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International Socialism, Spring 1995


Pat Riordan

Bookwatch: Ireland


From International Socialism 2:66, Spring 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Over the last few months great changes have taken place in Irish society. The ceasefire in Northern Ireland seems to have drawn to a close an entire era of politics in the North. The underlying causes of violence still remain – the existence of the Northern Irish state and the maintenance of the British army in the North – but the ceasefire does offer a real challenge to socialists. An opening has been created that socialist forces can seek to fill by building an alternative to the ideas of Unionism and Nationalism.

To understand what is taking place in the North, and the political forces involved, it helps to have an alternative to the often misleading coverage of events which dominates the British and Irish media. There is a whole industry of literature covering not only the events in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years, but also the history of Britain’s involvement in Ireland. A number of these books are very helpful for a fuller understanding of the situation now unfolding in the six counties. [1]

Most people wanting to tackle events in Ireland will wish to begin in the 20th century. The best place to start is the period 1916–1921. Prior to 1916 John Redmond, the leading constitutional nationalist of his day, introduced a Home Rule for Ireland Bill to the British parliament. The bill generated immense popular support in Ireland and was meant to enter the British statute books once the First World War was over. The bill, however, caused a major crisis in Irish politics. In the North, Edward Carson, the godfather of modern Ulster Unionism, raised a force of Ulster volunteers to fight against the bill. Nationalists from both the constitutional and the physical force traditions joined together with a number of labour organisations to form the Irish Volunteers with the purpose of defending Home Rule or fighting for it if it wasn’t granted. The British government played a double game, inducing both Ulster and Irish volunteers to join the army, with promises of a satisfactory settlement for each at the end of the hostilities.

Against this background the volunteers under the leadership of anti-Redmond Republicans seized the post office and other strategic points in Dublin at Easter 1916. The Irish rebellion had begun – the Easter Uprising led to the genesis of the modern Republican movement. After the uprising an irregular army (the IRA), and an illegal Irish parliament (Dail Eireann) were established. British irregular forces, the auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, were brought in. A vicious and bloody war ensued. Summary execution by the British forces of both the ‘rebels’ and non-combatants was the norm and entire areas were looted, sacked and burnt. The period is covered in many books, a good descriptive introduction being Ulick O’Connor’s The Troubles. [2] The best books, however, are by the combatants themselves. In particular read Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days in Ireland [3] and Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound. [4] Both books give a real feel of the events and the bloody nature of the Tan war, and also give insights into the kind of people who made up the Irish Republican Army. Generally volunteers were from either a farming or a college background, wholly patriotic in outlook and usually disdainful of politics.

The Republicans eventually signed a peace treaty with the British in 1921, which granted Home Rule status within Southern Ireland and ensured partition. The settlement led to a split in the Republican movement, between the pro-treaty ‘Freestaters’ and the anti-treaty Republicans. The treaty led not only to a civil war, but also to the development of bourgeois states, both north and south of the border. Much of the literature covering the civil war and the development of the Southern Irish state is little more than a defence of the Southern state. Two of the most interesting books covering the period, Tim Pat Coogan’s recent biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera [5], fall into this tradition. Collins was a brilliant guerilla leader and IRA hero of the Tan war, but was also the man who signed the treaty with the British. As a result he has always held a rather contradictory position in the Republican pantheon. De Valera, on the other hand, was the leader of the Republican forces in the civil war, but after the end of the civil war broke with the Republicans and formed Fianna Fail as a constitutional party. De Valera and his party were to dominate Southern Irish politics for the next 50 years. De Valera was capable of using radical sounding rhetoric while being profoundly conservative. He was one of the chief architects of the Southern state, and was the darling of the Catholic Church. Both De Valera and Collins, whatever their differences, were at times bourgeois revolutionaries and nationalistic political figures. Both biographies are worth reading, not only for the importance of their main characters, but also for the detail and background they give to the civil war and events after it. Also worth a critical reading is C. Desmond Greaves’s Liam Mellowes and the Irish Revolution [6], one of the first books about a more left wing figure from the anti-treaty IRA. However, Greaves comes from the old Irish Communist Party tradition which argues that the Republican movement is the key vehicle for radical social change, so he portrays Mellowes as some sort of semi-conscious communist. This is simply wishful thinking. A significant left wing current did not develop within Republicanism until the 1930s and even then it was a wholly minority tradition.

To understand the major events and movements in modern Ireland, we also have to look at developments in Northern Ireland. The Northern state was sectarian from its conception in 1921. The North had suffered the highest number of deaths in the Tan war and the civil war, and the state began in a wave of pogroms. These beginnings are dealt with most fully in Michael Farrell’s The Orange State [7] and Geoffrey Bell’s The Protestants of Ulster. [8] Both books are important works and both are written from a left wing perspective. Both, however, share a fatal flaw. Bell and Farrell accept the idea, common on the left, of the Protestant working class as a homogenous and reactionary mass. Protestant workers, they argue, constitute a ‘labour aristocracy’. This argument has long given a left cover to the Republican movement’s dismissive attitude towards Protestant workers. Gerry Adams, for example, adopted the same argument wholesale in his own writings. [9]

This argument is no longer viable. Unionism today is in crisis. The Unionist tradition of tying Protestant worker to Protestant boss, and so dividing the working class, is increasingly untenable in a time of major economic recession. Under the weight of recession the old Unionist partnership, which was based upon being able to provide a job and a house (however bad the job and poor the house), is being cut apart. The legacy of Unionism lingers on, but the possibility of building an alternative to it out of the ceasefire is also very real. The strike in Derry over sectarian killings and the walkout at Harland and Wolff in Belfast last year show the openings of a socialist alternative to the stale game of Unionist politics. For a more optimistic picture than that offered by Farrell and Bell, readers should see Can Protestant and Catholic Unite? by Mark Hewitt. [10]

Also worth looking at is The Irish Republican Congress by George Gillmore [11] which is a handy antidote to the myth that Catholic and Protestant have never fought side by side. The Republican Congress was a left split from the Republican movement that attracted a significant lay of Protestant workers. The nemesis of the Congress came with the 1934 march to Bodenstown, the Republican yearly pilgrimage for all sections of the IRA. The Protestant contingent of the march, carrying a left wing banner, was removed on the orders of the IRA leader McBride, for being ‘too communistic’, a telling reminder of the political limitations of Republicanism. A more complete account of campaigns in the same period is provided by Munck and Rolston’s Belfast in the Thirties: An Oral History [12], which tells the story of sectarian strife between Catholic and Protestant, and also of socialist organisation involving both.

Besides books about the development of the Northern state, there is a wealth of material dealing with the major paramilitary players on both sides. The major writer on the Loyalist death squads, the UVF and the UDA, is the journalist Martin Dillon. His books The Shankill Butchers and Stone Cold [13] deal with two of the most vicious Loyalist actions of the last 25 years. Dillon’s books are well researched and contain a wealth of information about security forces, dirty tricks campaigns and army collusion in sectarian activity. They are fairly balanced, but don’t expect any analysis. A book with a pro-British angle, but very useful nonetheless, is Don Anderson’s Fourteen May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974 [14], about the strike which brought down the power sharing assembly in 1974. The book is a timely reminder of how Loyalism, when it was strong, worked. The strike had little to do with picketing or workers’ democracy. It was controlled by the UDA, the biggest Loyalist parliamentary group. The army and the security forces were openly sympathetic and dissident workers were frightened away from work by straightforward intimidation. It was one of the few purely reactionary strikes in history. It is worth remembering while reading the book that, although until the 1994 ceasefire the Loyalists were highly effective sectarian murder gangs, they no longer had the same power as they did in 1974.

The largest body of work concerning Northern Ireland deals in one way or another with the Provisional IRA. If the present phase of violence can be given a starting date it was probably 1966, when there were a wave of murders by the UVF. The modern IRA did not come into being properly until the late 1960s, against a background of sectarian killings, the civil rights movement and the introduction of British troops. The idea that the Provisionals were the architects of the violence of Northern Ireland is contradicted by the facts. On the issue of cold blooded murder by gangs of rampaging assassins in the North, readers should see Eamonn McCann’s Bloody Sunday in Derry – What Really Happened [15], a detailed account of the murder of 13 civilians by the British Parachute Regiment in 1972. The book outlines the political strategy behind the killings and its repercussions for the people of Derry and the North. The book that gives the best outline of the formation of the modern IRA is Bishop and Mallie’s The Provisional IRA [16], a not particularly sympathetic but thorough account of the Provisionals. Those wishing to balance it with a more partisan account should see Kevin Kelley’s The Longest War. [17] The most comprehensive overview of the history of the Republicans up to 1979 is J. Bowyer Bell’s The Secret Army: The IRA 1916–79. [18] Another fine book, one particularly useful on the splits between left and right in the IRA, is Con Foley’s Legion of the Rearguard. [19] On much the same subject, though more jaundiced, is Patterson’s The Politics of Illusion [20], which details the split at the onset of the Troubles between the Official and Provisional IRA. The Officials were formerly the more left wing of the two groupings, but their Dublin based leadership believed in a Stalinised ‘solution’ to the Irish question: first there would be general democratic reforms, then a national revolution, then at some future juncture socialism could be achieved. Of the two groups, the Provisionals picked up more support. In the early 1970s the Provisionals were firmly in the physical force tradition – derisive of ‘politics’ and ‘political solutions’, and committed wholly to militarism. An attempt to merge the formally leftward leaning politics of the Officials and the methodology of the Provisionals was made with the formation of the Irish National Liberation Army/Irish Republican Socialist Party. The organisation was the smaller brother of the Provos. It had a particularly extreme strain of Maoist politics. The failure of the organisation remains an object lesson in the impossibility of grafting socialist politics onto Republican organisation. The whole tragic business is dealt with in detail in Holland and McDonald’s INLA: Deadly Divisions. [21]

By the early 1980s the main event affecting the broader Republican movement was the Long Kesh hunger strike of 1980–1981. The strike was an attempt to win back political status for Republican prisoners. David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead [22] is a deeply moving account of the bravery and sacrifice of those involved. By the mid-1980s the Republican movement, on the back of the hunger strike and the electoral success that followed it, was attempting a move into official politics. The period 1981–1986 saw the growth of Sinn Fein in electoral terms, alongside an ongoing IRA military campaign, an approach summarised in the phrase, ‘The armalite and the ballot box’. [23] The whole strategy is covered in detail in Liam Clarke’s excellent book Broadening the Battlefield. [24] The growth of Sinn Fein floundered because, although the party had a solid base in the Catholic enclaves of the North, its vote never expanded beyond those immediate geographic boundaries. Sinn Fein has nothing to say to Protestant workers in the North, and little appeal for supporters of the ‘mainstream’ Social Democratic and Labour Party, which retains the allegiance of the majority of Northern Catholics, nor could it expand into the South on a purely North based ticket. The party’s attitiude to social issues was tentative because it sought alliances with the pro-capitalist Fianna Fail, who it saw as ‘fellow nationalists’. Fianna Fail was at the same time pushing through attacks on workers in the South, so Sinn Fein was compromised.

Major developments have not been confined to the North: significant changes have also occurred in Southern Irish politics. In electoral terms this has been shown in the growth of the vote for the Irish Labour Party. For the first time a class vote, albeit a distorted one, has become a factor in parliamentary politics. For a Marxist account of the Southern Labour Party, see Conor Costick’s pamphlet Why the Labour Party Fails. [25] Successive Southern governments have been Northern Unionists’ best advert for a divided Ireland but now Northern workers can look South and see not only a succession of weak and corrupt governments but also Southern workers’ angry reaction to them. The resignation in 1994 of the Fianna Fail led coalition came amid a wave of scandals that exposed widescale corruption between church and state, chiefly the prime minister’s attempt to cover up child sex abuse by members of the clergy. Some of the recent scandals and their effect on people’s perception of the government is captured in Finton O’Toole’s Meanwhile Back at the Ranch. [26]

In electoral terms the scandals have come to mean the swapping of one group of Tories, Fianna Fail, for another, Fine Gael. Yet Fine Gael’s coalition and its Taoiseach (prime minister) John Bruton are, if anything, more unpopular than Fianna Fail. They gained office only by the willingness of smaller parties, including supposedly left wing ones such as the Democratic Left, to throw in their lot with them.

Still the left vote is only symptomatic of what is happening beyond and below parliamentary politics. As Kieran Allen argued in International Socialism 64 [27], there has been a sea change in the Southern working class. Like their British counterparts they have suffered years of ‘new realism’ preached by trade union leaders. These ideas now exist uneasily side by side with a growing anger and desire to fight amongst ordinary workers. There is also a general political mood that from time to time bursts into the open, the major recent example of this being around the X case and the issue of abortion. Movements like this, both political and industrial, have begun to blow away some of the stereotypes about Southern Ireland that are common in Northern Unionist circles, particularly the myth that all the people of the South are in thrall to the church.

Certainly the South has been a very conservative society. Yet the South also has a hidden history of struggle. In 1919, for instance, Limerick had its own soviet (workers’ council) and Limerick dairy workers bequeathed the workers’ movement the immortal slogan, ‘We make butter, not profits.’ The period is covered in Liam Cahill’s book Limerick 1919: Forgotten Revolution. [28] But the greatest single incident of working class militancy was the Dublin Lockout of 1913 when workers fought not only the employers but also the Catholic Church. The period is captured in Emmet Larkin’s biography of the strike leader Jim Larkin [29], James Plunkett’s novel Strumpet City [30], and more generally in Boyd’s Rise of the Irish Trade Unions. [31] Jim Larkin was a major figure on the Irish left but, despite a formal commitment to the need of a revolutionary organisation, he never really escaped from his syndicalist background. His key role in the often forgotten Belfast dock strike of 1907, and that strike’s role in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers are well captured in John Gray’s City in Revolt. [32]

The modern Irish working class is still waiting for the political literature it deserves. But well worth reading is Roddy Doyle’s marvellous Barrytown Trilogy. [33] His stories are deeply concerned with working class life. Populist, funny and compassionate, he is probably the premier descriptive writer in modern Ireland.

This article began by saying that the ceasefire offers a real opening for socialists. That there is a ceasefire, however, shouldn’t really surprise us. Republican strategy and tactics, whether focusing on militarism or cutting deals with the British and Irish political establishment, flow from their nationalist politics. The Loyalist ceasefire may seem initially more confusing. But tactically Loyalism has often tail-ended Republicanism. The communities that the Loyalist gangs come from (and often prey on) are every bit as war weary as their Nationalist counterparts. To the traditions of the Republicans and Unionists, the working class, as a class, is marginal. A working class movement with socialist politics is a possibility that the Republicans ignore and Loyalists fear. But the North has seen mass movements, an especially important example being the civil rights movement of the late 1960s. The movement showed the possibility of a united fight for democratic changes spilling over into a fight for a different society. Highly recommended reading on this is Con McCluskey’s Off Our Knees [34] but even better is Eamonn McCann’s brilliant War and an Irish Town. [35] The new edition, in particular, is essential reading for a socialist analysis of the North. The strength of the civil rights movement was that it was a mass movement. Its weakness was that it only developed ‘on the march’ an understanding of the limits of reform within the context of the Northern Irish state. The weakness of the left, particularly a genuine Marxist left, within the movement meant that the protests moved into the familiar channels of a constitutional nationalism and traditional Republicanism.

All the books I have mentioned are very useful and taken together give a fairly comprehensive picture of events and characters in modern Irish history. This alone, though, is not enough. The books I have mentioned are best read alongside some genuine Marxist works. For a critique of developments over the last 25 years and before, Chris Bambery6’s Ireland’s Permanent Revolution [36] gives a solid and accessible outline. For a socialist analysis of modern Republicanism, readers should see Kieran Allen’s pamphlet Socialists, Republicans and the Armed Struggle. [37] For a general Marxist understanding of the use of terrorism, Trotsky is unsurpassed. He ridicules the liberal idea of absolute moral concepts:

A slave owner who through cunning and violence shackles his slaves in chains, and a slave who through cunning and violence breaks the chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality. [38]

While Trotsky draws a clear distinction between the violence between oppressor and oppressed, he also dismisses terrorist methods:

In our eyes individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who someday will come and accomplish his mission. [39]

Finally, any socialist interested in Ireland must read James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History [40] or better still, indulge in a copy of his complete works. [41] Connolly was the leading Irish Marxist and his writings are wide ranging and very readable. Like all real figures, though, he was not flawless. Kieran Allen’s Politics of James Connolly [42] is a political biography that is rewarding to read alongside Connolly himself. It provides a thorough analysis of Connolly’s political virtues and limitations.


1. Beginning to tackle the subject of England’s 800 year role in Ireland can seem daunting. A decent general overview, though by no means a Marxist analysis, is provided in R. Kees, The Green Flag, 3 volumes (Penguin 1987). Covering some of the same events, though from a more left wing standpoint, is T.A. Jackson, Ireland Her Own (Lawrence and Wishart 1989).

2. U. O’Connor, The Troubles (Mandarin 1989).

3. T. Barry, Guerilla Days in Ireland (Brandon 1992).

4. E. O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound (Anvil 1992).

5. T.P. Coogan, Michael Collins (Metheun 1991); Eamonn De Valera (Methuen 1994).

6. C. Desmond Greaves, Liam Mellowes and the Irish Revolution (Lawrence and Wishart 1989).

7. M. Farrell, The Orange State (Pluto Press, various ed).

8. G. Bell, The Protestants of Ulster (Pluto Press 1989).

9. G. Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom (Brandon 1986).

10. M. Hewitt, Can Protestant and Catholic Unite? (SWM Publications 1993).

11. G. Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork Press 1985).

12. R. Munck and B. Rolston, Belfast in the Thirties: An Oral History (Blackstaff Press 1987).

13. M. Dillon, The Shankill Butchers (Methuen 1989).

14. D. Anderson, Fourteen May Days (Gill & Macmillan 1994).

15. E. McCann, M. Sheils and B. Hannigan Bloody Sunday in Derry – What Really Happened (Poolbeg 1992).

16. Bishop and Mallie, The Provisional IRA (Corgi 1987).

17. K. Kelley, The Longest War (Zed Books 1984).

18. J. Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army: The IRA 1916–1979 (Poolbeg 1990).

19. C. Foley, Legion of the Rearguard (Radius 1990).

20. H. Patterson, The Politics of Illusion (Radius 1989).

21. Holland and McDonald, INLA: Deadly Divisions (Torc Publishers 1994).

22. D. Beresford, Ten Men Dead (Pluto Press 1987).

23. D. Morrison. The phrase comes from a speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (conference), 1983.

24. L. Clarke, Broadening the Battlefield (Gill & McMillan 1987).

25. C. Costick, Why the Labour Party Fails (SWM Publications 1993).

26. F. O’Toole, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch (Dublin 1994).

27. K. Allen, What’s Changing in Ireland? (International Socialism 64, Autumn 1994).

28. L. Cahill, Limerick 1919: Forgotten Revolution (O’Brien Press 1990).

29. E. Larkin, Jim Larkin – Irish Labour Leader (Pluto Press 1990).

30. J. Plunkett, Strumpet City (Sphere 1985).

31. A. Boyd, The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions (Brandon 1984).

32. J. Gray, City in Revolt (Blackstaff Press 1987).

33. R. Doyle, The Barrytown Trilogy (Methuen 1993).

34. C. McCluskey, Off Our Knees (Poolbeg 1989).

35. E. McCann, War and an Irish Town (Pluto Press 1993).

36. C. Bambery, Ireland’s Permanent Revolution (Bookmarks 1986).

37. K. Allen, Socialists, Republicans and the Armed Stuggle (SWM Publications 1991).

38. L. Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New Park 1974).

39. L. Trotsky, Against Individual Terrorism (Pathfinder 1987).

40. J. Connolly, Labour in Irish History (Bookmarks 1988).

41. J. Connolly, Complete Works, 2 volumes (New Book Publications 1990).

42. K. Allen, The Politics of James Connolly (Pluto Press 1990).

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