Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Nine

Bloody Sunday

At first, the British government, which for a long time had no direct involvement in Six-County rule, attempted a civil rights reform, but with significant concessions to Unionism, such as the replacement of the B Specials by the UDR. But the imperialists quickly saw that the undemocratic and repressive government and social discrimination would make a pacification of the Province impossible. These were necessary features of Six-County government because it was the last corner of colonial rule in Ireland, and colonial rule always requires coercive government. They attempted to introduce reforms. But this was soon cut across by events.

On February 6, 1971 a British soldier was killed. To this day it is not clear who was responsible, although at the time it was attributed to the Provos. In August, William Faulkner announced the introduction of internment without trial. The war had begun in earnest. The death toll grew remorselessly: from only 25 in 1970 to 173 in 1971. On January 30th, 1972, British paratroops shot dead 13 unarmed demonstrators in Derry. A fourteenth innocent victim died later. This was a major turning point. The British army showed on Bloody Sunday in Derry its determination to shoot peaceful civil rights demonstrators off the streets. Pacifism was no answer to this. The immediate reaction of the masses opened up the possibility of developing a broad movement against repression and imperialism. But there was nobody to give the necessary leadership.

Bloody Sunday caused a wave of anger and revulsion. The next Sunday 70,000 people marched in Newry. On the day of the funerals, 60,000 people marched in Dublin, which was shut down by a general strike. A three-day general strike was called in the North, sweeping through Derry, Newry, Strabane and other towns. A significant number of Protestant workers joined the strike, especially in Derry (Dupont, Post Office engineers and others). In Belfast, Queen's University was closed by strike action on the part of both students and staff, as was Magee College in Derry and Coleraine University, where 400 people heard Ted Grant debate with a Unionist MP on the subject of "the Workers' Republic."

The pacifistic civil rights leaders were shell-shocked and more or less threw in the towel. Later the British imperialists unleashed the loyalist terror campaign against random Catholics. These events unfortunately acted as a very effective recruiting sergeant for the Provos, who grew very rapidly at the expense of everyone else. The youth was eager for revenge, and the Provos had the guns. The Six Counties entered into a vicious downward spiral of tit-for-tat sectarian killings and bombings. On one day alone, "Bloody Friday", 22 Provisional IRA bombs killed eleven people.

The strategy of the Provisionals appeared to many to be the only alternative. They promised instant and easy solutions based on the gun and the bomb. But this so-called "practical" solution was based on a false assumption - that the British imperialists would get tired of all the mayhem and leave. Thirty years later we are still waiting. Even ts have clearly demonstrated that it is impossible to bomb the Six Counties into a United Ireland and force the British to leave. All that the Provos succeeded in doing was to push Protestants into the arms of Orange reaction and British imperialism, split the working class right down the middle and strengthen the forces of the British state. They have achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended.

The Sunningdale Agreement

The Northern Ireland Act, which became law on 21st November 1973, abolished the 1920 Act and replaced Stormont with a new Assembly. The Sunningdale agreement of December 1974, signed by Liam Cosgrave, accepted that no changes could take place in Northern Ireland without the agreement of a majority of its people. On the other hand, the Ulster Unionists accepted the idea of a "Council of Ireland", formed from the Dail and the new Assembly. The Irish bourgeoisie has not the slightest interest in a united Ireland. They would not relish the prospect of paying out the huge sums paid annually to Belfast by the British Exchequer. Nor would they particularly like the idea of a large population of resentful and disaffected Protestants in a United Ireland.

The Provisionals have been negotiating with the British on and off since 1972. On January 1, 1974 Britain's first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, brought together representatives from the moderate Unionist parties, the Alliance Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party into a power sharing executive. In addition, Whitelaw established a "Council of Ireland," which would provide the Dublin government with a consultative, though powerless, role in matters of concern to both parts of Ireland. In essence, this is the same as the Good Friday Agreement. But it immediately broke down.

The Loyalists were outraged at the prospect of sharing power with "disloyal" representatives of the nationalist community, as well as at the idea of Dublin having even a consultative role in the affairs of the North. The anti-power sharing Loyalists nevertheless joined the coalition as the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC), winning 11 out of 12 seats in the general election held in February 1974. The UUUC electoral victory was not sufficient to bring down the power-sharing executive, so they carried the struggle onto the streets, organizing a strike to paralyze the Province and sabotage the agreement. They demanded "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people."

The Ulster Workers' Council strike began in May 1974. The industrial action of the UWC was backed by intimidation and violence from the UDA, UVF, and other Loyalist paramilitaries allied under an umbrella organization, the Ulster Army Council. By these methods they succeeded in shutting down much of the Six Counties' economic activity. The real strength of the UWC strike was their control of the electricity-generating industry. With virtually the entire blue-collar workforce on strike, and the remaining white-collar staff either intimidated by Loyalist paramilitaries, or in sympathy with the strike, power cuts became longer and longer until the Unionist members of the power sharing executive resigned and the executive collapsed on 28th May.

The UWC strike had a purely reactionary and sectarian character. Nevertheless, it also showed the colossal power of the working class, and its ability to bring the system to its knees through collective effort. In the future the workers of the Six Counties will find a more productive use for this power, once they are led by men and women who represent their true class interests.

The collapse of the Assembly ushered in a very bloody period in Irish history. London saw no alternative but to impose direct rule. The forces of sectarianism were unleashed, with a big increase in violence on the part of the Loyalist paramilitaries in the North. During the UWC strike, car bombs attributed to Loyalist paramilitaries were exploded in Dublin and Monaghan in the South of Ireland, killing 27 people (though recently revealed documents have suggested that the MI6 British intelligence forces may have actually been responsible for the bombings).

The Ulster Defense Regiment was formed in 1970 as a "home guard" branch of the British Army. Very soon after its formation, it became known that many members of the UDR used their connections with the British Army, and their access to weapons and ammunition, as well as intelligence files, to participate in sectarian murders of Irish Catholics in the occupied Six Counties. Many members of the UDR were also members of Loyalist death squads, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force or the Ulster Freedom Fighters. In a period of nine months (January to September 1975) 196 civilians were murdered in sectarian violence, in addition to many republican deaths.

In March 1975 a feud erupted between the UDA and the UVF. The feud was short-lived and resulted in few deaths. Later that same year, the UVF was legally banned, after a UVF bombing claimed 11 lives in October. Relations between the RUC and the Loyalists began to deteriorate, resulting in Loyalist communities with strong ties to the paramilitaries beginning the practice of policing their own neighborhoods rather than relying on the RUC. Thereafter a bloody stalemate persisted, punctuated by sporadic outbreaks of new feuds amongst the loyalist gangs.

Seamus Costello

There were many Republicans who would have "no truck with socialism"; others blinded by military failure and personal disillusionment were shortly to turn their backs on the national question and to reject militancy in any shape or form. The former was to form the Provos and the latter became the Workers Party. But there were those who were moving in the direction of revolutionary Marxism, among whom a place of honour must be reserved for Seamus Costello.

A committed Republican from the age of 15, Seamus Costello was a veteran in the ranks of the IRA and Sinn Féin from the early fifties He participated enthusiastically in the military campaign against the British occupation of the northern six counties in the 1950s. But he was soon to realise that heroism and self-sacrifice were not enough. The campaign fought in the mountainous border regions did not have the desired result. On the other hand, people throughout Ireland were more concerned with the pressing social problems of the day, with increasing unemployment and mounting emigration. He advocated a more political approach and closer links with the workers' movement.

Between 1963 and 1967 the republican movement underwent a radical change in outlook, policies and activities. Seamus Costello was one of those most directly responsible for that change. Seamus continued to accept that the fight against the British was correct and necessary, but he now realized that it would not be won by a small armed band divorced from the vital social issues of the day. He saw that to hold the national question as being above all other issues was to isolate oneself from the Irish people and to make defeat inevitable. He was instrumental in getting Sinn Féin to subsequently drop its abstentionist policy. Seamus remained a revolutionary, maintaining that parliament should be used, but totally rejecting that there was such a thing as a parliamentary road to socialism.

To Seamus Costello lies the honour of defending the socialist line in Republicanism and advocating a return to the traditions of Connolly. He understood that the national question could not be separated from the struggle for socialism and that the armed struggle was worse than useless unless it was linked to the mass struggles of the working class. He saw that it was necessary to combine the struggle for democratic demands and a flexible attitude to the use of parliament and the electoral plane with an uncompromising fight for socialism.

In 1966 he gave the historic oration at the Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown, which marked the departure to the left of the republican movement, the result of years of discussions within the movement in which he played a key role. He argued in favour of a socialist policy based on nationalization of all banks, insurance companies, loan and investment companies.


"Any revolutionary movement that cannot defend its own membership, and cannot demonstrate its capability of defending its own membership, goes out of business anyway. We are in business as a serious revolutionary organisation and we are not going to be put out of business by anybody. The IRSP is organised and it is here to stay." (Seamus Costello, March 1975.)

The period of the 1970s was a turbulent time for the struggle in Ireland, highlighted by a great upsurge in Loyalist sectarian violence in the North and the development of the prison struggle culminating in the 1981 hunger strike, which focused worldwide attention on Ireland. It was also a period of splits and internal feuding within the republican movement. Seamus Costello remained with the Officials during the splits of 1969-70 because he was opposed to splitting the movement. Unfortunately, the conduct of the Stalinist leadership of the Officials made new crises and splits inevitable.

In 1972, the Official IRA had declared an indefinite, unilateral cease-fire. Official Sinn Féin leader, Tomás MacGiolla felt that the movement needed to move away from the armed struggle and instead focus on working class unity between Protestant and Catholic workers in the North; believing that these groups would eventually see a common purpose and rise together against British imperialism. Opponents to this position in the OIRA argued, at the 1973 Ard Fheis (national party congress), that this position was unrealistic considering the 400 years of sectarian intransigence in the North, and that instead the armed struggle must be maintained and channeled into a socialist direction.

The Officials began to abandon militant actions in the South and eventually in the North with the cease-fire of 1972. Disillusionment set in the rank and file. Many dropped out, and the clique in the leadership began to orchestrate a witch-hunt of all dissidents. Eventually Seamus Costello was charged with irregularities at the 1973 Ard Fheis and tried by Sinn Féin. He was found not guilty. However, the Official IRA tried him on similar charges, with the exact same evidence (ensuring Costello's witnesses didn't turn up) and found him guilty. They dismissed him "with ignominy."

The dominant section of the Officials' leadership was not prepared to allow dissent on the key issues, and were willing to go to any length to suppress it, including force. Finally, on December 10, 1974, led by Costello, the opposition held its own Ard Fheis to declare the formation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party and, at a separate Ard Fheis later that day, founded the Irish National Liberation Army.

Seamus Costello's idea was to build a strong republican socialist party that would unify the national and class questions as one struggle. He sought to involve the IRSP in all the struggles of the Irish people; trade union work, housing, fisheries, the struggle for women's emancipation, the national question, the struggle of small farmers, tenants, the cultural struggle, sovereignty, the struggle for control over Irish natural resources and the struggle against repression etc.

Whereas the Provisionals saw national liberation as a primary objective to be achieved before any social programme could be addressed, and the Officials argued social revolution was an essential step before national unification could be considered, the IRSM returned to the analysis put forward by Connolly, that the struggles for Irish national liberation and for the liberation of the Irish proletariat were inseparable. The IRSM put forward the position that the national liberation struggle was not a step to be climbed before social revolution could be called for, but was simply an aspect of the fight for socialism in Ireland; an essential Irish manifestation of the class war.

This was the correct approach, but unfortunately the party was faced with serious opposition, and not just from the state. The Officials reacted by launching a campaign of assassination, driving the IRSP into hiding. Seamus, attempted mediation with the Officials who refused. The feud had seriously affected the growth of the IRSP and stopped most resignations from the Officials. Three IRSP members were dead and scores injured. Finally, Seamus himself fell victim to an assassination. This was a heavy blow. Seamus was a consistent follower of James Connolly, whose writings he had studied assiduously. Nora Connolly said of him:

"He seemed to be the leader who would bring about an organization such as my father wished to bring about. Of all the politicians and political people with whom I have had conversations, and who called themselves followers of Connolly, he was the only one who truly understood what James Connolly meant when he spoke of his vision of the freedom of the Irish people. In him, I had hoped at last after all these years, a true leader had come, who could and would build an organization such as James Connolly tried to do."

London digs in its heels

Once its plans for power sharing had failed, the British government battened down the hatches and prepared for a long fight. If they could not get what they wanted through a compromise deal, they were prepared to get it by "other means", to use Clausewitz's famous phrase. Why were they so determined to hold onto the North? At the time of partition, there were powerful economic and strategic considerations at stake. But in the age of intercontinental nuclear missiles the Six Counties no longer had any strategic military importance, whilst from an economic point of view they were a considerable drain. But British imperialism still could not let them go. Why?

It is a mistake to present the relationship between London and the Loyalist forces as a simple black and white question. The relationship was much more complicated than it was in 1922. The British had created a Frankenstein's monster in the shape of sectarianism. And just as Frankenstein could not control his monster, so the British found they could not control the Loyalists. The latter were completely opposed to the unification of Ireland and in 1974 they showed their teeth. It was impossible to get them to accept even such a milk-and-water compromise as a power sharing assembly and a toothless Council of Ireland. They showed themselves to be utterly intransigent, and prepared to go to any lengths to resist, including violence.

The Provisional leadership imagined that they could bomb the Protestants into a united Ireland and compel the British to withdraw. But both assumptions were false, as subsequent events showed. The British were afraid to withdraw because of the chaos that would ensue. They feared that this would lead to open civil war between Catholics and Protestants, with incalculable consequences. Not that they were much concerned about people being killed - on either side. But such a struggle - which would entail terrible atrocities - would inevitably spread to Britain.

The nightmare of sectarian conflict would flare up in cities like Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham and London, with widespread terrorism, killings and bombings. This could not be accepted. Therefore, they were stuck with the North, whether they wanted it or not. There was never any question of British imperialism "surrendering to terrorism", as they would put it. That is something the Provisional IRA never understood. The proof is that they embarked on a futile campaign of 'armed struggle' for the best part of three decades, leading to a compromise, which they could have had almost from the beginning.

Perhaps in response to the Peace People's campaign, 1977 proved to have the lowest incidents of violence since 1971, with only 112 killed as a result of the war. The lull in the violence was only a temporary respite. London was preparing for an all-out struggle with no holds barred. The British government also stepped up its intelligence-gathering network in the occupied Six Counties, announcing in 1977 that it would computerize information on the residents of the North. Through the computer database, the police and army had access to vast amounts of personal information on virtually all nationalist residents. In 1980 the Army went even farther in eroding the privacy of Six County residents by installing closed-circuit television cameras in the streets of nationalist neighborhoods in Belfast and Derry. The real viciousness of British imperialism was exposed by its subsequent conduct. Internment without trial, Diplock courts, the hunger strikes and the shoot-to-kill policy revealed the cruel and repressive face that was hidden behind the smiling mask of "democracy".