Review of “The Lost Revolution: The Official IRA and The Workers’ Party”

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.

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4 thoughts on “Review of “The Lost Revolution: The Official IRA and The Workers’ Party”

  1. One point I think is worthwhile to add: given the way the Workers’ Party attempted continually during the 80s and 90s to separate itself not only from allegations of contemporary involvement with paramilitary activity and the continued existence of the OIRA, but from the history of the OIRA and the role paramilitarism played in official republicanism in the 1970s, it’s actually quite understandable how the Provos have been able to dominate the narrative of the troubles. While in reality the OIRA and PIRA might have played equally important defensive roles in Catholic communities up to the 1975 “Pogrom” (a coordinated PIRA attack on as many of 25 separate members of the OIRA), the OIRA/Workers’ Party has had no interested in disputing the Provos’ narrative – since they haven’t had any interest in telling the narrative of the OIRA at all. Every documentary I’ve seen has been dominated by interviews with Provos – I’m not sure I’ve actually seen a single interview with a former OIRA militant from that period (early/mid 1970s) as part of any popular histories of the troubles.

  2. The domination of narrative and history remembered is an interesting one but for example, the officials called their ceasefire in may 1972, just a few months after bloody Sunday. In addition to the hunger strikes a decade later, it could be said this made the narrative somewhat easy for the Provos to write. The officials may have had legitimacy but, as you say, never the popular support garnered by events such as these to dominate the storytelling skyline.

    It’s very easy to overemphasise Bloody Sunday but it is the first chapter in the contemporary collective memory of the nationalist population and the storyline flows from there, with the Proves as protagonist and the Officials a voice lost in the gunfire.

    Anthony McIntyre hits the nail on the head but as Seamus Mallon said, the Good Friday Agreement was “Sunningdale for slow learners.”

    The Troubles a history of slow learners? I think not.

  3. I get the impression that the most important way the Provos dominate the storyline is not in terms of their actions in the early and mid 70s, but in terms of how those actions are represented as time goes on. While the OIRA fades into obscurity, although not nothing, while it is known (or rather, not known) as “Group B” in the 80s – a small armed group of a large working class party trying to avoid any public association with “acts of terrorism” (WP’s words, not mine). Therefore, whereas Sinn Fein and the PIRA continue to reproduce their violent history as the storyline they put forward, which comes to include the “IRA – I ran away” critique of the pre-split IRA, Sinn Fein the Workers Party/The Workers Party did not do anything to dispute that history because their interest was in concealing as much as possible the historical existence of the OIRA.

    The result is, it’s quite hard actually to know now what the relative popularity of the OIRA was in the early 70s – the narratives get shaped by the stories people who desire to speak and are publicized actually tell, which is why I think this book is pretty important at trying to unearth an other perspective on events, one which is able to disclose many things rigorously kept secret at the time.

  4. This intrigues me. Must read the book. I must get my hands on Joe Cahill’s book again to see how he reports the split.

    Just a little light hearted anecdote. When I was in school, post assembly elections in 2003 if I remember correctly, a legandary teacher of ours said something along the lines of this of the Worker’s Party’s electoral slogan and performance in Belfast, “It can’t work without the Worker’s Party? 261 votes. Brilliant.”

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