Courtesy of WorldbyStorm over on Cedar Lounge, my attention has been drawn to the extensive interview with long-time Workers Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla in the latest Magoo magazine. And very sprightly Tomás seems too – I’m slightly surprised to hear that he’s still alive, but surprised in a good way. Like WbS, I’m rather more sympathetic to Tomás now than I would have been in the past, although probably for different reasons.
Apropos of Tomás’s comments on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and the discussion on CLR about the Official/Provo split, it strikes me that there is something to WbS’s point about the defence of old old positions. As opposed to the de Rossas or Grizzlys who abandon old positions without putting anything in their place save the pursuit of power within the current system. That’s a charge that can’t be laid against either Mac Giolla or Ó Brádaigh. Certainly, one of Ruairí’s great selling points is that nobody is ever in any doubt about where he stands. And while I can well imagine the WP simply fading away, RSF won’t, simply because the market for traditional republicanism may be small but it’s steady and will always be there this side of unity.
Here’s an interesting point, though, about 1969/70. I’ve written a bit about that split and how it impacted on republicanism North and South, and that’s a theme I’ll be developing further. But I think it’s important to note that the split was not simply a question of Defenderist militarism versus electoral vanguardism, although that was the major dividing line in the Six. Nor was it a question of socialism versus conservatism – to be sure, on the Provo side there were some howling reactionaries, but the ideologues – and I’m thinking primarily of Dáithí Ó Conaill and the Ó Brádaigh brothers – were seriously interested in progressive politics, had no problem describing themselves as socialists (while being suspicious of too close a connection to the Communist Party) and had been key figures in the programme debates of the mid to late 1960s.
The point was that there wasn’t a problem with the adoption of socialism, as long as the basic republican orientation, denying the legitimacy of partitionist assemblies first and foremost, was not compromised. The bitterness of the 1970s, at least on the Provisional side, sprung to a great extent from the belief that the Officials had tried to convert the militant republican movement into something it wasn’t and couldn’t be. As Ruairí often says, much of the bad blood wouldn’t have existed if the Officials had simply left Sinn Féin, as so many others had done, to set up a new constitutional republican party, a sort of more socialist version of Clann na Poblachta.
But again this issue is complicated, and I don’t entirely agree with Ruairí on it. From his point of view, the abandonment of abstentionism and the basic republican beliefs that abstentionism flowed from, of and by itself meant a shift into constitutionalism. I’m not sure about that, not only because I’m not a theological abstentionist, but also because I’m not convinced that the Sticks actually set out to go constitutional, although constitutional they undoubtedly became. I’m willing to be charitable and allow that Mac Giolla, Goulding and Garland (Costello too I suppose, although he was always sui generis) were really serious about converting the republican movement into a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, and had some success in so doing. The WP then, or at least the SFWP of the 1970s, was probably the best chance the Irish left has ever had of building a revolutionary party with real social weight. It certainly throws into sharp relief the claims of the Anglocentric far-left groupings about their historic advances.
How this potential wasn’t achieved is a fascinating story in itself, and one that other people are probably better placed to tell than me. (Not that I wouldn’t have a go…) The main pitfall I suppose was the WP’s chronic split personality, never having resolved the issue of whether it was a constitutional socialist party or a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party. That’s a contradiction the CPI has learnt to live with by clever application of the dialectic, but of course the WP had yet more complicating factors.
Still, nice to see old Tomás still motoring along, and sticking the boot into de Rossa and Rabbitte with admirable vim.
Finally, I realise that due to workload my blogging hasn’t been as frequent these last lot of weeks as it might have been. I am endeavouring to keep the thing regular, if not daily then a couple of posts a week anyway. Thanks for your patience.