Diarmuid Breatnach

An interview with Dominic McGlinchey was recently published by Connla Young of the Irish News on Friday 24 January 2014 and Anthony McIntyre published a longer version of it in his blog, The Pensive Quill ( Scrolling through the dozens of comments on the interview in the blog, it seems that most readers agreed with McGlinchey’s observations which, if the commentators are following McIntyre, would probably not be too surprising.

Nevertheless, there is at the moment an atmosphere of reflection in much of the Irish Republican movement. Among the questions being asked are whether continuing (or restarting, according to one’s definition) armed struggle is the way (or part of the way) forward in the struggle against British colonialism in Ireland. Reflection is overdue in this movement and at this time and it is most welcome. However, I believe that the question being asked is the wrong one. It seems to me that the questions being asked and which have been asked in the Republican movement often are the wrong questions, which is why British imperialism continues to be able to defeat us.

A more useful question might be: Why did British imperialism succeed in defeating the Republican movement in the recent 30 Years’ War? The usual reply to this is “Our leaders betrayed us” or, from those who were not in PSF or in PIRA at the time of the “Peace Process” and the Good Friday Agreement (which most of their present critics were, it is well to remember), “the Shinners sold us out”. But such replies only give rise to other questions, such as Why did your leaders betray you and how was it you let them do it? Or Why did “the Shinners” sell you out and why were they able to do so?

Another frequent response to the failure to succeed in struggle (and not just in Ireland, believe me!) is The media were against us. I do not intend to discuss that response here other than to say that when revolutionaries expect the media of their enemies to treat them well, or when they feel that the success of their endeavours depends on such favourable treatment by their enemies, then we have lost already!

Having posed what I believe to be more fundamental questions, I will attempt to answer them. British imperialism was not only able to defeat the Republican movement in the 30 years war but, in the long run, was guaranteed to defeat it, for the following reasons:

  1. The Republican struggle was concentrated on an area consisting of a fifth of the country and in which a large section of the population was under the hegemony of Unionism
  2. The Republican struggle held no reason to the mass of people in the rest of the country to contribute to the struggle other than solidarity with Catholics in the Six Counties and a vague promise of a better future under Republicanism
  3. The Republican movement valued its hegemony so much that it strangled what it considered competition
  4. The Republican movement usually sought allies in the wrong quarters.

There is a fifth reason, which I will discuss later.

So, let me now elaborate on these reasons.

1. The Republican struggle was concentrated on an area consisting of a fifth of the country and in which a large section of the population was under the hegemony of Unionism.

If we stand back a bit and look at the struggle with that in mind, it is obvious that defeat could only be inevitable. The only thing that should surprise us is how long it took to be defeated, which is a tribute to the militancy, courage, resolution and endurance of the “Nationalist” people and of the Republican movement.

The Republican struggle was waged in the Six Counties because that’s where an allied but different struggle broke out, that of Civil Rights. The Six Counties was a colonial statelet with fascist laws and blatant discrimination against a huge minority, the “Catholic” or “Nationalist” community. Many in that community had no permission to vote while some from the majority community, the “Protestants” or “Unionist”, had two votes each. Electoral boundaries were artificially drawn to give Unionists a majority in areas where they were actually in a minority. Housing and jobs and institutions of higher learning went mostly to Unionists. The British flag was everywhere and the Irish tricolour was banned. The state had a whole set of emergency legislation which it often enacted, even to ban historical commemorations or meetings. The police force was Unionist, armed and sectarian and their part-time reserve, also armed, was if anything worse. (I am not unaware that a number of those things are still true, by the way).

The campaign for civil rights for the “Nationalists” and for a democratisation of the Six County statelet was repressed by the state which led to ongoing confrontation between the sectarian colonial police force, including its reserves and supported by civilian Loyalist zealots, and the campaign. Some areas became totally blocked to state access and so successful was the resistance of the people that, despite huge amounts of tear gas, numerous baton charges and some firing of live rounds, the statelet’s forces could no longer cope and its master, the British state, sent in its troops.

From that moment onwards the stage was set for struggle directly between the Republican movement and British colonialism, backed by the armed forces of British imperialism. And given the history of all those entities and the stakes being played for, it was inevitable that a significant part of that struggle would be an armed one. But while the Republican movement made the mistake of prioritising that aspect overall, British imperialism did not; despite many mistakes, it always kept the long view in mind and prioritised the political struggle while, at the same time, resolutely pursuing its armed repression and response.

So, the Republican movement had no say in where the struggle broke out, which was at the point in Ireland where the fracture line was deepest, and at a time of an increasingly militant and growing youth and student movement, at a time when much of the world was looking at and learning from the struggles of the black civil rights movement in the USA and the resistance of the Vietnamese to the US military invasion and war (there were other influential struggles too but those were the ones that probably most impacted on the consciousness of the Irish at the time). And the Republicans were right, both by the logic of their history and in absolute terms, to engage in that struggle in the Six Counties. But they didn’t have to ensure that the focus of the struggle stayed there.

2. The Republican movement held out no reason to the mass of people in the rest of the country to contribute to the struggle other than solidarity with Catholics in the Six Counties and a vague promise of a better future under Republicanism

What they could have done, should have done, had to do if they were going to win, was to extend the struggle to the rest of the country, i.e. to the area of the Irish state, the 26 Counties. To some extent they tried to do so, but mainly on the basis of solidarity with the Six Counties alone. The immediate issues impacting on the mass of the population of the 26 Counties were not addressed. The Republican movement did not mobilise around those.

Prior to the split in its ranks, Sinn Féin had organised around some of those.

Logo of the Dublin Housing Action Committee which agitated and took direct action on housing issues in Dublin.  Sinn Féin had a strong presence in the campaign which survived the first split (out of which came Provisional SF) but did not survive long after the second split, out of which came the IRSP.
Logo of the Dublin Housing Action Committee which agitated and took direct action on housing issues in Dublin. Sinn Féin had a strong presence in the campaign which survived the first split (out of which came Provisional SF) but did not survive long after the second split, out of which came the IRSP.

It had organised and contributed to struggles around housing, including occupations of empty houses and buildings. It had also organised trespass protests around foreign and private ownership of land, rivers and beaches, along with some industrial resistance actions.  It had in fact taken on the Archbishop of Dublin

When the split came, most of the more socialistically-inclined stayed with the parent organisation, now named the “Officials” (later to be known as the “Stickies” or “Sticks”) while most of the others went with the new organisation, the “Provisionals” (whose armed wing later became known as the “Provos” or “Provies”). When the “Stickies” split again not long afterwards, the emerging IRSP did take up a socialist position on many questions social, economic and political, as well as engaging in armed struggle against British imperialism. This trajectory was brought to a halt due partly to state repression and partly to internal strife on a number of issues and in fact a number of its founders left very early on due to the primacy being given to military consideration (or to the military wing) in the decision-making of the political party. Over time the internal strife degenerated further into mortal feuds and including criminal gangs.  And that left the Provisionals with total hegemony over the anti-imperialist Republican movement.

Housing, unemployment, emigration

The Provisionals, if they wished to extend the struggle to the 26 Counties, had no shortage of social, economic, political and cultural issues they could have taken on. Shortage of affordable housing continued to be a serious issue in Ireland throughout the three decades of the war, as did emigration for most of it (this issue also impacted on almost every social class in Ireland, both sides of the Border). Unemployment, the main cause of emigration, was also a serious issue right up to the boom in the economy of the Irish state in the 1990s and impacted particularly heavily on rural communities which suffered depopulation, especially of the young.  Addressing this issue could have given rise to struggles over decentralisation and promotion of local economies as well as confronting the nature of the neo-colonial state and its bourgeoisie.

Gaeltacht and language rights

The Gaeltacht areas suffered equally from emigration but that also impacted on the viability of these reserves of the Irish language; in addition neither they nor the Irish-speaking community beyond had radio or TV services in their language, no independent Irish language weekly newspaper, or even a bilingual one (to say nothing of a daily); nor had they any access to most services through Irish from state bodies, not to speak of private ones (Radio na Gaeltachta, TG4 and Gaeltacht status for Ráth Cairn in Meath all came about later as a result of agitation and civil disobedience campaigns).

Trade union movement

The 26 Counties, for a non-industrial nation with high emigration, had strong traditions of trade union membership and solidarity. During the 1970s these began to be subverted and “social partnership” became the norm, led by the trade union federation ICTU and two of its largest constituent unions, SIPTU and IMPACT, and encouraged by elements in the Labour Party and in Fianna Fáil.  Provisional SF could have become active within the trade unions in opposition to “social partnership”, thereby not only giving leadership on a viable trade union policy to thousands of workers but also at least disrupting a trajectory leading to the present impotency and immobilisation of the trade union movement in the face of sustained attacks by the state and private capitalist companies. Instead, Phil Flynn, senior official of his trade union and a member of the SF Ard-Choiste (Executive Council), was an active supporter of that same “social partnership” (he is now a businessman).

Social rights – contraception, divorce, abortion, sexuality

The 26-County state was under heavy Catholic Church control which had a huge impact on social issues. Homosexuality, birth control, divorce and abortion were all illegal – contraceptive devices were not freely available in the state until 1993. The Republican movement, if it could have overcome its own prejudices and dominant ideology, could have campaigned for the people to have access to birth control, divorce and abortion. It did nothing about birth control, gave no leadership on the right to divorce and opposed the freedom to choose abortion (the exception was the IRSP). It gave no leadership on homosexual rights and it was a huge shock to the Provisionals when two of their H-Block prisoners “came out” as gay. The movement eventually supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality and PSF also supports the right to gay marriage now but they can hardly be said to have campaigned for gay rights.  These battles were led, fought and many won, by others – civil rights, feminist, gay, socialist and social-democratic organisations and campaigns. Some Republicans took part in these campaigns but they were a minority of their movement and the movement did not lead.

The Catholic Church

In taking up these issues of fertility control, sexual rights and divorce, without even considering abortion, the Republican movement would have had to oppose the Catholic Church – at least its hierarchy. (It would also have had to confront the Presbyterian churches in the Six Counties but here I am discussing what the Republican movement could have done to extend the struggle throughout the 26 Counties). Whether because of the ideology of its leadership, its prejudices or its reluctance to alienate its more conservative support, it is clear that the movement has never been prepared to confront that institution. This is all the more surprising when one considers that since the birth of Irish Republicanism, the Catholic Church hierarchy has been its determined enemy, along with most of its clergy. Indeed, the Catholic Church hierarchy has been a supporter of British colonialism until when in the very late stages of the War of Independence, it switched its allegiance, along with the Irish capitalist nationalists, into an alliance with elements of the Republican movement leadership at that time.

The reluctance to take on the Catholic Church on such social issues, discussed earlier, also made it unlikely that the Republican movement would challenge the Church on its control of education in the Irish state or even on the physical, mental and sexual abuse and exploitation being committed by individual clergy and going on in institutions run by the Church. Though such abuse only became the subject of open discussion through a series of public scandals beginning around the late 1980s, it is impossible to believe that large numbers of people in Irish society, including members of political parties, were not aware of it from an earlier time. So it is reasonable to assume that the Republican movement leaderships were aware of abuse by the Church though not, perhaps, of the scale and its intensity.


The failure of the Republican movement to take on some of those issues also impacted on its view of gender and its role within society.

Irish feminist conference poster, Dublin 1971.
Irish feminist conference poster, Dublin 1971.

Much of the Republican movement reflected the general society’s view that the role of married women was essentially as home-builders.  In organisation, despite the presence of some very able and strong female activists, overall the movement tended to see women as auxiliaries to Republican men in politics and in war. The fact that women had played a huge role in the struggle through centuries in Ireland and at times a pivotal one was not something of which the Republican movement seemed aware.

It is shocking now to realise that as late as the 1960s and 1970s under Irish law, that the property of a woman became her husband’s upon marriage but not vice versa; that women had to have their husband’s signature on hire purchase agreements and that women had to retire from the civil service, including as teachers, as soon as they married.

As a result of the cultural-idealogical limitations of the Irish Republican movement it was not able to play a leading role in the liberation of women nor to significantly contribute to it in Irish society; as half or more of the population are usually women this failure was a serious limitation to spreading the struggle throughout the 26 Counties.

Intellectual freedom was a ground on which the Republican movement could also have challenged the 26 County state, which would have won it more allies among the intelligentsia and cultural avant-garde. Intellectual freedom after all had been both a slogan and a battle ground for Republicanism in England, France and in Ireland in the past. But taking up that issue would also have meant taking on the Catholic Church and the Republican movement confined itself to only two areas, those of historical research and theory and of news coverage, not in order to defend intellectual or academic freedom but to defend its version of history from the colonial apologia of Irish revisionist historians, and to demand accurate reporting of events in the war. But the Republican movement did not promote the alternative revisionism or re-examination and interpretation of history which was really needed, such as critical examination of the failure of consecutive Republican campaigns, nor research into and promotion of the role of women in progressive Irish politics (and not just in the Republican movement), the role of the working class in Irish history, the role of religious dissenters (particularly in developing Republicanism), the role of the Irish diaspora elsewhere and the role of immigration to Ireland, or the development/ underdevelopment of the capitalist class in Ireland. Nor did it defend accuracy and lack of censorship except where such militated in its own sectional favour and its own newspapers practised censorship continuously.

Neo-colonial economy

The nature of the neo-colonial state was such that it opened itself to monopoly capitalist penetration from abroad at minimal cost to investors (something which has not changed in the least) and native capitalist concerns were regularly bought out by these foreign capitalists. Also, some native industries were downgraded or wiped out as a result of neglect or deliberate undermining. Sinn Féin prior to the split had done some work on this and although some work continued to be done by Provisional Sinn Féin after the split, it was not an area given any great importance in organisational priorities.


There was one important social issue in which the Provisionals became involved in the 26 Counties and this was to do with drugs. During the late 1970s and the 1980s, heroin consumption, particularly in urban working class areas, assumed almost epidemic proportions. A number of individuals and organisations became involved around this issue and one significant campaign arising from it was the community-based Concerned Parents Against Drugs. The Provisionals became heavily involved in local groups of CPAD. Largely ignorant about addiction issues, as would have been the rule in Irish society at the time, but very concerned about the effect on their communities, the focus of CPAD was in driving out drug-dealers from their areas.

These campaigns had some positive effects but also many negative ones, including not dealing with the fundamental issue of addiction or misuse nor the social conditions that encouraged them. The Provisionals had their own drinking clubs and “taxed” ‘Nationalist’ pubs in the 6 Counties and they also ran cigarette smuggling operations to raise funds for their organisation. Yet alcohol and tobacco consumption are the biggest threats to health in Ireland (and in most of the world, according to the World Health Organisation) and the negative social and health effects of alcohol far exceeded even those of heroin addiction at the time. In addition, the Provisionals tended to view all illegal drugs in the same light, for example punishing consumers and dealers of cannabis and amphetamines along with those of heroin and, later, cocaine. Evidence is now coming to light also that in some areas, the Provisionals even “taxed” drug dealers. Some CPAD activists (including prominent SF member Rose Dugdale) have also criticised the degree to which the Provisionals became involved within CPAD and undermined community control of the campaigns. The state also found this a good excuse to crack down on CPAD, expending more police energy on repressing the campaign than on upholding their laws regarding drugs.

Immigration and equal rights

As the boom in the economy continued, Ireland began, for the first time in centuries, to attract substantial immigration. Some of that was of returning Irish and some of it the “return” of the children of the diaspora. But a large part of it was also Chinese, Eastern European and African in origin. Equal rights for these migrants of course became an issue but the Provisionals, despite their anti-racist policies, did not mobilise around these issues. Part of the Bunreacht, the Constitutions of the state, declared that “It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland.” This meant that migrants’ children, if born in Ireland, had a right to Irish citizenship. Reactionary and populist politicians and media created some controversy around this, fuelled also by some racist concerns abroad that Ireland might provide some kind of tunnel for people of non-EU background to flood into “fortress Europe”. Both main bourgeois Irish political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, supported an amendment to the Bunreacht removing the right to nationality by birth. This was opposed by a number of political parties, including Sinn Féin and the Irish Labour Party.

The referendum on the amendment took place during the Irish local government elections of 2004. The campaign against the amendment was weak but in Dublin I witnessed posters advertising some public meetings against it which were organised by the Trotskyists and by the Labour Party but saw none organised by any Irish Republican organisation. Sinn Féin, which was heavily committed to its own local government election campaign, ironically with an election slogan “Sinn Féin, for a nation of equals”, did not even mention the referendum in its Dublin leaflets.  Disturbing as their lack of leadership on the issue was, I was even more shocked to have rationalised to me by one of their election campaign organisers that to focus on the referendum would have distracted from their election campaign and might even have lost them votes.

Summary so far

In the above text I have tried to make the case firstly that a struggle in essence confined to such a small area as the Six Counties, with a large population under hostile ideological hegemony (or even without that factor, come to that), was bound to lose in the long run.

I have stated that although the struggle naturally enough took off in a large way in that small area, it need not have been confined to it. In support of this thesis I have tried to show the many areas of struggle that were open to development by a revolutionary movement in the rest of Ireland and for which favourable conditions existed. I have also endeavoured to show that, with the exception of a problematic campaign around drugs,  they were not taken up by the movement and, in some cases, have discussed in passing the reasons for this failure.

I wish now to go on to discuss the next reason for the failure of the struggle.

3. The Republican movement valued its hegemony so much that it strangled what it considered competition

There is something to be said for the theory that for a revolutionary organisation, wielding hegemony is actually a necessity and that to neglect to build and defend that hegemony is a derogation of responsibility. Yes, well, there is something to be said against that theory too.

It is certainly necessary for a revolutionary anti-imperialist movement to maintain a high level of dominance for anti-imperialist ideology and organisation in society, if it is to succeed in overthrowing imperialism. That would be the case anywhere, one would imagine and certainly Ireland neither is nor was an exception. But the Republican movement did not have the only brand of anti-imperialist ideology and even within Republican ideology the Provisionals were not its sole proprietors.

However, the Republican organisations have in general acted as if they were the sole proprietors of the truth and certainly the Provisionals were a prime example of this. Not only that, but they also acted as if they were the only ones who could be trusted to lead any aspect of the struggle. What an irony that turned out to be! Of course this attitude is by no means confined to the Provisionals or to Republican organisations but is sadly to be found throughout the Left also.

Whenever a movement arose around an area which the Republican movement considered their preserve, unless they could control it, they squashed it. I have three examples in mind. The first was the H-Blocks campaign, which was started by mostly female relatives of the prisoners. This campaign grew and gained a lot of support especially in the Six Counties, of course, but also in the Twenty-Six. Bernadette McAlliskey (nee Devlin) has written about how the movement was taken over by the Provisionals and so have others. The potential for a popular political prisoner solidarity movement, anti-imperialist in character, was lost and instead was converted into an election machine which the Provisionals themselves, in their version of the history of the Hunger Strikes, claim was the beginning of their development of the “Peace Process” which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish diaspora in Britain and some British Left took to the streets to support the Hunger Strikers.  In doing so they defied the campaign of state terror with the jailing of a score of innocent Irish people on murder charges and the reign of the 1974 "Prevention of Terrorism" and a hostile media campaign.
The Irish diaspora in Britain and some British Left took to the streets to support the Hunger Strikers. In doing so they defied the campaign of state terror with the jailing of a score of innocent Irish people on murder charges and the reign of the 1974 “Prevention of Terrorism” and a hostile media campaign.

The second example was how Sinn Féin impacted on Irish solidarity events in Britain. The Irish community in Britain had been terrorised by the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1974) and the jailing for murder in a number of different trials in one year of a score of innocent people from the Irish community in England.  The community had also been shocked by the killing of civilians in a number of Republican bombings. Attendance at Irish solidarity events decreased hugely. But the hunger strikes in 1981 brought the Irish out again on to the streets, defying the terror campaign of the state and media. Some of the British Left responded too.

After the deaths of the ten martyrs, annual Hunger Strike commemorations became common and even at other solidarity events, the Hunger Strikers formed an important part of the symbolism and discourse. When Irish solidarity activists organised events to which they invited speakers from the movement in Ireland, the message was coming back that PSF would not send a speaker if the IRSP was also invited to send one. This was never put in writing but it was made quite clear to the organisers.

This placed organisers of Irish solidarity events in a dilemma. It was important for them to have speakers from the struggle in Ireland but they did not want to have to choose which organisation to support, much less agree to exclude the trend which had contributed three of the ten hunger striker martyrs. On the other hand, nor did they want to end up with the absence of a speaker from the Republican organisation with majority support in Ireland.

The problem was exacerbated in the case of demonstrations when Republican marching flute bands from Scotland, which had become so much a part of Irish solidarity demonstrations, began to also say that they could not attend a demonstration with an IRSP speaker or if there were no SF speaker. Some of them may well have been taking this position from loyalty to SF but there was another possible reason which weighed heavily with them. Some of them explained to me that if they fell out with PSF, they would not get invitations to play at marches organised by the Provisionals in the Six Counties. Attendance at such events was of tremendous psychological importance to their members.

One successful Hunger Strike commemoration march in North London, the organising committee of which I was a part, after long arguments, went ahead with a rally platform which included among the speakers one from the IRSP. Provisional SF had been invited to send a speaker but had declined, giving some excuse. Some of the members of the organising committee were so disheartened by that absence that an attempt to organise a repeat demonstration the following year had to be abandoned. Organisers of similar events became mentally exhausted through similar arguments and some events which had been successful in terms of numbers and areas where they had taken place were also not repeated, or were not repeated a third time – this was the case with the Terence McSwiney Commemoration march in Brixton.

My third and last example is the Saoirse campaign in England. Soon after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the Provisionals started a political campaign in solidarity with political prisoners, with a green ribbon, broad in membership, allowing many to join and become involved who were not necessarily aligned to the Provisionals as well as those who were. In Britain it quickly pulled in others who had not yet become active on the issues as well as those who had. The Saoirse campaign grew quickly in London, where I was working and politically active at the time. The agenda of an organisational meeting would include discussion of Saoirse’s most recent public activity, the planning of the next one, discussion on letters being sent to Republican prisoners and their replies, updates on the situations in the prisons and at large, and planning of social/fund-raising events. The meetings were lively and a place where innovative ideas were not only put forward but often accepted and acted upon.

After the Canary Wharf bombing in February 1996, the word was relayed to us that Sinn Féin wished to close down the Saoirse campaign. The official rationale was that the campaign was inappropriate now that the ceasefire was over and the war back on. Many of us disagreed: war or ceasefire, the prisoners were of continuing concern and the Saoirse campaign was lively and growing. Inside the solidarity movement, another rationale started to be rumoured, that Sinn Féin had expressed concern at “the penetration and takeover of Saoirse in Britain by Red Action,” a British-based socialist organisation.

Red Action originated among SWP dissidents who organised themselves to fight the growing fascist movement in Britain. Since British fascists often targeted Irish solidarity demonstrations and meetings, it was natural that an anti-fascist organisation should find itself in action around Irish solidarity events but also many of Red Action’s leaders and members were Irish or of Irish descent and they had a natural sympathy for Irish solidarity as well as a according it a certain ideological importance.

With the creation of the Saoirse campaign it was natural that Red Action should become involved. However, at organisational meetings of the North London committee, there were only two or three Red Action present out of an attendance of between 15 to 20 people. In South London, where my branch was, there were none at all.

What became clear to me and to some others was that Sinn Féin wanted to close down the campaign not because it was inappropriate in terms of the stage of struggle, or because it was being taken over by some other group or that it was doing anything wrong in terms of Irish solidarity – it was simply that the organisation was so lively and attracting so much support that SF could no longer control it. Eventually, despite resistance, they managed to disband it.

When the “peace process” was back on again, SF’s support organisation in London, the Wolfe Tone Society, whose leaders had at first opposed the closing down of the Saoirse campaign, called people together to launch a new campaign, a replacement of Saoirse which they called Fuascailt. Hardly surprisingly, the gathering to launch the new organisation was much smaller than had been the Saoirse support – the disbanding experience had been so alienating to some that they never joined Fuascailt and some I never saw on the Irish solidarity scene again. Fuascailt didn’t grow much and it was evident that the WTS were keeping a pretty tight control on it. Initiatives which they did not approve of, or which were suggested by those who were known to be against the “peace process”, were voted down or, if they won majority support, were sabotaged in a number of ways. It was not a great surprise to some of us when the WTS proposed a motion coming from the Provisionals that Fuascailt should be closed down and its membership transferred to the WTS. The motion was carried by a large majority.

The net result of all this manoeuvring was that SF’s London support group increased a little in size but a much larger broad, vibrant and growing Irish solidarity organisation ceased to exist.

4. The Republican movement usually sought allies in the wrong quarters.

The Republican movement has, since the creation of the Fenians, looked to the Irish diaspora in the United States for support. But the diaspora is not homogeneous – it has class and political divisions. Increasingly the Republican movement came to seek the political support of the bourgeois section of the Irish diaspora, especially within the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, who had sympathies for Irish national aspirations but who were also capitalists and supporters of US Imperialism.

These were the opposite of those long pickets standing outside the British Embassy in New York, described by musician (of Black ’47 fame) and author Larry Kirwan  as “the Tribe”. This orientation increasingly tied the Republican movement to reactionary politicians and impacted negatively on their ability to unite effectively with anti-imperialists around the world, most of whom were fighting US imperialism directly or indirectly. In fact, one of the regular contributors to An Phoblacht in the early days, a PSF weekly newspaper, was Fred Burns O’Brien, based in the US and a supporter of Israeli Zionism (which at times found expression in his articles).

Gerry Adams and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Irish-American millionaire politician of the US Democrat Party
Gerry Adams and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Irish-American millionaire politician of the US Democrat Party

The alliance with the Irish-American Democrat politicians was not only a reactionary alliance but a very naive one for the PSF – US imperialism needed the support of British imperialism for its wars abroad, both in terms of military alliance but also in cajoling and bullying support in the EU and in the UN. The US was never going to force its junior partner to take a serious loss unless US Imperialism itself was going to get some major gain from it (as it had done in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis).

In the Irish state, PSF looked first to the “Republican wing” of Fianna Fáil. This party, it must be remembered, despite its origins in a split from Sinn Féin in the 1930s, had become the preferred party of the Irish neo-colonial bourgeoisie, having been in power for more years than its competitor, Fine Gael. Appealing to such conservative elements meant keeping PSF policies conservative too and not challenging the basis or social reality of the 26-County state.

In Britain initially PSF appealed to the Irish diaspora there, making no distinction between minor Irish construction and publican capitalists one the one hand and working class Irish (who were the vast majority of the diaspora) on the other. They also initially cooperated to an extent with British Left solidarity organisations such as the Troops Out Movement but were very uncomfortable with the revolutionary socialist rhetoric of many on the British Left.

After PSF closed down all their cumainn (branches) in Britain, they had to become more involved with British socialist organisations and with TOM (Troops Out Movement). The latter over time and especially during state repression of the Irish community became less of an Irish solidarity voice in British society, its original raison d’etre and instead increasingly became another organisation fishing in the Irish community pool, along with Irish republicans, Irish community activists and specific campaigns such as the Anti-Strip Searches campaign.

These were healthy alliances in general for the Republican movement but increasingly TOM came to accept the diktat of PSF while the Republican movement ignored the needs of the Irish community, concentrating on its military campaigns in Britain on the one hand and, on the other, on reformist “solidarity” campaigns. The “Time To Go” campaign in Britain was the epitome of that, in which PSF asked people in Britain for troop withdrawal from Ireland, not on the basis of the British ruling class being a common enemy of the British workers, nor even just of internationalist solidarity, but on the basis that less military expenditure would lead to increased investment in social provision in Britain.

In Britain, PSF could find no potential ally in a political constituency to match that of the US Democrats or Fianna Fáil. The Labour Party had been the very party that sent the troops to support the sectarian Six County state against the civil rights uprising and had brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Britain (and jailed a score of innocent Irish people on murder charges). But the Labour Party had some Trotskyist and radical Left groups within it and in promoting its Time To Go campaign, PSF appealed to these and to individual politicians such as Clare Short, Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell.

The opportunist manoeuvring of Short and McDonnell in particular, along with their small Trotskyist and radical Labour cliques, eventually left the TTG campaign with a huge presence on paper and one big demonstration, but no real substance and no real change in British politics. All the Irish community and Irish solidarity organisations left the organising committee, with the exception of the Connolly Association, a group closely related to the waning Communist Party of Great Britain. TTG was also supported on the British Left, as well as by trotskyists and radicals on the fringes of the Labour Party, by the Socialist Workers’ Party, to the extent that whenever one saw a TTG poster on the streets it was next to one of the SWP’s, obviously put up in the same postering operation by supporters of the party.

The Irish diaspora in Britain was very large and overwhelmingly working class. It had a huge potential for mobilising Irish solidarity and for breaking through media disinformation to their British workmates, neighbours and partners. But it also had its own needs. PSF never respected those needs and disregarded them in favour of bombings on the one hand and reactionary alliances on the other. Nor was PSF interested in revolutionary alliance with the British working class to which the Irish community held at least one of the keys (the only SF representative in Britain I ever heard promote something of the sort, Derek Highstead, was not long in his post before he was found dead under his tipper truck in 1976 with no witnesses to say what happened).

Summary of the above

I have stated that the Republican movement in general and PSF in particular did not tolerate what it considered competition and deliberately squashed and eliminated any campaign or movement it viewed in those terms.

I have also stated that in general, the Republican movement and PSF in particular has preferred reactionary alliances to revolutionary ones.

I have tried to show how reliance on such alliances helped drive PSF in increasingly reformist directions and away from the potential of revolutionary alliance internationally and, particularly in Britain, the possibility of developing a class-based revolutionary alliance with the potential not only of increasing Irish solidarity presence in British society but also of destabilising the rule of the British capitalist class. I have also tried to illustrate how the PSF ‘need’ to control their arena and to eliminate whatever they consider competition led to decreasing and restricted solidarity movements and the elimination of popular movements which would have had the potential to spread the struggle wider, to bring new forces to it and to increase solidarity for the struggle in the Six Counties.

And now …..

Up to now, I may have kept some Republicans still with me or at least keeping an open mind while they think about what I’ve been saying. With what I am about to say now I risk switching the last of these off and yet I think it needs to be said. This is the fifth reason I have been keeping until last but it provides the key to understanding why the Republican movement in general and PSF in particular made all these “mistakes” and why the movement in general continues to make them. And unless this is confronted, the movement will keep on making these errors forever, oscillating between militarism and reformism and never organising popular revolt; it will never defeat imperialism, to say nothing of achieving the socialism to which, in their statements, all Republican organisations currently aspire.

5. The Republican struggle was led by a bourgeois ideology although most of its membership was working class.

All these “mistakes” and “omissions” made the defeat of the struggle inevitable but they did not come about through the stupidity or ignorance of the leaders of the Republican movement. They came about because from their class viewpoint, by and large they could not act otherwise. They never sought to overthrow the Irish state but instead to come to some sort of a deal with it in the future. That is why they did not mobilise on the many economic, cultural and social issues which were available. They did seek to overthrow the Six County statelet and to expel British colonialism, but in time realised not only that they would not get any help from the Irish state to do that but that it would oppose them all the way. They could only overthrow the Six County statelet by overthrowing the Twenty-Six County state also, which was never their intention. Once they realised that, a deal with British imperialism and the ending of the war was inevitable.

The Republican movement leadership may have had its own prejudices and religious beliefs which would make confrontation with the Catholic Church difficult but the more fundamental reason for the failure to take it on was simply that the Catholic Church was (and still is) part of the Twenty-Six County state.

And the Republican leadership could not build and maintain genuinely socialist and anti-imperialist alliances because some day in their vision of the future they would be running a capitalist Ireland and be part of the capitalist-imperialist world network, which was the same reason they built reactionary alliances instead. The Republican movement had a bourgeois ideology and a petite-bourgeois leadership with aspirations to become big bourgeois. And unless Irish Republicans learn to recognise this and to combat it, they will always be the footsoldiers and prisoners in a war which their leadership will ensure that they cannot win.

Republicanism, anti-monarchical anti-feudal in outlook, developed as an ideology of a rising capitalist class but a class which also had to recruit other subject classes to fight for it, since the capitalist class itself was neither numerous nor powerful enough on its own to displace the monarchy and aristocracy. This is the meaning of the recruitment of

The Levellers were a democratic republican movement with a strong representation in the New Model Army.  After their mutiny at Bamford, Oxfordshire, Cromwell broke an agreement with them and attacked at night, killing several.  These three were taken prisoner, held in the church at Burford and then shot dead.
The Levellers were a democratic English republican movement with a strong representation in the Parliamentary New Model Army. After their mutiny at Bamford, Oxfordshire, Oliver Cromwell broke an agreement with them and attacked at night, killing several. These three above were taken prisoner, held in the church at Burford and then shot dead.

people like the Levellers to the English Civil War of Parliament against the English King in 1649 and the later trials, expulsions, executions and murders of those Levellers (for seeking a fuller democracy and refusing to be sent to suppress the Irish). It explains the recruitment of the poor sans cullottes to the French Revolution of 1789 under slogans of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, and in 1871, the drowning in blood of the revolutionary socialist Paris Commune. It is why republican and revolutionary France could send troops to suppress the black slaves in Haiti who, taking French revolutionary slogans to heart, had risen in the first successful modern slave uprising in history. It is why republican and revolutionary American colonists could have black slaves and make war on the native American Indians. It is why bourgeois republicans in the Popular Front government of the Spanish state did not set free its “Spanish Sahara” colony (now Western Sahara) despite it being one of the staging posts for the fascist-military uprising that began the Spanish Civil War.

Republicanism per se, despite things often said to the contrary in Irish Republican circles, is no natural ally of socialism. However, in Ireland in particular, there have been many attempts to marry the two political trends. James Connolly called the first socialist party he founded (1896) the “Irish Socialist Republican Party” and the Republican Congress (1934) tried to combine both socialism and republicanism. Sinn Féin before the split developed a socialist rhetoric and drew inspiration from socialist countries and in recent decades all Irish Republican parties lay claim to being socialist. The IRSP put forward a socialist rhetoric upon its formation and later formally adopted marxism-leninism. But the two trends of socialism and republicanism do not automatically go together.

Socialism, the real thing as opposed to social democracy, is a revolutionary ideology of the working class. It seeks to put the working class in control. It is not for “the people”, whether of Ireland or of anywhere else, but for the working class. In the process of its revolution, the working class cannot help but liberate “the people”: the peasant from being a virtual slave to landlord and big farmer; the small business people from exploiting their families and long hours and constantly being broken by bigger businesses; the monopoly capitalists from being parasites exploiting others and using their families to build their empires (whether they and their families want that liberation or not). All this the working class will do under socialism while liberating workers from being wage-slaves, educated only to the necessary level to carry out their roles as producers and exploited throughout their working lives. For the first time in the history of class struggle, a majority class will come to power.

The working class cannot achieve socialism without social revolution and its main enemy in this is of course the class of its exploiters, the capitalist class, those who stand most to lose. The Irish capitalist class however is two capitalist classes, the colonial bourgeoisie in the Six Counties, descendants of British colonialists, and the neo-colonial bourgeoisie in the Twenty-Six, the “native” capitalist class that developed under direct British rule and after “independence”. And both of these have a relationship, each different but of dependency nevertheless, to imperialism — British, US and EU. The Irish working class, in order to free itself, has to oppose imperialism and colonialism in Ireland.

The Irish bourgeoisie and sections of the middle class, the petit-bourgeoisie, have gained and can gain from their relationship with imperialism and colonialism – they have become administrators and agents in the selling of the country, its resources and labour. But the working class can never gain anything from compromising with imperialism and colonialism, as it will always be the loser. “The working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the struggle for Irish freedom”, said James Connolly or, to put it another way, the ONLY inheritors who can be trusted to carry through the struggle. In order to carry out that responsibility, it must be the leader of the national revolution. While it can make temporary alliances with other classes, it must have its own organisation to the fore with its own ideology and its own clear demands. It cannot have vague demands like “control of the resources by the people” or “real democracy and accountability” while having not a word to say about what it will do with Irish and foreign capitalism.

Among the first steps of any socialist revolution must be not only the setting up of workers’ councils to make decisions and to mobilise resources, but to nationalise all major capitalist concerns without crippling the economy with compensation to the former “owners”. If Irish natural resources “belong to the people” then they must be nationalised immediately. And if land “belongs to the people”, the workers will take it immediately for food production, cheap social housing or other projects. If the seas “belong to the people” then the workers will develop them for sustainable food and power production and defend them from incursion. Universities will become not only places for academic exploration but also training places in the skills and technology that a developing Irish economy will need – and open to all free of charge. The working class will also have to completely tear down the structures of the capitalist state and decide what structures of its own to construct to serve society. And if socialists intend to do all this, how can they mobilise the working class without telling them their programme and allowing them to see that vision of society, so that it becomes the vision of the class, its own conscious mission?

If the Irish Republican movement ever comes to truly incorporate socialism into its ethos, it will need to incorporate it into its policy too. And it will need not only to recruit overwhelmingly among the working class as it does now, but to give the class its view of itself as the leading component, the motive force of the Irish revolution, not for “Ireland” but for the class itself!

If the Irish Republican movement comes to do all that, then it will truly be socialist. But it will be a very different movement and the process will make many in the current movement uncomfortable. On the other hand, we will truly be on the way, for the first time in centuries, to the defeat of colonialism and imperialism in Ireland.

I have said that much of the current discussion in the Republican movement is centring on the wrong question – the questions I have asked are I think the fundamental ones to ask at this time. But I am also aware that at some point the question of armed aspect to the struggle will need to be addressed. I am clear that by and large this is not the time for armed struggle. However, I am also clear that at some point capitalism and imperialism will pose the question for us much more forcibly. No ruling class has ever stepped down from power willingly or without, if it had the capacity to do so, unleashing violence on those who would overthrow it. Nor has any imperial or colonial power relinquished control of its colony without first trying to violently suppress the national liberation movement. And no class or liberation movement that has been unable to meet that armed violence with an adequate armed resistance has succeeded either. History tells us that is true and it doesn’t care whether we like it or not.



  1. Pingback: Republican Think-Tanks | An Sionnach Fionn

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