Interview with veteran socialist-republican Gerry Ruddy

I’ve corresponded with veteran socialist-republican activist and leader Gerry Ruddy, on and off, for some years now.  I finally got to meet him last month (December 2011) in Belfast.  Below is an interview with him which covers a lot of the main political events and lessons of the struggle in Ireland over the past 45 or so years:

Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about how you first got involved in politics?

Gerry Ruddy: As long as I can remember I took an interest in what was going on in the world. For example I remember in 1956 when I was 10 praying for ‘Catholic Hungary’ when the Soviets invaded. I also remember the Cuban missile crisis when we all thought the world might end. I recall reading Michael Foot’s biography of Aneurin Bevan, the first real political book I had read, which helped direct me towards left politics. The election of Harold Wilson’s  Labour Government and its subsequent betrayals also helped direct me towards the left.  At university I joined the Labour Group and was influenced by the likes of Michael Farrell and Eamon McCann.

I joined both the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Irish Labour Party (which had branches in my local town of Newry), plus I was involved in the Young Socialists, CND etc in the late sixties.  It was then I started reading the socialist classics, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, Fanon, Guevara, Gramsci, Luxemburg and, of course, James Connolly.  I remember selling copies of the Irish Militant on the Falls Road at the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

PF: How did you come to join People’s Democracy?

GR: I was still at university and along with other militants participated in the mass demonstrations that spontaneously followed the October 5, 1968 attack by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) on a peaceful civil rights  march.  In the following months there were many protests and meetings and it was a great political education.  Gradually one could see the differences emerge between the left and the moderates both within Peoples Democracy and the broader civil rights movement.

PF: How would you evaluate the role played by PD in its early years?  For instance, some people in the Provisional IRA have talked about seeing PD as being more in tune with their politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s than Provisional Sinn Fein.  On the other hand, a number of PD members went on to fairly anti-republican politics.

GR: Personally I believe that PD was for the years 1968-73 the driving force of the mass movement.  When others took their foot off the pedal it was PD that would accelerate the engine of mass protest.  Burntollet was one clear example of that.  While building PD itself we also participated in united front tactics, working within NICRA (the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association), the Northern Resistance Movement, the Political Hostages Release Committee and God knows what else, as well as making contacts with socialist groups within Ireland and abroad.

Naturally our militancy appealed to the nationalist working class in Belfast and some of our people worked closely with Provisional IRA members, some of whom had been originally in PD.  We even had educational classes in marxism with some of them.

While Provisional Sinn Fein was then regarded as a right-wing traditionalist party both PD and the PIRA were in favour of “Smash Stormont” unlike those in the Official IRA who, along with the CPNI (Communist Party of Northern Ireland), favoured the democratisation of Stormont.  So it was natural for us militants in PD to try to influence and win over to marxism and socialism working class militants within the Provos.  However we always regarded the Provos as a petit-bourgeois nationalist organisation that was anti-imperialist.

Inevitably mass movements break up. Some of the PD activists ended up in the judicial system, implementing British law and order. Others went into academic life and began to revisit history. Some became Unionists (ie supporters of the six counties being part of Britain – PF), some of us marxists, others republican and continued to try to change the world.  Others simply went into the media or disappeared from public life.

Don’t forget that in the late sixties and early seventies there were massive changes in the way in which we looked at the world.  The personal became political.  We became aware of the oppression of women, gays, racism etc.  All these things had an impact on political activity and how one viewed the world.  In that context it was relatively easy to be an internationalist rather than a nationalist.

I always say to comrades that if they want to understand why the Provos are where they are today, then go back to the roots of the formation and read their founding documents.  Right-wing, catholic, anti-communist and nationalist.  It’s all there.  It is a short step from that to occupying Fianna Fail’s shoes, especially if you put the armed struggle behind you, wrapped in heroic cotton wool and candy floss. (As opposed to what those bad dissidents are doing today!!!)

PF:  Could you tell us about PD’s relationship with the Officials and the Provos in the immediate aftermath of the 1969/70 split.  Quite a lot of people, especially outside Ireland, tended to take things at a fairly superficial level and see the Officials as the genuine left and the Provos as right-wing, but PD seemed to have had a much more nuanced view and a much better understanding that the Provos were much more complex than that.  For instance, I’m aware of the working relationship – however fraught – between PD and the Provos (eg in the Northern Resistance Movement), but I’ve never heard of any working relationship of any sort with the Officials.

GR:  Yes that is also my recollection.  On a personal level I was more sympathetic towards the Officials, particularly around my home town where PD existed for a while  and there was a small level of co-operation.  Personally I regarded the Provos then as a right-wing traditionalist organisation, but in areas like Belfast you could see  more radical elements like the Price sisters, Rita and Gerry O’Hare and the McDermots who were also in PD.  So it was natural that a good working relationship developed with the more progressive elements.  Later on PD produced a joint work by Michael Farrell and Phil McCullough, then, as now, a leading Provo.  On the other hand, people like Ronnie Bunting and the Rosatos,  also in PD, gravitated towards the Officials.  It has to be taken into account the politics of it as well.  We were for smashing Stormont, so were the Provos, while the Officials and the CP were for the democratisation of  the six counties and the retention of Stormont.  Also, of course, you had the clash of personalities, with individuals becoming like ‘hate’ figures, such as the ‘devil’.  All very immature of course, but that was the way it was.

However let us not paint too black and white a picture; it was much more nuanced than that.  I remember in the immediate aftermath of internment speaking around the place and calling for the two IRAs to unite and fight the Brits and this always got an enthusiastic response from the audiences.  We shared platforms with all tendencies in those days.  Also the Officials in Derry were very left wing  and there was a good relationship with them.  (Later, of course, a lot of Derry Officials went with Costello and helped establish the IRSP/INLA.)

Indeed I specifically remember that PD (I think mainly Fergus O’Hare and myself) organised a joint St Patricks Day March involving both the Provos and the Officials.  (As a minor footnote  I was attacked in the Sticks’ paper as a political guru for PD and also by the Provo paper as, I think, a fireside socialist.)

I suppose the thinking behind  much of what PD did was to win the more militant elements of republicanism towards a socialist and marxist perspective.  And then the question became can you do that from without or within?  I took the latter route, based on my own experiences, and others took a different route.

Funnily enough a similar question is posed today to marxists and socialists?  Do you write off those militants attracted towards militant republicanism and disassociate yourself from them or do you hope to influence them?

PF: Were you surprised when the Officials pretty quickly evolved towards Moscow and the East European bureaucratic states?  Why do you think republican militants like Cathal Goulding and Sean Garland went that way?

GR: No, not really because in those days many genuine people looked towards the Soviet Union for a version of socialism and it did have the credibility from its struggles in the Second World War.  It was also the time when Cuba looked like it could be a model for socialism in Ireland.  And the USSR supported Cuba.  So it was natural for many to look to the USSR for support.  Personally, while I preferred the USSR to the  USA in those days, I had no illusions about Stalinism.  I knew then, as I know now, what it entails – a slavish devotion to the leadership, a lack of democracy from below and non-participation in the control of the economy.

Also its highly-centralised leadership driven from the top down has an obvious appeal for those in charge of a military organisation.  The Adams leadership in the Provos also perfected that type of leadership.  How else can one explain the long delay in splits from both the Provos and the Sticks?  The trust in the leadership seems to me to have overcome any independent thinking that the membership might have had.  Read, for example, about the likes of Brendan Hughes and Brian Keenan and wonder why it took them so long to realise that what they stood for and believed was being betrayed.  It is painful to read.  I, in my later years, have tried not to get into the politics of personalities, a very difficult thing – for example I respect the position that Gerry Kelly, for whose release I and other people campaigned in the early seventies, finds himself in, though I don’t agree with it.  I think I understand how politics can bring one to places they never meant to be.  So Stalinism with its certainty, its control etc has a powerful influence on those who need to follow some kind of “god”.  Losing the will to believe in external gods, and with a belief in humanity, I decide to stay on the side of the vast majority of the people of this world and if this entails being accused of being a “Trotskyist” then it’s a badge I wear with pride.*

PF: Could you tell us a bit about the process which led you to join the Irish Republican Socialist Party?

GR: By about 1973 PD had become centralised with a strong central committee of which I was a member.  However doubts had arisen in my mind about the direction we were going in; on reflection this seemed to centre on, for me, two key issues.  One was the colon theory developed by Michael Farrell about the protestant population* and the second was the issue of the primacy of politics.  At that time PD had a small armed section called the RCA (Revolutionary Citizens Army) and I was in dispute with the central committee about its influence and ended up being either dismissed from PD or else resigned.  Personally I have not revisited the issues in years so my own subjective memory may be at fault, but that is how I recall it.

Anyway as a PD member I attended a meeting to start an Ardoyne branch of the IRSP, shortly after the party was founded and was impressed by Seamus Costello and his speech which seemed to encapsulate what I believed.  I had originally met Seamus in 1969 and was impressed by his no-nonsense approach and how he did not suffer fools gladly, though at that time we disagreed on the direction the civil rights movement was taking.

As I was moving towards the IRSP those comrades within it with whom I identified, including Bernadette, had a dispute over the army/party issue – the primacy of politics – and they, the Left Faction, walked away from the party.  I thought then and still do that was a major mistake.  They lost by one vote.  It was a major mistake that eventually saw the Provos seize the left ground during the hunger strikes

Subsequently that left, ie the remnants of the Left Faction, set up the Irish Committee for a Socialist Programme which I joined, evolving into the Independent Socialist Party which effectively fell apart just before the start of the mass campaign around the H-Blocks.

PF: Why do you think the Independent Socialist Party fell apart?  I would’ve thought that the late 1970s, with the emergence of the Relatives Action Committees and so on, plus Bernadette’s 1979 Euro election campaign – which the current Provo leadership tried to sabotage – would have provided fertile ground for building the ISP.

GR: To be honest, I’m not sure I know the answer to that question.  We had a very solid base at the start and committed activists.  Indeed, on reflection, over the whole period I would say that the level of political activity and theory was second to none.  We concentrated on three key areas: democratic struggles, economic struggles and the women’s question.  Maybe it was a clash of personalities, of differing responses to the dirty protest and differences over theoretical questions.  Whatever the cause, it was an opportunity missed just as there was the beginnings once again of a mass movement.  Perhaps other comrades involved, like Bernadette, have a clearer recollection of its demise.  Incidentally it was not only the Provos who attacked Bernadette’s campaign.  The IRSP did so also.  A very wrong decision.

Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey and Seamus Costello at early IRSP meeting

PF: How would you assess Seamus Costello and his position in terms of Irish revolutionary figures and the Irish revolutionary movement?

GR: I don’t do hero worship.  I abhor the cult of the personality.  I think in Republican politics especially there is too little analysis and too much unquestioning loyalty.  It is all about politics not the attributes of individual men or women; I am a firm believer in collective leadership.

Nevertheless, Seamus was one of the outstanding republicans of his generation, a modernist, in a traditional organisation, who saw the necessity for relating republicanism to the needs of the people.  Unfortunately there exists too little of his writings but, of what there is, there is enough to establish him as an outstanding leader.  He had the politics right.

Like Connolly, he saw the interconnection between the class and the national question.  His dedication, work rate and sheer bravery set an example and too few of us are capable of living up to his standards.  He is an example of a revolutionary republican, a better role model to follow than any of those today who strut about as “important leaders of republicanism”.

PF: Could you tell us a bit about the campaigns of state repression that hit the IRSP from its birth in 1974 pretty much non-stop for the next decade – I’m thinking of the Sallins robbery frame-up, the murders of prominent IRSP figures, the supergrass trials etc.

GR: It needs to be remembered that in the mid-seventies the Intelligence services in the twenty-six county state had, as their main target, left-republicans.  Socialism was the big fear, hence the vicious repression of the IRSP.  Also, it needs to be remembered that at that time the Provos were in regular contact with the Brits through their various ceasefires.  Any study of  anti-colonial struggles shows how the Brits exploited divisions among the anti-colonialists to turn them against each other.  It is easier to negotiate with one armed group than a number so, from the Brits’ and the Free Staters’ point of view, better to either crush the Sticks and the IRSP/INLA or buy them off, leaving the field clear for the Provos to do the negotiating.

History will judge who was bought off and who was nearly crushed.

Initially the campaigns against the frame-ups and the show trials were successful in that they gained support from political activists, but other factors, including the dark arts of intelligence services, saw in particular support drain away from the IRSP.  The loss of people like Miriam (Daly), Ronnie (Bunting) and Noel (Lyttle) was major.  I had worked closely with Noel when we were both in PD together and he was a fantastic worker and organiser.  Undoubtedly he alone would have made a difference to the development of the IRSP.

The supergrass trials laid the basis for future disputes that plagued the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army; the military wing of the republican socialist movement, the IRSP being the political wing – PF).  The eighties, all in all, were a dark period for the republican socialist movement.

PF: I think for many sympathetic people outside Ireland, and for some inside Ireland, the image is that in the 1980s, after the murders of comrades like Noel Lyttle and Ronnie Bunting, and recriminations over the supergrasses, the IRSP and INLA fell apart in murderous feuding.  What would your analysis be of what went wrong and why?

GR: When we began to reactivate the IRSP in the mid-nineties my comrades and I would ponder on this a lot.  There is no easy answer.  Of course there was a lack of leadership. The assassination of Seamus Costello was a major blow, but then the loss of the middle leadership as well, before they could fully develop the movement, left a vacuum.  The influx of ex-Provos at one time was also believed to have been a factor.  Apolitical volunteers rose to prominence in the INLA and made wrong choices.  But it would be wrong to put it down to individuals and blame A or B.

In my considered view it was simple.  Due to a lack of clear, committed leadership, lack of political education, a failure to analyse and an over-indulgence of machismo, posturing militarism was in the ascendancy.  Many of us in the party struggled in vain to rectify this.

But repression from the state and intimidation of membership saw the party almost at a halt by 1986.  Then came the vicious assault by a mixed bag of former comrades, some of who joined the Provos and others who went on to form the IPLO (Irish People’s Liberation Organisation – PF).  That was one of the very low points, depressing and sad as former comrades turned guns on each other.  Only the forces of imperialism benefited from that whole episode.

PF: Over a long period of time, the IRSP and INLA seemed to reform, albeit passing through quite distinct political phases, like the “Marxist-Leninist” period and so on.  What was going on during all this?

GR: When I reflect back it always seems as if the IRSP was always “reforming”.  There are a number of distinct phases:

Post-Costello – 1977-81, a period when the founding members struggled to maintain the party and indeed did a reasonable job but there were growing tensions within the army.

Post-Hunger strike period – 1982-86/87, when the party took a turn to the left but failed to carry all the membership.  I think the so-called ‘Marxist-Leninist’ stage is over-exaggerated. It was used to fan differences but, in reality, some people were simply looking for an excuse to do down the new leadership that was elected in 1983.  They also incidentally claimed to be “marxist”.

Post-1987 – when for a time the party engaged with The Leninist paper in Britain and the army, under Torney, became even less political, leading to a proposal to eventually close all party premises.

Then there was the period from 1994 onwards when a small group of us working with Gino Gallagher gave the movement back to the membership and began the process of re-politicising and rebuilding the IRSP. Despite the murder of Gino, that process continued, I believe, reasonably successfully.

PF: Could you tell us about your role in the IRSP when you joined?

GR: I eventually joined in 1981 and was elected to the ard-comhairle (central committee – PF) in 1983 I think.  I took over from Anthony Dornan as General Secretary, but at a time when the IRSP was disintegrating.  There was an atmosphere of suspicion and fear and, despite the best efforts of the likes of Jim Lane and others, the party was in decline.  There was some hope that the prisoners jailed under the supergrass system would make a difference when those trials ended.

Indeed I was optimistic after meeting with Ta Power.  He gave me the original copy of his document on the primacy of politics.  It was then – and still is – a brilliant critique of the movement.  Sadly he was killed less than a month later and the movement went into rapid decline despite the formal commitment to the primacy of politics.  Indeed the opposite happened from 1988 to 1994.  I was ‘retired’ from the party during that time.

From 1994 to ’97 a small number of us began the process of rebuilding the party, part of which was interrupted by the attacks of the group around Torney.  I acted as political secretary of the IRSP from 1997 until about 2007.

There is a formal and an informal role within political parties.  I saw my informal role as bringing the party back to its basic principles and rock steady on the primacy of politics.  It is for others to judge if any of my roles were successful.

PF: How did the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (the IRSP and INLA) analyse what was happening in the Provos in the early 1990s, their response to the Downing Street Agreement of 1993 and their evolution between then and the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement?

GR: We knew instinctively that this was the beginning of the end of the armed struggle and the beginning of a political process to involve Republicans in the running of the northern statelet.  We started on the basic premise “never trust the Brits”.  While we had differences as to whether armed struggle should continue, we were united on the issue of no return to Stormont.

However, even we were surprised at the way in which the Provo support base accepted every twist and turn by the Adams leadership.  I suppose war weariness was one factor, plus the impact of loyalist killings, directed at republicans and orchestrated by British intelligence.  While we and a few others such as Bernadette saw the ceasefire as a defeat for republicanism, the Adams leadership presented it as a victory and managed to convince their followers how they would put “manners” on the police.  Once they entered into negotiations, they were going to be eventually pressurised into doing away with all military aspects of their movement.

At the same time it should be pointed out that our main focus was rebuilding our movement and that the vast bulk of our energies from 1994 onwards was establishing a collective leadership, asserting the primacy of politics and for an 18-months period avoid being wiped out by the remnants of the Torney gang.  It was also important to establish the movement as unified in order for INLA prisoners to benefit from the early release scheme.  The only negotiations our leadership entered into with intermediaries for the Brits was on that issue.  When we were assured they would benefit, then the leadership began a process of consultation that led up to the ceasefire in August 1998.  Incidentally the Omagh bombing happened after that ceasefire decision had been made but before it was announced.

PF: One of the things that struck me about the younger northern leadership of the Provos, which was supposed to be so staunchly radical, was that few of them seemed to have much understanding of the southern state.  Actually, someone like Ruairi O Bradaigh seemed to me to have a much better understanding of the southern state, even if his abstentionism was a dead end.  It always seemed to me that Mellows was right when he said that the southern state was a barrier state to the completion of the struggle for Irish freedom; it would have to be uprooted for the struggle to succeed.  What was Costello and the IRSP’s view of the southern state?

GR: That attitude of the northern Provos is understandable given where they were coming from. The Sticks got it right when they referred to the ‘Provisional Alliance’.  An alliance between traditional republicans, rural armed nationalists and radicalised urban working class elements raised within a sectarian society.  While this alliance eventually took on a ‘persona’ of its own and created a formidable guerrilla campaign, nevertheless there was a blind spot as to the nature of the 26-county state.  They did not, nor could they given the nature of their organisation, see it in class terms, only as a base for carrying out armed attacks on the British state. Even in the face of fierce repression many Provos and indeed some Irps held an ambivalent attitude towards that state.  Perhaps they hoped that a spark would ignite the population.  Unfortunately little regard was given to the actual economic conditions facing the southern working class.  No serious attempt was made to link struggles north and south.

The southern state has always been prepared to use violence against dissenters

Costello had a better understanding of the state and saw the necessity for an all-round political struggle.  His own political activity from the mid-sixties pointed the way forward for republicans.  Sadly his own example was not replicated.  The IRSP found it very difficult to reach out to the southern working class, given the negative activities of people associated with the INLA.  However the IRSP always saw the 26-county state as a capitalist state and had little or no illusions in its so-called “republicanism”.

James Connolly was oh so right when he said that partition would lead to a “carnival of reaction”. The revelations about the role of the Catholic Church in the 26 counties parallel the role of the Orange Order in the north – corrupt, powerful, arrogant and belittling of the weak and oppressed.  Connolly, Mellows, Costello all called it right – the class and the national question.

PF: It seems that universities are not the only place in Ireland that have produced historical revisionists.  There seems to be a frantic rewriting of history by leaders of the Provos, as if all they ever wanted was civil rights or “parity of esteem”.  What would you say are the major parts of the struggle that are getting rewritten by these folk today?

GR: Where does one start?  That Adams was a leader of the civil rights movement?  Wrong.  He was never a member of the IRA?  Wrong.  That the armed struggle was heroic and non sectarian?  Wrong.  That it was for equality.  Wrong.  That there was no Brit offer on the hunger strike.  Wrong.   That the Good Friday Agreement was a victory?  Wrong.

There is a difference between revisionism and lying.  I have no problem that in the light of the release of historical documents people take a fresh look at events in history.  That form of revisionism is acceptable and arguments will always go on about the relative importance of events.  But lying to justify where one is politically today is wrong.  The Adams leaderships is notable for its deceit, treachery, dishonesty and lack of principles.  But I suppose that’s how one gets power under capitalism.

PF: What did the IRSM make of the Provos’ total abandonment of armed struggle?

GR: From 1994 onwards one key element I and others in leadership positions hammered home to the movement was what the Provos did was their business and not ours.  We should never knee-jerk to what they, a nationalist organisation, did.  We had our own politics and positions and should concentrate on those.  And our considered position eventually evolved to the recognition that the conditions for armed struggle no longer existed and we had to take into account the wishes of the people.  However, there were ard fheis resolutions passed that even forbade the discussion of decommissioning.  The feeling was that we could not leave nationalist areas or volunteers defenceless in the future.

While I had no problem with a partial symbolic act of decommissioning I could not, and can not, understand why the INLA itself responded to a British deadline on decommissioning.  The reasons given then do not stand up in my view.

PF: What was the thinking behind the INLA ceasefire and subsequent declaration that their days as an army were over too?

GR: The ceasefire  statement  I believe speaks for itself.  It clearly recognises the desire of the Irish people for a halt to armed struggle.  But it did not endorse the political process, nor did it believe that the struggle was over.  Only that different methods must be used.  Subsequently, in the years following, the movement took a clear stance that the interests of the working class were paramount.  In other words the movement accepted the basis of marxism, the primacy of politics and the need to engage in the class struggle along the lines outlined by Costello, no separation of the class and national question.  In that light the standing down of the INLA makes very clear political sense.  I think that was a wise decision.

PF: Why do you think other armed groups, such as the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and now a new Oglaigh na hEireann, have kept going with armed actions?  What sort of support do they have?  What do you think of their perspectives?

GR: I think there are a number of reasons for this. There is a bitter sense of betrayal by many former Provo volunteers, reinforced by the fact that they themselves believed the lies of the Adams leadership.  (As an aside it is interesting that “the road to Damascus” occurred a number of times – 1986/87, 1998, 2007 etc and all from within the ranks of the Provos.)

Few gains of the “peace process”, apart from the absence of violence, have drifted down to working class communities.  Poverty, unemployment, social problems etc still affect the working classes and indeed we now have a much more segregated and divided society.  So, for disaffected young people, armed actions can seem an attractive alternative to give some meaning to their lives.

And, of course, the elephant in the room – Britain still rules a part of Ireland.  While that continues there will always be those prepared to take “the pike from the thatch”.

As regards support, not a huge amount is needed to initiate armed attacks.  There is a small disaffected section of the population prepared to give some support to armed actions.

All that is required for that support to grow is for the Brits/Stormont administration to make major mistakes – for example, around the issue of prisoners.

However, I see no long-term benefits in the pursuit of armed struggle.  The Provos failed and they had a formidable guerrilla army and at times mass support.  So I think the strategy of armed struggle here is doomed.

That is why it is so important for left groups like the IRSP to break out of its isolationism and reach out politically to fellow republicans and other socialists and show there is a better way forward.  That is not easy.  But then revolution is not a bed of roses.  Unlike the political left sects like the Socialist Party I believe that marxists must not be afraid of  so-called ‘contagion’ and reach out to all who have possibilities of moving to the left.  I know there are genuine socialists in the so-called ‘dissidents’ as indeed there is across the board, even as far as the Labour Party and Sinn Fein.

And, of course, there is the issue of the protestant working class, something republicans have in the past avoided even discussing.  All of us on the left- republican or otherwise – need to grapple with this.  We can not duck this question.

PF: How would you analyse what has happened in the six counties over the past ten-fifteen years?  For instance, it seems to me that the Orange state is gone but the six-county state and British rule continue and that sectarian divisions within the six-county population are still rife, but middle class Catholics have done very well for themselves and are now an integral part of the establishment with no barriers to personal advancement in their way.  My impression is also that the working class, both nationalist and unionist, lost out.  If Sandy Row is anything to go by, my impression from walking around a little bit down there and walking around the Lower Falls, is that the protestant-Unionist working class lost out the most.

GR: Could not agree with you more.  In essence the original civil rights programme has finally been implemented, albeit with significant modifications to take account of the armed conflict.  The process of the democratisation of the six counties has proved what we on the left said all along: civil rights would not solve the underlying contradictions within Ireland.

What we now have is a deeply-divided society in the north for the working classes, but the catholic middle classes are well-integrated into the state structures.  Indeed they are staunch defenders of the status quo.  Of course for Unionism this has been a traumatic period – having to accommodate to the catholic middle classes.  But sections of their leadership recognise that it is in their class interests to adapt to the new situation, hence the DUP’s sharing of power with the Shinners.

The ‘peace walls’ in Belfast show the continuing sectarian divide, reinforced by the ‘peace process’

In all this the working classes have been left behind, none more so than the protestant working class.  They face a dilemma.  To continue on the old path marked by their industrial and political masters in the past, and encouraged by the Orange Order today, of sectarian conflict with catholic fellow workers or to defend both their and others’ class interests and oppose the very system that oppresses both catholic and protestant workers.

Sectarian hatred has not lessened.  The ‘republicanism’ of the Provos has given us the antithesis of Wolfe Tone’s dream.  Sectarian incidents occur almost on a daily basis.  This poses hard questions for those  of us who still adhere to the dreams of Tone and Connolly and still see the only way forward through the victory of the working classes.

PF: What possibilities do you think there are for a cross-communal workers’ response in the six counties to the economic crisis and attacks on workers’ rights?  For instance, one thing that struck me in a very short visit to Sandy Row was that while the supremacist flags were looking very tatty – an indication of how the folks there have really lost out – a worsening economic situation hasn’t often radicalised protestant workers politically.  In the past, it has more often tended to strengthen their fairly widespread religious sectarianism against catholic workers.  They seem remarkably unable to grasp an understanding of their own class interests.  I’ll give you another example.  Back in the early 1990s I was in a community centre in a loyalist area for a political meeting.  One of the main people there was a former loyalist killer  (in the interview I mentioned who this was, but I’ve taken out the name for security reasons – PF) who had shifted politically and by then saw himself as a socialist.  He gave a little talk about the centre and his political evolution and in the discussion I asked him about some economic stuff and he gave an answer that I agreed with, but as soon as anything that hinted at some kind of all-Ireland workers’ struggle came up – I rather vaguely suggested the possibility that protestant workers might be better off in an all-Ireland workers republic than getting screwed over by the Unionist bosses and the British state – he backed away, it was just too big a leap.  But aren’t politicised protestant workers like him going to have to be prepared to make that leap in order for any meaningful class unity to happen?

GR: There is no easy answer to that question. Now in the second decade of the 21st century there are cross community contacts all over the place.  For instance, the person you mentioned can sit down with republican ex-combatants and discuss sectarianism, the conflict, etc.  Efforts are made to prevent young people from getting sucked into sectarian mindsets.  There is a flaw in your question, however. It is this. Both catholic and protestant workers seem, in your own words, “unable to grasp an understanding of their own class interests.”

It is not restricted to just protestant workers.  That is, for goodness sake, the impact of partition.  The northern state is still inherently sectarian.  The Provos agreed to accept that when they accepted the politics of the pacification programmme.  So while we may be frustrated by the lack of class consciousness of protestant workers why are we not so perturbed by the lack of class consciousness of catholic or indeed southern workers?

However that is not to accept there is no hope of progress.  Years of reaction, of passivity and of defeat can be overcome quickly.  Revolutionary upheavals can occur quickly and change the face of society.  Look at the Arab Spring of 2011.  Revolutionaries can make a difference even in periods of reaction.  It is by our example, our ideas and our actions that we win people to our politics.

100,000 workers take to streets of Dublin, Nov 2010; protests have massively shrunk and there has been no political crisis

PF: One of the things that struck me about the south when I was back there was the disconnect between the depth of the economic crisis and the level of workers’ resistance – ie the economic crisis is really deep but there is no political crisis and workers’ response is quite muted.  Why do you think this is and how can Marxists and other socialist-republicans help to change this?

GR: I think and hope that is changing.  There have been a number of occupations, there is growing discontent over the property tax on every household, with increasing numbers across the south saying they will refuse to pay.  Furthermore there has been a steady increase in the votes for leftish candidates in elections. But don’t forget the role of emigration. Many of our young people, those who would be to the forefront of protest, are being forced by economic circumstances to emigrate.  Unfortunately Ireland has always been a source of relatively cheap labour. We exported our cattle and now once again we export our young people.

And yes, the left can do something. I don’t mean the reformist left, part of which is implementing the vicious cuts on the working class – the Irish Labour Party.  But those of us in republican socialism and marxism who have a vision of a radically new society have a major responsibility to learn from the mistakes of the past. The centre for revolutionary activity is within the working class – not in self-proclaimed “leaderships” who demand almost blind obedience from their membership and treat the class almost with contempt.

We need to be involved in the mass organisations of the working class first of all and we need to overcome our own petty political sectarianism. I sometimes think that the revolutionary left in Ireland is still in a way in its adolescence and rushes too quickly into fast-track solutions that turn out to be false trails.

However there are good signs, republican socialists seem to have taken a decisive turn to the working class and shed off their militaristic skin. The broader revolutionary left seems to be inching towards building a mass party of the working class. Of course time will tell if these optimistic signs turn out for the better. But this I know, unless we can change this society, north and south, we will be condemning our children’s children to a life dominated by sectarianism, poverty and few opportunities for people to unleash their full human potentiality.

That is why the Irish left should emerge from its adolescence stage as soon as possible. Then there will be hope to fufil Connolly’s dream of a Socialist Republic.

PF: How do you see the way forward for socialist-republicans in particular and, more broadly, for the Irish working class.  I’m thinking of your comment when we were talking in Belfast that, in the north, maybe the national question needs to be parked for a while.

GR: Internationally, capitalism is in grave crisis.  Worldwide there are vicious attacks on the living standards of the working classes.  Centuries of gains won by the labour movements are being eroded.  Look at the attacks on the living standards of the workers in the south of Ireland.  So the question has to be asked, what is the major question of the day from the workers’ point of view in an Irish context.  It is the attack on their living standards.

I mentioned earlier that Seamus Costello was a modernist republican who dealt with the here and now.  That is how we should approach these issues.  Like it or loathe it the “peace process” (or, if you like, the pacification programme) has settled the issue of “the border“ for the foreseeable future.

In that context political republicans need to park the “national question” and deal with the here and now, making their republicanism relevant to the lives of the majority of workers on the isle.  Furthermore, it is clear to me that no republican can possibly envisage a socialist republic without the active participation of large sections of the protestant working class.

So let us go back to the basics of republicanism.  It is easy to say that.  It is much harder to lay the basis for a movement that will advance the working class.  All those who claim to be the answer need to swallow humble pie and recognise that republicanism/socialism/marxism is all over the place in unifying a working class movement.  I believe that our initial task is to defend the gains that capitalism is trying to take away.  Unity in action and then preparation for laying the basis for a mass party of the working class in Ireland.

Easy to say, incredibly difficult, but not impossible to do.

PF: In relation to “parking the national question”, I wonder whether this is possible.  For instance, one of the issues is prisoners such as Marian Price.  Raising the prisoner issue inevitably antagonises Unionists, including the section of them who are working class protestants.  But the issue still has to be raised.

GR: Absolutely. Don’t confuse parking the national question with abandoning the issues arising from it. Costello made it clear that we should not use the tactics of the ‘ring road socialists’. We should never hide our republicanism, or pretend to be something we are not. I have been around long enough to know the negative consequences of “Walkerism”.**  Too many of the left-wing sects think they can win over protestant workers by soft pedalling on so-called contentious issues (see The  Red Plough,Vol 2-3).  My own experience tells me that people respect one’s views if you are upfront and honest in the expression of those views.  People are not stupid.

But do remember it is extremely difficult to even get republicans to come out and support Marian Price.  (See The Red Plough, Vol. 2-No 4 (

On the issue of the prisoners there is no desire for the different groupings to come together in a united campaign.  That is a shame.

I believe that the way to approach issues like this has been laid out in the past by Lenin.  The revolutionary should be a tribune of the people, raising each and every manifestation of discontent.  Of course, there is likely to be opposition from sections of workers about supporting political prisoners.  That is inevitable.  But one can not pander to the prejudices of any section of the working class.  Should we support the Catholic Church’s control of schools because a large section of catholic workers support that?  No – as socialists, as republicans, we have a clear message and should not be afraid to deliver it no matter how unpopular that makes us in the short term.

*While I sympathise with Gerry’s point about Stalinism and external gods and blind following, I should add my own view that the Trotskyist movement is full of the same phenomena.  Some people would trace this to the ‘original sin’ of ‘Leninism’, but what strikes me is the remarkable difference between the substantial amount of democracy within the Bolshevik Party – people openly disagreed with each other, including with Lenin, in the party press, for instance – with the closed world of so many sects and cults, “Stalinist” and “Trotskyist” alike.

** William Walker was a Belfast-based socialist whose ideas were vigorously attacked by James Connolly.  Walker believed the way to unite workers was by only talking about “bread and butter” issues and avoiding big political questions such as the problems of religious sectarianism (in particular Orange supremacy and the Orange prejudices of many protestant workers) and the national question.  The documents of the “Connolly-Walker controversy” can be read here.

For follow-up reading on the interview, see:  Gerry’s article on Ireland, 1967-2007 and Gerry speaking at 100th anniversary of 1907 Belfast dockers’ strike

Posted on January 24, 2012, in Economy and workers' resistance, Hunger strikes, Interviews, Irish politics today, IRSP, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - current, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Seamus Costello, six counties, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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