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A question on the IRA, the CPI and the USSR in 1969 December 28, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History, Irish History, Irish Politics, The Left.

Reading Making the Difference? The Irish Labour Party 1912-2012, and in particular a piece by Eunan O’Halpin on Labour and the Making of Irish Foreign Policy, I was struck by the following paragraph.

Writing about Communist Party influence on the Soviets in the 1960s onwards he writes [p143];

There is evidence of Irish Communist unilateralism in response to the Northern Ireland crisis – for instance in 1969 Michael O’Riordain made a direct appeal to the Soviet Union for arms and money, which he believed would enable him to bring a faction of republican activists led by the energetic Seamus Costello under his control to further wider revolutionary aims.

The footnote links to page 141 of Hanley and Miller’s The Lost Revolution. On that page they note that in August 1969 ‘the race for weapons was on and any and every source was utilised’.

They write in reference to O’Riordain:

Goulding and Costello approached Mick O’Riordan and asked if the Soviet Union would provide weapons. Costello was to organise a trawler crewed by ‘select and reliable’ IRA members who would pick up the shipment in neutral waters. During November O’Riordain informed the Soviets that the IRA’s ‘combat potential’ had been weakened by its concentration on ‘social protests and educational activity’. It needed weapons urgently. O’Riordain optimistically requested 2,000 AK-47 assault riflers and 150 machine guns along with over a million rounds of ammunition. But the Soviets were not inclined to supply arms at short notice to an unknown quantity like the IRA. KGB chief Yuri Andropov insisted that if arms were to be supplied then the ‘secret of their source of supply’ had to be preserved. meanwhile the United Irishman launched a ‘Dynamite Fund’, aimed at Irish America, arguing ‘bandages are not enough, defence is needed’.

Interesting to see another mention of a trawler in relation to the IRA (though is this the same trawler as the one mentioned in relation to the OIRA some time later?). But more importantly these seem to be somewhat differing interpretations of these events. Anyone have any further information on this idea of O’Riordain seeking control of a faction of SF or IRA activists?


1. Helena Sheehan - December 28, 2012

See “The Mitrokhin Archive” (KGB files) where a missive O’Riodain wrote to Moscow re IRA is quoted as saying “they unfailingly accept our advice”. (p492)


WorldbyStorm - December 28, 2012

Do you think that’s accurate or him hearing what he wants to hear, or portraying the CPI as more influential than perhaps it was?


2. Tawdy - December 28, 2012

The trawler in question was used many times to import arms for the Official IRA after the split with the PIRA. They were never caught. The select crew were in fact all trawlermen from different parts of the country. One was from a small village just outside Limerick City. He still lives there and visits the city quite often.


WorldbyStorm - December 28, 2012

I’ve said it before, the scale of ambition was quite something.


Joe - December 29, 2012

This chap who visits the city quite often, Tawdy. Does he comment on the CLR the odd time?


Tawdy - December 30, 2012

To Joe, not to my knowledge, also, it`s not me. I get sea sick watching a boat on telly.


Paul Wilson - December 30, 2012

I came across an interesting nugget of nautical information while browsing the transcripts of the Saville Enquiry into Bloody Sunday, these are published online.

The Quartermaster of the OIRA in the Free Derry period was being questioned on the weaponry held by the OIRA on Bloody Sunday by Counsel for the British Army. Counsel brought up a Photoshoot that had been held by the OIRA in the Bogside some time after the massacre. The assembled Press had been shown a Browning HMG mounted behind a sandbagged emplacement. Volunteers also carried an SLR and a Sterling SMG.

The Counsel implied that these weapons were availible to the OIRA on the day. The QM responded that the SLR and the Sterling were ‘ Lifted’ from the Brits after Bloody Sunday and that the Browning was a fake anyway.

Asked to elaborate he said the OIRA were aware that a USAF Bomber had crashed in Lough Foyle during the Second World War. Divers had been sent down to see if any weaponry could be recovered, but all that had survived was the barrel of a Browning HMG from one of the turrets.
Determined to make the best out of a bad job the OIRA had cleaned the barrel and put it in a wooden housing, the whole contraption was covered with a blanket and used as a publicity stunt. So you can add a Frogmens Section to the trawler.


Ramzi Nohra - December 30, 2012

This is only tenuously related, but as we are mentioning things nautical salvage and Irish republican, I did get told by some British Army guy that the Provos did something similar to WWII grenades in a sunken ship in the late 80s (the grenades were of unsurprisingly limited effectiveness)


Tawdy - December 31, 2012

Whatever about that gun barrel, there is more to this world than you or I Horatio will ever know.

One of the specialties of the OIRA was the ” lifting ” of weapons from the british army in those days, all weapons were exchanged for copious mugs of tea!

In some very rare cases they were even donated.


3. Helena Sheehan - December 28, 2012

WorldbyStorm, I think that there was a bit of overstatement in O’Riordan’s claims, but it seems to have been a harmonious and influential relationship at that time. It would be interesting for someone to research the unravelling of that relationship, beyond what has already been done, and to search documents relating to the increasingly competitive relationship from the mid-70s on, especially about their relationships to the CPSU and international communist movement.


WorldbyStorm - December 28, 2012

Harmonious is a good way of putting it. I’ve always regarded it as being two different groups on similar tracks and moving in a similar direction albeit with striking differences. The UI’s of the late 60s and even into the very early 70s were still critical of the USSR and strikingly so in many instances (indeed wasn’t that in part why the SPI broke away, because OSF was insufficiently pro-Soviet?). Another way I’ve seen it is a bit like the CP seeing itself as Greece to OSF’s Rome.

That rupture is very interesting. But presumably a lot was due to positions on the North (and also economic issues and definitions of imperialism) – no?


Jim Monaghan - December 28, 2012

I think the CPI saw themselves as Bolsheviks to OSFs Socialist Revolutionaries (The alliance of the sole Workers Party wioth the party representing the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie.) Then the OSF morphed into the “sole” workers party. Competitors rather than allies.


John Goodwillie - December 28, 2012

I cherish the memory of a meeting where the representative of the CPI Marxist-Leninist attacked OSF for seeking to become a socialist party. That was the job of Communists. OSF was supposed to represent the national bourgeoisie.


WorldbyStorm - December 28, 2012

Excellent John.

Both your comments show the dangers of others trying to pre-determine or categorise political movements in such a rigid fashion.


4. Helena Sheehan - December 28, 2012

I think that 1973-4 was the turning point in the OSF position on the USSR. In 1972 there were a range of positions expressed within the movement. In 1973 there was a big emphasis on Soviet history in educational classes and also a certain accompanying atmosphere of orthodoxy v heresy on this. Yes, there were a number of other issues, as you have identified, in that rupture, but the international dimension has been less researched.


WorldbyStorm - December 28, 2012

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. And that has to be an area ripe for examination. What changed, how did it change, and what was the functional effect upon other competitors on the left in that regard. Though even in the early 1980s it’s clear there wasn’t an absolute alignment with the USSR – but that could have been a product of emerging divisions on these matters.


5. Jim Monaghan - December 28, 2012

There was a famous letter forom the CPI to fraternal parties warning them about the OSF/Workers Party (circa 1975, I think. ).
In spite of the odd spat, the outlaws of the left in Irish society had good relations. They were minorities and thus clung together to a degree. A parallel wwould be the different Protestant sects in Dublin who emphaised their comminality as minorities in a Catholic sea.
For an example of this “harmony”. When Greaves died there was a warm obit. by Gery Lawless, who was in Greaves terms an ultraleft (in mine as well but not in the same way).
Bizzarely the left sects today live compartmentalised lives, different fronts on nearly everything, even different pubs. Seperate monasteries and convents.


6. Organized Rage - December 28, 2012

I would have thought, the Soviets, especially the average diplomats in Dublin would have been appalled by Costello, by the 1970s they were more used to dealing with Irish and British communists who talked about revolution, not the type who ran around with a gun in one hand, a bomb in the other, and was over keen to use either.

Back home in the Lubyanka, the KGB would have concluded Mick O’Riordain had about as much chance of controlling Seamus as the works of Trotsky being put on the Soviet school curriculum.

Given the time some leaders of the Workers Party were to spend at functions within the USSR Dublin embassy, it looks like they sidestepped the CP altogether. (on this issue) The subsequent trajectory of SF/the workers party reeks of the road map laid down in Moscow for west European communist parties.

By the way I doubt the IRA would have been regarded as an unknown quantity to the KGB, but at that time they would have regarded them as either a spent force, or in the case of the Provos uncontrollable, who would end up disrupting their foreign policy not advance it.

In any case Andropov, a very cautious man, as one had to be to survive and prosper in that poisonous environment, if at a later date he or his successor came to believe the OIRA/etc would help advance Soviet foreign policy, it would in all probability have subcontracted these contacts to one of the Soviet blocks secret services ‘to ensure a ‘secret source of supply.’

Mind you who ever shunted them off to Pyongyang does show someone in the Stalinist bureaucracy had a malign sense of humour; or a deep hatred of Irish republicans 😉


7. Brian Hanley - December 28, 2012

The above quote from Eunan O’Halpin is a misinterpretation of what we wrote in the Lost Revolution. The IRA needed guns and they were flexible- they hoped that contact with the Soviets would get them some, and they also hoped that the Clan na Gael and the old American networks would get them some. They also tried to buy guns from dealers in England and got as many as they could from Irish sources. The Officials got much more in the early 1970s from North America than from anywhere else.
When we were writing TLR we didn’t know this but in the last couple of years evidence from Chinese archives suggests Goulding and Costello approached the Chinese in 1965/66 looking for weapons and money. Again, they were flexible.
The Soviets did eventually did send weapons but much later on- by which stage ironically relations with the CPI were becoming less friendly. But I presume the Soviets were flexible as well.


8. Dr. X - December 28, 2012

There’s a paper about the wartime Special Operations Executive, written by MRD Foot, in which he claims that the USSR was backing both republicans and loyalists in NI.

Now, that’s a claim that doesn’t pass the smell test, but one that plenty of people might have believed in the febrile atmosphere of the 1970s (when Foot published his paper).

Just throwing it in as an example of the sort of claim that used to get made about the NI conflict and the superpowers.


9. Organized Rage - December 29, 2012

‘There’s a paper about the wartime Special Operations Executive, written by MRD Foot, in which he claims that the USSR was backing both republicans and loyalists in NI.’

Dr X

Yes and MRD Foots contacts with British intels ‘cousins and the FBI across the pond were certain Marilyn Monroe was ‘positively and concisely leftist’ and probably a closet communist.

Foot was given the lucrative task of writing the history of SOE because the security services and their political ‘masters’ [LOL]were certain he was fully house trained.

If SOE were backing republicans, does he say why?


10. Dr. X - January 1, 2013

Here´s Foot´s penultimate paragraph

There was once a caique captain who was caught by the Royal
Navy smuggling sten guns (still in the cases in which SOE had dropped them) into Cyprus. He remained silent throughout his trial,
was found guilty, and was asked if he wished to say anything in his
own defence before he was sentenced. Silently he handed up to the
judge a king’s commendation for brave conduct, signed not by
George II of the Hellenes but by George VI. So SOE must admit a
share in the blame for subsequent troubles, but surely not a large
share. Others deserve more: television for example, hardly as
worked in the west a medium to discourage the display of violence;
the KGB, ever active at the task of keeping the pot of unrest against capitalism simmering (the Russians are supplying arms to both sides in Northern Ireland, just in case that pot cools down too far); the innate disposition in mankind to make difficulties and to
disobey orders, which anthropologists take back to the species’
hunting instincts and theologians take back to the Garden of Eden
and original sin.


11. Kieran Brennan - January 1, 2013

Can I ask a “stupid” question. What happened in those days if you were an avowed Republican but did not support Marxism, Socialism, Communism etc. Even nowadays? Is there/was there room for entrepeneurial capitalist (slight exagerration perhaps) patriots?


Tomboktu - January 1, 2013

Sean Quinn?


Joe Davis - January 1, 2013

Back then, an avowed republican was also an internationalist.
In the 70s these seemed to be a dying breed. Confusion reigned,
permitting the cultural majority to create strange forms of Sinn Fein republicanism, yes, sectarian republicanism or Catholic Nationalism!
You’d have been definitely rejected by the SPI of the 1970’s, probably a factor in it’s short lifespan.
Joe Davis.


12. ceolman - January 1, 2013

I am not really talking about a supporter as such (no one in particular meant by this) I mean more like if I was back in the 50’s say and at meetings was very against the leftish politics but supported the republican (for the discussion lets say I wanted to join in the armed struggle, and wanted to join the border campaign), Would I have been rejected or embraced.


WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2013

I can’t imagine it was a problem in the 1950s at all. Or in any period before it, Republicanism being a broad church. And The Lost Revolution is interesting in that it suggests that as late as the hunger strikes and after I suppose there were pockets of more ‘traditional’ republican support inside the WP who due to loyalty to the movement hadn’t gone with PIRA during the split in the late 60s. As interesting is the response by PIRA and PSF to those of a Marxist inclination. Certainly hard to see any serious antagonism in it to them given the effective merger of elements of PD in the 1980s (or the development of the LCR etc though that’s slightly different). I seem to recall some mildly pro-Soviet stuff emanating from it too at times, though I could be mistaken.


13. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - January 1, 2013

‘I mean more like if I was back in the 50′s say and at meetings was very against the leftish politics but supported the republican (for the discussion lets say I wanted to join in the armed struggle, and wanted to join the border campaign), Would I have been rejected or embraced.’
You’d probably have been on the Army Council.


WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2013

🙂 I’ve got to admit I actually laughed out loud when I read that.


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