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Ireland's lost revolution

A new history of the Workers' Party inspires Robin Wilson to reflect on a movement that helped to change the face of modern Ireland
Robin Wilson
18 November 2009

A new history of the Workers' Party inspires Robin Wilson to reflect on a movement that helped to change the face of modern Ireland

Ever since the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent war of independence, progressive politics in Ireland has been bedevilled by the dominance of the ethnicised version of republicanism which was then first enshrined in martyrdom and later became the official ideology of the southern Irish state.

That this ‘revolutionary’ movement parodied the paramilitarism of Protestant integral nationalism resisting ‘home rule’, and that it only prevailed because of the repressive British response to the 1916 Putsch and the subsequent efforts to impose wartime conscription are historical ironies long lost. Throughout the 20th century, the discourse of the ‘men of 1916’—including the masculinism—set the terms against which all radical currents of opinion positioned themselves.

Most starkly, while the extension of the franchise to all adult males in the 1918 Westminster election allowed Labour to flourish in Britain, forming a minority government within a matter of years and a radical, reforming government after the next global conflagration, in Ireland, the republican leader Eamon de Valera declared that ‘Labour must wait’ and for two generations after this electoral abstention Labour politics were retarded as patterns of political affiliation were established by the civil war over the 1921 treaty with Britain defining the Free State. The party was to be perennially confined to be junior partner in a coalition dominated by one or other of the ‘civil war’ parties, never empowered to institute the Keynesian economic and Beveridgean welfare policies which underpinned social-democratic success in post-war Europe.

In today’s globalised world, those predominant parties, Fine Gael (whose predecessor wing of Sinn Féin backed the treaty) and Fianna Fáil (which split from an SF rump in 1926 having been on the opposing side), have become zombie categories, their particular historical roots and domestic ideological affiliations increasingly irrelevant. FG was identified following its emergence from a quasi-fascist movement as the party of ‘order’, while FF set its objectives as the reunification of Ireland, divided by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, and promotion of Irish, defined by De Valera’s 1937 constitution as the ‘first official language’—all ill-starred political goals.

Having toyed with social democracy during the period of Garret FitzGerald’s intellectual dominance within the party, FG now has no clear value system except via its continued membership—more sensibly than the British Tories—of the European centre-right grouping. FF, bizarrely, recently joined the liberal group in the European Parliament, having shown no recognisable commitment to liberalism at any point since its formation, and indeed it bitterly opposed the election as president in 1990 of Mary Robinson, then a spokesperson within Ireland of a ‘liberal agenda’.

Ms Robinson accepted her victory with vaulting rhetoric about how the people had emerged from the ‘faded flags of the civil war’ and embraced a ‘new Ireland’. In many ways they had, and did. Within a few years, divorce—the subject of a wrenching referendum in 1986—was legalised and homosexuality was decriminalised. Decades of emigration and under-performance were reversed as qualified labour and transnational capital flooded into the country in a post-1992 unified European market and, with the 80s fiscal crisis stabilised by European-style ‘social partnership’ between the unions and employers, the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was born. In the north, the 1994 ceasefire by the last significant scion of republicanism, the Provisional IRA, signalled a ‘peace process’ ending decades of violence far more murderous than the civil war.

And yet, this was to prove a lost revolution. Ms Robinson was to be succeeded by a paragon of northern Catholic conservatism, Mary McAleese. The geo-political trajectory of the state was to be encapsulated in the phrase of the right-wing figure Mary Harney, who said Ireland was ‘closer to Boston than Berlin’, and long-term EU largesse was spited by a sustained beggar-my-neighbour stance of low corporate taxation. The economy grossly overheated under the pro-cyclical fiscal policy of the FF finance minister Charlie McCreevy, and a huge property bubble was inflated which has now burst. Social partnership has been jettisoned by the current FF-dominated coalition in favour of again pro-cyclical budgeting, risking a Japanese-style deflationary decade. And some 88 ‘peace walls’ in Belfast are testament to how the fragile peace there has brought reconciliation no closer.

The Lost Revolution is the title of the history of an organisation which wrestled with these two interconnected challenges: Ireland’s delayed modernisation and its crisis of political representation. Emerging from the split in what was left of the ‘republican movement’ in 1969-70, in the crucible of the northern crisis which gave birth to the ‘Provos’, the ‘Officials’ went through a series of transmutations from republicanism to non-sectarian socialism and, in the year before the election of Ms Robinson, as the Workers’ Party they won a peak of seven seats in the southern parliament, Dáil Eireann. Within a few months, however, the fall of the Wall was to set in train a process of ideological collapse which saw the party split in 1992 and most of its members join Labour.

This book, fulsomely based on interviews, archives, party publications and newspaper material, tells that story in unprecedented detail. It professes to be no more than an empirical history, and it is very valuable for providing that so painstakingly. But it can only be fully understood in the historical and political context rehearsed above.

For the story is an extraordinary one. On the one hand, as the authors highlight, a roll-call of Ireland’s leading cultural and political thinkers, north and south, went through the ranks of the Workers’ Party in recent decades. What was always an embattled minority party swimming against a conservative tide was able to attract the best and the brightest of progressive Ireland. Many went on to higher things, notably in the media, the trade unions and, eventually, the Labour Party—the last two of whose leaders are former WP figures who cut their teeth in the student movement.

And there is no doubt that the WP was able to act as this intellectual magnet because of the courage of its assault on the pillars of Irish conservatism: a particularistic ethno-nationalism which could never reunify the actually-existing Ireland and could never shake off its historical legitimisation of violence, and a monolithic church to which the state was perfectly willing to outsource control of health and education. Through a radical process of collective self-criticism, beginning from the failed IRA campaign of the 1950s, the leaders of the movement slaughtered many of the sacred cows preserving Irish ‘traditions’ against the modern world.

Much of this proved prescient. No one in the Republic of Ireland would now wish to reinstate the irredentist claim in the 1937 constitution over the north: its removal was part of the Robinson campaign and the wars of the Yugoslav succession were to show just where such aggressive nationalism led, even before the Belfast agreement of 1998 instituted change. And while ‘dissident’ republicans are gaining ground disturbingly, as the Provos have now abandoned all the previous positions they held in opposition to the despised WP ‘Stickies’—from abstentionism from Stormont to antagonism to the police—there is no support for this south of the border, where the desire is only that the north be stabilised and otherwise, preferably, remain out of sight. Meanwhile, a series of tribunals have laid bare the previously concealed abuses of political power by FF for corrupt purposes and the even more veiled abuses of children in church-run institutions.

Yet all this intellectual and political renewal ended in nought, as the relic of the WP was sustained after 1992 by a few veteran loyalists. And, on the other hand, The Lost Revolution is a horror story of the langue du bois of a rigidly ideological organisation immune to constructive criticism from activists and sympathisers, and, worse, its extension into large-scale criminality and the maintenance of an occasionally murderous paramilitary structure through the teeth of official—or Official—denial.

That the party was right to break from nationalism is axiomatic: any progressive party must support a project of constitutional tolerance, where the state is neutral between differing national identities in a world of mass migration, overlaying older nationality questions (so Irish socialists cannot be ‘unionists’ either). But the very weakness of social democracy in Ireland, and the general insularity of its politics, meant that the only alternative resource the WP drew upon was a peculiarly anti-modern version: Stalinism.

And just as Stalin’s cult of the personality drew upon an older Russian Orthodox iconography, the party replaced the republican creed with a new religion of ‘class politics’—promoted with relentless fervour, the moreso as its vulgar Marxism proved inadequate to the complexity of the challenges posed by modern Irish society, north and south. This inevitably led to an internal culture of factionalism and angels-on-pins theological disputes, with a leadership of longstanding figures imposing order on what was often a chaotic movement through ‘democratic centralism’. Allied to the dogmatic and evangelical approach to the external world, this repelled as many of those as the party, in its more progressive guise, as collective intellectual attracted. (I left in 1983, having been active in the party for two years in Belfast working on its weekly newspaper, hoping to see it transformed in a liberal-socialist direction. I was appalled by the denunciation of Solidarity in Poland.)

The absence of a compelling hegemonic project was compensated by the maintenance of a key element of the republican ‘tradition’ from which the party elite had emerged: paramilitarism. While the Official IRA declared a ceasefire in 1972, reflecting the substantive shift of the organisation to a non-sectarian political stance, its methodology remained imbued with the authoritarianism from which it had come. Murderous feuds with other republicans, ‘fund-raising’ via armed robberies and neighbourhood control through masculinist thuggery were to characterise the now secret ‘Group B’ just as they did other paramilitary organisations, of whatever political or religious hue. The authors have collated a vast array of material on this, kept from ordinary members of the party (I naively thought if what the critics said were true, being in the Belfast office every day I would see evidence of it, when in fact as The Lost Revolution shows the whole point was that ‘Group B’ operated as a party within the party.)

The dénouement came about as a result of the interaction of these two trends. The collapse of Stalinism took the political feet from under the WP, while revelations about the continued activity of the Official IRA also damaged its electoral ambitions in the south. Northern Ireland’s sectarian introversion means the historically more progressive part of the island is now its most conservative region, and it was there that the small-C conservatives in the party, buttressing through the Official IRA their lack of electoral support, were concentrated. When the split came, it was because of those northerners who blocked the liberalisation of the party that, by then, most of the southern membership wanted to see. ‘Democratic Left’ emerged briefly as a successor, and joined an FG-Labour government in 199-97, but proved only a staging post to the Labour Party itself.

All, however, is not lost. Irreversible intellectual and political gains have been made over the decades, however crablike and inadequate. FF is now risking political meltdown because of its association with the very developers that have brought the Celtic Tiger to its knees. Labour under its ex-WP leader, Eamon Gilmore, is riding high in the polls, and it may just be that a realignment of Irish politics along left-right lines, with FG providing the principal centre-right pole, is beginning to emerge. And there is increasing recognition that the political carve-up in the north between the ethno-political entrepreneurs, Paisleyite and Provo, who brought us to this pass is neither a sustainable system of governance nor is likely to issue in a normal civil society. The Lost Revolution gives the Workers’ Party a decent burial; a legacy, however, remains.

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