THE IRA IN THE 1960s: RETHINKING THE REPUBLIC?
Review article by Anthony Coughlan on the book by Matt Treacy, “The IRA 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic”, Manchester University Press, 2011, ISBN 978 0 7190 8472 0, hardback, €75.60
AN IMPORTANT BOOK
This is an important book on Irish republican and leftwing politics in the 1960s, on the background to the destruction of Ulster Unionist political hegemony by the Northern civil rights movement of that decade, and the formation of the Provisional IRA.
Dr Treacy gives us much new information on a relatively neglected period. His book will be a significant source for those seeking to understand the explosion caused by the Partition of Ireland half a century after David Lloyd George’s Government of Ireland Act sundered Ireland into two parts in 1920.
Unfortunately it will not be the definitive work on its subject. This is because Dr Treacy seems somewhat divided over what one might call “the conspiracy thesis” which has been subscribed to by sundry previous writers on this topic. This is that there was an attempt at some form of communist takeover-bid of the 1960s Republican Movement which contributed significantly to the 1970 split which gave rise to the Provisional IRA.
He does not give credence to the more lurid version of this tale: that there was a chain of command, lubricated by money, from the Moscow Kremlin to the London King Street Headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain(CPGB), of which the Labour historian the late C.Desmond Greaves was a member from the 1930s to the 1980s, and thence to Dr Roy Johnston and the present writer. The supposed purpose of this linkage was to convert the 1960s Republican Movement to “socialism” or “Marxism” and establish a “national liberation front” between the Republicans and the Irish Communists, the latter being represented at the time by the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI) and by the Irish Workers League, later the Irish Workers Party, in the Republic.
Some of Dr Treacy’s formulations give credence nonetheless to a “softer” version of this story. But he also gives evidence against it. One can see how the book’s publishers, Manchester University Press, welcomed the stimulus to potential readers’ curiosity of such chapter headings as “The Wolfe Tone Society and the Communists” and “Towards the National Liberation Front”. One wonders what Dr Eunan O’Halpin of Trinity College, Dr Treacy’s academic supervisor for the thesis on which the book is based, makes of them.
The fact of the matter is that there was no such conspiracy or attempted takeover-bid of Republicanism by people in the communist movement. The persons mentioned did not act in unison. As independent individuals acting on their own behalf they welcomed the moves by the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership to “go political” and move away from militarism in the 1960s, as people all over Ireland did at the time, but they had no desire whatever to see the Republican Movement take up “socialism” or Marxism. In so far as they shared a common view of the Republican Movement they wanted the IRA and Sinn Fein to stick to Republicanism, but a political Republicanism, and to stick to civil rights in Northern Ireland when the campaign for these developed there post-1967.
REPUBLICAN TRADITIONALISTS AND POLITICISERS
Dr Treacy analyses the 1960s Republican Movement in terms of a conflict between what he calls “traditionalists” and “modernisers”. In my opinion “politicisers” would have been a better word than “modernisers”. The latter is a term favoured by much modern bum sociology which purports to explain things, but does not. When do the modern times of the “modernisers” begin, when do they end?
The Republican traditionalists were physical-force men. They regarded the IRA Army Council, not the Irish State, as the legitimate inheritors of the Second Dail. For them abstentionism from Leinster House was a sacred principle. They regarded a renewal of the 1916-21 War of Independence against Britain as the only way to end Partition. “Arm and prepare” was thus their policy imperative. This required giving priority to maintaining a militarily effective IRA.
The politicisers on the other hand saw that the only way to keep Republicanism relevant after the failure of the 1956-62 IRA Border campaign was to “go political,” to take up social and economic issues that served the interests and met the needs of ordinary citizens and could mobilize large numbers into political action.
This inevitably meant moving to the left on economic issues and adopting broad national positions on non-economic ones. But it did not mean adopting any more overtly “leftwing” a political stance than the likes of Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke or Sean MacDermott had adopted when they supported the workers’ side in the 1913 lockout and allied themselves three years later with the Marxist socialist James Connolly in the Easter Rising which started Ireland’s war for national independence.
“Going political” in the 1960s did not require Republicans to become socialists or Marxists, even if particular individuals might lean in those directions. Nor did it require the Republican movement as a whole to advocate socialism or Marxism, even if one could agree on what those terms meant in the context of the time.
Cathal Goulding, who was IRA chief-of staff for most of the decade, was the principal Republican “politiciser”. He lent instinctively to the left, as did his fellow politicisers Sean Garland, Seamus Costello and Mick Ryan. In the Six Counties Goulding’s main allies were Liam McMillen and the full-time Republican organizer Malachy McGurran.
Collectively they saw abstentionism from the Dáil as a fundamental obstacle to the politicising project. The experience of the 1956-62 Border campaign had taught them the futility of trying to organize another such effort and they set their face against that throughout the 1960s. At the same time they found themselves in charge of a military formation, the IRA, whose raison d’etre was a military campaign against British rule and many of whose members and some of whose leading figures, for example Ruairi O Bradaigh and Sean MacStiofain, took that purpose seriously.
The Republican politicisers were therefore riding two horses, so to speak, trying to become constitutionalists while running an illegal army at the same time. Matt Treacy’s book usefully documents some of the stratagems they used to try to keep their movement together. These ranged from attempting to turn IRA volunteers into a corps of political activists, to permitting occasional military actions to keep the “traditionalists” happy, to proposing that the IRA could have an objectively useful role as last-ditch defenders of social advances brought about by political action if the State or the conservative forces in Irish society sought to overturn these by force.
In the event the crisis of August 1969 in Belfast tore the Republican Movement apart. Cathal Goulding’s attempt to ride two horses undid him. He remains a tragic figure – a dedicated Irish Republican and a very attractive human being who was overcome by the terrible events he was plunged into.
The ultimate responsibility for those events rested of course with the British Government which instituted the Partition of Ireland in the first place and which under successive London administrations gave the Unionist regime at Stormont a free hand to implement anti-Catholic discriminatory policies and foster the religious-political sectarianism which exploded in the August 1969 crisis.
CATHAL GOULDING, DR ROY JOHNSTON, ANTHONY COUGHLAN, C.DESMOND GREAVES
Cathal Goulding and his colleagues were essentially soldiers, not politicians. They were not sophisticates in the analysis of political concepts. During the 1960s they were happy to accept help in the politicizing effort from congenial sympathisers who were neither in Sinn Fein nor the IRA. Goulding invited Dr Roy Johnston to join the Movement and made him IRA Education Officer. He welcomed the efforts of the Wolfe Tone Society to initiate political agitation on social and economic issues, which Republicans in Sinn Fein and other bodies could participate in and spread more widely. After two prominent early politicisers, Denis Foley and Tony Meade, both editors of the Republican monthly “The United Irishman”, gave up that job in frustration at what they regarded as the slowness in dealing with the abstentionist issue, Goulding invited Mr Seamus O Tuathail to edit that paper. O Tuathail remained editor for several years even though he never became a member of either Sinn Fein or the IRA.
Cathal Goulding sought out Desmond Greaves on one of the latter’s visits to Dublin from London for purposes of undertaking research work for his biography of Liam Mellows. Greaves used to stay at the Finglas home of Cathal and Helga MacLiam – he had been best man at their wedding in London some years before. Goulding and MacLiam discovered that they were cousins although they had not previously met. Subsequently Goulding called on Greaves several times when he visited Dublin and sometimes he brought some of his IRA colleagues with him.
As Assistant Secretary and later Secretary of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society for much of the time between 1965 and 1970 I occasionally met Cathal Goulding and his colleagues. From time to time the “United Irishman” editors asked me to write articles for that journal and I was invited to speak at some Sinn Fein meetings, usually on economic subjects. I did everything I could from outside the Republican movement to assist the politicizing process and particularly to encourage Republican support for a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s onward. I was especially interested in the latter as a result of my work with the Connolly Association in London in 1958-61, as Dublin correspondent of the “Irish Democrat” for four decades years after that, and because of my regular contact with Desmond Greaves, whose political activity all through this period was centred on trying to make the misdeeds of the Stormont Unionist regime and anti-Catholic discrimination in the North a major issue in British politics.
Towards the end of 1969, after the assaults on Belfast Catholic areas in August, I was contacted one day to have a meeting with Cathal Goulding and Sean Garland. I remember meeting the two of them in O’Neill’s pub in Suffolk Street, Dublin, where they invited me rather formally to join the IRA and Sinn Fein. The reason, they said, was that I would be a more effective help to the politicization process inside the movement than outside it. I declined.
Following the Provisional-Official split in 1970 I had little further contact with Cathal Goulding and his colleagues and concentrated on working through the Wolfe Tone Society and its offshoots in opposing the Irish State’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC). That culminated in the May 1972 EEC Accession Treaty referendum. Meanwhile Goulding and his fellow Official Republicans, under pressure from the newly formed Provisionals on the one hand and Seamus Costello and those who later followed him in founding the IRSP on the other, resumed military activity in the North in a half-hearted fashion, before calling a permanent ceasefire in May 1972.
By then Roy Johnston had resigned from the Republican Movement and Eoghan Harris became political guru to the Officials in his stead. Harris developed a unique ideological mishmash of his own, which he termed “class politics”. This exalted foreign big capital as “progressive”, denigrated the small Irish business class as reactionary and played down the political relevance of Partition. He succeeded in foisting this on poor Goulding and his colleagues as a form of “socialism”.
The Officials in turn were hugely embittered at the mutual assassinations of erstwhile comrades which occurred in the early years after the split. Instead of developing a political Republicanism which might have kept the door open to an eventual coming-together with the Provisionals when they in turn “went political” twenty years later, the Officials or “Stickies” jettisoned Republicanism altogether. They embarked on the course which led them eventually to adopt quasi-Unionist and anti-national policy positions as described in Hanley and Millar’s’ valuable book The Lost Revolution:The Official IRA and the Workers Party
This in time brought many of them into the Irish Labour Party where they were happy to enter government in coalition with Fine Gael and administer the Irish State on behalf of the European Central Bank, the EU and IMF, as is happening today. Radical rhetoric about “socialism” and hatred of the Provisionals became their cover for all this.
The origin of the communist takeover-bid thesis which Matt Treacy’s book gives far too much credence to is in the polemics the newly formed Provisionals used in 1970 to justify their reversion to military activity in the North. The real causes of the split were the dispute over abstentionism, coupled with the IRA’s alleged failure to “defend” Belfast nationalist areas in August 1969 when the proper people to prevent UK citizens, which the people of those areas were, from being terrorized and having their houses burned down were the British Government and its soldiers and policemen, who were ultimately responsible for administering the North.
If the British Government had done its duty by its Northern Catholic citizens it would have brought its soldiers and administrators into conflict with the Loyalists, the armed gangs and B-Specials who launched the mid-August attacks on the Falls Road and Bombay Street. That would have taught the Loyalists a lesson. Cathal Goulding knew this and wanted to facilitate it, while at the same time he was under pressure to bring the IRA fully back into military action, which would have let the Unionist authorities and the British Government off the hook politically.
I have sometimes wondered whether, if the Goulding-led IRA had been more publicly to the fore during those mid-August days, that would have helped it retain political hegemony in Republican Belfast and headed off support for the newly formed Provisionals. Such a course would have required a virtual overnight switch of policy by Goulding and his colleagues from supporting peaceful civil rights agitation to military activity. For Home Minister William Craig and other Unionist hard-liners such a shift in turn would have been seen as confirming their allegations that the Civil Rights Movement had been an IRA front from its inception. Cathal Goulding knew this too and he wanted to prevent that. He was in an impossible position, a truly tragic one, which in final analysis British policy and its sins of omission vis-a-vis the North over the years bore the ultimate responsiblility for putting him in.
This supposed “failure” to defend the Falls and Bombay Street against the mid-August attacks was ascribed by the Provisionals to the politicisers’ obsession with politics and their unwillingness to give priority to “arming and preparing” in the previous years. All the better if the politicising effort could be ascribed to malign infiltrators, Communists and “Stalinists”, out to seduce such longstanding and respected Republicans as Goulding, Garland, Mac Giolla and Costello from their natural orientation.
Another reason for the “communist takover-bid thesis” is that over the following thirty years there appeared a veritable library of books on the Provisional IRA’s “armed struggle” which regurgitated this notion of leftwing infiltration and the supposed influence of “Marxism” in precipitating the 1970 split and the establishment of the Provisionals. Many of these were written during the Cold War years by professional anti-Communists or by authors with ultra-left or neo-Trotskyist connections. They threw words like “Stalinist” and “Marxist” around like the proverbial snuff at a wake, usually without defining what they meant by these terms.
Unfortunately it is when he attempts to assess the influence of Communists or ex-Communists on the 1960s Republican Movement that Matt Treacy’s book is at its most disappointing. His historical method in dealing with this issue is to quote statements from different sources about the supposed communistic political allegiance and outlook of people like Roy Johnston and others, including myself, then quote counter statements or different items of evidence without stating what his own view is, and leaving the reader to find his own way through the subsequent mélange of innuendos and half-truths.
When Matt Treacy interviewed me for this book in 2001 I gave him the full facts of what happened in the 1960s as I understood them. I also gave him access to the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society minutes for the 1960s, which are in my possession, not in Roy Johnston’s, as he mistakenly states in his list of “primary sources”(p.196). I told him that the only political party I had ever been a member of was the Irish Labour Party for a three-year period when I was a student at UCC in the late 1950s, along with Barry Desmond and the late Michael O’ Leary, who subsequently became Labour leader. This becomes, on page 79: “Coughlan claims never to have been a member of the Communist Party in either Britain or Ireland.” But elsewhere he quotes statements by various individuals, some anonymous, which claimed otherwise. I am legally advised that these statements are defamatory and should not have been published. Dr Treacy does not tell us what he believes himself.
This is journalistic gossip, not history. On a personal note I can say that I have done quite well financially over the years from not joining political organisations! I have received thousands of pounds and euros as a result of taking libel actions against publishers of books and newspapers which stated that at different times I have been variously a member of the IRA or of one or other British or Irish Communist Parties. As regards Matt Treacy’s work I am legally advised that I have a good case for an action for defamation against its publishers, Manchester University Press. I have decided to wait on this matter for the present, partly out of respect for Dr Treacy. This is the first book of a young historian after all. For his next book, if there is a next one, he needs to improve his historical method and standards of evidence in significant respects.
I am disturbed however that Dr Treacy does not give a more accurate account of his 2001 interview with me. He writes (p.79): “Coughlan shares that view of republicanism as a petit-bourgeois ideology.” As a committed republican all my adult life, I hold no such view. James Connolly was a socialist Republican. Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse were non-socialist Republicans. Sean MacStiofain was a non-socialist one. The point I made to Dr Treacy and which he seems to have misunderstood was that the physical force tradition in Irish republican politics going back to the Fenians was an essentially small-bourgeois one, the small-bourgeois class of small farmers, small proprietors and self-employed being the numerically largest social class in Ireland up to the 1950s.
The erection of a means, physical force, into a fundamental principle, an ultimate test of political commitment, served to gloss over the social differences between master and man, the small proprietor and the farm labourer, shopkeeper and clerk who made up the bulk of this naturally fissiparous social class. Resorting to physical force facilitated joint action for a common cause without raising awkward questions as to the social objectives aspired to. Armed activity by single individuals or small groups – what outraged officialdom calls “terrorism” – is congenial to the natural individualism of the small bourgeoisie. In its modes of political action people of that social class are capable of heroic self-sacrifice, of “dying for Ireland” even, while having no feel for collectivist forms of organization such as trade unions, which are the basis of the labour movement. The members of the small bourgeois class are continually pulled between the prospect of becoming small capitalists on the one hand and falling into the ranks of the workingclass on the other, and this reflects itself in their typical modes of political action – not just in Ireland but around the world.
THE COMMUNIST MOVEMENT NOT MONOLITHIC ON IRELAND
Like so many writers who came to adulthood during the Cold War, Dr Treacy shows little “feel for” or empathy with people in the communist movement. He frequently refers to “the Communists” or “the Marxists” as if they were an undifferentiated mass, people without minds of their own, working in coordinated fashion as if to external orders. These are the stereotypical Communists and Stalinists of the Cold War bogeyman.
The central theme of Matt Treacy’s book is the policy division between Republican traditionalists and politicisers. But the Communists were no more monolithic in outlook than the Republicans were. In the 1950s and early 1960s there was almost as deep a division on Irish policy within the communist parties of the three relevant jurisdictions as there was amongst the Republicans.
This division in leftwing circles revolved around the relation of the struggle for national independence and the struggle for socialism in a country, Ireland, with an unresolved national problem. To be fair to Dr Treacy, even though he often refers to “the Communists” as if they were a uniform bloc, on occasion – and this is one of the book’s contributions to historical knowledge – he does draw attention to the existence of policy divisions in British and Irish communist circles on how to treat the Partition question.
Thus he writes(p.76): “The Irish Workers League for a time maintained a much more hostile attitude towards the republican movement than Greaves and Johnston… According to Johnston, Greaves was unhappy with the manner in which the Irish Workers League and the Labour left approached the national question.” There follows an interesting account of a discussion on Partition policy in the Connolly Association monthly The Irish Democrat, which Desmond Greaves edited, between Jack Bennett, who was that paper’s volunteer Belfast correspondent, and Paddy Carmody of the Dublin-based Irish Workers League. And Dr Treacy concludes: “It was clear then that there were differences within the Communist movement over the attitude to be adopted towards the Irish republican movement.”
Unfortunately he does not develop this theme as fully as he might have.
THE TRUTH ABOUT COMMUNIST INVOLVEMENT WITH THE REPUBLICANS
What are the facts about communist influence on the Republican Movement in the 1960s?
So far as I am aware, there were precisely two communists or ex-communists who became members of the Republican movement in the 1960s period and who were active in either the IRA, Sinn Fein or both during that decade – Dr Roy Johnston in Dublin and the late Jim Savage in Cork. Jim Savage had been an IRA internee in the Curragh in the 1940s. In the intimate society of Cork radical politics he retained a kind of dual membership of the Irish Workers Party and Sinn Fein. I knew him well as a fellow-Corkman and so far as I know he did not rejoin the IRA following his internment experience in the Curragh in the 1940s.
As for Dr Johnston, who played a much more influential role, he joined the Republican movement entirely of his own volition, having been invited to do so by Cathal Goulding as previously stated. He was not encouraged to take this step by either Desmond Greaves or myself, who only became aware of it after it had happened. I understand that he was not a member of the Irish Workers League at the time, as he did not renew his membership of that organization following his return to Dublin from working in Britain in the early 1960s.
The following is an example of Dr Treacy’s historical method in dealing with Dr Johnston, p. 72: He writes: “Others who were themselves on the left of the movement are of the opinion that there was more to Johnston’s joining the republican movement than met the eye. One person, who subsequently took the Official side in the split, believes that there was formal support from the Communist Parties of Ireland and Britain for Johnston’s entry into the IRA and that this was understood and accepted by at least one senior figure within the IRA. The same person believes that Cathal Goulding had come under the influence of Soviet agent Klaus Fuchs when held in Wormwood Scrubs and that Goulding facilitated the entry of Johnston into the republican leadership as part of a strategy to influence the future direction of the IRA.”
The aforesaid “person” is unnamed and his supposed “belief” about alleged Communist Party sponsorship is quite false, as will be conclusively shown when Desmond Greaves’s Journal of the period is published.
The above statements are on page 72. Forty pages later, on page 111, Dr Treacy again quotes an unnamed private informant as being “convinced” that Dr Johnston “may have been working directly for Soviet Intelligence.” He comments on this: “The claim that Johnston was a Soviet agent is extremely far-fetched and unlikely.” But if he believes that is the case, why does he spread such a malevolent and absurd claim further by regurgitating it? His next sentence reads: “Undoubtedly there were Soviet intelligence connections to the CPGB and possibly through it to the IRA but there are more obvious candidates as agents among the characters in this narrative than Johnston.” Now who could these “more obvious candidates” for being Soviet agents be? Dr Treacy leaves us guessing. Again this is not history. It is at best speculation, and unpleasant speculation at that if what it implies is untrue, as I am quite certain that it is.
I lived for three years in London from 1958 to 1961 and was a full-time paid organizer of the Connolly Association in Britain in 1960. The Connolly Association was running a campaign at the time to expose the discriminatory practices of the Stormont Unionist regime in British Labour Party and Trade Union and leftwing circles. When I took on the job of full-time organiser for the Association neither Desmond Greaves nor anyone else suggested that I join the Communist Party, and I did not. On returning to Dublin in 1961 to take up a lectureship in Trinity College, Desmond Greaves as Irish Democrat editor asked me to act as its volunteer Dublin correspondent, which I continued to be for the next forty years until that paper ceased publication in 2006.
In 1964 I joined the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society, that body having adopted a constitution which differentiated it from the IRA-sponsored Wolfe Tone “Directories” that organized various commemorations on the bicentenary of Tone’s birth in 1963. I was assistant secretary and later secretary of the Dublin Society for most of the time between 1965 and 1970. My recollection is that the Dublin Society had two communists or ex-communists among its members, Roy Johnston and Cathal MacLiam. Most of the Dublin members were independent Republicans who shared the general view of the Republican politicisers but were not actively involved in Sinn Fein or the IRA. The IRA leaders whom Dr Treacy states (p.107) were members of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society in 1966 were not so at all, with the exception of Dr Roy Johnston. The Society was fully committed to developing a political republicanism that would be relevant to modern Ireland, but it is wrong to say, as Matt Treacy does (p.58), that the Wolfe Tone Society was “under IRA control”.
THE “STALINIST STAGES THEORY”
Desmond Greaves, who was a member of the CPGB all his adult life, developed the view from the 1940s that Partition was the root of Ireland’s problems and that Irish socialists and Marxists should give priority in their political work to the struggle to end that, and that talk of socialism in Ireland without the country being reunified was a pipe-dream. Greaves advanced what he regarded as the classical Marxist view that the struggle for national independence in a country with an unsolved national problem was the most important thing.
So far as Ireland was concerned he regarded the struggle for Irish unity and independence as an integral part of the struggle for socialism there, but national independence could be chronologically and politically distinguished from whatever social system an independent Irish State might introduce. He wrote once: ”National independence and socialism are two stages of one democratic revolution in society, each of which requires economic changes which it is the function of political change to bring about.” Matt Treacy is quite mistaken when he writes, p.75: “Greaves clearly saw his role in London, through the Connolly Association, as one of influencing Irish workers towards socialism.” This was the precise opposite of Greaves’s political position. Rather, Desmond Greaves sought to influence Irish workers in Britain to take up the anti-Partition, not the socialist, cause. The Connolly Association was not and did not claim to be a socialist organization, and it is not so today. In the late 1950s Desmond Greaves fought strenuous political battles within it against those of its members who wanted to turn it into a conduit for Irish immigrants into socialist political bodies and specifically the CPGB.
The view that national independence and socialism should be distinguished and that the national democratic and the socialist revolutions are separate things has often been dismissed by far-left and neo-Trotskyist writers as “the Stalinist stages theory”. It will be recalled that the dispute between Stalin and Trotsky in the 1920s and 1930s was over whether it was possible to build socialism in one country, Russia. The Trotskyists believed in so-called “permanent revolution”, the merging of the democratic and socialist revolutions in a single social transformation, which could moreover occur in several different countries simultaneously.
In colonial countries and countries like Ireland with legacy national problems, it is only common sense and in accordance with historical experience that an independent State needs to be established first before that State can implement the economic and political changes which constitute socialism, however defined. Those who deny the validity of the so-called “stages theory” show themselves ignorant of the most basic principles of politics. They fly in the face of the historical experience of all countries that do not have, but seek to establish, their national independence. It is obvious that historical development goes in stages. To dignify this truism with the title of a “theory” is really pretentious.
What Desmond Greaves regarded as his classical Marxist view of the relation between national independence and socialism – in the Irish context between the anti-Partition struggle and the struggle for the economic and social changes that one might designate as socialist – was by no means shared by all in the Communist movement. In the 1960s some British communists had paternalist quasi-imperialist attitudes towards Britain’s colonies and ex-colonies like Ireland. In Northern Ireland Greaves sometimes characterised the reluctance or tardiness of the CPNI in taking up the Partition question as reflecting what he used call “Orange communism”. At the same time the communists in Britain, whatever their deficiencies, were the only party to put the ending of the Partition of Ireland in their official programme. While in the North the only section of the Protestant population that was in principle open to an anti-Partition policy were communists of Protestant background such as Betty Sinclair and Billy McCullough of the Belfast Trades Council and the CPNI.
Desmond Greaves’s lifelong political work, especially after he became full-time editor of the “Irish Democrat” in 1951, was directed at winning the British Labour Movement to an anti-Partition policy. That meant the CPGB, the British Labour Party and the British Trade Unions. It was a daunting task. In the 1950s and 1960s there were divisions over Partition policy among communists in the CPGB, among Connolly Association members who were also CPGB members and within the two Irish Communist Parties. The policy issue in question was what was the relation in the Irish context between national independence and unity on the one hand and campaigning for socialism or socialist-type measures on the other.
This is still the central issue that progressives and radicals have to make up their minds on in all countries with unresolved national problems. It is the core issue facing democrats and radicals with regard to the European Union today, for the EU has made the national question, the question of national democracy and independence, into the principal political issue for all of its 27 Member States, and this will remain the case as long as the EU continues to exist.
It was only towards the end of the 1960s that Desmond Greaves’s view that undoing Partition was the primary political task in Ireland became widely accepted in British and Irish Communist circles. Even then the mainstream Communist movement never took the issue as seriously in its active campaigning as Greaves would have liked. Specifically, Greaves advanced the view that the peaceful way to end the Partltion of Ireland was to secure maximum equality between Catholics and Protestants in the Six Counties. That would remove any rational basis for Unionism as an ideology that justified domination over Catholics/Nationalists. It would open the way for Northern Unionists to rediscover over time the political implications of the common Irishness they share with their Nationalist/Catholic fellow-countrymen and women. In that way Ireland could be reunited by consent, an objective which any British Government that followed a progressive policy should of course actively encourage.
As an activist in the Connolly Association in Britain and editor from 1948 to 1988 of its monthly paper “The Irish Democrat”, Desmond Greaves pioneered THE IDEA of a campaign for civil rights as the way to shatter Unionist political domination in the North. His influence was not only exercised directly within his own party, the CPGB, but also in the Connolly Association and through his contacts in the fraternal CPs in Belfast and Dublin, as well as in British Labour Party and Trade Union circles, where he was widely known. It was also exercised through his personal friendship with such as Dr Roy Johnston and myself, as well as through the social contacts he occasionally had with Cathal Goulding and some of his Republican colleagues when they met socially in Dublin, usually at Cathal MacLiam’s residence, during Greaves’s research visits to Ireland.
All these people acted independently of one another however, out of their own political convictions and not in some planned coordinated fashion. Apart from IRA members, who presumably took orders from their superiors in the IRA Army Council, no one was taking orders or instructions from anyone else. Unfortunately Dr Treacy’s account misses much of the reality of all this. He tends to see a conspiracy where there was no conspiracy, but rather the emergence of a gradual coincidence of view amongst people facing similar circumstances: namely that IRA military actions were politically wholly counter-productive in the context of the 1960s and that a broad movement for civil rights – “British rights for British citizens” – was the way to destroy the half-century-long political hegemony of Stormont Unionism in the Six Counties, as history indeed proved to be the case.
NICRA AND THE BILL OF RIGHTS
In my opinion Dr Treacy’s book underestimates the role of the Republicans in the establishment and development of NICRA (the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) and the commitment of Cathal Goulding and his Northern colleagues, Liam McMillen and Malachy McGurran in particular, to maintaining the political, civil rights approach as long as possible and doing their best to prevent a reversion to IRA military activity which would inevitably disrupt that, despite the pressures they came under in August 1969 and the months following.
He does refer (p.153) to a social meeting in Dublin in late 1969 when Desmond Greaves argued Goulding and Costello out of supporting the call for the abolition of Stormont in order “to highlight British responsibility”. Greaves’s Journal records him as telling them bluntly that London’s responsibility for the policies of its subordinate Parliament and Government in Belfast was by then well-known to all intelligent observers. The alternative policy which the Republican politicisers, influenced also by Roy Johnston and myself, adopted was the concept of a Bill of Rights, something which the Connolly Association in Britain, under Greaves’s influence, was campaigning for the Westminster Parliament to impose as a legislative straitjacket on its subordinate Parliament in Belfast.
It was Desmond Greaves’s political genius to develop this concept of a Bill of Rights as providing a middle way between leaving Stormont unreformed under Unionist majority rule and abolishing it altogether in favour of direct rule from London. The Bill of Rights approach to the Northern problem sought to leave the Stormont Parliament in existence, with its power to do harm from the Nationalist standpoint taken from it and its ability to develop in a progressive direction, including establishing closer relations with the South, enshrined in the legislation of the superior Parliament at Westminster.
The alternative approach, which Greaves and those he influenced did all they could to oppose but which prevailed in the end, was to abolish Stormont altogether in favour of “direct rule” from London. The Republican politicisers saw “direct rule” as likely to strengthen the North’s Union with Britain rather than weaken it, much as the abolition of the corrupt and discredited College Green Parliament in 1800 had strengthened the link with Britain then.
The call for ”direct rule” from London was first put forward in 1969 by the leftist radicals of the student-based People’s Democracy – Eamon McCann, Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell and their friends. They saw the Unionist regime in Belfast as the main enemy rather than its principals in London. The call for direct rule was taken up following the 1970 split by the newly formed Provisionals. It swept like wildfire through the Parliamentary Labour Party, then in office at Westminster under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. And in due course it was implemented by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1972 – as Desmond Greaves put it, ”like a cat being driven into a dairy”.
When in February 1971 the British leftwing weekly “Tribune” advocated “Shut Down Stormont”, Greaves wrote in the Irish Democrat: “This is Labour assuming the mantle of imperialism. Imagine the difficulty of getting a united Ireland if the whole administration of the North were fused with England. Does Tribune want a new fifty years of bitterness as anti-partition leagues, labour organisations and the IRA direct their energies to getting the direct rule administration removed? Every issue would be automatically transferred from Belfast to London. And a solution might wait years as successive English administrations fooled, vacillated and temporised as they are well able to do.”
This prescient forecast was exactly what happened as the people of the North experienced the delights of “direct rule” for the next quarter of a century, until it was ended by the establishment of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which the latter-day Provisional Republican Movement is now fully committed to making a success of.
The Bill of Rights demand was taken up by Cathal Goulding and the Republican politicisers in 1969 and by the NICRA in Belfast. The three Communist parties in Britain and Ireland supported it also. In September 1971 as a result of the Connolly Association’s lobbying in Britain it became the policy of the British Trades Union Congress and thus of the entire British trade union movement, which was more powerful and influential in those days than now. Greaves personally drafted a Bill of Rights in proper parliamentary form and it was proposed on the same day, 12 May 1971, by Arthur Latham MP in the House of Commons and by Fenner Brockway in the Lords, but was rejected by the Tories in both houses, now that they were back in office and Harold Wilson had lost his historical opportunity to advance a progressive solution to the Irish problem.
The Bill of Rights policy merits consideration by historians as an ingenious conception which the evolution of events did not favour at the time but which if it had been adopted might have avoided much of the agony of the quarter-century that followed. While the Bill of Rights approach did not prevail at the time, there are clear parallels between it and the Good Friday Agreement approach of today. It is a pity that Dr Treacy does not do more justice to this episode in his assessment of what the Republican politicisers were attempting, for it is hugely relevant to that story.
PUTTING “SOCIALISM” INTO THE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT'S CONSTITUTION: 1967
A lacuna in Dr Treacy’s book is that he does not give more consideration to analyzing the major constitutional change made by the Republican Movement in the 1960s, namely the decision in 1967 to amend the IRA/Sinn Fein Constitution so as to make ”a democratic socialist Republic based on the 1916 Proclamation” the central political objective of the movement. For purveyors of the communist takover-bid thesis this should be clear proof of the success of the “infiltrators”. In reality Desmond Greaves deplored this development privately. The 1916 Proclamation was not about a socialist republic. “They are changing the label on the bottle”, I recall Greaves saying at the time. By this he meant that by taking this step the Republicans were significantly narrowing their potential membership and allies and opening the way to imbibing all sorts of dubious ideological concoctions as supposedly “socialist”.
This happened with the “Stickies” in the 1970s. Only time will tell whether contemporary Sinn Fein will successfully resist being diverted from the anti-imperialism which marked its genesis in 1970 towards an accommodation with Ireland’s Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour parties in support of the main project of modern imperialism in our part of the world, the European Union, while simultaneously using radical-sounding rhetoric on income distribution and related economic and social issues to mask this development.
In changing the Sinn Fein Constitution on what historically had been the classical Republican’s Movement’s central objective Cathal Goulding and his colleagues were taking quite a different course from that of Peadar O’Donnell, George Gilmore, Frank Ryan and the politicisers of the 1930s Republican Congress, even though these veterans are supposed by some to have been influential on their 1960s successors. In the 1930s O’Donnell, Gilmore and Ryan sought to rally people around the slogan “The Republic”, and opposed the call for “The Workers’ Republic”, while their more leftish-sounding opponents ended up on the political right in the Labour Party. I remember thinking myself in 1967 that the insertion of ”socialism” into the Sinn Fein Constitution was a mistake, but I had no influence on the matter.
Desmond Greaves’s concern was not that by making a socialist republic their central constitutional objective the Republicans were trespassing on to political territory properly belonging to the Labour movement or the communists, as Matt Treacy implies, but rather that this seeming leftward step and the adoption of an associated socialist-type rhetoric would become cover for abandoning an effective anti-imperialist policy and encourage the Republicans to follow ostensibly left-wing but in reality politically opportunist courses. This is exactly what happened with the “Stickies”.
A key issue during the 1960s was Ireland’s application to join the European Economic Community. This was originally made in 1961. Greaves regarded the EEC as establishing a form of collective imperialism in Europe and as an historical development that would make the national question, the struggle for national democracy and national independence, the central issue of European politics for as long as it lasted, including for countries like Britain France, Spain etc. that had been imperial powers in their day. He early identified the European Community Treaties, embodying as they do the free movement of capital and labour unimpeded by national Governments, as amounting to a contract not to have socialism!
Forty years later, when the Brussels institutions have typically become responsible for half or more of the legal acts in each of the 27 EU Member States each year, what reasonable person can doubt that he was right? What can talk of “socialism” mean in a European Union context when the EU Member States are constitutionally prevented by the EU Treaties from adopting socialist measures and when classical laissez-faire and neo-liberal policies are regularly enforced on them by the Brussels Commission and the EU Court of Justice by means of heavy fines?
Dr Treacy does not spell out for his readers what was the real background to this major change in the Republican Movement’s Constitution. This was that the 1960s in the Republic was quite a “left-wing” decade. The principal reason for this was the growth of the Irish Labour Party. In 1961 Labour had only one TD in Dublin. By 1969 it had eight. Labour committed itself to following an independent course throughout the 1960s, following two disastrous experiences of coalition with Fine Gael in the decade before. Support for Labour grew as long as it stayed aloof from Fine Gael. The Labour leaders talked confidently of the Seventies being socialist. I recall an editorial in the Irish Times, sometime in the later 1960s, probably written by that paper’s political editor Michael McInerney who was a Labour supporter, urging the Labour Party to stand for the Workers Republic!
The year 1968 was the centenary of James Connolly’s birth and there was much discussion of Connolly’s heritage in Republican and Labour circles. In the 1969 general election Labour won more votes than Fine Gael in Dublin. The old adage is that where Dublin leads, the country follows. It seemed only a matter of time until Labour would become the second party in the State, as a preliminary to its becoming the first. But the Labour leaders were too impatient to become Government Ministers. As Sean O’Casey had said of their predecessors in 1948: “Their posteriors were aching for the velvet seats of office.” So in 1973 they threw Labour’s bright political future away by again coalescing with Fine Gael, thus reviving Fine Gael in Government while enabling Fianna Fail to revive itself in opposition. And they have repeated this process on several occasions up to the present, for the same reason and with the same predictable results.
The advance of the Labour Party during the 1960s was a key factor in pushing the Republican politicisers to the left. Labour’s advance was especially galling to Seamus Costello, who built up a strong electoral support base in Bray and North Wicklow in those years but who was prevented by the abstentionist rule from getting into the Dail. Costello was the principal pusher of Sinn Fein’s constitutional change towards socialism in 1967, although the “socialism” that was now said to be the central objective of the Republican movement remained undefined. The thinking of Goulding-Costello was that if Labour could be “socialist” and make major electoral advances, then the Republicans should be able to do the same. The change was essentially symbolical, although it licensed plenty rhetoric about socialism, but it had possible serious long-term consequences even today and into the future. The label on the bottle had after all been changed.
There are a number of factual errors in Matt Treacy’s book, some of the more important of which are the following:
THE NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT NOTION AS AIMED AT A MERGER BETWEEN THE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT AND THE IRISH COMMUNIST PARTIES (Chapters 6 and 7 passim): Dr Treacy’s book is the first time I ever heard of this idea. National Liberation Fronts were all the rage in the 1960s – the Vietnam War was at its height and the Vietmin NLF looked like winning – as referring to alliances and parallel activity between different radical organisations. But a full membership and organisational merger between different political parties? I do not believe it. The source for this claim turns out to be an interview with Sean O Bradaigh in 2005(p.139). If Mr O Bradaigh believes this, I am sure he is mistaken.
THE CONNOLLY ASSOCIATION A "COMMUNIST FRONT: Dr Treacy writes of “ ’front’ organisations that were associated with the Communist Party, of which the Connolly Association was a good example” (p.58). This is much too simplistic and seeing things in out-of-date Cold War categories. The Connolly Association is still in existence twenty years after the CPGB, the organization it was supposed to be a “front” for, dissolved itself. The Association has had a complex development in the 73 years since its foundation in 1938. It is true that Desmond Greaves and some other leading Connolly Association activists in the 1950s and 1960 were Communists, but they remained quite independent-minded people. They were not types that would take orders from anybody or pursue a course of policy they did not fully believe in. It is ludicrous to imply they were ideological automatons. As mentioned previously, the British and Irish Communists were quite divided in their policy on Ireland in those years. Greaves saw his efforts as directed to “converting” the CPGB and other British Labour organisations to an anti-Partition policy, not as transmitting to others a party line he did not agree with. The fact that there were Communists among its leading members no more made the Connolly Association a communist “front” than the existence of communist trade union leaders made their unions into similar fronts. Policy determination and attitudes in organisations is much more complex than that. In my contact with the Connolly Association over the past half-century I would say that the bulk of its members do not belong to any British political party, but they were at all times encouraged to be active in their trade unions and local Irish communities and to try and raise the Irish question there.
The MCF (MOVEMENT FOR COLONIAL FREEDOM) AS “EFFECTIVELY ANOTHER CPGB ORGANISATION” (p.153): Similar points apply as in the previous paragraph. The late Lord Brockway, formerly Fenner Brockway, known as “the MP for the colonies”, would be turning in his grave at this suggestion. So would Declan Hobson, Bulmer Hobson's son, who worked full-time for the MCF. Neither did the MCF ”share offices with the Connolly Association”, as Matt Treacy states. It had separate offices in the same building for some years, rented from a private landlord.
BETTY SINCLAIR "A DELEGATE TO THE BELFAST TRADES COUNCIL"(p.107): She was not a delegate, but the Council’s full-time paid secretary.
JACK BENNETT “A MEMBER OF THE NORTHERN IRELAND COMMUNIST PARTY"(CPNI) (pp. 64 and 76): Not in the 1960s, so far as I know. Jack Bennett worked on the “Belfast Telegraph” and also wrote an influential political column in the weekly “Sunday Press” under the pseudonym Claud Gordon. This column was important in the development of Northern Nationalist political attitudes during the 1960s, and researching that would be a worthwhile research project in itself. Bennett was of Protestant background, his father having been a senior member of the RIC. My understanding is that he had been in the CPNI as a young man, but then worked for some years abroad and did not rejoin the CPNI on his return to Belfast. In those years I often heard him criticize what he regarded as the CPNI’s reluctance to take up the Partition question. Bennett was close to such Northern Republicans as Sean Caughey and Liam McMillen and edited the Wolfe Tone bicentenary paper that was produced in 1963. He also acted as Belfast correspondent for "The Irish Democrat”, and Desmond Greaves used stay at his home when he visited Belfast. In later life he became a strong Irish language enthusiast.
THE DOCUMENT "AN INTERIM ANALYSIS OF THE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT: Matt Treacy says that someone from outside the Republican Movement sent an unsigned document with this title to Cathal Goulding in April 1967. He writes, p.122: ”It is my belief that the author may have been Desmond Greaves, whose journals record him as having spent a considerable amount of time in Ireland between 1963 and 1967. Ostensibly his visits were to research his books on Liam Mellows and Sean O’Casey but he had regular contact with Johnston and Coughlan and Goulding.” A nice word that: ”Ostensibly”! It is a loaded word conveying here a false innuendo. There was nothing “ostensible” about the purpose of Greaves’s visits to Ireland in the 1960s. As his Journal will fully confirm when it is published, his purpose in coming here was precisely to interview different people for the two biographies mentioned. Such political contacts as he had with the Republicans on these occasions were incidental social meetings, usually lubricated with much liquor, and they sought him out rather than he them. Despite Matt Treacy’s “belief” as to this document’s authorship, I very much doubt if it was Desmond Greaves who wrote it, for I never recall him referring to it. I doubt if Greaves, who lived in England, would have been so politically presumptuous as to write an analysis of an organization in Ireland for giving to Cathal Goulding. Greaves often expressed the view that people living in one State should not presume to tell people in another State what to do, for the latter would have to “carry the can” if such advice were taken and proved damaging. Dr Treacy says that this document is in the possession of Dr Eunan O’Halpin of Trinity College, who was his thesis supervisor. I have written to Dr O’Halpin asking if he can let me have a copy to see if there is internal evidence as to who wrote it. My guess is that Jack Bennett was probably its author. It may even have been myself, although I have no memory of it.
JUSTIN KEATING AND MICHAEL O'LEARY: Dr Treacy sees Greaves-inspired infiltrators as also targeting the Irish Labour Party. He writes, p. 79: “Greaves’s main objective was to republicanise Labour, which would explain why a number of Connolly Association members also joined the Irish Labour Party at the same time that Coughlan and Johnston were making contact with the IRA.” He refers to the late Justin Keating and Michael O’Leary in this context. This suggestion is absurd. I knew Michael O’Leary well. He had been a member of the Irish Labour Party from around 1956 when he and I were fellow students at UCC and we shared a flat together in the mid-1960s. O’Leary never sought Desmond Greaves’s advice or opinion on Labour Party matters. Justin Keating had been in the Irish Workers League, later the Irish Workers Party, in the 1950s and early 1960s. Greaves had nothing to do with his joining the Labour Party. Rather, he showed contempt for this step as evidence of personal careerism on Keating’s part, as several comments in his Journal indicate.
GREAVES'S BOOK “THE IRISH CRISIS”: For a study which shows such interest in Desmond Greaves’s views and doings I was surprised that Dr Treacy’s bibliography makes no reference to Greaves’s Book “The Irish Crisis”. This well-known study, which was translated into four languages, gives a much fuller picture of how Desmond Greaves saw the Northern Ireland problem in the 1960s and early 1970s than the typescript document which Dr Treacy does list, “The Irish Question and the British People”.
GREAVES DENOUNCING REPUBLICANS TO THE IRISH EMBASSY IN LONDON: Dr Treacy refers, p.83, to the Connolly Association as seeking joint activity with Clann na hEireann, the Republican support group in London, but being spurned. He writes: “The Clann’s suspicion of Greaves was well founded in fact as Greaves contacted Tadgh Feehan of the Irish Embassy in April 1965 to assure him that he was totally opposed to the republican group and that the Connolly Association would never do anything that would embarrass the Irish Embassy or the Irish Government. Greaves also gave the impression that he believed Clann na hEireann had been responsible for a petrol bomb attack on the Embassy on 22 April.” Dr Treacy’s authority for this statement is an Irish Embassy report written by Feehan in the Department of Foreign Affairs State papers. I have checked Greaves’s Journal entry for Sunday 25 April 1965, when there was a Clann na hEireann meeting in Hyde Park, followed by a march to the Irish Embassy, and the Connolly Association waited to hold its meeting until the Clann na hEireann one was over. Greaves was in Hyde Park that day. The relevant Journal entry reads: “There was a good attendance of Embassy officials and I was talking to Tadgh Feehan. He was upset at the Clann na hEireann decision to march to the Embassy to protest against persecution of Easter Lily sellers. ‘The Connolly Association never did that,’ he said. As for the bomb, he thought Clann na hEireann put it there, otherwise why did they send a picket there next day? Certainly their speeches were extremely denunciatory and 97 walked down there, according to Charlie Cunningham’s enumeration. Flynn was there, Brendan Clifford and his wife, Fitzy and Tom Walsh. I think all these walked but cannot say for certain. Feehan said he thought Labour would soon have 40 seats in Dublin and that Fine Gael had unshipped Dillon so as to present a more radical face.” Clearly Greaves’s Hyde Park meeting with Feehan was accidental. The Journal entry gives quite a different impression from Matt Treacy’s statement that Greaves contacted Feehan of the Irish Embassy to denounce the Clann na hEireann people.
1 May 2011