Book Review – The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party
Many thanks to Peadar Laighléis, President of the Latin Mass Society of Ireland, for permitting me to post his review of The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party.
THE STICKIES HAVEN’T GONE AWAY, YOU KNOW
by Peadar Laighléis
Brandsma Review; November-December, 2010
THE LOST REVOLUTION: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. By Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. Penguin. 2010.
A friend began his best man’s speech by apologising for bringing the bridegroom late. The reason, he said, was that they couldn’t make up their minds whether to stick their roses on their lapels–or pin them on. The northern bride’s party laughed; as the southern groom’s party pondered. (For the benefit of the mystified, the joke will become clear shortly.)
The Irish Republican Army came into existence in 1916 and has claimed to be Ireland’s legitimate government since 1938. But there have been many IRAs. Trotskyite Saor Éire split from the IRA in 1967 and modelled themselves on organisations such as Baader-Meinhof in Germany and the Italian Brigate Rosse. Saor Éire caused havoc until their leader was killed by his own men in 1971. In December 1969 the defining schism took place between the Official IRA (OIRA) and the Provisional IRA (PIRA). The majority stayed with the OIRA, but the PIRA took more northern groups. The PIRA inflicted the most violence.
Ideologically, the Officials moved towards Marxist-Leninism; the Provisionals maintained traditional nationalism until drifting leftwards in the 1980s. The OIRA conducted a campaign in the North until their cease-fire in 1972. Following this, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) broke away, becoming highly feared, until a feud with their own breakaway group, the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation, in the late 1980s. Later, the PIRA lost the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA.
The OIRA and Official Sinn Féin (OSF) came into being when the PIRA left in late 1969. The IRA “Army Council” were veterans of the 1956-1962 Border campaign who had rethought their philosophy. They delayed any reaction to Loyalist violence against Nationalists in Northern Ireland in 1969. Northern Catholics said IRA stood for “I ran away” and discontented northern chiefs refused to follow Army Council orders. The PIRA was born. Sinn Féin split at the subsequent Ard-Fheis when PIRA supporters left in protest when the leadership proposed taking Dáil seats if elected. The groups were distinguished by the Easter lilies they sold to commemorate the 1916 rising: the Provos pinned paper lilies to their lapels; the Official lily was a stick-on adhesive device. Hence their nickname: the Stickies.
The early 1970s were the most violent years of the Northern conflict and the OIRA was active until 1972. The party transformed itself through adopting Eoghan Harris’ “Irish Industrial Revolution” and assuming the name “Sinn Féin–the Workers’ Party” in 1977. Harris moved the organisation from traditional republicanism to Marxist-Leninism. Party cadres underwent a thorough ideological re-education. The party was selective in recruits and demanding of its members. Marxism was applied to the northern problem and cross-community contact between workers was supposed to bring about a united socialist republic. Then Séamus Costello founded the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), and with it the INLA–a major threat to the Officials. INLA momentum slowed when the OIRA assassinated Costello in 1977, but they remained lethal for another decade.
Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party canvassed as a socialist party without paramilitary links. They focussed on social policies, especially in deprived areas. They sought trade union and media positions. Hanley and Scott describe how the Ned Stapleton Cumann secretly operated in RTÉ. This was directed by Harris who was influential in current affairs programming and recruited several journalists into the station. The comrades did not go unchallenged, but their influence on the station’s output was wider than news and comment. John Caden, who produced the Gay Byrne Show boasted of breaking the Church’s “twisted grip” on Irish society. Gerry Gregg, transferred from current affairs, said he had brought a Marxist perspective into children’s programmes. The Officials also found support in the Irish Times, while the Irish Press was sympathetic to the Provisionals.
High water mark
Joe Sherlock took a Dáil seat in 1981. In February 1982, Paddy Gallagher and Proinsias de Rossa joined him. Then the party dropped the Sinn Féin tag, becoming simply “the Workers’ Party” (WP). Gallagher and Sherlock lost their seats in November 1982, but Tomás MacGiolla was elected.
WP foreign policy supported Communist regimes. MacGiolla and de Rossa walked out of the Dáil during Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1984. They made strong gains in the 1985 local elections. In 1987, Sherlock rejoined MacGiolla and de Rossa and Pat McCartan won a seat. De Rossa succeeded MacGiolla as leader in 1988. In 1989, De Rossa took a European Parliamentary seat in Dublin, and Pat Rabbitte, Éamon Gilmore and Eric Byrne joined the four sitting WP TDS. With seven seats, the WP became a recognised party under Dáil rules and qualified for allowances and privileges. This was the WP’s high water mark in Irish politics.
The WP increasingly condemned the PIRA and were criticised for neo-unionism. They gained in the south, but lost ground to PSF in the north. The party seemed unequivocally constitutional since its ceasefire, but reports emerged sporadically of OIRA activity, notoriously the assassinations of Saor Éire’s Larry White, in 1975 and of Séamus Costello in 1977. Seán Garland thoroughly reorganised the OIRA which was referred to as “Group B” in party documents (Group A was the party). Group B worked both sides of the border, and were instructed to present themselves as ordinary criminals if arrested.
Forgoing the political status PIRA and INLA prisoners enjoyed required tough discipline. A difficulty arose when the INLA shot Jim Flynn (Costello’s alleged killer) in 1982 and his family demanded an OIRA funeral. Compromise was needed, as the party line held that the OIRA did not exist. Nevertheless, reports of ongoing OIRA racketeering would dog the WP indefinitely. Most party members were oblivious of this and took frontline roles in anti-PIRA initiatives such as New Consensus and Families Against Intimidation and Terror. However, the OIRA only decommissioned its weapons in February 2010.
Links to Soviet bloc
The left-wing streak in militant Irish republicanism only became mainstream in the 1960s. A very young Father Michael Cleary maintained on the Late Late Show that the PIRA were genuine republicans but the OIRA were Communists. Cathal Goulding and Tomás MacGiolla protested to Archbishop McQuaid, stating that this offended most OSF members who were practising Catholics. Later, Joe Sherlock was derided for attending Mass (he wore the pioneer pin throughout his Dáil career). Tomás MacGiolla travelled to Moscow with Seán Garland and others to forge links with the Soviet bloc.
Over two decades, WP delegations would appear in Moscow, East Berlin, Prague and Pyongyang, among other locations–one photograph shows a youthful Éamon Gilmore at a Cuban festival. The sequence of events between the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought this to an end.
Hard work brought the WP to the hard left. They could not always carry their supporters. The party had no official abortion policy in 1983, but opposed the pro-life referendum and were disappointed by the “Yes” vote in strong WP areas. But the party allied itself with the Moscow-line Greek and Portuguese Communists in Strasbourg in 1989. The Stalinist tide ebbed. Eoghan Harris called for its abandonment in The Necessity of Social Democracy, published by the party’s head of economic affairs, Éamonn Smullen (once an admirer of Ceausescu). Both drew party ire. Smullen, Harris and others resigned in protest.
During the next two years the dalliances between Eastern European officials and the OIRA were brought to light. Proinsias de Rossa insisted he had been misled, and that his signature had been forged on letters to the Kremlin. The Irish courts accepted his word–at the expense of Independent Newspapers. When southern members expressed bafflement at reports of OIRA action, a northerner asked where they thought the money had come from.
A new party constitution, proposed by De Rossa, failed to obtain the required absolute majority in 1992. Six of the seven deputies left the WP to form New Agenda Democratic Left.
MacGiolla remained in the WP. The others were lampooned as the “Commonwealth of Independent Deputies”. Losing a TD meant losing Dáil party status. Democratic Left took the bulk of the WP but lost its revolutionary powerhouse. The dedicated party faithful–firm believers in the cause–remained with MacGiolla. Democratic Left was part of the Rainbow Government between 1994 and 1997 and disappeared into Labour in 1999. MacGiolla lost his seat in 1992 and became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1993. His party withered, although it still has some local authority representation.
OSF had transformed itself from armed republicanism to social democracy in 20 years. Democratic Left gained power in Labour: six of Labour’s 20 deputies are former WP members, but power goes beyond numbers. Covert action in RTÉ and the media brought them phenomenal influence. One can chart a shift of attitude between 1970 and 1990 among southerners on Northern Ireland, republicanism, church-state controversies, the Catholic Church and American foreign policy, to give an inexhaustive list.
This is not solely due to the WP or media fellow travellers, but they had a significant effect. Few journalists quizzed WP representatives about the OIRA/Group B or their links with totalitarian Communist regimes. The party co-operated with Catholic clergy and religious on topics of common interest. These religious were remarkably indifferent to what the WP did when not protesting outside the US Embassy or organising inner city social agitation. Most WP members were not au fait with all party activities (De Rossa was ignorant of some of his members’ pastimes).
There has been little or no commentary on the movement’s U-turns over 15 years. The party has disappeared, but former members are still around. Many are in Labour. Others are in the media. There is some comfort to be drawn from the absence of organised recruitment of young people, and in the divorce between the fiery revolutionaries whose dedication won the party success, and the cynical professionals, who forged an agenda building on that success. This species requires both wings to fly. That day is over. But the Stickies still haven’t gone away.
The editor [of the Brandsma Review] adds: Over 20 years ago in the RTÉ newsroom, each item in a radio news bulletin had to be given a one-word title, known as a “catchline” on the top right hand corner, to enable the bulletin to be put in proper order for the newsreader. (As far as I know this is still the case.) Any word would do. This catchline had no other purpose, and of course was never read out on air. One sub-editor who used the catchline “Stickies” on an item on the Workers’ Party was told on the highest authority not to do this again. I have always wondered why.