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Arms crisis… June 21, 2021

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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Mentioned by Jim Monaghan in comments, a Village article on Haughey, the Provisional movement and the Official IRA. It’s an interesting piece, which argues that Dick Walsh as political editor of The Irish Times was central to an effort by SFWP and later the WP to whitewash its history.

That’s possible, but difficult to believe that that history wasn’t publicised reasonably widely during that period. The piece doesn’t mention the very comprehensive analysis of the Workers’ Party by Vincent Browne and Magill for a sustained period in the early 1980s with near enough full editions devoted to the topic – including this article here which were very deeply critical of the party and pointed out significant ideological shifts in its orientation as well as a range of related activities that would be hugely problematic in any context. Indeed, as a member of that party only a little later – and I’m sure others will recall this too, this was problematic at a time when the party was beginning to build a significant public profile (though intriguingly, and perhaps rather like Sinn Féin today, that history appeared to have much less resonance south of the Border than some seemed to expect). As The Lost Revolution and others have noted there appears to have been efforts to manage that public profile in various media in ways that again seem deeply problematic.

Given the deep antipathy amongst a very large tranche of Irish public opinion towards the armed struggle by the mid 1970s I wonder if the reality is that the WP’s addition to those ranks of Fine Gael, parts of the Labour Party, a good part of Fianna Fáil and so on was perhaps a little more marginal in terms of its impact than sometimes is suggested. Or to put it a different way – rather like the PDs when in government with Fianna Fáil were pushing an open door with that party in terms of pushing rightwards (offering FF cover in that respect when it suited them to present themselves as more centrist), perhaps the arrival of the near apostate WP (in regard to Republicanism) was of a certain utility to some, as well as – in some contexts a very negative presence.

There is no question that some were happy to point to the analyses coming from the WP and use them for themselves (and later unquestionably in relation to the peace process by then former WP members in the media played, to my mind, a deeply negative role in undermining what was fairly clearly a shift towards politics by the Republican movement). But that weight of opinion against the armed struggle was very real and stretched across the society (to give a limited example, I may have mentioned before, in the NS I was at school in Kilbarrack in the 1970s in Sixth Class after the La Mon bombing our teacher – a staunch GAA player, pinned up the photographs of the aftermath on the wall of the class room and there was a general sense was that this was a revolting event amongst my classmates). Nor is it clear that political events in advance of the peace process would have been markedly different in the absence of say Conor Cruise O’Brien, or the WP or whoever. I always think the most telling aspect of this is how – for all the rhetoric, the supposed green nationalism of Haughey’s Fianna Fáil was, in government, hardly more robust than their Fine Gael/Labour predecessors. Which is not to say that there wasn’t a tonal shift at times but, in functional terms matters changed remarkably little – and for all the rhetoric Fianna Fáil did nothing when it returned to power after the AIA to alter that dispensation (perhaps sensibly seeing the Agreement as a fundamental step forward and softening of British sovereignty in the North).

As to the Arms Crisis itself, Sean Swan’s analysis is rather plausible, as distinct from the analysis offered by the Officials – the latter being that some within Fianna Fáil sought to split the Republican movement at a time when it was shifting leftwards by arming a nascent PIRA. Swan’s analysis, and I hope I don’t do him an injustice, is that efforts from within the Southern polity to brings arms into the North were entirely naturally going to come with some preconditions as to their use being restricted to within Northern Ireland and not providing a potential platform to cause problems for the Republic. While understandable in the heated context of that short time period clearly any importation of arms and release to groups beyond the control of the Irish state, particularly an importation that was carried out without official sanction, was going to be – that word again, problematic. But that’s perhaps a different discussion.

One small further point.

The chief of staff of the Official IRA (OIRA) was Cathal Goulding. One of their victims was a 17-year-old boy called Ranger Best, who was tortured and murdered in 1972 in Derry.

William James Best was a 19 year old Derry born member of the British Army, Royal Irish Rangers, who was home on leave where he was picked up and killed by the OIRA. There’s no reference in any documentation to him being tortured. His tragic death is often pointed to as being influential – along with the Aldershot bombing by the OIRA, in moving the Official Republican movement towards a ceasefire (though as noted in The Lost Revolution military activity by the Officials against the British Army and RUC actually increased for a period after the ceasefire). Some would argue that the Official leadership, mostly, was uneasy shading to antagonistic about the use of armed struggle at that point. But again, that’s a different discussion. 

Comments»

1. C B - June 21, 2021

We recently covered the Arms Crisis on the Irish History Show with Dr. Brian Hanley http://irishhistoryshow.ie/81-the-arms-crisis/

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2. Paul Wilson - June 21, 2021

Seems to be an attempt at some sort of of revisionism here, An apologia for Haughy and Co vis a vis Jack Lynch. Perhaps smoothing the way for a FF/Sinn Fein electoral pact? Just a wild guess.
A complete hatchet job on the late Dick Walsh who of course can’t defend himself and the usual 40-50 year stuff about the OIRA.
And naturally they leave out the bit about how Magill ‘Fingered ‘ James Flynn and got him killed. But Hey.

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WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2021

There’s an interesting discussion to be had about how a very traditional Irish nationalism needed to be overhauled and small wonder much of this came to a head around 1966 (though I’d argue that Clann na Poblachta were responsible for an earlier somewhat constrained effort in that direction), and how there were some involved in that overhaul from diverse points but how that overhaul in some ways went too far – at least to my mind and instead of refashioning nationalism and republicanism for the late 20th century some actually switched away from nationalism and republicanism completely (and I can appreciate how in some instances this occurred for entirely understandable reasons). And then in the context of the conflict that spread even further so that some went another step moving towards a position of hostility to republicanism (and nationalism though that was mixed and sometimes ocntradictory with reference to the existing 26 county state). What’s crucial, as I see it, is to keep in mind that it is entirely possible to be deeply critical of aspects of traditional republicanism and nationalism while simultaneously being supportive of republicanism and the goal of unity – and similarly to be deeply critical of the armed struggle while understanding how that arose, and without feeling that that armed struggle was the totality of republicanism either conceptually or otherwise. Ignoring those crucial distinctions is I think problematic.

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Paul Wilson - June 21, 2021

Completely agree withthat WBS.

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roddy - June 21, 2021

What is often overlooked is that many who pushed the Officials in a leftward direction eventually recoiled at what they had become and wanted no truck with Neo Unionism. No history of the WP effectively adresses this,

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WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2021

Yeah, and that’s a very fair point too roddy about the dynamic in play – though I don’t know if that history isn’t addressed, but there’s certainly a history to be written about those who started as Official who later went in different directions and I’m not thinking per se of the IRSP or even SF but other places too. I think that there was a slide towards functional Unionism by some who were at the start Republicans but that there was no inevitability in that journey and that again being critical of aspects of Republicanism does not mean that the only default position is Unionism. That’s an overcompensation to an unwarranted degree.

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3. roddy - June 21, 2021

Nowhere in “the lost Revolution” for instance does it say that inside a decade Desmond Greaves and those around him were Adams admirers.

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WorldbyStorm - June 22, 2021

Yeah that’s another number of people, though in fairness TLR wasn’t about everything and had enough on its hands to contend with the history of the Officials and WP. But there’s definitely a study waiting to be done about that, and also while we are on the subject the number of people who were staunch republicans of whatever stripe who had roots in England and Scotland as well as Ireland.

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4. gypsybhoy69 - June 28, 2021

I was surprised to see David have a book published on the subject of the arms crisis, that book being Deception and Lies. I would kind of know David through work, a nodding acquaintance so to speak. I asked a few people who would have known him better had he shown much interest in that topic before and all said no. But then I saw it mentioned that he was Dick Burke’s son and I suppose with Dick dying in 2016 there may be a reason there as to why he came to this period in history to write on.
You’d have to hope that the son wasn’t as easily manipulated as the father seemed to be.

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WorldbyStorm - June 28, 2021

Very interesting analysis. It would explain a lot.

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