The routing (for the time being) of the St James’ hoods

This is by way of an update to our previous coverage of the hoods terrorising the St James’ area of west Belfast. I can inform readers at this point that the Sons of Anarchy have been scattered to the four winds. (Although not, I think, the Four Winds estate, which wouldn’t be prepared for that sort of thing.) After that humiliating affair of the jammed gun, the dissident ÓNH went back to the area in force and cleared the rats out. They also rather self-importantly informed residents they were giving them their area back. Quite how this will play out with local residents, who may be fearing that they’ve now exchanged one gang of hoods for another, remains to be seen.

This is something rather significant in terms of dissident politics, if there’s a shift away from harebrained bomb plots and towards populist vigilantism. The vigilante strain is most obvious with the existence of Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) in Derry, taking physical action against head shops and the like; there are also one or two areas where the INLA seem to have cornered the market in punishment beatings. Of course, it all depends which dissidents you’re talking about; there are about six or seven small armed groups running arounds, some of which are still deeply committed to harebrained bomb plots.

At any rate, for the moment the ÓNH seems to be the group with the wind in its sails, or at least the ability to actually do something. It’s said to have attracted some ex-Provos with a bit of ability. There’s a rumoured link-up with the arrestingly-named “Real Sinn Féin”, the Limerick-based group who split from RSF earlier this year after the failure of their coup attempt against the Dalton-Ó Brádaigh leadership. And the St James’ action has led to the texts page of the current Andersonstown News being full of messages lauding the ÓNH and contrasting them favourably to the Provos’ inability to deal with the den of criminality that west Belfast is rapidly becoming.

This of course poses something of a conundrum for the area’s uncrowned monarch, as Gerry has oscillated between issuing bad-tempered pronunciamentos about how the dissidents should butt out, to making statesmanlike gestures of offering to talk to them and explain the errors of their ways. Either way, Gerry may at this point be feeling as if he’s caught in that scene from Jason and the Argonauts where the zombie soldiers spring up from scattered dragons’ teeth. No sooner do you think you’ve seen the back of republicans, than they pop up somewhere else.

Also, there’s some of the usual sabre-rattling going on on the loyalist side. Andre Shoukri, former head honcho of the UDA in north Belfast, was released from chokey a little while ago and has been making noises about taking his territory back. In response, UDA pharoah Hard Bap was moved to publicise the names of Andre’s twelve-strong gang and advise Andre that, on reflection, he might like to take the ferry to Scotland, just as his mate Johnny had done before him. Ah, boys. Peace process or no, some folks still remain unreconstructed, and not in an endearing way.

Valerie Hayes’ speech at Workers’ Party Bodenstown commemoration

Comrades and friends,

When we gather here to commemorate the life and ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, we also celebrate the entire radical, republican, and socialist tradition from which our party has sprung.

When we look at those who inspire us individually and as a movement they all have certain things in common. From Tone to Cathal Goulding and Tomás Mac Giolla; from Paine to Martin Luther King the people who inspire us as socialists all had fire in their bellies, all had a willingness to step forward and be in the forefront no matter what the danger to themselves; and all shared a deep love of humanity.

But these men and women over the last two centuries shared one other common feature from which we must learn. We must learn from their power to analyse, their power and willingness to identify the guilty in society no matter how great or how powerful. We must learn from their power to propagandise – using every method available in their time. But above all else we must learn that these people offered solutions, practical solutions; solutions that cut through the guff, solutions that made sense to the working man, the peasant, the tenant, the landless labourer. And because they offered solutions which made sense, they offered hope. They provided inspiration and leadership and built their movements from that solid basis.

We must therefore learn that it is not enough to analyse, it is not enough to criticise – we too must provide solutions and offer hope.

Read the rest here.

Ruairí passes on the baton

Two issues in the world of republicanism to be tackled today. Firstly, Sinn Féin Eile held its Ard Fheis at the weekend, whereat Ruairí Ó Brádaigh stood down from the party presidency he has occupied for the past 23 years. Some shit-stirring from the Sunday World notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Ruairí’s decision wasn’t on the stated grounds of age and health – remember, he’s in his late seventies and hasn’t had the best of health in recent years – and the handover seems to have been amicable. The report in the Irish News indicates the, not merely respect, but the real affection in which Ruairí is held within RSF. His leadership held a small and beleaguered movement together through some very barren times, and that’s not nothing. I expect there will be many tributes in the next issue of Saoirse. And if RSF aren’t already planning a festschrift in his honour, they really should.

The remarkable thing was that there wasn’t a staged succession, but actually a contested election – itself a rarity in republican politics – with neither candidate being called Ó Brádaigh, although both were called Des. This resulted in Des Dalton of Kildare edging out Des Long of Limerick for the presidency. The issue here wouldn’t be ideological – neither man dissents from RSF’s rather fundamentalist trad-republicanism – but generational. Des Long would freely admit that he isn’t in the first flush of youth, and while you could be absolutely sure that party orthodoxy would be safe in his hands, it would have been a bit like Benedict succeeding JP2. The decision of the Ard Fheis to go down a generation and elect the relatively youthful Dalton demonstrates that the party has decided to pick a leader who will be in place for quite some time to come. We await to see what comes from his mission to make RSF politically relevant at grassroots level – squaring practical activism with RSF theology will take some doing.

There’s also a northern interest in the elevation of veteran Ard Chomhairle member, Geraldine Taylor of Poleglass, to vice-president. Geraldine isn’t exactly part of the youth wing either, so this can be seen as a tribute to her many years of stalwart service, and in particular her undoubted ability to annoy the hell out of the Provos.

More details will of course follow, especially in terms of whether or not there are new people coming through into leadership positions. To the extent that RSF have a perspective of moving away from just being a holding operation for traditionalist republicanism, and towards trying to build their movement outwards, there will be some difficult questions to be answered, of the sort that always arise when republicans try to break out of an insular sectism. I expect the Dalton leadership to be cautious, and the man himself has shown absolutely no desire to challenge the various taboos of RSF theology, but those issues implicit in, say, trying to build a local government base can’t be avoided entirely. Nor can the contradiction of the physical force tradition between trying to build a popular movement and simultaneously having an armed conspiracy on the go. Although the party’s core cadre is tightly knit and highly ideological, I have my doubts about some of the young people in the north who are attracted to dissidence.

A further point about dissidence: the arrests linked to the Massereene barracks killings continue. They have by now encompassed rather a lot of individuals belonging to a whole range of organisations or none. Most are being rapidly released without charge. Some of these are political activists who may have a paramilitary past but who, given their profile, would have to be absolutely insane to go around taking part in armed actions. As with the media campaign against éirígí – and I note that the IMC report includes an examination of éirígí, an entirely political group with no armed wing – it’s hard not to conclude that the cops are taking the opportunity to shine a spotlight on republican irreconcilables, and getting their names into the public domain. Back in the Troubles, that sort of thing used to get people killed.

Search of the week: In a reprise of our popular feature of old, I’d like to give a shout out to the Googler who landed on this blog searching for “Scooby Doo on crack”. I always had Shaggy down as more of a psychedelics man…

The Lost Revolution: the Intercontinental


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.

Thinking outside the box


We’re going to take a momentary break from The Lost Revolution, although this post will touch on one or two relevant points. What I want to ponder is a simple matter of political strategy. There are two quite serious strategic conundra that face anyone interested in progressive politics in Ireland. Let me state at the outset that I won’t be putting forward any answers to these issues, because I don’t have any. But, quite honestly, neither does anyone else.

The first of these issues is how to break Fianna Fáil’s grip on the southern working class. I don’t mean weaken it conjuncturally, but break it for the longer term. Sure, FF are undergoing a torrid time in the polls at the minute – currently registering fourth in Dublin, unless I’m mistaken – and Biffo Cowen looks like he’s heading up a dead government walking, but it would be a fool who would predict that this was permanent. FF have very deep social roots, and a couple of years of a useless Fine Gael-Labour government could quite easily see the buggers bouncing back again. What would be needed would be to get FF down, keep them down and for some other formation to capture their base before they could make a comeback. I find it difficult to see that happening any time soon.

The second, and much more tricky, issue is that of how to end partition without armed struggle. One may object that armed struggle hasn’t been very successful in ending partition, but that’s hardly the point, at least if you’re worried about more generations coming along and taking up the physical force tradition. During the Troubles, you used to have these meetings organised by the left where the left speakers would attack the armed struggle as being either morally wrong or tactically counterproductive or both. Inevitably, there would be some Provo sympathisers in the audience who would ask the leftists to produce an alternative strategy. And they could never do it convincingly.

The left, in its approach to the north, has been quite heavy on schemata and has had a whole array of tactics, but a plausible strategy has never really been forthcoming. You found this even – perhaps especially – with people who prided themselves on their theoretical sophistication. The old-time Peoples Democracy used to have a schema, derived basically from Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula, whereby the national struggle in the north would create shock waves in the south which would in turn open up an all-Ireland revolutionary vista. That, self-evidently, did not work out, not least because the southern bourgeoisie was a lot stronger and deeper rooted than PD allowed for. PD’s successor group, when not impersonating Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, seem to have turned that schema on its head and now look to industrial militancy in the south to create shock waves in the north. You’ll notice that this is still a schema, and doesn’t really have much in the way of empirical evidence to support it.

Militant/the SP developed quite an elaborate schema which was, if I interpret Peter Hadden correctly, designed as a counter to the republican and official communist stages approach of resolving the national stage of the revolution and then progressing to the socialist stage. Peter claimed to have broken with that whole approach, but to the sceptical outsider it looked as if he had simply reversed it – by positing the national question as an epiphenomenon of capitalism, what was then required was for the working class to achieve power north and south, with economic militancy as the motor, and thereafter the national question would be easy to sort out. By way of contrast, the SWP (who have long had to negotiate the difficulty of an extremely anti-republican leadership and a membership containing a fair percentage of hardline republicans with an embarrassing tendency to talk like PD members circa 1973) put forward a schema that was quite appealing in its crude clarity – these issues would be solved in the course of the revolutionary process, so the task of the moment was for the revolutionary party to get more bums on seats. This would seem more convincing if the vanguard was a little better at keeping bums on seats for longer than five minutes.

Of course, the foregoing is a massive generalisation, and there is plenty more that could be said – in terms, for example, of how Militant expected a mass left split from the Labour Party, or how PD expected a mass left split from the republican movement, both of which hopes were obviously disappointed. But these are on the level of theoretical schemata. There has never been any shortage of tactics either, but strategies properly speaking have been thin on the ground. I mention this not in an accusatory way, because it’s not as if I have any ready-made strategy either.

The classic socialist strategy for ending partition has been to try and break the Protestant working class, or a substantial section of it anyway, away from unionism. It’s the most obvious alternative to physical force, and it’s not rocket science or any great novelty – the CPNI, probably under Greaves’ influence, wrote this perspective into Ireland’s Path to Socialism in the early 1960s. But then you come up against the question of how exactly to go about doing this. Republican and communist participants in NICRA were very much informed by the Greaves perspective, but it quickly became apparent in the course of the civil rights movement that splitting the Unionist Party and winning over the Protestant working class were not at all the same thing. That the Protestant working class, under the impact of civil rights, turned not to socialism but to Paisleyism demonstrated that.

A lot of this comes down to how you perceive unionism. There’s been an element of traditional republican thinking that has a serious blind spot in respect of unionism, basically seeing it as a function of the British presence rather than an autonomous entity. Recognising unionism as a thing in itself was obviously a conceptual breakthrough, but one that doesn’t answer any questions but simply raises a whole lot of new questions. There’s also been this tendency, not only amongst republicans but also on the Marxist left, to see unionist identity as something quite shallow and easily discarded – as a form of false consciousness which Protestant workers will see through when they enter into class struggle, for instance. No, there’s more to it than that, and seeing unionism as a reactionary ideology doesn’t mean, uncomfortable as this may be, that it isn’t organic.

This is where Henry Patterson scored points in his attack on republican civil rights thought in The Politics of Illusion. (Henry was still a member of the Workers Party when he wrote it, but there are specifics about his background – he’d previously been in the Workers Association, a BICO front group, and was something of an apostle of the late Bill Warren – that are as relevant, and probably more so, than the WP’s positions.) Basically, the Greaves strategy saw that discrimination was the material basis of unionism, and since discrimination against Catholics necessarily meant discrimination in favour of Protestants, it cemented the Protestant working class to the Orange state. Remove discrimination, and you kicked away unionism’s material prop, and therefore (so the thinking went) removed the Protestant worker’s motivation for supporting unionism.

This didn’t work. The schema failed to take into account the stiff resistance the Protestant working class would put up to a movement against discrimination, for precisely that reason. Henry also derides as wishful thinking the idea that, in the absence of discrimination, unionism would fade away – unionist identity was a lot more deeply rooted than that, as he ably pointed out. The trouble with Henry’s critique is that he has an equal and opposite blind spot, which is the assumption that, if discrimination was abolished, northern nationalism would fade away – that there would be no material basis for a separatist project and so northern Catholics would simply retreat into a sort of cultural Irishness. In essence, this following the line of least resistance leads only to Walkerism, and that doesn’t work either. It also leads to the world of endless Barry White columns in the Belfast Telegraph wondering bemusedly why northern nationalists couldn’t be satisfied with a Welsh-style recognition of their cultural identity (actually, unionism even finds that difficult) or why prosperous Catholics on the Malone Road weren’t becoming unionists.

Disappointing as though it may be for the thoroughgoing historical materialist, ethno-national identities do have a life of their own, and are usually very entrenched. And while some purist Marxists may say that the workers have no country, with the wish being father to the thought, in fact it’s elements of the capitalist class that have moved most swiftly into a sort of post-national Europeanism, the charms of which the actually existing working class so far remains resistant to.

Could things change? Hypothetically, yes, but in unexpected ways and not necessarily with the working class at the centre. Here I’m going to do some shameless speculating, but it’s no more off the wall than some of what gets argued as quite serious politics.

Firstly, Newt was mentioning just there about some of the interesting noises Big Ian was making in his fairly brief stint as first minister. That is to say, the Dochtúir Mór seemed to be hinting at an idiosyncratic sort of Ulster nationalism, which might involve close relations with the south but which also embraced Paisley’s very chummy relationship with Alex Salmond. This however proved too heady a brew for the DUP, and Peter Robinson’s mood music is much more conventional. This is not to say that the logic of devolution, and perhaps developments in Scotland particularly, might not work itself out in an unpredictable way.

Secondly, one should not dismiss out of hand the idea that a conservative Catholic movement might find common cause with culturally conservative Protestants – although probably not these guys – in resisting the tide of secularism. Bernie Smyth has actually had some success along these lines on the single issue of abortion. One can only imagine the horror of our bien-pensants at such an appalling vista.

Finally, there’s a class aspect here, and I’m thinking in a sense about something that Malachi mentions every so often, about the middle class’s abdication from politics and whether this might be reversed in a post-Troubles environment. I was struck by Garibaldy’s account of the appearance of Chris McGimpsey at the WP NI conference, where Chris mentioned how his electoral base on the Shankill owed a lot to the old NILP base, which by now is dying out through old age. But, while socialist unionists like Chris McGimpsey or Roy Garland seem like quixotic figures now, there are other possibilities which are more likely to manifest themselves in North Down than in Belfast.

Allow me to explain. The North Down constituency is the wealthiest in the north by some distance, and contains within it a very large concentration of liberal unionists. These people have a liking for quirky independent candidates. They are also prepared to vote in large numbers for Catholic candidates – historically Alliance, but there would be some logic in UCUNF trying its hand with a Catholic candidate. (It’s the Shaun Bailey strategy. There is little evidence that Shaun Bailey appeals much to black Londoners, but he just might appeal to liberal-minded white folks who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more.)

This mix of factors has led to some delicious unpredicability in North Down politics. In the latter half of the 1980s the area was the major stomping ground for the Ulster Tories, which makes sense. Then the good burghers elected Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, who not only surrounded himself with Conor Cruise O’Brien and veterans of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but on being elected to Westminster promptly declared his hitherto unsuspected leftwing sympathies and proposed to take the Labour whip. (They didn’t let him.) Big Bob was then unseated by Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a most assiduous supporter of New Labour. The thinking now is that the UCUNF lash-up, with its appeal to pan-UK unionism, may have a strong appeal in the area.

But there is another, admittedly hypothetical possibility. Up in Derry, PSF have been running a unionist outreach programme for years, but this seems to encompass relatively few Prods from the estates and rather a lot of businessmen and clergy. And in fact, it is the business class who are most open to the all-Ireland context, and just might be willing to look south. One might argue that, if Fianna Fáil were serious about their northern mission, they wouldn’t be farting about in Derry and Downpatrick talking to clapped-out SDLP types, but heading to Bangor and Holywood to make a business case for a united Ireland. Then again, maybe FF isn’t fit for purpose, and you would need it to be a particular sort of candidate to make the right impact there. I believe Declan Ganley is between political projects at the moment…

The Lost Revolution: from the Harvest to the New Departure


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.

The Lost Revolution: A sketch on republican geography


In Joy Street in Belfast, at the edge of the Markets, there is a little wall plaque paying tribute to Joe McCann on the spot where he fell in 1972. I used to walk past it every day on the way to work, although it barely registered for a long time, the way you don’t really notice something that’s always been there. In The Lost Revolution, Hanley and Millar describe the Markets as “notoriously clannish”, which I guess is one way of putting it, and mention McCann’s rare ability as an outsider to be accepted there. Which leads me onto the importance of geography and territoriality as regards Irish republicanism and how it developed.

In his book on the Officials, Seán Swan has a nice aside at one point about how Dublin was distant from Belfast, and was also distant from Kerry. The contradiction Seán refers to is that you had a movement whose leadership was headquartered in Dublin but whose base was mostly rural and western, and moreover which had a powerful element in the north with very different concerns again. The basic schema, and I know this is a great simplification, is one of a traditionalist republican constituency in Connacht and Munster, a working-class socialist constituency in Dublin (Costello, from Bray, counts as an honorary Dubliner in this instance) and an essentially Defenderist constituency in the north. There’s a lot of truth in that, but, as I say, it’s a simplification.

We may start, I suppose, with western republicanism, which doesn’t quite get the understanding it deserves – Goulding, Garland and Costello were always impatient with the rural traditionalists, and Adams has shown little sign of a deep understanding. Western republicanism is a thing in itself, quite distinct from the concerns of the east coast metropolis, but is well worth considering as it was, prior to 1969, the main reservoir of support for republicanism. The WP would in later years consider this a petty bourgeois element, which may be true in strict Marxist terms – the typical activist would be a small farmer, a schoolteacher, a publican or an auctioneer, not Tone’s “men of no property” but rather men of small property. And while western republicanism had a strong militarist streak, it was primarily concerned with southern matters.

We are talking here about a movement formed by the memory of the Civil War, but that wasn’t as distant in the 1960s as it seems now. There were still rather a lot of Civil War veterans around. The Civil War was still a living memory, and much more so were the persecutions of republicans that followed, with those enacted by Fianna Fáil felt with especial bitterness. For traditional republicans, de Valera was a byword for treachery – even today, it’s hard to get traditionalists to take a balanced view of him – while men like Joe Clarke and Tom Maguire were personifications of republican fidelity. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, from Longford, will talk not only about his father, a hero of the Anglo-Irish War who was badly wounded and died relatively young as a result, but also about how he, as a young boy in the 1940s, attended the funerals of republican hunger strikers. Such is the republican concept of living history that there are always veterans around to transmit the memories.

What animated the traditional republican in the west was a burning, visceral hatred of the Saorstát and all its works and pomps. This found its expression in abstentionism, and in the legitimist concept that the de jure Republic of 1916 still existed in shadow form, and that the Army Council of the IRA was the legal government of the Republic. (Abstentionism and legitimism aren’t inseparable, and it’s logically possible to have one without the other, but they make for a powerful, mutually reinforcing combination.) These people were anti-partitionist, to be sure, but were equally if not more concerned with sustaining a revolutionary opposition to the southern state. This is important to consider when we come to the 1969 split. It wasn’t the north that occasioned the split, though the eruption of the north sharpened the questions. Nor was it the move to socialism as, though there was still a genuine fear of Muscovite communism, most traditionalists were not opposed, or at least not strongly opposed, to the moderate co-operativist socialism of Sinn Féin in the latter half of the 1960s, as long as this did not involve breaching abstentionism. The movement had in the past swung to the left and to the right and back again, and would do in the future, but abstentionism was the line in the sand that the traditionalists would not cross, and that by itself would have precipitated a split.

Things in the north were, of course, different. Northern republicanism was never all that concerned with the theology of the traditionalists, and northerners were often dismissive of abstentionism, particularly as regards Leinster House. Recall that the northern IRA had rallied to Mick Collins, because Collins provided guns to the north and took a tough line against the unionists. Republicanism in the north was and is basically separatist and anti-unionist, with a strong overlay of defence. Even so, there are significant regional differences.

Let me illustrate this concretely. War and an Irish Town is a good read, but what you miss is how untypical Derry was. Since there were relatively few unionists on the west bank of the river, and there are many fewer now, the Troubles in Derry took the form of a more or less demographically solid nationalist community pitched against an external force in the shape of the state. There are few other areas of the north – South Armagh, perhaps, although that’s a very different place – where the lines were as clear cut. Even in mostly nationalist areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh, where separatism was a realistic programme, there were still considerable numbers of unionists living cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The potential for a separatist project to devolve into sectarianism was always there, and the need to consider defence was always there.

Things become more complicated still in Belfast. If you go to Short Strand, you get a good sense of the physicality of ghetto Defenderism. It’s a small, overcrowded estate in East Belfast, surrounded on three sides by hardline loyalist areas and on the fourth by the Lagan. During the Troubles and even at points in the peace process, the fear of a loyalist pogrom has been tangible in the area. It’s not surprising, then, that Short Strand republicans have a notoriously independent streak – whether they’ve borne allegiance to the Provos, the Sticks or the INLA, the theoretical leadership of their organisation has always had trouble keeping the Strand in line. Equally, Ardoyne republicans are essentially focused on what affects Ardoyne, and don’t particularly want to know about West Belfast.

Even in West Belfast, where there’s some security in numbers and relative geographical spread – which is why Bombay Street in 1969 was such a shock – one should never underestimate the importance of defending the community against the Prods. One could be a Second Dáil legitimist or a socialist equally well, as long as defence was not forgotten. What’s more, there is an element of variation that will come into play in terms of the story of the Officials. If we want to talk about the Sticks in Belfast, to a very large extent we’re talking about their strongholds of the Lower Falls, Twinbrook and the Markets, and the specificities of those areas, and the friction with the Provos that aris at regular intervals. (I quite like Henry Patterson, but his vision of Stickyism seemed a very long way removed from what people in Twinbrook would understand by it.) And again, if we’re to understand why the IRSP/INLA turned out as they did, it’s worth remembering that most of their Belfast membership spent 1975 physically under siege in Divis Flats, which would have a disorienting effect on anyone.

And that leaves us with Dublin. It’s probably an exaggeration, if we’re talking about the republican movement in 1967 or so, to see there as being a real constituency of horny-handed proletarian republicans in Dublin. Sinn Féin’s paid-up membership in Dublin at the time was probably in the same ballpark as Mick O’Riordan’s IWP. Quite a few of these people (including leadership figures such as Tomás Mac Giolla or Seán Ó Brádaigh) would have been rural transplants. Of those who were native Dubliners, there would have been as many from a small business background (Goulding with his painting and decorating business, de Rossa from a shopkeeping background) as actual wage labourers. Nonetheless, it was the case that most of those Dubliners who moved into republican activism were motivated at least in large part by the experience of poverty, and that led to an openness to socialist thinking.

What you had then in Dublin was not so much an actually existing working class constituency, as an ideal or potential constituency. But this constituency was not particularly interested in traditional republican concerns, and much of the Dublin-based leadership (Costello comes to mind) were either indifferent to or even contemptuous of those concerns, not being animated either by Civil War resentments or by northern sectarianism. The trouble then is when you have a leadership that, in pursuit of a new constituency, develops a fractious relationship with the old one. And when that leadership makes inroads into the new constituency, beginning to reshape the movement in its own image and at the same time accelerating its own evolution – that’s when you get a combustible mix, just ready for a movement to split right down the middle.

The INLA stands down


There’s no mistaking what today’s big news is. Here’s the IRSP statement read out in Bray:


The INLA and IRSP were formed in 1974 in order to create a 32 County Socialist Republic. In those 35 years military volunteers and political activists have fought with courage and honour and have struck at the heart of the British military and political machine in Ireland and in Britain. The INLA is a key constituency within the Republican Socialist Movement (RSM). The INLA recognised that its struggle was based upon two distinct phases:

(1) Armed Resistance
(2) Political Organisation

In 1994 the INLA put in place a no first strike policy and in 1998 called a complete cease-fire. Both of these decisions were based on its political analysis and monitoring of the changing military and political environment. The recent progress on loyalist decommissioning can be traced back to the INLA’s “no first strike policy” of 1994 and the INLA acknowledges this progressive step by loyalism.

The RSM has been informed by the INLA that following a process of serious debate, consultation and analysis, it has concluded that the armed struggle is over and the objective of a 32 County Socialist Republic will be best achieved through exclusively peaceful political struggle.

The RSM agree with this analysis and are fully supportive of the move to build a left wing party that has a clear objective of a 32 County Socialist Republic based on the principles of equality, justice, inclusion, human rights and dignity.

It is within the above objective that the RSM opposed the Good Friday Agreement and continues to do so. We as a movement believe that the Six County State is not a viable political entity, which cannot be reformed and fitted into a flawed two State solution.

The RSM has always aspired to the principle of the primacy of politics as espoused by Ta Power.

The future struggles are political. We urge all comrades, members, volunteers and supporters to join the political struggle ahead with the same vigour, commitment and courage that was evident in our armed struggle against the British State.

To para-phrase James Connolly ‘let us arise’, build a left political alternative in Ireland and support the struggle against global capitalism.

Ultimately our allegiance is to the working class, onwards to victory.

This has been some time coming, and has been foreshadowed by discussions at IRSP ardfheiseanna in recent years. It hasn’t so much been a question, though, of whether the INLA would be formally stood down – it’s been largely inactive for a long time – but the modalities of it. As readers will know, republican organisations have always, well at least since the initial breach between the IRA and Sinn Féin circa 1925, had to negotiate the inbuilt tension between the party and the armed wing, or Group A and Group B if you prefer. In this case we should probably add Group C, the ex-prisoners’ group which has come to wield significant influence.

Informally, IRSP members have been clear for a long time – and this has been heard in the meetings they’ve been holding in Derry, Strabane and elsewhere – that the armed wing was essentially redundant, and there was no basis for a return to armed activity. There remained, however, the small matter of persuading the armed wing of this, which was complicated by some of the essentially criminal elements who had got in over the years. Added to that, although the peace process provides incentives for armed groups seeking to politicise, a small group like the INLA has limited bargaining power. The two governments say no deal has been done, but I expect there has been some kind of understanding, even if only a negative one based on the need to dump weapons before the IICD’s mandate, and associated legal exemptions, run out next year.

Nonetheless, the current IRSP leadership have been very insistent that they were burying militarism and seeking a political role. Occasionally they’ve got quite irate when people have been understandably sceptical of that. It remains to be seen, though, what exactly they view as a political way forward. There’s been speculation that they might forge an alliance with People Before Profit – the SWP have loudly and undiplomatically let it be known that they wouldn’t work with an IRSP that still retained an armed wing, which is a bit of a turnaround from the SWM line in 1975, although it may be politic for KA to gloss over that. And quite how People Before Profit fits into Costello’s concept of the anti-imperialist front beats me.

In related news, the Irish News is reporting that The Group That Doesn’t Exist is in discussions with the IICD. If so, this is a little surprising, as, while it’s true the Sticks never disarmed, there has been absolutely no political pressure on them so to do, and Group B hasn’t even been mentioned in IMC reports. On the other hand, the rationale for the Officials retaining some weapons – and I don’t at all dismiss this – was for self-protection, and specifically in case the Provos fancied repeating the 1975 pogrom. That rationale is now gone. And it sort of ties in to the worries expressed in IMC reports about IRSP members being involved in stirring up trouble in North Belfast. If the kids up there aren’t scared of Gerry Kelly and Bobby Storey any more, we know the atmosphere has changed.

Changing of the guard for Sinn Féin Eile


That’s what I get for not being prompt in reading RSF press releases, for Garibaldy has scooped me. All this is, is the announcement that at the upcoming Ard Fheis, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh will be stepping down from the party presidency. He will however be allowing his name to go forward for the Ard Chomhairle (there’s a safe bet if you want one) and will remain a patron of the party. One assumes he’ll be as active as he’s able.

Ruairí’s stated reasons are age and health, and I see no reason to doubt this. He’ll be turning 77 next week, and his health hasn’t been the greatest – at times it seems that sheer cussedness has been the main thing keeping him going. That, by itself, tells you something about a man whose total adherence to the principles of traditionalist republicanism has been his distinguishing political feature. And such is the case with the small party that’s largely been formed in his image.

I’ll be honest, I have a lot of time for Ruairí, not only despite considerable political differences but in some respects because of them. I’m not a Second Dáil legitimist, and my views on the current justifiability of armed struggle are quite some way removed from RSF thinking, but I can still see that there is something inherently attractive about traditionalist republicanism of a sort that Mac Piarais might have recognised, and something quite splendid about upholding the absolutist banner in very difficult times. And having remained true to that cause for well over half a century is not to be sniffed at. We’re talking here about someone with a remarkable history – if you haven’t already read Bob White’s excellent biography, you really should, and the man himself is always willing to cooperate with historians – and whose personal integrity has never been questioned, at least not by anyone without major question marks over his own integrity. You know, I felt much the same about the late Mick O’Riordan, Mick’s lifelong dedication to Joe Stalin notwithstanding.

The question will be what this means for RSF, and it’s sensible for the irreplaceable leader to manage a change in the leadership while he’s able. You have to consider in the first instance that, shortly after its formation in 1986, RSF adopted the perspective of the holding operation – they knew there was always going to be a market for traditionalist republicanism, and that if they could only hold the faithful nucleus together, then in the long run they could attract a new generation of the discontented. It worked for republicans in previous tough times, and there was no good reason to suspect it wouldn’t happen again.

But there was a very long barren period, and you can see this in stark physical terms if you ever happen upon an RSF commemoration. Usually, there will be a lot of old age pensioners and a lot of teenagers, and not many people in between. This creates a conundrum if you’re looking for a new party president, because I’m assuming that Ruairí is not going to be succeeded by someone of his own generation – indeed, some of the more elderly leadership figures might be considering their own positions. The problem is that, if you’re looking for someone between the ages of, say, 35 to 55, there aren’t many people who fall into that bracket, and many of those who are in place are the children of senior cadres – they may be able people in their own right, but this situation, together with leadership figures combining several jobs (as is to be expected in a small party) makes the organisation look a little bit nepotistic. Then again, republicanism has always been a family business.

All of which should make the next RSF Ard Fheis more interesting than usual. Not just in terms of who takes on the presidency, but if there’s a wider reshuffle at Ard Chomhairle level – there may be younger people emerging, and more northern-based people, in a leadership that’s tended to be rather elderly and western in its complexion.

Meanwhile, as the traditionalists manage their leadership transition, and the SDLP leadership is thrown wide open, Conor Murphy – often tipped as the next PSF president – was on today’s Politics Show averring that Gerry was going to be the leader for the foreseeable future, and he was very happy about that. It seems that in certain strands of republicanism, the African concept of the life presidency retains its attractions.

Republicanism and socialism at the parish pump


Many years ago, the then unionist majority on Belfast City Council was getting a bit of stick for its exclusivist regime. This was sparked, if memory serves, by the annual ritual whereby the unionists would parcel out the plum jobs of Lord Mayor, Deputy Lord Mayor and High Sheriff, together with all the aldermanships and chairs and vice-chairs of committees, amongst themselves, with nobody of the Catholic persuasion getting a look in. Then some razor-sharp wit on the unionist benches – and they do have their moments – came up with an imaginative solution. First, veteran Workers Party councillor Jim Sullivan was appointed chair of the water services committee. Then they abolished the committee.

When I’m talking to Dubliners, I often have terrible trouble explaining the ins and outs of Belfast municipal politics. This is largely an issue of whether or not you’ve been on the ground much. Outsiders don’t have the advantage of prolonged exposure to city fathers like Sammy Wilson, Jim Rodgers, Shughie Smyth, Fred Cobain or Big Frankie Millar (though they may know his son, Wee Frankie), men who you would need to have observed first-hand rather than had described to you. This is especially so because of all the true stories about goings-on at the council that invariably make the narrator sound like a shocking liar. What I would say is that, if you watch The Wire, you’ll be at an advantage in grasping the atmosphere. You can pick up further invaluable detail by reading Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s book on the Dome of Delight, or alternatively you can ask Eoin Ó Broin, who I don’t think has ever recovered from his stint as a Belfast councillor.

And this is probably why I have trouble grasping the detail of Dublin municipal politics. The broad sweep, yes, I can get that, it’s just the detail. As far as I can make out, if there are a dozen constituencies on the city council, that means a dozen miniature battlegrounds, each with its own cast of characters, its own psychodramas and its own obscure feuds. So I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of the Christy Burke affair, because there are people closer to the action who are much better informed than I am. But there are a few issues from the broader outcomes of the locals that I’d like to ponder.

It’s probably best to start with the PSF performance, which is interesting for a number of reasons. Chris, as sharp as ever, has some useful thoughts on the matter – I don’t share Chris’ partisan loyalties, or therefore his starting point, but he hits a number of nails on the head. I’ll deal with the political issues rather than the strictly technocratic ones. The first question is to ask how it is that PSF candidates did well in areas of relative weakness, getting a foothold in Limerick, for example, but lost votes in some areas where they had done well last time out, particularly having a shocker in Dublin. There was, it’s true, a pincer movement in the capital, between the Labour surge and the sprinkling of victories for the small far-left formations, as well as the loss of a layer of activists, but those considerations don’t apply in, say, Donegal. It’s very obvious from this that they have not been making the best possible use of their existing council mandates.

The question, I think, is to ask what the party is for in the south, and there are a few different aspects to this. One is that, as with any all-Ireland party, the logic of partition can be disorienting. There’s clearly a mass base in the north for a party that aggressively represents the nationalist community, and there’s also – and this has always been true, and demonstrably so since Clann na Poblachta – a significant sociological base in the south for what we might loosely term a party of republican labour. But these are not the same thing, and can often be contradictory. This isn’t, by the way, just a matter of Belfast-based leaders being hazy on the details of southern politics. It’s something that Eoin Ó Broin talks about in the conclusion to his new book on left republicanism, although Eoin shows the requisite diplomatic reserve.

By way of illustration, there is the occasional discussion of coalition options. Some of the Nornies seem to be fascinated by the notion of an FF-SF coalition bringing together the big republican family, and by having Sinn Féin ministers on both sides of the border, the idea being that this would somehow bring the republic closer. This is not necessarily welcome to those activists who are trying hard to cannibalise the Fianna Fáil base. On the other hand, sometimes Gerry likes to float the idea of a left alliance involving Labour. This has some sort of coherence behind it in terms of building a centre-left pole in southern politics. But again, go and ask Martin Ferris if he got where he is today by making a historic compromise with Dick Spring. Besides, if you want to be radical there’s nothing wrong with hunkering down for prolonged opposition.

It’s clear that a party trading under the Sinn Féin brand has an identity to conjure with, in that it’s popularly identified with national unity and independence, and some form of social radicalism. Not unconnected to that is a very strong reliance on the protest vote. The question is therefore one of how you go beyond simply being a protest party. Chris mentions the need to get past the vision thing and put forward meaningful, concrete policies. It’s a no-brainer – while in the north you can get elected by being the Catholic party, in the south you need some kind of policies. Even Neil Blaney, though he was animated primarily by the national question, had detailed politics beyond that, mostly related to serving the needs of North-East Donegal. Now, you have a situation where Gerry is great at doing the vision thing – at least, he’s great at making speeches full of nice-sounding abstract nouns like progress, unity, ecology, feminism, equality – but he doesn’t really do concrete. Up here, he’s been banging on about the Acht Gaeilge for years, and I’m still not clear what would actually be in the Acht Gaeilge. That won’t cut much ice in the 26. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, it’s a bit like Richard Boyd Barrett explaining that he’s pro-working class, pro-abortion, pro-gay, and pro-immigration, only to leave you asking “Yes, but what do you want?”

This issue of identity is, I think, the core thing – the technocratic issues around structures and so on are secondary. If you settle for a more-or-less-radical leftish position – which is itself open to question, not least because of pressures in the north – then oppositionism and an activist-based politics should theoretically flow from that. If you’re rooted enough in activist politics, strong candidates should emerge. We shall see. I’m not a party supporter, and can frequently be heard inquiring, “Oh my God, have you seen what the Provos are at now?”, but I don’t doubt that there are talented and committed people there, and at least some of them are asking the right questions.

Let’s now skip over briefly to the left. There’s no doubt that the further left has had a good election. It’s also important, and I hate to say this but it’s necessary, to keep a sense of proportion, before we start reading articles about the Red Soviet of Dún Laoghaire. The left has done well in Dublin, though it’s by no means challenging for power, it’s still sketchy outside of Dublin and in most of the country it doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, an election at the height of an enormous economic collapse, with a deeply unpopular Fianna Fáil government, has provided a rare opportunity for all sorts of populist independents, and outside-the-mainstream political species far removed from the Dublin Trots. There’s probably a story in Ted Tynan being elected for the Workers Party in Cork, or indeed of Tomás Ó Curraoin for RSF in Conamara. More interesting, perhaps, is the deepening success of the Healy group in Tipperary, by some distance the most locally successful left formation in the state.

A good result of course for the Socialist Party, topped off with Joe Higgins getting elected to Europe. I’m very pleased at that, but also surprised, and I suspect there are people in the SP almost as surprised. My assumption was that Joe’s Euro run, like that five years ago, was about raising his profile and that of the party, gaining contacts city-wide, and putting down a marker for socialism. What seemed more likely was that Joe would cruise back onto Fingal council and use that as his platform for the next general election. That he could actually get into Europe is just a bonus.

I must say, though I disagree with a fair amount of what the SP have to say, I’m quite kindly disposed towards them in the municipal sphere, which gets them at their best. The trouble with being a councillor in the south is that the councils have very few actual powers – it goes without saying that there are fewer opportunities still to achieve anything if you’re in opposition on the council – and since Jack Lynch opportunistically abolished the rates, the councils have no revenue-raising abilities unless they levy regressive service charges. So the councillor becomes, in effect, a social worker, whose main duties are the fixing of leaky roofs, the procurement of medical cards and the making of representations on behalf of constituents. The SP have a knack for this because their electoral approach is devolved from their trade union approach, and they don’t have this terrible leftist allergy to doing boring, mundane constituency service. For better or worse, they have a good shot at consolidating themselves for the longer term.

I’ll also be interested to look at the future progress of the SWP, who made a small breakthrough under their People Before Profit/Save Our Seafront banner, because a whole different set of considerations apply to them. It’s true that in recent years, the SWP have made conscious efforts to overcome their vulnerability to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but long-term graft still sits uneasily on their shoulders. First you have to consider what the SWP is. Its members would say that they are a revolutionary Marxist party, which is the case in a formal ideological sense, but in operative terms they are almost a pure protest party. 95% of what they do is protesting about this or that. What’s more, they are even more addicted than Gerry to the big picture. Young Seán Mitchell up here can go on the wireless and be extremely articulate about Iraq, but he wouldn’t have a clue how to go about sorting your housing benefit, and I would be flabbergasted if he suddenly set up an advice centre in the middle of Andytown devoted to this unglamorous work. When you take this alongside the SWP’s anarchistic dislike of making positive proposals – they’re always happiest opposing something – you have the living manifestation of “down with this sort of thing” politics.

As a result, what Swiss Toni and his acolytes are best at is agitprop. Agitprop has its uses, it can raise your profile wonderfully – especially when, like the Rich Boy, you’re the chair of eight or nine protest movements simultaneously – and it can even get you elected, but it’s open to question whether it can keep you elected. My experience is that the punters expect to have fulltime councillors, and it will be worth watching the reaction of the broad masses of Ballyfermot, Clondalkin and Kingstown when they realise they have in fact elected fulltime protestors. Repeatedly getting arrested at one stunt or another would be a novel take on constituency service.

It doesn’t, of course, have to be like that. There’s no iron law that says RBB couldn’t be a useful public representative along the lines of the late Tony Gregory. He’s a better speaker than Tony, and he’s more personable. But it’s debatable whether he wants to go down that road, and even more debatable whether he could do so without shedding his party.

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