Another Cuba? Irish republicanism and the Cold War

The Communist Party of Ireland was too tiny to be a threat. Not so a Moscow-influenced IRA

Shortly before the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, marking the last days of the Cold War, Irish communists attended East Germany’s 40th anniversary celebration.

Possibly the smallest member of the Soviet Union’s global network, the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) under Michael O’Riordan had to compete with an Irish rival seeking the Russians’ attention. The Workers’ Party, with seven TDs in Dáil Éireann, was going places in ultra-conservative Ireland, at least in the eyes of the Soviet embassy in Dublin. Over the course of the decade, leading political figures, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, accused it of having a Moscow-directed agenda – aiming to turn Ireland into another Cuba.

Earlier in 1989 the dominant figure in the WP, Seán Garland, asked the embattled East German regime for financial help. He had previously appealed to Moscow for £1 million, warning that “special activities” – a euphemism for Official IRA fundraising – damaged the party’s public image.

Before Mikhail Gorbachev took over in the Kremlin, Garland had good reason to believe the Soviets could give him urgently-needed funds. Imprisoned during the IRA’s Border campaign in the 1950s, Garland, with Cathal Goulding, afterwards led the republican movement in a leftwards political direction.


Garland and Goulding had much in common with O’Riordan. The latter had been interned with Goulding and other republicans during the second World War, and, like Garland, had seen military action and been wounded (in O’Riordan’s case during the Spanish civil war).

The three men acquired a simplistic pro-Soviet, anti-American world view when competition between the two superpowers dominated global politics. In the 1950s, when Ireland was described as the most viscerally anti-communist country in the world, the public saw imprisoned churchmen in Hungary and Yugoslavia – Cardinal Mindszenty and Archbishop Stepinac – as Cold War martyrs. With the help of the Garda Special Branch, Dublin’s Catholic archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, kept detailed dossiers on communists such as O’Riordan.

Neither British nor Irish officials believed these “reds” were harmless. They saw the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as providing their link with Russia: directing them, and, more importantly, the Connolly Association, which attempted to politicise the many Irish exiles in Britain. The authorities in Dublin did not allow the Irish State’s non-aligned status, its military neutrality, to prevent them joining the West’s struggle against Soviet communism.

Col Dan Bryan of G2, the army intelligence directorate, argued that Ireland should assist the Ntto powers. In the Department of Justice, Peter Berry did the same.

If Moscow’s express adherents were too isolated to pose a threat in either Irish jurisdiction, the republican movement was a different matter. The authorities, north and south, saw that a communist-influenced IRA had potential appeal. Berry proposed towards the end of the 1960s that the Fianna Fáil government should attempt to split the IRA, to drive a wedge between the rural members – “the old faithfuls” – and the Dublin-based cohort advocating a workers’ socialist republic.

The British ambassador in Dublin saw Northern Ireland’s civil rights crisis through a Cold War lens: the Marxist-influenced IRA, its leaders looking towards Moscow, had manipulated the agitation on the streets.

But the clamour for guns in Belfast’s Catholic ghettos in August 1969, following the outbreak of sectarian violence, provided republican traditionalists with a reason to split the republican movement. Disturbed at the left-wing rhetoric of Garland and Goulding – perceived to be a Marxist or “alien ideology” – the believers in the physical-force tradition set up the Provisional IRA.

In 1970 the American embassy quoted a senior Garda officer as saying that communism had advanced further in the past two or three years than in the previous 40. The embassy followed Washington’s instructions and monitored left-wing activity. Details in these reports were supplied by “an authoritative” Irish security source. Washington heard that communists – who wanted a republic “friendly to Russia” – had attempted to take control of the pre-split republican movement.

The outbreak of armed conflict in the North created an opportunity for the Soviet Union to make trouble for Britain, its Nato adversary, and Moscow looked with increasing sympathy on the post-split Official IRA as another “liberation movement”.

Whitehall feared Dublin could become a Soviet espionage hub, with the Official republican organisation acting as a proxy. Using O’Riordan as an intermediary, the Official IRA later received arms shipments from the Soviets. Northern Ireland’s violence spilling over the Border led to fears of instability on the scale of an “Irish Cuba”.

Following the Bloody Sunday killings and the burning of the British embassy in Dublin, in January 1972, the British appealed to President Nixon -to put pressure on the Irish government to act decisively against the IRA. Otherwise, according to the Foreign Office, a Western democracy might plunge “into anarchy”.

Russian diplomats arrived in Dublin in 1974. The papal nuncio and other dignitaries mingled with old revolutionaries such as Peadar O’Donnell when the embassy threw a party. Times had changed since people had said the rosary outside Dalymount Park when Yugoslavia played. Dublin did not become an espionage hub, and Soviet mischief-making about Northern Ireland consisted mainly of propaganda attacks against British “colonialism”.

If it was ironic that Ireland could host two tiny Marxist parties, one more pro-Soviet than the other, it was doubly so that they should fall out with each other. In the late 1970s the CPI criticised its rival’s U-turn on the “national question” which depicted the Provisional IRA’s “war” in the same light as the Black and Tans’ campaign.

Garland then found himself at odds with the Soviet bloc’s enthusiastic support for republican hunger strikers in Long Kesh who were seeking restoration of political status for paramilitary prisoners.

Abandoning traditional republican demands cost the Official movement dear in the North. On the other hand, in the South, the Workers’ Party enjoyed limited electoral success in the 1980s. British and American diplomats kept an eye on it, but there was no question of it playing a leading role in creating an Irish Cuba.

Garland had "few friends" at home, as the British embassy astutely observed, and his party's friendships abroad withered when the Soviet-led world fell asunder. The fallout from this 1989 earthquake did not do O'Riordan much damage; his party had little or no political presence. Garland's party, however, lost everything when six of its seven TDs walked out following two years of fractious debate. The Cold War in Ireland was all over now.
John Mulqueen is the author of 'An Alien Ideology': Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left, published by Liverpool University Press