The New Ireland in the New Europe: Provisional foreign policy in the 1970s


The fascinating discussion on Cedar Lounge about the endearingly eccentric British and Irish Communist Organisation, shading into mention of David Vipond’s late lamented Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), opens up a whole can of worms. Certainly, the CPI(ML)’s 1974 election campaign in Fermanagh was a deadly bit of scléip that could only really be captured by Myles na gCopaleen.

But what I want to consider is how Irish radicals used to deal with the question of internationalism. In this context, the CPI(ML) is relatively uncomplicated, having gone from Beijing to Tirana to, in its declining period of the 1990s, a half-hearted flirtation with Pyongyang. The last could never really have worked – I can’t imagine Kim Il-sung’s juche philosophy having much aesthetic appeal to a tendency that once included Cornelius Cardew.

Moving on from the less exotic, the “official” CPI was always a straight Muscovite outfit, maintaining close relations with the Soviet bloc but being distinctly sniffy about the Chinese, and giving a wide berth to the more outré regimes of Third World Stalinism. The Workers Party, on the other hand, was much less picky, not only cultivating Democratic Korea – hence the threat of Seán Garland spending his old age in an orange jumpsuit – but also Ceauşescu’s Romania and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Baghdad connection, strangely enough, is one that Henry McDonald hasn’t been too keen to advertise.

The IRSP’s foreign policy has been erratic to say the least, and largely dependent on who was writing for the Starry Plough at any given time. The quasi-Maoism of the 1990s, with its paeans to the Shining Path and the Nepalese Naxalites, makes a sort of sense, but Gerry Ruddy’s mysterious courtship of the Grant-Woods tendency in Britain has me scratching my head. And how either relates to Costello Thought is beyond me.

What I want to deal with at a bit more length is the development of Provisional foreign policy in the 1970s, which is little understood outside the leadership of RSF, who are the go-to guys for 1972-vintage republicanism. This wasn’t ideological in the sense that say the WP would have understood things. Tom Hartley may have written essays on Fanon, but I’m not sure Tom took them seriously and I’m reasonably sure nobody else did. Likewise, the Libyan connection was of infinitely more interest to the quartermaster’s and engineering departments than anybody in Sinn Féin. There is no evidence of cumainn up and down the country having earnest discussions about Gaddafi’s Green Book.

But, although the policy wasn’t ideological, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an underlying consistency. You start out with the basic anti-colonialism that had been part of the republican tradition from the beginning. (Interestingly, from about 1945 to well into the 1960s, this had included an identification with Zionism, at first because the Zionists had taken a pop at the Brits, and in the later socialist period there was some attention given to the kibbutz movement.)

But there were further, more idiosyncratic elements, in a policy line developed mainly by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Richard Behal with a few others. There’s quite a bit of detail in Bob White’s excellent biography of Ruairí, but I want to flag up here two elements in his thinking. One was that Ruairí became very much influenced by “small is beautiful” theorising, and in some ways was an ecologist before his time. The other was quite a pronounced streak of Pan-Celticism, which had been an element in republicanism since at least the Emergency and probably before, but really came into its own in the 1970s.

A little-advertised offshoot of Éire Nua was thinking about the New Ireland’s place in the world, and there would have been a lot of sympathy for the idea of a Celtic Federation on the western edge of Europe. Unfortunately, the idea never really developed legs in Ireland, and didn’t have the base in radical movements elsewhere. The Welsh and Bretons had some promise, but lacked social weight. Radical nationalists in Cornwall and on Mannin never amounted to more than a handful, and the reasonably large number of people in Scotland with an affinity for Irish republicanism were mostly of Irish extraction, and deeply Hibernocentric.

Beyond Celtica, there were attempts to forge relations with radical nationalist movements in other parts of western Europe. There were quite a lot of these at the time, and not a few who were attracted to armed struggle. Usually that line was abortive, simply because the conditions for it didn’t apply, but in Euskadi and Corsica state repression gave the guerrilla movements formidable staying power. A lot of national security types – the Claire Sterlings of this world – got paranoid about a “network of terror”, but the main thrust of republican diplomacy was political. The general idea was that the small nations of Europe would escape from the big nation-states like France and Spain, and then you could talk about remaking the map of Europe, with small, neutral and economically radical countries offering a way out of the Cold War stalemate.

It seems a bit pie in the sky these days, I’ll admit. It would certainly be described as such by metropolitan leftists. For instance, the French LCR can publish theses which view the national question as irrelevant in western Europe – so that’s the Celts, Basques and Wends written out of the picture. Likewise, the British SWP – with the partial exception of Neil Davidson’s work on Scotland – have a deeply annoying tendency to contrast “narrow nationalism” to what they term “internationalism” but is really London multiculturalism.

On the other hand, with devolution all round in the ‘UK’, and continuing national tensions in the Spanish state, regionalism and small-nation self-determination has a surprisingly modern aspect to it. We’re not talking Devo – who made records in the late 1970s that still sound like the future – but neither are we talking antiquarianism. There are some issues that are remarkably hard to keep in their grave.

 Update 24.7.07: I’ve just noticed this slightly facetious take on the British-Irish council from Tom Griffin, which ties in somewhat to the question of Celtic alliances.


  1. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 19, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Didn’t those dodgy ‘International Third Position’ types try to muscle in on the ‘pan-celtic federation’ idea?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 19, 2007 at 11:13 am

    Quite possibly – and it’s the sort of thing Alain de Benoist has been keen on lately.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 19, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I forgot to point out that there would also have been some influence from the exiled Breton nationalist Yann Fouéré, who had settled in Ireland and published L’Europe aux cent drapeaux in I think 1968. Fouéré would be an interesting character in his own right in that he came to prominence under the Vichy regime when a lot of Breton nationalists decided to take advantage of the French state’s collapse (and I see in the latest IPR that Brendan Clifford thinks they were right) but by the 1960s would have been a much more mainstream figure and was hanging out with Plaid and the SNP.

  4. July 19, 2007 at 11:48 am

    […] House Link to Article iraq The New Ireland in the New Europe: Provisional foreign policy in the 1970s […]

  5. nicktarlton said,

    July 19, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    The pan-celticism thing still has a wee bit of influence around the fringes of the SNP and SSP over here in Scotland, its pretty negligible though and has always seemed to be based on romanticism rather than any kind of political strategy or whatever. As for the attitudes of the London Left, I’ve never understood how defending the UK amounted to internationalism.

  6. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 19, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Yeah, the Breton thing was big in the mid to late 1970s.

  7. Phil said,

    July 19, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    Wends? I’ve heard of them, he adds hastily, I just can’t place them on the map – or for that matter in recent history.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 20, 2007 at 7:36 am

    In eastern Germany – these days it’s PC to call them Sorbs.

  9. ejh said,

    July 20, 2007 at 8:30 am

    There’s a coincidence. Just the other day I tried looking them up in the Times Atlas of World History and its notoriously fallible index. (It’s a long story, but it’s a byproduct of the fact that my girlfriend was an extra in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.) They remained pagans for quite a long time and there was a Crusade against them, wasn’t there? I can’t be totally sure since I never found the passage that was claimed to be there….

  10. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 20, 2007 at 8:30 am

    The CPI-ML also did solidarity work on Eritrea and Southern Sudan. Any inside gen on that aspect of things?

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 20, 2007 at 9:08 am

    I know the Eritrean EPLF had Albanian ties at one time – maybe a Tirana connection?

  12. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 20, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Not sure about that one. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, down in Ethiopia proper, was definitely pro-Albanian, but most of the official histories of the EPLF argue that it was resolutely independent. They make a big thing of the EPLF refusing help from the PRC because Beijing would have required a condemnation of the USSR as ‘social imperialist’. By 1987 they were moving away from Marxism-Leninism at a rate of knots. I’ve got a book on the Eritrean struggle somewhere which has a foreword by Neil Kinnock, and another with a foreword by Glenys K.

  13. Andy Newman said,

    July 20, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Nicktarlton: As for the attitudes of the London Left, I’ve never understood how defending the UK amounted to internationalism.

    I wrote an extended srtiique of Neil Davidson’s position here, that i think explains where the SWP are coming from on this issue:

  14. Gus Abraham said,

    July 24, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    ‘Likewise, the British SWP – with the partial exception of Neil Davidson’s work on Scotland – have a deeply annoying tendency to contrast “narrow nationalism” to what they term “internationalism” but is really London multiculturalism.’


    You mean Kneel Davidson?

  15. John Callaghan said,

    August 6, 2007 at 7:20 am

    What was the story with the CPI(ML) election in Fermanagh?

    If you put up more stuff from them from the 70’s I’ll send you their internal documnets at the wind up of the party plus some other gems including a debate between Alan Dukes and the Gen Sec of the ML’s on RTE 1

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 6, 2007 at 11:08 am

    I do intend to put up more 70s stuff, and I’d be most grateful for any material.

    As for the ’74 election campaign in Fermanagh, it was the real incongruity of the ML’s. They all seemed to be from Trinity and most of them were British expats. So despite them being big (platonic) supporters of armed struggle and believers in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, the Fermanagh peasants seemed to think them, well, a bit weird.

    IIRC the official (Muscovite) CPNI had an outpost in Enniskillen at one point, but they were much more sensible and grounded. And they had the advantage of not all coming directly from Trinity.

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