Sean Russell, the IRA and the Second World War… a guest post by Brian Hanley August 26, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin, The Left.
Many thanks to Brian for penning this and contributing the accompanying documentation.
Reflecting on the discussion that followed the most recent attacks on the Sean Russell statue I thought that the CLR might be interested in these documents. All are photocopies of material from the 1940s and I use them as part of the reading for a course I teach on the history of the IRA. The first document is an IRA Army Council statement from 1940, replying to an appeal from George Bernard Shaw that Irish republicans should support Britain against Germany. The second is the first and final page of War News from February 1941. War News was the IRA’s main publication after 1939, and was of course illegal, produced intermittetely and of varying quality. Editions were also produced in Belfast and Cork. The issue reproduced here carries a message from Stephen Hayes, Russell’s successor as IRA Chief of Staff , who soon after was deposed in a strange and controversal episode. Most issues of War News tended to carry similar rhetoric, the impression usually being given the IRA was on the verge of victory. This of course was far from the case. The final document is the front and inside pages of the October 1951 United Irishman (the newspaper of the republican movement after 1948) which reports on the unveiling of the Russell statue and includes what purports to be the true story of Russell’s time in Germany. The occasion marked an important moment in the public reorganisation of the republican movement after it’s defeats during the 1940s. (There is also a Garda report of the unveiling on-line).
In my own intervention on the previous thread I was perhaps a bit moralistic in tone, so I’d like to try and tease out a few ideas about the controversies here. Firstly many people seem reluctant to accept that fascist ideas had an influence within the republican movement. I disagree; I think the fact is that by 1940 republicans were represented along with former Blueshirts, Anti-Semites and a variety of cranks in a number of pro-Nazi groups in Ireland. The new book by R.M. Douglas Architects of the Resurrection illustrates how a concerted effort was made by the fascist party Ailtiri na hAiseirghe organisation to influence republicans during this period, and they had some success. This doesn’t mean of course the majority of republicans were fascists. I presume that most of those who supported the alliance with Germany did so for anti-British reasons. Nevertheless there were some for whom fascism, whether in it’s German or Italian variety, was attractive.
Secondly a number of the people who defended Russell (in the Irish Times and Irish News for instance) argued that he could have had no real idea of the nature of Nazi Germany and was motivated solely by a desire to hit the British. I think Russell has to be judged differently than the very many people in nationalist Ireland during 1939-40 who were anxious to see Britain suffer defeats at the hands of the Germans or who even wished to see Germany win the war. Firstly Russell was the leader of a reviolutionary movement that claimed that it was fighting for Irish freedom. His movment was entering into an alliance with the Nazis on the basis that this could deliver Irish independence. Certainly without massive German aid the IRA had absolutely no prospect of overthrowing either the Free State or Northern Ireland. How much did Russell know about the Nazis? He must have been aware that his own organisation, through it’s newspaper An Phoblacht, had criticised both Nazi Germany and fascism in general on several occasions during the early and mid 1930s. An Phoblacht had noted the suppression of the trade unions and rival political parties in Germany, republished material from the underground Social Democrats and noted the persecution of the Jews. Perhaps Russell paid little attention to this but it is surely wrong to claim that he had no knowledge of Nazism. He had been in contact with the German Ambassador in the United States as early as 1936, (apologising for the refusal of de Valera’s government to grant landing rights to German seaplanes in Galway Bay). Indeed Tom Barry would claim that at the 1938 IRA convention it was made clear that funding for Russell’s proposed campaign in Britain was coming from the Nazi German American Bund in the USA. The logic of Russell’s position during 1940 and his efforts in Germany was that the forces of that regime would land in Ireland and be aided by the IRA. This was not an unrealistic prospect that year- most people thought Germany was about to win the war. Flanking Britain with landings in Ireland made sense and the British seriously considered reoccupying the Free State both to prevent this and to secure the former ‘Treaty ports.’ Had the British moved to reoccupy the Free State during 1940 the IRA would of course have resisted them. But had the Germans landed as part of an attack on Britain the IRA would have supported them. In the longer run the Germans fully expected to occupy Ireland anyway. At the Wannsee conference in 1942 they went to the bother of estimating Ireland’s Jewish population. Suggesting that people consider the consequences of this is not retrospective moralism; there were contemporary critics of this policy. The Communist party’s Irish Workers Weekly attacked the IRA during 1940 for wanting German forces to ‘come and devastate the land they talk of freeing’. (And this was during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact.)
As the United Irishman report shows, Russell was eulogised by republicans after his death. Indeed in 1976 The Last Post, published by the National Graves Association, would argue that for the IRA, the period from 1923 to 1940 had been one of ‘inactivity, playing with politics and veering to the Left’ but this had ‘come to an abrupt end in the early 40s (when) an uncompromising new leader and his faction of like-minded supporters’ had finally led the IRA ‘into action.’ Of course the 1923-1940 period was not one of inactivity, and many of Russell’s IRA contemporaries such as Moss Twomey, Sean MacBride, Mick Price and Donal O’Donoghue, to list just a few, are themselves interesting and worth studying. Yet it is Russell, Chief of Staff for a little less than two years, who continues to be commemorated. His status as the ultimate man of action, who dismissed ‘playing with politics’ and instead took the war to the British accounts for some of his attractiveness to physical force republicans. But Russell was also commemorated well into the 1970s by the Official Republicans (after their ceasefire) and indeed several of his 1940s contemporaries (including Paddy Fleming the signatory of the 1940 Army Council address) were supporters of theirs. In the post Peace Process era Sinn Fein, despite moving some distance from the rhetoric of armed struggle, seem as eager as ever to remember him. Some single out his record from 1916-1923 as reason to honour Russell, while there are those in Dublin’s inner city who see him as an authentically Dublin republican hero. I would suggest though, that much of the cult of Russell has been due to an unwillingness, among any brand of republicanism, to examine the movement’s policies during the 1940s, and the tendenecy of those involved at the time to avoid discussion of them, except in general terms. What is notable about the United Irishman article for example (also published in pamphlet form for the August 1957 Russell commemoration) is there is no hint of embarrassment about Russell’s time in Berlin, despite knowledge of the nature of the Nazi regime being widespread by October 1951 (to put it mildly).
During 1971 a former Curragh internee, Sean Mulready, recounted his memories of how in June 1940, when news reached the camp that France had surrended to the Germans his fellow inmates ‘just went berserk, berserk. The prisoners ran around in sheer delierious joy that the Germans had defeated and were about to occupy the cradle of modern militant republicanism.’ Mulready’s article was of course written over 30 years after that event but I think the question he posed is still valid; ‘I could never understand how Republicans fighting for the freedom of their own country could support an imperialist power that was crushing all the nations, big and small, in Europe. To me, the idea that we could expect liberation from an all-triumphant Nazi government, was just perverted logic.’ That question remains worth discussing today.