Diarmuid Breatnach

Nov. 2012, revised slightly January 2014

(also available in translation into Spanish)


The question of how a nation defeats a stronger colonial or imperialist power which has invaded it is one that has occupied the minds of many revolutionaries – principally those of democratic patriots (in Ireland, read “Republicans”) and socialists. The history of the World shows some victories in this kind of struggle, such as that of the Vietnamese against the USA. It shows however many partial victories too, in which the colonial power was forced to withdraw but where the new rulers of the country gave up the independence within their grasp and became clients of the former colonial power or of a new imperialistic one. The history of both the struggles for socialism and for national liberation, separate but linked in a number of ways, have provided us with many examples from which to draw general lessons which should be applicable to struggles of a similar nature in the past, present and future.


The Vietnamese nearly had the French colonialists beaten when they were invaded by the Japanese who, as they lost the Second World War, handed half of it back to the French, who then had to relinquish it to the USA, who emerged from the War as the main imperialist superpower.

Vietnamese guerrillas -- the guerilla forces and the North Vietnamese Army together defeated the huge superpower the USA
Vietnamese guerrillas — the guerilla forces and the North Vietnamese Army together defeated the huge superpower the USA

The Vietnamese, in a country smaller than the size of the US State of Virginia, then took up the fight against the USA and fought them for twenty years, endured terrific damage and ultimately beat them. The USA had the best-armed force in the world, with the most powerful economy and constantly developing technology, with a huge population from which to draw soldiers and with a huge war budget. Yet the Vietnamese beat them.

Vietnamese liberation forces tank crashes through the gates of the US Embassy in Saigon as liberation forces take the city from the US puppet regime after US forces left
Vietnamese liberation forces tank crashes through the gates of the US Embassy in Saigon as liberation forces take the city from the US puppet regime after US armed forces were forced to withdraw.

Of course they were fighting for their homeland, of course they were courageous, clever and adaptable. But those qualities alone might not have been enough. They had some other favourable factors. They had already liberated half their country – “North Vietnam” — and the USA could not invade that country without risking China and even the USSR coming into direct confrontation with them. That part of their country remained for many years a safe rearguard area for the Vietnamese guerilla fighters of the Viet Cong and for the regular fighters of the North Vietnamese Army, from which they could be supplied with arms and other items.

The Vietnamese also had the support of the Laotian regime and of strong anti-imperialist forces in Cambodia, which provided alternative supply and escape routes for Vietnamese fighters.

In international alliance, the Vietnamese had the People’s Republic of China, which supplied them arms and equipment. In international politics, the whole of the world’s anti-imperialist forces supported them, isolating the USA politically. That fact, allied to the mortality rate of US soldiers, along with the rising radicalisation of youth, created a powerful anti-imperialist-war movement inside the USA itself which also played a part in undermining the morale of US military personnel in Vietnam.

A powerful movement of opposition to the Vietnam War within the USA itself
A powerful movement of opposition to the Vietnam War within the USA itself

The terrain of Vietnam is mountainous with valleys and plains, covered with jungle and bamboo groves or with elephant grass higher than a man. It hid guerrillas and regular army units very well.

And crucially, perhaps, the US monopoly capitalists could afford to lose “South Vietnam” – it wasn’t integral to their territory or on their border or even in their “backyard” (as they tend to think of Latin America). Losing it cost them face, a big deal for the world’s superpower, and morale at home. Their ruling class was determined not to lose and they fought very hard to win but as their political and personnel casualties mounted so high, another section wanted to cut it loose. That’s the political reason for “Watergate” and the impeachment of President Nixon.


Ireland is no longer forested and is much more urbanised than is Vietnam; it has no friendly liberated zone (the 26 Counties or “Republic” state is hostile to any anti-imperialist movement within the country), nor does it have neighbouring states willing to assist it or at least to turn a blind eye to its territory being used in assistance. It does not now have a good supplier of weaponry (which it only really had briefly in the Libya of the late Ghadaffi). In addition, not only is Ireland in Britain’s “back yard” but it seems as though the island itself is considered as integral to the “United Kingdom”, which is the base of the British monopoly capitalists.

But there have been and are other factors which an Irish anti-imperialist movement can use to its advantage which will be examined here in the context of the anti-imperialist struggles within the country during the last century.

It would be worthwhile first to take a look at a brief summary of the history of Ireland’s struggles against colonialism and imperialism but in case the reader should already be familiar with this history, it is included as an Appendix.

What were the options of the Irish national liberation forces at various points during the last century?

It is always easier to pass judgement on the actors and actions of the past – hindsight has 20/20 vision, as the cliché says – but it is necessary to do so nevertheless, in order to allow lessons of the past to inform our actions in the present and in the future. It is the options that were available to the revolutionary forces and the choices made in the Insurrection of 1916, and the guerrilla wars of 1919 and 1971 that are being examined here, along with their consequences.

The options of the Republican movement at three historical junctures will be examined:

  • the 1916 Rising

  • the guerilla War of Independence 1919-1921

  • the 30 Years’ War 1971-1998

The 1916 Easter Rising

In 1914 the first great imperialist World War had begun and by 1915 the scale of the slaughter was huge. Revolutionary socialists (as opposed to the social-democratic parties who had opted to support their own national bourgeoisies) wanted insurrection in order to stop the slaughter and also as an opportunity for socialist revolution– among these were James Connolly and the Irish Socialist Republican Party, who placed on top of their trade union building a large banner reading: NEITHER KING NOR KAISER! It was also one year after the Irish Transport & General Workers’ union, a recent breakaway from a British-based trade union, had survived an eight-month struggle in which the Dublin employers tried to break it. In the course of that struggle, the union had founded its own militia – the Citizen Army—to defend themselves from the attacks of the police and the organisation continued to exist after the lockout was over.

Revolutionary national democrats, i.e. Republicans, also saw the opportunity to fight for freedom while the colonialist-imperialist occupier was fighting other imperialist powers. They also thought that those countries which had won their independence or at least strongly demonstrated their wish for national independence would have their right to self-determination recognised by the victorious Powers after the war.

Constitutional nationalists, on the other hand, for the most part scrambled to show their loyalty to their colonial masters and, in the case of Ireland, recruited their fellow countrymen to join the slaughter on the battle-fields.

In Ireland, the secret revolutionary society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the open organisations of the Irish Volunteers (the leadership of which they controlled after splitting with the National Volunteers, many of which joined the British Army) along with the Republican women’s and youth organisations of Cumann na mBan and na Fianna Éireann, joined forces with the trade union and socialist Citizen Army (“the first Red Army in Europe”, allegedly according to Lenin) in an insurrection against British rule. It chiefly took place in Dublin in 1916 and lasted a week. After the insurrectionists surrendered to vastly superior British forces, most were sent to concentration camps, along with many others who had been swept up and interned without trial and most of the leaders were shot by firing squads.

Planning for the Rising

There were a number of elements in the plan for the uprising which are important to consider. The insurrection had been planned in secret not only from the authorities but also from some of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers including its commandant. It was intended to be a country-wide uprising. It was intended to be supplied with large amounts of arms from Imperial Germany, then at war with the British Empire.

The first part of the plan to fail was the failure, due to a change in unloading destination, to meet the German ship and bring the guns ashore and the ship’s subsequent discovery by the British, resulting in the capture of the crew (after they had scuttled the ship) and of Roger Casement, the Irish Volunteers agent who had travelled with them. The second part to go astray was the internal secrecy and when the commandant of the Irish Volunteers learned of the planned rising, along with the failure to land the guns, he canceled the order for the parades and exercises scheduled for Easter Sunday – the code description for the insurrectionary mobilisation. The Rising went ahead on Easter Monday instead, but with only about a thousand men and women mobilised in Dublin, much smaller forces in Meath, Galway and in Wexford and with no communication between the various local forces except by courier, a process taking days.

In Dublin the forces were stretched thin and failed to take some arguably important buildings, including the fortified Dublin Castle, seat of the colonial control of Ireland since the Norman invasion (which also had two of the top British officials in Ireland inside), and Trinity College, which supplied some of the canon used by the British to level buildings and from the roof of which British Army snipers were able to harass the insurgents, killing some of them (apparently taking this large building had not been part of the original plan).

The original plan for the uprising has been examined by a number of authorities – including some from a military background – and debated backwards and forwards. However, a mobilisation which can be cancelled or severely hampered by one person and that person not being part of the plan but who must be expected to learn of it is a monumental weakness. If such an arrangement is to be contemplated, one must at least put in a ‘Plan B’ in case that person attempts to disrupt the mobilisation, a plan which would include lines of speedy communication between the various units it is intended to mobilise.

Arguably another weakness in the plan was that the river Liffey had not been blocked (e.g. by sinking ships in it), which allowed a British gunboat to travel upriver and shell the city. It is said that James Connolly, commandant of the Citizen Army, had thought that the British would not destroy capitalist property. This was not ultimately a crucial factor as the British used other canons to bombard Dublin — but it could have been.

There appears to have been no plans laid for destruction of bridges or railway lines, perhaps because these were intended in the original plan for the mobilisation and communications of the insurgents.

Could it have succeeded?

But even had the plan contained these elements and the full mobilisation had gone ahead, how likely is it that the Rising would have succeeded? Ireland is an island but the British had naval superiority, allowing them to land troops anywhere they wished. It is true they were engaged in a war with other imperial powers and that they had committed most of their armed forces to that struggle. But was it likely that they would be prepared to sacrifice a possession so close to their heartland, a part of their United Kingdom indeed, and also so close to them on their western flank? Would they not sooner risk a possession further afield?

O'Connell St (then Sackvill St) from the Bridge looking north-eastwards. Destruction by bombardment of a major UK city shows determination of the British to crush the Rising.
O’Connell St (then Sackvill St) from the Bridge looking north-eastwards. Destruction by bombardment of a major UK city (which it was then) shows determination of the British to crush the Rising.

The likelihood is that, in the event of a successful uprising across most of the land, the British would have responded by landing forces at various parts of the country and, after fierce fighting no doubt, taken any insurgent-held cities. They would have been successful because they had superior training, numbers, armaments, air and naval power (of which the insurgents had none) and because they would have been fighting a largely conventional war in which those elements would be crucial. Subsequently they would have moved from those cities to defeat the detachments still active in the surrounding countryside. They would have been assisted in these operations by those units of their armed forces and police stationed in the country but which had not been captured by the insurgents, and by the Loyalist militia (which was substantial) in some of the northern counties. British control of the seas would have prevented any substantial help arriving for the Irish insurgents from abroad.

The cost to the British would have been substantial: in advantage taken by their enemies in time of war, in political consequences and perhaps in morale among their own troops. But who can doubt that they would have risked all that? Even if they were only to take the Irish cities and hold the loyal northern counties until after the War, they could then deal with the remaining insurgents at greater leisure.

What actually occurred, as we know, was that the Rising was put down in a week, martial law was declared, leaders executed and countrywide raids, arrests and internment without trial followed.

The War of Independence 1919-1921 and retreat from stated objectives

Three years later, the nationalist revolutionaries returned to the armed struggle, this time without a workers’ militia or an effective socialist leadership as allies, and began a political struggle which was combined a little later with a rural guerilla war which soon spread into some urban areas (particularly the cities of Dublin and Cork). The political struggle mobilised thousands and also resulted in the majority of those elected in Ireland during the General Election (in the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was part) being of their party.

The struggle in Ireland and the British response to it was generating much interest and critical comment around the world and even in political and intellectual and artistic circles within Britain itself. In addition, many nationalist and socialist revolutionaries around the world were drawing inspiration from that fierce anti-colonial struggle so near to England, within the United Kingdom itself.

The dismantling by the nationalist forces, by threats and by armed action, of much of the control network of the colonial police force, which consequently dismantled much of their counter-insurgency intelligence service, led the British to set up two new special armed police forces to counter the Irish insurgency. Both these forces gained a very bad reputation not only among the nationalists but also among many British loyalists. The special paramilitary police forces resorted more and more to torture, murder and arson but nevertheless, in some areas of Ireland such as Dublin, Kerry and Cork, they had to be reinforced by British soldiers as they were largely not able to deal effectively with the insurgents, who were growing more resolute, experienced and confident with each passing week.

However, two years after the beginning of the guerilla war, a majority of the Irish political leadership of the nationalist revolutionary movement settled for the partition of their country with Irish independence for one part of it within the British Commonwealth.

Much discussion has taken part around the events that led to this development. We are told that British Prime Minister Lloyd George blackmailed the negotiating delegation with threats of “immediate and terrible war” if they did not agree to the terms. The delegation were forced to answer without being allowed to consult their comrades at home. Some say that the President of the nationalist political party, De Valera, sent an allegedly inexperienced politically Michael Collins to the negotiations, knowing that he would end up accepting a bad deal from which De Valera could then distance himself. Michael Collins, in charge of supplying the guerrillas with arms, stated afterwards that he had only a few rounds of ammunition left to supply each fighter and that the IRA, the guerrilla army, could not fight the war Lloyd George threatened. He also said that the deal would be a stepping stone towards the full independence of a united Ireland in the near future. None of those reasons appear convincing to me.

How could the leadership of a movement at the height of their successes cave in like that? Of course, the British were threatening a worse war, but they had made threats before and the Irish had met them without fear. If the IRA were truly in a difficult situation with regard to ammunition (and I’m not sure that there is any evidence for that apart from Collins’ own statement), that would be a valid reason for a reduction in their military operations, not for accepting a deal far short of what they had fought for. The IRA was, after all, a volunteer guerrilla army, much of it of a part-time nature. It could be withdrawn from offensive operations and most of the fighters could melt back into the population or, if necessary, go “on the run”.

If the military supply situation of the Irish nationalists was indeed dire in the face of the superior arms and military experience of Britain, was that the only factor to be taken into account? An army needs more than arms and experience in order to wage war – there are other factors which affect its ability and effectiveness.

The precariousness of the British situation

In 1919, at the end of the War, the British, although on the victorious side, were in a precarious position. During the war itself there had been a serious mutiny in the army (during which NCOs and officers had been killed by privates) and as the soldiers were demobbed into civilian life and into their old social conditions there was widespread dissatisfaction. Industrial strikes had been forbidden during the War (although some had taken place nonetheless) and a virtual strike movement was now under way.

In 1918 and again in 1919, police went on strike in Britain. Also during 1919, the railway workers went on strike and so did others in a wave that had been building up since the previous year. In 1918 strikes had already cost 6 million working days. This increased to nearly 35 million in 1919, with a daily average of 100,000 workers on strike. Glasgow in 1921 saw a strike with a picket of 60,000 and pitched battles with the police. The local unit of the British Army was detained in barracks by its officers and units from further away were sent in with machine guns, a howitzer and tanks.

James Wolfe in his work Mutiny in United States and British Armed forces in the Twentieth Century ( includes the following chapter headings:

Workers pass an overturned tram in London during the 1926 British General Strike. In general, goods travelled through Britain with authorisation from the workers or under police and troop protection.
Workers pass an overturned tram in London during the 1926 British General Strike. In much of the country no transport operated unless authorised by the local trade union council or under police and army escort.

4.2 The Army Mutinies of January/February 1919 
4.3 The Val de Lievre Mutiny 
4.4 Three Royal Air Force Mutinies January 1919 
4.5 Mutiny in the Royal Marines – Russia, 
February to June 1919 
4.6 Naval Mutinies of 1919 
4.7 Demobilization Riots 1918/1919 
4.8 The Kinmel Park Camp Riots 1919 
4.9 No “Land Fit For Heroes” – the Ex-servicemen’s Riot in Luton
4 4.10 Ongoing Unrest – Mid-1919 to Year’s End 

 The British Government feared their police force would be insufficient against the British workers and was concerned about the reliability of their army if used in this way. There had already been demonstrations, riots and mutinies in the armed forces about delays in demobilisation (and also in being used against the Russian Bolshevik Revolution).

Elsewhere in the British Empire things were unstable too. The Arabs were outraged at Britain’s reneging on their promise to give them their freedom in exchange for fighting the Turks and rebellions were breaking out which would continue over the next few years. The British were also facing unrest in Palestine as they began to settle Jewish immigrants who were buying up Arab land there. An uprising took place in Mesopotamia (Iraq) against the British in 1918 and again in 1919. The Third Afghan War took place in 1919; Ghandi and his followers began their campaign of civil disobedience in 1920 while in 1921 the Malabar region of India rose up in armed revolt against British rule. Secret communiques (but now accessible) between such as Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and the Chief of Staff of the British armed forces reveal concerns about the reliability of their soldiers in the future against insurrections and industrial action in Britain and even whether, as servicemen demanded demobilisation, they would have enough soldiers left for the tasks facing them throughout the Empire.

The Irish nationalist revolutionaries in 1921were in a very strong position to continue their struggle until they had won independence and quite possibly even to be the catalyst for socialist revolution in Britain and the death of the British Empire. But they backed down and gave the Empire the breathing space it needed to deal with the various hotspots of rebellion elsewhere and to prepare for the showdown with British militant trade unionists that came with the General Strike of 1926. Instead, the Treatyites turned their guns on their erstwhile comrades in the vicious Civil War that broke out in 1922. The new state executed IRA prisoners (often without recourse to a trial) and repression continued even after it had defeated the IRA in the Civil War.

If the revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were not aware of all the problems confronting the British Empire, they were certainly aware of many of them. The 1920 hunger strike and death of McSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, had caught international attention and Indian nationalists had made contact with the McSwiney family. The presence of large Irish working class communities in Britain, from London to GlaSgow, provided ample opportunity for keeping abreast of industrial disputes, even if the Irish nationalists did not care to open links with British militant trade unionists. Sylvia Pankhurst, member of the famous English suffragette family and a revolutionary communist, had letters published in The Irish Worker, newspaper of the IT&GWU. The presence of large numbers of Irish still in the British Army was another source of ready information.

Anti-Treaty cartoon, 1921, depicts Ireland being coerced by Michael Collins, representing the Free State Army, along with the Catholic Church, in the service of British Imperialism
Anti-Treaty cartoon, 1921, depicts Ireland being coerced by Michael Collins, representing the Free State Army, along with the Catholic Church, in the service of British Imperialism

The revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were mostly of petite bourgeois background and had no programme of the expropriation of the large landowners and industrialists. They did not seek to represent the interests of the Irish workers—indeed at times sections of them demonstrated a hostility to workers, preventing landless Irish rural poor seizing large estates and dividing them among themselves. Historically the petite bourgeoisie has shown itself incapable of sustaining a revolution in its own class interests and in Ireland it was inevitable that the Irish nationalists would come to follow the interests of the Irish national bourgeoisie. The Irish socialists were too few and weak to offer another pole of attraction to the petite bourgeoisie. The Irish national bourgeoisie had not been a revolutionary class since their defeat in 1798 and were not to be so now. Originally, along with the Catholic Church with which they shared many interests in common, they had declined to support the revolutionary nationalists but decided to join with them when they saw an opportunity to improve their position and also what appeared to be an imminent defeat of the British.

In the face of the evident possibilities it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the section of revolutionary Irish nationalists who opted for the deal offered by Lloyd George did so because they preferred it to the alternatives. They preferred to settle for a slice rather than fight for the whole cake. And the Irish bourgeoisie would do well out of the deal, even if the majority of the population did not. The words of James Connolly that the working class were “the incorruptible heirs” of Ireland’s fight had a corollary – that the Irish bourgeoisie would always compromise the struggle. It is also possible that the alternative the nationalists feared was not so much “immediate and terrible war” but rather a possible Irish social revolution in which they would lose their privileges.

Irish Free State bombardment 4 Courts
Start of the Irish Civil War 1922: Irish Free State bombardment, with cannon on loan from the British Army, of the Republican HQ at the Four Courts, Dublin.

Another serious challenge to the Empire from Irish nationalist revolutionaries would not take place until nearly fifty years later, and it would be largely confined to the colony of the Six Counties.

The thirty years war in the Six Counties

The IRA did not have much success in a number of short campaigns during the 2nd World War or during the 1950s. Sinn Féin, its political party, suffered a major split during the 1930s and the new organisation Fianna Fáil, which adopted a constitutional path, soon became one of the two main bourgeois parties of the new state. This party was in government during the Second World War and felt that its position of neutrality would be undermined by IRA activity against the British. It carried out raids on its former comrades, interned hundreds in inhumane conditions, subjected them to beatings and even killed a few, as well as carrying out state executions.

Sinn Féin reformed itself in the 1960s, revoked its ban on communism and appeared to be developing a socialist outlook; it also concerned itself with social questions within the Irish state and agitated on the question of housing. In addition it carried out campaigns of civil disobedience and trespass around the issue of private ownership by foreign landlords of Irish housing, land and rivers.

In the Six Counties the party contributed to the organisation of the civil rights protest movement but the latter soon outgrew it. After the police there had rampaged through their area and shot a member of the community dead (ironically, a British Army soldier, home on leave), the Catholic communities of Derry and the Falls Road erected barricades to keep the police out and in Derry successfully defended them against repeated attack by the paramilitary police, by their part-time reserves and by rampaging Loyalist mobs.


Now, when they felt that they needed the weapons, the northern Republicans found that their leadership in Dublin had disposed of them (allegedly sold to a Welsh armed group) and that all that was available to defend their areas was a tiny handful of weapons and only one of them an automatic. This soon led to a split in both the political party and the IRA and the new organisations proclaimed themselves Provisional Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA. The original organisation then added the word “Official” to their party and to their armed group. The breakaways quickly became known as the Provisionals (or “Provos” or “Provies”). Later the Officials became known as “the Stickies” (due to an unfortunate innovation of theirs in producing their Easter Lillies — paper representation of the flower to commemorate the Easter Rising — with gum on the reverse).

The Provisionals had no time for socialism. Many of them felt that socialist ideology was what had led to their being left without sufficient weapons when their areas were under attack. They reiterated the traditional soldiers’ complaint against “too much politics”. Also, they had in their leadership not a few of quite conservative Catholic ideology. On the international front, of which they had little, Fred Burns O’Brien, a US-based Irish Republican but a Zionist, for a time had a column in the Provos’ newpaper An Phoblacht, in which from time to time he extolled the example of the Zionists. A letter of protest from one reader that the natural allies of the Irish were the Palestinians and not the Zionists was not published and O’Brien continued to write in An Phoblacht for some time afterwards.

The Provos took on the British Army when it was sent in to prop up the statelet against the people’s uprising which the colonial police force seemed unable to quell. They were soon fighting primarily the soldiers of the British Army, the armed colonial police and the undercover death squads of both units. In addition, and to a much lesser extent, they were fighting the Loyalist paramilitaries, who mostly concentrated their attacks on random Catholics.

New leadership of the Provisionals

Gradually a new leadership began to form within the ranks of the Provisionals. The old one had become somewhat discredited – Mac Stiofáin for getting caught with incriminating papers, then starting a hunger strike to the death which he later abandoned. Ó Brádaigh’s leadership lost some credibility for their loudly proclaiming that 1972 and then 1974 would be Bliain an Bhua, the Year of Victory (which of course neither was). Also his leadership had held the ceasefire and truce of 1975, from which no advantage to the Provos could be seen, as the British reneged on the truce and brought in even more repressive measures; also the possible propaganda benefits were not prepared for and naturally did not materialise. “Moss” Twomey, Chief of Staff of the IRA and one of the original leaders of the Provisionals, had not supported the truce but was removed from his position due to his 1977 arrest by the Gardaí in the 26 Counties.

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams, solidarity conference London 1983. Adams ousted Ó Brádaigh in the Provos' leadership. Ó Brádaigh was twice chief of staff of the IRA between 1958 and 1962, president of Provisional Sinn Fein from 1970 to 1983 and of Republican Sinn Fein from 1987 to 2009,
Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (left) was ousted by Gerry Adams (right) from the Provos’ leadership, both seen here at an Irish solidarity conference in London 1983. Ó Brádaigh was twice chief of staff of the IRA between 1958 and 1962, president of Provisional Sinn Fein from 1970 to 1983 and of Republican Sinn Fein from 1987 to 2009,

The new leadership, of which Gerry Adams is widely believed to have been the principal actor, with a group around him took effective control of the IRA and of Sinn Féin and the party’s annual delegate meeting in 1986 witnessed a walkout by Ó Brádaigh and most of his supporters (which did not include Twomey) who then went on to form Republican Sinn Féin (often since linked to the Continuity IRA).

The Provisional IRA (and for awhile, INLA, another split from the Official IRA) fought on in a hard war against a modern imperialist army and armed police force with their sophisticated surveillance systems and their Loyalist paramilitaries, managed by British police and army intelligence agencies. Armed Republicans inflicted heavy casualties on the colonial forces and themselves took many casualties. Hundreds of them went to prison for long terms of imprisonment and the prisons became area of hard struggle too. The area of operations of the Republican groups was almost exclusively confined to the Six Counties. Provisional Sinn Féin organised and ran campaigns throughout the Twenty-Six Counties but mostly focused on garnering support for the fight in the Six.

PSF did not do any serious work among the trade union movement and when one of their Ard-Choiste (National Executive) members, Phil Flynn, was a senior union official, he took part in reaching social partnership agreements with the Irish government that were to eliminate the trade union movement as any element of real resistance to the plans of Irish capitalists from then onwards to the present day.

In seeking alliances within Ireland, it was to the “Republican” margin of the bourgeois Fianna Fáil party that PSF, both before and after the split, made their major overtures.

PSF took no part in the struggle for the legalisation of condoms and the anti-conception pill. When the constitutional referendum on abortion was held, PSF were opposed and in the referendum on divorce, they equivocated. When the referendum on the nationality status of immigrants’ children born in Ireland was held, they pronounced themselves in favour of full citizenship but failed to campaign on the issue, restricting themselves instead to their local government election campaign. In other words, in four major areas of civil rights, they either took the wrong side or failed to mobilise. It was notable that on these occasions, PSF stood to the right of the social-democratic Irish Labour Party.

PSF also failed to organise around the issue of unemployment and of its resulting emigration, a huge drain of young people which affected most social classes in Ireland. In fact, the only one of the social issues in which they acted with any resolution was in the campaign against drug dealing. However, even there, their moralistic outlook treated all drugs as the same, with the exception of alcohol of course, which they sold in their clubs and which they illegally “taxed” in their areas, and of tobacco, which, in the form of cigarettes, they smuggled across the Border. Their solution to the drug problem was to intimidate drug merchants and to drive them out of the areas where campaigns were active. However, rumours persist that they actually “taxed” drug merchants in many other areas as one of their sources of revenue.

It was not to be expected that the majority of people in the Twenty-Six Counties, deprived of any leadership on any of the economic and most of the social issues that affected them, could be mobilised exclusively on the issues affecting a small part of the Irish population under another administration. Popular support for the Provisionals began to wane in the Twenty-Six Counties, aided by a hostile bourgeoisie, their media and political establishment, while in the Six Counties, war-weariness began to set in.

It was the struggle of the Republican political prisoners, largely male, inside the jails and their supporters outside, initially largely organised by their female relatives, which breathed new life into the Republican movement, particularly in the Six Counties. First the “blanket protest”, then the “no-wash” and finally the “dirty protest” led to the hunger-strike of 1980. This was followed shortly by another hunger-strike in 1981 culminating in the death of ten Republican prisoners, seven of Provisional IRA and three INLA.

The struggle of the prisoners and the campaigning of their supporters galvanised the nationalist community in the Six Counties and re-animated the Provisional movement. It also led to a successful Republican electoral intervention on both sides of the border, with a parliamentary representative elected in both administrations.

Reformist trajectory

From then onwards a reformist electoral trajectory is perceivable among the Provisionals, linked to a guerilla war that is designed to pressure the British and to be used to improve the Provisionals’ bargaining position. In 1998 the Provisionals signed the Good Friday Agreement which then won majority support by a large margin in a Twenty-Six Counties referendum and a slim majority in Six-County elections. Subsequently Provisional Sinn Féin became the dominant political party in the nationalist community and electorally second force overall in the Six Counties.

The electoral strategy led to the organisation’s first notable split, from which arose in 1986 Republican Sinn Féin, which has often been linked to the Continuity IRA which appeared on the scene soon afterwards. In 1997 another split took place from which was formed the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, usually linked to the Real IRA. The 32 CSM itself later split and the heirs of that split are to be found in the Republican Network for Unity. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 1n 1998, a number of people who left SF and the Provisional IRA went on to form the organisation éirigí (“rise up”). All of these are opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, as are a few smaller groups.

In the 2011 general election in the Twenty-Six Counties, the ruling Fianna Fáil party was hugely reduced, due to a litany of financial-political scandals combined with the capitalist financial crisis, in which the government paid the speculators of the Anglo-Irish bank with public money. Their junior coalition partners, the Green Party, were totally wiped out. The victors were the next major bourgeois party, Fine Gael, in coalition with the social-democratic Labour Party. These essentially continued the policies of their predecessors. Sinn Féin won 14 seats, along with 14 Independents (mostly left-wing) and four from two Trotskyist groups.

The response of Sinn Féin to the financial crisis has been to call for inward-investment and job-creation while saying that “there is a better, fairer way” of managing the economy. They have opposed cuts in the Twenty-Six Counties (while implementing them in the Six) but did not support the campaign to refuse to register for, or to pay the Household Tax (a new tax). This was the biggest campaign of civil disobedience in the history of the state and was successful; however the tax was replaced by another, the Property Tax, with the Revenue Department responsible for collecting payment.

Dublin demonstration, 13April 2013, part of civil disobedience campaign against Household & Water Taxes which Sinn Féin did not support
Dublin demonstration, 13 April 2013, part of a campaign against the Household & Water Taxes, the biggest civil disobedience campaign in the history of the State, which Sinn Féin did not support.

In their ways of organising, the electoral emphasis, their slogans and their response to a militant civil disobedience campaign, the behaviour of Sinn Féin in the Twenty-Six Counties is totally in line with that of a bourgeois, social-democratic party, with the distinction that unlike most social-democratic parties it has no history or strength in the trade union movement. Their strategy would seem to be to build up their electoral performance in order to go into coalition government with one of the other bourgeois political parties at some point in the future.

The trajectory of the Provisionals from beginning to the present can then by summed up as armed anti-imperialist resistance in the colony, the smallest part of the country, attempts to win the southern nationalist bourgeois party (or sections of it) on to their side, electoral reformism with military pressure until negotiations, then total electoral reformism on both sides of the Border with participation in colonialist and capitalist government in the colony.

The possible revolutionary alternative

There was a possible and viable alternative. In the Twenty-Six Counties, that would have meant mobilising the mass of people on the social and economic issues confronting them: unemployment, emigration, housing shortage, lack of development, erosion of the Irish-speaking areas. It would have meant confronting the ruling capitalists, their political parties and the state on their comprador and neo-colonial policies, scandals, tax breaks, give-away of natural resources and production bases. For that, the resistance movement could have built bases among communities, students and crucially, workers, organising in and across the trade union movement, taking on the social-democratic trade union leaders on their own ground and fighting their ideology and practice of “social partnership” with the bourgeoisie.

It would also have meant organising and leading people in defence of civil and social rights – contraception, divorce, abortion, gay rights, citizenship rights for immigrants. Of course, the first four of those issues would have meant open conflict with the Catholic Church.

Then the Church itself would have needed to be attacked and exposed on the massive practice and history of abuse.

In the Six Counties, the nationalist communal resistance could have been built into large popular movement struggles, on the model of the support for the “Blanket Men” and the hunger-strikers. Such bases could have mobilised around issues of sectarian policing and repression, British army repression, housing, unemployment, education and even in the trade union movement. As the Catholic community in the Six Counties suffered hugely and disproportionately from unemployment, and as the Protestant community had the lion’s share of jobs, the trade union movement would have been the most difficult area in which to progress but nevertheless there were possibilities there.

Such campaigns required possibly a scaling down and certainly an attendant re-direction of military actions by the resistance movement. The electoral campaigns still could have taken place but with the objective only of supporting these popular struggles and to representing them in the institutions, not to colloborate with the institutions or to become part of them.

There were possibilities, options, for viable resistance and preparation for revolution in both parts of the country. But not for the Irish Republican movement, with its dominant ideology. It required a revolutionary socialist ideology based on the organising of the working class as the motor and leading power of a revolutionary movement. No major part of Irish Republicanism has ever come close to following that path and the indications are that it never will.

Allies abroad

A small nation with a total population of far less than that of London is going to need help to take on an imperial power of Britain’s size and armed strength. Irish Republicans have always recognised this and in 1798 looked to revolutionary France, in the 1800s to the USA, to imperial Germany in the very early part of the 20th Century and again to the USA later.

With one exception, these were legitimate temporary alliances, although Republican France’s armada was prevented by gales from landing in Bantry in 1796 and the force that landed in Mayo in 1798 came too late and was too small to make a decisive difference. Also one landing of German arms failed in 1916 and they were in no position to help in 1919.

In the USA

The exception was the USA, which from 1866 onwards at least was clearly not going to help the Irish against England and the British Empire. The conclusive evidence of that was the occasion of the Fenian invasion of Canada that year, when a detachment of Irish veterans of the American Civil War crossed into Canada (then a British colony) with an even larger force waiting in reserve just across the river in US territory. At that time the US had a sharp contradiction with England because of the latter’s support for the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the USA closed the border with Canada, leaving the Fenian advance party cut off from their main force; they also arrested a number of the Fenians.

Until 1898, US policy had been concentrated on “internal imperialism”, the defeat of the indigenous tribes and the settling of large tracts of their lands by white people, who were then to be drawn into the hegemony of the United States. The US-Mexico War of 1846, arising from the US’s annexation of Texas, could be cited as an imperialist war but the territory contained a large population of US Americans and the US could have considered it part of its natural territory. But in 1898, the USA went to war with Spain and invaded and annexed Puerto Rico, invading also Cuba and the Philippines.

Once the USA itself became an imperial power on the world stage, it was interested in displacing and replacing the dominant British and French power and influence with its own, firstly on the American continent and outlying lands, then in Asia and in the Middle East (later in Africa). But it was not interested in the complete elimination of either the British and the French imperialists and was happy to rule the world with them as minor partners. As for depriving them of colonies, that would be only when the US could control them instead. For the Provisionals to believe that they could sway the US from its imperial interests, no matter how powerful their Irish-American lobby, was incredibly naive.

As the war the Provisionals were waging against Britain in the 1970s showed no sign of ending soon, they began to develop fraternal relations with some other liberation organisations around the world such as the Basque liberation movement, Al Fatah and the ANC. The relationship with Al Fatah was not likely to be developed to a high level, especially not during the first two decades of the Irish war – because the Provisionals did not want to lose the support of their bourgeois Irish American lobby and were counting on help from the White House.

Clinton, Rabin & Arafat
1993, US Democrat President Clinton oversees agreement on the Oslo Accords between President of the Israeli Zionists Rabin and Arafat, leader of the PLO. Because of this agreement, the Al Fatah organisation, of which Arafat was leader, lost its majority support among the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories which subsequently went to Hamas.

After Al Fatah’s performance in the Oslo negotiations, the Palestinian ‘peace process’, the organisation began to lose the support of the majority of Palestinians, and was replaced in the occupied territories by Hamas.

South African police of the ANC government executed 34 miners in one day for striking against Anglo-American Platinum mine at Marikana in August 2013. A further ten had been killed over the previous couple of days.

The South African process seemed to yield some good results with black majority rule but how hollow that victory was has been revealed over the years and even to the naive, especially with the recent massacre of striking miners by South African police sent by the ANC government.

The Basque liberation movement is currently in a ‘peace’ process of its own which shows many signs of going in the same direction as the Irish process and others which have achieved or sought to achieve temporary stability for imperialism.

In Britain

Inside Britain was another possible area for the Irish to cultivate allies. Provisional Sinn Féin had closed all its branches there during the 1970s but kept relations open with some groups such as the Troops Out Movement and formed its own support group, the Wolfe Tone Society, active in London only.

Thereafter, the Provisionals veered between seeking an alliance with the Irish community, with the British anti-imperialist Left and with the Left wing of the social-democratic Labour Party. With the Time To Go initiative of the 1980s, it was hoped to bind all these together but the alliance fragmented due to the manipulative and unprincipled behaviour of the interested section of the Left of the Labour Party, headed by Clare Short MP and John Mc Donnell (now also an MP). Time To Go ended up with only a handful of Labour Party left bureaucrats, supported by the trostkyist SWP and the Communist Party of Great Britain and, due in part to the latter, the small Connolly Association from the Irish community.

But they lost the support first of the Stop Strip Searches Campaign, next of the Irish in Britain Representation Group and finally of the Troops Out Movement. The Provisionals stayed out of the fight but in effect endorsed the Time To Go campaign in Britain. One big London demonstration was convened in which organisations not usually seen on the Irish solidarity scene participated but little more was seen of the campaign.

Subsequently the Provisionals founded the broad campaign Saoirse to build solidarity with Irish Republican prisoners but folded the British section up when it began to grow in size, activity and out of its control. They replaced it later with Fuascailt, a smaller campaign which they soon wound up also, asking all its members to join their Wolfe Tone Society.

The Troops Out Movement began to get closer to the Provisionals again in the Committee for British Withdrawal (originally a broad planning committee for the commemoration of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry) and the whole Irish solidarity scene in Britain became smaller and smaller, mostly under the Provisionals’ control, with smaller Republican groups and some independent activists and groups not unduly influenced by the Provisonals.

Annual commemorations of the Hunger Strikers in Britain had become problematic once the Provos made it clear (without ever putting it in writing) that they would not send a speaker to any commmemoration to which an IRSP speaker was also to be invited. Since three of the ten martyrs had IRSP allegiance, this placed commemoration committees in a difficult position. They either had to collude in the exclusion and censorship being carried out by the Provisionals, or stand against it and receive no speakers from the main Republican organisation of that time.

During most of these decades, the Provisionals (and to a lesser degree INLA and later the Real IRA, with on one occasion the OIRA) also ran bombing campaigns in England. A number of IRA explosions, some through error and some apparently deliberately, killed civilians. One of these explosions in 1974, with apparently a failed warning, killed and maimed a large number of civilians in Birmingham. This gave the British state the excuse and climate to rush through the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act which facilitated wide-scale repression of the Irish community. That, combined with the framing of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and Judith Ward, along with a British media campaign, created in the Irish community an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. That in turn led to a huge drop in Irish solidarity activity until the Hunger Strikes of 1981 galvanized the Irish community and some British Left into action again.

The IRA’s intention with the bombing campaign seemed to be to wear down the British establishment’s support for the war and to terrorise the British public into pressurising their government to withdraw from Ireland. It seemed pretty clear however by the mid-1970s if not even earlier that the British state was prepared to invest a considerable amount of financial, military, political and judicial capital into fighting its war in Ireland. Clearly remaining in occupation and control of the Six Counties had an importance for the British ruling class above and beyond that which the Republicans understood (and this lack of understanding seemingly continues across the Irish Republican spectrum right up to the present day).

The British public had already demonstrated in published results of opinion polls its wish to see the British troops withdrawn from Ireland. The bombing campaign did nothing to add to that and only helped create a climate of public opinion that tolerated abuses of Irish people’s civil rights and their repression in Britain, along with a de facto toleration of repression, including state assassinations, in the Six Counties.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act specifically targeted the Irish community because it was the community with the biggest stake in opposing what was happening in the Six Counties and which had access to the facts with which to inform their British friends, workmates etc.

Despite lack of success in their apparent objectives and despite also their counter-productive effects, IRA bombing campaigns in Britain continued sporadically right up until 1996. Two years later the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of any possibility of the Provisionals exploding any further bombs although other ‘dissident’ Republican groups may return to these in the future.

Again, there were revolutionary alternatives.

If the Provisionals had given their work of building alliances some consistent impetus and concentrated it on mobilising work, especially in liaison with broad movements without attempting to control them, the picture in England could have been very different.

The Irish community solidarity sector should have been allowed to diverge into various groupings and political loyalties but encouraged to form a broad Irish solidarity front for British withdrawal with the same kind of broad support for Republican prisoners. The Irish community constituted an average of 10% of the population of British cities and was an enormous potential source of direct solidarity and also of information through their social and trade union links which could bypass and undermine British media propaganda and censorship.

At the same time, the resistance in Ireland should have forged links with the British working class — their exploiters were the oppressors of the Irish. Those links should have prioritised grassroots and revolutionary groups rather than social-democratic bureaucrats and again, much of this could have been done through the Irish diaspora (which was overwhelmingly working class in nature).

Alliances could also have been built with the Asian, Afro-Caribbean, African etc. diasporas in Britain, communities subject to racism and racist attacks in Britain and whose homelands were being exploited by British imperialism.

None of this would have been easy but would have, in the long run, been a much more productive and progressive series of alliances and would have meant the broadening of the Irish solidarity base rather than its contraction.

However, the Provos, as often the case with Irish Republicanism, preferred to oscillate between military actions like bombing on the one hand and reformist overtures on the other. Those who boasted of the extent of their commitment to the war against British imperialism by pointing to their military campaign and martyrs, marginalising the efforts of solidarity activists, finally ended up in joint administration of the British colony alongiside Unionists and colluding with the British colonial police force. Along the way, they surrendered the political prisoner status for which so many had fought and ten prisoners had died.


Stormont Building, seat of the British colonial government in Ireland since 1932 except during years of direct rule from Britain. Sinn Fein have gone from revolutionary campaigning for its abolition and Britain getting out of Ireland to being part of the colonial government, the Northern Ireland Executive.
Stormont Building, seat of the British colonial government in Ireland since 1932 except during years of direct rule from Britain. Sinn Fein have gone from revolutionary campaigning for its abolition and Britain getting out of Ireland to being part of the colonial government, the Northern Ireland Executive.

A military struggle in a small part of the island was never going to defeat British imperialism. What was also needed was a social and political mass struggle across the whole or at least most parts of Ireland, so that it could not be confined to one part or one section of the Irish people and so eventually contained. What were needed in addition were revolutionary alliances internationally, not alliances that would restrict and undermine the demands of the Irish revolution.

In addition, alliances with revolutionary forces across Britain were also needed and, in particular, a symbiotic relationship of the revolutionary struggle in each country feeding into the other without dependence by either. If at the moment when Britain has already sent or seriously considers sending armed forces of repression to Ireland, their British ruling class is simultaneously faced with revolutionary upsurges at home and abroad, that will certainly restrict their ability to deploy troops while at the same triggering collapse of morale and probably mutinies in their own armed forces.

It is possible to defeat British imperialism but not with the methods and politics of Irish Republicanism. What is needed is a revolutionary workers’ socialist movement, mobilising Irish working people wherever possible on the issues directly affecting them, practising revolutionary internationalist solidarity and making progressive temporary anti-imperialist and permanent revolutionary class alliances.

Unfortunately no such movement or even party exists in Ireland at this moment. Should we not build one?

Diarmuid Breatnach, Deire-Fómhair 2012 (revised slightly Eanáir 1914).

APPENDIX – Brief overview of the history of colonisation of Ireland and of resistance

Norman invasion and colonisation

In the 12th Century Ireland was partially conquered and part-colonised by Normans who had invaded and colonised England and Wales a hundred years earlier. The Norman rulers of England had reached an accommodation with the previous Saxon rulers (themselves originally also invaders and colonisers of parts of Celtic Britain) and became known as “the English” (the Gaels referred to them in the same way as to their predecessors, as “Sacsannaigh”, i.e. “Saxons” and, in modern Irish, still do: “Sasannaigh”).

Normans from Wales invaded Ireland in 1169 and established a colony. They had conquered England in 1066. Over time they became "the English" and extended their control until they ruled the whole of Ireland.
Normans from Wales invaded Ireland in 1169 and established a colony. They had conquered England in 1066. Over time they became “the English” and extended their control until they ruled the whole of Ireland.

Contradictions developed between these English and the original Norman colonisers of Ireland, those to whom the English referred as “Old English” (or, at times, “degenerate English”) and whom the Irish came to call “Gall-Ghael” (“Foreign Irish”).

The original Norman colonisers had, except in and near the fortified town of Dublin, intermarried with the native Irish, learned to speak Irish and adopted many of their customs, and developed mixed allegiances. The exporting to Ireland of the Reformation of the Christian church in England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in the mid-15th to mid-16th Centuries, along with the wars of Parliament against their kings – Charles I in the mid-17th Century and later that century, headed by William III against James II — turned the Irish of Norman descent into irrevocable alliance with the native Gaels and subsequently they merged with them.

Plantations, further colonisation

Successive plantations (mass colonisations) left many parts of Ireland occupied by communities of a different ethnic background, of another religious persuasion to that of the natives, speaking a different language and occupying the best lands, from which the native Irish had been driven. However, the colonists were still in a minority and eventually also had to come to some kind of terms with the natives. At the same time, a colonial bourgeoisie was arising (as it did in what was to become the United States of America) which saw its interests in many ways as distinct from those of England and, for some of them such as Presbyterians, even from the Anglican Church (the English state church) established in Ireland. These contradictions matured and merged with republican and anti-monarchical ideology and, encouraged by the rebellion of the American colonists (many of them of Ulster Presbyterian stock) and by the French Revolution, a section of this new Irish bourgeoisie (of British origin) joined with the native Irish towards the end of the 18th Century and came out in open rebellion against British rule.

Republican uprisings

The Republican uprisings of 1798 (three major ones in one year in the north-east, south-east and west of Ireland) were unsuccessful but most of those who remained in Ireland were henceforth to see themselves as essentially one people, the Irish, mostly but not all of the Catholic faith. The notable exception was in parts of Ulster, where in the aftermath of the defeat of the rising there in ’98, the Orange Order had gained social control and later ideological sway over the majority of the large Presbyterian community there. The political allegiance of the majority of the Presbyterians from then to the present day remained towards the British Monarch and state. As its colonists in Ireland they strove to keep Ireland for the British Crown and themselves in ascendancy and, in the early part of the 20th Century, when they could no longer do that, to keep the corner of Ireland where they had the greatest concentration safe for Britain and for themselves, subjugating the native Irish within their domain to sectarian oppression and discrimination in employment, housing, administration, policing and law.

Notables of the United Irishmen, the first Republican movement in Ireland, mostly led by Presbyterians. After the defeat of its 1798 insurrection, the Presbyterian community came under the idealogical control of the Orange Order and British Loyalism, which is where it has remained to this day.
Notables of the United Irishmen, the first Republican movement in Ireland, mostly led by Presbyterians. After the defeat of its 1798 insurrection, the Presbyterian community came under the idealogical control of the Orange Order and British Loyalism, which is where it has remained to this day.

However, earlier than that, back in the middle and late 19th Century, the Irish (now a mixture of Gael with Norman and English settler stock), under the “Young Irelanders”, had begun to prepare for Republican rebellion once again. But the calamity of the Great Hunger at the middle of the century intervened. Starvation, hunger, disease and mass emigration put off large-scale rebellion. Another large scale rebellion was averted a score of years later as the Fenians’ careful preparations were brought to nought by a pre-emptive strike of the British military and police.

As the end of the 19th Century approached, the Irish were again asserting an independent nationhood, through parliamentary reformist means, agrarian agitation (and later through industrial struggles too) and preparations for armed insurrection. While the states of Europe and further afield were locked in the First imperialist World War in the early 20th Century, the Irish rose in short and unsuccessful rebellion which however was followed by an intense guerilla war in various parts of Ireland.

The 1921 Treaty and the 1998 Anglo-Ireland Agreement

In 1921 the British negotiated an agreement which left them in occupation of six out of Ireland’s 32 Counties and caused a Civil War in 1922 between the fledgling Irish state and the majority of the previous insurgents, in which the latter were defeated. The new Irish state was managed by the political and bureaucratic representatives of the native bourgeoisie who remained basically under the economic and financial influence of the former colonial power, which maintained also its Six Counties colony under the local administration of the Presbyterian and Anglican bourgeoisie with social control of Loyalists by the Orange Order and control of the Catholic minority by police and military. The organ for social control in the 26 Counties was the Catholic Church, conservative and pro-capitalist.

No great change occurred until the late 1960s when agitation began for civil rights in the Six Counties, opposing discrimination against the Catholic minority (for the most part, descendants of the native Irish and Norman-Irish). As the campaign of protest and civil disobedience was met with the full violence of the statelet, later backed by troops from Britain, the Catholic minority continued communal resistance while a part of it engaged in a fierce urban and rural guerilla war. This lasted nearly thirty years, until a deal was struck (the Good Friday Agreement 1998) and most of the guerilla forces stood down.

Now, little over ten years later, the Republican organisation which led the fight against the British occupation of Ireland has become incorporated into the local administration of the British colony of the Six Counties and is seeking to become part of the political management of its neo-colony in the rest of Ireland. Sinn Féin has Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, that is the local administration of the British colonial statelet. The NIE implements cuts in services for the people in the Six Counties, as part of the capitalists passing their financial crisis on to the working class, also holding down wages. It manages the local police force which annually forces provocative Loyalist marches through Catholic areas against the opposition of the local people and carries out communal and individual harassment in areas of resistance.




Diarmuid Breatnach

An interview with Dominic McGlinchey was recently published by Connla Young of the Irish News on Friday 24 January 2014 and Anthony McIntyre published a longer version of it in his blog, The Pensive Quill ( Scrolling through the dozens of comments on the interview in the blog, it seems that most readers agreed with McGlinchey’s observations which, if the commentators are following McIntyre, would probably not be too surprising.

Nevertheless, there is at the moment an atmosphere of reflection in much of the Irish Republican movement. Among the questions being asked are whether continuing (or restarting, according to one’s definition) armed struggle is the way (or part of the way) forward in the struggle against British colonialism in Ireland. Reflection is overdue in this movement and at this time and it is most welcome. However, I believe that the question being asked is the wrong one. It seems to me that the questions being asked and which have been asked in the Republican movement often are the wrong questions, which is why British imperialism continues to be able to defeat us.

A more useful question might be: Why did British imperialism succeed in defeating the Republican movement in the recent 30 Years’ War? The usual reply to this is “Our leaders betrayed us” or, from those who were not in PSF or in PIRA at the time of the “Peace Process” and the Good Friday Agreement (which most of their present critics were, it is well to remember), “the Shinners sold us out”. But such replies only give rise to other questions, such as Why did your leaders betray you and how was it you let them do it? Or Why did “the Shinners” sell you out and why were they able to do so?

Another frequent response to the failure to succeed in struggle (and not just in Ireland, believe me!) is The media were against us. I do not intend to discuss that response here other than to say that when revolutionaries expect the media of their enemies to treat them well, or when they feel that the success of their endeavours depends on such favourable treatment by their enemies, then we have lost already!

Having posed what I believe to be more fundamental questions, I will attempt to answer them. British imperialism was not only able to defeat the Republican movement in the 30 years war but, in the long run, was guaranteed to defeat it, for the following reasons:

  1. The Republican struggle was concentrated on an area consisting of a fifth of the country and in which a large section of the population was under the hegemony of Unionism
  2. The Republican struggle held no reason to the mass of people in the rest of the country to contribute to the struggle other than solidarity with Catholics in the Six Counties and a vague promise of a better future under Republicanism
  3. The Republican movement valued its hegemony so much that it strangled what it considered competition
  4. The Republican movement usually sought allies in the wrong quarters.

There is a fifth reason, which I will discuss later.

So, let me now elaborate on these reasons.

1. The Republican struggle was concentrated on an area consisting of a fifth of the country and in which a large section of the population was under the hegemony of Unionism.

If we stand back a bit and look at the struggle with that in mind, it is obvious that defeat could only be inevitable. The only thing that should surprise us is how long it took to be defeated, which is a tribute to the militancy, courage, resolution and endurance of the “Nationalist” people and of the Republican movement.

The Republican struggle was waged in the Six Counties because that’s where an allied but different struggle broke out, that of Civil Rights. The Six Counties was a colonial statelet with fascist laws and blatant discrimination against a huge minority, the “Catholic” or “Nationalist” community. Many in that community had no permission to vote while some from the majority community, the “Protestants” or “Unionist”, had two votes each. Electoral boundaries were artificially drawn to give Unionists a majority in areas where they were actually in a minority. Housing and jobs and institutions of higher learning went mostly to Unionists. The British flag was everywhere and the Irish tricolour was banned. The state had a whole set of emergency legislation which it often enacted, even to ban historical commemorations or meetings. The police force was Unionist, armed and sectarian and their part-time reserve, also armed, was if anything worse. (I am not unaware that a number of those things are still true, by the way).

The campaign for civil rights for the “Nationalists” and for a democratisation of the Six County statelet was repressed by the state which led to ongoing confrontation between the sectarian colonial police force, including its reserves and supported by civilian Loyalist zealots, and the campaign. Some areas became totally blocked to state access and so successful was the resistance of the people that, despite huge amounts of tear gas, numerous baton charges and some firing of live rounds, the statelet’s forces could no longer cope and its master, the British state, sent in its troops.

From that moment onwards the stage was set for struggle directly between the Republican movement and British colonialism, backed by the armed forces of British imperialism. And given the history of all those entities and the stakes being played for, it was inevitable that a significant part of that struggle would be an armed one. But while the Republican movement made the mistake of prioritising that aspect overall, British imperialism did not; despite many mistakes, it always kept the long view in mind and prioritised the political struggle while, at the same time, resolutely pursuing its armed repression and response.

So, the Republican movement had no say in where the struggle broke out, which was at the point in Ireland where the fracture line was deepest, and at a time of an increasingly militant and growing youth and student movement, at a time when much of the world was looking at and learning from the struggles of the black civil rights movement in the USA and the resistance of the Vietnamese to the US military invasion and war (there were other influential struggles too but those were the ones that probably most impacted on the consciousness of the Irish at the time). And the Republicans were right, both by the logic of their history and in absolute terms, to engage in that struggle in the Six Counties. But they didn’t have to ensure that the focus of the struggle stayed there.

2. The Republican movement held out no reason to the mass of people in the rest of the country to contribute to the struggle other than solidarity with Catholics in the Six Counties and a vague promise of a better future under Republicanism

What they could have done, should have done, had to do if they were going to win, was to extend the struggle to the rest of the country, i.e. to the area of the Irish state, the 26 Counties. To some extent they tried to do so, but mainly on the basis of solidarity with the Six Counties alone. The immediate issues impacting on the mass of the population of the 26 Counties were not addressed. The Republican movement did not mobilise around those.

Prior to the split in its ranks, Sinn Féin had organised around some of those.

Logo of the Dublin Housing Action Committee which agitated and took direct action on housing issues in Dublin.  Sinn Féin had a strong presence in the campaign which survived the first split (out of which came Provisional SF) but did not survive long after the second split, out of which came the IRSP.
Logo of the Dublin Housing Action Committee which agitated and took direct action on housing issues in Dublin. Sinn Féin had a strong presence in the campaign which survived the first split (out of which came Provisional SF) but did not survive long after the second split, out of which came the IRSP.

It had organised and contributed to struggles around housing, including occupations of empty houses and buildings. It had also organised trespass protests around foreign and private ownership of land, rivers and beaches, along with some industrial resistance actions.  It had in fact taken on the Archbishop of Dublin

When the split came, most of the more socialistically-inclined stayed with the parent organisation, now named the “Officials” (later to be known as the “Stickies” or “Sticks”) while most of the others went with the new organisation, the “Provisionals” (whose armed wing later became known as the “Provos” or “Provies”). When the “Stickies” split again not long afterwards, the emerging IRSP did take up a socialist position on many questions social, economic and political, as well as engaging in armed struggle against British imperialism. This trajectory was brought to a halt due partly to state repression and partly to internal strife on a number of issues and in fact a number of its founders left very early on due to the primacy being given to military consideration (or to the military wing) in the decision-making of the political party. Over time the internal strife degenerated further into mortal feuds and including criminal gangs.  And that left the Provisionals with total hegemony over the anti-imperialist Republican movement.

Housing, unemployment, emigration

The Provisionals, if they wished to extend the struggle to the 26 Counties, had no shortage of social, economic, political and cultural issues they could have taken on. Shortage of affordable housing continued to be a serious issue in Ireland throughout the three decades of the war, as did emigration for most of it (this issue also impacted on almost every social class in Ireland, both sides of the Border). Unemployment, the main cause of emigration, was also a serious issue right up to the boom in the economy of the Irish state in the 1990s and impacted particularly heavily on rural communities which suffered depopulation, especially of the young.  Addressing this issue could have given rise to struggles over decentralisation and promotion of local economies as well as confronting the nature of the neo-colonial state and its bourgeoisie.

Gaeltacht and language rights

The Gaeltacht areas suffered equally from emigration but that also impacted on the viability of these reserves of the Irish language; in addition neither they nor the Irish-speaking community beyond had radio or TV services in their language, no independent Irish language weekly newspaper, or even a bilingual one (to say nothing of a daily); nor had they any access to most services through Irish from state bodies, not to speak of private ones (Radio na Gaeltachta, TG4 and Gaeltacht status for Ráth Cairn in Meath all came about later as a result of agitation and civil disobedience campaigns).

Trade union movement

The 26 Counties, for a non-industrial nation with high emigration, had strong traditions of trade union membership and solidarity. During the 1970s these began to be subverted and “social partnership” became the norm, led by the trade union federation ICTU and two of its largest constituent unions, SIPTU and IMPACT, and encouraged by elements in the Labour Party and in Fianna Fáil.  Provisional SF could have become active within the trade unions in opposition to “social partnership”, thereby not only giving leadership on a viable trade union policy to thousands of workers but also at least disrupting a trajectory leading to the present impotency and immobilisation of the trade union movement in the face of sustained attacks by the state and private capitalist companies. Instead, Phil Flynn, senior official of his trade union and a member of the SF Ard-Choiste (Executive Council), was an active supporter of that same “social partnership” (he is now a businessman).

Social rights – contraception, divorce, abortion, sexuality

The 26-County state was under heavy Catholic Church control which had a huge impact on social issues. Homosexuality, birth control, divorce and abortion were all illegal – contraceptive devices were not freely available in the state until 1993. The Republican movement, if it could have overcome its own prejudices and dominant ideology, could have campaigned for the people to have access to birth control, divorce and abortion. It did nothing about birth control, gave no leadership on the right to divorce and opposed the freedom to choose abortion (the exception was the IRSP). It gave no leadership on homosexual rights and it was a huge shock to the Provisionals when two of their H-Block prisoners “came out” as gay. The movement eventually supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality and PSF also supports the right to gay marriage now but they can hardly be said to have campaigned for gay rights.  These battles were led, fought and many won, by others – civil rights, feminist, gay, socialist and social-democratic organisations and campaigns. Some Republicans took part in these campaigns but they were a minority of their movement and the movement did not lead.

The Catholic Church

In taking up these issues of fertility control, sexual rights and divorce, without even considering abortion, the Republican movement would have had to oppose the Catholic Church – at least its hierarchy. (It would also have had to confront the Presbyterian churches in the Six Counties but here I am discussing what the Republican movement could have done to extend the struggle throughout the 26 Counties). Whether because of the ideology of its leadership, its prejudices or its reluctance to alienate its more conservative support, it is clear that the movement has never been prepared to confront that institution. This is all the more surprising when one considers that since the birth of Irish Republicanism, the Catholic Church hierarchy has been its determined enemy, along with most of its clergy. Indeed, the Catholic Church hierarchy has been a supporter of British colonialism until when in the very late stages of the War of Independence, it switched its allegiance, along with the Irish capitalist nationalists, into an alliance with elements of the Republican movement leadership at that time.

The reluctance to take on the Catholic Church on such social issues, discussed earlier, also made it unlikely that the Republican movement would challenge the Church on its control of education in the Irish state or even on the physical, mental and sexual abuse and exploitation being committed by individual clergy and going on in institutions run by the Church. Though such abuse only became the subject of open discussion through a series of public scandals beginning around the late 1980s, it is impossible to believe that large numbers of people in Irish society, including members of political parties, were not aware of it from an earlier time. So it is reasonable to assume that the Republican movement leaderships were aware of abuse by the Church though not, perhaps, of the scale and its intensity.


The failure of the Republican movement to take on some of those issues also impacted on its view of gender and its role within society.

Irish feminist conference poster, Dublin 1971.
Irish feminist conference poster, Dublin 1971.

Much of the Republican movement reflected the general society’s view that the role of married women was essentially as home-builders.  In organisation, despite the presence of some very able and strong female activists, overall the movement tended to see women as auxiliaries to Republican men in politics and in war. The fact that women had played a huge role in the struggle through centuries in Ireland and at times a pivotal one was not something of which the Republican movement seemed aware.

It is shocking now to realise that as late as the 1960s and 1970s under Irish law, that the property of a woman became her husband’s upon marriage but not vice versa; that women had to have their husband’s signature on hire purchase agreements and that women had to retire from the civil service, including as teachers, as soon as they married.

As a result of the cultural-idealogical limitations of the Irish Republican movement it was not able to play a leading role in the liberation of women nor to significantly contribute to it in Irish society; as half or more of the population are usually women this failure was a serious limitation to spreading the struggle throughout the 26 Counties.

Intellectual freedom was a ground on which the Republican movement could also have challenged the 26 County state, which would have won it more allies among the intelligentsia and cultural avant-garde. Intellectual freedom after all had been both a slogan and a battle ground for Republicanism in England, France and in Ireland in the past. But taking up that issue would also have meant taking on the Catholic Church and the Republican movement confined itself to only two areas, those of historical research and theory and of news coverage, not in order to defend intellectual or academic freedom but to defend its version of history from the colonial apologia of Irish revisionist historians, and to demand accurate reporting of events in the war. But the Republican movement did not promote the alternative revisionism or re-examination and interpretation of history which was really needed, such as critical examination of the failure of consecutive Republican campaigns, nor research into and promotion of the role of women in progressive Irish politics (and not just in the Republican movement), the role of the working class in Irish history, the role of religious dissenters (particularly in developing Republicanism), the role of the Irish diaspora elsewhere and the role of immigration to Ireland, or the development/ underdevelopment of the capitalist class in Ireland. Nor did it defend accuracy and lack of censorship except where such militated in its own sectional favour and its own newspapers practised censorship continuously.

Neo-colonial economy

The nature of the neo-colonial state was such that it opened itself to monopoly capitalist penetration from abroad at minimal cost to investors (something which has not changed in the least) and native capitalist concerns were regularly bought out by these foreign capitalists. Also, some native industries were downgraded or wiped out as a result of neglect or deliberate undermining. Sinn Féin prior to the split had done some work on this and although some work continued to be done by Provisional Sinn Féin after the split, it was not an area given any great importance in organisational priorities.


There was one important social issue in which the Provisionals became involved in the 26 Counties and this was to do with drugs. During the late 1970s and the 1980s, heroin consumption, particularly in urban working class areas, assumed almost epidemic proportions. A number of individuals and organisations became involved around this issue and one significant campaign arising from it was the community-based Concerned Parents Against Drugs. The Provisionals became heavily involved in local groups of CPAD. Largely ignorant about addiction issues, as would have been the rule in Irish society at the time, but very concerned about the effect on their communities, the focus of CPAD was in driving out drug-dealers from their areas.

These campaigns had some positive effects but also many negative ones, including not dealing with the fundamental issue of addiction or misuse nor the social conditions that encouraged them. The Provisionals had their own drinking clubs and “taxed” ‘Nationalist’ pubs in the 6 Counties and they also ran cigarette smuggling operations to raise funds for their organisation. Yet alcohol and tobacco consumption are the biggest threats to health in Ireland (and in most of the world, according to the World Health Organisation) and the negative social and health effects of alcohol far exceeded even those of heroin addiction at the time. In addition, the Provisionals tended to view all illegal drugs in the same light, for example punishing consumers and dealers of cannabis and amphetamines along with those of heroin and, later, cocaine. Evidence is now coming to light also that in some areas, the Provisionals even “taxed” drug dealers. Some CPAD activists (including prominent SF member Rose Dugdale) have also criticised the degree to which the Provisionals became involved within CPAD and undermined community control of the campaigns. The state also found this a good excuse to crack down on CPAD, expending more police energy on repressing the campaign than on upholding their laws regarding drugs.

Immigration and equal rights

As the boom in the economy continued, Ireland began, for the first time in centuries, to attract substantial immigration. Some of that was of returning Irish and some of it the “return” of the children of the diaspora. But a large part of it was also Chinese, Eastern European and African in origin. Equal rights for these migrants of course became an issue but the Provisionals, despite their anti-racist policies, did not mobilise around these issues. Part of the Bunreacht, the Constitutions of the state, declared that “It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland.” This meant that migrants’ children, if born in Ireland, had a right to Irish citizenship. Reactionary and populist politicians and media created some controversy around this, fuelled also by some racist concerns abroad that Ireland might provide some kind of tunnel for people of non-EU background to flood into “fortress Europe”. Both main bourgeois Irish political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, supported an amendment to the Bunreacht removing the right to nationality by birth. This was opposed by a number of political parties, including Sinn Féin and the Irish Labour Party.

The referendum on the amendment took place during the Irish local government elections of 2004. The campaign against the amendment was weak but in Dublin I witnessed posters advertising some public meetings against it which were organised by the Trotskyists and by the Labour Party but saw none organised by any Irish Republican organisation. Sinn Féin, which was heavily committed to its own local government election campaign, ironically with an election slogan “Sinn Féin, for a nation of equals”, did not even mention the referendum in its Dublin leaflets.  Disturbing as their lack of leadership on the issue was, I was even more shocked to have rationalised to me by one of their election campaign organisers that to focus on the referendum would have distracted from their election campaign and might even have lost them votes.

Summary so far

In the above text I have tried to make the case firstly that a struggle in essence confined to such a small area as the Six Counties, with a large population under hostile ideological hegemony (or even without that factor, come to that), was bound to lose in the long run.

I have stated that although the struggle naturally enough took off in a large way in that small area, it need not have been confined to it. In support of this thesis I have tried to show the many areas of struggle that were open to development by a revolutionary movement in the rest of Ireland and for which favourable conditions existed. I have also endeavoured to show that, with the exception of a problematic campaign around drugs,  they were not taken up by the movement and, in some cases, have discussed in passing the reasons for this failure.

I wish now to go on to discuss the next reason for the failure of the struggle.

3. The Republican movement valued its hegemony so much that it strangled what it considered competition

There is something to be said for the theory that for a revolutionary organisation, wielding hegemony is actually a necessity and that to neglect to build and defend that hegemony is a derogation of responsibility. Yes, well, there is something to be said against that theory too.

It is certainly necessary for a revolutionary anti-imperialist movement to maintain a high level of dominance for anti-imperialist ideology and organisation in society, if it is to succeed in overthrowing imperialism. That would be the case anywhere, one would imagine and certainly Ireland neither is nor was an exception. But the Republican movement did not have the only brand of anti-imperialist ideology and even within Republican ideology the Provisionals were not its sole proprietors.

However, the Republican organisations have in general acted as if they were the sole proprietors of the truth and certainly the Provisionals were a prime example of this. Not only that, but they also acted as if they were the only ones who could be trusted to lead any aspect of the struggle. What an irony that turned out to be! Of course this attitude is by no means confined to the Provisionals or to Republican organisations but is sadly to be found throughout the Left also.

Whenever a movement arose around an area which the Republican movement considered their preserve, unless they could control it, they squashed it. I have three examples in mind. The first was the H-Blocks campaign, which was started by mostly female relatives of the prisoners. This campaign grew and gained a lot of support especially in the Six Counties, of course, but also in the Twenty-Six. Bernadette McAlliskey (nee Devlin) has written about how the movement was taken over by the Provisionals and so have others. The potential for a popular political prisoner solidarity movement, anti-imperialist in character, was lost and instead was converted into an election machine which the Provisionals themselves, in their version of the history of the Hunger Strikes, claim was the beginning of their development of the “Peace Process” which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish diaspora in Britain and some British Left took to the streets to support the Hunger Strikers.  In doing so they defied the campaign of state terror with the jailing of a score of innocent Irish people on murder charges and the reign of the 1974 "Prevention of Terrorism" and a hostile media campaign.
The Irish diaspora in Britain and some British Left took to the streets to support the Hunger Strikers. In doing so they defied the campaign of state terror with the jailing of a score of innocent Irish people on murder charges and the reign of the 1974 “Prevention of Terrorism” and a hostile media campaign.

The second example was how Sinn Féin impacted on Irish solidarity events in Britain. The Irish community in Britain had been terrorised by the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1974) and the jailing for murder in a number of different trials in one year of a score of innocent people from the Irish community in England.  The community had also been shocked by the killing of civilians in a number of Republican bombings. Attendance at Irish solidarity events decreased hugely. But the hunger strikes in 1981 brought the Irish out again on to the streets, defying the terror campaign of the state and media. Some of the British Left responded too.

After the deaths of the ten martyrs, annual Hunger Strike commemorations became common and even at other solidarity events, the Hunger Strikers formed an important part of the symbolism and discourse. When Irish solidarity activists organised events to which they invited speakers from the movement in Ireland, the message was coming back that PSF would not send a speaker if the IRSP was also invited to send one. This was never put in writing but it was made quite clear to the organisers.

This placed organisers of Irish solidarity events in a dilemma. It was important for them to have speakers from the struggle in Ireland but they did not want to have to choose which organisation to support, much less agree to exclude the trend which had contributed three of the ten hunger striker martyrs. On the other hand, nor did they want to end up with the absence of a speaker from the Republican organisation with majority support in Ireland.

The problem was exacerbated in the case of demonstrations when Republican marching flute bands from Scotland, which had become so much a part of Irish solidarity demonstrations, began to also say that they could not attend a demonstration with an IRSP speaker or if there were no SF speaker. Some of them may well have been taking this position from loyalty to SF but there was another possible reason which weighed heavily with them. Some of them explained to me that if they fell out with PSF, they would not get invitations to play at marches organised by the Provisionals in the Six Counties. Attendance at such events was of tremendous psychological importance to their members.

One successful Hunger Strike commemoration march in North London, the organising committee of which I was a part, after long arguments, went ahead with a rally platform which included among the speakers one from the IRSP. Provisional SF had been invited to send a speaker but had declined, giving some excuse. Some of the members of the organising committee were so disheartened by that absence that an attempt to organise a repeat demonstration the following year had to be abandoned. Organisers of similar events became mentally exhausted through similar arguments and some events which had been successful in terms of numbers and areas where they had taken place were also not repeated, or were not repeated a third time – this was the case with the Terence McSwiney Commemoration march in Brixton.

My third and last example is the Saoirse campaign in England. Soon after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the Provisionals started a political campaign in solidarity with political prisoners, with a green ribbon, broad in membership, allowing many to join and become involved who were not necessarily aligned to the Provisionals as well as those who were. In Britain it quickly pulled in others who had not yet become active on the issues as well as those who had. The Saoirse campaign grew quickly in London, where I was working and politically active at the time. The agenda of an organisational meeting would include discussion of Saoirse’s most recent public activity, the planning of the next one, discussion on letters being sent to Republican prisoners and their replies, updates on the situations in the prisons and at large, and planning of social/fund-raising events. The meetings were lively and a place where innovative ideas were not only put forward but often accepted and acted upon.

After the Canary Wharf bombing in February 1996, the word was relayed to us that Sinn Féin wished to close down the Saoirse campaign. The official rationale was that the campaign was inappropriate now that the ceasefire was over and the war back on. Many of us disagreed: war or ceasefire, the prisoners were of continuing concern and the Saoirse campaign was lively and growing. Inside the solidarity movement, another rationale started to be rumoured, that Sinn Féin had expressed concern at “the penetration and takeover of Saoirse in Britain by Red Action,” a British-based socialist organisation.

Red Action originated among SWP dissidents who organised themselves to fight the growing fascist movement in Britain. Since British fascists often targeted Irish solidarity demonstrations and meetings, it was natural that an anti-fascist organisation should find itself in action around Irish solidarity events but also many of Red Action’s leaders and members were Irish or of Irish descent and they had a natural sympathy for Irish solidarity as well as a according it a certain ideological importance.

With the creation of the Saoirse campaign it was natural that Red Action should become involved. However, at organisational meetings of the North London committee, there were only two or three Red Action present out of an attendance of between 15 to 20 people. In South London, where my branch was, there were none at all.

What became clear to me and to some others was that Sinn Féin wanted to close down the campaign not because it was inappropriate in terms of the stage of struggle, or because it was being taken over by some other group or that it was doing anything wrong in terms of Irish solidarity – it was simply that the organisation was so lively and attracting so much support that SF could no longer control it. Eventually, despite resistance, they managed to disband it.

When the “peace process” was back on again, SF’s support organisation in London, the Wolfe Tone Society, whose leaders had at first opposed the closing down of the Saoirse campaign, called people together to launch a new campaign, a replacement of Saoirse which they called Fuascailt. Hardly surprisingly, the gathering to launch the new organisation was much smaller than had been the Saoirse support – the disbanding experience had been so alienating to some that they never joined Fuascailt and some I never saw on the Irish solidarity scene again. Fuascailt didn’t grow much and it was evident that the WTS were keeping a pretty tight control on it. Initiatives which they did not approve of, or which were suggested by those who were known to be against the “peace process”, were voted down or, if they won majority support, were sabotaged in a number of ways. It was not a great surprise to some of us when the WTS proposed a motion coming from the Provisionals that Fuascailt should be closed down and its membership transferred to the WTS. The motion was carried by a large majority.

The net result of all this manoeuvring was that SF’s London support group increased a little in size but a much larger broad, vibrant and growing Irish solidarity organisation ceased to exist.

4. The Republican movement usually sought allies in the wrong quarters.

The Republican movement has, since the creation of the Fenians, looked to the Irish diaspora in the United States for support. But the diaspora is not homogeneous – it has class and political divisions. Increasingly the Republican movement came to seek the political support of the bourgeois section of the Irish diaspora, especially within the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, who had sympathies for Irish national aspirations but who were also capitalists and supporters of US Imperialism.

These were the opposite of those long pickets standing outside the British Embassy in New York, described by musician (of Black ’47 fame) and author Larry Kirwan  as “the Tribe”. This orientation increasingly tied the Republican movement to reactionary politicians and impacted negatively on their ability to unite effectively with anti-imperialists around the world, most of whom were fighting US imperialism directly or indirectly. In fact, one of the regular contributors to An Phoblacht in the early days, a PSF weekly newspaper, was Fred Burns O’Brien, based in the US and a supporter of Israeli Zionism (which at times found expression in his articles).

Gerry Adams and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Irish-American millionaire politician of the US Democrat Party
Gerry Adams and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Irish-American millionaire politician of the US Democrat Party

The alliance with the Irish-American Democrat politicians was not only a reactionary alliance but a very naive one for the PSF – US imperialism needed the support of British imperialism for its wars abroad, both in terms of military alliance but also in cajoling and bullying support in the EU and in the UN. The US was never going to force its junior partner to take a serious loss unless US Imperialism itself was going to get some major gain from it (as it had done in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis).

In the Irish state, PSF looked first to the “Republican wing” of Fianna Fáil. This party, it must be remembered, despite its origins in a split from Sinn Féin in the 1930s, had become the preferred party of the Irish neo-colonial bourgeoisie, having been in power for more years than its competitor, Fine Gael. Appealing to such conservative elements meant keeping PSF policies conservative too and not challenging the basis or social reality of the 26-County state.

In Britain initially PSF appealed to the Irish diaspora there, making no distinction between minor Irish construction and publican capitalists one the one hand and working class Irish (who were the vast majority of the diaspora) on the other. They also initially cooperated to an extent with British Left solidarity organisations such as the Troops Out Movement but were very uncomfortable with the revolutionary socialist rhetoric of many on the British Left.

After PSF closed down all their cumainn (branches) in Britain, they had to become more involved with British socialist organisations and with TOM (Troops Out Movement). The latter over time and especially during state repression of the Irish community became less of an Irish solidarity voice in British society, its original raison d’etre and instead increasingly became another organisation fishing in the Irish community pool, along with Irish republicans, Irish community activists and specific campaigns such as the Anti-Strip Searches campaign.

These were healthy alliances in general for the Republican movement but increasingly TOM came to accept the diktat of PSF while the Republican movement ignored the needs of the Irish community, concentrating on its military campaigns in Britain on the one hand and, on the other, on reformist “solidarity” campaigns. The “Time To Go” campaign in Britain was the epitome of that, in which PSF asked people in Britain for troop withdrawal from Ireland, not on the basis of the British ruling class being a common enemy of the British workers, nor even just of internationalist solidarity, but on the basis that less military expenditure would lead to increased investment in social provision in Britain.

In Britain, PSF could find no potential ally in a political constituency to match that of the US Democrats or Fianna Fáil. The Labour Party had been the very party that sent the troops to support the sectarian Six County state against the civil rights uprising and had brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Britain (and jailed a score of innocent Irish people on murder charges). But the Labour Party had some Trotskyist and radical Left groups within it and in promoting its Time To Go campaign, PSF appealed to these and to individual politicians such as Clare Short, Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell.

The opportunist manoeuvring of Short and McDonnell in particular, along with their small Trotskyist and radical Labour cliques, eventually left the TTG campaign with a huge presence on paper and one big demonstration, but no real substance and no real change in British politics. All the Irish community and Irish solidarity organisations left the organising committee, with the exception of the Connolly Association, a group closely related to the waning Communist Party of Great Britain. TTG was also supported on the British Left, as well as by trotskyists and radicals on the fringes of the Labour Party, by the Socialist Workers’ Party, to the extent that whenever one saw a TTG poster on the streets it was next to one of the SWP’s, obviously put up in the same postering operation by supporters of the party.

The Irish diaspora in Britain was very large and overwhelmingly working class. It had a huge potential for mobilising Irish solidarity and for breaking through media disinformation to their British workmates, neighbours and partners. But it also had its own needs. PSF never respected those needs and disregarded them in favour of bombings on the one hand and reactionary alliances on the other. Nor was PSF interested in revolutionary alliance with the British working class to which the Irish community held at least one of the keys (the only SF representative in Britain I ever heard promote something of the sort, Derek Highstead, was not long in his post before he was found dead under his tipper truck in 1976 with no witnesses to say what happened).

Summary of the above

I have stated that the Republican movement in general and PSF in particular did not tolerate what it considered competition and deliberately squashed and eliminated any campaign or movement it viewed in those terms.

I have also stated that in general, the Republican movement and PSF in particular has preferred reactionary alliances to revolutionary ones.

I have tried to show how reliance on such alliances helped drive PSF in increasingly reformist directions and away from the potential of revolutionary alliance internationally and, particularly in Britain, the possibility of developing a class-based revolutionary alliance with the potential not only of increasing Irish solidarity presence in British society but also of destabilising the rule of the British capitalist class. I have also tried to illustrate how the PSF ‘need’ to control their arena and to eliminate whatever they consider competition led to decreasing and restricted solidarity movements and the elimination of popular movements which would have had the potential to spread the struggle wider, to bring new forces to it and to increase solidarity for the struggle in the Six Counties.

And now …..

Up to now, I may have kept some Republicans still with me or at least keeping an open mind while they think about what I’ve been saying. With what I am about to say now I risk switching the last of these off and yet I think it needs to be said. This is the fifth reason I have been keeping until last but it provides the key to understanding why the Republican movement in general and PSF in particular made all these “mistakes” and why the movement in general continues to make them. And unless this is confronted, the movement will keep on making these errors forever, oscillating between militarism and reformism and never organising popular revolt; it will never defeat imperialism, to say nothing of achieving the socialism to which, in their statements, all Republican organisations currently aspire.

5. The Republican struggle was led by a bourgeois ideology although most of its membership was working class.

All these “mistakes” and “omissions” made the defeat of the struggle inevitable but they did not come about through the stupidity or ignorance of the leaders of the Republican movement. They came about because from their class viewpoint, by and large they could not act otherwise. They never sought to overthrow the Irish state but instead to come to some sort of a deal with it in the future. That is why they did not mobilise on the many economic, cultural and social issues which were available. They did seek to overthrow the Six County statelet and to expel British colonialism, but in time realised not only that they would not get any help from the Irish state to do that but that it would oppose them all the way. They could only overthrow the Six County statelet by overthrowing the Twenty-Six County state also, which was never their intention. Once they realised that, a deal with British imperialism and the ending of the war was inevitable.

The Republican movement leadership may have had its own prejudices and religious beliefs which would make confrontation with the Catholic Church difficult but the more fundamental reason for the failure to take it on was simply that the Catholic Church was (and still is) part of the Twenty-Six County state.

And the Republican leadership could not build and maintain genuinely socialist and anti-imperialist alliances because some day in their vision of the future they would be running a capitalist Ireland and be part of the capitalist-imperialist world network, which was the same reason they built reactionary alliances instead. The Republican movement had a bourgeois ideology and a petite-bourgeois leadership with aspirations to become big bourgeois. And unless Irish Republicans learn to recognise this and to combat it, they will always be the footsoldiers and prisoners in a war which their leadership will ensure that they cannot win.

Republicanism, anti-monarchical anti-feudal in outlook, developed as an ideology of a rising capitalist class but a class which also had to recruit other subject classes to fight for it, since the capitalist class itself was neither numerous nor powerful enough on its own to displace the monarchy and aristocracy. This is the meaning of the recruitment of

The Levellers were a democratic republican movement with a strong representation in the New Model Army.  After their mutiny at Bamford, Oxfordshire, Cromwell broke an agreement with them and attacked at night, killing several.  These three were taken prisoner, held in the church at Burford and then shot dead.
The Levellers were a democratic English republican movement with a strong representation in the Parliamentary New Model Army. After their mutiny at Bamford, Oxfordshire, Oliver Cromwell broke an agreement with them and attacked at night, killing several. These three above were taken prisoner, held in the church at Burford and then shot dead.

people like the Levellers to the English Civil War of Parliament against the English King in 1649 and the later trials, expulsions, executions and murders of those Levellers (for seeking a fuller democracy and refusing to be sent to suppress the Irish). It explains the recruitment of the poor sans cullottes to the French Revolution of 1789 under slogans of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, and in 1871, the drowning in blood of the revolutionary socialist Paris Commune. It is why republican and revolutionary France could send troops to suppress the black slaves in Haiti who, taking French revolutionary slogans to heart, had risen in the first successful modern slave uprising in history. It is why republican and revolutionary American colonists could have black slaves and make war on the native American Indians. It is why bourgeois republicans in the Popular Front government of the Spanish state did not set free its “Spanish Sahara” colony (now Western Sahara) despite it being one of the staging posts for the fascist-military uprising that began the Spanish Civil War.

Republicanism per se, despite things often said to the contrary in Irish Republican circles, is no natural ally of socialism. However, in Ireland in particular, there have been many attempts to marry the two political trends. James Connolly called the first socialist party he founded (1896) the “Irish Socialist Republican Party” and the Republican Congress (1934) tried to combine both socialism and republicanism. Sinn Féin before the split developed a socialist rhetoric and drew inspiration from socialist countries and in recent decades all Irish Republican parties lay claim to being socialist. The IRSP put forward a socialist rhetoric upon its formation and later formally adopted marxism-leninism. But the two trends of socialism and republicanism do not automatically go together.

Socialism, the real thing as opposed to social democracy, is a revolutionary ideology of the working class. It seeks to put the working class in control. It is not for “the people”, whether of Ireland or of anywhere else, but for the working class. In the process of its revolution, the working class cannot help but liberate “the people”: the peasant from being a virtual slave to landlord and big farmer; the small business people from exploiting their families and long hours and constantly being broken by bigger businesses; the monopoly capitalists from being parasites exploiting others and using their families to build their empires (whether they and their families want that liberation or not). All this the working class will do under socialism while liberating workers from being wage-slaves, educated only to the necessary level to carry out their roles as producers and exploited throughout their working lives. For the first time in the history of class struggle, a majority class will come to power.

The working class cannot achieve socialism without social revolution and its main enemy in this is of course the class of its exploiters, the capitalist class, those who stand most to lose. The Irish capitalist class however is two capitalist classes, the colonial bourgeoisie in the Six Counties, descendants of British colonialists, and the neo-colonial bourgeoisie in the Twenty-Six, the “native” capitalist class that developed under direct British rule and after “independence”. And both of these have a relationship, each different but of dependency nevertheless, to imperialism — British, US and EU. The Irish working class, in order to free itself, has to oppose imperialism and colonialism in Ireland.

The Irish bourgeoisie and sections of the middle class, the petit-bourgeoisie, have gained and can gain from their relationship with imperialism and colonialism – they have become administrators and agents in the selling of the country, its resources and labour. But the working class can never gain anything from compromising with imperialism and colonialism, as it will always be the loser. “The working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the struggle for Irish freedom”, said James Connolly or, to put it another way, the ONLY inheritors who can be trusted to carry through the struggle. In order to carry out that responsibility, it must be the leader of the national revolution. While it can make temporary alliances with other classes, it must have its own organisation to the fore with its own ideology and its own clear demands. It cannot have vague demands like “control of the resources by the people” or “real democracy and accountability” while having not a word to say about what it will do with Irish and foreign capitalism.

Among the first steps of any socialist revolution must be not only the setting up of workers’ councils to make decisions and to mobilise resources, but to nationalise all major capitalist concerns without crippling the economy with compensation to the former “owners”. If Irish natural resources “belong to the people” then they must be nationalised immediately. And if land “belongs to the people”, the workers will take it immediately for food production, cheap social housing or other projects. If the seas “belong to the people” then the workers will develop them for sustainable food and power production and defend them from incursion. Universities will become not only places for academic exploration but also training places in the skills and technology that a developing Irish economy will need – and open to all free of charge. The working class will also have to completely tear down the structures of the capitalist state and decide what structures of its own to construct to serve society. And if socialists intend to do all this, how can they mobilise the working class without telling them their programme and allowing them to see that vision of society, so that it becomes the vision of the class, its own conscious mission?

If the Irish Republican movement ever comes to truly incorporate socialism into its ethos, it will need to incorporate it into its policy too. And it will need not only to recruit overwhelmingly among the working class as it does now, but to give the class its view of itself as the leading component, the motive force of the Irish revolution, not for “Ireland” but for the class itself!

If the Irish Republican movement comes to do all that, then it will truly be socialist. But it will be a very different movement and the process will make many in the current movement uncomfortable. On the other hand, we will truly be on the way, for the first time in centuries, to the defeat of colonialism and imperialism in Ireland.

I have said that much of the current discussion in the Republican movement is centring on the wrong question – the questions I have asked are I think the fundamental ones to ask at this time. But I am also aware that at some point the question of armed aspect to the struggle will need to be addressed. I am clear that by and large this is not the time for armed struggle. However, I am also clear that at some point capitalism and imperialism will pose the question for us much more forcibly. No ruling class has ever stepped down from power willingly or without, if it had the capacity to do so, unleashing violence on those who would overthrow it. Nor has any imperial or colonial power relinquished control of its colony without first trying to violently suppress the national liberation movement. And no class or liberation movement that has been unable to meet that armed violence with an adequate armed resistance has succeeded either. History tells us that is true and it doesn’t care whether we like it or not.


How can a people defeat a stronger invader or occupying power?

Diarmuid Breatnach                       Nov. 2012

This article was replaced by an edited and augmented article posted on 30th January 2014 (Spanish-language version also posted “Como Puede un Pueblo ..” etc): 


(Spanish-language version also posted “Como Puede un Pueblo Derrotar  ..” etc)

The Mitchell Principles – a fair basis for conflict resolution or an undemocratic and pro-imperialist set of principles?

Diarmuid Breatnach


The discussions prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in what is often termed “the Irish peace process”, were based on six principles and the Agreement itself is also said to be based on them. The Mitchell Principles are named after George Mitchell, a US Senator and mediator in the Irish talks and earlier in the Palestinian talks of 1993.

George Mitchell, USA Senator, creator of the Mitchell Principles
George Mitchell, USA Senator, creator of the Mitchell Principles

The Good Friday Agreement was agreed in 1998 between representatives of Provisional Sinn Féin (and arguably, at the very least by proxy, Provisional IRA also) on the one hand and by representatives of the British Government on the other. Subsequently a referendum in the Irish state gave a big majority for the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of the Irish state, articles which had claimed dominion over the whole of Ireland, and this was taken as a popular endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement. An election in the Northern Ireland statelet gave a narrower majority to parties who endorsed the Good Friday Agreement and this too was taken as an endorsement of the Agreement.

The Mitchell Principles are often hailed by commentators as fair and democratic and as a sound basis for peace talks. This short article sets out to test this claim, to analyse the six Principles from a democratic and anti-imperialist point of view.

1. “The parties agree to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues.

The terms of the first stipulation of the Mitchell Principles, in the circumstances in which the British had imposed a division on the country, in one part of which they had constructed a statelet within which their supporters, the Unionists1, had an inbuilt majority, were not only unfair but intrinsically undemocratic.

Ireland had been considered one entity by the English conquerors at least since the 15th Century. Its partition was not even imagined until the early 20th Century and then only as a response to the nationalist demand for autonomy under Home Rule2, conceded in principle by the British in 1914; allegedly partition was in response to militant unionists rebelling3 against nationalist Home Rule.

The partition of Ireland, in one part of which the unionists would have a voting majority, had first been conceived to keep the historic province of Ulster for the unionists, while the Nationalists could have the other three provinces. However, it was soon realised that Nationalists and Republicans would between them outvote the Unionists and so the boundary was re-drawn to exclude three counties 4 of Ulster’s nine from the proposed Loyalist state. Even within these Six Counties, the unionists were obliged, in order to ensure political control of local authorities, to draw election constituency boundaries in such a way as to ensure that many areas with a Nationalist-Republican majority in their population nevertheless returned Unionist candidates i.

Entitlement to vote based on home occupation and property ownership, coupled with wide-scale housing discrimination against potential nationalist voters (i.e. Catholics) kept local authorities in unionist hands until a fierce campaign for civil rights and a guerilla war forced the removal of these franchise restrictions, after which some local authorities came under nationalist-republican control. However, within the Six Counties overall, demographics continued to ensure a unionist majority.

The wish of the majority of Ireland had been for independence of the whole country and that had been demonstrated not only by centuries of struggle and uprisings but by the guerilla war of 1919-1921 and also by the bourgeois elections of 1919 under British rule, the democratic expression of which the British had firstly ignored and later assaulted by their proscribing the First Dáil (parliament) and the jailing of elected members.

The First Mitchell Principle’s stipulation that the division of the country could only be overcome if a majority of the voters in the Six Counties voted for that proposition is profoundly unfair, in that its effect is that decolonisation and national unification can only be permitted by a majority vote in that part of the country which had artificially been divided from the rest precisely on the basis that the majority of the population there was known to vote Unionist, i.e. for remaining a British colony ii.

Furthermore, the acceptance of such a principle internationally would be disastrous – it would mean that any state could legitimately invade another, annex a part of it by force of arms, ensure through colonisation and other means that a majority voted to remain its colony and then prohibit the colonised from liberating the colony and reunifying the country.

2. “The parties agree to the disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.

This second stipulation might appear at a hurried first glance as fair but in fact it is completely the opposite. It leaves totally out of the equation the largest and most heavily-armed party to the dispute – the British state, with over 177,000 personnel in their armed forces* and over 7,200 armed police in the Six Counties, along with their intelligence services. It was in fact the violence of the armed and sectarian colonial police force which had sparked off the uprising in Derry and Belfast in 1969 and it was in their support that the British armed forces had been sent to the statelet.

The main armed struggle had subsequently been between the Republican organisations and the British Army, with the armed colonial police in second place. The Loyalist paramilitaries were only third in level of struggle with the Republican armed organisations; in addition irrefutable evidence has emerged over the years of collusion between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the colonial police and British Army and indeed points to their actual direction by British intelligence services.

The British state’s armed forces do not even receive a mention in the Mitchell Principles and are left at the disposal of the state unhindered to use in any circumstances as it deems fit. Indeed, the possibility exists that the state would prevent the decolonisation and unification of the country even in the extremely unlikely eventuality that such a proposal received a majority of the votes in the Six Counties; the Mitchell Principles have nothing to say about that.

3. The 3rd Principle, “To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commissionunderlines the first Principle and sketches the structure through which the unfair Second Principle is to be given effect.

4. “To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations.

This fourth principle not only strengthens the unfair Second Principle but leaves the Republicans with no means of bringing about independence and unity beyond a majority vote in favour within the Six Counties where, as observed earlier, an artificial majority militates against this possibility.

The British state, on the other hand, can and does use force and the threat of it to influence not only negotiations but its continued control over its colony of the Six Counties. It used force to achieve the colonisation of the whole country for hundreds of years and when it could no longer continue to do so, it used force to partition the country and to maintain that partition for what is now approaching a century.

The section which calls upon the parties “to oppose any effort by others, to use force” is understood by all not to refer to opposing the use of force by the British state. But not only that, in “opposing any effort by others”, i.e. those who might not be signatories, it commits the signatories to at least morally condemn those who may continue armed activities and possibly even to collaborating with forces of the state against them.

That this stipulation in theory falls equally upon the armed sections of the Loyalists as it does upon the Republicans is immaterial, since as we have seen the Loyalist paramilitaries are not the most significant armed opposition to the Republicans and in fact may be seen mainly as auxiliaries of the British State, its armed forces and its colonial administration. It is the Republicans who are clearly the target of this section and it requires those among them who have signed up to the Principles to denounce armed activities of other Republicans who do not feel bound by the Principles and perhaps even to supply the British state and its armed forces with information about them.

Certainly since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which we are repeatedly informed are based upon the Mitchell Principles, the Republican parties to the Agreement, Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA have publicly condemned other Republicans (“dissidents”) for their continued resistance, have threatened them and at times administered physical punishment5. In addition, one of the Provisionals’ most senior figures, Martin McGuinness, on a number of occasions has publicly called for people to inform on them to the British authorities6.

5. The Fifth Principle, “To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree,strengthens the Fourth.

As we have seen, the “democratic” methods available apply only to an area with boundaries so drawn as to leave the Republicans always outvoted by Unionists; they do not apply to a vote in all 32 Counties of the country (nor even by the population in Britain, which has shown in repeated censi their wish for the British to withdraw from Ireland). The “peaceful methods” are required of the Republicans but not of the British state. The Principles deny the Republicans, in effect, both democratic and military means to achieve decolonisation and reunification.

6. The Sixth Principle “To urge that ‘punishment’ killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions is one which seems, at first glance, to be merely requiring civilized standards of behaviour. However let us examine the situation more carefully.

The state has means of ensuring compliance with its requirements – maintaining its social order, control of property and security. It uses fines, threats of and periods of actual imprisonment as punishments with the intention of ensuring compliance. It administers these through courts, police and prison service, using physical force to carry out court sentences. Unofficially, it also administers beatings, both when attacking demonstrations and on prisoners in their police stations.

Whatever one may think of punishment beatings, they were the equivalent control mechanisms of the Republican armed groups. They did not have recourse to fines and imprisonment.

With regard to “punishment killings”, these were usually carried out, it seems, against people who were proven or thought to be informers to British state forces. Looked at another way, in the absence of the possibility of jailing for espionage harming their security, i.e. the standard punishment of the state, the Republican armed organisations were either beating or killing those assumed to be endangering their security – upon which their very lives depended. The Sixth Principle in effect prohibits the use of any force in order for the Republicans to ensure compliance and their organisation’s security, whilst at the same time permitting the state all of its own panoply in that regard, including the anti-democratic special “anti-terror” laws of the Six Counties.


Adherence to the Mitchell Principles removes the possibility in any foreseeable future of achieving the objectives of the Republicans, national reunification and national independence. In regard to those objectives, the effect of the Principles is to ensure the continuation of the status quo, legitimising the undemocratic partition of the country in 1921 and the continued existence of a British colony in Ireland. In turn, that false legitimisation and continued colonisation perpetuates the unjust invasion of Ireland and its progressive English colonisation nearly a thousand years ago, against which the Irish people have never ceased to struggle for even a generation but which has arrested the political and economic development of the nation and destroyed a significant part of its culture.

The continued colonisation is a brake upon the future develoment of the Irish nation and the continued sectarian and colonial rule within that colony, along with the partition of the country, also retards the development of the Irish working class as a united force able to pursue its own interests.

The Mitchell Principles, all six of them, are colonial and imperialist in effect, profoundly unfair and essentially undemocratic. Any agreement based upon them, such as for example the Good Friday Agreement, cannot help but be imbued with the same qualities.

Lúnasa/ August 2013

Note: A translation of this document into Spanish is available: Los Principios Mitchell – ¿una base justa para la resolución de conflictos? O un conjunto de principios no democráticos y pro-imperialistas?


1 That is those who wished to continue in union with England, as part of the United Kingdom.


2 Home Rule” proposed a kind of autonomy within the British Empire. The country could have its government which could promulgate laws and impose taxes but could not separate from the Empire. There existed already various different types of that arrangement within the Empire. The unionists, the majority of Protestant religion, opposed this in 1913 and threatened armed resistance by their militia, which had received a cargo of almost 25,000 rifles and even some heavy machine guns.

3 The Unionists began to recruit a militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, led by by some politicians and capitalists of the colonial bourgeoisie and of Protestant religion, descendants of British colonists, with the support of the Conservative Party in Britain and of a substantial number of officers of the British Army in Ireland.

4 Dún na nGall (Donegal), an Chábhán (Cavan), Muineachán (Monaghan)

* Figures at the time of writing — the numbers in the British armed forces were even higher at the time the Mitchell Principles were proposed.

5 Including the murder of “Real IRA” member Joseph O’Connor in 2000.

6 The same person said in a television interview years ago that those who give information to the authorities in the Six Counties know the risk and deserve death.



i  After the War of Independence in Ireland (1919-1921), the British decided to divide the country, one part for the nationalists and the other for the unionists.

 Originally, the plan was to give the Unionists the province of Ulster but they realised that the Catholics would be the majority within the province. For that reason, the borders of the Unionist statelet were drawn up to include only six of the nine counties of Ulster (that is the reason that Republicans call the statelet “The Six Counties” and neither “Ulster” nor “Northern Ireland”, as the northernmost part of Ireland is in County Donegal, one of the three Ulster counties that remained with the Irish state after the Treaty of 1921 (to see it, enter “image counties of Ireland” or similar into an Internet search).

But even so, they were obliged to change the electoral boundaries: wherever there would be a “nationalist” majority in votes, they chopped up the district, placing part of the community within one electoral district containing many unionst votes, and the other part in a similar electoral district. This practice is called “gerrymandering”, after the practice of a US politician. For example, the city of Derry, which is nearly totally “Nationalist” or “Catholic”, for many years had a Unionist majority.

They drew up the laws so that only those who had houses could vote and those who had a house in one area and a business in another, could vote in each district (the majority of these would be Unionists). Those who rented local authority housing were entitled to vote, because were it not so, the majority of the unionist working class would have been unable to vote (and the unionist bourgeoisie needed their support).

But as the “nationalist” community was so large, it was necessary that the local authority not give them housing to rent because at the same time that would give them access to the vote. The civil rights campaign which was launched in 1968 was propelled by the protest occupation of a house which the council had allocated to the secretary of a unionist politician. The secretary was single and without children and there were many of the “nationalist” community without housing, living in their parents’ house or having no choice but to emigrate.

That was the reason why the Civil Rights movement demands one could hear in the years 1968, ’69’, ’70 etc. were: “one man, one vote” (yes, I know, it should have been “one person”, yes); “right to housing for all” and “one man, one job” (because of the discrimination in employment). There were other demands too, for example the right to protest, free speech, the right of assembly ….. to understand everything well one could look it up on Google as it is quite a broad theme. Civil rights were conceded finally years later but by that time armed struggle was in full flow.

ii   “Catholics” and “Protestants” were labels of convenience given to the different communities within the colonial British state of the Six Counties, based on the majority religions within each community. The division has little to do with religion nowadays and even historically had more to do with economics and politics. The terms “Nationalist” and “Unionist” were employed by the Republicans during the 1971-1998 war in order to avoid the representation of the conflict as a religious one, as this had been an important aspect of the propaganda of the British state. Obviously, not all in the “nationalist community” were nationalists – some were socialists, communists, anarchists or social democrats. I prefer these terms to the religious ones but I recognise their insufficiency and their tendency to give the nationalist-republicans hegemony over the ideology of the minority community.

 To understand the origins of the different communities and how they operated one needs to look into their history. After the defeat of the resistance of the clan chiefs in the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603), the land of the Irish clans in Ulster was ‘planted’ with colonists from England and Scotland. The plantations were of private origin (by private persons or companies) and also by the Scottish Parliament (through the English state) and by the English Crown. The beneficiaries were mainly the English Anglican Church, land speculators, financial corporations, officers of the English Army and English and Scottish colonists in search of a better life. All colonists were required to be English-speaking and of Protestant faith (the majority of the English colonists were Anglicans, while the majority of the Scottish were Presbyterians). Some big landowners rented out or sub-leased their lands to other colonists and other colonists worked their own land.

So that the plantation would remain loyal to England, huge areas were planted and the new owners were explicitly forbidden to take on Irish tenants and had to import workers from England and Scotland. The intention was to relocate the Irish peasant population to live near the Protestant garrisons and churches, in order the more easily to control them. The colonists were also forbidden to sell land to any Irish person and were obliged to construct defensive works against any possible rebellion or invasion. The work was required to be completed within three years. In this manner, the creation was intended of a new defensible community, composed entirely of loyal British subjects.

 During the English Civil War, the Irish in Ulster rose up in the bloody insurrection of 1641. The repression of the insurrection, its defeat and subsequent “pacification” by Cromwell, leader of the English state, in 1649 was even bloodier still. A new wave of Scottish emigration fleeing the 1696-1698 famine in their country resulted in Presbyterians becoming for the first time the majority religious group in Ulster.

 Naturally, the dispossessed retaliated against the occupants of what had been their lands and also naturally, the colonists defended themselves. The original war of resistance, the following dispossession, the resistance to colonisation and the actions of the colonists were all bloody. In the struggles between the dispossessed and the colonists, and by each group independently against their exploiters, militant societies were formed such as the Defenders (Catholics) and Hearts of Oak and Peep O’Day boys (Protestants).

 Presbyterians, although Protestant colonists of the English state, suffered discrimination. The English Protestant Anglican Church was the “established religion” of the English state and its representation in Ireland was the “Church of Ireland” (which remains its name to the day). Of course, the majority in Ireland were neither of the Presbyterian nor of the Anglican faith but Catholics (although no longer in Ulster, where the Presbyterians had an absolute majority since the 17th Century). Presbyterians, like Catholics, were obliged to pay a tithe (a tenth of their income) for the upkeep of the minority Anglican Church and were not permitted to stand for election to the Irish (colonial) Parliament. Mixed marriages with Anglicans were disapproved of and not permitted with Catholics. Both groups were forbidden for a time to enter Trinity College. The Presbyterians resented paying taxes without electoral representation (one of the complaints of the American colonists, which finally led to their Revolution), the restrictions on their commercial interests and the corruption of the English Crown in Ireland. Republican ideas began to gain dominance among them.

 In 1791 the Society of United Irishmen was formed, led primarily by Presbyterian Republicans and united principally Catholics and Presbyterians with some other faith groups (its principal ideologue, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was an Anglican). In 1798 they rose up in three main uprisings (but not simultaneously) – in the counties of Antrim, Wexford and Mayo. The English were successful in suppressing all three and killed thousands of insurgents, many others were taken prisoner and sent to penal colonies and other thousands, particularly Presbyterians, emigrated to the US or to Canada (joining previous Presbyterian emigrants).

 Repression was ferocious and the Orange Order played a particularly important role in Ulster in the coercion of Presbyterian resistance and, ironically, was successful in establishing loyalty to the English Crown as the dominant ideology in that community.

 Nowadays the majority of Presbyterians in the English colony in the north-east of Ireland has some degree or other of loyalty to the British state and desires to remain within the Union of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The majority of Catholics in the area, after centuries of dispossession and repression by the English, together with decades of discrimination and repression by the Orange Order and by the Northern Ireland state, appear to favour other options, including which many support reunification into an Irish state.


IGNORANCE, COLLUSION or HONESTY? The death and legacy of Nelson Mandela and an analysis of the Irish republican and left-wing response

Nelson Mandela, 1918 - 2013
Nelson Mandela, 1918 – 2013

On 5th December 2013, Nelson Mandela died. This was a major event in South Africa and in many other parts of the world. His funeral was reportedly attended by representatives of 90 states, including those of major imperialist states such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition, many political organisations and some national liberation organisations were invited to attend, including representatives of the Dunne’s Stores anti-apartheid strikers of 1984-1987, perhaps the most significant non-military anti-apartheid solidarity action taken in any country.

Mandela had been an iconic figure during the South African liberation struggle, both inside and outside South Africa. He was not only an educated and eloquent speaker against the apartheid system but also a senior member of the African National Congress (ANC), the major political organisation opposing the white minority regime in South Africa, and also of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party (SACP), as well as a founder of the armed national liberation group Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’, generally known as MK), a guerilla group associated with the African National Congress. In 1964, along with nine others he was convicted of charges relating to ‘terrorism’ and sabotage and sentenced to life in jail. The UN Security Council had unanimously condemned the trial, showing that the main imperialist countries in the world were of the opinion that the SA state was wrong in the way it was handling the opposition (and probably thinking that it would encourage its overthrow in revolution).

Mandela was really launched as a practically household name and resistance icon in 1988, as anti-apartheid campaigners around the world sought to use the occasion of his 70th birthday and 26th year in prison as a focus against the SA regime. The “Mandela birthday concert” played to 15,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London and to hundreds of millions around the world in a live TV event, and to others in recorded screenings. Many famous pop and rock bands, singers, actors, comedy performers etc. contributed, with Tracy Chapman becoming famous on that event with her song “Talkin’ About a Revolution”.

That concert and other smaller ones, which were nevertheless huge events (a previous free one on London’s Clapham Common organised by Jerry Dammers, of ska band The Specials, had an estimated 200,000 in attendance), were adding to an international campaign for boycott (particularly in sport and in music), sanctions and divestment from South Africa; it had become an international pariah state.

In the 1980s, the South African white minority regime was under heavy pressure, with the internal resistance movement growing politically, in the communities and in the trade union movement. Wide-scale civil disobedience continued as part of the anti-apartheid movement inside South Africa; all of this despite police shootings, disappearances, torture, the jails being full and many of the anti-apartheid leaders being in jail too.

Recognising the vulnerability to revolution of the regime and of their investments, foreign banks were pressurising the SA regime to abandon apartheid and bring in universal suffrage. The United States, behind the scenes, was adding to that pressure.

Mandela had been moved from Robben Island prison in 1982 to the much better conditions of Pollsmoor prison, where he had regular discussion with operatives of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of South Africa, and at some point with its leader Niel Barnard and with the latter’s Deputy Director General, Mike Louw. Almost certainly, initial approaches had been made earlier, perhaps even years earlier. At the same time, others began to have meetings with ANC leaders in exile.

Further meetings with Mandela took place, including with foreign representatives and with successive Presidents of South Africa. In 1990, the ANC was legalised and Mandela was released. In 1991 the National Peace Accords were signed and apartheid, as a legally-constituted measure, was abolished. There followed negotiations, as well as a number of crises including assassinations and communal massacres; but in 1994 the ANC took 64% of the vote in the South African national elections and formed the government.

By the time Mandela came out of jail, the ANC and MK were already riven with corruption, personality cults and dictatorial procedure. Some of MK’s training camps in other states bordering SA were run wholly or in part as concentration camps where internal critics of the way things were run, so-called MK ‘dissidents’, were tortured and at times killed. Mandela’s wife, Winnie, was in one ANC clique which had murdered at least one youth and eventually Mandela divorced her. But there were bigger cliques in the ANC from which Mandela never once distanced himself. Nor did he ever condemn the torturers and murderers of MK dissidents – in fact, many of those torturers are in the state security apparatus and some were even in his own bodyguard while he lived.

The ANC had an economic programme which was encapsulated in the Freedom Charter, part of which stated:

“The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people.”

Mandela had stated shortly after his release that the Freedom Charter was not up for negotiation. In the event, not one mine, one bank or one monopoly industry was nationalised; instead the ANC government agreed to burden the state it would be running with a rich pension to apartheid-era civil servants, IMF repayments and restrictions, and also signed up to GATT and WTO1 without any consultation with its electorate.

History shows us that the elevation of a living individual as an icon in a liberation struggle is fraught with dangers, and the case of Mandela is no exception. As the ‘face’ of the ANC he led the organisation in a deal with the SA ruling class and with foreign imperialism, a deal in which formal equality and the vote was given to every non-white citizen, but in which all other social objectives and all the economic measures for which so many had suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture and death, were dumped. In terms of wages, housing and services, the vast majority of South Africans are even worse off now than they were under apartheid.

While the South African apartheid regime was certainly capable of massacring 34 protesters in one day, as the ANC state police did last year with striking miners at Marikana (and another ten a few days previously), not even they would have charged the comrades of the slain with their murders, which is what an ANC state judge did.

South African police executing striking miners Aug2012

South African police executing striking miners at Marikana, August 2012

And certainly under apartheid, one would not have found any of the ANC, the SACP, the National Union of Mineworkers or the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) ranged against black miners striking for better wages against a foreign multinational mining company.

It was South African capitalism, imperialism and a small clique of the ANC that benefited from the deal to which Mandela and the ANC agreed, and they got richer while the mass of South Africans got poorer. Would, or even could, that deal have been clinched without Mandela’s complicity? Possibly – with difficulty, certainly. Would, or could, it have been sold if he had come out and opposed it, as others such as Desmond Tutu began to do soon afterwards? Almost certainly not. The South African regime would have had to concede at least some economic and social benefits or risk outright revolutionary war – which is precisely what releasing Mandela and legalising the ANC was intended to avoid. But Mandela went along with it all and had nothing to say – even after the police murder of 44 strikers.

Irish Republican and Left-wing responses to Mandela’s death – an analysis

So, all this being so, how did the Irish republican and left-wing groups respond to Mandela’s death? The answer is generally poorly, and the significance goes far beyond the man himself, or even South Africa; it reveals a deeply worrying general attitude to imperialism, national liberation and working class struggle, among those who are supposed to be anti-imperialist, democratic and, in many cases, for socialism. We will look at these below.

Two organisations had nothing whatsoever posted on the subject: the anarchist WSM and republican socialist éirigí. Many of the rest of the organisations took up themes in common – reference to the armed struggle in South Africa, remembering the many who fell in the struggle against the South African regime, noting the role of international solidarity with the South African people, criticism of the ANC and the South African government today, with particular reference to the Marikana massacre of striking miners by the ANC government, criticism of the perceived hypocrisy of imperialist leaders at the funeral – and, with two exceptions, a totally uncritical attitude to Mandela himself and his role in bringing about the South Africa of today.

On the ‘hypocrisy’ of the imperialist state leaders’ praise

The responses of the various parties and organisations of Irish republicanism and the left, Sinn Féin (SF), the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), Republican Network for Unity (RNU), Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM), the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), the Workers Party (WP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP), have been varied. On one point, with the exception of Sinn Féin and the 32CSM (who had no criticism to make), they tend to agree: the supposed hypocrisy of the western establishment in their praise of the man as a ‘peace-maker’ and a ‘visionary’. These were the same imperialists, like the British Tory party and government, who condemned Mandela and the ANC movement he helped found and lead as ‘terrorists’ and ‘murderers’.

This point initially seems a fair observation, until one digs a little deeper, and attempts to answer the question as to why Mandela’s former enemies would be heaping such praise on him today. Instead of the unfailingly imperialist and predatory capitalist governments of the world coming around to Nelson Mandela’s way of thinking, it was he who eventually came around to theirs.

When Mandela was an enemy, and seemingly a determined one, of the South African ruling class and of imperialism, he was condemned by many world leaders and, from their point of view, rightly so; when, as the public face of the movement, he helped avert revolution and safeguarded South African capitalism and foreign imperialism, they praised him; when he died, they continued their praise, and may even be apprehensive of a future South Africa without him. Is this hypocrisy? Or is it rather being entirely consistent with their position?

As stated, Sinn Féin, whether in word by the SF Lord Mayor of Belfast, Mairtín Ó’Muilleoir, or in party president Gerry Adams’ report, had no criticism of other world leaders and their words, past or present.

Rory Duggan of RNU in his speech in Dundalk dismissed the “hypocritical gathering” which would be Mandela’s funeral, which he said “will include many heads of state, who cared nothing for this brave freedom fighter when he was incarcerated by the foul apartheid regime.”

The IRSP commented on “The sickening outpouring of hypocritical tribute from the same politicians who worked against Mandela, and in the case of Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron, actually called for his brutal execution, should not pass without comment.”

No such comment was reported originating from Des Dalton, president of RSF, but it is unlikely he would have disagreed with what RNU or the IRSP had to say on the subject.

The SWP was nearer the mark with “.. one of the reasons why so many of the world’s rulers will praise him is that when apartheid was brought down neither he nor his movement, the African National Congress, went on to challenge the economic grip on South Africa of the old ruling class and of international capitalism. They compromised with the wealthy instead of taking the fight further…”

Reporting on a civic event at which the SF Mayor of Belfast officiated, its publication An Phoblacht claimed “Mandela’s triumph”, and that a poem entitled ‘Never, Never and Never Again’ “summed up that victory”:

“Never again shall I be called a ‘Kaffir’/ Never again will my children be segregated in the land of their ancestors/ Never again will I speak Afrikaans/ Isixhosa is my language/ In my land, South Africa, I shall walk free carrying no ‘Dom Pass’.”

Of course the ending of forced segregation by colour, no longer being called pejorative names, not having racial restriction on movement and being permitted to speak their language were good things and of course it was a victory to achieve them. But did people face beatings, torture, imprisonment and death to overcome those things alone? Very doubtful. In the South Africa of today, people will be segregated by class and they can speak whatever language they like in the shanty towns or housing projects lacking sanitation and running water services. The poor will be called other names by black policemen (or maybe even the same names, who knows?); the police are brutal and corrupt but black. The poor will not be free, nor anything like it.

On the many who fell in the struggle against the South African regime

The RNU site announced their vigil as being for “all those who died in the struggle against imperialism and apartheid in South Africa” and in his speech at the vigil, Rory Duggan paid tribute to “the tens of hundreds who spent decades in prison at the hands of the colonisers, many of whom met their ends on a gallows rope.” A number of those in attendance also carried placards dedicated to ANC martyrs.

None of the other organisations commented on the past martyrs of the struggle.

On the ANC-led government, social and political conditions in South Africa today

Some facts from 2007 (the situation may be better or worse today)2:

  • Since 1994, the year the ANC took power, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has doubled, from 2 million blacks to 4 million in 2006.
  • Between 1909 and 2002, the unemployment rate for black South Africans more than doubled, from 23% to 48% (down to 25.5% in 2012 – still worse than under apartheid).
  • Of South Africa’s 35 million black citizens, only 5,000 earn more than $60,000 dollars a year. The number of whites in that income bracket is twenty times higher and many earn more than four times that amount.
  • The ANC has built 1.8 million homes but in the meantime 2 million people have lost their homes.
  • Close to 1 million people have been evicted from farms in the first decade of democracy. Such evictions have meant that the number of shack dwellers has grown by 50%.
  • In 2006, more than one in four South Africans lived in shacks located in informal shanty towns, many without running water or electricity.

Protesters hold placards during a peaceful protest march in the Ramaphosa squatter settlement

One would search the Sinn Féin commentary on Mandela or the funeral in vain for any criticism of the ANC or of the Government. Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, who wrote a long piece on his participation for eight days of events, along with his SF colleague McAuley, said that they were participating “as comrades in struggle honouring a comrade for whom we have the greatest admiration and respect.” Adams recalled that in 1994, Mandela said, “as he took on the mantle of President of a free and democratic South Africa: ‘Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all… Let us as a Rainbow Nation keep this in focus and move forward.”

Neither Sinn Féin nor Adams apparently saw any irony in those words contrasted with the reality of life for the vast majority in SA under Mandela’s Presidency nor up to his death.

Indeed, Adams speaks of “a stirring speech from President Jacob Zuma” at the MK event, neglecting to mention the chorus of boos from MK and ANC veterans, reported on by a number of journalists, which the President’s appearance stirred. Zuma has been accused of corruption and rape but his trial was abandoned after long delays and accusations of political interference with the Prosecution.

What is absolutely without dispute is that he has been on the ANC National Executive since 1977; in 1994 he was elected National Chairperson of the ANC and was re-elected to the position in 1996. Zuma was elected Deputy President of the ANC in 1997 and consequently appointed executive Deputy President of South Africa in June 1999. He is part and parcel of the general corruption in the ANC. It was his judge who charged Marikana massacre survivors with murder of their comrades; it took a direct challenge from their legal representatives, published in a newspaper and addressed to Zuma, to have those charges dropped and the strikers released.

Guard of honour at Mandela's coffin: Sinn Féin's Richard McAuley (left) and Gerry Adams, with Urko Aiatza of the Basque organisation SORTU, as President Zuma addresses the crowd
Guard of honour at Mandela’s coffin: Sinn Féin’s Richard McAuley (left) and Gerry Adams, with Urko Aiatza of the Basque organisation SORTU, as President Zuma addresses the crowd

Adams also reported that “the event was hosted by Cyril Ramaphosa, who has close associations with the Irish Peace Process.” Indeed: Ramaphosa is also a multi-millionaire, and among his many company directorships is one on the board of the Anglo-American Platinum Company of the Lonmin mine where 44 workers were killed. It turned out that Ramaphosa had been sent for by the company to sort out the strike, and the suspicion is that the shooting may well have been part of the “sorting out”. Ramaphosa was formerly General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers until 1999, when he resigned to take up the position of Secretary-General of the ANC.

Adams goes on to mention contributions from the South African trade union federation COSATU, an organisation dominated by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the ANC and the South African Communist Party and also involved in political corruption. The SACP, which also contributed a message, runs the NUM which is also involved in, at least, political corruption and called for the Lonmin strikers to be arrested.

Neither Adams himself nor his party has commented on these aspects of, on the one hand, social deprivation among the mass of South Africans and, on the other, corruption among the ruling ANC and their allies in the SACP and COSATU, along with attendant brutal repression of workers by the state. The reason for this silence is probably the Irish ‘Peace Process’. The Palestinian resistance organisation Al-Fatah and the ANC, the first to go down the “peace process” road, were used as shining examples to convince the Sinn Féin membership and IRA to travel the same road. Al Fatah is never mentioned any more, largely as a result of the Oslo process by which they lost confidence among most Palestinian people, and were replaced as the dominant Palestinian resistance organisation by Hamas. It would hardly do to show how little was won by the ANC in the end, as a result of their own ‘process’, when that might heap more loss of faith on the 15-year old Irish one.

The 32-CSM went further than a lack of criticism of the South Africa of today, choosing to praise what they saw as the achievements of the ANC in government: During his term in office he brought about national reconciliation among white and black South Africans, tackled the AIDs crisis, boosted employment, basic needs that were denied due to apartheid brought about and social welfare for all citizens of South Africa was introduced. Unfortunately, these perceived victories contrast rather sharply with the reality of the facts of modern-day South Africa, where capitalism still runs rampant and unimpeded.

However, the RNU’s national PRO Ciarán Cunningham, speaking about the current situation in South Africa at their Drogheda event, was clear on the reality of the ANC’s South Africa: “…drawing comparisons between James Connolly’s if you remove the English flag from Dublin castle’ argument, to the situation today in which foreign business interests see fit to murder striking workers, albeit under the flag of an apparently free South Africa.” Some of the participants also carried placards in memory of the 34 miners killed in one day at Marikana.

This theme was also taken up by local RNU veteran republican Rory Duggan:

We gather here tonight in the spirit of National Liberation, Socialism and International Solidarity; from those perspectives it is impossible to state that the ideals espoused by comrade Mandela have been realised in today’s South Africa.”

The IRSP statement was also direct:

… his movement, the African National Congress in time abandoned all commitment to socialism and social welfare …. Despite the ANC’s remarkable achievements in democratizing South Africa, workers there still face brutal repression, such as the massacre of 34 striking miners in 2012.”

Des Dalton of RSF commented in passing “that the current South African state falls short of the high ideals by which he lived life”.

But how is that these organisations manage to separate Mandela himself from all this? Was not Mandela an important figure in the ANC? Was he not the national icon, the binding figure, throughout the negotiation process? Was he not President from 1994 to 1999? The discourse of the republican organisations gives not even a hint as to what rationale they have for absolving Mandela of responsibility for what became of the ANC and, in particular, of the state after the end of apartheid.

The Communist Party of Ireland and Workers’ Party refrain from any criticism whatsoever of the current South African state and therefore avoid having to deal with the tripartite alliance of the ANC, SACP and COSATU.

If the CPI and WP are bound perhaps by some kind of loyalty to the SACP, with which they have fraternal relations, the Trotskyists have no such problem. The SWP attacks the social reality in South Africa, and does not shy away from some attempt at implicating Mandela himself in the ANC’s betrayal of its ideals; indeed it quotes one of his statements from as far back as 1956, in which he states the ANC’s intention to create a “prosperous non-European bourgeois class”3. However it could be argued that it is somewhat unfair to quote a statement from over half a century ago, during the development of the man’s ideas and the early days of the party.

By far the most in-depth and extensive analysis of the country and of Mandela comes from the Socialist Party, written by two members of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the Socialist Party’s sister organisation in South Africa:

The ‘nation’ that Mandela has bequeathed is as unreconstructed today as it was before the end of apartheid, disaggregated into its two main social forces – the working class on the one side and the capitalist class on the other. SA is reputed to be the most unequal society on Earth. As many as 8 million are unemployed, 12 million go to bed hungry, millions are excluded from decent education, health and housing. The ruling ANC elite is exhibiting the same characteristics as the one which it replaced – corrupt, inept and with an insatiable appetite for self-enrichment and power.”

However, the SP statement goes further – it explicitly foists blame on Mandela himself, as opposed to his wayward lesser comrades, for the direction South Africa took after apartheid formally ended. It states Mandela’s key role in the adoption of the ‘GEAR’, the so-called ‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution’ programme, at the core of which was an agenda of privatisation and economic liberalism:

Mandela played the decisive role in the abandonment of the Freedom Charter and everything the ANC was believed to have held sacred until then … The difference between Mandela’s reign and that of all his successors is more in style than substance … GEAR was adopted under Mandela’s presidency. In spite of the fact that Mbeki spearheaded the adoption of GEAR, he did so with Mandela’s (and that of the rest of the ANC leadership including the SACP’s) full blessing … privatisation – at the heart of GEAR’s original strategic objectives – was now the ANC’s fundamental policy.”

The piece also quotes the Guardian article written in June of 2013 by Ronnie Kasrils, a former leader of the ANC’s armed wing, central committee member of the SACP and former Minister for Intelligence in government, in which he mercilessly exposes the ANC’s shady business deals, pacts with international capital and imperialists, and their betrayal of South Africa’s poorest.4

The SP statement is the longest of those analysed here, and contains much information on Mandela’s business deals, secret pacts and the likes, all of which contributed to the destruction of the socialist ideals that the ANC at least claimed to once hold dear.

On the armed struggle

As might be expected of organisations with a history of armed struggle, albeit for some more recently than for others, the armed guerilla struggle in South Africa came in for some mention from the republican organisations.

A fair amount of the statement by RSF’s Des Dalton was concerned with Mandela’s guerrilla background and his attitude to armed struggle. Dalton claims inside knowledge of Mandela’s attendance at a lunch with Irish newspaper editors in the home of Tony O’Reilly in 2000: “…questioned as to whether or not the Provisionals should be decommissioning their arms, Mandela’s response was unequivocal, ‘…my position is that you don’t hand over your weapons until you get what you want.’ Needless to say this was a response that was not welcomed nor reported on.”

Surprisingly the 32-CSM had nothing to say on the armed struggle in South Africa or Nelson Mandela’s role in it, beyond referencing it in passing as the reason for Mandela’s being sent to prison for 27 years in 1962, for ‘sabotage’.

RNU also drew attention to the armed struggle in South Africa at a Dundalk vigil it organised on December 12th, as some of its members held up a banner bearing the name and logo of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

The IRSP alluded to armed struggle too (but only in passing), as did the Socialist Party article, which stated Mandela’s role in setting up MK with help from friendly countries such as Algeria: His willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause is borne out by the fact that he personally undertook the task of establishing the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), secretly paying visits to countries like Algeria to seek support for the armed struggle leading him to be installed as MK’s first commander-in-chief.”

Gerry Adams, no doubt mindful of his organisation’s history up until a few decades ago, also of the emotional attachment of many of his party’s supporters to the idea of armed struggle (despite the organisation’s renunciation of it), referred to Mandela’s membership of MK more than once. He also attended Mandela’s ‘send-off ceremony’ from Pretoria which “was given over to his comrades in the ANC and to the veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), or MK … Two thousand specially-invited ANC and former MK activists, and international guests from liberation and solidarity movements, were present in solidarity with the family, to give an ANC farewell to their former Commander and President.” Adams also posted, among other photos in his report, one of himself with a number of MK and ANC veterans.

None of the organisations made any reference to the ill-treatment, torture and death meted out by MK officers to a number of fighters in their training camps in other countries, particularly the Quatro camp in Angola. Stories of these were in circulation in solidarity circles by the 1980s and some testimonies were given by victims at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s.

International solidarity

The IRSP drew attention to the role of anti-imperialist and communist solidarity in “that this victory would not have been possible without the widespread support of other anti-imperialists and the international communist movement. Mandela credited Cuba with helping to end apartheid: Cuba’s military intervention in Angola against South Africa led to the end of the apartheid regime.”

The CPI also took up this theme: In one of his first speeches Mandela paid tribute to the unbreakable and unselfish solidarity given to the oppressed masses of South Africa by the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, as against the inaction and active collaboration of almost all western governments with the apartheid regime…”  The WP statement echoed these sentiments, and also paid tribute to the Dunne’s Stores anti-apartheid strikers.

The RNU took the angle of Irish solidarity for the struggle, as Rory Duggan “paid tribute to the many anti-apartheid activists from the Dundalk/Newry area, who in the 1980s, raised awareness of  the evils of the apartheid regime and prevented South African commercial and sporting interests from raising its head in Ireland at the time when it mattered most.”

Surprisingly nothing was said on this theme in the RSF statement or in SF’s, not even from an Irish perspective. Only one organisation (WP) referred to the Dunne’s Store strike, a specifically workers’ action, certainly the most significant solidarity action in Ireland and one which lasted years. The 32CSM statement mentions only that Mandela was released from prison in 1990 “after mounting pressure from international groups”; it does not state who or what these groups were.

Mandela’s legacy

Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin concluded his report saying that Mandela’s “words are all around us. The legacy of hope and courage and forgiveness and of reconciliation is one we must aspire each day to achieve. In our several conversations about the Irish Peace Process, Madiba understood at once the complexities but also the only direction we could go to avoid decades more of conflict. He supported the Peace Process in Ireland unequivocally and on the basis of equality and inclusivity.” He continued: “Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan will shortly produce their proposals for moving forward on the difficult issues of flags and emblems and the past.”

Clearly the social and political reality for the vast majority in SA is of concern to neither Adams nor SF and one may speculate that both would be happy to see a similar result from their own process in Ireland.

Similar praise comes from the CPI: Mandela was a towering and inspirational figure, a leader of the oppressed of South Africa and beyond …  

Concluding the vigil organised by the RNU, “Rory Duggan called for a one minute clenched fist salute, in honour of all those – living and dead – whose cause was embodied in the image of Comrade Nelson Mandela.”

The IRSP claims that Mandela remained “a foe of imperialism for the remainder of his life, frequently criticising US aggression and maintaining his support for socialist Cuba, Gaddafi’s Libya and Palestine” and that he “…supported Ireland’s long struggle for freedom.” According to the IRSP, “at a time when such examples are desperately needed, Mandela’s heroic example proves that revolutionaries can create lasting change.”

Dalton, for RSF, agrees: “Nelson Mandela was and remains an inspirational figure for all who are engaged in the struggle for human freedom and national self-determination” and he concludes commenting that “his legacy will remain an inspiration for those who continue to seek true political and economic democracy in South Africa and around the world.”

The 32CSM also praises Mandela as “a true freedom fighter and an anti-apartheid revolutionary who spent 27 years in prison for his beliefs.”


The lack of any criticism of Mandela and his important role in creating the state of today by any organisation other than the two Trotskyist parties is disturbing. All of those organisations would describe themselves as anti-imperialist and socialist, yet they have heaped praise on one who was key in surrendering the people’s struggles to domestic capitalism and imperialism. Do they seriously suffer from such idealistic delusions?

That Sinn Féin, the CPI and WP should not wish to criticise, even in passing, the social reality in South Africa today is even more disturbing. SF may not wish to do so for fear of undermining an example of a process that they used to recommend the Irish process, whereas the CPI and WP may wish to avoid implicitly condemning the Communist Party of South Africa. Whatever their reasons for not condemning the conditions in South Africa, to have not done so must stand as an indictment of their integrity and, particularly in the case of SF, the ultimate aims of their own parties.

Although both the SP and the SWP produced much better analyses, in particular the former, drawing on contributions from within South Africa itself, there are some disquieting elements in their analyses too. Neither of them sees a country which is, despite the presence of domestic capitalists, essentially dominated by imperialists. One wonders therefore what their analyses of the way forward can be.

For us, the experience of South Africa and of our own country raises an important question: is it even possible today for a struggle to complete the national liberation stage, without being led by revolutionary socialists? We are reminded of James Connolly’s years of work, largely unsuccessful, to build up a revolutionary socialist leadership in Ireland and his various remarks about the kind of revolution that was necessary. We do not reject Connolly’s example of uniting with the Irish Republican trend in order to overthrow British imperialism – far from it. However, we wonder whether one of his famous statements may not be paraphrased thus: “Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible leadership of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”

Let us sincerely hope that Mandela’s legacy will remain a cautionary tale from which we will learn and apply the necessary lessons. One of those essential lessons is never to abandon our critical faculties, and to examine real circumstances; another must surely be never to make an icon out of a living person.



1 GATT: General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; WTO: World Trade Organisation

2 Naomi Klein (2007), The Shock Doctrine – the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, chapter 10: “Democracy born in chains”

3 Martin Meredith, Mandela (2010) p. 135

4 Ronnie Kasrils article:

Sources for Irish organisations’ commentaries