Behind the betrayal of the Irish freedom struggle
by Philip Ferguson (2005)
The article below first appeared in the British Weekly Worker, May 5, 2005; the only change is that I’ve added brief mention of some groups on the British left who did campaign around Ireland, fixing a few typos and some very minor points of clarification. For a more in-depth exploration of the rightward shift of the Provisionals, read Liam’s three-part history of them.
In Weekly Worker, April 21, my socialist-republican comrade Liam O Ruairc outlined major developments in the degeneration of the Republican Movement (Sinn Fein and the IRA) into constitutional nationalism. As a former Sinn Fein activist, including being a full-time organiser for several years, I’d like to add to the picture by looking at some of the internal developments and disputes, the external context in Ireland and globally and the role of the British left in this degeneration.
I joined Sinn Fein in the middle of 1986 and left Ireland permanently at the start of 1994, although I was out of Ireland for much of the eighteen months before my final departure. My period of activity coincided with the beginnings of the rightward shift although, at the time I joined, it appeared that left-wing politics were dominant in both major wings of the Movement (party and army). In particular, in the late 1970s and early 1980s it appeared, certainly to me, that the Republican Movement was in transition from revolutionary nationalism, in the sense Lenin used that term, to revolutionary socialism. Given that a generation of radicals in oppressed nations had made this transition in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, it seemed perfectly feasible to me that Irish republicans could make the same transition.
This view was reinforced by a number of factors. The Movement was overwhelmingly working class in social composition and the Irish bourgeoisie and most of the middle class (especially in the South) were completely hostile to the national liberation struggle. In addition, hundreds of comrades were in prison and studying Marxist texts there. However, the lowering of the horizons of the Movement, or at least of its leaders, began to manifest itself not long after I joined.
It is important to put this in a wider political context, as this leadership was not merely a bunch of aging yuppies, like the Blairites, but a layer of working class fighters forged in the crucible of a life-and-death struggle in the nationalist ghettoes of the North, especially Belfast, taking on the world’s number two imperialist power. Critiques of them as “middle class” by social workers and teachers belonging to Irish Trotskyist groups which had never summoned up the revolutionary spirit to so much as throw a stone at the occupying imperialist army never much impressed me (and don’t today, either).
A major problem was simply the objective conditions which republicans had to confront. The Movement faced not only a powerful imperialist enemy, but also repressive state apparatuses both sides of the border in Ireland. The South, for instance, maintained continual harassment and repression of republicans all the way through the armed conflict of the past generation. It was much easier to belong to any of the small Trotskyist groups than it was to be in Sinn Fein, let alone the IRA, in any part of Ireland.
In the wake of the 1981 hunger strikes and the mass mobilisations around them in Ireland, republicans made advances electorally, thereby showing the Republican Movement was not a small and isolated “terrorist” or “bandit” group as portrayed by the British and Irish establishments. The ruling classes on both sides of the Irish Sea were determined to roll back these gains and did so using a combination of repression against republicans and the republican base and carrots for communities prepared to separate themselves from the Republican Movement. The Dublin government and the Stoop Down Low Party (SDLP) in the six counties, both of which were threatened by the rise of Sinn Fein and the radical instability that might ensue from this, stepped up collaboration with the Brits.
By the late 1980s, the Republican Movement had been pushed back to its hard-core base. Clearly, neither relying on armed struggle as the major strategy nor combining electoral politics and armed struggle (the famous “the ballot box and the armalite”) were sufficient for holding off the renewed offensive of the British state and its lackeys in Ireland. A rethink was necessary, and this did actually take place.
Unfortunately, it took place in very unfavourable international circumstances. There were two elements to this:
- the collapse of national liberation movements elsewhere
2. the collapse of collectivism associated with the Soviet bloc
- the dismal politics of most of the British left
While the Republican Movement had never regarded the Soviet bloc as a model, the collapse of that bloc had the effect of widely discrediting any form of collectivist-oriented politics, including genuine revolutionary socialism. There was certainly no Bolshevik Party leading a healthy revolutionary process in Russia or anywhere else that could inspire the Republican Movement leadership to move leftwards, as had happened with revolutionary nationalists immediately after 1917. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet bloc had helped disorient national liberation movements everywhere. The FSLN, under pressure from Washington and the demise of the Soviet bloc, had shifted rightwards, as had the FMLN in El Salvador, and similar groups elsewhere in Central America. The ANC-SACP was moving towards an accommodation with the South African ruling class and its political representatives in which formal race laws would be abolished but capitalist social relations maintained and strengthened (see here). The PLO was being given the right to run a few refugee camps in exchange for ending the struggle against the Israeli state.
The ‘success’ with which the ANC and PLO had gone mainstream appealed to much of the republican leadership, includingeven those who had intensely studied Marxism while in prison and written radical critiques of the history of the Movement. I recall chatting after an anti-extradition conference in Dublin around 1990 to a prominent Belfast republican and former hunger-striker, who had been one of the leading figures in the study of Marxism in the H-Blocks and was only recently out of prison. I naturally assumed he and I would be on the same wavelength politically, but was shocked when he started saying to me how we had to take the ANC and PLO as our model and how they’d succeeded in “mainstreaming” their agendas. Of course, the idea was not that the republican agenda would be gutted, but that it would be promoted in a way that made it the central political focus that everyone in Ireland had to address. This was, supposedly, what the PLO and ANC had achieved.
One of the problems faced by comrades who studied Marxism in prison and became, at least while behind bars, convinced Marxists, was that it was all theoretical. Since these comrades were locked up for ten, fifteen, eighteen years, there was little opportunity to develop their Marxism in the changing, real world. When they got out there was simply a huge chasm between their intellectual Marxism and the more prosaic reality, including the way the leadership was taking the Movement rightwards. A few stayed true to the revolutionary theory they had learned in prison and tried to use it to analyse reality, but for most the chasm was too wide and they quickly fell into it, which meant falling into line behind the leadership.
There was also a good deal of conniving and dishonesty from elements of the leadership, who set out fairly consciously to destroy (either outright or through co-option) the radical ideas gestating in the Movement and in the H-Blocks in particular.
Around the time I joined Sinn Fein I was involved in typesetting and proofing a book by the H-Block prisoners. The two comrades who were in charge of political education nationally in the party, and who saw themselves very much as socialists of the Connolly variety, were very excited about this book, Questions of History. Smuggled out of the Blocks bit by bit, it was essentially a Marxist analysis and critique of the history of Irish republicanism. Rose and Jim saw this as being the breakthrough. Because it came from the Blocks and the prisoners had immense moral authority within the Movement, this book would be read by everyone in the Movement, most would be convinced by it, a whole study programme would be organised around it and we were on the way to the republic of Connolly. The book was even to be colour-coded, with questions for discussion and so on and would come in several volumes.
Even though it only went up to the 1930s and was not a direct critique of Provo politics, the first volume of Questions of History was not welcomed in the central leadership,. Indeed, the book was pretty much suppressed. Only 2,000 copies were allowed to be printed by the Movement printshop and these were for circulation only within the Movement. Effectively it was turned into an internal discussion document that could never be internally discussed. There was a whispering campaign that the book was “ultraleft” and a shitty review was run in An Phoblacht/Republican News, written by a party hack who had previously been in the British Labour Party and Fourth International (USec). It was never allowed to be sold publicly, never used for a serious internal education programme and the second volume was never allowed even to be published. Apparently there is now a copy of the second volume in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
Having effectively suppressed the radical critique of the POWs, the nationalist elements in the leadership began a scare campaign that the national question was in danger of disappearing from Irish public discourse and everything had to be concentrated on defending the idea of national unity.
This came in the context of two counterposed papers being presented within Sinn Fein for discussion about the way forward and discussion of these before and at the annual internal conference (SF usually held two national conferences a year: a public ard fheis, based around reports, remits, and election of the leadership and an internal conference based around discussion papers). The head of the party’s political education, who was also a former OC of the prisoners at Portlaoise, wrote a document in which he warned that the Movement itself was being politically partitioned, with armed struggle in the North and clientilist advice-centre/social reformist politics in the South. The paper argued explicitly for Connolly-type politics, uniting the political, social and economic aspects of the struggle on a 32-county basis.
The alternative paper was put forward by one of the party’s two general-secretaries, Tom Hartley. Hartley, whose politics seemed quite influenced by the nationalist wing of the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), argued in favour of a pan-nationalist front. This would be formed by working for unity with Fianna Fail, the SDLP – and even Fine Gael! – to advance an Irish national agenda. This paper was extraordinary, considering the lessons of Irish history. It basically turned its back on the lesson of every significant struggle and leader since Wolfe Tone, by rejecting a struggle for national liberation based on the people of no property – a concept at the very heart of Irish republicanism – and advocated class collaboration with the very sections of Irish society which had always sold out the struggle and which were clearly working with the Brits to maintain the status quo.
In order to bolster up the pan-nationalist side, a whispering campaign was mounted that the people behind the Connolly paper were hostile to the armed struggle and wanted it called off. It was more or less implied that a vote for that paper was a vote for the end of the armed struggle. Also, various people were removed from the leadership in both the party and the army without any transparency in the process at all.
Supporters of the nationalist position sometimes would throw an actual tantrum, shrieking and carrying on, as if voting for the Connolly position was a betrayal of the nationalist population of the north.
Needless to say, the pan-nationalist position triumphed, and the key architects of the Connolly paper pretty much dropped out.
The shift rightwards also took other forms. When Dessie Ellis was extradited to Britain from the South on a stretcher around the fifth or sixth week of hunger strike, the leadership were very worried about trouble on the streets of Dublin. There was a march that night organised by the anti-extradition campaign, in which I was the party full-timer, and we wanted to take it to a venue where Haughey, who was taoiseach at the time was speaking and at least ruin his night. Adams rang me in the anti-extradition office to suggest the march be called off, especially as there was an Ireland-England soccer match in Dublin that afternoon and the leadership worried that republicans and English soccer fans might clash in the streets in the evening. I found this extraordinary. One of our comrades had been handed over to the Brits on a stretcher almost blind and we weren’t supposed to protest that in the capital city because of the presence of English soccer fans.
In fact, this was one of the great weaknesses of the Provo leadership. They wanted to avoid creating any trouble in the South, let alone destabilising the southern state.
From the traditional standpoint, however, of militant republicanism and Marxism, it is rather difficult to imagine driving British imperialism out of Ireland and freeing the country without the southern state being destabilised. It is after all, as Liam Mellows noted back in 1922, not a step towards liberation but a barrier between the Irish people and freedom that has to be removed.
As it was, the party leadership sent members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade to “marshall” the march and ensure nothing untoward took place, although some of the Army comrades later expressed regret and shame about their role.
The leadership also engaged in a substantial effort at what might be called “reformism by stealth”. Adams and co knew that they could not come out and say they wanted an end to the armed struggle and a peace deal little different from the 1973 Sunningdale agreement. So, instead of nailing their colours to the mast and fighting for their rotten capitulation to imperialism, we had the spectacle of ‘discussion papers’ on pathways to peace and justice (and later, just to peace).
When comrades critical of such stuff would try to criticise these, the standard leadership response would be that these were not up for votes, they weren’t official policy, they just some ideas that some people thought were interesting or useful to discuss. Within a couple of years, however, the positions in these documents were being used as the basis for official party statements. Without being voted on, in fact without ever being seriously debated, they became the de facto – and eventually de jure – position of Sinn Fein (and, presumably, of the Army as well).
By about 1992, without the new line ever having been formally voted on, reformism was dominant in the Movement and the road opened to its full flowering in the form of the Republican Movement embracing the constitutional nationalism which had been a deadly enemy throughout the entire 200-year history of republicanism.
Another, almost surreal, aspect – indeed it reminded me of Animal Farm – was the suppression of the “left” Adams of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the emergence of the “moderate statesman” Adams. For instance, my local cumann decided to hold regular monthly public forums, starting with one on poverty and featuring both Dublin speakers and Bernadette (McAliskey). For this forum, we wanted some literature and one of our members, who was also a member of the national leadership and worked in the party’s political education department, grabbed a few copies from her office in the party national headquarters of stuff written about socialism and republicanism by Adams in the late 70s and 80s that the party’s education department had put together as a little pamphlet. She was physically prevented from taking this material out of SF head office to the forum on the basis that what Adams said in these collected pieces was no longer the party view.
Each edition of Adams’ first political book, The Politics of Irish Freedom, was re-edited to remove certain criticisms of the SDLP and Fianna Fail and any other views of his subsequently deemed to have been “ultraleft”. Needless to say, the first version was much more interesting and inspiring than the insipid liberalism he repetitively churns out in book after book these days.
After about 1992, the shift rightwards gathered more and more steam, genuine left-republicans began dropping away over the next few years and, as the party became more respectable, a new layer of members were signed up on the basis of the new line.
The shift also reflected a dramatic truth about the objective importance of class in modern politics. If you became increasingly hostile to class politics, in terms of a revolutionary strategy based on the working class, this doesn’t mean class politics go away. Rejecting the working class as the agent of struggle and social change simply means there is only one place left to go politically – towards the capitalist class. And so, off went the republican leadership – towards the Irish bourgeoisie, the British bourgeoisie and the American ruling class. And the returns for betrayal are always lucrative: positions in power, even if only in Stormont, state money, an end to censorship and the opening up of the media, book publishing deals, visits to the White House and enough money from the States to make Sinn Fein the richest party in Ireland. After years of struggle and sacrifice, the temptations are not hard to understand even if the capitulation is contemptible.
This sell-out by the leadership of the Republican Movement has been widely condemned by the British left. This is rather surreal, considering that few of them actually supported the republican struggle while it was being waged. And this brings us to the culpability of the British left, especially the major organisations of it, in terms of the sell out.
The rise of the Provos was not an isolated event. It was part and parcel of the massive upsurge of workers and students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was part of the process that produced the events of 1968 and the rebirth of the far left in Europe.
In relation to Britain, it coincided with student occupations, anti-imperialist protests against the Vietnam War and huge industrial struggles against the Wilson government’s In Place of Strife legislation and the massive strike wave during the Heath government, culminating in the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974. The British bourgeoisie faced a militant working class at home and a militant national liberation struggle just a few miles across the sea. If the two had’ve come together, the result would have been at the very least a political and social crisis for the British ruling class – something that class was only too aware of.
There were some auspicious signs. In 1971, over 30,000 people took part in the Anti-Internment League’s march in London for the withdrawal of British troops and an end to internment. In the early 1970s an Irish revolutionary like Bernadette Devlin could be given a rousing response by 4,000 Dagenham car workers during an industrial dispute. Bloody Sunday showed people on both sides of the Irish Sea what imperialist rule meant, if there was any doubt. The possibilities for the British left being able to make common cause with the struggle in Ireland and create a social and political crisis in Britain were real.
However, it was a challenge that the big majority of the British left totally failed.
This was especially true when the British state began to fully clamp down on the struggle in Ireland around the time of Bloody Sunday and, especially, after Sunningdale and then the collapse of the mid-70s ceasefire. The unedifying flight of the British left was also linked to the war being brought to Britain itself. Most of the British left preferred their revolutions in the pages of history books and in fiery speeches they made at Labour Party and trade union conferences. They could support revolutions if they were on the other side of the world and against some other imperialist power, like the US in Vietnam or if they were safely in the past. But a national liberation struggle against the British state that actually thought that if there was going to be fighting and dying some of it should take place on British soil, whoa, that was not in the script for the revolutionary heroes of the Brit left.
They denounced bombings in Britain as if they seriously believed a national liberation struggle against an imperialist power a few miles away, which had incorporated part of the oppressed nation’s territory within its own state, could possibly be won without armed actions, including within the imperialist state. (I’m not making a blanket defence of IRA bombings in Britain – some of them were stupid, almost beyond belief so – merely establishing the principle about what is entailed in a real flesh-and-blood national liberation struggle.)
Essentially the Brit left, in terms of its major organisations (CP, SWP, Militant, IMG), abandoned the Irish national liberation struggle against the British state. As soon as the going got tough, the Brit left got going. . . as far as possible away from the Irish struggle. None of those involved in this abandonment therefore have any right to criticise the subsequent abandonment of the same struggle by the republican leaders themselves.
The worst were the CP and Militant, who basically sided with the British state by obstructing any attempts to build a solidarity movement within the British working class and repeating imperialist propaganda about the Republican Movement. In fact the CP acted in no small part as the actual agent of the British state in terms of TUC policies it pursued within the six counties. The SWP and IMG did their bit more by just simply abandoning any serious prioritising of Irish solidarity work.
I recall living in London at the time of the 1981 hunger strikes. One weekend there would be 250,000 people in Hyde Park protesting about non-existent nuclear wars on the basis of middle class pacifist politics. The British far left would be there in their thousands, selling their papers and promoting their own special brand of militant pacifism. The next week there would be a national march in support of the hunger strikers with a few hundred people, a thousand at most, in attendance and the far left notable mainly for its absence.
Basically, the bulk of the Brit left let the British government kill the hunger strikers without doing a damn thing. Building CND was the soft option and never challenged anything about British people’s attachment to the British nation state and capitalist ideology. Organising real solidarity around Ireland was hard and not likely to result in immediate large gains in recruitment and paper sales. And it meant challenging trade union politics as a form of bourgeois ideology.
Of course, Marx and Engels had championed Irish freedom and argued that as long as British workers remained tied to the apron-strings of the British bourgeoisie in Ireland, they’d never attain real class consciousness or achieve anything significant in Britain itself. Lenin was devastating about the record of the British left of his day in relation to Ireland. The Bolsheviks ensured that one of the conditions of membership of the Third International was that if a party was in an imperialist country and there was a national liberation struggle going on against your government you had to provide it with material support. Trotsky declared that any British socialist who refused to provide full support for the struggle in Ireland (and India and Egypt) deserved to be branded with infamy if not with an actual bullet.
Sadly, the great Marxists had sown dragons’ teeth and, in Britain, harvested chickens.
At the end of the day, the Republican Movement and its struggle capitulated in the context of having been abandoned long beforehand by the bulk of the British left and in the context of the collapse of both the supposedly collectivist Soviet Union and most other national liberation struggles. What is remarkable is not the betrayal of the republican leadership, as pitiful and dishonest as that has been, but the duration of the struggle in Ireland given the real, material difficulties it faced.
However, the betrayal within Ireland also points up the weakness of a national liberation struggle which does not transcend the political limitations of radical nationalism. It shows that the period in which national liberation struggles could be taken at least to the achievement of independence and some radical social changes by radical nationalist leaderships is over. Today, only a conscious revolutionary socialist movement can develop and maintain the politics, strategy and tactics necessary to prosecute a struggle for national liberation with any serious hope of success.
In Ireland, that places a huge burden on the IRSP and on other revolutionary republicans and socialists, including former members of the Republican Movement who left over the Good Friday Agreement and leadership betrayal generally.
It seems to me that what is urgently needed is ways to get the dispersed genuine revolutionary forces – not the gas-and-water socialists Connolly denounced – in Ireland talking together and trying to develop a partyist culture among them, based on developing a Connolly-type politics for the Ireland of the twenty-first century.