From the Verge of Defeat to the Workers’ Republic

By: Colm Mistéil

In the last forty years of the struggle to see Ireland free from British and Capitalist oppression, at least 3,500 people have lost their lives (CAIN Web Service). In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This ended virtually all support for traditional Irish Republicanism amongst the Irish working class. Gaining back working class support and building a movement that believes the class struggle and national liberation struggle cannot be separated is the only way the troubles in Ireland will end and the Irish Republican Socialist Movement is the only movement with the potential to accomplish this.

The Border Campaign, codenamed “Operation Harvest,” began in 1956 and was aimed at taking out Customs huts and Army Barracks along the border. Many leading Republicans were arrested during this campaign; on both sides of the border internment had been introduced. In 1962 IRA Chief of Staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh issued an order to “dump arms” ending the campaign. Following the failure of this campaign the Republican Movement began to access what went wrong and where the Republican Movement must go. This led to, as quoted by Seán Swan in Official Irish Republicanism: 1962-1972, “ the most radical realignment in the movement since its foundation” (73). The Republican Movement, both the IRA and Sinn Féin, moved further and further left throughout the 1960’s. They made Socialism one of the primary goals of the Republican Movement. This caused a lot of tension between those who advocated for the shift to the left and more traditional Republicans, and would eventually lead to a rift in the movement a few years down the line.

At a special army convention in December 1969, the IRA split over a motion that was carried that would end the ban of members who took their seats in the Leinster House, Stormont, and the British Parliament. Those advocating the end of this ban were the same ones who pushed for the shift to the left earlier in the decade. The traditionalists walked out and formed the Provisional IRA. Early in the next year Sinn Féin split as well and Republicans were divided into two camps, the more traditional Provisionals and the left leaning Officials. The Officials would cease to be relevant by 1972 when they declared a ceasefire that would last indefinitely, effectively abandoning the national liberation struggle. The Officials would split in 1974 giving birth to the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, which is composed of the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Though the INLA would wage armed struggle against the British, for the most part, it would be the Provisionals who would wage the struggle against British Rule in Ireland.

The British-occupied six counties that the British state and its allies refer to as Northern Ireland experienced renewed violence in 1969 that began when Loyalists launched pogroms against Catholic communities. These pogroms, which occurred in every decade of the six county state's existence, were aimed at controlling voting wards as well as intimidating the Catholic/Nationalist community into abandoning their peaceful struggle for civil rights and equality. What made this so explosive was not only that educated Catholics were succeeding in presenting their case by means of modern media, but that the industries which traditionally employed Protestants loyal to Britain were in a steep decline. The days of the likes of the Titanic being built in Belfast were long gone. And so the dwindling industries there and their unions were also sectarianized. Belfast's heavy industries were also purged of Catholic workers, who were violently forced out of their jobs. However when the Loyalist bigots followed up with assaults on Catholic homes, chapels and communities they were met in time with armed resistance. Therefore the socialists within the Officials who were influenced by Moscow and aimed to unite Protestant and Catholic workers, while avoiding the national question were left with a political program that was unimplementable.

The early 1970’s were filled with victories for the Republican Movement. After Bloody Sunday, when British Paratroopers opened fire and killed 14 unarmed civil rights marchers in January 1972, the IRA had no shortage of volunteers. At the time, they thought victory would be attained by decade’s end. Later in 1972, the IRA declared a ceasefire and sent a delegation to meet with British Government officials, but the talks quickly broke down and the struggle continued. Again in 1975 a ceasefire was declared in February that would last until January of the next year. The leadership of that time, which was dominated by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill, seriously believed there was a chance of a British commitment to withdraw. It turned out to a massive failure and was heavily criticized by rank and file members, especially Gerry Adams who was imprisoned at the time. The effects of the lengthy truce were devastating to the IRA, the British used the long period of inactivity to regroup and collect intelligence on republicans. The Truce brought internment to and end, but that led a new policy of “criminalization” that brought the IRA to the verge of defeat. Loyalist violence against ordinary Catholics intensified greatly and caused the IRA to retaliate under various cover names. By the end of 1976 250 Catholics and 150 Protestants were killed. Adams claimed the British were behind this and wanted to draw the IRA into a sectarian conflict. Adams blamed this and renewed feuding between Republicans (Officials and Provisionals) on leading Republican and an ally of Ó Brádaigh and Ó Conaill, Billy McKee.

Gerry Adams’s release from Long Kesh in 1977 was widely anticipated by those who were critical of the leadership’s handling of the 1975 Truce. Then Chief of Staff of the IRA, Seamus Twomey wanted Adams on the Army Council, the IRA’s ruling body. In order to do this, he resigned from the Army Council but stayed on as Chief of Staff, giving his spot to Adams. This was the beginning of Adams’s take over of the IRA leadership (Moloney 164). Quickly more northern allies were appointed to the Army Council including Martin McGuinness and Brian Keenan, Director of Operations. Adams also introduced a new structure for the IRA where it would be based on smaller cells calls Active Service Units (ASUs). In 1979 the IRA killed Lord Mountbatten, a member of the Royal Family, as well as 18 British troops in one day. The great success of that day was attributed to Adam’s new structure of the IRA, which was said to have saved the IRA from defeat, though this was a myth and the cell structure was mostly only used in Belfast (Moloney 177). In late 1977 Seamus Twomey was arrested and Adams took over as Chief of Staff giving him control of the IRA leadership. He presented a very militant face, promising that there will be no more ceasefires, this helped him gain the support of the IRA’s rank and file. He successfully took over the IRA from the old leadership of Ó Brádaigh and Ó Conaill but they still controlled Sinn Féin. It would take a hunger strike and a miracle for his take over to be complete.

In 1976 the British introduced a policy of criminalization that stripped republican prisoners of the “special category status” they won by hunger strike in 1972. They were moved into the newly built H-Blocks at the Long Kesh prison camp. They refused to wear the prison uniform, as they were not criminals but prisoners of war, wrapped themselves in blankets (they were thereafter called ‘blanketmen’). After receiving harsh treatment and brutal mirror searches, they went on a dirty protest where they refused to wash and spread the excrement on the cell walls. They lived like this for years until 1980 when six IRA volunteers and one INLA volunteer went on hunger strike. The strike lasted 53 days and ended when one of the hungerstikers was hours from death, the British had said there was a deal, but they lied and nothing ever came of their offer. So on March 1st 1981 Bobby Sands began a second hunger strike, one that would see seven IRA and three INLA volunteers sacrifice their lives ( Shortly after Sands began his strike, a independent republican MP in the British parliament died. On the suggestion of Dáithí Ó Conaill, Bobby Sands was chosen to run in the by-election to highlight the prisoners’ plight. At this time H-Block Committees were active all over Ireland campaigning on behalf of the blanketmen and the hungerstrkers. They worked day in night in the short time they had before the election. Bobby Sands won with over 30,000 votes, more than Thatcher herself polled (O’Rawe 134-36). After Sands’s death on the sixty-sixth day of his fast, Sinn Féin decided they should run a candidate for Sand’s seat, since it was no illegal for a prisoner to run. They chose Owen Carron, who won the seat with even more votes than Sands. The Hunger Strike ended after ten men gave their lives. While the Hunger Strike, at first, failed to bring the prisoners their demands, it succeeded in generating unprecedented support for the Republican Movement. With the electoral victories of the prisoners and then Sinn Féin it made things, as Gerry Adams was later to put it, “easier to argue for an electoral strategy within republican ranks” (Moloney 214). With the move towards electoral politics underway, the stage was set for Adams to take over Sinn Féin and set the Movement on course that would see its downfall.

Throughout the 1980’s secret talks took place between Gerry Adams and Fr. Alec Reid, a Redemptorist priest from West Belfast. Fr. Reid saw it as his duty as well as the duty of the Church to work out a solution to the troubles in Ireland. Reid was someone whom Republicans as well as Adams respected and trusted. He did not condone IRA violence, but he sought to understand why people would support and join the IRA. Reid acted as an intermediary between Adams, who was acting on his own and without the knowledge of the Army Council, and the British Government. As these talks were going on, Adams continued his assault on the old leadership. At the 1982 Ard Fheis, a resolution was passed removing Ó Brádaigh and Ó Conaill’s Éire Nua policy from the Sinn Féin constitution. The following year they resigned from the party’s leadership in protest. Adams was then elected president of Sinn Féin. He won a further victory in 1986 when at the party’s Ard Fheis, the largest in its history, a motion was passed ending abstentionism in Leinster House. Ó Brádaigh and his supporters walked out of the Ard Fheis, like what was done in 1970, and reestablished themselves as Republican Sinn Féin and reaffirmed their loyalty to the Irish Republic. This removed Adams’s biggest obstacle to any future peace deal and gave him and his supporters complete control of the Republican Movement. As the eighties drew to a close, talks between Adams and the British intensified and would lead well into the 1990’s.

In 1994 the IRA called its first ceasefire since 1975. This was a very significant move by the Army Council, and it was also very unpopular with rank and file IRA members (Moloney 440). In early 1996 an Extraordinary Army Convention was called and those attending voted unanimously to end the ceasefire. Shortly after, a large bomb was detonated in London causing a £100 million worth of damage. Even though the ceasefire ended, it was a significant step in the so-called “peace process.” It showed that the IRA were willing to negotiate. Later in 1996 a General Army Convention was held, and Adams luckily came out of it with more support on the Army Council than he had previously. This gave him strength as he renewed peace talks with the British. With the help of the Free State and American government an agreement was reached on Good Friday, April 10th, 1998.

The agreement stated that “The participants… recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland” (Northern Ireland Peace Agreement 3). This contradicts the fundamental republican principle of self-determination where the people of the entire island of Ireland shall determine its future as a unit. It contained a time frame for the decommissioning of weapons, something that was never done in the 800 years of struggle against British rule. It did though, secure the release of all POWs, but at the cost of political status for all future POWs (of which there currently nearly 100). All in all the Good Friday Agreement, as it was called, achieved nothing for the Republican Movement and did not justify the loss of all the volunteers of the IRA and INLA and many innocent civilians. It has copper fastened the partition of Ireland and has reinforced the Unionist veto.

Even though the GFA did not attain for Republicans anything that they fought for so hard for, it was and generally still is supported by working class nationalists in Ireland. Most of those who were a part of the struggle over the last forty years still support the Provisional Movement (the provisional Movement refers to Sinn Fein and the IRA after the GFA, as that is when they completely abandoned the goals and principles of Republicanism). They thought of Adams an iconic figure and believed he would not let them down. Many of those involved in the struggle, joined because they wanted to defend their homes and nothing more so it would be easier for them to accept compromise. They also saw the struggle as one of national liberation, and ignored the class struggle. The failure to see the two as linked, also contributed to reform rather than revolution becoming the objective of the movement. “They tried to convert a revolutionary movement into a reformist party within British rule. They went into Leinster House, they went into Stormont, they stopped the war. For the first time in Irish history they destroyed the weapons given to them for the freedom of Ireland” (Ó Brádaigh 2003). The agreement also freed all of the Republican prisoners who were in British and Free State prisons at the time, so for this reason alone many nationalists supported the GFA. The people of the north were also war weary by 1998, after continuous fighting since 1969. Many people still see the Provisionals as republicans and think they are supporting the Republican Movement, when in reality they are not. This makes it so difficult for Republicans of today to move forward and gain working class support.

For Republicans, the Good Friday Agreement is a complete and udder surrender. Nothing was gained from and it set Republicanism back decades and is a disgraced to the memory of the nearly 400 Republics who gave their lives throughout the course of the struggle. The Provisional IRA surrendered when they signed up the GFA. “The political objective of the Provisional IRA was to secure a British declaration of intent to withdraw. It failed. The objective of the British state was to force the Provisional IRA was to accept – and subsequently respond with a new strategic logic – that it would not leave Ireland until a majority in the north consented to such a move. It succeeded” (McIntyre 7). The task of Republicans now is to show the working class that the GFA has failed, and present them with an alternative, one that will finally see the United Socialist Republic that so many fought and gave their lives for.

There is no alternative but for the working class of Ireland to pick up the pieces and reconstruct the movement to break the connection with the English crown and build the workers' republic. The Irish Republican Socialist Movement is the only movement that has the capacity to do this due their correct analysis that the struggles of class and national liberation cannot be separated. In order to build the movement up to the point where it can liberate Ireland’s working class, it first needs to get involved in campaigns that have a direct impact in peoples’ lives such as, housing, and anti-drugs campaigns. The Irish Republican Socialist Part (IRSP) has shown great initiative on these issues so far, but more work in needed. By participating in these campaigns, the working class’s trust of republican socialists will grow. The IRSP also badly needs to get involved in unions, and take them back for working people, this includes trade unions and industrial unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Independent Workers Union (IWU). Solidarity with striking workers needs to be shown at all times. Years down the line the Provisional movement will fade away into the establishment and conditions will arise similar to those of the late ‘60s. Armed struggle will have to be waged yet again by the Irish National Liberation Army, but this time the class struggle will be waged along side the national struggle. General strikes in the Free State, and on a smaller scale in the six counties, will force the British and Free State government to the negotiating table once more. This time partition cannot be accepted, and a new Ireland will be established, the 32 county Workers’ Republic so many have given their lives for.

The fight for Irish freedom has been a long one, and many lives have been lost. Within the last century there has been many victories for Republicanism, but also many set backs, such as the Good Friday Agreement that was signed in 1998. This agreement has brought the Republican struggle to the brink of defeat, but luckily, there are those who have not given up, and will push on with the spirit of freedom still in their hearts until the Workers’ Republic is achieved. These people are the members of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement. As INLA Hunger Striker Patsy O’Hara said, “Let the fight go on!” The tide of resistance might be out to sea at the moment, but history tells us it will turn again and when it does the Brits won’t have defenses strong enough to stop its onward surge. Beir Bua!


CAIN Web Service, Sutton Index of Deaths in Ireland, (Nov. 1, 2008).

Chicago Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee. 2006. Chicago Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee. Nov 1 2008 info.htm

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA: A History. New York: Macmillan, 2002.

McIntyre, Anthony. Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism. New York: Ausubo Press, 2008.

Moloney, Ed. A Secret History of the IRA. New York: Norton, 2002.

Ó Brádaigh, Ruairí. Speech outside Republican Sinn Féin Office, Belfast. 2003.

O’Rawe, Richard. Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike. Dublin: New Island, 2005.

Swan, Seán. Official Irish Republicanism: 1962 – 1972. Belfast: LuLu, 2008.

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