While visiting Belfast last year I was for the first time seriously exposed to the history of “The Troubles“. While the troubles are interesting because they actually ended, and because the end involved negotiation with rather than extermination of the terrorists, what immediately interested me were the prospects for peace which emerged in the movement early on, more than 20 years prior to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. One of these events is the failed Sunningdale agreement of 1975, which in many ways is identical to the 1998 agreement, but which was brought down by a protestant/unionist general strike supported by paramilitaries. The other event is the 1969 split in the IRA between traditionalists who favoured a nationalist ideology and emphasized the need for armed struggle against the protestant occupiers of Northern Ireland, and the Marxist politics which developed in the IRA during the 1960s which emphasized the need to include the Protestant working class in a broader socialist project of a 32 county Irish Socialist Republic. However, it is quite difficult to get good information on the split, or on the “Official IRA” (OIRA) which, historically speaking, was much less militarily important than the “provisional IRA” (PIRA), later known simply as “the provos”, who carried on the nationalist terror campaign for 30 years, and which lives on in the still-at-war CIRA (continuity IRA) and RIRA (real IRA).
The Lost Revolution: The story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party is the first attempt to write a cohesive and comprehensive history of the Official IRA, it’s role in the early troubles, and its declining role from 1972 onward as the marxist republicans continually emphasized politics and reform over abstentionism and terror. It gives a view of the split altogether different from the story told by the Provisionals, contesting the standard story of 1969 which claims the IRA failed to protect Catholic communities. And it chronicles in a detail which frankly I can not appreciate (but which surely pleases those who know more than I about this history and all its personalities) the progression of “Official Sein Fein”, which became “Sein Fein: The Workers’ Party”, then later simply “The Worker’s Party”, and which eventually split into “The Workers’ Party” and “The Democratic Left“, the latter of which merged with the Labour party of Ireland in 1999. It also delineates the internal conflicts in the Official’s paramilitary wing, which itself split at numerous points when its members became unwilling to play a subservient, defensive and increasingly unrecognized role in the organisation. These splits resulted in formation of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in 1974, the “Official Republican Movement” (ORM) (1997). In fact, by the time of decommissioning (2009), the OIRA no longer existed and the arms caches belonging to the OIRA were completely under the control of ORM.
It is hard to ascribe a meta narrative to 600 pages of dense historical storytelling, but I think for me what this story is about is the imperfection and compromise involved in attempting to build a revolutionary, anti-fascist, and brought based leftist political movement. Perhaps what stands out most is the sheer emphasis on cooperation by the OIRA and various incarnations of Official Sein Fein, not only with protestant working class but even with protestant paramilitaries. In 1974 while the PIRA was at war with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA/UFF), OIRA had discussions with both organizations on social and economic issues. At one point, an OIRA member was actually published by UVF’s journal Combat under a pseudonym.
The OIRA/Workers’ Party story must be characterized overall as a story of failure, but that is not to say there are not successes in it, nor is it to say there is nothing to be learned in it. The books overall attitude to OIRA/The Worker’s Party is summed up, ironically enough, in a reflection written by a PIRA member and former prisoner, Anthony McIntyre:
…the seeming losers in those feuds – the Officials – must be sitting wryly observing that, body counts apart, they ultimately came out on top. We, who wanted to kill them – because they argued to go into Stormont, to remain on ceasefire, support the reform of the RUC, uphold the consent principle and dismiss as rejectionist others who disagreed with them – are now forced to pretend that somehow we are really different from them; that they were incorrigable reformists while we were incorruptible revolutionaries; that killing them had some major stategic rationale. And all the while the truth ‘sticks’ in our throats. They beat us to it – and started the peace process first.
It is undeniable that many positions, held by OIRA and the Worker’s Party in the 70s, those mentioned here probably being the most important, are now held by Sein Fein and have been since their acceptance of permanent ceasefire in 1998. What this shows, however, is that it is not enough to be “right” – being ahead of one’s time is no good unless you can help time catch up to where you are. If I can make one criticism of OIRA/The Worker’s Party after reading this account it is that their Marxist politics appears to have been a strongly limiting factor in mobilizing the protestant working class. Official links with Soviet Communism and support for the official Moscow line on international issues never got them the mass appeal they wanted. They may have been right about what was wrong with traditional republicanism – that it was sectarian, racist, and played into the hands of the bourgeois state – they failed to offer an alternative inspired enough to gain mass political support. Although the Workers’ Party changed many times in name, it never managed a populist transformation of the kind experienced by Sein Fein/PIRA with the success of the Hunger Strikes and its turn away from abstentionism straight into significant popular support. OIRA might have got it right earlier than the PIRA, but for whatever reason its right ideas failed to garner the popular support democratic movements need to make political dreams reality.