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100 years of Sinn Fein – Part 5

Joe Craig

5th July 2005

Republicans tend view their history as self-sufficient and look back on it with a view to divining clear continuity but the defeat of the Border campaign precipitated yet another rupture, and once again it becomes explicable only by situating it within an international context.

The fifties and sixties saw a wave of decolonisation and some long and extremely bitter anti-colonial struggles, such as Algeria and Vietnam. These symbolic struggles were complemented by the foundation and development of organisations based on programmes of national liberation such as the PLO which could easily be fitted into a republican understanding of their own situation.

The post-war growth of capitalism set the context for rising militancy by the workers movement across Europe and beyond. Even in the United States the civil rights movement provided inspiration to those suffering particular discrimination or oppression. Growing political militancy led to the events of May 1968 in France and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia which threatened to overthrow the political and social regimes in both countries.

All these forces found parallel, if sometimes belated, development in Ireland with the growth of the working class in the South and conscious attempts to emulate international developments in the North. In the South the number of strikes and lock-outs increased from 49, involving 5,865 workers and 80,000 days lost in 1960, to 134, 28,800 workers and 1,008,000 days, in 1970. Even the Irish Labour Party proclaimed itself socialist and declared the seventies would be so too. In the North a range of groups set themselves the task of creating an Irish civil rights movement.

Without these international and domestic factors it would be impossible to explain the leftward direction of the rethinking that took place in the republican movement after the failure of the border campaign.

The low base from which this had to begin can be appreciated by the fact that the political programme of the movement was based on the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum which dated from 1891. As one historian of Sinn Fein has noted, the later encyclical from 1931, Quadragesimo Anno, must have been considered too radical! (Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein, One Hundred Turbulent Years, p 215) And this low base was not just political; numerically the movement had declined considerably and what was left was not well organised.


In an interview in 1970, speaking of the period after the border campaign, IRA leader Cathal Goulding gave the following diagnosis of the problem: ‘The question was; how could we get the people to support us? The evidence was that the Republican Movement had no real policies. Without objectives, we couldn’t develop a proper strategy. Tactics were all that we had employed. The actual fight for freedom had become an end in itself for us. Instead of a means it became an end. We had not planned to achieve the freedom of Ireland. We simply planned to fight for the freedom of Ireland. We could never hope to succeed because we never planned to succeed.’

‘The answer was plain; we would have to establish our objectives; to explain these to our own movement; to persuade our movement to accept them; to bring them to the people and explain them – and then to show the people, by our initial political and agitationary activities that we were sincere. We would have to declare what kind of government, what kind of state we wanted in Ireland. We would then have to show the people by propaganda, education and action, why this type of state would be beneficial to them – that it would mean more bread and butter, better wages, better housing conditions, more education and a better life for everyone.’

‘Our first objective then was to involve ourselves in the everyday problems of people; to organise them to demand better houses, better working conditions, better jobs, better pay, better education – to develop agitationary activities along these lines. By doing this we felt that we could involve the people, not so much in supporting the Republican Movement for our political ends but in supporting agitation so that they themselves would be part of a revolutionary force demanding what the present system just couldn’t produce.’

There was a lot here that was absolutely correct, especially the analysis of the weaknesses of traditional republican politics and emphasis on the self-emancipation of the people. An underlying problem however was the concept that economic and social demands are peculiarly socialist and that it is around these that a socialist programme can be defined. In fact what distinguishes the socialist programme is political, that the working class needs to become the new rulers of society, through destroying the existing state and creating a new one based on the organisations of the workers that have destroyed the old.

This is not an abstract question but gives a focus for all the economic and social struggles that socialists, as Goulding said, must be involved in. If these are not to be simply the pursuit of reforms within the system that are more or less easily absorbed and deformed by it, then they must fit into some overall perspective of how society can be changed fundamentally at state level. If the majority of the working class does not ultimately see the need for this, for a revolution to solve their problems, then there can be no talk of the needs of the working class being met by purely economic reforms.

Those from a republican tradition moving left have always tended to look at economic and social issues as somehow the defining characteristic of socialist politics. This reflects the fact that in every capitalist society workers do face similar immediate problems at an economic level and have everywhere organised trade unions to defend themselves.

Indeed historical analysis shows startling similarities in the history of workers organisation across many countries when it comes to economic and social struggle. It also shows that these struggles are completely compatible with the continued existence of capitalism. In fact they are an unavoidable part of it. Look at the history of political organisation in different countries however and one sees much more variety. In part this is because organising politically to actually overthrow capitalism is very much more difficult. Thinking that the former type of organisation is the essential part of the latter is part of the difficulty to be overcome.


Part of the problem facing the leftward looking leadership was how to shift the movement in its desired direction. An early reappraisal was of the position of the IRA and its relegation to only one factor necessary for the success of the ‘national revolution,’ others being the existence of a body of theoretical thought, the weight of the interests of the ‘men of no property’ in the movement, and existence of a political crisis for imperialism. The role of the IRA became defined in political terms as ‘rousing the consciousness and understanding of the common people.’

A fundamental problem however was how the army could fulfil a political role. This is a question that has never been adequately answered by any shade of republicanism for the simple reason that only a political party open to democratic debate, in front of the wider working class movement, can elaborate a programme for working-class liberation. By definition a secret army is incapable of fulfilling such a task.

This was reflected in the fact that people joined the IRA to fight, and the training given reinforced militarist and elitist conceptions of politics. Such conceptions are extremely hard to shift and lasted in the Official movement long after the effective mothballing of the army. It evidenced itself in the conspiratorial methods of political organisation in the Workers Party, successor to the Official republicans, and their penchant for infiltration of trade unions and state bodies.

It was one thing for the left-looking leadership to (correctly) describe the role of an armed section of a revolutionary movement to be a ‘specialist conference of certain people in the Movement for examining technical problems connected with the military aspect of the revolution.’ It was quite another for this to be the actual functioning of a movement wedded to traditional Irish republican notions of the predominating role of physical force organisation. It was exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to promote the paramount need for open political debate through conspiratorial means designed to out-manoeuvre traditional militarists. This requirement flowed inevitably from Goulding’s overriding desire to maintain the unity of the movement. However the continuation of an army inevitably meant continuing recruitment of people uninterested in politics or certainly not disposed to downgrade the importance of the organisation they had just signed up to.

There could therefore be no doubting the problems facing the leadership seeking to politicise the movement while attempting to maintain unity. This task was more difficult for the leadership of what was to become the Officials than the later Provisionals under Gerry Adams because the former was a more conscious attempt to move to the left, pointing to a much more decisive break with elitist and conspiratorial conceptions of politics. This is one reason for the relative success of each venture.

The inability to openly speak of the new socialist politics also had the baleful effect that it could not be openly and fully presented, but only introduced bit by bit. Partly for this reason even those trying to introduce it into the movement failed to come to a correct understanding of it themselves.


A major result of the rethink was however correct. It was recognised that the centre of any struggle in Ireland had to be the 26 counties, although the leadership did not appreciate the full reason for this. (It is the only way to win Protestant workers in the North – the leadership thought this would be through Catholic workers in the North). Much more attention was thus given to developing the movement in the South around economic and social questions. In the North the movement was also correct to push the question of civil rights and to seek to build the nascent civil rights movement. The problem was that the movement’s strategy of slowly developing itself on these foundations rested on a reformist and stageist conception of political development, evidenced in such images as conquering Ireland mine by mine and factory by factory. These fell apart when Irish reality refused to be shoehorned into such schematic thinking.

The rethinking began by arguing that the changes affecting Irish society meant that Fianna Fail was in the process of surrendering the nominal independence of the Southern State through the policy of abandoning protectionism and pursuing the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1966. ‘Britain now hopes to snare Lemass back into the United Kingdom. The Free Trade Agreement will do the trick,’ wrote Goulding. In saying this he adopted a position that the British no longer regarded partition as the favoured means for securing imperialist interests on the island.

In this respect he foreshadowed many later analyses from various left quarters who have all argued that imperialism has no interest in partition, because imperialism either doesn’t exist or because partition will be eroded through the strength of Southern capitalism – as opposed to Goulding’s analysis that Britain was by far the stronger power. At least Goulding’s case rested on a much more accurate estimate of political forces and had the excuse that at this time he had not yet seen the British fight a long and dirty war to protect the partition that some on the left today say imperialism does not support.

The implications for the North of this analysis were that imperialism no longer needed unionism and that Southern capitalism was a more effective defender of imperial interests. ‘The far-seeing leaders of British imperialism saw that the bright young men of Fianna Fail might prove a better bet for preserving British influence in Ireland than the bigoted fanatics of the North.’ (Goulding)

The republican view was that the civil rights movement would help democratise the North into something like a normal capitalist society where the sectarian division could be eroded and marginalised and where it would then be possible to create some sort of class unity. The elementary and non-threatening demands for civil rights were perfectly suited for such a perspective. It all rested however on the North being capable of reform into such a ‘normal’ capitalist society. The explosion of violence precipitated by unionist sectarianism and opposition to reform, and British determination to support them, blew up this perspective as effectively as it blew up the Northern State.

This mistaken perspective led to a split in the movement, giving rise to the Officials on the one hand and Provisionals on the other. Many other issues lay behind the split but it is this dynamic that lies behind all of them, including alleged lack of preparedness for armed defence of Catholic areas. The Provisionals rapidly became the more militant but only provided evidence for the argument that being more militant does not necessarily mean being more political. The Officials were generally more so and continued to engage in armed clashes with the British Army. The former understood however, at this time, if not today, that the Northern State could not be reformed. Although not understood in this way, what was being asserted was that the North was not capable of becoming a state that could allow gradual development of class politics, at least as it was comprehended by the Officials.

The split gravely damaged the movement by immediately dividing the opposition to imperialism and in a more long term way by distorting the political development of both. The Officials found all sorts of excuses for the failure of events to turn out as they had hoped – Fianna Fail money for the Provos or the ‘ultra-leftism’ of some engaged in the civil rights movement. These however could not really explain the developing events. They also berated the mindless militarism of the Provisionals and their lack of politics but the Provisionals had got one or two things right, including the need to defend Catholic areas against sectarian attacks. This of course made the fight for class unity more difficult but socialists in any case were obliged to oppose the attacks of loyalist sectarians.

The Provisionals meanwhile developed as an organisation with very primitive political conceptions which meant that when they did look to develop politically they did so through clientelist and electoralist politics that had no socialist content whatsoever.


In continuing to propound a reformist perspective in a developing quasi-revolutionary situation the Officials found themselves defending politics that were not so much redundant as positively reactionary. This attested to the fact that subjective intentions are no substitute for the objective logic of political programme. They found themselves defending Stormont – the direct instrument of sectarian privilege and repression! This was done on the grounds that direct rule would only tighten imperialist control and its plans to take over the whole country. A local parliament on the other hand was to be the means of democratising that part of Ireland and the pursuit of issues of ‘peace, justice and security.’

In a short time these demands were to take on the thoroughly reactionary character that they were and continue to have when espoused by the British. At this time however, in the early seventies, the Officials perspective was still one of fighting imperialism. Nevertheless the stageist conceptions of revolution were undermining any socialist content that the final objective gave to the strategy and tactics by which it was supposed to be achieved.

These determined that ‘both the national independence revolution and the socialist revolution are two stages of one democratic transformation of society, separate in time, each stage of which entails political and economic change in the interests of the people. How long a time elapses between the establishment of real national independence and unity and the establishment of a socialist form of society will depend on the interaction of the democratic forces of the Irish people and British imperialism together with the allies and clients of the latter within the country. In favourable conditions this may become a matter of gradual steps; it is not possible to be dogmatic about it.’ (Manifesto of the Irish Workers’ and Farmers’ Republic, August 1971)

In fact dogma infects this whole conception. So the democratic and socialist aspects of revolution are separated instead of inextricably mixed as in reality. So even in favourable (!) conditions we can only talk of gradual steps when history is one of gradual progression and regression punctuated by rapid and violent progression or regression. So the socialist transformation of society is subsumed under a general democratic one rather than the real process which is the other way. And how could a capitalist Ireland be ‘really’ independent?

The political perspective in the North this threw up was encapsulated in the following: ‘The mass pressure of the civil rights movement…must be kept up until Stormont is replaced by a properly democratic autonomous administration with the express power to decide for itself about the EEC.’ (United Irishman, October 1971)

This statement registered complete failure to understand the role of Stormont but it was only an egregious example of a more fundamental failure to understand the capitalist nature of the State and its essentially anti-working class character. Its institutions cannot be weapons in the hands of workers and socialists and must therefore be destroyed.

In fact the leaders of the Officials recognised that real political events had not fitted their schematic prescriptions. Sean Garland registered the real impact of events: ‘…the six-county situation has, since 1969 dominated the attention of the movement despite many efforts on our part to bring the struggle back to basics, by attempting to raise issues which require the involvement of the mass of people, we have been unable to do so…The imbalance that the six-county situation creates in the entire country has been one of the greatest difficulties we have had to face and fight. After internment we found ourselves gradually getting involved in military activities, as a reaction to the British Army and also, in some cases, as competition with the Provisionals… Without doubt over the past years we attracted many unreliable elements to our movement, opportunists, ultra-leftists, criminals and plain unadulterated madmen. It has taken us much effort to retain our fundamental struggle and to shake off these unstable elements.’

Ignoring the last sentence, which was an apology for the Officials attempt to physically kill off the recent split by the Irish Republican Socialist Party/ Irish National Liberation Army, which, baptised in blood, seemed determined to live the rest of its life that way, the rest of the assessment revealed that there were real problems facing all democratic and socialist forces at this time. The tempo of events was radically different North and South. The Officials tried to pull the more militant in the North back, by for example telling them that voting against entry into the EEC was the most important way of responding to British repression such as Bloody Sunday. But this was more evidence of the debilitating effects of stageist politics.

The division of the working class inside the North has been the subject of much socialist regret but this period showed how the physical division of the country created by partition made this and all other problems faced by Irish socialists much more difficult to solve. While the Officials’ strategy was increasingly reactionary and becoming more and more motivated by anti-Provo impulses, the Provos recruited on the false perspective of ‘ victory ’72,’ ‘victory 73’ etc. The failure of both responses is now a matter of history but determining what a correct orientation could have been is still a problem that faces Irish socialists today.

Of course the radically different tempo of events North and South is not a problem for those who think it does not matter. The majority of the Irish left acts as if it is not an issue. Workers unity can be created within the North and unity between the North and South can then easily be achieved afterwards. Neither part of this perspective is true. Workers unity inside the North is only possible if there is some (large) measure of all-Ireland workers unity to win Protestant workers away from unionism. This all-Ireland unity will not come from simple identification in the South with British oppression of Northern nationalists. It therefore only seems possible as a result of a systematic crisis of imperialism across the whole of the island which itself is most likely as a result of powerful international developments. But this perspective can be no surprise to anyone. All forces within Ireland have looked to international influence or support for their objective reflecting the simple fact that Ireland is a small and weak country. The Provos look to corporate America. Socialists look to the development of the international workers and socialist movement.

The Officials came to grief because such difficulties crash against schematic thinking and nothing is more schematic than reformism trying to limit struggles when they have burst the limits of reforms. This is what the struggle in the North in the early seventies had done. Garland articulated clearly the methodology of reformism in trying to pull the activities of the most advanced workers back to that which could be united with the concerns of the least. Unfortunately this meant attempting to reign in nationalist workers anger to what would be acceptable to unionist workers who had, in their majority, rejected even civil rights for Catholics.

In general this is the opposite of the approach which Marxists take. Far from their fulfilling the accusations of their detractors that they posit a revolutionary vanguard that substitutes for the masses, they realise that they themselves can only reach and mobilise the vast majority of workers through the most advanced sections of the working class, not directly and simply through themselves. This is the real vanguard Marxists seek to be part of. The problem in the North was the isolation of the most radical workers from the Protestant working class and also from the workers in the 26 counties. One either seeks ways to break out of this isolation or else one capitulates to the most reactionary views inside the majority. After the Officials tried to counterpose what they saw as the primary anti-imperialist issue in the South to the more immediate concerns of the Northern radicals (through calling for the prioritisation of opposing the EEC) they capitulated because nothing else could fit their stageist schema.

When the Official IRA announced its ceasefire after the killing of Ranger Best on 19 May 1972 in Derry it said it had done so because of the danger of sectarian warfare being provoked. But the danger and actuality of sectarianism is not determined by the actions of republicans but by the intentions of the loyalists and their British masters who more or less control loyalist paramilitaries. The statement revealed that for the Officials sectarianism was no longer to be understood as an expression of imperialism but as a product of the working class itself. From this it was a natural step to looking to imperialism to sort it out. The Officials called for a bill of rights and increasingly blamed the Provos for sectarianism (a view exposed since by the Provos’ ceasefire) while today the Provisionals repeatedly call for the British Government to ‘face up to its responsibilities,’ which is Sinn Fein-speak for the British tweaking the unionists’ ear and getting them to sit beside them in running the sectarian State.

In the South the politics of reformism had very infertile ground to work in, such has been the poverty and weakness of the country, reflected in the marginal status of its Labour Party. The Officials accepted the full logic of their position and in a document called ‘The Irish Industrial Revolution’ turned 180 degrees in their attitude to imperialism. Now imperialism had a progressive content: ‘What happened in the period 1958-75 was that international capitalism had created what 73 years of native capitalist rule had failed to create – a highly organised and militant industrial working class.’ (IIR p. 50)

Of course imperialism did not create a militant working class, that depends on the workers themselves and the history of imperialist development associated with the Celtic Tiger has resulted in a passive working class totally emasculated by social partnership. For the Officials however the primary role of this analysis was to remove British imperialism from the centre of concerns. If imperialism existed it was American, not British, as if on the question of the form of imperialist rule – partition – an attack on one was not also one inflicted on the other.

The grounds for any independent working class politics had thus been totally removed. The southern State’s constant pursuit of multinational investment had just been endorsed, and since in the worldwide scheme of things this is mainly what the Southern State is for, there existed no fundamental difference between the Irish State and its ‘radical’ republican opponents. Grass roots campaigning helped build a base for the new movement that was to end up being called the Workers Party but, without a solid political perspective based on the ‘big’ questions of state power and the nature of society, the successes achieved were always vulnerable. When Workers Party TDs decisively supported Charles Haughey as Taoiseach in 1982 that party had effectively signalled its bankruptcy as any sort of vehicle for socialism, even though it went on to expand its representation in the years to come. Overall the movement became a by-word for degeneracy and criminality.


The Official republicans ultimately moved to embrace reformist politics that were the antithesis of the revolutionary doctrine of Marx. But this was not inevitable. All the internal debates and tensions, the continuing armed attacks on the British Army even after their formal ceasefire and the split with the IRSP were all evidence of the contradictions and disruptions involved in their evolution.

So why did the Officials embrace Stalinism?

The first reason is that for most radicalising workers or activists the Soviet Union, whatever shortcomings were acknowledged (and generally none were), the Soviet Union represented the future, the future as socialism. To think otherwise was to exist in a much less comforting international world-view. The stingy patronage eked out by the Soviet Union to decolonisation movements seemed to confirm its progressive role. In this respect many still hark back to the old Soviet State, ignoring the limitations it placed on the radicalisation of such movements and its positively reactionary role in the developed and decisive capitalist countries, not to mention its strangling of workers’ struggles in Eastern Europe. Beside this imposing world superpower the claims of rivals to the banner of Marxism looked puny. Only much later were the assertions of genuine Marxism –that Stalinism was thoroughly rotten – confirmed, unfortunately in a negative way.

The second reason for the attraction of Stalinism was ideological. The Stalinist theory of stages, in which it was necessary for countries dominated by imperialism to go through a democratic stage of revolution before a later socialist stage, had particular attractions to a movement whose raison d’être was the completion of a democratic revolution. For Irish republicans this meant reunification of the country and creation of a national democracy. This theory papered over the antagonism of classes within the oppressed nation and emphasised purely national tasks that fitted comfortably into a left nationalist perspective of revolution. At the end of the day both could agree on a purely national revolution.

The alternative was the theory of permanent revolution developed by Leon Trotsky. This did not deny that revolutions go through stages of development, like any struggle, but rejected imposing artificial limits on their phases of development. It rejected artificially restricting workers’ objectives only to what was considered appropriate to a democratic stage and argued that only under workers power could even democratic tasks be fully accomplished. That is, there had to be a socialist revolution. Unfortunately the movement embodying this programme had suffered from severe physical repression by Stalinists across the world and was effectively buried by a mountain of vilification, misrepresentation and lies.

The third reason is that the undemocratic practices of republicanism, in part generated by the conspiratorial methods required by an illegal armed group, did not have to undergo any significant change as the movement adopted what it called democratic centralism. This had actually little to do with the best practices of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin but simply copied the bastardisation of the concept by Stalinism.

This adoption of Stalinism did not happen at once and it was only in 1973 that the Officials passed a resolution at their Ard Fheis defining Irish freedom as being like that ‘presently being built in the Socialist countries.’

Notwithstanding this the legacy of Stalinism among those still proclaiming socialism has proven most strong not in attachment to the old Soviet Union but in attachment to reformist conceptions of politics. This is especially true on the question of the state and revolution, but also on their opposition to what they mistakenly identify as the Leninist theory of the party and democratic centralism. Having rejected the Soviet Union as socialist, most have not similarly rejected Stalinist organisational practises as equally fraudulent when claiming to represent Leninism.

The tragedy of the Officials is not unlike that of many millions of workers around the world who accepted Stalinism as socialism and ended up playing an often unwitting role in discrediting socialism and demoralising themselves. The revolutionary movement in Ireland would be much stronger today if the thousands of republicans who embraced socialism had not done so under the banner of Stalinism.

The Republican Movement has a long and tragic history, the fruit of sacrifices imposed on it and misdirected violence emanating from it. From the perspective of socialist politics however, the biggest tragedy in the history of Irish republicanism has been that the radical reassessment generated in the 1960s embraced Stalinism instead of genuine Marxism.


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