Matt Treacy traces the rightward lurch of Sinn Fein.
At a time when republicanism seems to become detached from its historical and ideological moorings, it is perhaps timely to hark back to what used to constitute radical republicanism. Particularly when people like Jarlath Kearney, brother of leading Sinn Féin ideologue and Chairperson/Secretary Declan, is claiming that Ireland being unified “need not mean any change in constitutional or sovereignty realities.” (Irish News, October 31, 2018.) Christ on a bike. Republicans died and killed others in pursuit of exactly that objective.
The recent Presidential election in the south again proved that Sinn Féin has long since jettisoned any pretence at being radical in a social and economic sense. “Social” has come to mean identity politics and issues such as abortion rather than anything to do with how society and its productive base are run in the interests of its people.
Socialism even as a soundbite no longer features in the new Sinn Féin lexicon, and seems to mean all sorts of strange things for those who do use it. I was once witness to the bizarre sight of a chap clad in a Che tee shirt telling a meeting of Sinn Féin staffers that lowering the corporation tax rate in the north was part of the “equality agenda.” When I asked why then would the Sinn Féin ministers in the Stormont Executive not argue for it to be increased to the same rate as in the south I was greeted by a few glares, some titters from other malcontents but mostly, incomprehension.
While the abandonment of socialist slogans is understandable given the collapse of state socialism as an economic system, the shinners have thrown out the baby of radical republicanism with the bath water of ill digested Marxism for Dummies. As did their predecessors in the social democratic wing of the Officials.
A good example of that is the manner in which the social and economic programme of the movement was replaced in the 1960s by a mish mash of Stalinism and constitutionalism that split the movement in 1969 and has led through various winding paths to the creation of yet another partitionist vaguely left of centre liberal party. Just in case we might run out of them.
The economic and social programme of the movement in the 1960s eventually saw the light of day as Éire Nua. It remained the centrepiece of the political programme of the “foundational Provos” until set aside by Gerry Adams and his allies as being too conciliatory to unionism. That was a reference to the proposal for a federal Republic that would have included the nine counties of Ulster as one of four regional administrations based on decentralised local and community councils.
Ironically those who dismissed it as repartition have now placed all their eggs in the basket of Catholics outbreeding Protestants and thus allegedly laying the basis for a successful future border poll. Maybe in 2050 according to one Dublin councillor. In the meantime they are content to recognise unreconstructed partition and take part in Stormont which the IRA brought down in 1972. Even under the sectarian rubric of there being more Taigs than Prods a nine county Ulster would theoretically have had a pro unity majority years ago. Those opposed to Éire Nua also claimed that its social and economic programme was reactionary, and even “petit-bourgeois” for those who had imbibed the Readers Digest summary of Marxism. A dialectic which has led them to cunningly support Tory cuts in the north and having a corporation friendly tax policy.
The origins of Éire Nua and its having been set aside by our aspirant Gramscis, on not one but two occasions, are worth exploring. It provides not only a plausible path to resolving Partition, but its radical proposals for economic democracy and co-operativism and decentralised administration still offer an alternative to the totalising tendencies of statist socialism and the power of global corporations. And at the risk of being “Hiberno-centric” the ideas which Éire Nua contains also have relevance to the world beyond Irish shores.
The direct antecedent of Éire Nua was the republican programme drafted by IRA internees including Seamus Ó Mongáin in the Curragh during World War II. Its authors referenced it to what was claimed to have been the basis for pre Conquest Gaelic society, embodied in the concept of Comhar na gComharsán, the co-operation of neighbours. That was redefined in contemporary terms as a rejection of both capitalism and statism and the division of land and the establishment of co-operatives to “establish the wage earners of the towns and cities as owner-workers of the shops, factories and industries.” Political power would devolve upwards from 300 decentralised local councils (United Irishman, May 1948.)
An attempt was made to reinvigorate these ideas in the aftermath of the 1956-1962 IRA campaign. According to Seán Ó Bradaigh the draft which he and others worked on was to be discussed at the 1964 Ard Fheis but was set aside as Roy Johnson was given a major role in the formation of policy. Johnson had joined the IRA while still a member of the Irish Workers Party, the southern section of the Communist Party of Ireland. Another member who was a leading influence on Cathal Goulding was Anthony Coughlan. I deal with this in more detail in my books Rethinking the Republic (Manchester 2011) and The Communist Party of Ireland (Dublin 2012.) Ó Bradaigh and Tom Mitchell proposed that Coughlan be excluded from the Education Department in January 1966 because of his membership of the IWP/CP.
Johnson astutely referenced Comhar na gComharsán in his proposals as the real objective was not for the time being to change the social and economic programme of the movement, but to lay the basis for its absorption into the same organisation as the Communists, what was to become known as the National Liberation Front. Elements of the Labour Party were also seen as potential allies and members of the Wolfe Tone Society, which was a sort of ginger group for the planned alliance, campaigned for Michael O’Leary in his election as a Labour TD in 1965.
As the moves towards a merger with the Communists moved forward, a proposal in favour of this and to drop abstentionism at the 1968 IRA Convention had to be toned down in the face of opposition but Goulding and his allies circumvented the traditionalists through expulsions and referring measures they failed to get passed to committees on to which Goulding could appoint a majority. Far from the new “left” course propelling the movement forward, the number of cumainn with delegates at the 1968 Ard Fheis had fallen to 64 from 265 in 1966.
That still represented a prize worth attaining for the Communists whose membership in the 26 counties was less than 100. Seán Ó Bradaigh said that the reworking of the proposed social and economic programme set aside in 1965 became the alternative to the NLF strategy and formed the basis for Éire Nua published by the Provos in 1971 after the split.
The split was caused, as a statement from the first Provisional Executive of Sinn Féin said; by a combination of the recognition of partition and the infiltration by members of Communist organisations which had promoted totalitarian socialism and the disastrous strategy exposed by the violent state and loyalist reaction to the civil rights movement.
Interestingly, a 1982 Sinn Féin education department pamphlet on the split does not refer to the opposition to the Communists, and accepts that some of the “foundational Provos” were indeed the “apolitical militarists” depicted by their opponents. There has been an increasing tendency by Sinn Féin to rewrite history to the absurd extent that some leading members claim that the IRA campaign was fought to secure the demands of the civil rights campaign, reform within Northern Ireland. Everyone else thought it was for the establishment of a 32 county Republic.
Such is of course necessary in order to justify the de facto acceptance of Partition. Their former tirades against Éire Nua as “right wing” and a “sop to unionism” stand in stark contrast to their own embrace of the ultra centralist European Union, foreign capital and of course running the north on behalf of the Tories.
So perhaps it is time to revisit the ideas of radical republicanism as set out in Éire Nua, as I shall attempt to do in further contributions.