A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Talking recently to an employee of the Irish Labour Party, I was informed that the Stickies who had entered the party during the reverse takeover by Democratic Left (explanation follows) had brought some welcome activist commitment to the organization: “they go out and knock on doors”. This made me think of the line about `Belfast efficiency’ in the film Michael Collins and we know how that ended.
On 8 February this year, the Official Republican Movement (a faction of the Official IRA) and the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) announced that they had decommissioned their weapons, on the last day on which they could do so without being prosecuted. The biggest surprise to many people may well have been that there still was an Official IRA.
The Official IRA (the `Stickies’) was that part of the IRA which had moved towards street politics and community organization in the late 1960s, leading to a split with the Provisional IRA, who were more interested in shooting Brits. Before, and for a few years after, the split, the Officials had been involved in the fighting with Loyalist mobs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army, and built up their own mythology as defenders of the Catholic working class from
Unionist pogroms: a famous photograph of the fighting in Belfast in 1971 was labelled `Army of the people’ on the cover of a Republican magazine. As the Civil Rights movement developed, some of those on the left of the movement successfully argued that conventional political activity and agitation were a better approach than a purely military strategy, leading to the split with those who preferred Armalites and car bombs, and now sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The political wing of the Officials, Official Sinn Féin, later became Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party, and then the Workers’ Party. After the 1992 split on the question of democratic centralism and links with the OIRA, six of the WP’s seven TDs (members of the Irish parliament) broke away with a large proportion of the membership to form Democratic Left. In 1999, DL merged with the Labour Party and since then, two of the three Labour leaders have been former DL/WP members. This has led to the odd situation of people contending for the position of Taoiseach of a state which they started their political life trying to overthrow.
Hanley and Millar tell the story of the Officials and their political wing from their origins, up to the merger with Labour. The party was the most successful left-wing organization in the history of modern Ireland, electorally and intellectually. Its former members, as well having taken over the Labour party, hold leading positions in trade unions, universities and the media. Being a renegade Stick or, in the case of Eoghan Harris, a renegade crypto-Stick, is a useful diploma in punditry. Much of the thinking which led to the current settlement in Northern Ireland, and some measure of some kind of peace, began with the Officials, leading Cathal Goulding, one time Chief of Staff, to remark sourly that “We were right, but we were right too soon. Adams may be right, but he’s right too late. And O Brádaigh will never be right.”
In Europe, the Workers’ Party and the OIRA could probably only have happened in Ireland. The movement was a combination of the `physical force tradition’ of Irish republicanism with solid, Moscow-leaning communism. There had always been a left-wing element in the IRA but the movement’s aims had never really extended beyond national unity by any means possible, with little thought on social policy and the kind of country that might result.
When the IRA moved to the left, and the Provisionals broke away, the Officials were left with an armed wing of people who had done some fighting against the British Army and a core of left-wing activists who were discovering the joys of Marx. Notionally, this made them the equivalent of the urban guerrillas of Italy or Germany but, unlike the Red Brigades, Prima Linea, NAP, or the other groups which emerged from the spoilt brats of the Italian extra-parliamentary left, the Stickies began moving towards mass politics. The OIRA declared a ceasefire in 1972, although it continued to apply its violence skills to the expropriation of banks and the settling of scores, without using the brand name. After the ceasefire, members forced out of the organization formed the INLA, and its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, under Seamus Costello, who was himself later murdered by the Stickies, an episode addressed in the book.
Meanwhile, the open, legal party was operating in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. It had been making links with the Eastern Bloc, which eventually led to a 2005 US warrant for the extradition of Séan Garland on charges of involvement in distributing forged dollars from North Korea. Competition with two Communist Parties (CPI and CPNI) meant the Workers’ Party never had the influence in, or money from, Moscow that it might have liked, but it was certainly a better funded party than its size justified. One Northern Ireland activist, on hearing Southern comrades express their shock at the organization’s involvement in bank robberies, asked “Where did they think the money came from?” In part, the cash supported a publishing house and the running of a party school for the training of the cadre. The resulting party was disciplined and hard working, and began to build stable electoral support, leading in the end to seven TDs.
The process of disengagement from violence took time and euphemism: internal documents began to refer to `Group A’ and `Group B’, the legal political party and the secret army which was helping fund it. Weaning the party off the money was harder than detaching the members from the glamour of armed revolution, and the final break with the notion of the armed faction was part of the split which led to the formation of Democratic Left and the resulting reverse takeover of the Labour Party.
When asked if he had read the book, the Labour staffer who opened this review explained why he hadn’t: “I might have to ask too many questions.” One question is whether the Sticky legacy will be more than the physical force tradition. If the habit of being right early is worth something, they deserve some credit.
The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’
Party Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, ISBN 978-1-84488-120-8.