A new generation of Irishmen are creating a new revolution in Ireland and this time they will not be satisfied with half-measures.”
In the run-up to the 1972 Irish referendum on E.E.C. membership, Official Sinn Féin set up a radio station in Dublin in order to propagate its message for a No vote. The station had been created with the help of the party’s connections within R.T.E. The first words broadcast were those of the United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken: ‘The rich’ it said, ‘always betray the poor.’
That broadcast – its sentiment and, indeed, the manner of its creation – echoes through the history of the Officials, told for the first time here by Dr. Brian Hanley and Scott Millar.
Unlike a lot of Irish political and historical analysis these days, The Lost Revolution does not contain any moral lessons for the reader, nor does it pass any ethical judgement on the physical attacks, assassinations, forgeries and robberies which the party and its armed wing undertook during the period 1962 to 1992, the principal years covered by the book. Based on information taken from 119 credited interviews, numerous anonymous interviews, 324 books and articles, 120 newspapers and journals, twenty-seven visual sources, three unpublished memoirs, five theses, and three official reports, as well as full access to the Workers’ Party’s archive, the book is five years in the making, and refreshingly free of the type of hand-wringing and “won’t somebody think of the children” codswollop that passes for analysis these days. The writing is clear, direct, and authoritative.
The lack of a trendy, fallacious, morality does not mean that the book is without lessons to be learned.
On the contrary, the ones I drew from it were:
1) In politics, innovators are destroyed: it is those who follow who prosper. If you want to be first, be second.
2) The Middle Class will wreck every working class organisation they join, without fail.
3) If you’ve got a mediocre intellect, but a way with words, you need to study the role of Eoghan Harris in the Officials. His contribution to the Workers Party is a master class in the triumph of verbose banality over structured reason.
The Official’s story, however, is more than just the ego of Harris and the machinations of middle class commentators. The Officials was a working class organisation that moved from conservative republicanism to Marxism in theory and practise, and that move came from the working class members themselves. And Lost Revolution never loses sight of the fact that this is their story, warts and all.
The fight for freedom is a class struggle”
The Lost Revolution begins with the 1950s border campaign, and the aftermath of its failure. According to Sean Garland, the problem of The North was ‘a much deeper problem than we envisaged’ and the necessary re-think in the 1960s saw elements within Sinn Féin and the IRA look towards contemporaneous left-wing national liberation movements across the globe, from Cuba to Vietnam. Cathal Goulding took advice from 1930s Republican Congress founder, George Gilmore, and recognised that the ‘great mistake of [Peader] O’Donnell and his comrades had been to leave the movement. If the socialists had stayed inside the organization… they could have eventually won over the majority of the 1930s IRA.” Goulding had moved towards socialism through his own reading and inquiry, and by 1964 had established close links with the Dublin-based communist, Ray Johnston. The recent revolution in Cuba impressed Johnston, who saw ‘a broad-based movement, rural as well as urban,’ upstage ‘a narrow Moscow-line Communist party and carried through a popular revolution.’ Johnston also stressed that in Ireland, as in Algeria, ‘resistance to imperial domination was more likely to be rural-based than urban-based.’
Goulding started to convince IRA members of the ‘importance of social agitation’ and in 1965 ‘an IRA Department of Political Education’ was set up and began organizing classes for volunteers. Resistance to Goulding’s plans soon developed around the figure of Seán Mac Stíofáin, O/C of the Cork/South Kerry area, who had been elected to the IRA Army Council in 1964. The Special Branch estimated that between February 1964 and October 1965, there were 48 IRA training camps held in the South, and these camps had incorporated lectures on history and social agitation into the curriculum. This increased activity, along with the procurement of arms, gave rise to what would become a perennial problem: fund-raising and cash. Soon, the national media picked up on what Fianna Fáil government ministers already knew: that the IRA was turning left, and such a development threatened not only the North, but the South as well.
In May 1966 Sean Garland was arrested in Co. Laois. He had papers on him that related to plans drawn up by an IRA special Military Council. ‘The section dealing with political action, states Lost Revolution, ‘contained a list of six key strategic programmes.’
Topping the list, and of ‘fundamental importance’, was that ‘the movement assume an organizational form that will attract back people of national outlook in the trade union movement so that their efforts can be co-ordinated. A group under the control of the Chief of Staff would organize union activity. This body would act to make the unions ‘more revolutionary’ and also to educate IRA volunteers on labour agitation. Committees to oversee intervention in housing and other campaigns would also be set up. Another crucial proposal was that no longer would men be recruited on the basis of an ‘emotional appeal to arms’: in future recruit training would emphasize ‘social and economic objectives’ ahead of ‘arms and battle tactics’. It had to be understood that ‘boring’ and ‘unromantic’ work would have to be done in order to build republican influence.”
It is little wonder that Fianna Fáil – the party in power and already subsumed by business interests – saw the splitting of the IRA, and the emasculation of its socialist wing, as a primary objective. In March 1969, a Department of Justice memorandum stated that:
In different parts of the country units of the IRA (and Sinn Féin) are uneasy about the new left-wing policy of their leadership and about the violent methods that are being adopted in the destruction of private property. Their uneasiness needs to be brought to the surface in some way with a consequent fragmentation of the organization. It is suggested by the Department of Justice that the Government should promote an active political campaign in that regard.”
Whereas the splits in the IRA and Sinn Féin in December 1969 and January 1970 most certainly came from within the republican movement itself, the tactical support given to the Provisionals by the Irish government was to try to ensure that the Marxists were marginalised, and that the instability of the North stayed in the North.
The war on the people will be turned into a people’s war.”
The events of 1969 to 1973 are covered in great detail by Lost Revolution, as is the radicalisation of the Officials in the South with regard to the substantial economic and social issues faced by the the country’s working class. In 1971 Sinn Féin supported a ‘Socialist Unity’ conference, which saw the creation of the Socialist Labour Alliance. The same year saw the Officials set up a Republican Trade Union Group with Des Geraghty, an ITGWU offical, as its key figure, as well as the establishment of the Republican Industrial Development Division, or RIDD. This grouping soon became the ‘intellectual wing’ of the Officials, with long-term mixed results. The dominant figures to emerge out of this group were Eoghan Harris, at the time a producer in RTE, and Eamonn Smullen, who had recently been released from prison in Britain having served time for attempting to buy arms for the IRA. Smullen had been active in the IRA in the 1940s, and had been ‘on the blanket’ in Portlaoise.
Harris does not come across well in Lost Revolution, and although party leaders, especially Cathal Goulding, were mesmerized by him, others were quite sober about his intellectual talents. After the publication of Irish Industrial Revolution, a document largely written by Harris, one member told Garland that it was ‘bad Marxism and inaccurate history” – an assessment correct on both counts. Irish Industrial Revolution is the MacArthur Park of Irish Marxism – bombastic, over the top, and completely nuts, yet strangely appealing to the senses. Reading it is like being slapped in the head with a ledger of statistics, while your balls are fondled by a dwarf. It’s just wrong.
Lost Revolution quotes from Jim Sherry and Dermot Nolan. The paragraph reveals something about Harris, and something about how he was perceived by others in the Officials.
We turned up [at an education seminar in Trinity that was being given by Harris] and sat at the back and Harris said ‘The topic of today is…’ and then suddenly started shouting, ‘No, No, No, No, get those chairs out of there, get those chairs out of these, you are too comfortable!´We were sitting there breaking our fucking hearts laughing, all his little minions were running around with the chairs. ‘Go outside and bring in the hard chairs!’
Online reviews have to be a certain length, after which people stop reading, and I fear that this one has already reached its limit. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Group B’ as the Official IRA became known within the Officials, organised robberies and continued to kill, especially when provoked by the Provisionals and by the INLA. In the 1980s the movement required all military operatives to deny they were members of the Officials, and this policy saw ‘Group B’ operatives sentenced as ordinary criminals when caught and convicted. Over the years, Group B’s primary focus shifted from defence of its areas in the North, to becoming more important as the ‘fundraising’ wing of the Officials. It never lost this role.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had a profound effect on the Officials. In the scramble for coherence, Harris was able to scupper the party from within, and in the process undermine the first national T.V. coverage of its Ard Fheis. Was this Harris’ intention? Probably not. It comes across throughout the book that for Harris, being heard, rather than listened to, was the primary concern.
Harris’ petulance and dramatics, however, were never going to be enough to damage the Officials. The real danger came from the Workers’ Party own success. In 1989 it won seven seats in the Dáil and one in Europe. It now had full access to parliamentary resources. The rise of the T.D.s as a power bloc was a not unforseen circumstance. In May 1972, Margaret D’Arcy, a party member in Galway, was expelled from the party after a dispute with the Officals’ O/C in the area. Her colleague, John Arden, later resigned. In his letter to head office, he rebuked the UCD Galway Republican Club. He also wrote:
I would not wish any further to impede you in your political careers… You have good work yet to do, talking big and keeping quiet: and there are many masters of your craft already seated in the Dáil ready and willing to instruct your apprentice legislators when, in due course, they creep into Leinster House.
I wonder whether similar sentiments popped into the minds of Cathal Goulding and Sean Garland in 1992 while they watched their T.D.s walk away from the party. As Thomas MacGoilla put it, “It took twenty-five years to build [the Officials] into a great and effective party and it has been smashed from within in a week.”
Towards the end of the book, Lost Revolution quotes former Provisional prisoner, Anthony McIntyre, who in 2002, reflected on the bloodletting between the Provos and the Officials, and said that:
The seeming loser in these feuds – the Officials – must be sitting wryly observing that, body counts apart, they ultimately came out on top. We, who wanted to kill them – because they argued to go into Stormont, to remain on ceasefire, support the reform of the R.U.C., uphold the consent principle and dismiss as rejectionist others who disagreed with them – are now forced to pretend that somehow we are really different from them; that they were incorrigible reformists while we were incorruptible revolutionaries; that killing them had some major strategic rationale. And all the while the truth ‘sticks’ in our throats. They beat us to it – and started the peace process first.”
McIntyre, however, while praising the foresight of the Officials, nonetheless still misses what the Officials were about. Peace, Stormont, reform of the R.U.C. – these were never meant to be the conclusion. The purpose was to build a non-sectarian class-based political movement in order to protect the interests of the island’s working class. The goal was a 32-county socialist republic, never a 32-county Catholic socialist republic. It was a class-based analysis, and for the most part it stuck to it.
It may be seen by some that the Officials are done no favours by Lost Revolution – given the exposure of criminal activity and the critical analysis of its ‘intellectual wing’. I would disagree. This is an honest and thoughtful account of the Officials, arguably the most successful and dynamic working class political organisation in Irish history. They got things wrong, but they got things right as well. Lost Revolution shows that the Officials and their history still have things to offer us today.
The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, is published by Penguin, Ireland.
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