the difficulty I had when first asked to give this presentation was ‘how do I condense 40yrs of our history into a 10 to 15 minute presentation. A definitive and detailed account would take many months, if not years, of research as well as interviewing scores of past activists. The following account is my no means definitive and of course is subject to criticism given the fact that it is laced with my own personal opinion and interpretation.
Even though this year is the 40th anniversary of our birth the Irish Republican Socialist Party can trace its roots back to James Connolly and the Irish Citizens Army.
After the border campaign in the 1950’s, serious debate took place within the Republican Movement about how exactly it could become more relevant to the everyday needs of the people in an Ireland vastly different from the times of Connolly and the ICA.
The Republican Movement after the unsuccessful border campaign was not ideologically united and consisted of a number of factions- the two principle factions being the socialist one and the other being the traditional republican one. The socialist faction advocated that the movement should be heavily involved in the everyday struggles of the people and whilst not denying the need for armed struggle to confront imperialism, it was felt that armed struggle should go hand in hand with building a solid political base. Republican Socialists believed that abstentionism, long considered one of the main tenets of republicanism by the traditionalists was no longer politically viable. It was argued that participation in elections should be viewed as tactical and not one of principle. Of course, as we know, there were those within the socialist faction who were developing a totally reformist position, which was later to become the predominant force.
The other dominant trend within the Republican movement at that time was the old traditionalist faction who believed that only the national question had any relevance to the Irish people. Participation in elections was considered to be in total opposition to republicanism. This faction later emerged as the Provisionals.
During the civil rights campaign, the State in collusion with militant loyalists, launched repeated attacks on the nationalist community culminating in the pogroms of August 1969. The I.R.A. were unable to adequately defend the nationalist community and blamed this on the new social policies being pursued by the leadership of the movement. This, coupled with the dropping of abstentionism, led to the Republican Movement splitting into the Provisional and Official wings.
Those who still believed that the national and class question was inextricably linked remained with the Official camp. This element was led by Seamus Costello. When the Provisionals launched their offensive military campaign against the British, the Officials found themselves also committed, despite what the leadership wanted and because the rank and file in the six counties saw an opportunity to expand the struggle.
Following the departure of the Provisionals, a section of the Officials’ leadership used bureaucratic manipulation and subterfuge to cripple internal democracy, thereby permitting them to push through a ceasefire in May 1972 and to steer a course towards political reformism. Thwarted in attempts to alter the direction of the Officials it became clear that another split was inevitable and there was no other alternative but to leave the Officials and form a new party. Revolutionary republicans came together with trade unionists and other socialists to form the Irish Republican Socialist Party under the slogan “For National Liberation and Socialism” and this was followed with widespread defections from the Officials.
The IRSP announced their arrival on the political scene with the following statement which is just as relevant today than when first released.
“At a meeting held in Dublin on Sunday, 8.12.’74, a decision was made to form a new political party, to be known as the Irish Republican Socialist Party. The inaugural meeting was attended by approximately 80 delegates from Belfast, Armagh, Co. Derry, Derry City, Donegal, Dublin, Wicklow, Cork, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. It was unanimously agreed that the objective of the Party would be to:
End Imperialist rule in Ireland and establish a 32 County Democratic Socialist Republic with the working class in control of the means of production, distribution and exchange.
To this end, it was agreed that the Party would launch a vigorous campaign of political agitation and education, North and South, on the following issues:
1/ Recognising that British Imperialist interference in Ireland constitutes the most immediate obstacle confronting the Irish People in their struggle for democracy, National Liberation and Socialism, it shall be the policy of the Party to seek the formation of a broad front on the basis of the following demands:
A/ That Britain must immediately renounce all claims to Sovereignty over any part of Ireland and its coastal waters, and should immediately specify an early date for the total withdrawal of her military and political presence from Ireland.
B/ Having specified the date for her total withdrawal from Ireland, Britain must immediately withdraw all troops to barracks, release all internees and sentenced political prisoners, grant a general amnesty for all offences arising from the military campaign against British Forces or through involvement in the Civil Disobedience Campaign, abolish all repressive legislation, grant a Bill of Rights which will allow complete freedom of political action and outlaw all discrimination whether it be on the basis of class, creed, political opinion or sex. Britain must also agree to compensate the Irish People for the exploitation which has already occurred.
C/ It shall be the policy of the Irish Republican Socialist Party to seek an active working alliance of all radical forces within the context of the Broad Front in order to ensure the ultimate success of the Irish Working Class in their struggle for Socialism.
D/ It will be an immediate objective of the Party to launch an intensive campaign of opposition to the European Economic membership. We, therefore, intend to play an active part in the European Economic Community referendum in the Six County area and through our support groups in Britain.
E/ Recognising that sectarianism, and the present campaign of sectarian assassinations arises as a direct result of British manipulation of the most reactionary elements of Irish Society, we shall seek to end this campaign on the basis of united action by the Catholic and Protestant working class against British Imperialism in Ireland.
TWENTY SIX COUNTIES
1/ We will seek to have a United Campaign of all democratic forces against repressive legislation in the south, and against the policy of blatant collaboration with British Imperialism, which is now being pursued by the 26 County Administration.
2/ THE IRISH REPUBLICAN SOCIALIST PARTY is totally opposed to the exploitation of our natural resources by multi-national Corporations. It shall therefore be our policy to give active and sustained support to the present campaign for the nationalisation of these resources.
3/ Recognising that the rapidly increasing cost of living and rising unemployment are to a large extent a direct result of our EEC membership, it shall be the policy of the Irish Republican Socialist Party to actively support the formation of people’s organisations to combat rising prices and unemployment.”
Legacy of Repression
Shortly after our formation, the Irish Republican Socialist Movement came under relentless attack from a host of adversaries. The Officials put aside their ceasefire in order to wage war on members of the IRSM, baptising the infant movement in the blood of martyrs. Against this backdrop of attacks from both the Officials and the State seen the formation of the People’s Liberation Army, later renamed the Irish National Liberation Army, who defended militarily the IRSP membership and the right of the movement itself to exist. During this defence we lost key members through death and imprisonment.
The OIRA attacks continued sporadically over the course of two years, ending with the murder of the IRSP’s founder and first chairperson, as well as leading theorist Seamus Costello in October 1976. Also during this early period a number of OIRA prisoners who shared the political analysis of the newly formed IRSP also split and were granted political recognition and separate accommodation within Long Kesh after a hunger strike. Shortly thereafter INLA prisoners were involved in two morale boosting escapes for the movement-the first in May 1975 when four of our prisoners escaped when appearing at a remand hearing-and the second on the 5th of May 1976 when nine prisoners tunnelled their way through Cage 5 in Long Kesh.
Many would argue that the loss of Seamus Costello was a devastating blow to the RSM in particular and to the working class in general and that his death had repercussions for the Movement in general for the next 15 to 20yrs. He had a clear vision and was firmly fixated on the primacy of politics and building a new working class movement in the tradition of Connolly. Even though he was a member of the INLA Army Council, having served as Chief of Staff and Director of Operations, he believed that the army should always be subservient to the Party, as did others, like for example Bernadette Devlin who resigned from the Ard Comhairle, along with others, on this very issue.
However, others, mostly the Northern base were firmly focused on engaging the British militarily which led to a conflict of interest between the Party and Army. Over the past 10-15yrs many have argued, quite convincingly, that the failure to address this particular relationship prevented the movement from realising its full potential. The INLA later executed the individual who robbed us of our charismatic leader and founder of our movement.
Within the first years of our founding, the Dublin regime unleashed what would become known as “the Heavy Gang” within the Garda against the young movement, arresting and torturing virtually the entire IRSP leadership at one point. These relentless attacks right at our birth without doubt seriously curtailed our development.
In the occupied six counties the INLA began their armed campaign against the British and lost many volunteers through death and imprisonment. In 1979 the INLA struck at the very heart of British Imperialism when they executed the right wing Tory war lord Airey Neave. The Movement believed that resolving the question of partition was a necessary perquisite to establishing a workers republic. The Shoot-to-Kill policy by the British and the Super Grass system of using paid perjurers to obtain mass arrests were both used against the IRSM in numbers greatly disproportionate to the size of the Movement. This almost wiped out the Movement with practically all of the Northern leadership imprisoned.
The British also used their death squads to murder IRSP and National H Block/Armagh Committee leaders Miriam Daly, Ronnie Bunting, and Noel Little. The 1981 Hunger Strike resulted in the death of three INLA prisoners of war Patsy O’Hara, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine, again greatly disproportionate to the size of the IRSM’s prison population. INLA Chief of Staff Dominic McGlinchey became the most wanted man in both the six and 26 counties, as well as the first republican to be extradited by the Dublin government to the occupied six counties. Indeed, the Dublin regime have sought more extraditions of IRSM members into British custody than any other republican organisation.
At the 1984 Ard Fheis the Party unanimously supported motions that we stood in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Connolly. This position was again ratified by the Ard Fheis in 2000.
In the mid-1980’s, Provisional Sinn Fein displayed a policy of marginalisation, demonisation and criminalisation towards the IRSM. They refused to recognise INLA prisoners as combatants, stopped Green Cross donations to the families of our prisoners and refused to allow them to use Green Cross transport for visits. This policy became known as the ‘undermine and absorb’ campaign. Yet while seemingly seizing every chance to malign and condemn the IRSM throughout this period Sinn Fein adopted many symbols and names long associated with the IRSP – from the “Broad Front” policy to even the name of our paper. Sinn Fein seemed to want nothing to escape its hegemony.
In 1987, a collection of factions, who had previously resigned or been purged from the Movement banded together under the name of the “Irish People’s Liberation Organisation,” with the avowed aim of destroying the IRSM. The IPLO carried out a campaign of murder and intimidation against IRSM activists whilst the British occupation forces looked the other way and the Provisionals called for the INLA to disband and at the same time were giving assistance to IPLO members in Belfast and Armagh.
These events created a great deal of confusion within the Movement particularly, but not exclusively, among our membership outside of Belfast and within the prisons. Many within the prison sided with one side or the other out of misguided loyalties and friendships not fully understanding what was really going on. Some, who sided with the IPLO, were later accepted and welcomed back into the Movement at various points thereafter perhaps most notable Crip McWilliams.
Once again we were robbed of key leaders and members who were murdered and intimidated during this onslaught. The loss of Ta Power in particular was another devastating blow to the movement’s potential. He too had a clear vision of where we were coming from, where we should be going and how we could get there. Eventually a military response from the INLA ended these attacks but the movement as a whole was seriously weakened and marginalised. This weakness led to the takeover of the movement by a small cabal of individuals who considered the movement to be their personal fiefdom. They ran the IRSP down, isolating and demonising key Party members and selling our office in Derry and attempting to sell our office in Belfast. In reality we existed in name only.
Gino Gallagher, who had become highly politicised during his seven year term of imprisonment in the H-Blocks, was released in the early 90s and along with others set about the task of rebuilding the movement. He believed in the primacy of politics and also believed that the implementation of the Ta Power Document had the potential to rebuild the revolutionary movement that Costello and Power had envisaged. But once again at a crucial point of our development the movement came under armed attack from the Torney cabal beginning with the killing of Gino and calling for the disbanding of the movement. As we know the INLA responded in a focused and very robust manner executing the leading players involved in these attacks and neutralising the threat against us. The INLA, some years after these events, also executed the individual who assassinated Gino.
These attacks did not deter those intent on rebuilding the movement as envisaged by Seamus, Ta and Gino. An Ad Hoc leadership was put in place in 1996 and set about the task of rebuilding with the intent of giving the movement back to our membership through collective leadership and decision making and the organisation of an Ard Fheis in December 1997, the first in over a decade, where the membership made policy decisions as well as electing a leadership of their choosing.
Against this backdrop of attacks and rebuilding we were witnessing the unfolding political developments which some called the ‘peace process’ whilst others including the IRSP described as the ‘pacification process’. The British had reorganised their death squads and increased the pressure on republicans in particular and nationalists in general by unleashing these squads to great effect in the early 90s. This and many other factors led the Provisionals to declare a ceasefire in August 1994 with the loyalist death squads following suit in October 1994. The INLA subsequently adopted the position of ‘defence and retaliation’ during this period and in line with this policy executed the leader of the LVF, Billy Wright, within the H-Blocks in what many have described as a spectacular operation. This single act on its own had serious political repercussions and almost collapsed the pacification process. It clearly demonstrated to both the RSM and it’s opponents that the INLA were more than capable of bringing down the pacification process if it choose to do so. However the INLA, rightly or wrongly, decided that it was not in the interests of the working class or the Movement itself to do so but would remain in a defence and retaliation mode.
The pacification process culminated in the signing of the Belfast Agreement aka the Good Friday Agreement in May of 1998. It became clear that the British had always intended to include republicans but exclude republicanism from their predetermined outcomes. The Belfast Agreement clearly demonstrated this with not one republican objective being met. The IRSP quickly rejected the Belfast Agreement on the grounds that it enshrined the unionist veto and institutionalised sectarianism. We openly and unsuccessfully canvassed for a No vote in both referendums and came to the conclusion after the results that the people as a whole were demanding an absence of violence and for the pursuit of political objectives through peaceful means. This conclusion as well as the realisation by the INLA that they did not have the wherewithal to conduct an effective military campaign that would remove the British led them, after much internal debate and consultation, (which included several Movement delegation visits into Long Kesh and Portlaoise) to a ceasefire position declared in August 1998. This decision was later endorsed unanimously at our Ard Fheis several months later.
The INLA in its ceasefire declaration stated ” We acknowledge and admit faults and grievous errors in our prosecution of the war. Innocent people were killed and injured and at times our actions as a liberation army fell far short of what they should have been.” But whatever criticisms that has and can be laid at the INLA we should always remind ourselves that we owe our very existence to the INLA and in particular to all our fallen volunteers and comrades. The INLA were never found wanting when it came to defending the right of the Party to exist and many gave their lives in that defence. I have no doubt that the INLA would again not be found wanting if that need ever arose again in the future. We owe those comrades in particular a great debt of gratitude but gratitude on its own is not suffice – we must continue on with our vision of working class emancipation by building a revolutionary Party which will lead us to that freedom.
In 1998 we saw an opportunity via the Belfast Agreement to secure the release of the bulk of our prisoners despite our opposition to the Agreement. Prisoner releases were not dependent on support of the Agreement but solely on whether the prisoners in question were aligned to groups that were on recognised ceasefires by both the Free State and British governments.
Since our Ard Fheis in December 1997 the leadership instilled the policy of collectivism throughout all levels of the movement. Leaderships were chosen, not by elite cliques, but by the membership itself by holding regular Ard Fheisenna. We introduced a party constitution which could only be changed by a two thirds majority at an Ard Fheis as well as codes of conduct for all members of the Movement thus ensuring stability, continuity, comradeship and also ensuring that the movement belonged to the membership. Ta Power’s critique was studied and accepted by the leadership with a view of implementing his recommendations. Of course even though Ta’s critique was within a particular timeframe it is perhaps even more relevant today than it ever was and we must remain fully focused on his critique in order to keep building for the future.
Since 1996/7 the IRSP have tried to become more relevant to the working class by becoming more involved in their everyday struggle-we have involved ourselves with community groups and their campaigns, we have aligned ourselves with various trade unions, housing and welfare campaigns as well as fighting for the rights of republican prisoners as well as ex-prisoners. We stood in council elections and received respectable outcomes loosing a seat by a percentage of a single vote. We recently supported a number of successful independent candidates in recent council elections. Also during this period the Movement made the decision to do all in its power to recover the body of Seamus Ruddy who was disappeared by the INLA in France in 1985 and had sent several delegations to France over a ten year period. We liaised with the Ruddy family and engaged with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains but unfortunately we were unsuccessful. The disappearing of Seamus Ruddy was wrong and was indeed a stain on our Movement’s history.
The INLA for its part did, by and large, become the subservient body within the RSM, learning from its past mistakes and went about implementing Ta’s recommendations. This and many other political factors eventually led to the INLA disposing of weapons and explosive materials to representatives of the Trade Unions, Community Sector and an international body known as Dialogue Advisory Group. The full account, the thinking and motivations behind this move was never fully publicly disclosed and is really a story for a different day than today.
The Way Forward
Survival as an organisation for 40yrs can be a cause for celebration in itself particularly given what we went through but a revolutionary movement must do more than simply survive. Accordingly, the pressing concern for the RSM as it celebrates 40yrs in existence is “where do we go from here and how do we get there?”
I’m going to finish off on this theme by quoting an extract from a part of Ta’s critique which focused on structure and the way forward:
“We can look back and see that we have not been successful in building either a solid socialist party, or a military machine capable of sustaining an effective military campaign. Our task here is to ask why the movement has not involved and developed into that which it had the potential to be in late 1974.
The task we have set ourselves is enormous because the (short) history of this movement, (a mere 12 years,) has been plagued with inner turmoil and internal problems. So in a sense the question – Why has the movement not (evolved), developed and fulfilled its early potential? – could be answered in two short words: “INTERNAL TURMOIL”!
That is the accurate answer but it is not adequate or sufficient, for the objective here is merely an attempt to understand the past, so that we may analyse the present and then we can influence the future! It is simply not desirable, for reasons and considerations, to carry out a detailed, day-to-day history of the movement.
Our central theme, focus and concentration will be that of STRUCTURE and we will not get bogged down with the individuals, personalities or groups who have staffed this structure over the years. Mention may be made of individuals, but only in the context of structure. Structure is the very essence, because everything [revolves] around, depends upon and springs from the very structural make up of the movement.
If there are structural defects or weaknesses, they do not easily manifest themselves as such; rather, they tend to be manifested in different forms, which disguise their origin, such as lack of internal democracy, lack of coherency and autocratic individuals. But, all those problems can ultimately, be traced back and found to originate from STRUCTURAL DEFECTS.
So if structure is incorrect, many internal problems will follow, but if the structure is correct, then the path should be smoother. Structure is the framework, or skeleton, around which the movement organises. We can list the concepts, each interrelated and interdependent on the other, which form the basis of a structure. The ten points are as follows:
1: Politics in command
2: Internal democracy
3: Absolute legitimacy
4: Collective Leadership
5: Central authority
The essential point to be grasped here is that point 1 is the rock, the basis from which everything else stems, so if this is wrong, then all the other points will be retarded and that’s where things are seen to break down, where the cracks appear and problems occur.”
So with that in mind comrades let us go forward and build a Republican Socialist revolutionary party which is effective, efficient, disciplined, accountable, coherent, with central legitimate authority with a collective leadership with internal democracy and most importantly with politics in command.”