds between first the ‘Offical’ IRA and the northern breakaway ‘Provisional IRA’—Officials were nick-named ‘Stickies’ or ‘Sticks’, because the Easter Lilies they sold to commemorate the rising of 1916 had an adhesive back – and then later between the Officials and another left-wing republican splinter, the Irish Republican Socialist party (IRSP), have been told elsewhere (Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, 1995, J Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army, 1997, Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 2007, Holland and McDonald, The INLA: Deadly Divisions, 1994). But the Officials’ choice of defending British rule against the Provisionals’ armed revolution would take it on a curious journey, which is well told in Hanley and Millar’s book.

‘We should have learned that it was only the state forces which could defeat Provisionalism’, Sean Garland said in 1978, comparing the Italian Communist party’s support for security forces against the Red Brigades (p 387). The Royal Ulster Constabulary were in talks with the Official IRA’s northern chief Billy McMillen, and volunteers Harry Mckeown and Ivan Barr were both taken aback by the friendly treatment they got from the RUC (p, 417-8).

Southern Ireland, a nominally free state since 1921, was still underdeveloped and largely rural (Britain kept hold of the industrial north), but becoming more urbanised in the 1960s, and its working class was at last growing. Losing ground to the Provisional IRA in the north, the Officials regrouped in the South. The group had the internal discipline to carve out a niche alongside the traditionally weak Labour party and the small Communist party. SFWP had success among students, organising meetings for ANC speakers. Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union General Secretary, Michael Mullen, himself an old ally of Goulding, ‘had the view [that] lefties, or people who thought they were, would make great trade union officials because they would work their arses off’, according to SFWP’s Noel Dowling, so he recruited many Sticks (p 349). In 1977 and 1978 the new party helped the ITGWU face down unofficial strikes in the docks (p 361). As its student supporters got jobs, SFWP influence in the newspapers and on television grew, too.

Internally, the party’s intellectuals studied Ireland’s economic development. Eamon Smullen Eoghan Harris and Oliver Donaghue promoted the document The Irish Industrial Revolution in 1977 (p 341—it was published later by Repsol). Around 1980, the historians Henry Patterson and Paul Bew, who had been influenced by a smaller Marxist group the British Irish Communist Organisation, joined after talking to Smullen (p 395). An Industrial Department organised secretly, and with great independence under Smullen dictated policy to SFWP (as did the British Communist party’s Industrial Department, Geoff Andrews, Endgame and New Times, Lawrence and Wishart, 2004, p 107). Though they understated the problems of Ireland’s industrialisation, orienting the party to modernisation put it in touch with important changes.

In the late seventies, SFWP’s Industrial Department working in the offices of the ITGWU came up with a populist campaign against the loopholes that let farmers pay much less tax than employers paid out in payroll taxes on workers. Pillorying farmers for ‘tax evasion’ (p 358) was itself an evasion of the real problem of low wages, but it did strike a chord with working people who felt that the state did not work for them. In 1980 70 000 joined a march for tax fairness in Dublin. The campaign went on through to April 1983, when 150 000 marched but fizzled out soon after. The SFWP’s themes of socialism, modernisation and fair play for Ireland’s ignored workers got them a hearing, and the party won its first seat in the Irish parliament in 1981 and then three in 1982.

The party’s modernising image was pointedly anti-nationalist, and it fought a propaganda campaign against anyone sympathetic to the growing movement against Britain in the north, led by its old rivals, the Provisionals. Seamus Lynch, Belfast City councilor, elected on SFWP’s northern label of ‘Republican Clubs’ took Labour Minister Lord Melchett on walkabout in New Lodge, finding him ‘most sympathetic’. Lynch later collaborated with Industry Minister Don Concannon on a development policy for Northern Ireland that was aimed to forestall nationalist demands for independence (p 381). When the Provisional IRA’s volunteers in the H-Blocks began a hunger strike demanding to be treated as political prisoners, the SFWP circulated H-Block: the socialist perspective to left-wing groups worldwide arguing that the Provisionals had nobody but themselves to blame (p 396). In 1982, Clann na hEirann, the British support group, led by Seamus Collins, entered the Labour party, where it clashed with ‘Trotskyist’ supporters of the Provisionals with a Campaign for Peace and Progress, getting elected to posts in the Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Reading Labour Parties, and the winning the support of Harry Barnes MP (p 505).

In the South, SFWP activists refused to join building workers’ strikes over the 1980 hunger strikes (p 428). ‘Some force had to stand up against the tom-tom drums’ of nationalism, said Gerry Gregg, an SFWP member working on the RTÉ programme Today Tonight, (p 429). In the November 1982 election broadcast, Pronisias de Rossa set welfare demands against the mirage of independence:

‘Freedom is only a flag unless it’s flying over new hospitals, new schools, and new factories. Freedom for us is full employment, full stop.’ (p 450)

As it turned out, though, SFWP’s new ideology of trade union-led state socialism was at least as near to its sell-by date as that of republicanism. The forward march of the SFWP had already started to meet its limits. After Mullen’s death, the ITGWU leadership of John Carrol and Christy Kirwan (a Labour senator) was hostile, putting out a circular charging the WP with plotting to take over, listing 26 officials as sympathisers or party members (p 458). In the European elections of 1984, after a poor showing, ‘canvassers reported that the party was seen as ‘anti-farmer’—a hangover from the ‘fair tax’ campaign (p 466).

In April 1982, the current affairs magazine Magill put SFWP on the spot, showing that the Official IRA had never been disbanded. Over the following years the story emerged in Magill, and even on Today Tonight, that that the Official IRA had carried on under the secret title ‘Group B’ (the open party was called ‘Group A’ in internal documents), and was deeply involved in bank robberies, forgeries and other organised crime, cooperating with Dublin Criminals like Eamon Kelly (p 416). In the North, the RUC colluded in the OIRA’s building site tax exemption scams (p 505). SFWP’s secret army undermined its claims to a modern non-militarist outlook and its allegation of corruption against the mainstream parties.

In February 1984, Workers’ party held a Marx Centenary conference with Paul Bew, Henry Patterson, Ellen Hazelkorn (who had migrated back from America in the late sixties) and De Rossa, all still laying claim to the Marxist legacy (p 463). But with the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later, and the disillusionment in state socialism set in. The Workers party was losing the electoral ground it had won and set about revising its tradition once again. Eoghan Harris’ paper to a November 1989 Dublin educational, written up as a pamphlet, The Necessity of Social Democracy, caused ructions (p 549). De Rossa told the party’s national conference, the Ard Fheis in 1989, in a remarkable turnaround:

‘It is clear that the people of this country do not at this time want public ownership of the means of production … Socialism as we see it is not anti-market, anti-enterprise or anti-individual … work will be well rewarded and the lazy penalised—that means dole spongers as well as tax-dodgers, short-day shirkers as well as bosses.’ (p 490)

Having turned their backs on republicanism, and then on socialism, it was hard to see what the party did stand for. On 15 February 1992, a special Ard Fheis was called to reform the party once again. De Rossa summed up the Workers’ party’s journey:

‘out of the shell of failed nationalism, typified by the fifties campaign, grew a movement committed to new thinking, new methods and new politics. … the movement gravitated to a socialist view of the world. It wasn’t a perfectly formed view, nor was it fully formed. But it was honest and it attracted a generation of radicals who went on to build in the Seventies and Eighties what is now the Workers party.’

The party had always been ‘intelligently revisionist’, said De Rossa, and now it faced another milestone – but his motion did not get the two-thirds majority needed. De Rossa left to form the Democratic Left, which did not prosper and was later dissolved into the Labour party (p 585). For the rump of the old SFWP, it was particularly painful to see the leader of Provisional Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams winning out against his hardliners—led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh—to finally make peace with Britain and win a place in the new assembly in Stormont. Goulding, who died in 1998, said ‘we were right, but too soon. Gerry Adams is right but too late—and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh will never be fucking right’ (p 596)—gallows humour to cover up the disastrous course he laid out for the ‘official’ republican movement.