Left Wing Urban Guerrillas in Ireland: the Irish National Liberation Army's Bloody Feud and the Saor Eire episode

Submitted by AWL on 21 November, 2010 - 5:40 Author: Sean Matgamna

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Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep; a drunken soldier
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door
To crawl in her own blood, and go scotfree;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

W B Yeats

A mother, murdered at her door, to crawl in her own blood, during the struggles to set up the independent Irish state... A mother, Mary McGlinchey, shot dead in Dundalk on 31 January as she bathed her nine year old son, who vainly shouted at the killers, "Leave Mummy alone".

Mary McGlinchey's death was the most horrifying incident during the recent feud between two sections of the so-called Irish National Liberation Army, in which 13 people died and 20 were injured.

Mary McGlinchey was the wife of jailed one-time INLA chief of staff Dominic McGlinchey, and she is said to have been killed in revenge for her husband's summary 'execution' of an INLA activist. Herself an activist, Mary McGlinchey may have been involved in that killing.

Under her husband's rule as Chief of Staff, a system was in operation in INLA - Direct Military Rule it was called - under which he had the right to shoot any member he felt he had a reason for shooting. He apparently used that right.

Dominic McGlinchey's less than two year reign in INLA was only one of the more bizarre episodes in the 'Republican Socialist' organisation's history.

INLA came out of a bloody split in the Official Republican Movement in 1974-5. The Officials have since evolved into the quasi-Stalinist, reformist 'Workers' Party'. The INLA and its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), were led by Seamus Costello, a veteran of the 1950s IRA. They proclaimed an anti-Stalinist sort of socialism, and also the need to continue the 'armed struggle' which the Officials had abandoned in mid-1972.

In 1977 Costello was murdered by the Official IRA (which even today has a shadowy existence), and the centre of the INLA/IRSP began to disintegrate, though it was still a force in Northern Ireland. Three of its members died together with seven Provos during the hunger strikes of 1981. INLA became an 'alternative IRA' for Provos dismissed for indiscipline and other offences. Local 'warlordism' emerged within the loosely structured organisation.

Court cases in the mid-'80s established that the organisation was heavily infested with spies, provocateurs and informers. In 1982 the INLA's deputy operations officer in Belfast, Harry Kirkpatrick, was arrested and turned 'supergrass'. He was the first of a string of 'grasses'. Admitting six killings and involvement in much self-serving ('Me Fein', or me myself) gangsterism, Kirkpatrick was promised - and will surely get - an early release. In return he helped put 30 others behind bars.

At that point McGlinchey, a dismissed Provo, came out of jail. By mid 1982 he had made himself 'chief of staff', under 'Direct Military Rule'. Probably 'direct military rule' was a means to contain warlords and try to create a strong centre able to direct the organisation to the job it supposedly existed for - fighting the British. But McGlinchey was captured in the 26 Counties, and has been in various jails since mid-1984.

In August 1984 John O'Reilly was released on bail, and the train of events that led directly to the feud was set in motion. O'Reilly set out to be 'chief of staff' by getting control of the organisation's arms supply and arsenal. In April 1985 he beat information out of long-time socialist activist Seamus Ruddy, who had been organising INLA's supply of weapons from a base in Paris, and then murdered him. With control of the weaponry, O'Reilly set about eliminating his rivals.

Jailed former Belfast operations officer Gerard Steenson had been implicated in 'Me Fein' robberies by his former deputy Kirkpatrick, and O'Reilly expelled him. O'Reilly's opponents would make the same allegation of 'Me Feinism' against O'Reilly and his friends. They moved to organise what became the 'Irish People's Liberation Organisation' (IPLO). They demanded that INLA disband.

Then, in December 1986, the supergrass system suddenly collapsed when the 30 jailed on Kirkpatrick's evidence won their appeals. Once they were out on the streets, it was inevitable and immediate war. In January 1987, O'Reilly and an associate went to a hotel expecting to parley with the Steensonites, and were ambushed and killed. After that it was tit for tat until Steenson was killed on 15 March. The police made no attempt to intervene, and provocateurs probably stoked the fire as INLA tore itself apart.

The Provos - who have sometimes commented adversely on INLA's wildest and most counterproductive activities, and denounced 'Me Fein' gangsterism - declared that the best contribution INLA could make to the Republican struggle was to disband. With Provo arbitration, a truce of exhaustion was finally fixed up. There is no sign that the groupings have disbanded.

But gangsterism is probably the least of INLA's faults! INLA has a well-deserved reputation for Catholic sectarianism and for the sectarian or quasi-sectarian killing of Protestants, many of whom have not even had a notional link with the British state. In November 1983 INLA people calling themselves the Catholic Retaliation Force entered a small Pentecostal Protestant church at Darkley in predominantly Catholic Armagh and sprayed the worshippers with machine-gun bullets, killing three and wounding seven. Dominic McGlinchey publicly admitted giving a gun to the killers.

The INLA's political front, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), made a statement saying it was "totally opposed" to sectarian killings. But that was either hypocrisy or an expression of the inability of those in or around the IRSP who really felt like that to affect events. Maybe it was both. In such groups the men with the guns always rule. The 'Army Council' is far more important than the executive of the political party.

The striking paradox here is that the INLA and IRSP say that they are leftwing socialists and Marxists, more aligned to the working class than other nationalist groups like the Provisionals. Many of its militants sincerely believe this. How, then, has such an organisation become what I have described above?

The Provisionals and the Officials are organisations with a solid tradition and with the organisational bone, sinews and muscle to enforce it. They are the mainstream. Anything to the left while still 'Republican' has not only to build an organisation and gain credibility, but also to work out where (and for what) it stands.

The problems INLA/IRSP faced when it split from the Officials in 1975 had already been encountered, ruinously, by the first attempt since the present Troubles began to form a new left-wing Republican group. It was a movement calling itself 'Saor Eire (Free Ireland) Action Group'.

It was formed, or rather given shape piecemeal, in the late '60s by dissident Republicans (premature Provos, really) who resisted the drift of the Official Republican movement away from the traditional militarism and towards Stalinism - a drift that made the official movement incapable of defending the Belfast Catholics during the Protestant pogroms of August 1969 and led to the Provo/Official split a few months later.

These dissident Republicans joined up with one or two people who called themselves Trotskyists, but who, like many Trotskyists, had come under the influence of Guevarism in the late '60s. They believed in 'immediate armed struggle', and they believed that what 'the Irish Revolution' needed - not having yet achieved national unity - was 90% nationalist slogans. The clashes in the North, and the taking of direct control of the streets by the British Army in August 1969, convinced them that their hour was coming.

They started robbing banks - mainly or exclusively in the South! - so that they would be able to buy guns. What guns they bought, or what they did with them, is not publicly known. But such an organisation, some of whose members were permanently on the run, also needed money to keep its members going; and if you can get money by robbing banks, you don't need to stint yourself.

Saor Eire robbed many banks, caused great alarm to the Southern government, and was eventually said to have shot an unarmed policeman in Dublin during a bank robbery in early 1970. Some of its leaders were eventually put on trial for murder. They were acquitted but jailed on other charges.

It had become essentially a gangster organisation. It started with ideals, but the proportion of idealism to gangsterism began to change. So did the proportion of gangsters to politicians. The values and skills needed to prosper or just to survive became those of the soldier - or gangster. Propaganda, open political activity, trade union work, class struggle - all that had to be left to vague sympathisers, people who by definition were in an inferior category to the practitioners of 'armed struggle'. The gun, and the 'hard man' wielding it, became decisive.

Probably there were gangsters or semi gangsters in Saor Eire from the beginning, but in such cases the distinction between political militant and gangster becomes blurred anyway. The development of the Provos in the North and the competitive militarism of the left-wing Officials in the early '70s left Saor Eire high and dry. In November 1971 one of its members, Peter Graham, was found dead in a Dublin flat.

He had been bound and gagged and shot through the neck. According to the police he had been tortured. Aged 26, Peter Graham was a Trotskyist. In theory he was highly critical of the 'Guevarist' current then prominent in international Trotskyism, and rejected the idea that socialism in Ireland could come through 'permanent revolution' - nationalist struggle 'growing over' into socialism. He began his 'guerilla' career by believing it was a good thing to learn about guns in the Ireland of 1969. But then he got drawn into the 'action'.

The alleged leaders of Saor Eire issued a statement from jail denouncing the rest of the organisation as a-political gangsters.

IRSP/INLA started bigger, with a real standing in the Republican milieus and a place in the Republican spectrum as the 'good' left-wingers resisting the apostasy of the Officials. It had a base in Belfast and Derry. It seemed to have prospects Saor Eire could never dream of.

Yet within a year independent socialists - former MP Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann, for example - who rallied to the IRSP after its break with the Officials, abandoned the organisation, declaring it to be a mere glove-puppet of the new militarists.

INLA killed Northern Ireland 'security' force personnel, including 'soft' targets. It attacked Ian Paisley, reckless of the consequences of what Protestant workers would be bound to see as a straightforwardly sectarian act. It pulled off surprising coups like killing Mrs Thatcher's 'campaign manager' and personal friend Airey Neave in the car park of the House of Commons in 1979.

No less a person than Enoch Powell has suggested that this was done by the CIA as part of a plot to get a united Ireland that would be useful to NATO. Take Powell's claim seriously or not, some of the INLA's activities were very odd indeed.

For example, in 1982 INLA killed the pathological Loyalist minor politician John McKeogh just as he was being exposed for involvement in the scandal about sexual abuse of boys in the Kincora boys' home. This was and is a major scandal involving leading politicians in Northern Ireland. The evidence suggests that it has been suppressed so that it can be used by the state to blackmail and control difficult politicians in Northern Ireland. It may yet blow up in the Establishment's face. McKeogh's timely death helped them keep it under control.

In the 'supergrass' trials, INLA was shown to have been riddled with spies and provocateurs. Lacking a coherent leadership, it became the receptacle for dissident Republicans of all sorts. As with Saor Eire, its socialism came to mean nothing in practice.

It became a loose conglomeration of groups, fighting the British and Northern Ireland state, and organising robberies with sizeable proportions of the proceeds 'going private'.

The INLA's aspiration to be to the left of traditional Republicanism became paradoxically, a factor in its degeneration. Traditional Republicanism is a movement with a strong and honourable tradition. For example, the idea that Protestant an Catholic are equally Irish still has a real grip, despite often Catholic-nationalist practice. Like anarchism, of which it is it some respects an aberrant strain, Iris Republicanism has been a highly moral movement.

The left Republicans (and this is partly true of the new leadership of the Provos around Gerry Adams, too) relate to this tradition in a contradictory way. The old morality is dissolved by the supposedly higher principles of socialism and a eclectic Marxism - but, since the way to socialism is seen as proceeding through nationalism first, the effect is not to replace nationalist principles with socialist principles, but to replace nationalism with morality by nationalism without morality.

That is why you can get 'left' Republicans acting like nihilists, people who believe in nothing, and recklessly killing Protestants. Darkley was the most spectacular case.

The 'left' Republicans tend to have less concern for the Protestant workers than old-fashioned right-wing Republicans. The mechanism here is partly psychological - an urge to be tough and realistic, and to take account of the reality of Protestant opposition to the national struggle.

The Protestant workers are seen not in social, class terms, but almost exclusively as a catspaw of Britain and as the embodiment of sectarianism. By a process of redefining terms, non-sectarian socialism is equated in terms of immediate activity with a narrow nationalist militarism, incapable of laying any basis for class unity. Recklessness in relation to the Protestant workers is justified in terms of political intransigence against Loyalism.

Thus the 'socialist' element becomes matter of sentiment, aspirations, and faith in the nationalist struggle somehow 'growing over' into socialism. The immediate practice is nationalist - or even Catholic communalist, for the Catholics are defined as 'the nationalist community'.

The objective conditions in Northern Ireland - fundamentally those of a division in the Irish people - mean that the choice of 'armed struggle now against imperialism' is inevitably a choice for communalism against class politics. The holds both for the Provo socialists, wit their strong apparatus and high person; morality, and also for the smaller 'left wing' groups. But the Wolfe-Ton Republican outlook of the latter dissolve more easily in the acid of an eclectic brew of bits of Marxism and various Third World ideologies. The smaller groups inevitably lack a powerful and stable centre, and can therefore easily come to provide a flag of convenience for 'wild men', oddballs, or plain self-serving gangsters.

The extent to which 'armed struggle' degenerates into gangsterism varies according to the degree to which the movement is involved in real struggle, its tradition, its base, and the strength of its central apparatus to impose a political objective. Nevertheless, the choice has to be made by socialists - self-liberating working-class mass action or military elitism.

Some honest and sincere IRSP militants say they will continue to try to build a revolutionary working-class party. No, they won't - not unless they face the fact that the entire 'armed struggle now' eclectic revolutionary culture in which the INLA/IRSP has been embedded is the opposite of serious working-class politics. Working-class politics ends with armed struggle. It does not begin with it. The lesson of the latest murderous bloodletting among the INLA is that you cannot build a revolutionary socialist party as a political adjunct to a military formation.

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