Marxism (or more specifically, socialism) has a long storied background in Ireland, a homegrown tradition which has arisen from almost survival-level necessity: in the 1800s, as Ireland was exploited along with every other British colony for raw materials and cheap muscle, people had to band together in order to survive. It was that, or face an ugly little rat race with equally deprived creatures fighting for scraps. This created the first combines, the first worker’s societies, the first unions in the industrialized cities of the North such as Belfast, an economic/industrial powerhouse on the island. It created men like Jim Larkin, James Connolly, and later laid the bedrock for radical organizations such as the SWP and the native Socialist Party in the Republic.
These conditions also created the conditions for Irish republicanism. The IRA did not begin its existence as a radical socialist organization; it was the birthright of earlier, 19th Century groups that were determined to drive the Brits out by force – they included forebears such as the infamous “Fenians”. Whilst the British Empire was busy butchering its’ young men in WWI, in 1916 the first stones were cast and the irrevocable process of separation began. In the North however, British Loyalists vastly outnumbered their Irish compatriots, and refused to allow Home Rule to become Rome Rule (get it? it’s a really funny anti-Catholic joke that more than anything summed up the mentality of the British loyalists who also happened to be Protestants: the new Irish Republic would be nothing more than a puppet for Rome as far as they were concerned).
The War for Independence ended with a partition of the island, as well as a giant leap backwards for leftism in both Northern Ireland and especially the Republic. The IRA were considered a hangover from the war, and were despised by the new de Valera administration in Dublin. Anti union legislation was established by the former charming gentleman, whose idea of Ireland included maidens dancing in the fields.
In the fifties, an almost satirical, failed attempt to liberate the North took place, entitled (imaginatively) the Border campaign, or Operation Harvest. The IRA were a laughing stock amongst the Irish who were unlucky enough to be born and raised in the apartheid North (IRA stands for I Ran Away was one such wag). But the IRA wasn’t stupid, and it took certain lessons to heart, the most important lesson being Che Guevara’s dictum about guerilla warfare. A fish needs water to breathe, and a guerilla movement needed the hearts and minds of the denizens around them in the community to flourish.
This new IRA took stock and decided that Marxism, especially the orthodox Marxism espoused by Lenin et al, was the clearest way to raise the community’s hopes and hearts. Marxist studies took place, and dissemination of Marxist thought began to circulate in the more urban centers of the North.
Around the time when seemingly the entire world was changing overnight (namely the late sixties), the civil rights campaign for the Irish Minority in the North began in Derry. What was remarkable was that this movement had nothing to do with the IRA (although there are loyalists to this day who still claim that a pacifist civil rights movement was orchestrated by the paramilitary). The civil rights group, perhaps personified by characters such as Eamon McCann and Bernadette Devlin aimed to improve the living conditions of the Irish currently stuck in the North; this was quickly met by almost unprecedented violence. Naturally, the Derry group fully expected push-back – they had modeled their actions on Selma and the American Civil Rights movement – but the violence quickly escalated from attacking marchers to riots in the streets of Belfast and virtually everywhere else in the North, up to and including the wholesale destruction of entire neighborhoods which had sadly lain too close to the opposing sectarian enclave. It didn’t help matters that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (i.e. the police, whose name alone should give one a solid idea of where they stood politically).
The IRA fought back hard, and tried to keep Western Belfast from being wiped off the map. However, the Northern IRA informed their southern counterparts that they were getting slaughtered, and handing out pamphlets om Trotsky and Lenin really wasn’t helping matters. Things came to a head, and an acrimonious split too place between the “Official”IRA splitting from the primarily Northern-based Provisional IRA. The Provisional IRA is the IRA that everyone around the word knows about. The Official IRA/Sinn Fein declared a ceasefire in 1972, stating that the situation was about to devolve into murderous, sectarian anarchy.
This was then followed by yet another split, an even more vicious one that created just as many bodies on the Republican side as it amongst their sectarian foes. In 1974, Seamus Costello, a popular socialist republican politician, felt that even the tiny amount of work perpetrated by the Officials was insufficient, and so he split and formed the Irish National Liberation Army. The INLA was intended to be a genuinely national liberation front, along the lines of the Vietnamese and the Cubans. Within 13 years, Seamus was dead and the organization had devolved into vicious factional in-fighting and out right drug-gang activity. More will be written about the INLA will follow in the next few days.
As for the PIRA, they adopted radicalism as well, although it has been argued that this was not scientific in any sense and was more based on “learning from” (i.e. aping) other national liberation organizations; furthermore, there was a clear delineation between the urban members who leaned towards radicalism, while the rural republicans were more of the classic conservative farmer stereotype who nevertheless despised the English. There is some question, which we’ll get to in part two, as to how genuine those socialist views are, considering the duality of a pan-nationalist Marxism and parochial Irish Republicanism.
The Official IRA “ceased to be” in the seventies, although it is a matter of public record that their masters kept the thugs around in case anyone needed pushing around (or assassinated, in the INLA’s case). Official Sinn Fein became Official Sinn Fein/Workers Party, finally dropping the IRA bit in the 80s. It was one of the stodgier radical organizations, one which ironically drew inspiration and teaching from orthodox British Marxists throughout the 80s. As this was not a particularly popular viewpoint in Thatcher’s Great Britain, many of them traveled to Ireland to begin the revolution there,, only to find the situation wanting as well. The party imploded in the early 90s.
Everything you’ve just read has been framed within the device of republican paramilitary activity. This is not to give the impression that radicalism was hopelessly bound-up with “the boys”; there is a wide spectrum of radical orgs that attempted to varying degrees of success to alter the inexorable flow of violence as well as challenge the hegemony of what amounts to parochial, good ol’ fashioned capitalism.
It has been argued that the former communist apparatchiks of Yugoslavia became “ethnic entrepreneurs” following Tito’s death, and in the cases of some of the leaders of these republican pseudo-socialists, I believe that that moniker applies. Having been unable to offer answers and unwilling to let go of powerful positions, certain personages have utilized a combination of sectarianism and fake Marxism in order to maintain control. The question is to see if true Marxism can exist and rise above the deep-seated sectarianism that is the hall mark of divided, segregated communities. We’ll address this all in Part Two.