The Irish Left
Mick Hall •
For a Nation with a population less than that of London, Ireland to its credit has always had a historic, vibrant and rigorous left wing political culture, thus it is impossible to do justice to what constitutes the Irish Left of today in a single article. This piece is far from a complete bibliography and unlike many previous articles on the Left in Ireland, I have included the Irish Republican Movement. Whilst I accept this may not be to the liking of some readers, in my opinion not only do many Republican organizations deserve on merit to be within any serious analysis of the Irish Left, but I believe it would be nonsensical to exclude the Irish Republican Movement, not least because it has acted as the mid-wife to much of today’s Irish left. Republicanism has at times also managed, for a host of differing reasons, to divert some of the finest sons and daughters of the Irish working class into the cul-de-sac of nationalism.
Socialist Party [Páirtí Sóisialach]
After having spent decades working within the Irish Labour Party, where it was known like its UK counterpart as the Militant Tendency, the Irish section of the CWI eventually emerged in 1996 as an independent entity, having taken an ‘open turn’ and declared itself the Socialist Party. Whether this occurred due to a desire by the organization’s membership to place its core political beliefs openly before the electorate, or whether it jumped before its entire membership were expelled from the ILP is still debated amongst the aficionados of the left who endlessly ponder such things. The SP is affiliated internationally to the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is a Trotskyite organization whose main aim is to recreate the Fourth International, which Trotsky and a small number of comrades founded just prior to WW2 to replace the Comintern as the International arm of the revolutionary communist proletariat.
The SP recently suffered a defeat when the electorate failed to return Joe Higgins, its single TD in the Dáil, [elected House of the Oireachtas or Irish Parliament] the party has four local Councillors, three of whom represent Dublin wards and the fourth a ward in Cork City.
The Party’s most prominent member is former TD Joe Higgins, who until the 2007 General Election ably represented the constituency of Dublin West in the Dáil and is a highly respected politician. The fact that when in office he only drew the average wage of a skilled worker has set an example and benchmark which will be increasingly difficult for Left wing Parliamentarians to ignore in the future and rightly so. [Sinn Fein’s parliamentarians and elected officials draw a similar salary.]
Like the Militant Tendency in the UK, which played a major role in the 1980’s anti poll tax campaign against the Thatcher government, the Irish SP has been at the forefront of the struggle against water charging and within the Anti-Bin Tax Campaign. A number of their leading militants have been imprisoned for these activities. Its members are also very active within the Trade Unions, both in the RoI and in the north of Ireland.
The SP publishes a newspaper called The Socialist (formerly Socialist Voice, The Voice, and Militant) and a theoretical journal called Socialist View (formerly Socialism 2000).
The Communist Party of Ireland [Páirtí Cumannach na hÉireann]
The CPI is a small all-Ireland Party. Its roots lay in James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party which was revived in 1909 with the new name Socialist Party of Ireland (see also the Irish Labour Party), only for it to have metamorphosed by 1921 into the Communist Party of Ireland upon its affiliation to the Third International or Comintern, as it became better known. The party dissolved in 1924, but was refounded in 1933. In 1941 the party divided into two, the Irish Workers’ Party that organized in the southern State and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland, the two parties reunited in 1970 becoming the CPI once again.
The CPI was one of the countless Communist parties around the world, which burst forth after the Russian October Revolution of 1917, when revolutionaries, with Lenin at the helm, realized the Bolshevik regime was unlikely to survive as a revolutionary government without revolutionary power being seized within the major Capitalist Nations. Thus, the Third International was formed to provide a General Staff for the international revolutionary movement.
Throughout its existence the CPI had been closely linked with the CPGB and it suffered the backwash when that party imploded due to internal antagonism which had little to do with the fall of the Berlin wall and every thing to do with the failure of communists within the UK to map out a viable role for the party after the crimes of Stalinism became self evident to millions of working class people throughout the world. The plug was finally pulled on the British party when the mini CPGB bureaucrats in London aped the majority of their Stalinist counterparts in the USSR, who had refused to defend their own party, preferring instead to engage in a feeding frenzy of party assets.
Today, like its current fraternal organization in the UK the Communist Party of Britain, the CPI has a declining and ever-aging membership, even so its members are still active in the anti war movement, trade unions and other progressive non party organizations.
The party was at its most influential during the period of the Spanish Civil War, when almost all of those who went to Spain from Ireland to fight Franco’s fascist as members of the International Brigades, either came from within the CPI ranks or were channeled to Spain via the Party and the Comintern. In the 1960-70s its senior cadre’s were ‘influential’ within the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Campaign and secretly Óglaigh Na hÉireann, and later, when the latter split, the Official IRA.
The CPI Belfast branch produces a weekly newspaper called Unity, while the Dublin branch has a monthly publication called Socialist Voice. The CPI operates a bookshop in Dublin known as Connolly Books and also publishes works by James Connolly and other socialist writers.
After the IRA’s Border Campaign of the 1950s ended without success and with very little to show for the sacrifices made, the Irish Republican Movement took a turn not dissimilar to that which the Provisional Republican Movement has gone through in the last decade or so, in that it entailed a move away from military activity. Unfortunately an unforeseen outcome of such a change in strategy was that when public unrest in the north of Ireland spilled onto the streets in the late 1960s, the IRA was in no position to defend militarily the most exposed working class nationalist communities, especially those within north Belfast. Thus the Movement split into two factions. Those who split away became the Provisional IRA and the group who remained gradually became known as the Official IRA/Official SF. A number of leftist political organizations were in time to emerge from this split, and they have continued to shape a section of the Irish left right up to the present day.
Irish Republican Socialist Party
The Erps, as they became known on the street, were to experience the most bloody of internal conflagrations, yet despite this, in recent years the party has managed to stabilize and democratize its leadership and internal structures. Whilst still small, in some areas of the north it is gradually becoming a force to be reckoned with as its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement has been solid and based on firm left-republican principles.
The party was founded in 1974 by ex-members of the Official IRA, independent socialists such as the former MP Bernadette [Devlin] McAliskey, and trade unionists. Its first leader was the charismatic Seamus Costello, who had been expelled from SF and court martialed from the OIRA in which he was a senior officer. Costello had been dismissed due to differences over the 1972 OIRA ceasefire and the political direction the majority leadership within the OIRM were taking the movement in. On the day the IRSP was established, a military organization, the INLA was also brought into being with Seamus Costello acting as Chief of Staff.
Shortly after its foundation a bloody feud broke out between the new organization and the Official Republican Movement who attempted to literally kill the new organization off at birth and was almost successful when the new organizations leader Seamus Costello was murdered by an OIRA volunteer.
It has really only been in the recent past that the IRSP current leadership have managed to recover from the loss of Costello and other leading militants like Ta Power, who lost their lives some what later after the Erps descended into internal warfare to settle what were often personal, not political differences. What role the British security services and their agents/informers played in this bloodletting is still not clear, but few doubt they helped stir the brew.
Members of the INLA were active within the prison protests and three of their volunteers lost their lives in the heroic Maze Prison Hunger Strike of 1981; they were Patsy O’Hara, Kevin Lynch, and Michael Devine. Today’s leadership of the IRSP seem determined to learn the lessons from the past, and never again turn political differences with fellow Republicans into violent confrontations and it is to their credit, despite at times being provoked by SF, that they have never returned to the old ways.
THE WORKERS PARTY. [Páirtí na nOibri]
The Workers Party is the direct offspring of the Official Republican Movement, only that Mum and Dad too came as part of the package. They have had some electoral success, mainly in the South during the 1980’s, at one time holding seven parliamentary seats in Dáil Éireann and one [MEP] in the European Parliament; who joined the Left Unity EU grouping.
However in 1992 all but one of its parliamentarians split to form what briefly became the Democratic Left, the members of which hardly paused for breath on their journey to the right, merging with the Irish Labour Party in 1999 [A member of this faction, Pat Rabbitte, now leads the Irish Labour Party]. A small rump remained as the WP and are currently led by Sean Garland, who has a history of political activity going back over 50 years to the IRAs 1950’s border campaign. The Police Service of Northern Ireland recently arrested him on an extradition warrant issued by the US government on a charge centering on counterfeit US currency. The U.S. government alleges that Garland conspired with the North Korean government to import counterfeit $100 bills into the USA. He is currently out on bail.
SF/PRM is yet another organization, which emerged from the split within the Republican movement in 1969, and without a doubt SF and its military wing, have had some of Ireland’s finest working class militants within its ranks. Few revolutionary militants anywhere in the world have shown the steadfastness in adversity of these comrades.
The Provo’s started life in 1969 as a revolt against the leftward turn within the Republican Movement, however by the 1980s it had itself taken a left turn. This was mainly due to the massive influx throughout the 1970’s of young working class men and women into the organization, many of who were able to study Marxism and other socialist and progressive texts whilst in prison. Gradually they became not only the backbone of the movement but formed the overwhelming majority of its social makeup. Today, SF’s program would be recognizable to almost any member of a Left wing reformist political party and its two members who sit in the EU Parliament are affiliated with the European United Left–Nordic Green Left grouping.
Its leadership, under Gerry Adams’ limpet like hold, acts pragmatically, thus it is prone to drifts politically, often in the direction of whatever is the strongest political current of the day. Internally, the Adams clique behaves in the most undemocratic manner, using sleight of hand politics, lies and deceit to get its way and maintain its domination of the Party, which these days more often than not coincides with the wishes of the UK government. In the last decade the party has lost many of its best militants and is not attracting young working class people in anywhere near the same numbers as it did in the past. Indeed these days SF is just as likely to attract ambitious members of the middle classes to its ranks, which speaks volumes about its political direction. Two main conclusions can be drawn from the current predicament of SF. Firstly, soldiers more often than not make poor politicians. Secondly, working class anger alone is not sufficient as the foundation stones for a revolutionary or even left reformist party.
Éirígí is a comparatively new Dublin based left-Republican-Socialist organization, founded by former members of SF in the south, who broke away due to SF’s drift to the Right and acceptance of British rule in the north. Its mission statement is clear and precise so I repeat it as it allows one to get a handle on the organization’s politics.
“We in éirígí believe that poverty, exclusion and conflict, both in Ireland and internationally, are caused primarily by the joint system of capitalism and imperialism. This system, which is based upon the exploitation of the majority by a minority, will never allow the bulk of humanity to fulfill its potential. It is only by replacing this system with one based upon co-operation rather than exploitation that true human freedom can be achieved. A Democratic Socialist Republic would be such a system. In the Irish context the continuing British occupation of a part of the national territory is a clear manifestation of imperialism. Éirígí views the ending of this occupation as integral to the establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic.”
The Socialist Workers Party
The SWP in Ireland is the fraternal party of the UK party of the same name; it was formed in 1995 out of the Socialist Workers Movement in Ireland, which was founded in 1971 and whose members had previously been active within Peoples Democracy in the northern state-let, and various other leftist political groups in the RoI and England. It follows closely the workings of the larger SWP across the Irish Sea, and like it has formed a number of what in reality amount to Front Organizations, such as the Socialist Environmental Alliance [SEA], which it uses as an electoral platform in Derry. SWP members are also active in the campaigns of the Anti War Movement on both sides of the border.
It’s best known personality is the Derry journalist Eamonn McCann, a regular columnist on the Belfast Telegraph and other publications north and south. McCann has been the SEA candidate in Derry in numerous elections, often gaining a respectable number of votes. Although at the recent election for the Stormont Assembly, the SEA was unable to reach an agreement with the Republican left, who stood the dead Hunger Striker Patsy O’Hara’s mother Peggy as an Independent candidate in Foyle. It was a great pity that the comrades within the SEA and Peggy O’Hara campaigns were unable to reach some sort of arrangement that entailed one of the candidates withdrawing and the two campaigns uniting around a single candidate. As it was, they jointly polled 3834 votes, which meant had the two groupings come to a compromise their candidate, whether it was Eamonn or Peggy, would have been elected.
Small Groups, the SDLP, and the Irish Labour Party
Finally there are a number of small groups on the Irish left that I have not mentioned due to space and due to there lack of any real support base. Amongst them would be Socialist Democracy, another Trotskyite current, which also claims allegiance to the 4th International. Two ultra Stalinist group-lets fall into this category too. Some of the aforementioned could be described as mere appendages of similar groups within England, their political platforms are identical and they look across the Irish Sea for leadership advice. There is also a sprinkling of anarchist groups, however the commonality amongst all of these groups is whilst they may have a small cadre of committed activists, their level of public support in reality could be measured on a pinhead.
The Irish Labour Party like the British Labour Party has moved so far to the right in recent years I do not feel it warrants a mention as being on the Left. In the north, the SDLP, the main party of choice for northern nationalists throughout the Troubles, has now conceded this position to SF. Many members of the SDLP now look longingly across the border at Fianna Fail, in the hope that with the new situation it will organize in the north of Ireland, in the process offering the SDLP the opportunity of a merger and a new lease of life. That members of the SDLP would even consider an arrangement with Fianna Fail, a party that reeks of Tammany Hall style politics, highlights the political degeneration of their Party in recent years.
Non-Aligned Left-Republican and Socialists
If they could only come together under a single umbrella, this group of non-aligned left-republicans and socialists would make up one of the largest faction on the Irish left and they would have considerable potential, not least as a lightening rod, which could attract left-Dissidents from right across the island of Ireland. Some are people who first came to politics via one of the Trotskyite groups, ILP and CPI, but left these organizations in disillusionment. A good many are former members of the Provisional Republican Movement, which from 1986 onwards has been hemorrhaging many of its best left-wing militants, a process that first began in the Cages of the Long Kesh and then spread across the whole movement and is continuing to this day. This is an on going process as Adams, to stay in the game, seems determined to make almost any compromise the British State demands of him. Thus unless there is a change in SFs leadership, the time will come when there will be no viable reason why anyone who claims to be a socialist would remain within SF. The internal affairs of SF in recent times have all but mirrored within an Irish context that of the UK Labour Party under New Labour. The tragedy is that unless there is a re-grouping of the Irish left within a loosely affiliated United Front type organization, the only place these former members of SF will be going is home, much as previous generations of disillusioned left-republicans have done before them.
1. First published in Marxist Voice
2. Additional information for this article came from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and the various parties own web sites.