Sorting through what was left of the new republic

Red rag to the party? Civil-rights marchers in 1969. photograph: pacemaker

Red rag to the party? Civil-rights marchers in 1969. photograph: pacemaker


POLITICS:The Communist Party of Ireland 1921-2011: Volume I, 1921-1969, By Matt Treacy, Brocaire Books, 428pp, €20

Some arguments never die, and the debate about the reaction of left-wingers and republicans to the unfolding crisis in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s is likely to go on forever.

For anyone who was not around at the time, it is difficult to comprehend the prevailing mood. The civil-rights movement in the North was based on the template established in the Deep South of the US by the likes of the Rev Martin Luther King jnr.

Although the American civil-rights struggle was marked by violence and turmoil, US society was eventually able to resolve many of the issues and move on from conflict to a situation where an African-American has now been elected for a second presidential term.

Another major influence, though little spoken about nowadays, was the student upheaval in France. The dramatic and at times violent events of May 1968 and the running battles between students and police constituted a major upheaval. Eventually, however, the society adjusted and adapted and the French moved on, just as the Americans did.

Not so with Northern Ireland, where the discontent manifested in protests and clashes with the police was not absorbed by the political system and the rebels were not turned into rulers, or at least participants, in fairly decorous electoral and constitutional arrangements.

The Paris events lent currency to the concept of protesting students as “detonators” who would set off a wider upheaval involving the working class and other oppressed groups, leading to the establishment of a socialist society.

In the North, youthful idealists cherished an egalitarian dream in which Catholic and Protestant would make common cause against their capitalist masters to build a brave new world.

Seminal moment

The January 1969 attack at Burntollet Bridge, about eight kilometres outside Derry, on young protesters marching to the city from Belfast was a seminal moment in our recent history. Unlike similar events in the US and France, however, it was not a catalyst for a fairer and more just society but acted instead as a curtain-raiser for 30 years of horror and sectarian strife.

This very useful book recalls the debate that raged at the time in left-wing and republican circles. Should the march have gone ahead? Fiery and in some cases charismatic young protesters insisted at the time that it should. Older and more experienced voices counselled caution.

Strange to relate, perhaps, but the chief restraining voice in the protest movement at the time was the Communist Party of Ireland, principally Betty Sinclair (1910-81), founder member and first chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The author of this book has unearthed her diaries in a treasure trove of archive material recently deposited by the communists with the National Library of Ireland. Someone should publish them in a separate volume because, agree or disagree with her perspective, she was right at the heart of events.

Expressing the hope that snow would block the march from Belfast to Derry, she writes: “They are really irresponsible and have no real idea of the dynamite they are playing with – and I say advisedly, playing.”

Sinclair was a supporter of the approach put forward at the time by left-wing intellectuals such as Roy Johnston and Anthony Coughlan, who favoured a more gradualist approach to the situation. Coughlan is best known these days for his long-running campaign to halt and indeed reverse the trend towards European integration, but at that time he was a leading ideologue of the left.

Sinn Féin strategy

The author of this book, Matt Treacy, is, to put it mildly, not an admirer of the Coughlan-Johnston-Sinclair strategy. Currently a political adviser to the Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris, he is a former republican prisoner who was incarcerated with the Kerry North deputy in Portlaoise.

In the Provisional world view, Coughlan and Johnston caused great damage to the republican movement by promoting an alliance with left forces such as the CPI.

Coughlan has always strongly denied being a party member, but Treacy insists that this was the case. Again delving into the CPI archive, he has found what he says are membership lists with Coughlan’s name on them, although a senior CPI member says that these are actually the names of subscribers to the Irish Worker’s Voice paper.

There seems to be little dispute about the party membership of the late C Desmond Greaves (1913-1988), historian and editor of the Irish Democrat, published by the Connolly Association, a British-based organisation of Irish emigrants.

Treacy again clearly regards Greaves, who promoted an approach similar to that of Johnston and Coughlan, as a negative influence on Irish republicanism. Yet Greaves’s recommendations for an alliance of republicans and the left, using a nonviolent approach based on street and parliamentary politics, carry many echoes of current Sinn Féin strategy.

Treacy’s previous book, The IRA 1956-1969: Rethinking the Republic, published by Manchester University Press, was based on his PhD thesis at Trinity College Dublin. The current volume is the first in a planned two-part history of the Communist Party, the second of which is due out next summer.

It is not an easy read, and the index is deeply unhelpful, but the author has done a great deal of research, and his book shines a light on a little-explored but fascinating strand of modern Irish history. He makes a sustained effort to examine the close relationship between the party and its fellow thinkers in London and Moscow. Likewise, his study of the ins and outs of republican politics and the willingness of some activists to be seduced by the CPI, while others regarded it as anathema, is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of this little-known but not insignificant moment in our history.

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