In Review: The Lost Revolution – the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party

Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution – the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, Dublin, Penguin, 2009, 688pp.

Reviewed by Mick Hall                                                                                                           (thanks to Mick for sending me this review, which he originally posted on Organised Rage on October 12, 2009 – PF)

As a previous reviewer of this book wrote, “It must rank as one of the most detailed and frank histories of any political party in Ireland or elsewhere.”  The Lost Revolution is undoubtedly well-written and enjoyable to read.  It tells the story of the tragic political journey of The Workers Party/Páirtí na nOibrithe (Stickies*) or ‘Officials’ from the split in the IRA and Sinn Féin in 1969-70, to the disintegration of the Workers Party in 1992 and the eventual departure of almost its entire leadership cadre to the right-of-centre Irish Labour Party.

This book is essential reading for all who are interested in the post-WW2 European left, for there is little doubt the history of how a section of IRA/Sinn Fein became the Official IRA, then Sinn Fein The Workers Party, then the Workers Party, and then Democratic Left is an object lesson in both how to build a broad left political party and how not to.

The most important lesson I came away with after reading this book was avoid the split at almost any costs, whether the political organization in question is Irish Republican or a broad Left Party, and at times the Workers Party claimed to be both.  Once the break is made little of lasting good will come of it; yes, at first it may seem a liberating process and even a minor success, but history will eventually prove it is a case of a single step forward and two or more back.

If comrades are in a minority or majority it matters not a jot, for if they find it impossible to reconcile political differences, it is far better to sit tight and await better days, as a split opens up wounds which are rarely healed, as witnessed by the controversy the publication of this book has caused.

The split in the IRA/SF from which all else flowed, including a great deal of unnecessary bloodshed, is well documented.  On the surface it was about the fine detail of Irish republican philosophy, whether the Republican movement should recognize the parliaments in London, Dublin and Stormont.  Even though this motion, when it was put to the Sinn Fein conference in 1970, failed to attain the prerequisite two-thirds majority which was necessary to overturn SF’s constitutional opposition to ‘partitionist’ assemblies, those who opposed the motion walked out anyway.  They formed Provisional Sinn Fein; they could hardly have done otherwise, as the dye had been cast months before when, believing the motion would gain the necessary votes, they had resigned from the IRA and gone on to found what became known as the Provisional IRA.

It is only fair to say that the main leaders of what became the Officials – Sean Garland, Tomas MacGiolla and Cathal Goulding – did not want a split.  Indeed Goulding makes the point that Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore, the leaders of a previous generation of left Republicans, made a grave mistake in leaving the IRA in the 1930s to found the Republican Congress. With the benefit of hindsight it is interesting to ponder what sort of movement the Republican Movement would have become if a split could have been avoided.  It seems to me Official republicans like Cathal Goulding, Seamus Costello, Joe McCann and those who were the second generation of Provo leaders – Brendan Hughes, Brian Keenan, Ivor Bell, and Gerry Adams – had a great deal more in common than their subsequent political trajectory implies.

Once the Republican movement formally split in 1969-70, the two armies for a time travelled parallel paths: recruiting new members, seeking out sources for arms, whether in Ireland, Europe, the Middle-east or the USA, and taking the war to the British on both the streets of the North of Ireland and in England.  The command structures were identical and within the Republican historical tradition, with companies, battalions, brigades, GHQ, Army Council, chief of staff, etc.  It was only after the Officials called a ceasefire in 1972, shortly after they bombed the Parachute Regiment’s headquarters at Aldershot, that the two IRAs took a divergent path.

The Provos were to go on to fight the British state in a bloody and increasingly hopeless war which lasted for the next 30 plus years.  The Official IRA all but disappeared from public view, unless you were unfortunate or unlucky enough to stray into their orbit.  Shielded by the Irish and British security services and periodically their friends in the media, they certainly hadn’t gone away.  Far from the OIRA being stood down, it gradually morphed into what the leadership group renamed Group B.

OIRA’s leadership, increasingly safely quartered in the south, used it to strong-arm their political opponents in the north; and to help finance their grandiose scheme to build a green-red tinted, democratic centralist, Stalinist party of the type that history was about to pass by.

For the next 25 years the main role of the OIRA was to finance the party by organising criminal activities such as armed robberies, fraud, extortion, and counterfeiting.  In the process its leading members formed close working relationships with some of Ireland’s most notorious criminals, loyalist paramilitaries, major contractors in the construction industries in both Ireland and Britain, police officers within the southern Irish police and RUC, British government ministers and NIO civil servants, and members of the British security services.

It is a record of shame, the likes of which no left-wing political organisation in history has equalled, let alone an Irish republican organisation whose raison d’être was originally to break the wretched  link with Britain. For the OIRA volunteers, their commanders, and their Workers Party bosses, who were often one and the same, it must have all seemed so simple.  After group-think set in, they worked upon the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend and acted accordingly.  Thus they had no qualms in touting their perceived Provo and INLA enemies to the RUC and British security forces, nor murdering some of the British government’s more troublesome foes, such as Seamus Costello.  Indeed at one time such touting became so blatant that the dogs in the street knew members of the RUC Special Branch had a free bar within Official-owned drinking clubs in Belfast.

All this went on whilst Sinn Fein became Sinn Fein The Workers Party, and then the Workers Party and, with each reincarnation, the democratic-centralist screw was turned that much tighter and the leadership became ever smaller, until a tiny clique of individuals were controlling every element of party activities and practice.

Throughout this period rank-and-file party members worked their arses off on the knocker, placing before Irish working class voters a progressive political platform that was the equal of most European communist or socialist parties.  WP activists were fighting daily against the shortcomings of the six and twenty-six county states, whilst their leaders were colluding with the members of both state’s political police and security services, along with some of the most lumpen criminals within those societies, plus the most greedy and corrupt capitalist business elements.

Whilst the art of parliamentary politics requires a certain amount of guile and deceit, it is beyond me to understand how colluding with those whose job it is to hunt down the enemies of the state can lead towards a bright new sunny socialist dawn.

The book catalogues all of this and more, such as the fact the WP leadership almost wet themselves when they started being invited to drinking sessions at the Soviet Embassy in Dublin.  As far as the WP’s links with North Korea were concerned, some might think the Russian Diplomatic Service/KGB had  suddenly found a sense of humour, although it sounds more likely it might have been the Irish Communist Party leader Mick O’Riordan’s own private joke, aimed at the WP for encroaching on his party’s home ground.

Failing to accept the Irish franchise from Moscow was already taken, the WP tops, behind the Irish Communist Party’s back, approached Moscow for some solidarity gold.  On the pretext of security and the bigger political picture, the Soviet bureaucrats put the WP leadership in touch with the North Koreans, the only communist monarchy in the world.  One can almost hear the gales of laughter coming out of the Kremlin when Yuri Andropov told this tale at the annual gathering of the leading members of the International Communist Movement.

Whilst members of the international official communist movement were wined and dined in the Kremlin and on the Black Sea coast and even Baader-Meinhof were given access to the GDR leadership’s special holiday facilities on the Baltic coast, Workers Party leader Proinsias de Rossa had to sneak into Moscow and take some decrepit Aeroflot flight to far off Pyongyang, the most god-awful capital city in the world.  Whilst there, the WP’s foremost politico, in the hope of a back hander, had to demean himself by bending the knee to Kim Il-sung, his Excellency the Great Leader and Master of his very own Gulagistan.

The book ends after the USSR imploded without a single worker coming onto the streets to defend the world’s first ‘Workers State’.  But instead of asking why – the most obvious question even for the most poorly educated worker – the overwhelming majority of the WP leadership clique concluded socialism was dead and the end of history was nigh.

Most had become fat and comfortable trade union bureaucrats and parliamentarians; as far as they were concerned, the thought of giving up this gravy train called for desperate measures.  What better way of proving their fealty to the boss class than to liquidate the Workers Party; after all if Moscow-loyal bureaucrats the world over reinvented themselves as servants of capitalism, why not they?  In 1992, six of the seven Workers Party TDs (MPs), its MEP and numerous local councillors quit the party en-masse, and formed the Democratic Left.  In 1999 they completed their journey to the far right wing of reformism when the Democratic Left was folded into the Irish Labour Party, with the DL TDs being given leadership positions with the LP, whilst the northern membership were shafted by being banned from organising as members of the Irish Labour Party in the six counties.

To understand just how craven and venal a large section of the WP leadership had become, it is worth understanding this: whilst they sent OIRA volunteers out to commit criminal acts to finance the party and in the process risk their freedom and at times life and limb, the majority of the party’s parliamentarians refused to draw only a workers’ wage and thus donate the majority of their salary to the party.

Read this book, weep, understand and rage.

To end on a brighter note however, and despite my jaundiced review, there is little doubt real political ‘talent’ passed through the ranks of the Workers Party and to a lesser degree still does. They can be found beavering away throughout Ireland, Today there is hardly a corner of Irish life where a former member of the WP is not playing an important and often constructive role.  Some continue to fight for their core socialist beliefs, others became disillusioned and withdrew from political activity or went over to the class enemy.  But many former rank-and-file members still have fire in their bellies; when you talk to them, the overwhelming majority have an in-built antenna against the type of top-down leadership which failed them and the working class so badly.  As one of these comrades angrily snapped back at me,“We were involved in a noble experiment.”

The WP, with its democratic centralism and top-down politics, has a record of failure not dissimilar to the Stalinist and Trotskyist left.  What still eludes those of us who are part of the ever-growing family of former members of a CP or sect – and I would include the WP in this category – is how to put our experiences to good use, and finally help build a truly democratic Left political party worthy of the name socialist and which we can all be proud to be associated with.

* The name stickies came about as the OIRA used to sick their Easter Lilies on which they wore to commemorate the Easter Rising, whilst the Provos used a pin, although the name Pinnies never took off. Interview with the books authors here.

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Posted on October 15, 2012, in Civil rights movement, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, IRSP, Officials, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Reviews - books, Revolutionary figures, Seamus Costello, six counties, twenty-six counties, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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