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The British and Irish Communist Organisation, The Irish Political Review, or from here to there and back again… Part 1 July 16, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO), Communism, Irish Labour Party, Irish Left Online Document Archive, Irish Politics, Marxism, Unionism.


I was in Connolly Books at the weekend and it is good to see it back in its original location on Essex Street. It was also good to see that there were quite a few people in it. Anyhow, while there I bought Unity, a CPI publication, which I’ll perhaps discuss at a later point, and the Irish Political Review. The latter publication is the direct lineal descendent of the British and Irish Communist Organisation newspapers including Workers’ Weekly and Northern Star, and I am indebted yet again to splinteredsunrise for bringing it to my attention. And lo, Brendan Clifford, for it is he, still writes in it.

BICO has been through so many changes that one might consider it almost akin to the Revolutionary Communist Party/Spiked fraction, except without the sharp styling…or the puckish sense of humour…or the glossy production values. But in some ideological nirvana one suspects that the two groups are at least somewhat kindred spirits, because like the RCP the IPR now peddles a line very very different to that which Mr. Clifford made his name for in the 1970s. That was a sort of undigested Maoism, that became effectively (or as we used to like to say ‘objectively’) Stalinist but with one element that had a clear effect upon Irish political life.

BICO is best known (or perhaps the term is infamous) for its development of the ‘two nations’ theory which in the unrefined version proposed that Ulster Protestants were in fact a nation and therefore had ‘national’ rights that superseded traditional claims of Irish Nationalism to the entirety of the island. There were modish additions to this, for example that partition was a logical development on the island and the interests of the working class were best served by the maintenance of the Union. Naturally as time went on this developed more bells and whistles. The working class in Ulster was the most advanced class element on the island. Any expression of belief in Irish unity was revanchist nationalism of the very worst sort. There was also a non-too subtle hint that catholicism was a big part of the problem. Needless to say PIRA was anathema.

This wasn’t un-influential since since such an analysis chimed with the thinking of others within the society. It had a superficial similarity to positions taken by Official Sinn Féin, and some of the less profound thinkers within that grouping seized upon it as a both template for their future political development and rationale for past failings. This was carried over into SFWP/WP, later DL and arguably later still merged with an already extant strain of the analysis within the Irish Labour Party. This latter strain was introduced in part by none other Conor Cruise O’Brien, who also found it made a certain sort of sense as a stick to beat Republicanism with from the 1970s onwards. Here was a means of explaining that there was effectively nothing to be done on the traditional nationalist project, that that project was essentially a lie and could never be achieved. Later parts of BICO who joined Jim Kemmy’s Democratic Socialist Party merged with the Labour Party, thereby strengthening the tendency within that party.

The attractiveness of this position was, to those who misinterpreted or misused it, that by accepting this analysis they were somehow transcending ‘nationalism’ and all its perceived flaws. Yet any serious consideration of it would note that this was an analysis rooted in nationalist thinking (well Leninist to be absolutely accurate, for yet again his theory of nationalities was taken for a canter across unfamiliar turf). Hardly much a step forward to move from reifying one nationalism to two (not to mention implicit issues which were never, and could never be addressed by the analysis, for example what was the distinction between British nationalism and Ulster nationalism, and what was the situation of those who were of the Irish Nation within Ulster, or indeed just what was this Ulster that was bandied about so liberally?). And there was a further contradiction that pointed up some of the – ahem – flaws in the analysis. BICO were steadfast in their disavowal of an independent Northern Ireland. Yet the implicit logic of their position was that an INI was the obvious outcome. What stayed their hand? Why the notion that it could lead to civil war between Catholics and Protestants within Ulster. Something here really, really didn’t add up although the weighty thinkers of at least one section of the advanced left didn’t worry too much about such things, delighted as they were to be given at least some justification for their retreat from Republicanism.

On the other hand, there was at least something to it, if only in pragmatic terms. Unionism clearly existed as a socio-political entity, whatever categorisation was ascribed to it, whether ‘national’ or otherwise. Not much point for hard headed materialists to ignore this existence or pretend that it could be wished away – as large sections of Irish Nationalism had done over the previous sixty years, since partition removed the practicalities and difficulties of direct engagement from the table.

Whether this retrospective viewpoint was really anything more than making a virtue of necessity on the part of such luminaries as O’Brien is a moot point. One certainly wonders what sort of intellectual activity led to an almost studied ignorance of another element of the problem, the equal fact that there was within the North a cohesive Irish Nationalist population as well.

And turning to my own experience for a moment this was to my mind the most obvious flaw of received ‘two-nations’ theorising within the WP in the 1980s. Simply put it made no sense to pretend that the situation wasn’t a little bit more complex than just two nations, and therefore required a little bit more than the demonisation of one group in order to feel comfortable about the existing status quo, and this from a self-described ‘revolutionary’ party.

The late John Sullivan in his excellent and entertaining “As Soon as this Pub Closes” deals with BICO in typical fashion:

Clifford’s victory [on traditional nationalism], once quotations were verified, was almost too complete. Other groups had little choice but to adopt neo-Cliffordian positions, but unwilling to serve as a pilot to the Left through the suddenly bewildering currents of Irish politics, he spurned all ecumenical offers and pressed home his attack, calculating that if Left views on Ireland were a fantasy, the same might apply to the rest of their politics. Clifford adopted the working assumption that whatever the Left said on a given issue was wrong and he applied his training by finding examples which would demonstrate truths already established by faith and doctrine. For example: if the Left favours Irish unification, opposes the Common Market and deplores racism, we should adopt the opposite view in each case. Anyone can do that: it is more difficult to argue a case, based on Marx and Lenin, supporting the Common Market, the Orange Order or Thatcher’s immigration policies. The Jesuits have lost the knack of such apologetics since they adopted liberation theology.

And he continues:

Because the conclusion to any of BICO’s arguments can always be predicted by reversing the sign on current Left orthodoxy their writings provide little sense of intellectual discovery, but even friends who do not share Clifford’s intellectual background assure us that the argument is always a pleasure to read. Clifford’s main journal is The Communist, but there are a number of offshoots and Fronts, the most unlikely of which is the Ernest Bevin Society. The logic of this is impeccable: if Bevin hammered the Left for a generation, he must be a misunderstood genius, whose thoughts should be revived. In fact, if Bevin ever had any deep political thoughts, it would take Jacques Cousteau to locate them. Some thought that Clifford would become a guru of the Labour right, but that tendency is so dominated by Nonconformity, Fabianism and pragmatism that they have found him a bit of a puzzle. The discomfort is reciprocated, as Clifford does was not like the remnants of sentimental humanitarianism they still display. The gravedigger has still not found his final political resting place.

But as we shall see over the next couple of weeks, such ideological contortions were as nothing in the long history of both BICO and those who cherry-picked its thinking… and the story of where they went next is revealing both for what it tells us about the left in Ireland, and perhaps how the left regards itself…


1. Ed Hayes - July 16, 2007

Do you mean the Irish Political Review? If Clifford has another journal on the go then I don’t know how he has anytime for eating or sleeping. The artists formerly known as BICO also bring out Church and State, run Athol Books and run another magazine, whose name escapes me. I look forward to reading the thread.


2. Mark P - July 16, 2007

It’s worth mentioning the earlier origins of the BICO, if you are going to trace their development.

My understanding is that Clifford was involved with the London based Irish Communist Group (or Irish Workers Group, I get the two names confused) which included people who were to go on to found a range of the oddest groups on the British or Irish left. These included Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, some who went on to form the League for a Workers Republic, some who went on to Saor Eire and, of course Clifford himself.

Anyway, I gather that the Maoist wing split away from the Trotskyoid wing in 1965 and set up the Irish Communist Organisation. The ICO was a strange group, even by Maoist standards, but given its later evolution perhaps its most notable feature was its strident left-nationalism. In other words Clifford et al’s recent turn toward Sinn Fein apologetics isn’t the first time they’ve executed a 180 degree reverse on the national question.


3. WorldbyStorm - July 16, 2007

You’re dead right Ed, and I’m worried now at how my Freudian slips seem to be proliferating 🙂

Mark, according to wiki the precursor group to LWG was the Irish Workers’ Group. Amazingly this went on through later splits to have connections with Gerry Healy and the range of people involved included Anne Speed etc… Is there no part of the left untouched by BICO?

The AWL is interesting, if only for its theoretical positions…


4. Mark P - July 16, 2007

“Is there no part of the left untouched by BICO?”

Well I think you can get from Clifford or BICO to pretty much any other group on the Irish left, and quite a few on the British left, in a step or two. People from a split from the BICO, the COBI ended up in the IMG’s Socialist Unity project in Britain for instance. Eamon McCann, the best known figure in the Irish SWP, was another alumnus of the Irish Workers Group. The Socialist Party were involved in the Labour Coalition in the North with some people from the post-BICO milieu. We’ve already mentioned the connections you can make between them and the AWL, Saor Eire, the LWR, Healyites, DSP, Officials and so on.

Although it has to be said that much of this is pretty tenuous and is really just down to the Irish left being such a small pond. It’s unfortunate that the most interesting/crazed period of the BICO’s existence precedes the internet by so long as it means that the only way to see most of their material is to go digging around in Trinity College library or the Linenhall library.

The Socialist Party have an archive of some of their old publications on line and this includes a pamphlet length polemic against BICO from some time in the 1970s. I’ll go dig up the link.


5. Mark P - July 16, 2007

Here is the pamphlet “For Workers Unity”, by Peter Hunt. It was produced by Militant in 1975, arguing against proposals from the BICO and its front the Workers Association for a split between ICTU and the unions in the North.



6. WorldbyStorm - July 16, 2007

Thanks for the link Mark. Fair dues to the SP for keeping an archive of such material. Like it or loathe it it remains a part of the left ‘story’.

Actually it also shows up how the ‘two nations’ jibe against the SP is unfair.

As it happens I have a BICO journal from 1973 which I’ll put up a few quotes from later in the week… interesting stuff…


7. Mark P - July 17, 2007

I don’t suppose you could scan the whole thing?

On the archive thing, the SP keeps an archive of its own publications and much less complete collections of other groups materials. A couple of members of ours have been slowly putting bits of it online, but obviously that’s pretty low priority work. One of our branches in Belfast puts out occasional pamphlets on aspects of Irish left history, Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Trotskyism in Ireland in the 1940s and that sort of thing.


8. splinteredsunrise - July 17, 2007

Great post on the most influential Irish left group people haven’t heard of. And remember, not only did the BICO impact on most other left groups but, via Jeff Dudgeon, we can also blame them for the UK Unionist Party. I actually have quite a few old BICO pamphlets, and one or two may be worth scanning for curiosity’s sake – there’s also quite a decent critique of them by Rayner Lysaght, that might be on the Workers Republic site.

I’m not sure I’d go along with Mark in seeing them as semi-Provo republicans. The line they’ve been developing for the last 15 years or so is more interesting than that. It seems to me to be a strange kind of deviated de Valera republicanism, and Clifford’s new book on the early years of FF sheds some light on that.

It’s interesting too that they’ve struck up this relationship with Des Fennell, who back in the day was condemned as both a two nationist and a mad republican. I suppose his quirky kind of politics fits the IPR. I remember Des from the old days of Dáil Chonnacht, when there was a big effort made to involve non-republican figures. The other Galway intellectual who showed an interest was Michael D Higgins – where is he now, I wonder?


9. WorldbyStorm - July 17, 2007

Cheers guys. I’ll do my best about scanning, but I’m hoping to leave the island for at least a week or two so posting will become erratic. It may be after that.

I’d agree that they’re not semi-Provo. Clifford still seems to hang tough with some sort of a two nations theory reworked…

Ah Michael D. Where indeed?


10. Shane - July 17, 2007

Very interesting article and comments. Not being great on these history matters, would be interested to know which group, maoist I think, set up the bookshop in Nicholas Street in Limerick back in the early 70s. This was attacked in local press at the time and shots fired through the windows leading to garda protection I believe. The shop later closed and the building is just a shell now.
Ironically two years ago, Shannon development, decided to spruce up Kings John castle which is directly opposite site of shop with Red Flags. Nothing to do with Munster rugby but because as they explained to local papers at the time Red is a strong colour and it would help attract visitors. Funny.
Anyway I would love to know which strand this shop was alligned to. I live in the area now and locals can tell me lots about the shootings, madness of it etc but when it comes ot the politics nothing except that it was communist


11. chekov - July 17, 2007

Good piece, I think you’re spot on when you identify the similarities with the RCP/Spiked/LM/IoI/SaS crowd (to use just a small fraction of their initials – just look at how many different titles are combined under the IPR rubric too). I also think that you’re right in describing their psychological motivations – left-contrarianism and smart-alecism.

However, unlike Furedi’s lot, they’ve failed to find a niche for their act in the modern world – they’re engaged in an audience-free polemic, and thus they’ve had few if any hindrances to becoming absolute fruitloop-tastically bonkers. Having looked at the IPR for the first time in aeons (I assumed it had ceased to exist) a few weeks back, i was stunned by just how transparently silly their politics are nowadays. You really wouldn’t know if it was a spoof or not. The crazed xenophobic “labour comment” section at the back was particularly deranged, but the whole underlying IT + D4 + Brits + Global Capitalism versus Fianna Fail + honest to goodness Irish folk thesis that runs under the whole thing is merely a slightly more sophisticated version of Gerry McGeough’s psychiatric journey through the Hibernian.


12. Mark P - July 18, 2007

1) I think that you are being a bit unfair to them there, Chekov. I rarely read a sentence in IPR which I agree with, but they haven’t really struck me as barking mad either.

2) I quite agree that they aren’t Provos or even semi-Provos, but the paper does contain quite a bit of Provo apologetics. They don’t defend the Provos for reasons other than Sinn Fein would espouse, but they do defend them – which is remarkable given that once upon a time they regarded them as barely, if at all, better than fascists.

3) The Maoist group Shane is thinking of may well be the Internationalists, later the CPI-ML. This was a group centred around a wandering Indian academic called Hardial Bains who worked at Trinity College for a while. Bains also set up parties in England, Canada and elsewhere, all of which were regarded as a bit odd even by “mainstream” Maoists. I believe that they became Hoxhaites and then retreated to a kind of more general hardline Stalinism, supporting regimes like that of North Korea. They formally wound themselves up a few years ago but had been effectively defunct for quite a while before that.

4) Splintered Sunrise and World By Storm, let me encourage you to scan anything you have from the BICO’s period of “heroic” madness. By the way I have a vague recollection of seeing copies of a strike bulletin one of their fronts put out for the UWC strike in the TCD library.


13. Joe - July 18, 2007

“BICO is best known (or perhaps the term is infamous) for its development of the ‘two nations’ theory which in the unrefined version proposed that Ulster Protestants were in fact a nation and therefore had ‘national’ rights that superseded traditional claims of Irish Nationalism to the entirety of the island. There were modish additions to this, for example that partition was a logical development on the island and the interests of the working class were best served by the maintenance of the Union. Naturally as time went on this developed more bells and whistles. The working class in Ulster was the most advanced class element on the island. Any expression of belief in Irish unity was revanchist nationalism of the very worst sort. There was also a non-too subtle hint that catholicism was a big part of the problem. Needless to say PIRA was anathema.”

Great article WBS but I find it interesting that BICO are seen to have “developed the two nations theory”. Seems to me that Ulster Unionists got in ahead of BICO in “developing” this theory about 60 years previously. Except they didn’t think it was a theory, God love them. They just saw it and see it still as a self-evident truth.
Maybe the problem is with the word nations. But is anyone (outside of CIRA and RIRA and Gerry McGeough) still arguing that there aren’t two distinct peoples on this island?
Clearly there are. So are there then two “nations”? There are probably as many definitions of a nation as there are splits on the Irish left. But Ulster Unionists see themselves as British, part of the British nation, same as the Scottish or Welsh. And they have long seen themselves as such, long before BICO developed the two nations theory.
I don’t know WBS. Something about the tone of the piece I quoted above from you got at me. There seems to me to be a bit of the reformed smoker in a lot of people who left or drifted from WP/DL down the years. Sometimes that takes the form of getting slightly dewy-eyed about the Provos. I think Ed Hayes has described the reality of the Provo campaign well on the Cedar Lounge quite recently. The last sentence in the piece I quoted from you is: “Needless to say PIRA was anathema”. To which, I can only add -And Rightly So.


14. Idris of Dungiven - July 18, 2007

I’m just reading Ian S. Wood’s book on the UDA, ‘Crimes of Loyalty’ and he states that BICO tried to influence the UWC strikers back in 1974.

While they do publish some interesting stuff, the bottom line on them has to be that they’re a cult, and therefore much less interesting than they might appear to be at first sight.


15. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

I have some 1970s CPI-ML literature, will try to give a flavour of it as well. Actually maybe I’ll just give a flavour of all the left stuff I have over the next while.

Joe, I think you’re correct WRT Unionism establishing a proto-two nations theory, but BICO gave it the additional heft of a ‘marxist’ theoretical framework. And I’d hope that any of my posts would indicate that I recognise the right to a degree of self-determination of all on the island and how that has to be supported through inventive political approaches of which I think the BIC is one such.

As regards your other point, I wouldn’t be dewy eyed about the Provos. Far from it. But… I think the dynamic of a smallish cohort of ex-WP people might run along the lines that a) it was the utmost hypocrisy of the WP to take some of the positions they did in terms of the relationship of the party to a certain grouping b) this relationship was concealed or ignored c) when PSF did begin to make the sort of moves towards a non-armed struggle configuration there was no hint of support, but merely more of the same rather tired rhetoric which had proven uniquely unhelpful over the preceding twenty odd years d) a sense that WP had completely reified, as I note above, one nationalism over another and then in a brilliant ideological sleight of hand pretended the former wasn’t a nationalism at all and finally e) a sort of semi-restrained hysteria about these issues which a perusal of any of the old WP and even DL publications such as The Irish People or Times Change will indicate about an issue that at root was proven manageable to the point now we have the DUP and SF working together.

I also think there was a complete lack of recognition that ‘there but for the grace of God go we’ in relation to PIRA.


16. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

That’s a fair point Idris, I’m astounded by how the same names crop up across the thirty or more years they’ve been in existence in one form or another…


17. JimFlynn - July 18, 2007

What is this but for the ‘grace of God’ go we crap. The WP could have organisationally easily went the Provo road but they decided not to on straight moral grounds and because of the leadership’s republican ideology – this cost people their lives and when the Provos decided to start robbing republican history and rewriting what happened in the North the WP said no to that. Now the WP works in joint campaigns with elements of SF so I think Joe is quite right about the dewy eyed crap about you and the Provos – they where objectively anti-left throughout most of their history and it doesn’t matter what questions the WP had to answer the Provo’s armed campaign was a drag on Left wing development North and South end of story – it’s DL revisionism as the parlour room politics it was which allows for such moral ambiguity about the Provos and US imperialism


18. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

JimFlynn, consider if you will that the OSF/IRSP split (and I’m reading WP as being part of a continuum of OSF). In some senses a large faction of OSF did go the Provo, or at least an analogue of it, road in that split. Was that a moral decision, or was that an ideological decision, or was it both? And then consider that the OIRA remained active and extant, well…to this very day. Was that moral, ideological or some blend of both. Then it’s fair to ask is it a greater hypocrisy to openly support a paramilitary grouping that conducts a murderous armed campaign, or to pretend that one has no links or connections with another one which has also conducted a similar campaign and then retreated into an uneasy half life?

More broadly, I think some sort of irruption such as that of PIRA was inevitable and was not simply the result of their own doings, although that was a constituent part of it, but was also the result of the actions of Stormont and later the British and the internal dynamics of both the North and the South in the context of the history of the island. That’s not a justification, but it is an explanation. And I’m not the only one, read the recently declassified British Army report which points again and again at the ineptitude of their political masters to deal with basic root causes of societal alienation of which the Provos, amongst others, were a dismal symptom.

DL were never revisionist about the Provos, at least in my experience. They loathed them. And neither am I. But what I am, or at least trying to be, is rigourous about the failings of OSF/WP/DL because that too was a drag on left wing development North and South.

Incidentally, I’m always worried about the use of terms which have multiple definitions… you ascribe OSF/WPs actions to Republicanism. In a context where you an I would, most likely share a definition of that term, while RSF would share quite another it’s necessary to be more precise. Or perhaps to concede that the worst actions are often the result of the best intentions by those who won’t or can’t deal with more flexible ways of looking at the world.


19. Ciarán - July 18, 2007

Him: they where objectively anti-left throughout most of their history and it doesn’t matter what questions the WP had to answer the Provo’s armed campaign was a drag on Left wing development North and South end of story

Yeah, because there was so much left wing development in Ireland until those nasty Provos appeared in 1969/70.


20. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

A further thought, and again not a justification. There are clear societal reasons why PIRA expanded to a considerably larger size than OIRA, why it achieved a hegemonic place in the North, and the dynamic that sustained that expansion and the cohesiveness of PIRA through decades contrasted with the much smaller, and relatively but not entirely, more manageable OIRA means that discussion about ‘moral’ approaches seems to me to be looking at this whole issue from the wrong viewpoint. I’m not suggesting that PIRA was simply a force of nature that had to be endured, although, there is something I suspect in that, but the journey they eventually took was much greater, and arguably much more difficult than that which the OSF tradition took. That’s not to say that the OSF approach was wrong, but that differing contexts led to different outcomes. And that’s even before we get into the personalities and how that dictated outcomes. Flicking through Ruiri O Bradaighs biography the other day in Connolly books was an education in itself for me, even after all these years being on the left.


21. Shane - July 18, 2007

Thanks Mark P and WbS. I remember the CPI ML from the late 80s in Cork. They were the number one group in the city when it came to postering. Some special technique resulted in posters remaining in place for months and months. They were everywhere.


22. chekov - July 18, 2007

“I think that you are being a bit unfair to them there, Chekov. I rarely read a sentence in IPR which I agree with, but they haven’t really struck me as barking mad either.”

Their general analytic framework is based upon a battle between the proud irish nation and perfidious albion – not particularly different from McGeough’s – just a touch more sophisticated and more fawning to the ruling class. It’s an analysis that is just terribly silly in this day and age and one that is only tenable if you have a distant relationship with reality.

On top of the barminess of their general framework, some of the stuff that they write about is just outrageously odd. In the current edition, their guru Clifford has a rambling article entitled “ersatz intelligentsia” which exemplifies this oddness. For example, at one stage it wanders into a defence of Breton nazi-collaborators:

“The Breton organisation, presented by O’Shannon as an active contingent of the SS turns out to have been a defensive organisation against the French resistance….the Resistance was not going to allow the Breton nationalists to avail of the defeat of the French state to escape from French nationalism.”

Now, this point of view is one that I think is just absurdly removed from reality, but more importantly it’s just such a pointless road to go down. The only rationale that I can think of for such an endeavour is a psychiatric one.



23. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

Yeah, I read that too chekov and it really annoyed me. There are clearly centripetal forces at work in France and the overall approach to develution has been incorrect, but…’a defensive force against the French resistance’. Dear God no….


24. Joe - July 18, 2007

Some great posts here! Thanks for the clarifications, WBS, good points made.
I have a CPI ML paper I bought from one of their Trinity students in the early 80s in the Palace Bar in Dublin. I was with my totally apolitical best mates. I opened it up and there was a photo of their banner being carried at a Stop The Criminal Justice Bill march. And who was striding tall behind the banner only my good (pre-WP, independent) self. I won’t be scanning that one in anywhere thank you very much.

PS: The Stop the Criminal Justice Bill campaign was led by Joe Costello. How many further criminal justice bills have gone through since then? Must be close to a dozen. In those days the left was kneejerk against increased garda and court powers. Now more on the left understand that working class communities welcome more cops on the beat rather than free rein for scumbags to intimidate and terrorise. Discuss.


25. Redking - July 18, 2007

This thread is addressing my favourte hobby horse so here I go !-

I actually think that the road that the Officials had to traverse was a more difficult one than the Provos.

Consider for a second how easy it was fro the early Provo leaders to paint the picture as a simple “Brits Out” one in 1970-72 when the British Army faciliatted this by heavy handed oppression of whole swathes of NI catholic ghettos. Also it fitted the “traditional” picture of a “war” against the Brits and their “dupes” the Loyalists. It was more difficult for the Officials to try to articulate a socialist or left Republican response in this developing sectarian mayhem aided and abetted by messers MasStiofain, O’ Bradaigh etc.

It was enormously difficicult for Official leaders to maintain discipline within their ranks in the face of extreme provocation from the Provos, Loyalists and British Army-not to mention their own 5th column in the IRPS. Amazing really that more violence did’nt ensue from them. However there were outbursts that reflected the ideological tensions of trying to turn a republican movement into a socialist one.

On the inevitability of the Provo campaign I’m not sue I’d make quite the allowances that WBS does-I said elsewhere that they where the prime movers in planning and prosecuting the campaign for years way past any objective effect-by 1974/75 some of them knew they couldn’t win a “long war”-but they blithely banged away for another decade and a half with all the terrible consequences we now have to deal with. The Officials knew this in 1969!

On hypocrisy-well it’s true the OIRA was the elephant in the room for the WP in the 1980s but that’s not to forget that it was largely quiesscent and was under the political control of the WP-and a very small group at that. This is no jusitifiaction but it did a lot less damage than PIRA. I feel those DL members who went on about the OIRA were being ingenuous in that they knew full well of it’s existance (indeed some were ex-members!) -I feel it was more a stick (!) to beat Garland Goulding et al with than anything.
I have sympathy with JimFlynn’s views but WBS as an ex-WP/DL member is very measured on all this.
There could be a lot more ranting from all concerned!


26. splinteredsunrise - July 18, 2007

Flicking through Ruiri O Bradaighs biography the other day in Connolly books was an education in itself for me, even after all these years being on the left.

Now that is an excellent book, and fills a gap in what’s understood of republican ideology. Not least in that while some of the Provos were consciously anti-socialist, a large chunk weren’t, and their main problems with OSF/WP were in the first instance the abandonment of trad-republican positions re recognising the three parliaments, and secondly the adaptation to Muscovite CPI-type politics.

I do have some sympathy with Ruairí’s view that the Belfast Provos were never really republican in the ideological sense, or to put it another way that he’s about the last trad-republican ideologue left.


27. Mark P - July 18, 2007

Here’s a question for all of the past and present Sticks here:

What exactly was the OIRA actually for?

By that I mean, what roles did it actually play after 1972? It obviously served as a kind of cutting edge for the Officials in feuds and presumably served as a kind of standing warning to the other factions with private armies that OSF weren’t to be pushed around. But other than that, what did it actually do?

There are various rumours that it was used for fundraising purposes, but most of the detail is usually provided by their opponents – racketeering, robberies and the like – and as with all of the clandestine armed factions it is difficult to know how much of this is propaganda and how much of it is accurate.

Also, what role did it play in the internal decision making of OSF/WP?

It just seems difficult in retrospect to see why the Workers Party wanted or needed its own private army, given that the negatives associated with it must so heavily have outweighed the benefits. And because it didn’t have much public profile and didn’t carry out open actions after the IRSP feud it’s very difficult to know what it was about.

Actually, while I’m here asking questions about the WP, I remember recently reading the old Magill material about the “Secret World of Sinn Fein the Workers Party”. This was fascinating stuff, but I’m wary of taking these kind of journalistic sources at face value – Michael Crick’s book about Militant for instance was much better than most journalistic treatments of my own organisation but it gets an awful lot of things just flat out wrong. How accurate was the Magill portrayal? In particular, did secret branches of SF/WP actually exist grouping people in positions of influence who weren’t open SF/WP members?


28. Joe - July 18, 2007

Mark P, I was a member of the WP from, if memory serves, late 85 to the WP/DL split, when I got lazy and said a plague on both your houses. And I don’t know the answers to most of your questions!
I remember a comrade saying at the time of the split that he wasn’t a member of any of the “factions” (which became apparent around that time) because he obviously “wasn’t important enough”. I think I was the same.


29. Mark P - July 18, 2007

In its own way I suppose the fact that the membership didn’t know about any of this stuff is itself revealing. Did the members even know that the OIRA still existed?

When you say that “factions” became apparent around the time of the split, do you mean that factions were formed in the course of the debate or do you mean that there were organised but secret factions in existence all along?


30. ejh - July 18, 2007

In those days the left was kneejerk against increased garda and court powers. Now more on the left understand that working class communities welcome more cops on the beat rather than free rein for scumbags to intimidate and terrorise. Discuss.

I think my discussion would involve observing the way in which this replaces intelligence with rhetoric.

but they blithely banged away for another decade and a half with all the terrible consequences we now have to deal with.

So they did, but it’s an obvious point that it is a great deal easier to start a shooting war than to stop one, where the grievances that brought it about have not been removed and the army that has fought it has not been defeated. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been done, but I’d ask precisely how and when. (Obviously any given individual could have walked away at any time, provided they weren’t in prison or dead, but that’s a slightly different question.)


31. Mbari - July 18, 2007

Why does the name “Jim Flynn” ring a bell?


32. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

Thanks for all the posts so far. There’s a book out next year I hear on this very topic so it’ll be interesting to see what line it takes.

I’d just point out I don’t take, nor ever did, the DL ‘official’ line re OIRA. I had enormous time for Goulding et al, and my reason for going DL was that it seemed like the only show in town as the party split. I was rung on numerous occasions by some of the WP faction convinced I would go with them. They were almost right. Also I was probably over influenced by the CPGB, New Times project at that point and thought the DL might go that way. Still, I was less than happy at the way DL shrivelled into a 26 county operation.

Mark P, the membership largely did know, if only because Vincent Browne was ensuring that they knew through Magill.

Yep, I hope to buy the book splinteredsunrise. R OB is an interesting character, to put it mildly. Not my cup of tea, but someone who in his own way had as much influence, if not more than BICO, in fact there’s a subject for another day, did those two shape at least in part the contemporary outlines of the issue?

I always think OIRA was a legacy issue by the mid 1980s. And one that was more closely bound up with the Northern part of the party, although by no means exclusively. It couldn’t be dumped for sheer pragmatism, who knew whether the cold war with the Provo’s would turn hot, and for much the same reason oddly enough that RSF place so much importance on 1938 because it represented a sort of Republican legitimisation. And it was a thread throughout many families who had been part of the WP, and it was defining, and it just existed and it’s difficult to disband an armed group full stop.

Which links into the points ejh and Redking make in a way. I’d agree that the OSF line was more difficult to sustain in the earliest period, although not completely, since left revolution was in the air and provided at least some ‘cover’ for a shift leftwards. Also the Leninist model which was part-adopted led to considerable discipline. Afterwards though I wonder. I do agree that the PIRA campaign could have burned out in the mid to late 1970s, but then again, these things have a momentum of their own. And I guess I think that it was ultimately easier for OSF to over see a ceasefire, given the logic of their ideological stand than PSF.

But the thingis that there are no heroes in any of this. One could almost point to every group and say, yeah, you prolonged the situation, or made it more difficult to engage on a left or progressive basis.


33. Mark P - July 18, 2007

WbS, do you know if there were actually secret branches which grouped together members with positions of influence who weren’t openly members? This is a claim which is generally made about RTE, but I get the impression that the practice was allegedly wider than that.


34. Joe - July 19, 2007

Mark P. As I understand it, there were what were described as “industrial branches”, which in effect were branches controlled by the Eamon Smullen/Eoghan Harris group. People were brought into these branches who were e.g. civil servants who didn’t want their name pubicly associated with the party, trade union officials, RTE people. I’ve heard it said that they were, to some extent, paper branches in that they seldom met and were in effect a vehicle for Smullen and Harris to direct things.
It’s complicated. There certainly weren’t organised factions in the way that say the SSP had and has same. They only crystallised when things started to go belly-up and, post the big split, you could identify the Smullen-Harris faction which walked/was pushed first, then the Garland WP (including OIRA remnant) Vs De Rossa Rabitte et al DL factions.
In my experience, Smullen had a great rep and sort of aura among many working class long-time WP activists in Dublin. When he went, their heart went out of the party too.
The lesson, I think, is internal democracy. The Leninist, democratic cenralist and OIRA military discipline tendencies in the party meant there were gods in the party who couldn’t be challenged. Which was ok while things went well and the party was at a certain stage of development. But as membership grew, it couldn’t hold. People like Rabbitte et al who came into the party in the seventies couldn’t be expected to continue to tip the hat to the older leaders, many of whom weren’t really up to it. Actually existing communism was exposed as a sham. Something had to give!

On that book that’s coming out next year… it’s been coming out next year for the last few years. What’s keeping it? Don’t think it’s fear of the OIRA, more likely fear of litigation!


35. The New Ireland in the New Europe: Provisional foreign policy in the 1970s « Splintered Sunrise - July 19, 2007

[…] fascinating discussion on Cedar Lounge about the endearingly eccentric British and Irish Communist Organisation, shading […]


36. Redking - July 19, 2007

On the purpose of the OIRA after 1975-well it’s clear as WBS said that it had more signifcance in the North where the uneasy standoff with the Provos warranted its continued existance down to the 1980s. “Expropriations” also occurred.
However most Sticks I know (and also speaking for myself) feel that through political education it would “wither away”-wishful thinking now perhaps given the entrenched way paramilitarism was in the North (still is regrettably) but as I said the “actions” from the OIRA steadily declined. It’s also very true that its difficult to disband an Army-militarism was a way of life. But moves did take place -eg replacing the Fianna with the Irish Democratic Youth Movement in 1976.
let’s also remember that the Army Council was the directing centre of the whole movement up until and even beyond the mid 70s. but the existence of OIRA was a hugh issue because political opponents made it so-as has often been pointed out nearly every political party in Ireland has had its origins in some form of violence.

Mbari -yes Jim Flynn was a very highly thought of OIRA commander allegedy a master “bag man” in the Officials and the assasin of Seamus Costello. Maybe the choice of name by that contributor is deliberate!
As for heroes-I take your point WBS its all very murky that period and we have all been tainted-but I certainly regard Cathal Goulding as a hero as he took the absolutley correct and courageous move to call the OIRA ceasfire in 1972 and assert (or try to) the primacy of politics. Like all great figures he had flaws but IMHO Adams and O’Bradaigh don’t even come close to Cathal (but I know I’m biased here).
I won’t cut the Provos any slack on the sectarian conflict they sustained nor should it ever be imagined that their so-called “Army” still less “war” was legitimate or was necessary because of “grievances” whatever they might be. Ed Hayes put it very eloquently in a post elsewhere the Provos campaign achieved “fuck all” and was way out of proportion to any percieved wrongs. Just look at the horrible legacy we now have a result!


37. John O'Neill - July 19, 2007

My first time to come across BICO was when I was ‘spring cleaning’ the WP bookshop when I worked there. Behind shelving unit was shit-loads of badly stencilled pamphlets from BICO. There must have been 10 copies of about 100 different titles all potential ‘bestsellers’ (only joking) Partition, Wolfe Tone, Bevan etc, etc. I asked Sean O’Cionnaith why they were not up on the shelf and he said they were a loony group that supported Loyalism and were “probably set up by British Intelligence”. I recall reading a funny review of them somewhere that said that Clifford was one of the few on the Irish left that actually read Tone, Connolly etc; I suspect there is some truth in this. There’s is no denying that he was a prolific writer and his work, whilst stodgy and with very suspect conclusions, was well researched.
Either way they remained, alongside the OIRA Long Kesh harps and wallets, off limits.

The BICO connection or influence of the Officials/WP is sometimes over played. Granted there were some former BICO people in, or on the fringes of, the WP (either Bew or Patterson can’t remember which one) but I suspect the reason for the presumed closeness was their distaste for the Provos and the tragically mistaken belief within the WP that ‘an enemy of my enemy is a friend’. I would argue that the WP position was probably closer to the CPI’s (without the CP belief of always trying to keep lines of communication open with the Provo’s and the “Republican Movement”) which, simply put, argued for Civil Rights, then Class Politics and finally Unity within a socialist republic – a pretty crude stagiest theory.

As Joe said the WP argued that Ireland was a backward country without developed industries and therefore the working class movement was weak. They argued that indigenous capitalists had failed to industrialise the country and therefore supported Multinationals to do the job!
Industrialisation = larger working class = class politics = revolution.

I disagree that Loyalism was ever about 2 nations, it was about loyality. The UDA at one stage dabbled in the idea of an independent entity but this was more likely a knee jerk reaction to a perceived betrayal by Westminister than anything of substance.

There is a wide difference in accepting the majority of the people in the six counties wanted to remain part of the UK than accepting that there were two nations on the Island. The problem was that the WP latter years accepted that British nationalism was understandable but Irish nationalism was an apology for provo terror!

I agree with WBS on what he says about WP hypocrisy, but I would figure that a WP member who has been around since the 70’s would be enraged by the growth of PSF particularly when they have basically come to a WP position excluding the ‘ideology’ and more so when you consider their growth in working class areas where they are seen as a radical left organisation. A good short article on this can be read on the Blanket website entitled “A Stick To Be Beaten With”

‘Jim Flynn’ I presume is a WP member and I would disagree with his position that the Officials didn’t go Provo “on straight moral grounds”. I would agree that this could be said for Goulding but not for those who remained and went on to form the IRSP. Even within the ranks of the Officials after the IRSP split there were still what I would term ‘traditional republicans’. It’s hard to explain but within the republican movement there has always been a belief that unquestioning loyalty to the leadership was part and parcel of your ideology. Splitters are hated more than anyone else. JF is correct about the Provo armed campaign but typically silent about the UVF/UDA/LVF campaigns. Goulding was quoted in the Sunday Tribune stating “ if I thought killing RUC men would achieve anything then we (the WP) would be up to our necks in it” A crude way of putting it but his point is simple, it wasn’t armed struggle that was the problem but that the Provo armed struggle was pointless and worse still counter productive as it drove a wedge between workers. Redking hits the nail on the head when he said “they (the Provo’s) couldn’t win a “long war”-but they blithely banged away for another decade and a half with all the terrible consequences we now have to deal with. The Officials knew this in 1969!” I also agree that the ‘DL hypocrisy’ was loathsome and possibly the major reason I remained in the WP after they departed.

As to the argument that O’Bradaigh is the only lasting traditional republican I don’t agree. Historically, the Republican Movement always avoided armed action in Belfast for fear of the sectarian backlash – i.e. the 50’s campaign. This was seen as a core principle not just a tactic.

MarkP wants to know what the OIRA was for. You could equally ask why militant members were given arms training in the 70’s. There was a (mistaken) belief that the situation in the 6 counties was, or had the potential to be, revolutionary. The reality of meaningful political existence in the north within nationalist ghetto’s required the ability to defend yourself. The bitterness arising from the splits wasn’t like the departure of the Scottish militant into the SSP it was a different ball game altogether, people were beaten, shot and sometimes murdered. A friend of mine who was in primary school in the 1970’s used to put a hammer in his school bag because of the numerous beatings he received because his “Da was a stick”

However, Mark P touches on a very relevant point. Organisations with ‘military’ and ‘political’ wings are doomed because essential to political organisation is debate, discussion, dialogue collective decision making. Essential to a military structure is to obey orders. They never mix well. So a Provo or Official in both wings (and I believe there were many) might believe that a certain strategy is better than an other but if instructed by an ‘officer’ he/she is duty bound to obey or face a court martial or expulsion. This can be really unhealthy for a group because it lends itself to people keeping their ideas to themselves until they are in a leadership position where they make the decisions. I doubt the WP ever believed in private armies but it did cherish and protect its loyal members (once they remained unquestioningly loyal).

Secret branches were deemed necessary for members who could not openly declare their allegiance because of the nature of their employment. I remember Norma Prenderville was sacked for her political activism in Militant. When I heard I was appalled that she didn’t just hide her politics and continue in her work. If she was in the WP she would have been instructed to do so. The down side to this was a tier of members who involved themselves in jockeying for position and influence at work but with little or no connection to the organisation. This left the door open to careerism as could be seen by the litany of former WP members in executive positions in the TU movement.

Factions always exist in every organisation. In the WP they tended to be exclusively at leadership level. I would argue that the WP split was a split in the leadership with members asked to take sides after the fact.

Jim Flynn was alleged by Vincent Browne to have shot Seamus Costello. The INLA then killed him stating that media revelations had made this action acceptable. Now that’s an example of the power of the media!

Smullen was popular in the WP with working class members he was a bit eccentric and dithery and very human. He was also an ‘economistic Marxist’ (I think that’s the correct term) and wouldn’t have been upset if you called him a Stalinist. He was active as a ‘child’ in the republican movement and served a lengthy prison sentence in his youth. He was on hunger strike on one occasion and also served another prison sentence in England in the 60 or 70s. He was in the CPGB in the 1950’s. Had he not departed with Harris there would probably be a WP pamphlet about his life. Personally, I liked him a lot; politically I thought he was too influenced by the real WP devil – Harris.


38. ejh - July 19, 2007

as has often been pointed out nearly every political party in Ireland has had its origins in some form of violence

I made this precise point once on a site very different to this, not a political site by nature but one which included a number of student Dubliners. Boy, did they not like to hear that. At all.


39. ejh - July 19, 2007

Question: if the Provos were so obviously wrong then and now, why is it that their political representatives are by a huge distance the most popular among the communities from which they seek support?


40. WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2007

ejh, what was the site? Sounds interesting in a push a stick (pardon the pun) into an antihill sort of a way.

Redking, Joe and John O’Neill those really cover some of the ground. Sorry MarkP about not getting back about the industrial branches, but I think the others have explained it better than I could.

I remember Smullen quite well actually, and funnily enough I thought that some of the people I knew would follow him out with Harris. That was such a waste of time and mind and effort. Really sad.

I can understand people from the WP being enraged by PSF (and perhaps because a close relative was in SF and later CPGB in the 1950s – although by the time I was politically active they were sort of kind of FF/WP ish) – that made me more open to seeing that there was if not a justification an explanation for PSF. I’d stress again I didn’t support the armed struggle, but I think John gets it absolutely right, amongst some in the WP there was a view that ‘an’ armed struggle was legitimate if the situation was right. The logic though of the ideology in the political environment made that less and less likely of course. But at Ard Fheis after Ard Fheis the cry went up for PSF to follow the OSF/WP path and when they did, then up went the counter cry of ‘we don’t believe them’ or ‘that’s not good enough’. And there was an amazing amount of rewriting of PSF history or ignoring of any aspects of their development which paralleled that of OSF. For example the Provos = fascists line was trotted out a lot. Or the Provos = sectarians. Some provos clearly were both of the far far right and sectarian, and many many actions were objectively sectarian even if subjectively those who carried them out didn’t see this. But I always thought that the analysis of the Provos was incredibly shortsighted and curiously for all the rhetoric there was actually very little interest in them or their doings in terms of a kremlinology sort of way – evinced perhaps best by the absolute surprise to DL – and I’d guess the WP – when PIRA announced ceasefires, as someone at the next DL conference noted ‘even the dogs in the street knew it was coming and yet we didn’t’. In fairness though, as that Blanket article notes they had had a murderous feud with them not that long before hand so objectivity wasn’t necessarily top of the bill.

On a slight tangent the Moscow link certainly did a fair bit to dissuade them or their proxies supporting PIRA, which is interesting when you consider that there were clear links between some of the left urban guerillas and some Warsaw pact nations intelligence services.


41. ejh - July 19, 2007

even the dogs in the street knew it was coming and yet we didn’t

Why is the expression about the dogs so commonly used in the North of Ireland? Is it as common in Ireland generally? Are there a lot of dogs in the street?

Regarding the website, I’d email the name if I had an email to send it to…


42. splinteredsunrise - July 19, 2007

The expression about the dogs in the street takes on a certain piquancy if you’ve ever gone knocking doors in Poleglass. I have never seen so many dogs in my life.


43. WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2007

cedarlounge@yahoo.com…and apologies to any who’ve used it in the past and not been answered.

Talking about dogs, I love dogs but would be … cautious … around them. Canvassing and caution do not go well together… Oddly enough the large ones are okay, it’s the smaller ones that are less assured. Bah, I’m beginning to sound like that woman on TV…


44. ejh - July 19, 2007

Any who use it in the present are likely to have their message bounced back – mine was, anyway….


45. Redking - July 19, 2007

Splinteredsunrise-It’s not the dogs I’d be worried about if canvassing in Poleglass! but that’s another (ahem) story….


46. WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2007

ejh, my mistake, cedarlounge@yahoo.ie


47. Ed Hayes - July 20, 2007

On the Limerick Maoist question way back. The group were part of the Internationalists and the campaign against them was part of a wider right wing movement in Limerick at the time, that involved a local welcome for the South African Springboks tour as well. There is some information on this in the new book by Niamh Puirseil ‘The Irish Labour Party, 1922-73.’ After the Maoists had been attacked, Labour TD Steven Coughlan justified the red scare and for good measure retrospectivly justified the anti-Jewish agitation of 1904 as well. Jim Kemmy and his supporters tried to get Coughlan expelled but the majority of the Labour leadership, including some well known liberals, decided an anti-semitic Labour TD was better than no TD at all and backed Coughlan. Kemmy eventually left and formed the Limerick Socialist organisation who were very influenced by…BICO. Later Kemmy set up the Democratic Socialist Party which included elements from BICO. The other point about Clifford and co, and the co included the likes of Peter Cassells and Kate Hoey if I’m not mistaken, wa that they were pro-Zionist and this mirrored their support for Unionism in some ways. There was quite a nasty tone to some of what they wrote about northern Catholics, which was almost sectarian. The Loyalists were dead on though and anything bad they did was the other lots fault.
Re the WP; people far better informed than me have written here about it. However while I despise the Provo’s armed campaign and its results it makes me laugh to see ‘Jim Flynn’ saying the WP stood up to the Provo’s re-writing history; the WP re-wrote their history so often you could be forgiven for thinking that Garland and co had been social workers in the 1960s! There were understandable reasons to hate the Provos but that did not seem to stop the WP talking to the Loyalists and I never saw the WP as excercised about Loyalist violence towards Catholics as they were about the Provos. Indeed am I correct in remembering de Rossa (1988-89-90?) praising the northern Unionists were not being drawn in retaliation for the PIRA’s campaign? How the Catholics of north and south Belfast or mid Ulster would have laughed. And its ok to talk to the PUP and UDP while their armed wings were killing people but John Hume was a Catholic bigot for talking to Adams…it goes on and was one of the reasons why many northern nationalists who were not neccesarily happy with either SF or the SDLP and might in other circumstances have voted WP found them so hard to stomach.
BTW the book on the Labour party does what it says on the tin and is quite informative. There arn’t actually that many decent books on any Irish political party.


48. Ed Hayes - July 20, 2007

Incidentally BICO also defended Pol Pot to add to their interesting collection of world views. Re: Maoists eile; The CPI-ML had a rival book shop to the CPI for many years, Progressive Books on the quay near Temple Bar. Don’t know who paid the rent or if Albania was stumping up for their Irish comrades. Anyway Tommy moved on to better and more successful things. I have no idea what kind of background TG came from but in the early 80s there was always rumours that everyone on the far left was a rich kid. Anyway at a street meeting, (which the CPI-ML were always having) after Tommy ended a rousing speech with a call to ‘make the rich pay for the imperialist crisis!’ some wag shouted out ‘make yer da pay Tommy!’
Cue much sniggering…childish but hey, the far left were always taking the piss out of each other and always calling each other middle class. Meanwhile the WP were getting on with becoming a serious party. Looking back, what a waste.


49. Ed Hayes - July 20, 2007

Sorry a question I forgot. John O’Neill mentioned that the WP position was somewhat similiar to the CPI line on the north. But if memory serves me correct the CPI was very critical of Unionism and made a point of presenting itself as part of a broader republican movement. The funny thing was that it actually did have and retained a small niche among the Protestant working class despite this, while the WP bent over backwards, as far as I could see, to appease Unionists and still had no or almost no Protestant members. This could be wrongly remembered on my part. I also think that the WP claimed to be in favour of working class unity across the divide but courted middle class Unionists like Magennis and Mcgimpsy more than they did shop stewards from Shorts.


50. splinteredsunrise - July 20, 2007

The CPI would have had a superficially similar line in that they saw moderate unionists as potentially part of a reforming coalition. I think though they would have differed from the WP in their view of the motive force. For the CPI, a popular front of republicans and socialists could force the unionist monolith to split, which is kinda what NICRA did, and then you could try to bring over the unionist ‘left’ if that’s a meaningful term. From the outside, the WP always seemed more concerned with building a bloc with liberal unionists against the Provos. And yet you’re right, it wasn’t really until the 1970s that the CPI had some modest success recruiting Belfast Catholics. It’s a very Prod organisation to this day.


51. Joe - July 20, 2007

John O’Neill says: “I disagree that Loyalism was ever about 2 nations, it was about loyality. The UDA at one stage dabbled in the idea of an independent entity but this was more likely a knee jerk reaction to a perceived betrayal by Westminister than anything of substance.”

I don’t understand what you mean, John, by saying it was about loyalty.
As I see it, there are two peoples on this island – “Nationalists” and “Unionists”. The word nation needs to be defined. But, I believe Unionists would see themselves as British (and thus could be described as one of four nations within Britain along with Welsh, Scottish and English). And I think there isn’t anyone arguing that the Nationalists on the island don’t constitute a nation.
I also like and wish to acknowledge WBS’s statement: “And I’d hope that any of my posts would indicate that I recognise the right to a degree of self-determination of all on the island and how that has to be supported through inventive political approaches of which I think the BIC is one such.”
Here’s hoping we (that’s all of us on this and the neighbouring island) can come up with the inventive political approaches that enable us to get on with living and progressing without killing each other.


52. WorldbyStorm - July 20, 2007

I’m hoping that people realise I’m talking about the British Irish Council, not BICO… But largely I take the point. I think overlapping identities is the way forward. Now that’s easy to say on a website and has much less traction in Darndale or Derry or the Shankill, but…still worth saying…


53. chekov - July 20, 2007

“As I see it, there are two peoples on this island – “Nationalists” and “Unionists”.

I don’t think such neat-subdivisions of people as nationalisms imagine were ever really borne out in reality and certainly aren’t so now.

Imagine four people: an elderly, religious Antrim farmer; an elderly religious Kerry farmer; a South Belfast e-necking raver party-animal; a North Dublin DJing festival raver. Any theory which sees the primary cultural or ‘identity’ based division in such a group as one that groups each of the farmers with a raver, as members of a “people”, seems especially pointless.

My general point is that attempts, such as that by BICO, to analyse the troubles in terms of the existence of real and distinct nations is based upon a largely imaginary entity (and one that is increasingly fictional too). Not much better than basing your analysis on religion (aka who’s imaginary friend is tougher).


54. WorldbyStorm - July 20, 2007

Absolute, Chekov, hence my point about deciding there’s two nationalisms rather than one being not much of an improvement…


55. Ciarán - July 20, 2007

Joe: I don’t understand what you mean, John, by saying it was about loyalty.
As I see it, there are two peoples on this island – “Nationalists” and “Unionists”. The word nation needs to be defined. But, I believe Unionists would see themselves as British (and thus could be described as one of four nations within Britain along with Welsh, Scottish and English). And I think there isn’t anyone arguing that the Nationalists on the island don’t constitute a nation.

The problem is that the nationality of unionists seems to be somewhat liquid, or has “evolved” in a number of ways. Pre-partition unionists were Irish, post-partition they became British. Pre-Anglo-Irish Agreeent (1985) they were British, post-Agreement (and thus post-official recognition of the Irish language) some became “Ulster Scots”. They might also be the lost tribe of Israel, depending on who you ask.


56. North - July 21, 2007

I must say I’m very confused by the ‘2 nations’ comments. I would have thought that, from the marxist and materialist position that most on the thread seem to share, that the starting point would have been a recognition that the material base of partition is the British occupation and the views of the unionists very much a secondary issue. Even the fundamentalist republicans get that one!


57. WorldbyStorm - July 21, 2007

That’s the great thing about the world. One can fit any theoretical position any number of ways and come out with entirely contradictory answers.

Brendan Clifford would have argued from equally marxist and materialist positions that you’re incorrect.

I don’t know, and I tend to think that any theoretical position tends to come up witht the answers we want to hear…


58. North - July 22, 2007

Not much help. Firstly the content of the thread suggests that Brendan operated a contrarian method rather than a materialist one. Secondly its a fairly safe bet that Breandan was wrong, if only because he serially disagrees with himself. Thirdly materialism – shmaterialism tends to rule out any very coherent discussion on anything.

A statement such as “Partition rests on the British occupation” while not complete, seems to me to to be true at a fairly fundamental level and to have great explanatory power. It would explain Connolly’s statements about the carnival of reaction if, in line with classical Marxism, partition inflated Orange super-sectarianism rather than the other way around. It would explain why the Orange have never been an important part of any discussion about 2-nationism, The question would then become: What is the material base of left theories of 2 nationism?


59. Joe - July 23, 2007

Chekov: “Imagine four people: an elderly, religious Antrim farmer; an elderly religious Kerry farmer; a South Belfast e-necking raver party-animal; a North Dublin DJing festival raver. Any theory which sees the primary cultural or ‘identity’ based division in such a group as one that groups each of the farmers with a raver, as members of a “people”, seems especially pointless.”

But it’s not a theory. Let’s assume our “elderly, religious Antrim farmer” and our “South Belfast e-necking raver party-animal” are from a Protestant background. Now let’s ask them both what their ideal answer to the national question is and the answer of both will most probably be: “Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom”. And probably the answer of the other two would be “A United Ireland”. To me that’s an objective fact. I’m not saying I like that fact. But it is a fact. I may wish that people would identify themselves by their class or that they would just see themselves as people and see no need for states or formal authorities. I may be a Marxist or an anarchist, but I can’t wish away the facts.

North says: “A statement such as “Partition rests on the British occupation” while not complete, seems to me to to be true at a fairly fundamental level and to have great explanatory power.”
Here’s another statement: Partition rests on the fact that the majority of the people in Northern Ireland are British and wish for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
This seems to me to be true at a fairly fundamental level and to have great explanatory power.


60. Ed Hayes - July 23, 2007

Any discussion on partition has to take n ote of the fact that it does not just date from 1920. It was already being mooted in 1912 in response to the clear opposition of Unionists, (then a slight majority in the nione counties of Ulster) to even limited home rule. But its roots lie deeper, way back in the plantations and development of the north east in particular. I may not like that to be the case, but the north is different. Look at what even radical nationalists thought about Ulster in the early 20th century; many of them admitted knowing nothing about the place and others that they didn’t even like it. Did the Brits cause the nationalists of west Belfast to elect a Home Ruler in 1918 when everywhere else was voting Sinn Fein? Northern and southern nationalism are different things, before we even get to the Unionists.


61. John O'Neill - July 23, 2007

Ed commented…….the WP bent over backwards, as far as I could see, to appease Unionists and still had no or almost no Protestant members. This could be wrongly remembered on my part. I also think that the WP claimed to be in favour of working class unity across the divide but courted middle class Unionists like Magennis and Mcgimpsy more than they did shop stewards from Shorts.

You’re correct that the WP had few Protestant members but I wouldn’t accept that the WP courted middle class Unionism. The fact that the WP gave some space in its theoretical Magazine “Making Sense” to some liberal unionists considered ‘moderate’ when Ian Kyle was organising his “third force” and was most likely to try and show that other there actually were other attitudes within the Loyalist community. I wasn’t ‘over the moon’ when Ken Magennis (ex RUC I think) wrote for “Workers Life”.

He stated in the article that the Republic would have to realise that the Majority in “Ulster” wish to remain part of the UK. No problem with that, but when I asked someone on the WL editorial rhetorically if any writer could expect to be published in Workers Life saying – The Unionists will have to realise that a significant minority of the population in the six counties wish to be a part of a United Ireland – I got no reply.

Every WP election campaign in NI that I know of (from 1980 until 1995) used either the slogan “Workers Unite” or “Peace, Work and Class Politics” neither of which would look particularly attractive for middle class courting purposes. The middle class looking to vote outside the ‘two tribes’ had a much more palatable alternative to the WP in the Alliance Party. The unfortunate reality was (still is?) that a ‘political’ shop steward in Shorts is most likely to be in a protestant working class organisation like the UDA or PUP. Having said that I met a young shop steward from Shorts who was in Militant but I would bet he was the exception to the rule.

The WP endorsed and was key to the ‘Peace Train’ initiative that did attempt to attract the protestant and catholic middle class, Trade Unionists, and everyone that was anti Provo. Personally, I never agreed with the Peace Train for that very reason although I used it once (as did many a Christmas shopper) to visit friends in Belfast.

Joe, the Irish Republic, according to the Central Stastics Office http://www.cso.ie/statistics/popnclassbyreligionandnationality2006.htm has 3.7 million people of which there appear to be a plethora of people living here (nearly half a million) who, I doubt, would describe themselves as either “Nationalists” or “Unionists”. Most on the left wouldn’t describe themselves as either. Are we then another minority?

I’m not even sure what defines a ‘Nation’ but I won’t get into that because it would be a lengthy discussion in itself.

A good brief summary of Marx on the Nationalities question can be read at http://redsites.alphalink.com.au/nationalism.htm . Essentially, Marx argued that nations were necessary for capitalism to thrive thus opening the way for the struggle for socialism. He saw support for national struggles as an essential part of educating the workers of the oppressor nations in internationalism.

“If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians, and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason.”

“The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them.”


62. Ed Hayes - July 23, 2007

Points taken John. But would I be correct in saying that the WP seemed to have a soft spot for the Alliance as well? I have no objection to any magazine giving space to Unionists but I think the coverage tended to be uncritical. At the height of the Troubles most nationalists voted SDLP, which for all their faults included some people who saw themselves as being part of a labour tradition yet all they got was dogs abuse from the WP. There were/are a few shop stewards in both the shipyards and Shorts who were CPI members/supporters. I have a difficulty with the idea that working class Protestants are identified with the UVF/UDA; the vast majority of them never voted for or supported in a real way the Loyalist paramilitaries.


63. Ed Hayes - July 23, 2007

Oh and Magennis is/was a serving part time major in the UDR.


64. chekov - July 23, 2007

“Now let’s ask them both what their ideal answer to the national question is and the answer of both will most probably be: “Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom”. And probably the answer of the other two would be “A United Ireland”.

No it’s not. Opinion polls show significant numbers answer “don’t care” and a significant proportion of southern catholics say that they want nothing to do with the north. In the case of the example cited, I’d say that “fuck the lot of them” would be the most likely answer from the ravers.

But in any case, even if opinions in the country neatly divided along an axis on this question (which they obviously don’t), so what? What about those opinions make them especially definining of a people? You’ll find a splits along all sort of lines on the island – Liverpool vs. Manchester United, country music lovers, versus everybody else, and so on. Nobody thinks that this means that the country is made up of two distinct peoples – LFC vs MUFC peoples. Why reify this particular opinion, and make it so significant? While it may form an important part of many peoples identities, identities are highly partitioned things – even your traditional West Tyrone farmer may well spend more of his mental energy on his county identity in the face of that god-awful cheating Derry football team than he spends in mental harmony with their ‘national’ identity.


65. North - July 23, 2007

Joe’s statement: “Partition rests on the fact that the majority of the people in Northern Ireland are British and wish for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. This seems to me to be true at a fairly fundamental level and to have great explanatory power” Is an example of the confusion that infects much of the left.

The first statement is true but is is not a materialist explanation of the physical existence of the state. The establishment of the Northern state required an enormous commitment in arms and economic resources that did not derive from unionist opinion but from the British state. It has required a great deal of resources and effort since then to keep the state in existence. Even now the state has a armed British garrison bigger than that in Iraq. I should be self-evident that the state exists because Britain considers it to be in its interest.


66. John O'Neill - July 25, 2007

Ed -The only thing that the WP and PSF agreed on was their dislike for the “Stoop Down Low Party” but for very different reasons. The SDLP appeared to me to had lost their Labourish credentials in the 1980’s and seemed to be more like a constitutional nationalist party than any leftish formation. The WP treatment of the SDLP was verbal abuse whereas the Provo’s got very physical, particularly the continious assaults on Gerry Fitt and his family, not their finest hour by any stretch of the imagination.

I wasn’t in the WP in NI so I cannot refute your claim that they had a ‘soft spot’ for alliance but it could be true insofar as they largely were a middle class alternative to Unionism like the OUP.

The WP were prisoners of their past. When it came to working class Loyalists they were still considered the IRA, not as bad as the Provos but still Taigs. I wonder if Unionist politicans really had any interest in WP courting them when they were never a political force (in electorial terms) in the North. It could have been more of a “coincidence of interests”, to coin a Mervyn Taylor expression, the WP being seen as a group in the catholic community that condemned the Provos? The WP maintained that if the Provo ‘armed struggle’ ended then there would be progress of some sort, it appears that they got it right despite, IMO, being wrong about numerous things like ignoring state terrorism, collusion and the dreadful treatment of the likes of the Birmingham 6 and the Guilford 4.

As for your concern regarding my comments on politically active protestant shop stewarts I agree that it was a flagrant generalisation based on the UWC strike, many decades passed.


67. Ed Hayes - July 25, 2007

John, I think you are generally right about the SDLP, but I would suggest that a few working class Catholics, who in other contexts might have voted Labour (if it existed) or even WP but would never vote SF, supported the SDLP out of lack of an alternative and were put off by some of the WP’s rhetoric. Then again the WP did not want to be a left nationalist party so perhaps they would not have got that type of Catholic working class support whatever they said. I think there is a tendncy on the left to accept the SF view that working class Catholics supported the Provos while the middle class voted SDLP. In that case the Catholic middle class must have been huge because Hume was outpolling McGuinness in Derry by 20-25,000 votes to 10,000 in the 1980s and Seamus Mallon got three times as many votes as SF in south Armagh/Down in that period. West Belfast was the only place SF outstripped them and even that was close in the beginning.
You are right about the violence. Hume also had his house attacked, SDLP canvassers were beaten up on occasion, windows smashed etc. Thats been neatly airbrushed from the Adams/Hume peace process history. You just know that that the likes of Mallon still hates the Provos. Of course large sections of the SDLP were/are old style AOH type nationalists as well, Mallon probably being like that himself.


68. splinteredsunrise - July 25, 2007

Although the WP itself could get quite physical on occasion, notably with Peoples Democracy canvassers in 1981.

As far as the SDLP goes, the Catholic middle class was the core of its support, but it also benefited hugely from being a) the majority Catholic party and b) the party that wasn’t involved in armed struggle. So it had a very big vote in West Belfast but you couldn’t get anybody to admit supporting the SDLP.

Now those advantages have gone, you see it slipping back to the core support. In Belfast, its vote is holding up pretty well in the posher Catholic areas, but there are huge swathes where it doesn’t have a single member.


69. Idris of Dungiven - July 25, 2007

For a long time now (as someone above has said) the SDLP has had no real social democratic element to its politics. Was the supercession of this sort of politics by constitutional nationalism inevitable, do you lot think? If it was, what does that say about the chances (then and now) of any would-be mass left-wing alternative in NI?


70. Redking - July 25, 2007

The WP got physical because on occasions it was (regrettably) necessary-intimidation still happens there are probably loads of anecdotes-but here’s one-in the mid 90s during Clinton’s visit to Belfast a leading WP member was posting up “Hands off Cuba” posters in west Belfast. Several young Provos immediately surrounded the WP member and in no uncertain terms asked him to desist from his activity, as it was obviously spoiling their intended propaganda coup with Gerry meeting Bill etc. The said WP member (for it was the Devil himslef) opened his jacket to reveal his legally held handgun in it’s holster and informed the group:”Lads F**K off!” whereupon the disgruntled Provos complanied loudly to the watching RUC Officers that an armed man had threatened them !!-oh the irony!


71. splinteredsunrise - July 25, 2007

It’s probably fair to say too that PD were naive when it came to electioneering. They might have guessed that challenging the WP on personation wasn’t a good idea.


72. Ed Hayes - July 25, 2007

I presume the irony of the Devil having a legally held gun is not all one sided.


73. Redking - July 25, 2007

No-much irony all around here Ed!
It is Norn Iron politics we are talking about here…..I’ve more anecdotes but I’ll save ’em for later….


74. ejh - July 25, 2007

If it was, what does that say about the chances (then and now) of any would-be mass left-wing alternative in NI?

I imgaine it tells us what we already knew.


75. WorldbyStorm - July 25, 2007

Idris, I’d broadly agree with ejh on that score. I think that as time progresses as splinteredsunrise notes the SDLP will wither further…

North, you raise some very interesting points, but… I don’t think that you account for simple historical circumstance. In fact it was much less of an effort for the British state to retain NI post partition than you make out. Joseph Lee, to my mind one of the best and most cynical of Irish historians, noted some while back that the South was the bit left after partition, not the other way around. There was effectively a rollover from one situation to another, pre to post partition and the institutions were broadly retained or transformed (as with the RIC/RUC) where necessary. Then, ironically, the very institutions Unionism had railed against in an all-island context were gifted to them in the six counties, a devolved parliament with domestic powers approaching those of the Dominions, a paramilitary policing force. Local revenue powers, a lovely funding stream from London. Almost complete autonomy from London on the domestic side and really not that much less autonomy on other fronts (note that even during WW2 conscription wasn’t introduced north of the border), and away one goes. To be honest even during the halcyon days of Stormont it’s hard to see that the British state cared more than rhetorically about NI (and perhaps as a means of retaining the integrity of the UK proper although independence was hardly on the agenda in Cardiff or Edinburgh).

I think you’re taking too instrumentalist a view of ‘state interest’. The counter argument is that from 1920 to 1972 Britain had to do almost nothing in terms of arms and relatively little in terms of economic resources to maintain NI (and of course there is a further argument that the 1939-45 period and the use of bases in NI was in actual fact a net gain for the UK). Post 1972 that obviously changed, but I can’t map the subsequent period into any clear example of ‘state interest’. Having said that I agree taht all states obviously attempt to retain their physical integrity, but… at numerous points during the past thirty years we have seen the UK willing to dilute sovereignty however limited that dilution might be which is interesting. Incidentally I’m not presenting an apologia for British actions, inactions or even presence, merely suggesting that your proposition doesn’t seem to entirely tally with the historical record.


76. Martin Cassidy - August 19, 2007

‘The Internationalists’ had a group in Limerick? Amazing!

They had a bookshop in Cork up near the Butter Exchange. I think it was burned out or something. Does anyone recall the details of their Cork group?


77. Grendel - September 30, 2007

Regarding B&ICO, a little-known offshoot from them was the
Communist Organisation in the British Isles-later Communist Formation-based in Edinburgh.COBI had split from B&ICO because COBI disagreed with the latter’s support for the UWC strike (I bet the B&ICO’spublications were full of suphuric attacks on the defectors!). The only member I know of was Paul Cockshott.
They were pro-EC, and I think they were influenced by De Leonist Socialism. They had a publishing arm called Proletarian Publishing, which reprinted the little-known book “The State:Its origin and function” by William Paul. The organisation
disbanded around 1980, some of its members going into the
Socialist Unity coalition or the Scottish Socialist Party.

It would be very interesting to see a book on the history of
B&ICO and its various offshoots.


78. WorldbyStorm - September 30, 2007

I’d buy it…


79. splinteredsunrise - September 30, 2007

Maybe Brendan could be persuaded to write it?


80. Grendel - September 30, 2007

Nah,Brendan Clifford would never give us the whole story. There is some
discussion of B&ICO in the Ian S. Wood book Idris mentioned,
and “Explaining Northern Ireland” by McGarry & O’Leary has an excellent attack on B&ICO’s ideas, but I feel there’s an awful lot more about them we don’t know.
(Have you ever seen Clifford and Eoghan Harris in the same place at the same time, for instance ; ) ?).


81. WorldbyStorm - September 30, 2007

Hmmm… that’d be another book about the WP/BICO etc nexus. May be getting a trifle crowded down that end of the market. Although mind you, we haven’t seen any of them yet…


82. Grendel - September 30, 2007

A Photo of Manus O’Riordan, ex-B&ICO man turned SIPTU bigshot:


And one of Angela Clifford (aka Angela Khalil):

Altavista also yielded a picture of a Brendan Clifford, but he
was a Canadian academic.


83. WorldbyStorm - October 1, 2007

My God Grendel, next you’ll be providing us with their addresses. Although it is sort of interesting to see this.

In your own political life did you encounter Clifford et al?


84. Grendel - October 1, 2007

Never met any of them, although years ago, I did correspond with a guy-Tim or Jim Something in Kerry-who later wrote for the IPR.
Most of the stuff I found out about them was freely available on websites
like Google, Altavista and LexisNexis-I spent about a month searching for everything about them I could find.Trips to several libraries
filled in the rest.
My interest was sparked by the Indymedia article about them, and I decided to find out as much about them as possible. I’ve always had
an interest in fringe political movements.


85. Grendel - October 17, 2007

A little more on the Communist Organisation in the British Isles….

· ” The B&ICO split in 1974 over the issue of whether there was a parliamentary road to socialism. The anti-parliamentarians formed COBI, the pro parliamentary roaders stayed in B&ICO. Lloyd was in the pro parliamentary road faction if I recall. I had been persuaded to join the B&ICO by Maisels in 73 in the hope of opposing the parliamentary road group, and left with the COBI people who were Boriguists”.
Comment by Paul Cockshott — August 31, 2006 @ 2:31 pm


Don’t know who Maisels or the Boriguists are, though.


86. WorldbyStorm - October 17, 2007

Were you politically involved? Not a trick question.


87. Grendel - October 17, 2007

I voted and went on the occaisonal protest march. That’s it.

Cockshott is best known for writing about computers and socialism.


88. Grendel - October 19, 2007

Apologies to Mark P, whom I should have mentioned already
mentioned COBI.
How true was the bit in “Life of Brian” :

Brian: Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?
Reg: F**k off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea


89. Garibaldy - October 19, 2007

People’s Front of Judea, Official if I remember correctly. Often wondered if that was aimed more at Irish organisations than lefty ones.


90. crossmaglen - October 19, 2007

jim flynn was sold out by the workers party no ifs ands or buts


91. WorldbyStorm - October 20, 2007

Grendel, that’s more than most…

crossmaglen, why do you think that? I’m genuinely curious.


92. crossmaglen - October 22, 2007

i was at flynn”S funeral as were his commardes from every county and across the water and even though flynn had acted on direct orders not one who was in the public eye would attend because of media attenion but choose to sneak across the border in the dead of night weeks later to offer sympathy to his family but where told by flynn”s own father they had bought the bullets take a closer look a what was happening then and after flynn”s shooting. the likes of jim have not been seen since


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