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South Africa and the IRA… August 29, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Sinn Féin, The Left.

It’s interesting in view of the recent discussions on this site as regards the 1960s and the relationship between Communists in Ireland and Republicanism to contemplate the information that Kadar Asmal’s memoirs recount cooperation between a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and the IRA in the early 1980s in order to assist in an Umkhonto we Sizwe [MK or the armed wing of the ANC] attack on the apartheid regime in South Africa

Such an attack seems to me to have been entirely justified at that point in time and most, I suspect, would find it difficult to find fault with the IRA for assisting in it. And following on from that there are a number of aspects of this anecdote that bear further consideration.

Firstly that MK thought the IRA was a good fit for assistance, rather than any other non South African organization [given the anti-ANC rhetoric of it as hardly better than a Soviet front from right wing circles perhaps it is indicative that Irish people were called upon].

Secondly that – if Asmal’s account is correct – there was such a significant degree of trust between those named in it that such contacts were feasible. Again, considering the utter hostility towards communists, at least on a rhetorical level, within certain sections of the Republican Movement pre and post split that hardly a decade later a communist could purportedly go to the IRA for assistance is hugely revealing.

Thirdly that the IRA itself would permit members to operate in such a fashion on behalf of another movement in another state.

And of course those are only the most obvious ones that spring to mind.
Of course one doesn’t want to make too much of this in those respects. This may be incorrect in whole or part. Moreover ideologically given the direction adopted under the more Northern based leadership of the Republican Movement in the late 1970s such actions would have seemed vastly more legitimate and appropriate than in the previous decade – although the suggestion of contacts between a CP member and the IRA still seems quite remarkable given the previous history.

But it’s an area that is often underexplored, the influence of communists [and clearly there must have been some influence on a personal level at least to be able to persuade the IRA to carry out acts on behalf of a non-Irish political formation of the left] of various stripes on Sinn Féin and more broadly in the 1970s and 1980s, most obviously in the influx of former Peoples’ Democracy members in the latter decade whose political outlook was one that was increasingly dubious about militarism as an approach – with all the implications that their arrival with that mindset had for the subsequent course of the conflict.

This isn’t in any sense to criticize any of those players mentioned above. Quite the opposite, if one can think of a clearly legitimate contemporary struggle it was that against apartheid and it is to the credit of all involved in this latest revelation that Irish people and the IRA played a small part in its overthrow. Furthermore I tend to believe that it was precisely by the establishment of and through such links that the conflict came to a conclusion to be replaced by exclusively political means.

Nor by pointing to these linkages and interfaces is the intention to throw out the ‘red scare’ stuff which unfortunately characterizes so much of these discussions. One can rightly have criticisms of communism as historically as applied in various examples across the globe while recognizing the sincerity and courage of communists [as indeed one can do with Republicans of all stripes] and communist formations in this state and other states – who worked long and hard on behalf of their class – all the while simultaneously noting that the working class in this society as others has always had the capacity to recognize the oppressions under which it labours.

Indeed as was put to me the other day by a good friend, there’s a danger of slipping into a patronizing discourse that centers on the idea that only the influence of a small number of individuals from outside Republicanism on Republican formations could shift Republicans leftward when in generation after generation the evidence is that once the limits and constraints of militarism are demonstrated then the class nature of the society comes sharply into focus and Republicans seeing this seek themselves to expand the range of their contacts and bring others into the struggle.

But given the coincidence of interests across many metrics, with reference to antagonism to partition, or a shared sense of the failure of capitalism and the manifestations of the state on this island as well as a natural identification with the men and women of no property, small wonder that Republicans and communists and others on the left would find a fair bit of common ground, even while admitting differences. And small wonder too that in terms of the dynamic aspect of Republicanism in the latter quarter of the last century across a range of formations that elements on the left would be attracted to it either in alliance or by joining.

It will also be fascinating to see if more anecdotes like this emerge of a pattern of previously unheard of but actual IRA involvement in various liberation struggles around the world during that period.

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1. Tel - August 29, 2011

If I remember right there is some mention of a person or persons from some strand of the Irish republicanism fighting for one of the factions in the Lebanese civil war in Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation. Possibly OIRA though.

PanchoVilla - August 29, 2011

Yes he mentions running into someone he knew from Derry amongst the palestinans fighting in Beirut.

Dave - August 29, 2011

PFLP – 2 Dublin OIRA training officers, mid-1970s. Weapons sourced through this connection for OIRA and INLA in later years. Men involved stayed loyal to WP.

WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2011


2. Dr. X - August 29, 2011

I’d also heard that in addition to republicans fighting with the liberation movements in southern Africa, some loyalists went to what-was-then Rhodesia to fight for the Smith regime. . .

Ramzi Nohra - August 30, 2011

Phoenix magazine did a big article on this in the late 80s. If memory serves, an ex-UDR man was killed by his own bomb when working for South African security, I think in either Angola or Rhodesia/Zim

3. WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2011

I’d heard that too Dr. X. That’s interesting about the Fisk reference. It seems there’s at least some history out there.

EWI - August 29, 2011

Let’s not forget various gun-running schemes (with the connivance of the British) to get arms to Loyalists from South Africa.

p.s. anyone read the amusing story of Willie Frazer’s coming trip to Libya?



4. Black Provos – The ANC And The IRA « An Sionnach Fionn - August 29, 2011

[...] years later the ANC played a crucial role supporting Sinn Féin in the Peace Process of the 1990s and early 2000s between [...]

5. Gerryboy - August 30, 2011

One of the Dunnes Stores strikers in Dublin, whose trade union supported their year-and-a-half-long boycott of South African fruit and other goods in the late 1970s, was a member of Sinn Fein, but for the sake of unity among the participants kept her membership in the background.

The Irish Times report on Asmal’s memoirs states that Asmal disagreed with the IRA but enlisted the surveillance support of members of that organization in preparation for the Umkhonto attack on the S.A. oil refinery. Those in Ireland who knew Asmal often felt that he had several strings to his bow (Conor Cruise O’Brien called him ‘devious’ on a Late Late show confrontation) but this posthumous revelation really sets a cat among the pigeons. What must all the respectable liberals of the 1970s and ’80s now think retrospectively about his complex personality?

WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2011

I always felt Asmal was treated very unfairly by people like CCOB and was caricatured. Given that his country was run by an apartheid dictatorship it would have been bizarre if he hadn’t explored every option to assist in overthrowing it.

EWI - August 30, 2011

I’m too young to remember this, but what were CCOB’s views on Apartheid South Africa?

I’m going give the benefit of the doubt that it wouldn’t necessarily resemble those of his fellow right-wing travellers, but can anyone give an indication one way or another?

Dr. X - August 30, 2011

I don’t know if he was pro-apartheid, as such, but he was definitely anti-ANC. He said something like ‘necklace killings are the sign and seal of the ANC’ – words to that effect anyway. Give me a second and I’ll see if I can find the exact quote.

Dr. X - August 30, 2011

CCO’B apparently described the ANC as a political movement whose ‘sign, symbol and signature is the burning alive of people in the street’.

EWI - August 30, 2011

I see. Just what I suspected, then.

I hope he’s been roasting nicely down there. How in earth did such a creature wind up in the 1970s Labour party?

Dr. X - August 30, 2011

Sorry, ‘sanction, symbol and signature is the burning alive of people in the street’.

Jim Monaghan - August 30, 2011

He disageed the academic boycott. He went and lectured. He never stopped moving right. Does anyone remember his “To Katanga and back” when he was a bit of a leftist.
Mind you some of his critiques of say Ghana as the new elites turned authoritarian were fairly right.

6. Dr. X - August 30, 2011

The Cruiser was hardly best placed to slag off other people as ‘devious’.

7. The ANC, the IRA and the rising influence of the left within Sinn Fein… « Slugger O'Toole - August 30, 2011

[...] by Storm has a nice piece up on the IRA’s role in helping MK, the armed wing of the ANC, in the 1980s. In particular he [...]

JC - August 30, 2011

Not only did O’Brien accept teaching work in Apartheid South Africa, he actually made a very public point of bringing his adopted son with him on the trip. His son was black and it certainly looked at the time like O’Brien was using him cynically as political cover. Its interesting to consider how O’Brien’s obsession with the rights of Northern Irish protestants led him to a close identification with Zionism (he wrote a large tome in support of the Israeli state) and a highly ambiguous position with respect to Apartheid South Africa. I know he wrote a book on Camus early in his career, but I don’t have it to hand. It would be interesting to see what views he expressed on the situation of the colonists in Algeria at a time in his life when he still had an Irish nationalist orientation.

WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2011

He did indeed go to SA with his son. I thought that was an astonishing position for the man to take at the time though in retrospect… and it smacked as you say of cynicism in all respects.

To be honest when told as someone did recently that he was our greatest intellectual I have to laugh.

Dr. X - August 30, 2011

The awful thing was that he probably was Ireland’s greatest intellectual.

Is there anyone on the Irish left who could be considered equivalent to E.P. Thompson, for example?

Garibaldy - August 30, 2011

Dr. X,

Thankfully not.

WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2011

Perhaps Dr. X. if so then we’re in real trouble.

Dr. X - August 30, 2011

All in good time, gentlemen. First I have to return from the grave to seek my betrayer.

8. Brian Hanley - August 30, 2011

‘How in earth did such a creature wind up in the 1970s Labour party?’

Ahem. The Irish Labour Party? Cruise O’Brien would have been on the left of the Labour Party in the 70′s on issues such as Apartheid. Remember a Labour TD welcomed the Springboks the Limerick: a Labour TD travelled to Madrid to meet ministers in the Franco government: several Labour TDs were opposed to the most limited leglislation on contraception and divorce. O’Brien was a sponsor of the Anti-Apartheid movement in the 60s and marched against the Springboks. His 1980′s positions are related to a general move to the right and not indicative of his views earlier on.
By the way, a current Labour councillor in Limerick broke the sporting boycott of SA and played rugby there in the 80′s.

Budapestkick - August 30, 2011

A Labour controlled city council (Limerick) accepted a petition from an openly Neo-Nazi organisation who were warmly invited into the council chamber (1970).

Ramzi Nohra - August 30, 2011

Come on then, who were they ? (apologies if I’m being stupid)

9. HAL - August 31, 2011

The National Movement,sold a paper called The Nation,it praised Hitler and the KKK.Came to the fore during springboks visit to Limerick.

10. Gerryboy - August 31, 2011

CCO’B was anti-apartheid from the early 1960s at least. Under the influence of Edmund Burke he became wary of violent liberators, believing that today’s liberator might become tomorrow’s tyrant. (He was right about Nkrumah of Ghana and Mugabe of Zimbabwe.) Like Burke, he came to believe that social and political change should come gradually and that tradition should be incorporated in political change rather than radicals trying to make a complete rupture with tradition. (The Maoist attempt to ‘erase’ Confucius in China during the cultural revolution has since been repudiated by his successors, who have also turned their backs on some essential aims of Mao’s revolution.) O’Brien co-authored a book with exiled SA journalist Donald Wood on apartheid in the South African rugby scene, when the Springboks played in Dublin in the 1970s. In that book he took a sideswipe at the GAA ban on members of the RUC.

On Albert Camus: Camus naively thought in the late 1950s that the ‘pieds noirs’ (white Algerians) might be persuaded to integrate themselves into a multiracial independent Algeria. So Camus, who had analysied revolutionary violence in his nonfiction book l’Homme revolte, did not support the revolutionary violence of the FLN, and urged a negotiated independence for Algeria.

On Kader Asmal: he was a member of the banned SACP and believed that revolutionary overthrow of apartheid was necessary. He kept in discreet contact with the CPGB and the miniscule CPI over the years of his exile. He didn’t think academic symposia and platform oratory could do the job.

11. steve white - September 1, 2011

forget ccob and can we get back to the question

did Kader Asmal supporters support him on the basis he was a “peaceful” activist?

then what of now?

WorldbyStorm - September 1, 2011

I sure didn’t, and while I think it’s true some of his more – ahem – liberal – supporters might have not wanted to think too deeply about it most were aware of the natuer of the conflict in SA – no? BTW, in the 80s Asmal’s willingness to work with SF people was well known, but I’d imagine many of us didn’t see that as a problem at all.

12. Gerryboy - September 2, 2011

I talked to some anti-apartheid activists in Ireland during the period 1970-90. They tended to believe that because the black majority in South Africa was disenfranchised the only remaining way to end apartheid was 1. tight international cultural and economic sanctions, and 2. armed insurrection. Respectable liberals (there were lots of them) whose names appeared on IAAM headed notepaper privately thought that armed conflict was inevitable, because sanctions were half-hearted and not working, but in public they went along with peaceful protests, agitation and working for international sanctions. Most of these liberals were vehemently opposed to the armed struggle of the Provisional IRA. So what do the surviving liberals of those decades now feel about Asmal’s use of IRA reconnaisance preceding the Umkhonto attack on the oil refinery?

13. Nelson Mandela, icon of resistance - Hot Dogma! - December 6, 2013

[…] as the group was known, also collaborated with such peace-loving hippies as the Irish Republican Army; indeed, the mourning among my Irish friends on Facebook and Twitter has been acute, and the Felons […]

richotto - December 6, 2013

I remember Mandela very effectively put Olivia O’Leary down in an interview when visiting Ireland in the early 90s. While she was building up the usual D4 head of steam about his supportive statements for Irish republicans his response of “take it easy” could’nt have been done better.

14. Nelson Mandela – An Irish Republican By Another Name | An Sionnach Fionn - December 6, 2013

[…] years later the ANC played a crucial role supporting Sinn Féin in the Peace Process of the 1990s and early 2000s between […]

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