Last night, I did something that in years past I would have thought twice about, maybe three times, then thought better of. I went into an enclosed space with a lot of Sticks.
The occasion for this was the Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. Many readers will already be beating their way through their copies, and having nearly finished the book, I can well recommend it. I’ll get back to the book and the questions it raises at greater length, but just a few comments on the launch itself.
A good wee crowd in Queens Bookshop for it, and many copies being shifted. A lot of familiar faces, some of whom I couldn’t put names to, some that I hadn’t seen in years and who were looking noticeably greyer. It was the sort of event where you nod at someone in passing and then you think “Jesus! That was X! I wondered what had happened to him!” What was encouraging to me was the diversity – lots of people were either members or former members of the WP, but there were people there with backgrounds in just about all the republican groups, some of which would have clashed violently with the Officials in years gone by. And a rather hale Brian Feeney, who used to be one of the WP’s most rambunctious critics, caught my eye.
There was an element, then, of an old-timers’ reunion, but it wasn’t all like that. There were quite a few people there below pensionable age, and even some young folks. I’m not sure whether they were students, or people interested in what their parents used to do, but it did at least mean it wasn’t an entirely “the socialists will be seventy” affair.
Richard English gave the introduction, ably plugging the book. He remarked, and this would be a bit of a running theme, that the Official Republicans had been poorly served by history, not only by their factional opponents but also by their friends and supporters, and how important it was to give an account of them that recorded the facts and did so in an unpartisan way. He also flagged up the heavy use of interviews to capture the flavour of the period, and read out some pithy quotations to emphasise that even amongst all the grimness of the story, there was a lot of grit and even humour to be found.
Richard also talked about how, although the Officials hadn’t achieved what they set out to achieve, their interventions in Irish politics were important nonetheless. And he returned to something that was a little predictable from his own discussions of republicanism, that the departures of the Officials – the renunciation of armed struggle and the engagement with unionism specifically – were ahead of their time, and others had since followed in that path. I don’t entirely buy that, because it decontextualises the development of two very different processes. But it’s not irrelevant in that it’s also the WP’s understanding of its own history, as in Mac Giolla’s famous quote that “we were right too early; Adams is right too late; and Ó Brádaigh will never be right.”
Brian Hanley then took the stage, looking very much like the academic he now is. Brian spoke generally on the importance of telling this story, and about the work that had gone into the book. He especially talked about all those interviews, and paid tribute to the people who had welcomed him and Scott into their homes and relived often painful memories, on the basis that this was a story that needed to be told. He also spoke about his initial scepticism that this was a book that could be written, and the challenge of doing so since he and Scott had disagreed on just about everything. But he was proud of their achievement, and I think rightly so.
Finally, Scott Millar, who I didn’t know at all, spoke, and gave a very interesting little talk revolving around a number of themes. Firstly, he talked about how, as a young man in Dublin, the influence of the Workers Party had been pervasive, and he had canvassed for Proinsias de Rossa. (Perhaps, he quipped, not something that would be universally popular with his audience.) The WP had in its time played a very significant role in Irish politics, and on many issues been ahead of its time, but hadn’t got its due in historical writing, much of which, where Official Republicanism was concerned, was just mired in polemic either for or against.
Scott also remarked on the decision to be up front about the party’s unorthodox methods of fundraising. To be fair, I don’t see how a historical treatment of the Workers Party, unless it was an in-house hagiography, could avoid mention the various enterprises that Group B was involved in. Yet, as Scott pointed out, whatever you thought of Fenian and Bolshevik methods of fundraising, as employed by the Officials, it was remarkable that this was the first history of an Irish political movement to give such prominence to the money question. Left republicans had made waves forty years ago by attacking Taca, the then fundraising arm of Fianna Fáil; had accounts of FF paid more attention to the money men, the Irish taxpayer might not now be having to bail out the successors of Taca.
Finally, Scott mentioned something I’ve noticed about the book myself and heard said, that it’s a narrative history but light on the analysis. As per Scott, it was a deliberate decision not to build a big analytical structure, but rather to let events speak for themselves and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. I can see that, in that it’s a work for the general reader, whereas Seán Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-1972 is a book for the specialist; I can also see that the authors of a polemical work might not have got the extraordinary access that provides such a huge part of the book’s material. But Scott also remarked, and it was nice to hear this, that left republicanism was not the property of a single party or organisation, and he emphasised the broad spectrum of people for whom the thought of Wolfe Tone was still relevant. A polemical work, one which sought to either claim the Official tradition as the sole repository of true republicanism or simply to dismiss it as an alien Stalinist aberration in Irish politics (and we’ve seen writings along these lines) wouldn’t serve much purpose to those who want to gain a rounded understanding, the better to inform ourselves for the future.
So, that was well worth going to. WorldbyStorm has already written up on the Dublin launch, and some more thoughts on the book itself will be forthcoming presently.