The Communist Party of Ireland 1921-2011: Vol 1: 1921-1969, by Matt Treacy, Brocaire Books, 427 pp, £18, ISBN: 978-1291093186
Brian Goold-Verschoyle went to Spain during the civil war to fight fascism but was abducted by the Soviet secret service in Barcelona and found himself in Stalin’s gulag, where he died in 1942. He does not feature in the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) eulogy to the 243 Irishmen who fought for the Spanish republic against Franco. Many a communist career ended in a similar fashion: the Kremlin could be a cruel taskmaster during the Stalin era. Brian’s brother Neil, on the other hand, actually lived in Moscow during the purge that claimed his brother, but later returned to Ireland, where he found himself imprisoned in the Curragh camp with IRA internees during the Second World War. He was transferred to Mountjoy prison, apparently at the instigation of the Church, fearful of his malign influence over Catholic republicans. A decade later, following his expulsion from the (communist) Irish Workers’ League (IWL) – having already signed over a Dublin property which would become its headquarters for many years – Neil campaigned against Khruschev’s criticisms of Stalin, before returning to the Soviet Union in 1959. The contrasting fates of the two brothers vividly illustrate the impact of changing ideology on adherents to communism: both – from a well-to-do Donegal family – were true believers, and both fell foul of Moscow orthodoxies.
Irish communists were few in number, and faced considerable hostility up to the 1960s. For example, they were attacked in 1936 as they attempted to participate in a republican Easter commemoration at Glasnevin cemetery – the IRA did not offer any protection; gardaí had to escort their leaders to safety the following evening as a mob descended on a public meeting. The hooligans were then prevented from destroying communist headquarters but succeeded in wrecking the Republican Congress premises before smashing windows at a Masonic hall and proceeding to Trinity College. In the eyes of a Catholic mob, communists and Protestants and other outsiders (such as Jews) were equally to be feared as an alien influence. The left-wing Republican Congress initiative in 1934 has become an icon of the Irish left, but, as Matt Treacy observes here, it achieved little and quickly fell asunder at its first convention over the (ideological) issue of whether it should campaign for the Irish Republic or a Workers’ Republic. It would take a long time before communists could speak in public without fear of assault. Such a small band of revolutionaries would often hide within broader campaign groups or infiltrate other organisations at various times, such as the IRA or the Labour Party, and the relationship between the communists and the latter two organisations would often be vexatious. All these twists and turns are covered in great detail in this study of Irish communism up to 1969, often at the expense of a bigger picture. Treacy draws heavily on the recently released records of the CPI for this volume and casts much light on the inner workings of a revolutionary organisation slavishly obeying the wishes of the Soviet Union: no matter what absurdities this might lead to, the tiny and ineffectual Irish communist party would faithfully promote the Kremlin line.
The author has discovered fascinating detail in the party archive. Fianna Fáil in its earlier years had not been unsympathetic to the “anti-imperialist” principles of the Soviet Union. And the Moscow-run Comintern returned this respect, at least for a time, viewing the Fianna Fáil grassroots as potential recruits in the workers’ struggle against imperialism. Speaking publicly on behalf of the party shortly after its foundation in 1926, Countess Markievicz recommended a Soviet-style republic as the answer to the problem of mass unemployment. The promotion of Soviet solutions to Irish problems would ignite the mob, however, and in 1933 “the dregs of Dublin” attempted to destroy the Irish Workers’ College, which offered courses in Marxist economics. The premises was owned by one of Dublin’s more eccentric radicals, Charlotte Despard, a sister of Lord French, who had been lord lieutenant during the War of Independence. The communists’ paper, the Irish Workers’ Voice, in 1935 publicised the death of a boy in the Artane industrial school, which led to a former inmate of the school writing a letter to the paper recalling his experiences there. Communist speakers on the streets also drew attention to the death of the boy in Artane, and the militant republican publication An Phoblacht also carried articles on the industrial school system. Treacy points out that this calls into question the contention that what took place in the state’s industrial schools was not publicly known or spoken about.
Intense Irish Catholic hostility to communism continued with the onset of the Cold War. May Day 1949 in Dublin saw a huge trade union demonstration against the imprisonment of Cardinal József Mindszenty in Hungary and was led by the city’s lord mayor, a former communist. Prominent trade unionist Jim Larkin junior – another former communist who had recently worked closely with his former comrades – also participated. There would be no question of dissent in Dublin when it came to imprisoned cardinals in the Soviet bloc. Moscow’s supporters in the West were mobilised behind the Kremlin’s “peace” agenda, which promoted nuclear disarmament, but such an ostensibly worthy objective did not save Irish communists from the wrath of the public: two women seeking peace appeal signatures in a working class Dublin suburb had to be rescued by Garda detectives who fired shots in the air to subdue the pursuing crowd. The Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 traumatised communists in the West, with thousands resigning in Britain and the United States. Not so in Ireland, where there was apparently just one resignation from the IWL, whose tiny membership was unquestioningly loyal. And while the organisation, now called the Irish Workers’ Party (IWP), in 1968 criticised the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring, the Czech experiment in “socialism with a human face”, general secretary Michael O’Riordan bided his time and succeeded in having that position reversed in 1975, provoking the resignations of some veteran members.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 saw the publication of several pamphlets by the IWP on the theories of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly and this, Treacy notes, marked a more pronounced turn by Ireland’s communists towards the republican movement. He bristles at the claim made by Desmond Greaves that communists rather than republicans organised opposition to the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement. Radical republicans, Treacy contends, would have opposed this departure of their own accord, and related initiatives, such as Ireland’s proposed membership of the European Economic Community: they were not saying anything different in regard to the main economic and social issues than they had been in 1956 or 1946, or even 1926. “What had changed,” he argues, “was that elements within the IRA close to [chief of staff Cathal] Goulding were now prepared to take an external direction on strategic issues, which included profound changes within the IRA itself, from individuals who were members of the [c]ommunist movement.”
Treacy’s archival research is admirable, but his uncritical approach to the IRA, and the founders of the Provisionals, weakens this analysis of communism and republicanism. He perceives the republican movement in the late 1960s as being divided into true believers, thinking (or not) along traditional lines, and intellectually feeble leftists willing to be led by the nose by the ever devious communists. To what extent Goulding and his cohort were influenced by Marxists such as Roy Johnston is a moot point, but the evolution of what would become the Official republican movement in the 1970s tends to contradict Treacy’s thesis that left-wing republicans were mere dupes of communist infiltrators. Official Sinn Féin (Republican Clubs in Northern Ireland), would openly support the Moscow-aligned communist bloc and its interventions in Afghanistan and Poland. However, while competing with the CPI for the approval of the Kremlin, it would also plough its own, controversial, ideological furrow at home as it redefined its understanding of Irish republicanism and abandoned the”national question” as a priority. These tensions would result in a falling out with the CPI.
In August 1969 Orange mobs attacked Catholic communities in Belfast; during the events of that month 1,800 families would be displaced – 1,500 of them Catholic. British troops were deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland on August 14th. Treacy states that the republican movement effectively split over the IRA’s “inability to defend Belfast Catholics”, although he does not suggest how exactly the IRA might have done this without making things worse. Catholics being burned out in Belfast proved to be a turning point for traditionalist republicans. As it happened, the IRA split into rival organisations in December when it decided to abandon its traditional policy of parliamentary abstention – the breakaway Provisional IRA was born. This schism became public the next month when about eighty supporters of the rebels walked out of the Sinn Féin ard fheis. Communism would be a central issue for the Provisionals as they made clear their hostility to the Moscow-directed version preached by the IWP and its republican allies. Launching a new publication, An Phoblacht, the Provisionals listed the issues which according to their understanding provoked the split: recognition of the Stormont, Dublin and Westminster parliaments; not seeking the abolition of Stormont; failure to provide maximum possible defence for “our people” in the North; the threat of extreme socialism, leading to dictatorship; and the “internal methods” employed to exert control over the movement. An Phoblacht stopped short of using the description “communist” for those who had attempted what it called a takeover, but it drew attention to Johnston’s role in recent years, claimed that the republican movement’s policymakers had included some who had joined from the IWP, and argued that co-operating with communists would end in disaster.
The Officials attempted to compete with the Provisional IRA when political violence escalated in Northern Ireland following the introduction of internment there in 1971. The Official IRA bombing of the officers’ mess at the headquarters of the Parachute Regiment in Aldershot, on February 22nd, 1972, killed seven people – six civilians and a chaplain. The Officials claimed responsibility for the attack as a reprisal for Bloody Sunday, when thirteen civilians had been killed by paratroopers, and a wave of condemnation followed. The Aldershot bombing highlighted the political dangers for the Official republican movement of its military wing competing with the Provisionals. But the funeral on April 18th of Joe McCann, an Official IRA volunteer killed by paratroopers in controversial circumstances, allowed the Officials to stage a showpiece event in Belfast. Over three thousand mourners took part in the funeral procession, including four MPs, and thousands lined the route to the cemetery. Days later, the Official IRA again received positive coverage in the Soviet media when Pravda profiled Goulding, who claimed that the Officials defended the Soviet Union in Ireland. Then, on May 21stt, the killing by the Official IRA of a British soldier home on leave, Ranger William Best, provoked an angry reaction in his native Derry. The Officials responded to their various public relations setbacks, after acrimonious debate, by declaring a ceasefire on May 29th. In what would become the most violent year of the Northern Ireland Troubles – which saw violence for more than a quarter of a century – they warned of the danger of “sectarian civil war”. In July, Official Sinn Féin president Tomás Mac Giolla warned that republicans did not stand “on the brink of victory, but on the brink of sectarian disaster”. However, the Official IRA would still undertake “defensive” and “retaliatory” actions, and attacks against the security forces continued in the North up to the end of 1974. The formula, however, allowed the Dublin-based leadership to gradually apply a more stringent interpretation of the terms of the ceasefire and rein in northern units. Significantly, the Officials’ paramilitary campaign in the North ceased over time as the direct result of the leadership’s ambition to pursue a political strategy; the campaign had not been directed by the Soviets. Implementing a ceasefire would prove to be the greatest achievement of the Official republican movement. The Provisionals too would eventually follow the Official IRA in abandoning “physical force” and focusing on political activity.
Meanwhile, communists north and south had united in the CPI shortly after the outbreak of the Troubles. Communists and Official republicans co-operated in directing the Civil Rights Association, and the two organisations sent an Irish delegation to the 1973 World Youth Festival in East Berlin. Perhaps most importantly, the first Soviet arms shipment to the Official IRA arrived in 1972, on foot of several requests to Moscow by O’Riordan. However, relations would cool from the mid-1970s as the Official republican movement revised its Connolly-inspired republicanism, which had longstanding republican demands to the fore, and promoted policies that non-republicans in Northern Ireland might support. Its 1976 ard fheis highlighted what it saw as the urgency of securing peace, jobs and class politics in the North; its new slogan there would be “peace and work”. The movement’s acceptance of the Northern Ireland Office’s policy of criminalisation of paramilitary prisoners – phasing out special category or “political” status –represented a significant departure; imprisoned comrades had previously been seen, in accordance with Irish republican tradition, as political prisoners. Official republicans and the CPI had backed the Resources Protection Campaign, but relations became strained and Official Sinn Féin, increasingly under the influence of Eoghan Harris, campaigned on its own on economic issues, such as supporting plans for a publicly owned oil refinery in Dublin Bay. The party saw state control as the answer to all economic ills: “we want the state sector to expand until it has obliterated all private enterprise”. In the meantime, industrialisation was seen as being progressive insofar as it strengthened the working class, the “gravedigger of capitalism”. This deterministic argument would be encapsulated in The Irish Industrial Revolution – mainly Harris’s creation, and dismissing the “mythical” national question – which appeared at the 1977 ard fheis, graced with a banner reading “working for peace, planning for progress”. The publication of this pamphlet sealed the rift between the Officials and the CPI, which criticised the former’s “massive revision of republicanism”.
Official Sinn Féin demonstrated its determination to attempt to secure electoral support for its own, distinctive, brand of Moscow-orientated socialism when it renamed itself Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party (SFWP) at the 1977 ard fheis. Its military wing, the Official IRA or Group B, would stay in the shadows. While the SFWP’s ambitious, if controversial, departure would allow the CPI to reiterate its Connollyite purity, the party would remain on the fringe, where it had been since 1970, with a negligible public presence. In a Dublin by-election the previous year, Mac Giolla had polled almost 1,700 votes, demonstrating that SFWP could appeal to working class voters. This by-election performance illustrated how the promotion of reformist demands – “in the mouth of a revolutionary party” – and hard work would later secure council and Dáil seats. (In 1974 the Official republican candidate Joe Sherlock, a trade union shop steward based in Mallow, had won more than five thousand votes in a by-election in Cork North-East.) “American imperialism” now featured prominently in SFWP rhetoric as the Soviets’ Cold War disarmament agenda received energetic support. The party’s general secretary, Seán Garland, speculated in 1980 about a third world war which, according to Moscow’s perspective, would be provoked by the policies pursued by “hawks” in London and Washington. The British and American governments, he stated, aimed to halt what he saw as “the tide of progress begun in Petrograd in October 1917”. Three SFWP candidates were elected in the February 1982 Irish general election, and in April the Official republican organisation north and south made a decisive break with the Sinn Féin tradition and became the Workers’ Party (WP). Garland openly supported Soviet-backed repression and defended the imposition of martial law in Poland. The WP in 1983 established fraternal relations with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and publicly protested when three Soviet diplomats were expelled from the Republic. The party emphasised economic demands that might appeal to the average trade union member, and placed less emphasis in public on its hardline foreign policies, including its developing links with North Korea. This might be understood as “communism with an Irish face”. But there were now two political parties in Ireland competing for Moscow’s favours, albeit with sharply different views on the Provisional IRA’s “armed struggle”.
Public support for the WP’s policies would grow slowly, but steadily, in the South, especially in Dublin. In the North, however, “peace and work” demands fell on deaf ears. (Republican Clubs had contested the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election in 1981, following the death of Provisional IRA hunger striker and MP Bobby Sands, and obtained 1.8 per cent of the vote.) WP support peaked in the 1989 general election, when the party almost doubled its Dáil representation and won more than 11 per cent of the vote in Dublin; Proinsias de Rossa topped the poll in the city in the European election. Its prospects in the South seemed to be relatively good. And its ability to appeal to certain components of the electorate would be illustrated by its role in Mary Robinson’s presidential election triumph in 1990 – feminists, liberals and the broad left, it seemed, could take on the mighty Fianna Fáil machine and win. This participation in a broadly based campaign, despite its former zeal to be seen as ideologically distinctive on the left, represented the WP’s most significant achievement.
But reformist demands in the mouth of a revolutionary party had effectively created a moderate “social democratic” dynamic that would prove to be destructive for Goulding’s and Garland’s communist project. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to an eruption of tensions within the WP. While the party’s old-guard leaders refused to abandon communism as the Cold War ended, a majority of the TDs began to challenge the party’s relationship with the Soviet Union and North Korea while a group of previously hardline members – many of them trade union officials –walked out in 1990 over the proposal to adopt social democracy as its way forward. Allegations made in the Dáil of WP links with a paramilitary wing were denied, as usual, in 1991, but the issue of the supposedly non-existent Official IRA now became central to the confrontation between reformers and the old guard. The debate focused on whether the WP should continue to be a “revolutionary” party or follow the reformist lead of Italy’s former communists. Matters came to a head in February 1992 when the reformers, including six of its seven TDs, left to set up a new party, the ill-fated Democratic Left. The WP never recovered from this disaster and lost its only TD in that year’s general election. It now had no trade union influence or Dáil presence. Goulding and Garland – who had embarked on their Moscow-orientated journey thirty years previously – were back to where they had started.
A bitter ideological dispute then had been central to the WP’s destruction, although both sides also accused the other of employing cynical tactics. Despite the ruthless strategies it had pursued since the 1970s, in contrast to the CPI’s ineffectual posturing, the Official republicans had fallen victim to the curse of theological righteousness. This fixation with a utopian future rather than prosaic realities had crippled the Irish left before, as Treacy outlines in this extremely interesting study.
John Mulqueen teaches history at Trinity College, Dublin, and is a tutor in history at Dublin City University.