Seamus Costello: Democracy and the Mass Movement speech, February 1969

The following speech was delivered by Seamus Costello to a Sinn Fein educational conference in Dublin in February 1969.  It provides an excellent overview of the left developments that were taking place in the Republican Movement in the 1960s, especially the latter 1960s.  It also offers important insights into Costello’s own thinking and his role in these developments.  Moreover, it is not simply an interesting historical document.  His explanation of how the Republican Movement was built up in Wicklow provides useful lessons today to revolutionaries not only in Ireland but internationally.  The text is taken from

Mr Chairman, Comrades,

  1. My intention is to demonstrate during the course of this lecture how the working of democracy at both local government and national government level can be related to the work of mass movements.
  2. I will deal first of all with the experiences to our Movement at local level, showing the effects of our activities both inside and outside the local authorities.
  3. I then propose to relate those experiences to our Movement at national level, showing what I believe would be the likely effects of our involvement in parliamentary action.

In order to understand the present position of the Movement in Wicklow it is necessary to first of all trace the history and development of the Movement in that area since 1954. You may ask why 1954? The answer to that is that the first attempt made in modern times to re-establish the Movement in Wicklow was in 1954. At that time there was absolutely no Republican organisation in County Wicklow. In fact the last period during which organised Republicanism existed in Wicklow was during, and for a short period after, the Civil War.

This meant in effect that when the Movement was reorganised, and indeed right up to the present moment, that none of our members were drawn from traditional Republican backgrounds. We had to start with completely new people who had no experience of, or preconceived ideas about revolutionary political action. I feel that this point is worth mentioning because of the effect it has had on our methods of operation. The main effect as far as I am concerned is that we have being able to approach every phase of our activities with a completely fresh outlook unhindered by any adherence to unnecessary taboos, except those imposed upon us by belonging to a Movement that has in the past and indeed to a certain extent in the present, being guided in its activities by past history, rather than by completely different circumstances of the present.

The first Sinn Fein Cumann was started in Bray in May of 1955. At that time, we had 6 or 7 members, most of whom had been members of the Cumann in Dun Laoire for a couple of months before that date. From the time the Cumann was formed until the end of 1955, our only activity was the sale of the United Irishman in the town of Bray.

The position in Wicklow remained the same up to the end of 1957, except that we had a slight increase in membership, and we managed to spread the sale of the United Irishman into most of the other populated districts of the county. This was done by groups of 3 or 4 people in cars who managed to cover about 75 percent of the public houses in the county between 8pm and closing time on Saturday nights. In this way we managed to get the paper sold and build up our finances out of the profits after having paid our petrol expenses.

There was no significant change in that position between 1957 and the end of 1959 except that a small number of our members were imprisoned and took part in the campaign. We still only had one Cumann in the county, and the campaign was simply a new topic for discussion in the pubs on Saturday nights. The only effect the campaign seems to have had on the public during this period is that they seemed more anxious to buy the United Irishman. I often suspected that they did this in order to keep themselves informed of the sensational happenings in the North, in the same way as they bought the News of the World to read about other sensational happenings in London or Glasgow.

Between 1959 and 1962 the organisation in Bray began to show signs of disintegration. We were reduced to about 4 or 5 active members and the sale of the paper in other parts of the County outside Bray was discontinued. At the end of 1962 we were selling about 14 United Irishman, all in the town of Bray. The morale of our members seems to have declined in direct ratio to the progress or otherwise of the military campaign. When the campaign ended in February 1962 we again set about putting the organisation on its feet, and by the middle of 1963 we had recruited about a dozen very active people, and had succeeded in re-establishing the sale of the paper throughout the county. In June of 1963 Joe Doyle was released from prison in England, and we availed of the opportunity to publicise the existence of our organisation in Bray. We did this by having a torchlight procession and a rally afterwards. I have always felt that this was the first occasion on which the people began to develop an interest in our existence. We had a number of new recruits following Joe Doyle‚s return, and for the first time since 1959, the national collection was carried out on a county basis. We had already had a very successful year with Easter Lilies sales, and our financial position was quite sound.

Our activities between the end of 1963 and February 1966 were the same was in 1963, except that we re-established the Easter commemorations for the first time since 1924. We also established our first links with the trade union movement during this period and managed to get one of our members selected as a delegate to the Bray Trades Council, representing the Workers Union of Ireland. There seemed to be a growing awareness on the part of our own members at this time of the necessity for involvement in the work of other organisations. This was due in the main to the creation of new policy in the Movement as a whole.

This new policy was brought a step forward in February 1966 when the local Sinn Fein Cumann called a public meeting of all Council Tenants in Bray for the purpose of forming a Tenants Association. The immediate result of this meeting was the formation of a very active association with 4 or 5 of our members in key positions on the committee. It also had a very favourable effect from our point of view on the course of the local elections in the following year. I will explain how this came about later in this lecture.

We also strengthened our links with the Trade Union movement in 1966 by inviting the Bray Trades Council to officially participate in the 1966 Easter Commemorations. They agreed to march and they appointed Roddy Connolly, the son of James Connolly, to speak on their behalf from the platform. Their participation in the commemoration served to link the organised working class movement with our movement in the eyes of the people, and subsequently helped us in the local election of 1967. By the beginning of 1967, our organisation in Bray was well poised for the local government election contest. We were still the only Sinn Fein Cumann in the county, however we were in a very strong position both from the point of view of finance and influence with the working class people.

The latter was due mainly to our contacts with the Trades Council and the Tenants Association, both of which represent large number of working class people. The Tenants Association represents about 800 families in the town and the twenty unions affiliated to the Trades Council represents approximately 1500 workers in Bray and the surrounding area. We managed to acquire the support of the Tenant‚s Association by holding a meeting of our own members who were on the Tenant‚s Committee and drafting a questionnaire which was to be circulated to all candidates in the election by the Tenant‚s Association. The Association also informed each candidate that their answers to the questionnaire would be circulated to every tenant in the town and that the people could draw their own conclusions.

The questionnaire dealt with a number of problems about which most tenants had a genuine grievance, and our people on the committee took steps to ensure that the Sinn Fein candidates were the only ones who could give answers that were favourable to the tenants. The result was that the tenants received copies of the answers from all candidates and large numbers of them supported us because of our policy on housing matters. At this stage it may be of benefit to give an outline of the main points from our Election Programme and indicate briefly how the election was fought. The main points from our programme were as follows:

  1. That all building land would be brought under the control of the local authorities and that they would be the sole agents for the purchase and sale of such lands at prices related to its agricultural value.
  2. That housing should be treated as an essential social service and financed on a non profit making basis.
  3. We stated also that we would organise the homeless people (about 300 families) to pressurise the council into building more houses.
  4. That we would fight for the introduction of a purchase scheme for all council tenants.
  5. That we oppose the introduction of differential rents.
  6. That we would seek to have repairs to all council houses done through a direct labour scheme.
  7. We advocated the completion of a flood prevention scheme for the Dargle river.
  8. We also pointed out the necessity for such things as local bus services, phone boxes, dispensaries, etc.
  9. We strongly condemned the Managerial Act, and called for more direct participation by the people in local government matters.
  10. We had to explain very clearly in our Election Manifesto that we would take our seats if elected. We had to do this because of the fact that the other parties were telling people that we would refuse to sit if elected. It was also quite obvious to us that no matter what the people thought of our Election Policy they could see no point in supporting us unless we were prepared to sit on the council.

We opened our campaign about four weeks before polling day by setting up a full time Election Headquarters, complete with telephone. During the campaign we gave out approximately 75 000 pieces of literature made up of National Election Manifesto, Local Election Manifesto, Candidate Literature, Voting Cards and hand outs at polling stations. We used 3000 posters. We also had an average of 15 people working every night, either canvassing or distributing literature and we were able to provide transport and man all polling stations on voting day. We were the only party in town that managed to canvass every house, and also to hold numerous public meetings. Our total expenses came to £360.00, and we made a profit of £50.00. The net result was the winning of two seats on Bray Urban District Council and one seat on Wicklow County Council. Having outlined the type of Election Campaign we fought, I feel it is essential that we examine the reasons why the people voted for us. I think the reasons would be as follows:

  1. Bray had experienced a long period of particularly bad administrations, resulting in a generally run-down town, and the existing parties were either unwilling or unable to take appropriate action to remedy the situation.
  2. Most members of the outgoing council had been at least 20 or 30 years involved in local government and there seemed to be absolutely no difference between one party and another.
  3. We had established a good relationship with the people through our involvement in the Tenants Association, the Trades Council and the Credit Union movements.
  4. We made no secret of the fact that we were a revolutionary socialist party and that we were prepared to give leadership both in the local council chamber and on the streets.
  5. We made it obvious that we were radically different from all the other parties and that we had no time for any party that existed by putting the people under a compliment for things that are theirs by right.
  6. We made it plain to the people that if we were elected we would make sure that Bray Urban District Council would be democratised and that they would be able to make their presence felt in the council chamber on any issue that affected their welfare.
  7. We fought a better campaign than any other party and people were impressed by the dedication and unity of our members during the campaign.
  8. All of the other parties were suffering through internal rivalry between their candidates and we benefited from this.

After the local elections of June 1967 we had to lay down new rules of behaviour to deal with the following situations:

I.  What would be the relationship between our elected representatives and our own organisation.
II.  What would be the relationship between our elected representatives and individuals or organisations.
III.  What would be the relationship between our elected representatives and the representatives of other parties.
IV. What would be the relationship between our representatives and the Council officials.

I.  In order to maintain proper contact between our elected representatives and our own members we set up the machinery for the holding of regular meetings. We hold a general meeting twice a month on the nights before the local council meets. At our own meeting we discuss all matters on the agenda for the council meeting and decisions are made by the meeting regarding the attitude to be taken by our councillors. We also discuss at these meetings any items that our own members feel should be raised at the council meetings. We decide whether these matters will be raised directly by our own councillors, by the Sinn Fein Cumann through direct correspondence, or through agitation in the mass organisations. Whenever possible we adopt the last course of action in order to build the confidence of the people in their own organisations. It also helps to establish our members within these organisations, and ensures that their leadership is accepted.

II. The contacts created between individuals or organisations as a result of our election presented us with a completely new situation. We found that suddenly large numbers of people and organisations were approaching our councillors for assistance, and we set up a Citizens Advice Bureau in order to meet them. The people we meet in this way can usually be broken into three categories:

a. Individual people who require assistance from someone with knowledge of local government procedure, so that they can overcome some problem that applies to them alone. They are usually people who are entitled to some particular service but don‚t know how to proceed about obtaining it. In these cases our local representatives simply approach the appropriate Council Department and iron out the red tape. We usually find that those people have already approached councillors from other parties, and we are under the impression that we are doing them a favour. We always avail of the opportunity to impress upon them that what they are seeking is theirs by right and that they don‚t owe us or anyone else anything for it. We find that this approach serves to create a spirit of independence on the part of the persons concerned. It also helps to establish our integrity and demolish the hypocrisy of the other parties.

b. If an individual approaches us with a problem that happens to be common to a number of other people we usually refuse to act on his behalf unless he first of all agrees to bring the other people together so that they can all fight together. I can best illustrate what I mean by giving an outline of one particular case. In August 1967 we were approached by a particular individual who had no water supply in this house and who had been trying for 25 years to get Wicklow County Council to give him a connection from a nearby water main. During the course of discussion with him it emerged that there was a total of 13 houses in his locality without water and that they had spent 25 years approaching other councillors without avail. The other parties had simply said „leave it to us and we will look after it‰, but had done nothing about it. This man agreed to organise a meeting of his neighbours which we attended. We pointed out to them that if they were prepared to organise themselves they had a good chance of pressurising the Council into giving them a water supply. They agreed with our suggestion, and formed an association. The association went on 2 or 3 deputations to council meetings and after threatening to withhold rates etc. they succeeded in getting the council to agree to install a water supply. Work will start on the scheme in about two weeks time. These people could not understand why none of the other parties had suggested the same tactics as we had. Again we availed of the opportunity to explain the difference in policy between our organisation and the other parties. The result is that we now have the whole-hearted support of these people, and they in turn have developed a new sense of independence. If other examples of similar cases are required I can give them during question time.

c. The third category in this group is an approach by some existing organisation requiring assistance. Existing organisations are different from individual cases in so far as they rarely approach one party only. They usually contact all parties at the same time if the problem is connected with local government. If they have a long standing problem that could not be solved the conventional manner we usually suggest some form of agitational activity, and we offer whatever technical knowledge which they may require. We have found when dealing with organisations that all conventional means must have failed them before we can suggest other methods. We have established very good relationships with the following organisations was a result of these approaches:
– Bray Trades Council
– Bray Tenants Association
– Bray Housing Action Association
– County Wicklow N.F.A.
– County Wicklow Macra na Feirma
– West Wicklow Development Association
– Greystones-Kilcoole Housing Action Association plus numerous other smaller groups.

We find that most organisations exist in order to improve the living standards of their members, and that a solution to their problems can be found by reference to the appropriate section of the Sinn Fein Social and Economic Policy. Every opportunity should be availed of in order to let these organisations know that the solutions advanced by our local representatives are in fact part of Sinn Fein policy and not just the opinions of individual councillors. If a solution can be found within the existing framework of society so much the better. If solutions can only be found through a completely new type of social and economic structure, then this should be made clear to the organisations concerned and every possible effort should be made to create a head on collision between these organisations and the forces opposed to them. In this way, we will help to create a desire on their part for fundamental changes in the structure of society. This in my opinion should be one of the primary functions of Sinn Fein councillors. If we succeed in this objective the organisations concerned will be prepared to give us political support when we advance the same solutions from our political platforms.

III. The next matter that we had to decide upon was the relationship between our representatives and the representatives of other parties. We decided at the beginning that we would adopt a completely independent stand on all issues, and that if our views happened to coincide with the views of other parties w e would co-operate. In turn if our views were different we would oppose them. In practice we have found that in most cases we have been opposed by the other parties, particularly on issues that require fundamental changes in the structure of society before they can be solved. The result of this is that we have succeeded in exposing the other parties as groups who are only interested in maintaining the status quo. We have been particularly successful in exposing the Labour Party in Wicklow as such a group. This arose because of their attitude in connection with a recent housing scandal, which I can elaborate upon during question time if necessary. The Trades Council in Bray have co-operated with us in this particular case, and we have publicly condemned the Labour councillors for their anti-working class attitude. It should be of interest to note that most of the delegates on the Trades Council are either members of supporters of the Labour Party. The attitude of Sinn Fein councillors should be to avail of every possible opportunity to demonstrate that we are fundamentally different from all of the other parties, and we should not yield to the temptation to let up on the attack either from some short term advantage or because some of them just happen to be nice people.

IV. The relationship between our representatives and local authority officials needs to be examined at this point. Our experience of Wicklow has shown that most of the officials are reasonably honest and dedicated workers and that some of them are quite progressive in their attitudes. However, they are restricted in their activities by the rules laid down by the central authority for the running of local government. This means in effect that in cases where we advocate policies that cannot be implemented through the framework of existing legislation we run the risk of head on collision with the officials. The effect of this can and should be minimised by pointing out at all times that we are opposed to the system as such and not to the officials that are forced to work within the confines of the system. In this way we will succeed in gaining the support of the progressive minded officials, and at the same time we will help to create grave dissatisfaction on their part with the whole local government system. They will gradually become disillusioned and frustrated, and it will therefore be easier for us to in their support for our ideas in the future.

The Wicklow by-election was held in March 1968 and at the time we still had only one organised Cumann in the whole county. The election was fought in basically the same way as the local elections except that it cost us approximately £1200 as opposed to £360. As a direct result of the election we were able to form nine new Cumainn in the county. This was about the only advantage gained from the contest. We now have a total of ten Cumainn, all of which are reasonably active as outlined during the course of the lecture. In terms of votes we received approximately 2000 first preference votes which I consider to be a poor return for the investment in time, labour and money involved.

During the course of the by election we found that the greatest single objection to voting Sinn Fein was the existence of the abstentionist policy. I stated at the start of this lecture that I proposed to relate our experiences on local councils to the likely effects of our involvement in parliamentary action at National level. Involvement in parliament can be usefully compared in a number of ways with our involvement in Local councils. As I have already demonstrated during the course of my lecture there is two things that we can achieve through our involvement in local government affairs:

  1. We can achieve some short term results within the existing framework
  2. We can use it as a forum from which to advance our revolutionary ideas thereby creating a lack of confidence in the whole system. Of course we can only do these things by operating both inside and outside the Council Chambers in a disciplined manner as I have already referred to.

I suggested the same tactics could be usefully employed by even a small group of well disciplined T.D.s at National level working both inside and outside Parliament. I believe that the Republican Movement is capable of producing the proper type of person for this job. And I also believe that we could establish the necessary machinery to control our T.D.s. The people of Ireland are clever enough to recognise the fact that effective power lies in the hands of Parliament at the moment, and in my opinion they are not going to give their support to any party that refuses to recognise this fact and act accordingly.

Before the Republican Movement can achieve power, we must succeed in breaking the confidence of the people in the existing Parliamentary institutions, and I would suggest that this should be one of the main functions of our TDs. They should also be full time Revolutionary Organisers in their own areas, thereby demonstrating to the people who elected them the fundamental difference between ourselves and the other parties.

In conclusion I would like to give an example of the possibilities that could have been availed of by such as group of T.D.s in the recent past. The discussion on the ESB Special Provisions Bill in 1966 provided a glorious opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of revolutionary tactics within parliament combined with action on the streets. If the opportunity could not have been availed of at that time it could certainly have been used during the subsequent ESB strike. During this strike approximately 50 ESB workers were imprisoned and almost 100 000 workers, most of whom were in sympathy with the ESB men were walking the streets of Dublin for the best part of a week. I suggest that the opportunities thus presented as a result of these circumstances could have been used with effect by a well disciplined revolutionary movement acting in consort with its TDs in order to smash the Special Provisions Bill.

The present discussions on the Criminal Justice Bill presents similar opportunities for any party in opposition to avail of them, and with that provocative suggestion which I feel sure raises more questions than it answers, I will now conclude my lecture.

Posted on October 25, 2011, in IRSP, Political education and theory, Republicanism 1960s, Seamus Costello. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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