“Of all the politicians and political people with whom I have had conversations, and whom I have had conversations, and who called themselves followers of Connolly, he was the only one who truly understood what James Connolly meant when he spoke of his vision of the freedom of the Irish people.” (Nora Connolly, daughter of James Connolly, speaking of Seamus Costello shortly after his assassination)
One of the Greatest Leaders in 800 Years
(originally published in An Camcheachta/The Starry Plough,
the official newspaper of the IRSP, October 1977)
His first interest in politics came when he read of the arrest of Cathal Goulding in Britain in 1953 following an arms raid on the Officers Training Corps School at Felstead in Essex. Costello subsequently “devoured” newspapers, according to his family and at the age of 15, on one of his many visits to Croke Park, he bought a copy of the United Irishman and immediately applied to join the Republican Movement. However, he was told to “come back next year”. Costello did and was accepted into the ranks of the IRA and Sinn Fein.
The first Sinn Fein Cumann was started in Bray in the same year, comprised mostly from members of the Dun Laoghaire Cumann, their activity confined to ‘United Irishman’ sales. However, it wasn’t long before it was being sold in every area in Co. Wicklow.
COMMANDED ACTIVE SERVICE UNIT
During the campaign of 1956-62 Costello, at the age of 17 commanded an active service unit in South Derry, their most publicised actions being the destruction of bridges and the burning of Magherafelt Courthouse. Those under his command described him as strict but radiating confidence. Once while resting in a safe house a grenade exploded and set off the full magazine of a Thomson machine gun. Miraculously no one was killed. Costello took the brunt of the explosion and was knocked unconscious. He received back injuries and lost half a finger and was moved back to Dublin for treatment.
He was arrested in Glencree Co. Wicklow, in 1957 and sentenced to six months in Mountjoy. On his release he was immediately interned in the Curragh for two years. Costello, as a prisoner, was described by fellow internees as quiet, rarely Joining others in playacting, preferring deep discussion and reading. He was a member of the escape committee which engineered the successful escape of Rory Brady and Daithi O’Connell amongst others. He is remembered by one internee reading Vietnamese magazines and it impressed Costello that peasants badly armed but with a deep political ideology could defeat their enemies. In later years he always referred to his days in the Curragh as ³my university days². He took part in the critical analysis of the 50¹s campaign, agreeing that it had failed due to lack of popular involvement as distinct from popular support.
HELPED RE-ORGANISE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT
On the ending of internment in 1959 Costello assisted in the re-organising of the Republican Movement or as Costello put it “the cars started flying around again”.
In 1962 he took up a job as a car salesman and, indicative his drive and strong personality had little trouble in becoming salesman of the year of his firm. He successfully fought an attempt to sack him because of his political affiliations by threatening to stay outside his firm’s offices everyday until he was reinstated.
BUILT A STRONG LOCAL BASE
Meanwhile he began to build a strong local base in Co. Wicklow. He maintained that Republicans should build a strong home base and that these could then be linked up together at a future date. He also became full time political organiser for Wicklow at this period and developed a strong link with every conceivable organisation in Wicklow that dealt with the interests of the working class. He managed to involve the Bray Trades Council in the 1966 Easter Commemoration and helped found a strong Tenants Association in Bray. He also became involved with the Credit Union movement and farmers’ organisations. During this period (1964) he married a Tipperary woman Maeliosa who became active in the Republican Movement.
In 1966 he gave the historic oration at the Wolfe Tone Commemoration in Bodenstown which marked the departure of the left of the Republican Movement, the result of years of discussions within the Movement ably assisted by Costello.
“We believe that the large estates of absentee landlords should be acquired by compulsory acquisition and worked on a cooperative basis with the financial and technical assistance of the State… our policy is to nationalise the key industries with the eventual aim of co-operative ownership by the workers… nationalisation of all banks, insurance companies, loan and investment companies…”
But Costello always maintained not only the right to use armed force but the necessity for workers to be armed and this remained his position up to his assassination. “The lesson of history shows that in the final analysis the Robber Baron must be disestablished by the same methods that he used to enrich himself and retain his ill gotten gains, namely force of arms. To this end we must organise, train and maintain a disciplined armed force which will always be available to strike at the opportune moment” (Bodenstown 1966).
He pushed for Sinn Fein to contest the local election of 1967 in selected areas and he stood with Joe Doyle in Bray. Indicative of his organisational abilities is the fact that not only were Sinn Fein the only political party to canvass every house in Bray but they won two seats on Bray Urban Council, one on Wicklow Co. Council and collected more money during the election than they had actually spent during the campaign.
At Council Meetings Costello and Doyle always put their Cumann’s views in accordance with what had been decided at their meetings. A strong attempt was always made to involve the people’s organisations in any controversy or local issue.
Costello headed huge deputations of local organisations to Council meetings and demanded they be heard. He demanded the public not be barred from Council meetings. So insistent was he that unsuccessful moves were made to have him removed from the Council. He became involved in all local problems; housing, road repairs, water and sewerage, access to local beaches, land speculation etc. and such national issues as ground rents, the anti-EEC campaign, anti-repression campaigns, natural resources, the national question etc.
INVOLVED THE MASSES
Meanwhile Costello and Sinn Fein continued to build their strong links with local bodies always striving to show them their own strength while getting overall republican socialist policies across.
HELPED FORM N.I.C.R.A.
Nationally, Costello had pushed hard for the establishment of the Northern Irish Civil Rights- Association -to involve the mass of. the Northern workers in the- struggle. The: beginning saw some protestant involvement but with the orange card being played, brutality, murder and open repression the campaign changed through the years to a mainly nationalist campaign for national liberation. Costello, unlike many of the other leaders in the Republican Movement, was willing to accept changing situations and adapt, rather than insist that the struggle must be confined to a pre-laid pattern irrespective of the realities and holding back the struggle for national liberation.
A PEACE-MAKER DURING SPLITS
Costello stayed with what became known as the Official Republican Movement in the split of 1969-70 which gave birth to the Provisionals. It was not that he disagreed with the struggle for national liberation and a British withdrawal but that he saw it as a struggle that must take place side by side with the class struggle in the entire country, something the Provos were not to even admit until 1977. Even at this stage Costello showed his willingness to do all in his power to unite the Republican Movement and was in correspondence with Dick Roche and Sean Cronin who were acting as intermediaries.
COSTELLO FORMS IRSP
The change in policy in the Republican Movement from 1965 had seen the movement’s involvement throughout the 32 counties in popular struggles, such as housing, ground rents, fisheries, industrial disputes etc. Military actions had been taken in some cases: against foreign (mainly German) land owners in the midlands, against a lobster boat the Mary Catherine (“to protect the Irish shellfishing industry”), against buses carrying scab workers in Shannon, against a mine in support of strikers, against land speculators, rackman landlords etc. These actions were not meant to be a substitute for involvement in the national question but part of the same struggle.
The Officials, however began to abandon such actions in the South and eventually in the North with the ceasefire of 1972. Costello maintained before his assassination that he should have broken away at this stage and not waited until 1974. The two years in question were taken up with Costello fighting a rearguard action to have accepted policy implemented while a section of the leadership implemented their own policies, oblivious to Ard Fheis wishes. Disillusionment set in in the rank and file with many dropping out while a witchhunt began of all dissidents, orchestrated by this clique in the leadership. Eventually Costello was charged with irregularities at the 1973 Ard Fheis and tried by Sinn Fein. He was found not guilty. However the Official IRA tried him on similar charges, with the exact same evidence (ensuring Costello’s witnesses didn’t turn up) and found him guilty. They dismissed him “with ignomy”. Meanwhile Sinn Fein suspended him, despite their having found him not guilty. He was refused permission to stand in the local election of 1974. Costello knew he was finished with the Officials and stood as an Independent Sinn Fein Candidate as he began to organise the setting up of a new party that would entwine the class question and national question as one struggle. He topped the polls for Wicklow County Council and Bray Urban Council where he was immensely popular, being a member of the Wicklow Agricultural Committee and President of Brays Trade Council. The leadership of the Officials were dismayed by victory. He was nevertheless dismissed (“general unsuitability”) from Sinn Fein at the Ard Fheis of 1974, memorable for its undemocratic procedures (delegates refused entry at the door because they supported Costello etc.).
In December 1974 Costello along with other disillusioned republicans and socialists, many with years of involvement in the Republican Movement at leadership level and with a deep involvement at local level formed a new political party. There immediately followed mass resignations from the Officials from all over the country, North and South. Entire Cumainn came over. And so was born the Irish Republican Socialist Party named after James Connolly’s party of 1896. The word ‘Republican’ was deliberately put first to emphasise the struggle for national liberation, a struggle that was being abandoned by most organisations claiming the title of ‘socialist’.
There had existed a minority opinion in the leadership of the Officials at the time of the Provo split who felt that Provos should have been crushed. The growth of the Provos merely strengthened this opinion. The Officials decided to employ this tactic against the IRSP and picked Belfast to launch their campaign of murder, driving the IRSP into hiding: Costello, who always had a deep appreciation of the damage of feuds and the demoralisation it would cause throughout the anti-imperialist movement, sought mediation with the Officials who refused. Eventually, Michael Mullen, head of Costello’s union the ITGWU, acted as mediator and the Officials called off their murder campaign, mainly due to their bad showing in the Galway bye-election and the Northern Ireland Convention election. The feud had seriously effected the growth of the IRSP and stopped most resignations from the Officials. Three IRSP members were dead and scores injured. Indeed a bloody baptism for the IRSP.
STATE CONSPIRACY AGAINST IRSP
In the 26 Counties the state was bent on destroying the IRSP culminating in the arrest of Costello along with over 40 IRSP members supporters and relatives in April 1976. Nine were severely tortured and six framed with the robbery of a train in Co. Kildare. Costello pushed the IRSP to sue the State and brought Amnesty International’s first involvement in Ireland when they demanded “a full and independent inquiry” in May 1976 into the arrest of IRSP members and their ill-treatment.
Costello always maintained that there existed a state conspiracy to smash the IRSP and the IRSP has ample evidence to prove this charge.
During Seamus Costello’s leadership of the IRSP, he was attempting to building a strong republican socialist party that would entwine the national and class questions as one struggle. He sought to involve the IRSP in all the struggles of the Irish people; trade union work, housing, fisheries, the struggle for women’s emancipation, the national question, the struggle of small farmers, tenants, the cultural struggle, sovereignty, the struggle for control over our natural resources and the struggle against repression etc. While the IRSP was suffering from the Official’s murder campaign and state harassment it was difficulty for the IRSP to make much headway in these struggles although it was involved in all of them to some extent.
Costello always felt anti-imperialist unity was of the utmost importance and worked hard for it. He was the main person behind the Broad Front talks that took place between anti-imperialist groups throughout 1977, although they failed to form a Broad Front.
OPPOSED INDEPENDENT ULSTER
He was the only leader of national importance that totally opposed unprincipled talks with Loyalists on any agenda other than 32 County Socialist Republic and he totally rejected an Independent Ulster as a “solution” to the Irish or the Ulster question. He could speak to Dublin’s unemployed, Derry’s harassed population, or Wicklow’s farmers and reach them all. No struggle of the working class was too insignificant for his involvement and despite his national commitments, his organisational duties as full time IRSP political organiser, he always found time to honour his commitment to his constituents in Co. Wicklow.
At the time of his assassination [Dublin, 5 Ocotober 1977] he was member of the following bodies: Wicklow County Council, County Wicklow Committee of Agriculture, General Council of Committees of Agriculture, Eastern Regional Development Organisation, National Museum Development Committee, Bray Urban District Council, Bray Branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, Bray and District Trade Unions Council (of which he was president 1976-77), the Cualann Historical Society, Chairman Irish Republican Socialist Party. From the period between 1964 and 1974 he held the positions of Adj. General, Chief of Staff and Director of Operations in the Official IRA and the position of Vice-President of Official Sinn Fein.