The left and the revival of Irish Republican militarism: Why Eamonn McCann is wrong

Submitted by Anon on 22 March, 2005 - 12:58 Author: Sean Matgamna

Parables for Socialists 17

P was a member of the Army Council of the IRA, its supreme authority, and would soon be a founder member of the breakaway “Provisional” IRA. He had been regaling us with an account of the ridiculous stories which the then leaders of the IRA, Republican Stalinists, had given to the Army Council as explanations for their inability to organise the defence of Northern Ireland’s Catholics during recent (August 1969) pogroms, which it had taken the deployment of British troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry to stop.

They had lent the organisation’s guns to the “Free Wales Army”! Now to show us that things were changing, that the real Republicans, the people who meant business, were getting organised, he opened the glove compartment of the car (we were in the centre of Dublin) and took out a gun. One hand on the steering wheel, without looking round, he handed it back to my companion in the back seat, Liam. “Feel the balance of that”.

Liam took the heavy revolver, and after balancing it in his hand, spinning the chamber and admiring it, handed it to me so that I too could feel its latent power. I did, and handed it back to L, who weighed it in his hand again, still admiring it.

Liam and P continued to discuss it with enthusiasm for a while. With enough guns, in the right hands, everything would be all right. Solutions, security, power, political seriousness — they all, to misquote Mao Zedong, grew out of the barrel of a gun.

Liam was a veteran of the IRA “Border Campaign” unleashed at the end of 1956. Disabused of the then very right wing Republican movement’s oversimplifications, about Ireland and about everything else, he had come to London, joined the Communist Party, and then turned to Trotskyism. He was a knowledgeable, thoughtful man in his mid 30s, who took his Marxism seriously. Unusually among us exiles, he had had some sort of college education. He had taught himself Russian.

P, younger, had also been in the IRA, and in London he too, together with a number of other Republicans, had become a Trotskyist of sorts. Back in Ireland he had reverted to Republicanism, of his Trotskyism retaining little more than a concern with the labour movement and a loathing of Stalinism — focused now on the Stalinists who in the mid 60s had taken over the leadership of the rump IRA.

That incident stuck in my mind as a symbol of the archaic character of “revolutionary politics” in Ireland then, out of which soon would come the Provisional IRA and its military campaign.

Reading Eamonn McCann’s comment in Socialist Worker [2005] on the crisis of the Provisional IRA — in which he appeals for republicans who reject Adams’ course to turn to “socialist ideas, which alone can carry the struggle forward” — brought this incident to mind. It re-raised the old question of how Republican militants can be recruited to authentic Marxism — and if they can.

McCann was saying the same sort of thing 40 years ago in the pages of the Irish Workers Group paper, Irish Militant. He seems to have learned nothing from the Provisional IRA's "Long War" or from the "left" militarists, Saor Eire, INLA, IPLO., etc. But if he was capable of learning the Marxist ABCs, and remembering them beyond the next turn in the road, what would he be doing now in the camp of the Sharia Socialists of the SWP, bag-carriers to the clerical fascist Muslim Brotherhood in Britain?

A couple of months after the incident of the gun in the glove compartment, the IRA and Sinn Fein split into a “left” Stalinist-led majority (the “Officials”) and a right-wing traditionalist breakaway, the “Provisionals”. The Provisionals never lacked guns, or bombs, or the reckless will and ability to use them. They started to shoot soldiers and policemen, and set car-bombs off in crowded streets. They launched what was in fundamentals a Catholic-Protestant civil war, half-smothered by the British state forces, who sometimes used the Protestant paramilitary forces against their “main enemy”, the Provisional IRA.

For the first year, up to the British abolition of the old majority-rule (in practice, Protestant-sectarian-rule) Belfast parliament in March 1972, the military campaign made some — not a lot, but some — sort of Catholic-nationalist, anti-Unionist sense. It shattered the old sectarian political carapace under which, for the previous 50 years, partition had imprisoned Northern Ireland’s large, artificially-created Catholic minority.

It forced the British to rethink Northern Ireland. It won de facto partnership with Britain in Northern Ireland affairs for Catholic-nationalist Dublin. It won the “Sunningdale” agreement, under which the first power-sharing Belfast government was set up for five months in 1974 (until an Orange workers’ general strike destroyed it).

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 offered nothing — except a more rigid and intricate form of power-sharing — that had not been available to Northern Ireland’s Catholics and the Provisionals for the previous 25 years.

Now, their political success over the last decade has led to a crisis in which the Provisional Republican movement is being forced to choose between shedding its military wing and exclusion from the lucrative (in the political and every other sense of that word) official political structures in which it has thrived.

And the pseudo-left, on cue, is there to tell those Republicans who will choose to reject politics in favour of militarism that they are the real revolutionaries whose politics need only a little adjusting.

The premise is that those who will not want to give up the gun are more serious, more adamantly committed to their cause. If only they can be got to understand that their goal, Irish unity, can not be achieved except as part of achieving a socialist working-class Ireland, then they can be won over to revolutionary socialist politics.

Everything about this line of argument is nonsense. The long, rich history of the interaction of Marxist socialists and Irish republicans proves it to be nonsense.

The truth is that the most adamant militarists are, in their politics, also and almost always the most recklessly chauvinistic; or the most unreconstructed devotees of the mystique of violence; or old-style Republicans who have gone along with Adams so long as politics has been twinned with militarism (“a ballot box in one hand, and an Armalite rifle in the other”), but fundamentally still believe in “armed struggle” either on principle or as the “serious”, “effective” way of doing things.

The crux of the revolutionary left’s thinking on Irish Republicanism has been the belief or implicit assumption that traditional, militarist Republicanism is intrinsically revolutionary; that their militarism bestows an identity and a status on its devotees and practitioners that is lacking in the mere political Republicans, even when the political ideas, programme, and goal of the militarist and politico are identical.

If only they would turn to the right politics! To help them do that, they are told that only socialism can win their old goals — Irish all-island unity.

It is the cuckoo’s egg approach to straightening out the relationship between Catholic nationalism and socialism in Irish politics. The socialist cuckoo’s egg is discreetly placed in the nationalist nest, to be hatched out. But the socialist eggs hatch out as nationalists! Over the years, as a result of this approach, far, far more socialists have gone over to militant republicanism than republicans to socialism.

Very, very few militarists have ever made the transition to working-class politics. In the 1920s a lot of Irish Republicans did go over to communism, ranging from Patrick Pearse’s secretary Desmond Ryan, who became the first biographer of James Connolly, to the widow of the Lord Mayor of Cork who died on hunger-strike in 1920, Terence McSwiney, and to Bill Gannon, one of the men who shot dead the much-loathed — and admired — Free State government minister Kevin O’Higgins on his way to mass one Sunday morning in 1927.

This “first draft” became real communists in the age of Lenin and Trotsky. Desmond Ryan stayed in the Communist Party until the Stalin-Hitler pact. Others became Stalinists. The later “drafts” were won over not to communism but to Stalinism. These did not cease to be Irish nationalists. The last thing the Stalinist puppet-masters wanted was that they should. The Stalinists pioneered the idea that nationalist goals could best be won as part of a “communist” revolution. Ireland was not free, they insisted, unless the island was united in one state. Only socialism could win that.

The Kremlin and its “communist” movement exploited Irish nationalism as a weapon against one of the USSR’s main enemies, Britain. To do that they concocted and maintained an ersatz ahistorical version of Irish nationalism that refused to take account either of contemporary historical development — of the 26 Counties becoming in the mid-1930s a fully independent state — or of “complications” like the fact that the block to a united Ireland was primarily the Protestant-unionist Irish minority in north-east Ulster which defined itself as British.

It is one of the great strange things of 20th-century Irish history that though priests and bishops railed against “communism” from pulpits and Catholic Truth Society booklets, and though a Dublin mob led by priests set fire to a Communist Party building in Dublin in 1933, and another broke up the Stalinist bookshop in Pearse Street, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, nonetheless Stalinist “communism” became a force in Catholic-Irish politics, in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and after — Stalinists dressed up as Republicans.

The Irish Republicans who went to the Stalinists did not have to cease to be nationalists, or even, some of them, chauvinists. If they had, they would have been no use to the USSR in using Irish nationalism against Britain.

The Stalinists’ ersatz Irish nationalism fed back into the Republican movement and made it more irrational than it need have been — for example, in the 1960s, when the Stalinists took over the leadership of the IRA.

Some Stalinists made the reverse journey — like Joe Deegan, the long-time president of the Communist Party Irish front “Connolly Association”, who went home to Belfast and ended his days as a member of Sinn Fein (though Joe was no chauvinist).

In the aftermath of the 1950s IRA campaign of attacks on customs posts and police stations along the Six/26 Counties border, some Republicans in England became communist-Trotskyists.

The best of them was Liam Dalton, the man in the story above.

There is a remarkable similarity between the “story” Trotskyists tell — of the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by part of its leadership, around Stalin, and the bloody butchery they did on those who remained loyal to the revolution, Trotsky and others — and the story the die-hard Republicans told of their own movement’s history.

Their story told of the betrayals of Republican leaders like Michael Collins who, in 1922, set up the Irish Free State, and then of those around De Valera who, in 1932, became the government of the 26 county state. It recounted the slaughter the Collins traitors inflicted on the Republican loyalists around De Valera in the civil war (when 77 Republican prisoners of war, most of them raw country and country town youths, were shot out of hand), and then the repression, by way of hangman, firing squad and concentration camp, inflicted by the De Valeraites on the German-allied IRA during World War Two.

The Continuity IRA and the Real IRA have added the names of Adams and McGuinness to their list of traitors.

Republicans bred on such a story could readily understand the Trotskyists’ “narrative”. It was a comparatively easy transition, but usually it was only a superficial one.

In the early 1960s the Trotskyist organisations did demand of the ex-Republicans that they turn to the working class and abandon militarist conceptions. But in the Irish socialist exile groupings in London, to which most of them gravitated, they easily reverted to equating militarism with militancy, and life-staking commitment with effective revolutionary politics— the vaguely "Trotskyist Irish Workers Group no less, indeed, perhaps more, than others.

They rediscovered the literature of the early 1930s Irish Stalinist movement, which embodied the incoherent left populist-nationalism created then by the Stalinist-Republicans. They took their cue from that, changing it only a little, the "Trotskyists" re-branding the Stalinist and Stalinist-Republican focus on "completing the National democratic revolution" as a variant of Trotsky's "Permanent Revolution"..

Where the Stalinists insisted that the “bourgeois stage” of revolution in Ireland — by which they meant Irish unification and British withdrawal from the North — had to be completed before the working-class socialist revolution could be advocated, the Republican-Trotskyists invoked “permanent revolution” to argue that there could be an unbroken revolutionary transformation that began with a nationalist-populist mobilisation and went on without interruption, to the working class socialist revolution. Unfortunately, though it sounded “revolutionary” and anti-Stalinist, it had no purchase on Irish reality, where the bourgeoisie ruled both sides of the border and where Irish disunity was rooted not in British “occupation” but in the existence of two peoples of distinct identity and nationality on the island.

In the era of the Provos, all over the world “Trotskyists” holding such ideas wouldmake themselves into apologists for such things as the Provisional IRA’s thinly disguised sectarian slaughter of Protestant workers, in the name of “permanent revolution” .

Militarism in Ireland is not the same thing as “revolutionism”, in any socialist sense. It isn’t; it hasn’t been all through the 20th century: it cannot be.

The nationalist Irish political culture is saturated with the celebration and glorification of violent revolution. In Britain, an understanding that socialism requires the violent overthrow of the state means acceptance of a large part of revolutionary socialist politics. In Ireland, it is nothing of the sort. British socialists who gauge Irish activists by this measure are simply getting in their own light.

The second is to break from the idea that working class socialism is or can be the road to achieving the goals of Irish nationalism. The goals for which progressive Irish nationalists and republicans have fought in the past — freedom of development and freedom from oppression — are not the same thing as the unification of the island, the goal of the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein. Socialists who pander to the idea that socialism will deliver the united Ireland the Provisionals want, and argue that therefore serious Republicans, to achieve their nationalist goal, should become revolutionary socialists, are more likely to confuse themselves than to convert Irish Republican militarists into consistent revolutionary socialists.

They need not to be pandered to, but to be educated out of the Catholic chauvinist-nationalism that denies the right of the Protestant community to any degree of self-determination.

There will be a time for guns and armed action in the winning of socialism — the time at which an educated, organised and mobilised working-class movement is faced with quelling the armed resistance of the bourgeoisie and its state. We are not there yet, nor near it.

Mystifications about “the armed struggle”, and confusion of commitment to such a struggle now — or as soon as the damage done to physical force Republicanism by the defection of Adams and McGuinsess can be repaired — with revolutionary politics can only in the future do what they did in the past — hold back the development of genuine revolutionary working-class politics in Ireland.

And my companions in the car at the beginning of this article — what of them? A couple of years later, Liam Daltun would kill himself. He jumped off a bridge in London on “Bloody Sunday”, the day in January 1972 the British army in Derry shot dead 14 unarmed demonstrators.

P would have a glittering career in the Irish labour movement, in and around the Provisional IRA, and later… in banking and similar money-making pursuits.Amongst earlier associates he retains the reputation of being a decent man, which, quite likely, he was and is...