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.

The Lost Revolution sets out to tell the little-known story of Official republicanism for the first time. Brian Hanley and Scott Millar start with the appointment of Cathal Goulding as IRA chief of staff in 1962. A childhood friend of Brendan Behan, Goulding was about to turn 40 and had spent much of his adult life in Irish and British jails. He was to pick up the pieces after the failure of the Border Campaign, the most ambitious republican challenge to British rule in Northern Ireland since the 1920s. The idea had been to send guerrilla units into Northern Ireland from the Republic to attack military targets. Launched in 1956, it briefly roused romantic nationalism south of the border, but northern nationalists were largely unmoved and the attacks were easily contained by the Unionist state. The campaign had long since fizzled out by the time it was officially declared over in 1962. Goulding had to decide what the IRA’s next step would be.

He looked to James Connolly for inspiration. Before he was shot by the British after the Easter Rising, Connolly had deplored the prospect of an independent Irish state that retained the social system of British capitalism, and ridiculed the notion of a struggle for national liberation that ignored the class divisions within Irish society. Most pertinent for Goulding, Connolly had denounced the elevation of physical force to a principle; he thought this ‘an instance of putting the cart before the horse, absolutely unique in its imbecility and unparalleled in the history of the world’.

Goulding manoeuvred the IRA into a new role as social agitator, challenging the political and economic elites of the South. Republicans intervened in strikes, led occupations of vacant housing projects and instigated ‘fish-ins’ on estates belonging to British aristocrats (members of the gentry enjoyed exclusive fishing rights in many Irish rivers). The aim was to establish a socialist republic in place of the capitalist one that had entrenched itself after the War of Independence.

North of the border, it was harder to articulate a leftist-republican project. Connolly had concluded Labour in Irish History with the hope that ‘the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class; earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social democracy.’ The idea that Protestant workers would support an Irish republic so long as its proletarian character was made clear was not so much disproved by subsequent events as left untested: after Connolly’s execution, the socialist element in the movement for national independence was submerged so deeply as to become invisible until the republicans of the 1960s resurrected the 50-year-old formula. In 1967, the Sinn Féin president Tomás Mac Giolla insisted that once northern Protestants began thinking for themselves, ‘no one will be more receptive than them to republican principles.’

With the help of a new intellectual guru, Roy Johnston (the son of an Ulster Presbyterian who had supported Home Rule before the First World War), the Goulding-led IRA based its strategy for Northern Ireland on civil rights and equality for Catholics and Protestants within the existing state. They joined with moderate nationalists to launch the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967; republicans were involved in the leadership of NICRA from the beginning and stewarded its marches. Unionist leaders claimed that the civil rights movement was merely a stalking-horse for insurrectionary republicanism. In fact, the IRA wasn’t preparing another Border Campaign; it wanted to give NICRA a chance of success. The violent response of the RUC and the loyalist mob to the civil rights marches provoked what it had hoped to prevent: the re-emergence of physical-force republicanism, now even more committed to blasting the British state off Irish soil for good.

The renaissance of guerrilla warfare in Western Europe was not the idea of Goulding’s IRA. It was a new republican force, the Provisional IRA, that launched its members at the British army on the streets of Derry and Belfast. Although the Provos accused Goulding of running down the military wing of the IRA, they had actually broken with his leadership over a less immediate issue: abstention from the Dublin parliament, which the Provos considered illegitimate because of its origins in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. When the majority of republicans voted to change the IRA’s constitution in order to recognise the Dublin parliament, Seán Mac Stíofáin broke away with a group of traditionalist defectors to form the Provisional Army Council. Mac Stíofáin, a Gaelicised Englishman of distant Irish ancestry and strong Catholic views, had been deeply uncomfortable with the Marxist language adopted by Goulding’s IRA: according to Hanley and Millar, Roy Johnston urged Mac Stíofáin to investigate the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, confident it would prove that Catholicism and Marxism could be brought together. Mac Stíofáin was unmoved.

As relations between the British army and the nationalist population worsened, the Officials were drawn into a war they hadn’t wanted to fight. It was the Official IRA that confronted the army during the Lower Falls curfew of 1970, which further deepened nationalist alienation from the state. The Officials were the first to plant bombs on British soil, targeting the headquarters of the 16th Parachute Brigade in Aldershot a month after Bloody Sunday. And it was the Officials who first tried to assassinate a unionist politician, shooting the hardline Stormont minister John Taylor six times yet failing to kill him.

All this meant the Officials could compete with the Provos for support in Derry and West Belfast, but it didn’t sit well with the nominal goal of the movement, which was the reform of the Northern Irish state, not its destruction. After Westminster imposed direct rule in 1972, the southern-based leadership of the Officials quickly declared a ceasefire. Goulding said later that ‘we were right too early, Adams was right too late, and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh’ – an unyieldingly purist republican – ‘will never be fuckin’ right.’ The Officials may have been right to believe that a military campaign against British rule would prove a dead end, but in the hectic early 1970s, the Provos’ simple message (‘Brits Out – Victory in ’74’) had significantly greater appeal among working-class nationalists.

It was hard enough to sell the ceasefire to their own volunteers, many of whom followed Seamus Costello, a particularly charismatic leader, into the Irish Republican Socialist Party, a breakaway group that promised to continue the war. It wasn’t long before the IRSP and the Officials began to fight each other in nationalist areas of Belfast; barely had a truce been brokered when the Provos initiated another round of fighting, in the hope of eliminating their rivals for good. While the Officials were distracted, the Protestant working class whose support they had hoped to gain increasingly got behind the likes of Ian Paisley. If there was still enthusiasm for a politics that crossed religious divisions, it was only to be found in prosperous suburbs where middle-class Catholics and Protestants might both vote for the implacably bourgeois Alliance Party. The task of uniting the Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill Road while the Provos were still fighting the British was Sisyphean. It was inevitable that the focus of the movement would shift back to the South, leaving in the North an embattled sect in the Catholic ghettos whose relationship with the unionist parties would grow closer as their hostility to the Provos and the IRSP became more intense.

There is a Jekyll and Hyde quality to the history of the Officials after the ceasefire. The southern activists built an increasingly effective and sophisticated hard left party. Gradually shedding its republican heritage, the movement renamed itself the Workers’ Party and set about making life difficult for the conservative establishment. Remarkably, it succeeded: by the end of the 1980s, the rebranded Officials had overtaken the Irish Labour Party in Dublin and looked like advancing further. The other side of the story is less respectable. The Officials’ army didn’t go out of business when the campaign against British forces was wound down: it became an unacknowledged fundraising division, known only as Group B within the movement and never mentioned outside it. Group B’s main activity was robbing banks. There’s nothing particularly unusual about a guerrilla movement holding up banks, but it’s a bit trickier when the movement has publicly set down its guns. Hence the secrecy: members who got caught had to keep shtum and serve their time as ‘ordinary decent criminals’. It was also hard to recruit, since Group B’s only purpose was to subsidise the routine business of a legal political party: one former member recalls colleagues complaining about the risks they were running for ‘piss-poor candidates that three bank jobs couldn’t get elected’.

Meanwhile, the Workers’ Party began cultivating links with the Eastern bloc just as Western European Communists were putting as much distance between themselves and Moscow as possible. The leadership built especially close relations with North Korea, welcoming delegates from the DPRK to its congresses and sending young members to Pyongyang to see what a socialist society looked like. They were completely unprepared for the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, which came just after the high point of the Workers’ Party’s political success, when its candidate topped the poll in Dublin’s 1989 European parliamentary election. The subsequent crisis of confidence aggravated existing disagreements between traditionalists in the leadership and the self-styled modernisers who took their line from the Italian Communist Party. The eventual split was less dramatic than the break with the Provos had been: the violence was strictly rhetorical. The Democratic Left took with it most of the political capital the Officials had built up over two decades, but within a few years it had squandered that inheritance. Not so much a party as a platform for a few talented politicians, it moved towards an inoffensive social democracy and merged with the Irish Labour Party at the end of the 1990s.

The rump Workers’ Party still exists, but its electoral success is long over. Its former leader Sean Garland – a Border Campaign veteran who was the Official IRA’s chief of staff for many years – has spent the past few years under the threat of extradition to the US, accused of having been complicit in a North Korean dollar counterfeiting operation. (The case inspired a heroically misinformed article in the Independent, which claimed that Garland was a ‘lifelong terrorist’ who had shown Hizbullah how to make bombs, and ‘whose exploits were said to have inspired Tom Clancy’s novel Patriot Games’ – a slur on anyone’s name.) Group B announced at the end of last year that it would decommission its weapons, several years after the Provos had dismantled their military wing.

You could say that the agreement which has brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland carried the fingerprints of the Officials: republican critics upbraided the Provos for adopting the policies of their former rivals, while David Trimble had two former Officials – Eoghan Harris and Paul Bew – as advisers. There is a great deal in their theory and practice that can be left to gather dust; yet politics in Ireland could use a bit of the utopian energy and optimism with which the Officials began.