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Left Archive: Problems of the Irish Revolution – Can the IRA meet the challenge? by Gerry Foley, 1972 December 12, 2011

Posted by irishonlineleftarchive in Irish Left Online Document Archive, Official Sinn Féin, Workers' Party.

To download the above file please click on the following link: GF OSF

This document, printed in 1972, provides an overview by US activist and journalist Gerry Foley. Foley who worked for Trotskyist publication, Intercontinental Press spent some time in Ireland in 1970 and in 1972 meeting and interviewing ‘revolutionary nationalist leaders, including Cathal Goulding, the man known as the chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army, and Tomas MacGiolla, the President of Sinn Féin, the political arm of the republican movement.’

When he returned ‘in the turbulent early months of 1972… he went on to tour Europe and Scandinavia with Malachy McGurran,leader of the Official Republican movement in the North, to build an international defines of the liberation struggle in Ireland’.

The document itself is drawn from an essay that first appeared in Intercontinental Press in 1972.

In the introduction Foley outlines the circumstances that led to ‘in May-June 1968, a mass movement develop[ing] among the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland.’

And he notes ‘the rise of this movement also reflected other changes that had been accumulating beneath the surface. After the failure of the 1956-62 guerilla campaign, the traditional nationalist movement, the IRA, had been forced to rethink its historic positions. In this process it moved away from concentrating exclusively on guerrilla warfare in the name only of national unity and full independence. It began to develop a program of political action based on the immediate needs and aspirations of the mass of the people.’

He continues:

One of the first effects of the massive fighting that developed in August 1969 was a split in the IRA. The rise of communal warfare encouraged some veterans of the 1956-62 campaign, who had been opposed or indifferent to the new orientation, to break away from the Official movement and forma Provisional IRA. Although they too have been changing under the pressure of the situation, the Provisionals have generally stressed military action as the main form of fighting the oppression of the Catholic community. The Officials have tried to combine commando group activity with peaceful mass action.

And he notes:

In general the distinction between the two groups has been seen in terms of mass action vs. guerrilla warfare. Smaller socialist groups, which had tended to discount the revolutionary potential of democratic demands, have found themselves either isolated or drawn into the orbit of one or the other militant nationalist organisation, since this was the arena where the struggle for leadership was centred.

And he concludes:

If traditionalism is not dead yet, the pressure of events and the spread of new ideas seems to have dealt it a mortal blow. In the future any radical organisation will have to stand on its political program and not its historical credentials.

In the main body of the article he discusses the then recent declaration by the Official IRA in May 19, 1972, that it was ‘suspending armed offensive operations in Ulster’. And he attempts to parse out the meaning of that statement both in terms of its direct impact and its future implications. What is of particular interest is the way in which Foley points to a range of actions, including the death of an OIRA volunteer, Martin O’Leary, during the Mogul silver mine strike in 1971 and position this within the developing approach of Official Republicanism.

He also notes the various influences on Official Republicanism from ‘British ultra-leftist and workerist groups [in Derry]’ to ‘Stalinism’ and the ‘scholastic fuzziness… of the British Communist Party’. And he argues that there is a danger that ‘since the civil rights movement has not proceeded as expected and the republican leadership was evidently not prepared politically for the actual results – that disorientation will set in’.

And intriguingly given later developments in OSF he argues that:

By its devotion to the ideals of socialism and its uncompromising fight against all the conservative forces in Ireland, the Official republican movement has won the support of a large number of dedicated revolutionary youth. By waging centralised political campaigns and by giving clear political direct, it can weld these youth into the best fighting force in Europe. The main instrument of this process, however, cannot be an ‘army of the people’; it must be the party of the Irish revolution.

That his analysis is critical but sympathetic is particularly useful in getting a sense of the time.


1. Ed - December 12, 2011

This is a really interesting document, great to have it up. The earlier pamphlet that Foley did, “Ireland in Rebellion”, has interviews with Goulding and MacGiolla that give a great snapshot of the Officials at the time (1970 I think). He also wrote an obituary for Malachy McGurran a few years later that would be well worth putting up if anyone had a copy (I assume it was also for Intercontinental Press).

Foley also wrote this piece in response to an attack on him from Des O’Hagan a few years ago:



Ghandi - December 12, 2011

The Speech Des Foley replies to can be found here.



Jim Monaghan - December 12, 2011

He wrote obits of McMillan, Costello and others. He also wrote a critique of the Healyite SLLs sectarian approach. The O’Hagan attack was taken down from the Garland defence campaign site. Alas, no apology.Foley had a great deal of time for Garland at that stage.


2. WorldbyStorm - December 12, 2011

Very interesting comments and links….I quite like Foleys analyses in the doc above. What’s interesting I me is how easily some of them elide with later WP positions though clearly neither he nor they would probably agree that tht was the case.


3. Ken MacLeod - December 12, 2011

One of Foley’s most remarkable abilities is to say a great deal with very few words. The statement Ed links to above is a good example. It contains almost the whole of Trotskyism!


4. Admin - December 14, 2011

Unfortunately, it also represents the arrogance of the US SWP. Really, who were they to ask whether the IRA could meet the challenge? They weren’t exactly meeting the challenge of leading the American revolution, were they?

Rather, they reflected a kind of adaptation to US imperialism. The US imperialists told the rest of the world what to do and the US SWP told the left of the rest of the world what to do.

Sorry, but I just can’t take it too seriously. And Foley’s rather rosey view of the Officials hardly panned out. Within a few years, he was extolling the virtues of the Provos. All without any critical reflection whatsoever on his own failings in all this.

Philip Ferguson


WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

The Archive is filled with documents from British left formations who pass comment and more on what Irish republicans and socialists should be doing according to their lights. To be honest Foley’s analysis doesn’t strike me as somehow ‘worse’ than that, or any less reflective. I think it’s a reasonably good analysis given the time and one based on personal experience of interaction with people on the ground, something that in the instance of UK formations was sadly often lacking. That he would later extol the virtues of the Provisionals is hardly unheard of on the left, we see precisely the same dynamic in relation to Irish and UK left formations.

Your critique of the US SWP seems to me to be distinct from that, and surely there’s no reason not to critique it or any other formation, but giving that you’re complaining that Foley is critiquing the IRA [and in strongly sympathetic terms on his part] it seems a little contradictory that you’d find fault in that while excoriating the US SWP yourself.

And didn’t IIRC Foley transfer his affection albeit unwillingly – his continuing respect for Garland even long after is clear – to the IRSP/INLA for a while?


WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

B y the way, I don’t want to give Foley an entirely free pass, but I think your critique is overly harsh given the context of left and further left analyses during this period where his writing at least makes more than the usual pretense of engaging at a considerable distance and with little understanding of the area and place.


Michael Carley - December 14, 2011

My own summary of how (part of) the British left saw the Irish struggle is elsewhere:

For those on the English left who could not go on Freedom Rides through St Albans or burn their draft cards outside Basingstoke Marine Corps induction centre, Paddy made a perfect proxy Negro cum NLF guerilla, ripe for having his rights defended or his struggle honoured.


Jim Monaghan - December 14, 2011

He respected Costello, while having reservations about his political strategy. In effect similar to to those of McAliskey. While defending the right of the IRSP to exist he regarded the internecine war as a disaster. He wrote an obit for Costello in his paper.His last meeting with Garland was at the end of the feud when he saw the wounded Garland at the Official HQ. Friendship takes time to wither and Foley was always slow to say finis about people or groups. One weakness of far leftists is to see gangrene in every scratch. Many Provos retained friendships across the divide as well.One Official friend of mine worked closely with an IRSP leader killed by loyalists and stressed his respect for same person.


5. CL - December 14, 2011

Gerry Foley on Latin America


6. Ed - December 14, 2011

Your description of Henry McDonald in that review will not ring many bells with people who have followed his journalism with any attention:

“McDonald, though anti-Provisional IRA, is not a Unionist or an apologist for Britain in Northern Ireland, but a left-wing journalist from a republican background.”

This comment on your article gets much closer to the truth:

“McDonald’s credential as a leftist are a little tenuous. He is a deeply reactionary figure who has turned against Chavez, the Palestinians and was unambiguously for the invasion of Iraq (he has described it, amusingly, as the “liberation” of Iraq.) … McDonald’s analysis of the war in Northern Ireland is very much that of the modern “decent left”.”

(I would add to that list his loathsome views on Colombia – you would gather the impression from McDonald that the main—indeed the only—source of human rights violations in that country are the FARC guerrillas – so anxious is he to attack the Provos, using FARC as a stick, that he will whitewash the atrocities of the Colombian state and its death squads.)

To say that “McDonald has done the reading for us” is hardly reassuring: his selection of facts, quotes etc. is likely to be highly selective and unreliable. And as for this:

“The same indulgence to savages that the English left showed the IRA is being shown to Iraqi and Afghan fighters. McDonald compares (some of) the left’s indulgence of misogynist, repressive murderers to that its indulgence of the murderers in Northern Ireland.”

As I’ve said, McDonald shows plenty of indulgence to the Colombian “savages” who hack people to pieces with chainsaws, and the US “savages” who gave us Abu Ghraib and the destruction of Falluja – you won’t find a word about those atrocities in his columns. As someone who has always had a very cool, sceptical view of the Provos and the INLA, I find his self-righteous pseudo-moralism completely nauseating. Give me someone like Gerry Foley any day …



Michael Carley - December 14, 2011

I read him more as an old Stick grinding his axe with the Provos.Are you saying he is not from a `republican’ background? Unless he has faked his account of his youth, he is from a solidly (O)SF(WP) family and took part in some of their activities. As for his views on Colombia (which I haven’t read), holding wrong views on other things doesn’t make him wrong on PIRA et al. His basic argument, that they lost, is incontrovertible: they settled for something that is nowhere near what they would have considered a minimum.

When it comes to English leftists’ sneaking regard, or worse, I think he has it exactly right: there is a strand of thought which regards any `resistance’ as justified, whatever the motivation or the outcome. It is the same kind of self-delusion found on the left during the Iranian revolution and, closer to home, amongst those who continue to think SF are `radical’ or `left-wing’, because they occasionally print a picture of James Connolly.

Google is not finding me any articles of his on Colombia or Iraq, bar one on a Belfast-based whistleblower. Could you point me at his indulgence?


7. Donie O'Grady - December 14, 2011

I’m a bit lost, where does McDonald fit into this argument?


8. Ed - December 14, 2011

I can see why you’d be confused, Donie – the quote Michael pasted in above is from a review he did of McDonald’s book Gunsmoke and Mirrors, that’s what I was responding to.

Michael, I would say that by the time McDonald joined the Workers’ Party, they were much more of a post-republican party, at least in terms of their party programme (obviously there would have been party members in the North who were much more attached to the republican heritage than someone like Henry Patterson). Certainly that’s the aspect of the WP tradition that McDonald seems to treasure most. Anyway, that’s a secondary point – the main issue for me is that McDonald is not in any meaningful sense a man of the Left, he’s just someone who makes right-wing arguments with a superficial left-wing gloss.

Here are a couple of the pieces on Colombia that I had in mind:



Shameless parroting of the Bush-Uribe line on Colombia’s conflict; no mention of the fact that the Colombian army and its paramilitary sidekicks are responsible for the vast majority of political killings. I remember in particular reading the 2005 article in the Observer soon after returning from a visit to Colombia, where I had heard the families of paramilitary victims describe what had been done to them; it made my blood boil to hear someone like McDonald, who claims to be some kind of left-winger, take the side of the government responsible for those atrocities. As far as I’m concerned, he is permanently disqualified from being able to pronounce judgement on anyone else for “indulgence” of “savages”.

I haven’t read Gunsmoke and Mirrors, but I have read his opinion columns on NI often enough over the last decade and a half to be familiar with his general views, and I certainly wouldn’t trust him to write a useful history of the Provos. That book seemed to be aimed squarely at the ‘Decent Left’ audience of people who support imperial wars but consider themselves to be great left-wingers because they read some Trotsky when they were younger. If you want to read a decent (no pun intended) critique of the Provos from a left position, Eamonn McCann’s book of articles “War and Peace in Northern Ireland” would be far better.


Michael Carley - December 14, 2011

I think you’re right about Eamonn McCann being a better guide to the politics of the Provos, and he is certainly more entitled to make his criticism, given that unlike McDonald (and, ahem, Eoghan Harris), he was never aligned with any SF faction in the first place. On the other hand, he hadn’t just published a book for me to review.

As for the articles you link to, McDonald is fairly obviously, as you say, using FARC as a stick to beat the Provos with, but I don’t see any `indulgence’ of the Colombian government there: he doesn’t mention them. In passing, he has this to say about SF:

Since the 1980s, meanwhile, party activists in Dublin have
been at the forefront of local struggles to drive out drug
dealers from working-class areas of the capital.

As it happens, I would think that a lot of what McDonald says would match Ed Moloney’s account of the development of the `peace process’.

Parenthetically, the reason I didn’t join the SWP in my callow youth was exactly their sneaking regarderism, which seems to me to put McCann slightly off their line.


9. Ed - December 14, 2011

“I don’t see any `indulgence’ of the Colombian government there: he doesn’t mention them.”

That’s precisely my point: he doesn’t mention them. In this context, silence was complicity. At the time when the Colombia 3 were on trial in Bogota, and after they escaped and returned to Ireland, there was a nauseating media consensus on both sides of the border: people were given the impression that Colombia was a democratic state whose people were menaced by evil narco-terrorists. The killings by the army and the paramilitaries were swept under the carpet. McDonald follows that consensus faithfully in the articles above: he demands that the Irish government bring over relatives of people killed by the FARC to tell their stories, but says nothing about bringing over relatives of the much more numerous victims of the state-sponsored death squads. He might as well have been re-working a press release from Alvaro Uribe’s government, because this was precisely its line: the only victims are the victims of the FARC, the only problem is the FARC, the only thing needed for peace in Colombia is to have the FARC disappear.

I think we have to take his record on other issues into account when we look at what McDonald has to say about the Provos, because if he’s going to adopt a moralistic tone, he had better be consistent in opposing atrocities against civilians. There are plenty of strong and valid criticisms to be made of the Provos, and it’s certainly true that they’ve tried to re-write the history of the conflict to suit themselves. But in making those criticisms, we have to separate ourselves from establishment wind-bags who witter on about the “evil men of violence” while cheerleading for violence on a much greater scale. That was one of the most sickening things about the Colombian episode: at the time we were told repeatedly that the commitment of SF to the peace process was now in doubt, but nobody asked if the commitment of Blair’s government was in doubt when they openly sent military aid to Uribe’s army; one of Blair’s ministers was pictured grinning alongside a Colombian general called Mario Montoya whose soldiers once played an infamous game of football with paramilitaries, using the head of a local community activist which they had hacked off for the occasion.

Someone who does have a consistent record of condemning violence against civilians will be in a position to ask awkward questions of the Provos about their campaign and remind them of their responsibility for civilian deaths. I agree, by the way, that some left groups are far too keen to proclaim their support for “resistance” in foreign countries without bothering to examine the character of that “resistance”; but ultimately that attitude is less of a problem than the support given by liberals and social democrats to imperial wars, or their failure to oppose such wars in any meaningful way. Those groups on the British far left who chanted “victory to the IRA!” did less harm than the Labour politicians who went along with the “bipartisan” consensus on Northern Ireland and never spoke out against internment, torture, censorship, the PTA, shoot-to-kill, collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, etc.


WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

I think that’s a fair enough summation Ed.


Mark P - December 14, 2011

If by “fair summation” you mean “dismissal of a book he admits to not having read on the grounds that he doesn’t like the author’s views on a country on the other side of the world”.

I’m no fan of McDonald, but that’s more than a little ridiculous.


WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

I think anyone who has followed McDonald’s career trajectory would find it impossible not to have some significant concerns about his political position from a left perspective. I’ve not read Gunsmoke and Mirrors either, but to be honest given that I’ve more than half a head and like Ed read McDonald’s output across a decade or more now I don’t really feel the need to before feeling more than capable of giving a read on his political position etc.


Mark P - December 14, 2011

I think that anyone who has followed the Provisional’s political trajectory would find it impossible not to have some significant concerns about their political position from a left perspective.

McDonald is hostile to the Provos. That’s hardly a surprise. Nor does it necessarily mean that he’s incapable of writing a good book about them. In fact, I’d suggest that the people most likely to be incapable of writing a good book about them are their cheerleaders.


WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

But that’s not the point Ed is making. He himself has explicitly said from the off that he’s no uncritical observer of the Provisionals so that’s neither here nor there. The point is what position is McDonald coming from and by my reading of his output over the years it’s one which aligns in no way with a left critique of the Provisionals, or indeed more broadly.

Frankly I’d have thought from reading his work he would be just about the last person I’d expect for any sort of insightful critique or ‘good book’ about the Provisionals. He seems to me have followed a path well trodden by the likes of Harris, CCO’B et al before him. Again, I’m going simply on what articles I’ve read of his. And indeed articles that have been critiqued of his here on the CLR and elsewhere… here’s two to start off with.




Mark P - December 14, 2011

It’s one thing to be wary of a book by McDonald, and indeed it’s quite reasonable to make yourself aware of his more problematic opinions before reading one, but to dismiss it entirely before you’ve read it strikes me as a pretty spectacular example of close-mindedness.

About the last person I’d expect an insightful critique of the Provisionals or of Republicanism or a good book on the subject from is an An Phoblacht columnist. Which didn’t stop me from reading one.


WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

Well there clearly me and Ed and you differ. I’m delighted by your generosity of spirit but to be honest I don’t see much of a difference between something written by McD and say Jody Corcoran or Brendan O’Connor, bar the very slghtly more exotic political journey he took to reach a not dissimilar place. And given that so many have taken that journey previously I’m not waiting with bated breath for some fresh insights to be revealed.


Mark P - December 14, 2011

It’s not a question of generosity of spirit, WbS. I don’t go in for that too much. It’s just a basic question of rigour. This conversation was started by someone criticising a review of book he hadn’t read!

McDonald is a problematic and clearly biased writer, but it’s unfair to bracket him with the likes of O’Connor. From my point of view, he’s about as problematic as a committed Provo apparatchik would be in the other direction.


WorldbyStorm - December 15, 2011

In the sense that McD is partisan and openly so I think the comparison with less illustrious commentators stands, though clearly he has chops as a journalist which makes him somewhat different, but then I neve said there was no difference but that in the sense of partisanship there wasn’t much of one. That said the two links I offered demonstrate that th latter has been superseded by the former. I’m puzzled by your continual reference to Provisional apparatchiks which seems as relevant to this as mention of SP or ULA apparatchiks, ie not at all.

I’m also puzzled why you think it’s impossible to get a sense of a writer and put forward a critique, particularly in the political field, without reading everything they’ve written. There’s rigour and then there’s over doing it.

Finally and related to that as Ed notes below his dismissal of the book wasn’t based on a vacuum but on a very similar experience to many of us who have read McDs stuff over the years.


Michael Carley - December 14, 2011

I can agree with this: `ultimately that attitude is less of a problem than the support given by liberals and social democrats to imperial wars’, because mostly because it’s a question of who has power at any given time, but this is badly wrong: `Those groups on the British far left who chanted “victory to the IRA!” did less harm than the Labour politicians who went along with the “bipartisan” consensus on Northern Ireland’. The people who exercised their anti-imperialist fantasies in Ireland (whatever anyone in Ireland might have wanted) could have kept their mouths shut. They would at least have done no harm. The Labour politicians who did not speak up against British crimes were never going to be able to stop them anyway.

Cheerleading for the Provos meant not supporting groups and organizations which might have established some kind of working class unity, and meant alienating further Protestants who, whatever their views on partition, would not be inclined to be bombed into a united Ireland.

Likewise, since `women’s rights’ are usually used as an excuse for keeping NATO armies in Afghanistan, can we think about whether or not abortion rights, for example, might have been extended to Northern Ireland if the Provo cheerleaders had exercised themselves to think about changing the nature of the statelet, instead of passing it from one bunch of reactionaries to another?


10. Jim Monaghan - December 14, 2011

It is a question of deciding who is oppressed and who is dong the oppressing. Warts and all, British Imperialism decided to crack down on a nationalist revolt.This rallied a large section of the nationalist workingclass to the Provos.Marginal advantage was enough to tie most sections of the Protestant workingclass to Imperialism.
I would have preferred if a Labour Party, whatever, was leading the resistance and never did anythng I disapproved of, bt thsi was not the case.
The Loyalist lockout was proof of this.Most of the left was fairly critical of the Provos and their strategy. To my mind the main focus should always be against imperialism. This does not mean not having a position on the Provos,the ANC, the Miners union etc.


11. Michael Carley - December 14, 2011

@WBS I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine Brendan O’Connor writing this:



Michael Carley - December 14, 2011
WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2011

Perhaps, and fair enough in relation to the second one, but I can’t help but think that those are in a long line of Observer articles in relation to the North which overstate the threat from dissident Republicans, or indeed Republicans in general. I’m not for a second suggesting there’s no threat at all – we’ve seen the murderous effectivity of some actions, but it’s very limited compared and contrasted with the past.

Also in fairness there is a discussion to be had on how and if engagement with RIRA< or whatever faction of same is in the ascendent is worth the effort. BUt that's perhaps tangential to our discussion here.


12. Ed - December 14, 2011

I’ve read two books by McDonald about the Troubles (his books on the INLA and the UVF), I’ve read his articles in the Guardian and the Observer on a regular basis since the mid ‘90s, I’ve read excerpts from Gunsmoke and Mirrors that were published in newspapers, I’ve read several highly sympathetic reviews of the book, so I find it amusing to be accused of close-mindedness for not having read the whole thing. And I wasn’t talking merely about that book, I was talking about his whole record as a political commentator which leads me to A) dispute the idea that he belongs to the Left, in however generous a sense, and B) to dismiss out of hand the moralistic tone that he adopts when condemning the Provos.

McDonald chose to express his opinions about Colombia, he chose to express his opinions about Iraq, he chose to express his opinions about Palestine, and in each case he has shown that he has no principled objection to violence against civilians. He has not just made some casual remarks about countries other than Ireland, he has returned to these subjects repeatedly over the last decade and more. This cannot be brushed off as “dismissal of a book he [I] admits to not having read on the grounds that he doesn’t like the author’s views on a country on the other side of the world”, since McDonald makes so much of his moral objection to the bombing of civilian targets by the Provos. Either he is consistent on that point, or he isn’t.

Colombia, Iraq and Palestine are all directly relevant to Northern Ireland, since the state which rules NI participated in the occupation of Iraq and supplies weapons to the Israeli and Colombian armies. The review that I was disagreeing with in the first place quoted McDonald as having referred to the “indulgence” of “savages” by the left. If he is going to adopt such a righteous tone, he had better not leave himself open to charges of hypocrisy.

I don’t think I’d bracket McDonald with Brendan O’Connor, for one thing he has actually worked as a proper reporter and produced some useful work, unlike the aforementioned failed stand-up. But I would bracket him with people like Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens etc. as paid-up members of the pro-imperialist ‘left’. And in the Irish context, it’s fair enough to bracket him with Eoghan Harris, he is very much in tune with the Harris line (ever since he was in the WP or so people tell me).

I wouldn’t depend on a “Provo apparatchik” either to write a dependable history of the IRA. I haven’t read that “Rethinking the Republic” book yet, but I probably will when I get the chance, because it seems to have been based on original research and I’d be curious to see his interpretation of that period although I expect I will disagree with it. McDonald has also written books based on original research, I’ve read two of them and found them useful even though I usually disagreed with his interpretations, but the one we’re talking about now doesn’t seem to have the same backbone of new material (at least judging by the couple of times I’ve flicked through it in shops).

For the sake of balance, I think this review of the book, by someone who appears to be an uncritical Provo supporter, is a load of rubbish; if there was a book-length history of the IRA written from that perspective, I’d say it would be more or less completely worthless:


For what it is worth, having read far more material by all the various socialist and republican groups active in the North than is probably healthy for me, I have far more sympathy for the positions of OSF at the beginning of the Troubles than I would for the Provos in any of their various stages of development. I have no interest in setting myself up as an uncritical defender of the Provos, but I find the particular brand of establishment-friendly Provo-bashing that people like McDonald peddle hard to digest.

“The Labour politicians who did not speak up against British crimes were never going to be able to stop them anyway.”

Michael, the Labour politicians I have in mind were often the ones responsible for atrocities, since they were in power. It was Roy Jenkins who passed the PTA into law, it was Roy Mason who presided over the policy of torture at Castlereagh, it was Merlyn Rees who withdrew special category status and set in motion the series of events leading to the hunger strikes, which most likely prolonged the war by a decade or so. And more recently, it was Blair’s government that refused to hold an inquiry into Pat Finucane’s murder. Even Labour politicians who weren’t in government office would have had far more influence over the course of events than small far-left groups. The positions taken by the British far left had very little real impact on the course of the Troubles, the positions taken by the British Labour Party were often vital.

If we are going to criticise the various sections of the British Left for what they said and did during the Troubles, I would say 5% should be for people who were too soft on the Provos, 95% for people who were too soft on the British state. In the same way, I’ve winced in the last few years when I’ve heard foolish slogans like “victory to the Iraqi resistance” or “we are all Hezbollah now” raised by sections of the British (and Irish) Left, but they do less harm than people who try to put a left gloss on imperialism (not saying that you do I should add).


Michael Carley - December 15, 2011

First point: the word `savages’ was mine, not McDonald’s.

When it comes to positions taken on the Provos, I think being too soft on the Provos is the dangerous line. I have had to have arguments with English SWPers (or, often, ex-SWPers) who start by supporting, indiscriminately, the Iraqi resistance, and then bring Ireland into the argument. At this point, they are shocked to discover that, even though I am Irish and on the left (SP), I do not support the Provos, or any of their offshoots.

The reason I think the far left being soft on the Provos is dangerous is that the far left has a disproportionately large influence on many campaigns. In particular, the Stop the War movement was essentially run by members of far left groups and by non-aligned far left socialists, as well as by CND and other peace groups. Given that they organized a demonstration of two million people, this is not nothing.

The problem is that many of these left groups have a reflex tendency to support whoever calls themselves `anti-imperialist’, a habit which I think they picked up when dealing with the Provos. They were wrong about that, although it probably doesn’t matter too much to Ireland now. When they apply the same `logic’ to Iraq or Afghanistan, they end up giving support to the kind of people who would stone witches. This discredits the left and the anti-war movement, because it means that the claims of the likes of Nick Cohen are true.

It’s worth accepting that supporting the Provos was a disaster, if for no other reason that we can see what they have done in government.


13. Admin - December 15, 2011

World by Storm writes:
“Your critique of the US SWP seems to me to be distinct from that, and surely there’s no reason not to critique it or any other formation, but giving that you’re complaining that Foley is critiquing the IRA [and in strongly sympathetic terms on his part] it seems a little contradictory that you’d find fault in that while excoriating the US SWP yourself.”

Sorry mate, but this seems an absolutely bizarre argument. In effect, it means that no-one would be able to criticise the US SWP for trying to tell people in Ireland how to run their struggle. We’d all just have to put up with it.

And you’ll note I never suggested anything about what the SWP should do in the US, whereas Foley wrote whole documents on Ireland and the way forward. As a school kid I read one of the bloody things.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that the less able left groups are to influence events in their own country, the more ‘expert’ they are on the road forward everywhere else. Here in NZ, for instance, we have miniscule sects that are ‘experts’ on how the revolution in Nepal, the Congo etc etc should proceed, complete with claims these cranks are in ‘military blocs’ with the movements actually leading struggles in those countries. But here, where they actually are, they can’t convince a single worker to join their crackpot group.

I’ve nothing against Foley personally – never met the guy and he most likely means well – but my objection is that he is symptomatic of the American tendency to tell the rest of the world what to do. By contrast, take a look at Lenin. The guy led an actual socialist revolution in extremely difficult circumstances but he never laid down any lines on how this or that struggle in India or Africa or anywhere else should be conducted. His article on the Easter Rising is a great model of solidarity and analysis, without imagining that someone in Geneva or Zurich or wherever he was at the time could work out a line for Ireland. Can anyone imagine Lenin writing a pamphlet in, say 1914, called “Problems of the Irish Revolution: can the ICA meet the challenge?”

As for the British left, if some of them had have spent as much time trying to build something in Britain in solidarity with the struggle in Ireland, maybe things in both countries would be a bit more politically advanced than they are. . .

Philip Ferguson


Admin - December 15, 2011

Oh, a ps. I was very interested in Ireland and committed to Irish freedom, so I went and lived there and got involved, rather than simply engaging in radical tourism while writing lengthy documents on how to make a revolution in Ireland. I have little time for generals thousands of miles away from where the battles are taking place. I tend to think such folks should be given fairly short shrift.


WorldbyStorm - December 15, 2011

Philip, I think you’re missing my point, I explicitly say that ‘surely anyone can critique the SWP’ but that for you to complain at Foley critiquing the IRA while you’re critiquing the SWp seems a little contradictory … In other words Foley or anyone including the SWP had every right to do so just as you do. I’m not suggesting no one can critique, I’m suggesting everyone can but equally I think a bit of perspective is necessary.

Secondly why take such umbrage at a doc which is nigh on 40 years old? I’ve no candle for the SWP but my main points hold, this is a well written insight into the times, no reason to read more into it than that.

And truth is that everyone everywhere on the left was more or less telling the IRA during the 70s and 80s in all it’s variants what to do, from the US to the UK to Ireland. To put special emphasis on the US SWp seems to be somewhat over egging the situation. And indeed M-Ls of all stripes are never shy about proscriptions whether they’ve had successful revolutions or not under their belt and in truth there’s only historically been one or two genuinely successful in their terms M-L revolutions so that too would seem to close down the scope for critique – which I’m certain isn’t your intention but seems the logic of your argument.

I certainly didn’t mean there to be any dig a you personally re involvement. And by the way I agree there’s a certain entertainment in micro groups discussing in the gravest terms the situation in other states when they’re unable to influence workers in their own.


Jim Monaghan - December 15, 2011

Philip, radical tourism is an awful jibe.Foley who is now over 70 sacrificed an academic career and now lives in somewhat straitened conditions suffering from diabetis.Disagreement is fine but leave the jibes to people like O’Hagen.Better to deal with what is said and wrote rather than make judgements like this.The most polemical thing Foley wrote was of teh IMG during it’s most ultraleft stage, “The Test of Ireland”.iThis stated that a troops out line similar to the policy of the SWP in the USA towards the Vietnam war was the best approach rather than a stupid indentification with armed struggle. In the journal Foley and Hansen were very mucch of the opinion of letting groups such as the Provos and Officials speak for themselves.
I know you have opinions about the evolution of the Provos. I think distance does not invalidate them.


Admin - December 16, 2011

World by Storm wrote: “To put special emphasis on the US SWp seems to be somewhat over egging the situation.”

This too seems a bit odd. I didn’t put any special emphasis on the US SWP – it was a US SWP pamphlet which you put up and so it was that which I commented on!

If it had’ve been a pamphlet by some other group some thousand miles away, I would’ve said the same thing.



Admin - December 16, 2011

Jim Monaghan wrote: “Philip, radical tourism is an awful jibe.Foley who is now over 70 sacrificed an academic career and now lives in somewhat straitened conditions suffering from diabetis.”

Jim, this sounds terribly like special pleading. Many of us have made considerable sacrifices but don’t expect to be immune to criticism because of them.

In that pamphlet it says he spent a month in Ireland in 1970 – well, if you spend a month in ireland and then write a pamphlet with the subtitle, “Can the IRA meet the challenge?” you are going to come in for some fire. Don’t like the fire? – well, don’t play with the matches.

After all, why write something with such an arrogant title and approach?

It would have been more useful if he just did some interviews with leaders and activists on the ground and made a pamphlet out of those and/or did a pamphlet which explained to a wider audience what the struggle in Ireland was about and what the different perspectives were, rather than the kind of pronouncements that he made (and that he repeated in his writings on Portugal). That would’ve been fine.

Of course, it would also have been too modest for the US SWP with its odd belief in its own version of manifest destiny.



Admin - December 16, 2011

World by Storm wrote:
“In other words Foley or anyone including the SWP had every right to do so just as you do.”

I don’t want to go round in circles with you, but you are simply wrong to say this. Foley wrote about the way forward in Ireland – I haven’t written anything about the way forward in the USA. Nor would I. How on earth would I know how to make a revolution in the US, when I’m 10,000 miles away in NZ.

My objection is to anyone in the imperialist world thinking they know the way forward in an oppressed nation, especially after a one-month visit. So, no contradiction involved on my part at all in criticising Foley for his pamphlet.

Hope this clears things up.



WorldbyStorm - December 16, 2011

I’m hugely unconvinced by your twist on the ‘you had to be there’ line of argument and particularly by your idea that because someone writes from a US perspective they therefore are per definition ‘imperialist’ or writing from an imperialist perspective. I think that as a journalist and a commentator nd based on successive visits Foleys approach was valid and a what you see as arrogant many would see as fair enough comment.


Admin - December 16, 2011

World by Storm wrote: “I’m hugely unconvinced by your twist on the ‘you had to be there’ line of argument”

I would’ve thought that Lenin established this idea a long time ago – namely, that in order to work out the way forward for a revolution and what a revolutionary organisation needs to do, you actually need to be a participant. A foreign journalist can’t do it.

WbS also said: “and particularly by your idea that because someone writes from a US perspective they therefore are per definition ‘imperialist’ or writing from an imperialist perspective.”

But I never said Foley, or someone doing what he did, was by definition imperialist. I said the tendency of the US SWP to tell people in other countries how to make their revolutions was aping the US ruling class which tells governments and peoples in the rest of the world what to do. It’s an *adaptation* to imperialism, it’s obviously not imperialism.

Given that you seem to think this practice is OK, or certainly nothing to object to, aren’t you a little surprised that the IRA – in either of its early 1970s manifestations – never produced a pamphlet with a title like, er, “Problems of the American revolution: can the SWP meet the challenge?” Can’t you see how bizarre that would be?!

As far as I’m aware the great revolutionaries of history never wrote pamphlets with that approach. The person who came closest was Trotsky and when he did, for instance with his article on the Easter Rising, he made himself look rather silly. His later propensity for such writing reflected his own isolation and inability to affect events. And I make these comments as an admirer of Trotsky’s – but he’s a good example of the pitfalls of this approach.

Lastly, I’m actually reasonably well-disposed towards the group Foley has belonged to for several decades now; I’m even friends with a few people in it. So I have no axe to grind about Foley personally – hopefully he has moved on from the kind of attitudes and approach that was symptomatic of the US SWP and its notion that its manifest destiny was to lay out the path to power for everyone who had the misfortune not to live in the United States.

Anyway, I’m off to write a pamphlet. It’ll be called “Problems of the American Revolution: can Gerry Foley meet the challenge?” I’ll send it to you and you can stick it up on Cedar Lounge. .-)



WorldbyStorm - December 16, 2011

That I’d pay good money to read!

I think we’re approaching this issue from two different standpoints though I do see the points you are making.

Firstly I’m not a Leninist so my perspective is perhaps a little different. I am though influenced by Luxemburg and think that, for example, her critique of Bolshevism in the 1917 onwards period which was very public and very open was entirely legitimate.

I think it’s entirely appropriate for comrades of whatever persuasion on the left, whether M-L, Marxist, anarchist or whoever to critique others [Marx was never behind the door in presenting critiques himself, sometimes to a withering and unreasonable degree]. Indeed I’d see it as absolutely necessary because without moving into destructive self-criticism the models of actoin and the actual actions the left engages in have to be held up to examination at all times both by people involved directly and those that are not. That reflection by others can feed usefully into the self-reflection by those directly involved. In a way that’s why like Ed I’m not hyper critical of assorted UK groups like the RCP, the RCT, etc, etc which you’ll all find in the Archive, whose attitude to the conflict could often be unbelievably unnuanced but essentially boiled down to ‘support for the IRA come what may’.

Secondly, and this is again a subjective thing so I think we can entirely differ legitimately, reading Foley’s output I don’t see the negative attributes you do. Perhaps because I am interested, not having been there at the time, in the personalities and dynamic and I find his take on it genuinely interesting, not least because much later I was in the WP and it’s interesting to try to mesh OSF as was with the WP as was. So perhaps I see this as a useful document above and beyond any proscriptiveness that you see. Which isn’t to say that that isn’t there, but I’m not seeing it in the way you do.


14. The Italian Club Fish - December 15, 2011

There’s an earlier pamphlet by Foley, containing interviews with Tomas Mac Giolla and Cathal Goulding that’s well worth digging out. Mac Giolla, in particular, expresses interesting views on socialism, on democracy and trade unions that would be worth comparing with the WP’s development over the years.
McDonald’s stuff, in contrast, is mostly worthless. Anything that was good in the INLA book came from research Jack Holland did in the mid 1970s. The UVF book was marred by McDonald and Cusack’s raging hatred of the Provos and ‘Gunsmoke and MIrrors’…well, if you want to strain rice, there’s the book to do it with (full of holes). Be thankful for small mercies that the Observer took his weekly column off him.


Ramzi Nohra - December 15, 2011

I thought bits of the UVF book were good, but marred more by a distrust of the nationalist community. It did seem to blame that community for the rise of the UVF. I appreciate faults on both sides yadda yadda but the impression was very much one of the nationalist minority abusing their hegemony by upsetting the loyalists – rather than the reality (it seems to me) of a minority community which had been at the sharp end of discrimination and security force oppression for 60-odd years.


15. Alte linke Bücher « Entdinglichung - December 15, 2011

[…] Gerry Foley: Problems of the Irish Revolution […]


16. Ed - December 15, 2011

I had assumed that “savage” was McDonald’s term rather than yours, Michael.

We’ll just have to agree to differ on the damage done by various positions on Ireland adopted by various people on the Left, I think I’ve set out what I think as clearly as I can. I agree, as I’ve said, that a position of knee-jerk support for any group that can be said to oppose western imperialism is unhelpful. I never agree with the people who say we should give “unconditional but critical support” to this or that movement: as far as I’m concerned, you should give unconditional support to a people or a class, but only critical support to a movement (including a left-wing one – I wouldn’t be an uncritical cheerleader for any left movement, whether it’s the Zapatistas or the Bolivian MAS). I’ve always liked, since coming across it, this article by Peter Sedgewick (who was very active in the SWP’s predecessor group), arguing against the slogan “victory to the NLF” being raised at the time of the Vietnam war. Still well worth reading, especially since the NLF were a million times more progressive than many of the anti-occupation groups in Iraq and Afghanistan today:


I thought the INLA book was decent although marred sometimes by mawkish tabloid rhetoric, the UVF book I found very irritating, some useful information but undermined by the constant attempt to deny that there was collaboration between the state and loyalist groups. Jack Holland must have been a better influence as a co-author than Jim Cusack, being charitable to McDonald I’d assume that the awful chapter on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings was Cusack’s work.


Michael Carley - December 15, 2011

I suspect we probably agree on more than we disagree on (and nobody’s been insulting, or applied Godwin’s law, which is a good thing on the internet). I would not, by the way, claim that nobody joined the Provos in good faith or for what seemed like good reasons at the time, but I would stick to my view that politically, even if we ignore the direct violence, the process was futile.


WorldbyStorm - December 16, 2011

We try not to do insulting here Michael 🙂

To be honest this has been one of the most interesting general discussions on a piece in the Archive, albeit it’s spun off on some unexpected tangents.


17. Jim Monaghan - December 15, 2011

My attitude on the Provo led war is that it was supported by a section of the nationalist masses who were driven to this by the repression of Imperialism. I thought for a long time that it was unwinneable, based on too narrow a support. Therfore I was for a ceasefire. When in a hole, stop digging.
Different, I thought that the British miners were going to lose after a certain time and should have done a Dunkirk rather than holding out for ever. Describing someone who broke after 9 months as a scab was nonsense.But for obvious reasons this was a decision for the miners alone.
Struggles happen all the time, sometimes on the wrong terrain and without hope of success.Sometimes employers provoke a strike at their time and place, as they know they can win. Still you have to line up on the side of the oppressed.
“I’ve always liked, since coming across it, this article by Peter Sedgewick (who was very active in the SWP’s predecessor group), arguing against the slogan “victory to the NLF” being raised at the time of the Vietnam war.”
Like everyone here I supported the struggle in South Africa. I figured it was up to them to decide on either the ANC, PAC, Unity Movement whatever. Though I was always critical of the ANC fan club and its uncritical adoration of the awful Winnie, Mother of the nation?.
It is simpler and in my opinion to just call for the withdrawal of Imperialist forces. Liked Sedgewicks work on Victor Serge. One of the greats.


18. Starkadder - December 15, 2011

“I’ve always liked, since coming across it, this article by Peter Sedgewick (who was very active in the SWP’s predecessor group), arguing against the slogan “victory to the NLF” being raised at the time of the Vietnam war.”

By a concidence, I was reading about Nigel Young’s writings
about the New Left and “National Liberation” movements, and
he said something similar-the left should support the withdrawal
of imperialist armies, but not back militaristic “National Liberation”
movements. He also pointed out that early in the conflict, some
Leftists of a non-violent disposition supported the struggle of the South Vietnamese Buddhists, who tried to end the conflict throught
peaceful protests (and used violence only against themselves,
as in their self-immolations).


19. tomasoflatharta - December 15, 2011

The discussion on Critical Versus Uncritical Support above for movements fighting a just cause against imperialists applies today on this issue : “Free Marian Price now” – Éamonn McCann sums up the case brilliantly : http://www.derryjournal.com/community/columnists/free_marian_price_now_1_3333228 I can easily Identify myself as “repelled by Ms Price’s politics” but that is no excuse for abstaining from a clear policy. As Eamonn says “She is imprisoned without trial – in everyday language, interned.”. As Martin Niermoller said about Nazi Germany “First they came for the Communists…” . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came%E2%80%A6

Have we learned the hard lesson?


20. Ed - December 16, 2011

“I suspect we probably agree on more than we disagree on.”

I’d say we probably do, Michael. I certainly think that the Provo campaign was always likely to prove a dead-end. Which brings us back to the starting-point of this thread – I think Foley’s pamphlet gives a pretty shrewd analysis, arguing that republican militarism won’t work, and arguing for mass civil resistance instead. That was a hard case to make a few months after Bloody Sunday, but he was right. Far more progress would have been made in the North after 1972 if the resistance to British rule hadn’t been militarised in the way it was (in a similar way, the first Palestinian intifada was much more of a challenge to Israel than the second one, because the first was largely based on mass popular struggle, the second was fought by a minority of guerrilla fighters against the Israeli army).

There’s other entries in the CLR archive that provide a similar view – I’d single out the edition of the Starry Plough produced by the Derry Officials in 1972 (the Starry Plough was a really good newspaper, it’d be great if all the back editions could be put up online), and the “Militarism vs. Mass Action” document produced by People’s Democracy later in the ‘70s (PD went through a phase of giving more or less uncritical support to the Provo campaign, but changed direction after a split in 1976). The good thing about these arguments is that they were made from a socialist and anti-imperialist perspective, they had nothing in common with the establishment view of the Provos in London or Dublin.

And I should say again, I felt like tearing my hair out in frustration when I heard sections of the left put forward slogans like “victory to the Iraqi resistance” or talk about supporting “any means necessary”; as you say, it was a gift to people like Nick Cohen. I never believed that the people raising these slogans actually supported bombings of mosques or markets by sectarian fanatics in Iraq, but they were leaving themselves wide open to accusations that they did. I think this was a minor factor in the decline of the anti-war movement after 2003, other things were more important, but it certainly didn’t help in trying to build a strong anti-imperialist current coming out of that movement.

As I see it, the radical left should have argued that people in Iraq had a right to take up arms against the occupation and that the occupation troops should be withdrawn unconditionally, without getting into the business of supporting the Sadrists or the Sunni groups. The only group in Iraq that deserved active solidarity from the left was the oil workers’ union, they were leading a really impressive campaign against theft of Iraq’s oil resources and demanding that the US get out, and they cut across sectarian divisions. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any Afghan equivalent that we could support today, at least not so far as I’m aware.


21. MIchael Carley - December 16, 2011

@WBS I like the CLR for its generally fraternal/comradely spirit of informed disagreement, so you’re right: people don’t generally do insulting (of other contributors, at least).

Oddly enough, though it might have been a tangent, it’s a tangent that seems to be intersecting the Christopher Hitchens thread, so it’s something that is worth considering. There is a long history of people, honest, dishonest, or confused, who are seen as renegades from some one holy and apostolic church or other, so it’s a perennial on the left. (And where does Victor Serge fit into all of this?)

Anyhow, I’ve never seen a tangent I couldn’t head off on, which can amuse my students now and again.


WorldbyStorm - December 17, 2011

Hah, mine neither re tangents. But that’s part of the fun of interacting with them.

BTW, I think you’re right about Hitchens and this thread.


22. phillyworkersvoice - April 15, 2012

Reblogged this on Philly Workers' Voice Blog and commented:
Problems of the Irish Revolution by Gerry Foley. 1972


23. John Meehan - April 22, 2012

I have just learned that my close friend and comrade, Gerry Foley, has died.

I spoke with him via skype phone a few weeks ago – typically, in the middle of answering his probing questions about Irish politics, he broke off to describe a beautiful fluffy cat on the wall which was taunting Mexican dogs driven to heights of truly demented craziness in the high heat of the midday sun.


24. the national question and self-determination a compilation of links « Philly Workers' Voice Blog - April 22, 2012

[…] Problems of the Irish Revolution; Can the IRA meet the challenge?          A Socialist Workers Party pamphlet by Gerry Foley […]


25. Brian Hanley - April 22, 2012

Very sorry to hear about Gerry Foley’s death. He was generous to myself and Scott Millar when we started researching the Lost Revolution. His two pamphlets and various articles (usually in Intercontinental Press) about the Officials in the early 70s are well worth reading. His interviews with Tomas Mac Giolla and Cathal Goulding are particularly good for a snapshot of their movement in a particular time and place. His obituary for Liam McMillen is also an impressive article.


Jim Monaghan - April 30, 2012

If Gerry wrote a history of the Sticks he could easily have called “Lost leaders of the Irish Revolution”


26. Gerry Foley, Socialist and Republican: 1939 − 2012 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - April 23, 2012

[…] his life. As a socialist with a profound interest in Ireland and matters Irish and as the author of a number of pamphlets directly linked to that his views of the situation, particularly in the early to mid 1970s are of […]


27. Left Archive: Ireland in Rebellion, Gerry Foley, Including Interviews with Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff IRA and Tomás Mac Giolla, President, Sinn Féin. March 1972 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - April 30, 2012

[…] in March 1972 this document was written by Gerry Foley who passed away last weekend. It complements another document written by him during the same period which analyses aspects of the conflict on the island. Foley at […]


28. Left Archive: Selection of writings on the Official Sinn Féin/Irish Republican Socialist Party split in 1975 – including a tribute to Billy McMillen and interview with Séamus Costello, by Gerry Foley « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - June 4, 2012

[…] documents were written by Gerry Foley (see here and here) for Intercontinental Press between 1974 and 1975 about the split in Official Sinn Féin which […]


29. the national question and self-determination a compilation of links « Resistance! PHL - July 31, 2012

[…] Problems of the Irish Revolution; Can the IRA meet the challenge?          A Socialist Workers Party pamphlet by Gerry Foley […]


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