In Joy Street in Belfast, at the edge of the Markets, there is a little wall plaque paying tribute to Joe McCann on the spot where he fell in 1972. I used to walk past it every day on the way to work, although it barely registered for a long time, the way you don’t really notice something that’s always been there. In The Lost Revolution, Hanley and Millar describe the Markets as “notoriously clannish”, which I guess is one way of putting it, and mention McCann’s rare ability as an outsider to be accepted there. Which leads me onto the importance of geography and territoriality as regards Irish republicanism and how it developed.
In his book on the Officials, Seán Swan has a nice aside at one point about how Dublin was distant from Belfast, and was also distant from Kerry. The contradiction Seán refers to is that you had a movement whose leadership was headquartered in Dublin but whose base was mostly rural and western, and moreover which had a powerful element in the north with very different concerns again. The basic schema, and I know this is a great simplification, is one of a traditionalist republican constituency in Connacht and Munster, a working-class socialist constituency in Dublin (Costello, from Bray, counts as an honorary Dubliner in this instance) and an essentially Defenderist constituency in the north. There’s a lot of truth in that, but, as I say, it’s a simplification.
We may start, I suppose, with western republicanism, which doesn’t quite get the understanding it deserves – Goulding, Garland and Costello were always impatient with the rural traditionalists, and Adams has shown little sign of a deep understanding. Western republicanism is a thing in itself, quite distinct from the concerns of the east coast metropolis, but is well worth considering as it was, prior to 1969, the main reservoir of support for republicanism. The WP would in later years consider this a petty bourgeois element, which may be true in strict Marxist terms – the typical activist would be a small farmer, a schoolteacher, a publican or an auctioneer, not Tone’s “men of no property” but rather men of small property. And while western republicanism had a strong militarist streak, it was primarily concerned with southern matters.
We are talking here about a movement formed by the memory of the Civil War, but that wasn’t as distant in the 1960s as it seems now. There were still rather a lot of Civil War veterans around. The Civil War was still a living memory, and much more so were the persecutions of republicans that followed, with those enacted by Fianna Fáil felt with especial bitterness. For traditional republicans, de Valera was a byword for treachery – even today, it’s hard to get traditionalists to take a balanced view of him – while men like Joe Clarke and Tom Maguire were personifications of republican fidelity. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, from Longford, will talk not only about his father, a hero of the Anglo-Irish War who was badly wounded and died relatively young as a result, but also about how he, as a young boy in the 1940s, attended the funerals of republican hunger strikers. Such is the republican concept of living history that there are always veterans around to transmit the memories.
What animated the traditional republican in the west was a burning, visceral hatred of the Saorstát and all its works and pomps. This found its expression in abstentionism, and in the legitimist concept that the de jure Republic of 1916 still existed in shadow form, and that the Army Council of the IRA was the legal government of the Republic. (Abstentionism and legitimism aren’t inseparable, and it’s logically possible to have one without the other, but they make for a powerful, mutually reinforcing combination.) These people were anti-partitionist, to be sure, but were equally if not more concerned with sustaining a revolutionary opposition to the southern state. This is important to consider when we come to the 1969 split. It wasn’t the north that occasioned the split, though the eruption of the north sharpened the questions. Nor was it the move to socialism as, though there was still a genuine fear of Muscovite communism, most traditionalists were not opposed, or at least not strongly opposed, to the moderate co-operativist socialism of Sinn Féin in the latter half of the 1960s, as long as this did not involve breaching abstentionism. The movement had in the past swung to the left and to the right and back again, and would do in the future, but abstentionism was the line in the sand that the traditionalists would not cross, and that by itself would have precipitated a split.
Things in the north were, of course, different. Northern republicanism was never all that concerned with the theology of the traditionalists, and northerners were often dismissive of abstentionism, particularly as regards Leinster House. Recall that the northern IRA had rallied to Mick Collins, because Collins provided guns to the north and took a tough line against the unionists. Republicanism in the north was and is basically separatist and anti-unionist, with a strong overlay of defence. Even so, there are significant regional differences.
Let me illustrate this concretely. War and an Irish Town is a good read, but what you miss is how untypical Derry was. Since there were relatively few unionists on the west bank of the river, and there are many fewer now, the Troubles in Derry took the form of a more or less demographically solid nationalist community pitched against an external force in the shape of the state. There are few other areas of the north – South Armagh, perhaps, although that’s a very different place – where the lines were as clear cut. Even in mostly nationalist areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh, where separatism was a realistic programme, there were still considerable numbers of unionists living cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The potential for a separatist project to devolve into sectarianism was always there, and the need to consider defence was always there.
Things become more complicated still in Belfast. If you go to Short Strand, you get a good sense of the physicality of ghetto Defenderism. It’s a small, overcrowded estate in East Belfast, surrounded on three sides by hardline loyalist areas and on the fourth by the Lagan. During the Troubles and even at points in the peace process, the fear of a loyalist pogrom has been tangible in the area. It’s not surprising, then, that Short Strand republicans have a notoriously independent streak – whether they’ve borne allegiance to the Provos, the Sticks or the INLA, the theoretical leadership of their organisation has always had trouble keeping the Strand in line. Equally, Ardoyne republicans are essentially focused on what affects Ardoyne, and don’t particularly want to know about West Belfast.
Even in West Belfast, where there’s some security in numbers and relative geographical spread – which is why Bombay Street in 1969 was such a shock – one should never underestimate the importance of defending the community against the Prods. One could be a Second Dáil legitimist or a socialist equally well, as long as defence was not forgotten. What’s more, there is an element of variation that will come into play in terms of the story of the Officials. If we want to talk about the Sticks in Belfast, to a very large extent we’re talking about their strongholds of the Lower Falls, Twinbrook and the Markets, and the specificities of those areas, and the friction with the Provos that aris at regular intervals. (I quite like Henry Patterson, but his vision of Stickyism seemed a very long way removed from what people in Twinbrook would understand by it.) And again, if we’re to understand why the IRSP/INLA turned out as they did, it’s worth remembering that most of their Belfast membership spent 1975 physically under siege in Divis Flats, which would have a disorienting effect on anyone.
And that leaves us with Dublin. It’s probably an exaggeration, if we’re talking about the republican movement in 1967 or so, to see there as being a real constituency of horny-handed proletarian republicans in Dublin. Sinn Féin’s paid-up membership in Dublin at the time was probably in the same ballpark as Mick O’Riordan’s IWP. Quite a few of these people (including leadership figures such as Tomás Mac Giolla or Seán Ó Brádaigh) would have been rural transplants. Of those who were native Dubliners, there would have been as many from a small business background (Goulding with his painting and decorating business, de Rossa from a shopkeeping background) as actual wage labourers. Nonetheless, it was the case that most of those Dubliners who moved into republican activism were motivated at least in large part by the experience of poverty, and that led to an openness to socialist thinking.
What you had then in Dublin was not so much an actually existing working class constituency, as an ideal or potential constituency. But this constituency was not particularly interested in traditional republican concerns, and much of the Dublin-based leadership (Costello comes to mind) were either indifferent to or even contemptuous of those concerns, not being animated either by Civil War resentments or by northern sectarianism. The trouble then is when you have a leadership that, in pursuit of a new constituency, develops a fractious relationship with the old one. And when that leadership makes inroads into the new constituency, beginning to reshape the movement in its own image and at the same time accelerating its own evolution – that’s when you get a combustible mix, just ready for a movement to split right down the middle.