It’s well known, and chronologically indisputable, that the republican movement’s turn to socialism in the 1960s came out of the failure of Operation Harvest. What I want to do in this post is to consider the question of whether that turn was quite as thought-out or as seamless as it appears in retrospect. The short answer of course is No, but hopefully the meander around the subject will cast some light. What I want to emphasis is the ad-hocness of the development towards socialism, in personnel and ideological terms.
Operation Harvest ended in February 1962 with the frank admission of failure. There’s an easy, seamless narrative which says that then the new leadership of Mac Giolla as Sinn Féin president and Goulding as IRA chief of staff, who then steered the movement towards political activism and socialism. In fact, things were a lot more confused than that. Firstly, the “Three Macs” leadership had largely been displaced from the top of the IRA in the course of the campaign, in what was a generational shift more than anything else. The old leadership then retreated to Sinn Féin, which evidently they saw as some sort of factional headquarters – though this was factionalism without alternative programmes, but really about control of the movement. Having been routed, there was then a drawn-out process in the spring and summer of 1962 which involved Pádraig Mac Lógáin resigning as party president, followed by his associates resigning from the ard comhairle. Thereafter you had Mac Giolla taking on the presidency, initially on an interim basis, and various co-options of younger personnel until the ard fheis could formally confirm a new leadership team.
The change of leadership in the army happened in September 1962, basically because the incumbent chief of staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (for it was he) was tired out after the campaign and wanted to go back to teaching in Roscommon. Nobody else wanted the job. At first Goulding didn’t want it either, but in the absence of anyone else he was talked into it. Now, it is important not to have an anachronistic view of Goulding. He was certainly a Marxist in later life, but whether he was a Marxist in 1962 is seriously doubtful. At the time, it appears that he was seen as a bit of a militarist – not merely in that he had an army background, but that he had been in the IRA since the late 1930s and it was only in the mid-60s that he was cajoled into joining Sinn Féin. Evidently, we’re talking about someone whose ideas changed quite considerably – his personal reliance on Johnston being a big factor – and the process by which people’s ideas changed is worthy of consideration.
The IRA statement ending Harvest had admitted defeat on the grounds of popular indifference to the national struggle, and, whatever one might say about Seán Cronin’s military theories, that was the decisive factor, with the large passive support shown in elections to Westminster (1955) and Leinster House (1957) going into marked decline as the campaign dragged on with no prospect of making any progress. So you had the need for political action, discussed in a broad-ranging sense by the Curragh inmates during the campaign, largely posed in functional terms – that if the movement was to survive and even prosper, it would need to get itself a mass popular base. This had been dimly understood in the past, with the various unsuccessful attempts by the 1930s IRA, following the enormous disappointment of Fianna Fáil in office, to set up front parties. It was even understood by the Three Macs, and was the motivation for the army’s takeover of Sinn Féin at the start of the 1950s, even if, once having acquired SF, they didn’t have much idea of what to do with it.
So then the question was, what sort of politics? Republicans of the time have often been described as essentially Fianna Fáilers with guns. This isn’t precisely correct. In formal programmatic terms, FF was perhaps to the left of SF (and Labour!) in that its constitution incorporated (and may still do to this day) the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, which the SF programme did not. Labour did not formally describe itself as socialist until late 1966 (in a very vague way) and SF not until 1967 (although it then tried to elaborate its socialism, as Labour did not). Taking it back to 1962, what set the republican movement apart was its adherence to abstentionism and physical force separatism. So if you were going to graft politics onto such a movement, there was then the question of what sort of politics. There were both internal and external factors at work.
To take the external factor first, de Valera’s gutting of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, followed by the enactment of a new constitution and the declaration of a republic, meant that in practical terms, the southern state – the north being different of course – looked as independent as it was ever going to get, and the insistence of republicans that the Dublin government was merely a puppet government, not to mention adherence to the de jure republic of 1916, came increasingly to look like a piece of baroque theology. But then you had the Lemass government abandoning autarkic economics, and this opened up the road for a neo-colonial analysis that reformulated imperialist domination of Ireland in economic terms – particularly significant being the British imposition of tariffs on industrial imports, in flagrant ignorage of the Anglo-Irish free trade area; the menace of the EEC also loomed increasingly large. These were areas where Johnston and Coughlan, with their Marxist background, could impart some coherence.
Internally, the 1930s tradition of IRA involvement with leftwing politics could be resurrected – in fact, even after Russell’s rightist coup there were examples of the movement getting involved in things like physically resisting evictions. A project of radical agitation, based on fusing the movement with the masses, made sense on this level. But this also needed to take into account the actually existing base, so you then had Donegal once and twice. Once with Fr McDyer’s co-operative experiment, in which Dáithí Ó Conaill and other republicans had been involved, and which fed into the developing programme. Twice with the re-emergence, via the WTS, of Peadar O’Donnell and the renewed relevance of his ideas. The Economic Resistance perspective, with its fish-ins and such, was straight out of the O’Donnell repertoire.
But of course the new departure wasn’t only a matter of rural agitprop, important though that was. There was the increased willingness of the movement to identify itself as socialist, with the resurrection of Connolly and Mellows in republican thought. Certainly there was a functional aspect to the movement’s socialism in the early stages. Also important here is that, post Vatican II, the Catholic Church was no longer opposed to socialism and this dimished the power of the red scare – there could even be, as the 1960s wore on, a little trendiness about socialism, with the s-word being employed even in the proverbially timid Labour Party, and Garret FitzGerald floating the (in hindsight, doomed) idea of Fine Gael reinventing itself as a Social Democratic Party. The fear of Muscovite communism, however, did remain tangible, which was the big strike against Johnston’s apparent aim of formally fusing the republican movement with Irish communism. (One suspects the SACP’s role in the ANC might have been a model here.) This evolutionary process perhaps helps to explain Mac Giolla denouncing the communist menace in the 1960s, only to become the communist menace a few years later.
So you had a developing programme of agitation around socio-economic issues. Although SF remained under fairly tight army control – look at the short shrift given to conservatives in North Kerry, or in the notoriously traditionalist Cumann na mBan – increasingly you had the army being used in pursuit of this agitation, providing support to strikers and squatters in an echo of its 1930s left period. And this also posed the question of electoral intervention. Costello was always forcing the pace of course, and his own experience as a councillor in Bray fed into that. But the majority of elected councillors were out in the rural west, and in this context we may again note that those who went on to form the Provos were not necessarily against electoral intervention – Ó Brádaigh and Mac Fhearghail had been elected abstentionist TDs in 1957, and Ó Conaill had nearly won a seat in Cork in 1961. Their Rubicon was on recognition of the state, which few people were arguing for early on in the new departure (Tom Mitchell of Tyrone was one prominent exception), but which would come back onto the agenda whether the leadership liked it or not.
Again we see that a project embarked on – in this case politicisation and an agitational perspective – can easily develop a momentum of its own, throwing up questions not even considered at the beginning of the process. And in this context, a moderately successful project can reveal as many, if not more, contradictions than a heroic failure.