Ahead of the Game

Daniel Finn

  • The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar
    Penguin, 658 pp, £9.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 14 102845 3

In May 1977, Ian Paisley was in a television studio in Belfast when he bumped into Malachy McGurran, a leader of the Official IRA in Northern Ireland. At that time, Paisley was attempting to orchestrate a repeat of the loyalist workers’ strike that had defeated the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement three years earlier. Paisley was demanding a return to unfettered Orange rule and freedom to deal with nationalist dissent. But the strike was a flop. McGurran couldn’t resist the opportunity: ‘How’s the stoppage going, Ian?’ Paisley – by all accounts far more jovial than his pulpit demeanour suggests – replied: ‘Well, you ought to know how hard it is to lead the working class, Malachy.’

The Official IRA emerged after the IRA split in 1969, soon after the Troubles began; the other, more prominent group that came into being was the Provisional IRA. Those who joined the Provos felt that in the 1960s the IRA had moved too far from its nationalist roots, seduced by a Marxist view of the political situation in Northern Ireland. But the Marxist ideology that McGurran and his comrades adopted never had much appeal in Northern Ireland. Paisley’s Calvinist zeal and sectarian bigotry proved more popular with the Orange section of a divided working class than the socialist republicanism of the Official IRA ever was with Catholic workers. Paisley ended his career as first minister of the no longer quite so Orange state. McGurran, on the other hand, is an obscure figure, and not just because he died from cancer not long after that meeting at the BBC. Official Republicanism is remembered, if at all, as an attempt to lead a revolution that never was.

Any attention the Official republican movement continues to attract is thanks to the prominence of some of its former members and its reputation as a forerunner. Old members include the current leader of the Irish Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore (pictured in The Lost Revolution at a youth conference in Havana); his predecessor, Pat Rabbitte; several prominent trade unionists; the historian Paul (now Lord) Bew; and many writers and journalists, including Ronan Bennett and sometime Ireland correspondents of the Guardian and the Sunday Times. It would be hard to spend even a day in Ireland reading the papers, listening to the radio and watching television without coming across a former Official.

The Officials are also given credit as pioneers, although the compliment is usually offered in the hope of embarrassing Gerry Adams and his comrades. It was the Official IRA that argued, when the IRA split, for an end to armed struggle and in favour of an internal settlement. The Provos finally accepted the idea two decades later, having in the meantime denounced the Officials as pro-British traitors. As Anthony McIntyre, a former Provo, reflected,

We, who wanted to kill them – because they argued to go into Stormont, to remain on ceasefire, support the reform of the RUC, uphold the consent principle and dismiss as rejectionist others who disagreed with them – are now forced to pretend that somehow we are really different from them, that they were incorrigible reformists while we were incorruptible revolutionaries … they beat us to it – and started the peace process first.

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