Street Voice Interview With IRSP
English left-wing music publication ‘Street Voice’ recently conducted an interview with the chairperson of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in Belfast and a transcript is reproduced below:
Chairperson / Spokesperson of Belfast IRSP Interviewed – January 2012
Early 2008 I started taking a closer look at the politics of the Irish Republican Socialist Party as I felt with the death of David Ervine the Progressive Unionist Party had lost its way! Over the past few years I had chats on and off with Liam Heffernan and started taking an interest in the IRSP. The forum they had where a lot of debates took and still take place were on most part meaningful. There was also a sense of relief that there was a working class organisation in Ireland who made their voices heard. The rest is history…. Anyway I caught up with Alex the chairperson / spokesperson of the Belfast IRSP.
Street Voice: First off can you tell our readers a little about the Irish Republican Socialist Party, please?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: We are a working class revolutionary party in the tradition of Tone, Marx, Lenin, Connolly, Mellows, Costello and Ta Power. Unlike other one-dimensional Irish Republican political parties, the IRSP puts equal emphasis on both the class struggle and the struggle for a unitary state in Ireland. In contrast with other parties of the revolutionary ‘Left’ we do not ignore the proverbial ‘elephant in the living-room’ of British imperialism and it’s impact on Irish working-class people. The IRSP is an anti-sectarian party and we have always maintained that the religious sectarianism that one sees in the north-east of the country is a by-product or legacy of British imperialism’s impact on Ireland. Republican Socialism in the tradition of Ireland’s first Marxist leader, James Connolly, has always been the most progressive force in the socially conservative realm of Irish politics, for instance, we were the first party to support a woman’s right to abortion and consistently supported free availability of contraceptives. In what was unheard of at the time, the IRSP later ran abortion referral service information in our magazine, the Starry Plough, openly and unapologetically violating Ireland’s then much more repressive anti-abortion laws. Women have always played an equal role in the IRSP and significantly for an Irish republican party, our leadership has been from both the Catholic and Protestant communities, in fact Ronnie Bunting who was tragically assassinated by a British paramilitary death-squad in 1980, had a father who was a leading extreme Paisleyite unionist.
The late, great Seamus Costello ,who co-founded the IRSP, aptly and succinctly stated our political raison d’etre when he said, “we must make no secret of the fact that we are a revolutionary party, prepared to give leadership on the streets as well as in the elected chambers & that we are out for a revolutionary state.”
Street Voice: How long has the IRSP been going as a party?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: The Irish Republican Socialist Party was formed in 1974 following a convention at the Spa Hotel, Lucan, near Dublin. Unlike the plethora of Irish Republican parties and groups in evidence in Ireland today who emerged or split from the Provisional movement at some stage in their history, the IRSP was largely formed from the most militant members of the left-wing Official Republican Movement centred around the indefatigable and dynamic revolutionary, Seamus Costello. Along with the most radical elements of the Officials who formed the nascent IRSP, were leaders from the northern Civil Rights movement and independent Socialist activists like the former Mid-Ulster MP, Bernadette Devlin-Mcaliskey and the late Tony Gregory, TD.
Street Voice: How many different branches are there in Ireland?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: There are branches of the IRSP, which we refer to as ‘cumainn’ (as Gaeilge), in all Irish cities and many major towns. Unlike many parties of the ‘left’ our membership is overwhelmingly proletarian. Young people especially are increasingly tired of and alienated by the old, divisive orange/green politics of bourgeois nationalism and unionism. The IRSP offers a revolutionary alternative to the professional politicians and reactionary bigots who are still very much in evidence in Irish politics. IRSP-Alba are our sister organisation in Scotland who are highly active and making great headway especially among the Irish population there. In the USA and Canada, the Irish Republican Socialist Committees of North America (IRSCNA) are our sister organisation with a membership ranged all over that vast continent. We have links in solidarity with socialist organisations and national liberation movements globally but especially in Palestine where we give our support to the PFLP.
Street Voice: I suppose the biggest question on many people’s lips is why as a political organisation you link yourselves to the INLA?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: It is an established fact that the INLA and the IRSP were the symbiotic party/army model of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement. It is well-documented that the IRSP were formed at the same 1974 convention as the Irish National Liberation Army. From 1974 until the 1990s the INLA fought a guerrilla war for national liberation and Republican Socialists are unapologetic about this. From the late 1990’s the INLA had been on ceasefire and in 2010 the INLA left centre-stage of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement.
Street Voice: After many years what seems in the political wildness what made you as an organisation change direction and re-enter elections in the North of Ireland?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Firstly, the IRSP has never been an abstentionist party, meaning we have never been ideologically or tactically opposed to principled participation in electoral politics. By the same token, as a Marxist party we know that there is no parliamentary road to an Irish Socialist Republic. Our decision to selectively contest the May 2011 council elections in the north-east of Ireland, after a break from electoral politics of over 30 years, was a nascent attempt to provide a revolutionary Republican Socialist alternative to the green/orange politics very much in evidence in the north of Ireland’s council chambers. As one of the IRSP’s election agents in Belfast I would be the first to admit that it was a sharp learning curve for us all and we had to face the fact that the majority of the other political parties have had a vast head-start on us. To test the electoral waters, so to speak, we ran a very limited panel of IRSP candidates and one of our candidates, Paul Gallagher, in the north-west got duly elected, only to be tantalisingly pipped at the post by a mere percentage of a first preference vote following a series of recounts. In other areas where we stood individual IRSP candidates we picked up hundreds of the all important first preference votes in the PR polling system currently in place for council elections and thousands of second preference votes. We now have an electoral baseline to work from and to build upon in years to come and it is entirely realistic that with just a wee bit of effort on our part and a refining of our electoral strategy IRSP candidates could, in the not too distant future, almost certainly be elected. The Irish working-class deserve elected representatives who will fight for their interests, not careerists who are almost instantly subsumed into the ‘parliamentary club’ of privilege, graft and reformism.
Street Voice: You are a very community based organisation so has this helped your cause in some areas being there to listen, guide and support when people are in need?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Absolutely, our members are involved in a diverse range of community-orientated projects, ranging from advocating on behalf working-class people who are facing problems with the likes of the social security agency, housing associations and private landlords. IRSP members are intrinsically involved in a varied range ex-combatants’ community projects through our own ex-political prisoner support group called ‘Teach na Failte’ (as Gaeilge: House of Welcome) which has dedicated offices in Belfast, Derry, Strabane, Dublin and elsewhere. Teach na Failte supports and advocates on behalf ex-Republican Socialist prisoners, their families and their wider community and for instance, engages with members of the Protestant/Unionist community, including ex-combatants from the Loyalist organisations such as the UVF and UDA. Innovative community outreach such as principled engagement with Loyalist ex-combatants would have been unheard of not so long ago in the north of Ireland and common ground is steadily being explored by Teach na Failte community workers.
The IRSP office in Belfast welcomes enquiries and we try very hard to help all working-class people, irrespective of what side of the perceived sectarian divide they come from. Only recently the IRSP advocated on behalf of and raised awareness for, a man from a unionist area who had tragically lost his grand-daughter in a preventable fatal domestic accident involving the entirely unregulated use of Helium gas canisters used to fill balloons at her birthday party. The church or place of worship that a person may or may not attend is of no interest us, as a Connollyite party we owe our allegiance to the Irish working-class.
Our community representatives and party members are also involved in conflict resolution at the so-called ‘sectarian interfaces’ many of which are marked by the well known ‘Peace Walls’. By the same token as Irish Republicans, we make no apologies for standing with Republican communities subjected to intrusive supremacist parades by the Loyal Orders, such as Ardoyne in north Belfast. We have stood shoulder to shoulder with isolated Republican working-class areas like the Short Strand in east Belfast, who faced a 3 day Loyalist siege and pogrom during June, 2011.
Street Voice: You’re also involved in a campaign for Maghaberry Republican Prisoners so can you tell our readers a little about that please?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: At present, all the Republican prisoners in the top-security Maghaberry prison’s Roe House are on protest and the prison administration has shown little or no inclination to resolve the dispute. The basis for the Maghaberry Republican prisoners’ protest is the continued refusal of the ‘Northern Ireland Prison Service’ (NIPS) to implement a previously mutually agreed accord, known as the August 2010 Agreement. The August Agreement was brokered by independent facilitators, including trade union representatives, community leaders and senior members of the IRSP.
At the crux of previous and indeed the current protests in Maghaberry prison, has been the widespread repeated and vindictive use by prison staff of intimately invasive body searches of Republican prisoners. In well documented cases these invasive intimate searches are carried out on prisoners for no real security-based reason, often while they are still within the ‘sterile’ confines of Maghaberry’s Roe House high security unit. Punitive daily lock-downs, restrictions or refusal of family visits, restrictions on washing facilities and exercise by prison staff have inflamed the situation further. In spite of the 2010 August Agreement’s mutual acceptance by both Republican prisoners and NIPS’ representatives which guaranteed a more humane regime in Roe House, including the rolling implementation of non-intimate security scanning BOSS chairs as an alternative to strip-searching, the ink was barely dry on the accord when NIPS began to regrettably renege on it. The current situation in Maghaberry is a direct result of the unwillingness and flat refusal of prison staff to implement the terms of the August Agreement of 2010. Due to the repressive measures of NIPS, Republican prisoners, in scenes reminiscent of the H-Block ‘blanket protests’ of 1976-81, are now forced to live in cells that are contaminated with their own waste, including excrement, due to the ongoing locked-down regime.
The IRSP, even though we do not currently have any prisoners in Maghaberry, have been campaigning consistently for sense to prevail and for the prison authorities to honour the terms and spirit of the August 2010 Agreement. Republican Socialists since our movement’s inception have tirelessly campaigned on behalf of Irish political prisoners. Three of our members, Patsy O’Hara, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine, bravely and selflessly gave their lives during the H-Block Hunger Strikes of 1981 in the struggle for the basic right to be treated as what they were, political prisoners. The IRSP will continue to fight for Irish political prisoners’ human rights until the Maghaberry impasse is resolved.
Street Voice: Socialism seems a dirty word to many people so what can the IRSP offer the Irish people that Russia and other so called Communist countries couldn’t?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Without getting into the exhaustive and complex history of the Russian revolution and the near insurmountable difficulties the Bolsheviks faced in building socialism from the ruins of a vast absolutist feudal empire, the socialism that the IRSP believes in is of the ‘type’ that liberates the working-class both politically and economically. We do not view the end of the Eastern Bloc socialist countries as being the end of the prospects for socialism, far from it. Socialism is much more than a regime change, it is an epochal transformation in society prior to a true, eventual Communist society. Even the most casual examination of previous stages of our societal development clearly demonstrates, for instance, that the dialectical change from say Feudalism to Capitalism was far from seamless and a very long, protracted process over many centuries in some cases. There is nothing ‘dirty’ or outdated about wanting a future for ourselves and our children that does not revolve around profit, greed or exploitation and a socialist society is the only alternative to that bleak prospect. Unlike early 20th century Russia, socialism in the 21st century will be able to build on all the economic, technological and educational advances created by the Capitalist system but would harness them for the good of all, not just the privileged few. Needless to say, realistically speaking, a socialist revolution is not an immediate prospect but the IRSP sees the importance of building a revolutionary party to begin building the basis of a situation where an Irish Workers’ Republic could become a reality. After all, in geo-political terms the movement for social change is growing steadily, as we see almost daily on the news and ultimately no repressive system can withstand the will of the people.
Street Voice: There has been lots of talking and the odd joint campaign with Progressive-Loyalists so do you think you’ll be able to win some support from Protestant working class communities as they really don’t have no representation?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: It is a shame that Protestant working-class communities have traditionally voted for politicians who do not act in their class interests and this is prime example of the legacy of British imperialism that we talked about earlier. I went to university as a mature student and many of my fellow students back then are now prominent Unionist politicians. I was habitually horrified but not surprised at the contempt the supposed new generation of privileged Unionist leaders had for working-class Protestant communities who they would come to represent in later days. It was a real eye-opener for me personally and confirmed the Republican Socialist analysis of partition and imperialism’s impact on the north-east of our country.
Street Voice: Talking of the divide can you ever see the people of Northern Ireland as one instead of being divided as they are now?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Well, firstly we do not take a partitionist view of Ireland and as Republicans we don’t base our analysis on the sectarian headcount that created the sectarian state let of ‘northern Ireland’. I can certainly envisage a time when sectarian divisions may not be as acute as they are at present, for instance, demographically and when class-based politics grows in strength. However, our considered rejection of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was not, as was widely vaunted by sections of the pro-establishment media, as an opposition to ‘peace’ by dastardly ‘dissidents’. It was quite the reverse and our position is soundly based in the reality that the GFA is the legislative pigeon-holing of working-class people along monolithic sectarian lines. The GFA wrongly treats sectarianism as the basis of the recent conflict in the north, not the ‘symptom’ or by-product which it truly is and it also falsely portrays British imperialism as an impartial mediator in a supposed tribal dispute, which it most certainly was not!
Unfortunately, statistically speaking the sectarian demographic currently is possibly even more pronounced than it was during the height of the conflict and Belfast’s ‘peace-walls’ are getting higher and more numerous. The IRSP are committed to combating sectarianism and will continue to do as much as we can to oppose it, in much the same way as we oppose racism which unfortunately is now raising its ugly head in Belfast. It is worth mentioning that there has been a steady increase in racist attacks in the north of Ireland, mostly carried out by far-right elements linked to Loyalism. The IRSP vehemently opposes all forms of racism/fascism and we adhere to a robust ‘no-platform’ for fascists policy which may explain why our members’ pics appear on that neo-Nazi targeting site Redwatch, in fact, we seem to be their pet-hate at the moment.
Street Voice: The British Government has much blood on its hands regards Ireland so under Ireland becoming Socialist would you deal with them?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: That is quite an expansive question but it is now universally accepted that the British government was engaged in the directing and arming of Loyalist death-squads, not just in the more recent conflict but since partition and well before. The British government used the north of Ireland as a vast open air counter-insurgency laboratory where they tweaked and perfected their capabilities for future imperial adventurism further afield. We can see the same counter-insurgency tactics and dirty tricks currently being used by the forces of imperialism in the likes of Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq in their pursuit of oil wealth and profit, unfortunately it is in the very DNA of imperialism. The IRSP has consistently advocated that the Irish people will need to be financially compensated for the impact that British imperialism has had for hundreds of years on Irish peoples’ lives. Lenin described imperialism as the highest state of Capitalism and that is exactly the correct analysis of its raison d’etre i.e. a country’s assets and people become commodities for the imperialist’s profit. For instance, modern history is clear that millions of Irish people were allowed to starve to death while grain was hoarded only a matter of metres away by British merchants or were forced to emigrate due to the Malthusian genocide of the Irish Holocaust, often referred to as the Famine (or as Gaeilge: An Gota Mor the Great Hunger.) British imperialism certainly has a lot to answer for, although I, of course, would stress that English working-class people are not our enemy.
Street Voice: course there’s been a lot of blood spilt, death and much hatred between communities but could there have been another way forward?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Hindsight usually provides the beholder with 20/20 vision, historically speaking, but with Ireland nothing is that simple, imperialism’s impact on Ireland hardwires countless Irish generations for cyclic resistance to colonial rule. Lets not forget that pro-British death-squads were murdering Catholics in Belfast in 1966 and Paisleyism’s fascist sectarianism was raising it’s ugly head well before the generally accepted start of the Irish ‘Troubles’ in 1969. A mass non-violent civil rights movement in the north of Ireland, based on the principles espoused by Martin Luther King Junior in the USA, that simply campaigned around the slogan “one man, one vote” asking only for the extension of universal suffrage to Catholics, was beaten, jailed and shot down in the years prior to 1969. Obviously, when even the most moderate calls for basic reform in the north were met with the most vicious of reactionary repression, the alternatives are very much limited to the last option of armed resistance. Of course, I think most people in Ireland dearly want their children to grow up in a society that is different from the one people of my age grew up in, as by the time we had reached our formative years, the conflict had become ‘normal’ for us and it goes without saying that there was great hurt caused on all sides.
Street Voice: There seems no love lost between Sinn Fein. Why do you think they sold out the working class in the North?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Well, firstly the IRSP have always been a distinctly different political party from Provisional Sinn Fein. Ideologically speaking, the IRSP are a revolutionary socialist party, while by contrast Provisional Sinn Fein is a centrist nationalist party. Secondly, unlike the many other Republican parties in Ireland today who the media refers to by the misleading misnomer ‘republican dissidents’, the IRSP originated from the Official Republican Movement’s most militant element back in 1974. Other contemporary Republican parties seem to expend quite a lot of energy condemning the Shinners which is perhaps understandable given their political origins as the previous radicals of the Provisional movement. However, the IRSP since it’s inception, have always offered our unique brand of politics that puts equal emphasis on both national liberation and the class struggle as an alternative to the one dimensional nationalism of the Provisional’s or any of their offshoots. We prefer to channel our energy into building up our party as a radical left-wing political alternative in Irish politics rather than engaging in the negative politics of Sinn Fein-bashing.
Street Voice: Going back to elections are there plans to enter more in the future?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Absolutely, we will continue to assess every forthcoming election as an opportunity for the IRSP to grow politically. We have never been an abstentionist Republican Party but by the same token electoralism has never been, nor will not be, what defines us politically. We gained much needed electoral experience in the May 2011 council polls and at our recent ard fheis (convention) our membership voted conclusively in favour of further electoral interventions.
Street Voice: If people want to find out more about your journey as a political party and of course the INLA, are there any good books or on-line resources to check out?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: The IRSP maintains a party website which contains information about us, our politics and history at: www.irsp.ie and uniquely for an Irish Republican party we also host an online Republican Socialist discussion forum, which is open to everyone who is interested in our politics and comradely discussion at: rsmforum.proboards.com.
Copies of our key publications, ‘Perspectives on the Future of Republican Socialism in Ireland’ and ‘our ‘Republican Socialist Programme for Ireland’ booklets are available free of charge from any IRSP office, individual IRSP members or they can also be ordered free gratis online from our website, with a small charge to cover postal expenses.
The IRSP’s best known publication is the Starry Plough magazine and the latest edition is due to be published at the end of this month. At local level we publish a news-sheet which is usually dominated by community issues called ‘The Workers Republic’. In 2011 Belfast IRSP published 8 editions of our local news-sheet, far surpassing anything produced by all the other political parties combined.
One of our most popular publications is known as the ‘Ta Power Document’ which was written by an imprisoned INLA guerrilla fighter, Thomas ‘Ta’ Power, and in his dissertation he accurately plots the history of the Republican Socialist Movement and provides an analysis for the future. It is from the Ta Power document that the IRSP has adopted the doctrine of ‘Politics in Command’ also known as the ‘primacy of politics’; you could say it is the IRSP’s version of ‘What is To Be Done.’ The Ta Power Document is also available in pamphlet form and online.
Unfortunately, unlike the Provisional’s, there are virtually no popular published books readily available to the general public dedicated to the history of the IRSP or INLA. I should mention that unfortunately, there was a highly sensationalist and totally inaccurate book called ‘Deadly Divisions’ published some years ago by authors closely linked to the Officials which wrongly predicted our imminent demise! However by our own efforts we have certainly proved their prognosis for our party to be totally ill-founded and ironically we have outlived one of the authors. There are plenty of IRSP pamphlets available that deal with a wide range of issues that are pertinent to Irish working-class people and there is a fascinating account online of the 1976 INLA escape from Long Kesh prison, which ranks as the first mass escape from that gaol and one of the most audacious jail-breaks in Irish Republican penal history. An accurate, comprehensive and readily available written history of the IRSM would be a project that I’d very much want to be part of in some way at some stage in the future.
Street Voice: It’s fair to say the IRSP like any political organisation is going to be judged on it’s past but there’s also the future which is more important so what you up to in 2012 and beyond?
Alex , Belfast IRSP: Obviously, no-one can erase their antecedents nor would we indulge in revisionism to alter the Republican Socialist Movement’s collective history. The IRSP places great emphasis on commemorating our fallen comrades and honouring their memory as revolutionaries. It is a measure of Republican Socialism’s perceived potential threat to imperialism and it can not be overstated, that at every single juncture in the history of the Republican Socialist Movement our most politically dynamic and articulate leaders have been systematically assassinated by either pro-British death-squads or their counter-revolutionary allies. From the party’s very foundation, politically articulate and capable IRSP leaders like Seamus Costello, Ronnie Bunting, Ta Power, Miriam Daly and Gino Gallagher have been routinely gunned down by the forces of British imperialism, many in the most vicious of circumstances. These are a key part of our collective history that we could never afford to forget, even if we wanted to. Ta Power words have proved grimly prophetic when he stated that Republican Socialist “revolutionaries are dead men on leave.”
However, for any political party the future is of paramount importance and 2012 will see an increase in IRSP activism and new political ground will be broken. We fully intend to meet the current Tory-Dem, Stormont and Leinster House austerity offensives against working-class people head on and we will be working closely with all progressive organisations, including the trades unions, to oppose these draconian cuts to community and public services. I was a teenager in the 1980s during the grim Thatcher years and what the current crop of Capitalist lackeys in power are planning to implement may even surpass what the old Finchley Fascist inflicted on working-class people. Kenny’s Blueshirts in the south are very much set on the same reactionary trajectory and we have already seen their destructive intentions towards the Irish proletariat as we suffer from the consequences of the super-rich elite’s greed.
Street Voice: So what can the IRSP offer the Irish people that hasn’t already been put to them already?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Broadly speaking Irish working-class people have been gravely ill-served by their elected representatives and likewise Capitalism has ill-served the Irish working-class. While the IRSP may lack much of the political sophistication or slickness of the Irish professional political elite, we are serious about our politics and one promise we can make is that the IRSP will never desert the Irish working-class for the dubious mirage of so-called political respectability. We have always fought for the class interests of our community and the Irish working-class as a whole and will continue to do so in whatever political environment we find ourselves in the future whether it be through community-based advocacy or an elected forum.
Street Voice: Anything you’d like to add?
Alex, Belfast IRSP: Just to thank you personally and of course, “Street Voice” for your interest in the politics of the Irish Republican Socialist Party and I would like to extend our best wishes and solidarity to socialists, anti-imperialists and anti-fascists in your country. Saoirse go deo!
Street Voice: Thanks to Alex for taking the time out to make this such a great interview. I hope that all you readers find this interview as interesting and educational as I did. Please do check out what the IRSP are about. They’re a solid working class organisation that really does deserve your support