The story told in The Lost Revolution is often grim, but at points there’s a surprising amount of gritty humour, much of it showing through in the interviews. There’s one anecdote from near the start of the Troubles which, though it could have turned out very seriously at the time, had me almost falling off my chair in laughter. The context of this was that, after the split in the republican movement, both factions suspected that the other had left sleepers behind – which was almost certainly true – and in the febrile atmosphere of Belfast, where personal and family connections ran so deep, this led to a lot of paranoia. Apparently, at one stage the Official leadership in Belfast suspected Mary McMahon of being a closet Provo. Given what we subsequently know about Mary Mac’s years of stalwart service to the Workers Party, this seems so incongruous as to be almost surreal. But then, that’s with the benefit of hindsight.
Actually, there is a parallel to this in that for years it was rumoured around the Provisionals that Jim Gibney was a Stick. And I don’t mean in the pejorative sense that some militarists might have called Adams a Stick, because they thought him too political – it was actually alleged that Gibney was a Stick. I never believed that, and the only evidence anyone seemed to have for it was that he lived in Twinbrook, but it’s easy to see how these things get started and then develop legs of their own. And it demonstrates how the lines were not as clear-cut as perhaps partisans of either side would have liked to think.
If these posts have had a theme, it’s been on the unpredictability of historical events – events that are both overdetermined, to the point where they seem inevitable in hindsight, but also contingent. The 1969/70 split in republicanism is a classic example. There was of course the basic force of the different constituencies within republicanism all pulling in different directions; there were also multiple political issues, which changed quite rapidly in both their form and their weight. Here I want to pick out four interlinked aspects of the debates leading up to the split.
The National Liberation Front
In a sense, nobody but the most hardened military elitist denied the need to forge links with other radical tendencies – to the extent that those tendencies existed, for there could be nothing analogous to the alliance between the IRA and Fianna Fáil in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Indeed, the very idea of republicans leading a popular mass movement presupposed that others would be involved. One recalls the short-lived Dáil Chonnacht movement as something that, while initiated by the Provisionals, was far from being a Provos-and-fellow-travellers affair – it included intellectuals, Labour Party members, possibly a discreet communist or two, radical Catholics, advocates of Gaeltacht self-government and so on. There are even later echoes in Costello’s big idea of the Anti-Imperialist Broad Front.
But the core of the NLF strategy, as formulated in the 1960s, revolved around the question of republicanism’s relationship with Irish communism. There were factors on the communist side of the argument, too – remember that Irish communism, as personified by Seán Murray and Mick O’Riordan, had significant roots in republicanism, and had recognised republicanism as the native form of political radicalism. (Of course the Comintern’s formulation of the United Front was first devised for alliances with anti-colonial movements and only later extended to social democracy. Probably more immediately relevant was the Kremlin’s contemporary interest in anti-colonial movements internationally.) What was more, the CPNI by then had shed its extreme pro-British colouring of the 1940s, come firmly under the influence of Desmond Greaves Thought and was moving towards reunification with the southern party.
There is little doubt that what Johnston was pushing for was a formal and permanent alliance between the republican movement and the two communist parties, in a schema that would see the communists provide a theoretical sophistication the republicans lacked, while the republicans had a popular base and organisational clout that the small and isolated communist parties did not have. The CPs’ trade union links were also an attractive factor, in particular the possibility of the CPNI providing a link to the Protestant working class. It must be emphasised, though, that Johnston didn’t have some sort of mystical power over the leadership, most of whom were willing to go along with Johnston’s brainchild because it seemed like a good idea to them. Goulding in particular didn’t seem like the kind of man to allow a Trinity intellectual to lead him by the nose.
It was also, of course, the specific alliance with the communists that caused dissension from traditionalists – from North Kerry, from Cumann na mBan, and with Mac Stíofáin fighting a rearguard action within the leadership. Mind you, the social background of the time was an Ireland where Masses still regularly included a prayer for the conversion of Russia.
The civil rights strategy
In a way, the civil rights strategy in the north, notwithstanding the theoretical framework Greaves had given it, was just a regional counterpart to Economic Resistance for the rural western base, and the growing housing agitation in Dublin. The big difference was that civil rights became a big enough movement to take on a logic and momentum all its own. In areas like Derry, Dungannon and Newry there quickly developed a situation pitching entire communities against the Orange state. The marching tactic, brilliant in its simplicity, proved ideal for building up a mass movement, which reached the parts Operation Harvest hadn’t.
Belfast, as ever, was different, and NICRA did not employ the marching tactic in Belfast – though Peoples Democracy did, occasionally and on a relatively small scale. This related in part to the internal politics of Belfast republicanism. On the one hand, the McMillen-Sullivan leadership, although it was interested in social agitation of the Dublin variety, was keenly aware of the sectarian dynamics of Belfast, and therefore reluctant to resort to what could be literally incendiary marches. On the other, there was a cabal of veterans in Belfast who were openly scornful of civil rights as a reformist strategy, who had been sidelined or expelled by the leadership in the preceding few years, and who would go on to form the core of the Provisionals in Belfast. We’re talking here about Jimmy Steele, Jimmy and Máire Drumm, Billy McKee, Leo Martin and probably John Kelly – later, in the aftermath of the August 1969 pogrom, they would summon Séamus Twomey and Joe Cahill from the vasty deep, and make a bid for support on an essentially Defenderist programme. In the meantime, the leadership was understandably cautious about staging anything that might look like a provocation.
There is a further footnote to this in terms of the relationship between the republican movement, the CPNI and Peoples Democracy within NICRA, and the 1978 official history of NICRA, for what I believe are factional reasons, obscures this issue. Bernie Devlin’s quip that the Communist Party was as conservative as the Unionist Party was a bit of hyperbole, but there’s no mistaking that, as civil rights got some momentum behind it, Betty Sinclair and her allies in the NICRA leadership did come to be the conservative wing, especially when PD changed the rules of the game with the Long March. There is still an unanswered question about the 1969 NICRA AGM, when PD carried out an effective coup against the communists, for which they must have had republican votes. The question mark is posed by the communists’ firm belief that they had a pledge of support from Goulding. The possible explanations are that Goulding was not quite as supportive as he let the CPNI think; that republican organisation was shambolic enough for Goulding’s position not to be conveyed to the northern members; or that the northern members were aware of the leadership’s wishes and disobeyed them. Any one is plausible.
In any case, the lines in 1969 were a lot more blurry than later accounts, informed by the rapid souring of relations between the Officials and PD, would indicate. Certainly, there was a lot of instinctive sympathy amongst northern republicans for the young militants of PD, and this had been indicated early on as the Long March went through South Derry. Sinn Féin had been cautiously positive about the PD campaign in the Stormont general election of 1969, with the reservation that PD at that time was very resistant indeed to raising the issue of partition. And contemporary statements from both Goulding and Garland go well beyond what was the stance of the communists in NICRA.
The organisational issue
In any factional dispute, there is always an organisational issue, and this takes on a slightly baroque aspect in Irish republicanism, which is simultaneously a political party and an armed conspiracy. Basically, we are talking about what might be termed dual subordination, where the armed wing was subordinated to political rather than military ends in its activity, while the party was organisationally subordinated to the armed wing. This didn’t prevent oppositionists like Mac Stíofáin acting independently, but it certainly complicated things, not least in the version of democratic centralism that would have the IRA making a decision internally, then voting en bloc within Sinn Féin to secure a majority for whatever the IRA had decided.
It’s tempting to read into this a precursor of how the WP came to operate democratic centralism, and chronologically that’s the case. But a more apt parallel would probably be with how dissenting Provisionals have characterised the Adams approach – Tony McIntyre will tell you that Sinn Féin has been running the Army Council for years, while recalcitrants in the political wing would complain about military discipline operating in the party, and they would both be right. In any case, this sort of management is bound to produce more grievances than strictly necessary.
There’s no doubt, this was the line in the sand for the traditionalists. And when we call republicans traditionalists, we are talking about quite serious traditionalism. One of the leaders of the walkout at the 1970 Ard Fheis, quite aptly, was the 1916 veteran Joe Clarke. Joe must have been almost ninety at the time, and needed crutches to get about, but he was still sharp enough and fiercely attached to republican fundamentals. By this point, he had made it his personal mission to outlive the traitor de Valera, and that tells you all you need to know about the character of Joe Clarke. He, or Jimmy Steele, or Seán Keenan, may not have been great men for political theory, but they knew what traditional republicanism was, and they had an instinctive aversion to anything that smacked of reformist backsliding. (Not, I believe, that the Official leadership were reformists, but we’ll get onto that. We are talking here specifically about the trad-republican view that de jure recognition of the state was reformism.)
And yet, in the north this was less of an issue than you might suppose, at least as far as Leinster House abstention was concerned. Back in 1965, Seán Caughey of Belfast had resigned as Sinn Féin vice-president out of impatience at the failure to drop abstentionism and politicise fast enough. He later joined the Provisionals. At the beginning of 1969 six Tyrone republicans resigned from the movement in protest at Sinn Féin’s refusal to put forward an attendance candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election. One of the six was a certain Kevin Mallon of Coalisland, which name might ring a few bells.
In fact, projecting backwards, although a split was probably inevitable at some point, it was far from predictable who would be on what side, unless you’d managed to predict in advance the exact combination of circumstances and relative weight of issues. Garibaldy was saying elsewhere that Brian Keenan couldn’t have been a member of the Workers Party. I think a more precise way of putting it would be that Brian Keenan, in terms of the man he became and the things we know he was involved in, could not have been a member of the WP as it subsequently developed.
Maybe Keenan is too incendiary a character to mention in a game of What If. I’ll say here, then, that in my opinion the best politician the Provisionals had was Dáithí Ó Conaill. He was arguably the sharpest thinker, certainly the most articulate speaker in a movement not overburdened by such, and had been an early advocate of a political turn in the Curragh debates during Harvest. Had he not been an ironclad abstentionist, it’s quite easy to imagine him having made a rather effective Workers Party TD. And we can reverse that, as Joe Sherlock always had more of the aspect of a traditional Sinn Féin politician than a Marxist-Leninist. (Perhaps this is why I could never quite buy Joe as a Labour politician in later years. He always seemed to look a little bereft, as if wondering where old Tom Gill had got to.)
For many participants, which side they chose in the split will have been determined by where they lived, by what their background was, who their friends were, who they were related to (especially important in Belfast, where the republican movement mostly consisted of six or seven extended families) and by which figures in the leadership they looked up to and/or had most contact with. Even if you rationalised it on political grounds, much was still contingent on the precise balance of pressures. Had there been a split on abstention without a crisis in the north, the Provos could have been as marginal as RSF today. Had it been the other way around…
The canonic figure for the confused nature of this process was Costello, who was both the most aggressive exponent of politicisation, the left turn and ditching traditionalist theology, as well as being a thoroughgoing militarist with a strong physical force line on the north. That the 1969/70 split didn’t finally resolve the issues at dispute was proved by the subsequent splits in 1974/75 and 1986. No, this was not a simple division between the politicos and the militarists. It was much more involved than that, and the logic behind the different factions’ evolution would take years to work out yet.