Seamus Costello: Bodenstown oration (1966)
Next year marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Seamus Costello, the founder of the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the Irish National Liberation Army. Costello had been a member of the Army Council of the Irish Republican Army in the 1960s and, after the Official/Provo split at the end of 1969, a central leader of the Officials. He broke with them in late 1974 over their abandonment of the national question and the armed struggle. Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly and herself a participant in the events of Easter 1916 and subsequently a founding leader of the Republican Congresss in the 1930s and longtime socialist-republican, described Costello as the person who best understood her father’s ideas. IMHO, Costello was the most outstanding republican (and socialist) of his generation and his assassination by the Officials a monstrous crime – but, sadly, one indicative of their utter political degeneration under the perfidious influence of Moscow-style reformism.
The context for Costello’s Bodenstown address was that the IRA was undergoing a radical rethink after the failure of the 1956-62 Border Campaign and trying to make itself more relevant to workers and small farmers by taking up social and economic issues much more consistently, work with other forces on the left and deal woith the thorny issue of abstentionism from the various partitionist parliaments. Costello was very keen to move things forward rapidly and one of the early advocates of dropping abstentionism, not in order to pursue reformist parliamentary poltics but in order to open up a new front of struggle alongside struggles in the streets and workplaces and countryside.
Costello was, in my view, the outstanding figure of a third strand in the Republican Movement in the 1960s, one which hasn’t really been written about much. One strand succumbed to pro-Moscow reformism and became the Sticks (Officials). Another current, which might rather loosely be called armed/militant nationalism became the Provos, although I wouldn’t describe a key Provo like Ruairi O Bradaigh in such terms (I think he was always much more than that). The other current – essentially the folks who left with Costello in 1974 – were members of the Republican Movement who embraced revolutionary socialism as opposed to both Moscow-style reformism and armed nationalism.
Between now and the 35th anniversary of his assassination next October I hope to run a big chunk of stuff by and about him. I think the way forward today can only be helped by taking on board Costello and his legacy. . .
COSTELLO ORATION, Bodenstown, 1966
We have assembled here today to pay our respects to the memory of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish republicanism. If we, the republicans of 1966, are to pay a fitting tribute to Tone, it is essential that we examine in depth the ideals for which he fought and died. He believed that the Irish people “had but one common interest and one common enemy; that the depression and slavery of Ireland was produced and perpetrated by the divisions existing between them, and that, consequently, to assert the independence of their country, and their own individual liberties, it was necessary to forget all former feuds to consolidate the entire strength of the whole nation, and to form for the future but one people.”
His attitude towards the so-called ‘Irish parliament’ of the day is also worthy of attention. He maintained that the parliament was a totally ineffective body, that it had changed nothing in Ireland, that the social and political order remained the same, and that, as before, the real power lay with the British Government. He realized that until such time as the Irish people united and demanded their just rights that the wealth of this country would either be controlled directly by Britain, or be syphoned off with the willing connivance of a subservient Irish parliament.
Having seen the problems that existed at the time, Tone in conjunction with the other leaders of the revolutionary movement decided that the first logical step towards a solution was to “break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political and economic evils.”
You may well ask why we of the republican movement, 168 years after the death of Tone, find it necessary to advocate the same course of action that he advocated. The answer is simple. We find it necessary to advocate the same course of action because of the fact that the Irish people still do not control their own affairs, and because their economic and political independence is considered a fit subject for barter or sale by our two subservient puppet parliaments. If the Irish people have any doubt about the truth of this statement and want proof of what I say, they have only to take a close look at the situation that exists today in each part of our partitioned land.
In the North, the destinies of one and a half million of our countrymen are controlled by a puppet regime whose existence for some 45 years has depended on the support of British armed forces. This regime has found to its apparent delight that one of the simplest ways of ensuring its continued existence is by the furtherance of bigotry and sectarianism. Ample evidence of this policy can be found in the recent antics of a certain reverend agent provocateur.
These then are the means by which the British imperialists intend to maintain the people of the North in perpetual slavery. These are also the means by which the working classes are divided against their own material welfare. The pro-British capitalist class who control the economy of the North know very well that, when the people reject those who foster sectarianism, their next step will be to demand a just share of the wealth which they create. These are the real reasons why one section of the community are led to believe that it is in their interest to discriminate against another section. Never are they told that the standard of living which they enjoy, at the expense of their victimized neighbors, is theirs by right – rather are they tricked into believing that these natural rights are a reward for their support of the regime. These tactics serve to ensure that a large section of the population of the North remain loyal to the regime and at the same time do not insist on having a bigger share in the wealth.
In the 26 counties the most that can be said of the position is that it contains one evil less religious discrimination is absent. The political and economic subjection of this part of Ireland to Britain is no less complete than that of the North.
However, British control over the destinies of the people of the 26 counties is not as obvious. This is due in the main to the fact that since 1921 they have had the co-operation of successive quisling parliaments in order to ensure that their interests here are fully protected.
The effects of this economic subjection are obvious in every sphere of life in Ireland at the present time. We of the republican movement have no need to tell the Irish people of the sorry mess which has been made of the economy.
The politicians are telling us every day. They tell us that this position arises as a result of the workers insisting on having a better standard of living. Never are we told that the profits which accrue from our labours are invested abroad by the native and foreign capitalists who control our resources. We are constantly told that we must work harder for the same wages despite the fact that we have to live with an ever increasing cost of living and an ever increasing burden of taxation. Up to now we have been ‘advised’ that it is wrong for workers to withhold labour in the struggle to wrest a decent wage from those employers whose only role in life seems to be the exploitation of workers. The situation in this regard has now changed radically, with the introduction of coercive anti-worker legislation. We now find that Mr. Lemass, in his eagerness to please his imperial masters, is prepared to use against farmers and workers the same type of repression which was previously reserved for republicans. It now seems inevitable that the republicans in Mountjoy prison will soon find themselves joined by farmers and trade unionists.
We republicans must not be content to criticize those who misgovern both parts of our country. If we are to regard ourselves as true followers of Tone, we must provide the Irish people with an alternative. It must be a realistic and practical alternative. Our target must be the achievement of the ideals set out in the Proclamation of 1916 – the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all our citizens.
This in effect means that we must aim for the ownership of our resources by the people, so that these resources will be developed in the best interests of the people as a whole. Some of you may feel that these aims are impossible to achieve until such time as we have an independent all-Ireland government. It is certainly true that some of these aims will not reach fruition until such time as we have an all-Ireland parliament. However, in the meantime, you as republicans have an extremely important part to play in the furtherance of this policy.
It is your duty to spearhead the organization of a virile co-operative movement among the farming community. It is also your duty to use your influence as trade unionists to organise a militant trade union movement with a national consciousness. In short, it is your duty to become active, hard working members of each and every organization that is working for the welfare of all the people and towards the reunification of the country.
You should use every possible opportunity to acquaint the people with our policies on land, industry and finance. We believe that there should be a limit to the amount of land owned by any single individual. We also believe that the large estates of absentee landlords should be acquired by compulsory acquisition and worked on a co-operative basis with the financial and technical assistance of the State.
In the field of industry, our policy is to nationalize the key industries with the eventual aim of co-operative ownership by the workers. The capital necessary to carry out this programme can be made available without recourse to extensive taxation by the nationalization of all banks, insurance, loan and investment companies whose present policy is the re-investment of our hard earned money in foreign fields.
This in short is our policy. This is our definition of freedom. It was Tone’s definition, Lalor’s definition, Mitchel’s definition, and the stated aim of Pearse and Connolly. We can expect the same reaction to the implementation of these aims from the forces of exploitation, whether native or foreign sponsored, as the originators received in ’98, ’48, ’67 and 1916. Therefore, to imagine that we can establish a republic solely by constitutional means is utter folly. The lesson of history shows that in the final analysis the robber baron must be dis-established by the some methods that he used to enrich himself and retain his ill-gotten gains, namely, force of arms. To this end we must organise, train, and maintain a disciplined armed force which will always be available to strike at the opportune moment.