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Two activists: Sean Garland & Alan MacSimoin

By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

20 December 2018

Since the beginning of December, two active socialists have died. Apart from the facts of their death and their dedication to forms of socialist politics, there was one thing that both linked and separated them. Both were active in the party once called Official Sinn Fein, and now the Workers’ Party. Their contrasting responses to their experiences therein contains lessons for those following them.

It was Sean Garland, not, as the song claims, Sean South who commanded the IRA Active Service Unit in the attack on Brookeborough RUC Barrack in which South and O’Hanlon were killed. Interned subsequently, his experience convinced him that such initiatives alone would not bring about the united Ireland that he wanted. Along with Cathal Goulding and Tomas MacGiolla, he guided the republican movement onto a new course, intending that it build a base for itself by action on social and economic issues. Among the three, Goulding came to be the strategist, MacGiolla the front man and Garland the organizer.  However, it was Garland who initially went further than the other two, embracing the Chinese model of Communism as being closest to his republicanism, in its emphasis on struggles for democratic rights against feudalism and imperialism and on the sufficiency of the national unit as the context for victory. This had some local successes in struggles against the remnants of feudalism in the Republic. It had more apparent success in the north, where Sinn Fein’s front bodies, the Republican Clubs were active in mobilizing the nationalist minority in a campaign for equal rights with the unionist majority, only to find that that majority saw the civil rights demands as threatening their privileges and reacted accordingly. This was the background of the 1970 split in the movement which was provoked, ironically, by the move of the Sinn Fein leadership (including Garland) to foist on its party the abandonment of parliamentary abstentionism by means of a ukase from the IRA Council. The leadership majority declared itself to be leading the official republican movement. The minority followed the Provisional body.

It was in the 1970s that Alan FitzSimons  (as he was then) joined Official Sinn Fein. He had been checking the various socialist bodies and was impressed with the Stickies as being the largest activist group. His membership did not last longer than a few years. The continuing militarism in the Official Sinn Fein organization alienated him. He resumed his search. He approached the Movement for a Socialist Republic, only to reject it; it seemed too much of a debating society for him. In the end, he joined with like-minded people to found Ireland’s Anarchist group, the Workers’ Socialist Movement. Anarchy combined activism with looseness, and the Workers’ Socialist Movement was always too small to suffer from the problems that Anarchic discipline can cause.

Alan edited the Movement’s paper. Apart from that, he acted as agitator at large. Although not involved with issues concerning the national struggle (as an Anarchist, he was not concerned with matters of state power), he was to be seen on many other progressive struggles.  The writer worked with him on the campaign to prevent the execution of Noel and Marie Murray,, winning a victory on the road to ending the death penalty. Alan was active, as well, on struggles for housing, the right of divorce, Shell to Sea, against apartheid, nuclear power  rendition and many more. In the last year, he played a role in the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. Though less flamboyant, he was a true heir to Anarchism’s Nicolai Bakunin who was on his way to an important meeting, saw a group of peasants burning a castle, got out of the coach and helped them reduce it to ashes.

Sean Garland never abandoned the Official Republican Movement. He was a reluctant supporter of the ceasefire of the Official IRA, and allied with Seamus Costello in demanding it resume the armed struggle. Despite this, he refused to follow Costello out of the Official movement and became one of his more implacable opponents, getting a bullet for his pains. He concentrated on keeping the OIRA in check if not quite out of existence, on organising Sinn Fein as a constitutional socialist body, abandoning Irish national demands save for opposition to European Union membership. In the process his movement abandoned the mass struggle, leaving opposition to the  Ulster colonial regime to those who believed and practiced physical force. By 1989, his party was languishing in Northern Ireland but flourishing in the republic with seven Dail seats. It was in competition with the Communist Party for the Kremlin franchise, Garland’s own Maoism having been dumped with The Officials’ guns. Then the Soviet Union imploded and six of the seven deputies moved the Workers’ Party break formally with Communism. When that body refused, they broke away. Garland had to start all over again, while seeing (and, it would seem, being unable to explain) his Provo enemies filling the gap left by his organisation. For a while, he was plagued by the threat of extradition to America face a charge of terrorism brought by the authorities there more out of spite than of anything else. Today there are signs that his work is bearing fruit. How positive this is is unclear. If the Workers’ Party retains his analysis and perspectives it will be negative.

Both MacSimoin and Garland participated in agitations for democratic and socialist aims. Garland did so as a leader of the republican movement and its heir, the Workers’ Party, acting on behalf of the ‘republic virtually established’ that he regarded as the only means of liberation for the working people. Alan MacSimoin rejected any sort of vanguard party as limiting their freedom of action. Each was partly correct. The working people are not going to seize state power without a party to guide them, but that party must guide them and be prepared to learn from them rather than try to imprison them within a preconceived line, particularly a line or a series of flawed lines as upheld by Garland. Still, neither Garland nor MacSimoin succeeded in his aim, but neither stopped trying either.

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