Chinese archives reveal IRA approaches seeking help for armed campaign
Seamus Costello’s overtures for assistance were stonewalled by Chinese authorities
Seamus Costello made several visits to the Chinese embassy in Paris in 1964, seeking military aid, help with training for guerrilla warfare and coaching in the use of printing presses for the distribution of propaganda.
On September 16th, 1964, Seamus Costello of the Irish Republican Army stood outside the door of the newly opened Chinese embassy in Paris, bearing a letter from the paramilitary organisation’s chief of staff, Cathal Goulding.
This letter was a remarkable document. It requested Chinese assistance in the “Irish struggle against British imperialist rule and to establish a democratic people’s republic”.
The IRA hoped Mao Zedong’s communists would provide arms and training as they had done in Africa and Asia.
The Chinese diplomat who answered the door said nothing, although he took the letter, for which he was later reprimanded and told not to accept such a communication in future.
Costello’s knock on the embassy door in Paris began a curious footnote to the power politics of the cold war, where Irish insurrectionists and the revolutionaries of closed, impoverished China circled each other.
The fascinating tale came in a blog posting by China scholar Chris Connolly, who uncovered the information six years ago while researching in the archives of the Chinese foreign ministry (see iti.ms/19FfGAW).
It is a story filled with the ideological fervour and intrigue of the era. The communists had been in power less than 15 years when Costello came calling in Paris, in visits that were to prove fruitless.
He made three approaches over the next five months, and his shopping list included requests for military aid, help with training for guerrilla warfare and coaching for IRA members in the use of printing presses for the distribution of propaganda materials.
When Costello asked to see the military attache, he was told the office did not have one. The Chinese stonewalled his requests, at which point Costello “expressed his disappointment and left”.
The embassy had opened earlier that year following French president Charles de Gaulle’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government in Taiwan and establish them with the People’s Republic of China.
Mao’s focus at the time was inward, on rebuilding after the disastrous failed agricultural reform of the Great Leap Forward, in which millions of people died of starvation.
“They did approach at a time when Chinese foreign policy was taking a radical turn, but in a direction even less favourable to the IRA getting any assistance from Beijing than had previously been the case,” says Connolly.
China would not have wished to become embroiled in a disorganised campaign against the British in Northern Ireland, as it would not have suited its international goals.
“Everyone knows Mao’s famous dictum that ‘political power comes from the barrel of a gun’, but few know that that is only half of what he said,” says Connolly.
“The full statement was: ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.’
“I think Mao would have recognised that the IRA was a military movement in search of a political base, not the other way round, and that to him was in no uncertain terms putting the cart before the horse.”
Costello returned to London the next day, and the Chinese embassy cabled Beijing to request that it inform the Chinese charge d’affaires’ office in the British capital of what had happened in Paris.
On October 26th, Costello pitched up at the charge d’affaires’ office in London, this time accompanied by Goulding, to see if co-operation could begin in the anti-British guerrilla war.
The low-level diplomat who received them denied any knowledge of the letter – disingenuously, according to Connolly – and sent the men away.
Connolly accessed the files six years ago when the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs partly opened its archives to researchers for the years 1949 to 1965, and his account of the research is full of rich detail.
For example, when Costello approached the charge’s office again in February 1965 as adjutant general of the IRA, he had to concede that the organisation’s “underground” status meant he had been forced to describe himself as a car salesman as a cover.
The IRA had been looking to Moscow for help from about 1963, as Brian Hanley and Scott Miller recounted in their book The Lost Revolution, which Connolly cited, and although relations between Beijing and Moscow were antagonistic by then he believes the IRA was acting on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
However, by the time of the IRA approaches, the Chinese focus had switched to struggling against imperialism headed by the United States, rather than the British variety.
In 1962, Beijing supplied 90,000 rifles to the guerrillas of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, which was fighting the US-backed Ngo Dinh Diem government.
Also, Mao was broadly suspicious of Ireland. The communists had just kicked a sizeable number of Irish missionaries out of China after the revolution.
In the 1950s, taoiseach Éamon de Valera and his Fianna Fáil government had been considered “fascist” by the new communist government in Beijing because of Ireland’s neutrality in the second World War.
Ireland was seen as generally pro-American and Mao did not believe a united Ireland would necessarily have been a communist, revolutionary Ireland, despite the IRA’s claim to socialist credentials.
While Britain was seen as a major imperialist threat, China had diplomatic relations with London, although they would not exchange ambassadors until 1972.
“Anti-Americanism became the benchmark of a true revolutionary struggle. Isolating the United States internationally trumped any temptation that might have existed to strike a blow against Britain, China’s oldest and most prominent imperialist aggressor,” says Connolly.
“Unfortunately for Seamus Costello, Cathal Goulding and the IRA, this meant they wouldn’t even get the loan of an oul’ printing press.”