Seán Garland obituary: Marxist IRA gunman who became leader of Official Sinn Féin
He sustained numerous bullet wounds when the INLA tried to assassinate him in 1975
Seán Garland made a lasting impact on the politics of the republican movement and the radical left
Born March 7th, 1934
Died December 13th, 2018
Having started out as an ardent practitioner of physical-force republicanism, Seán Garland went on to become an advocate of socialist objectives pursued by political means. His formidable record as an IRA activist during the 1950s earned him considerable credibility in those circles and assisted him in his efforts to steer the movement away from the bullet and towards the ballot box.
Born in Dublin’s inner city, he was one of nine children who lived with their parents in a single room at Belvedere Place. Disease and poverty were rife at the time and four of his siblings died in childhood.
Educated by the Christian Brothers, he worked as a messenger and public house assistant. He joined the IRA in 1953, aged 19 years. The following year, he played the key role in an undercover operation when he enlisted with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Stationed at Gough Barracks in Armagh, he laid the groundwork for a raid on June 12th, 1954, that provided 250 rifles, 37 Sten guns and seven Bren guns, allowing republicans to proclaim, “Join the IRA: we have the guns now.”
Led an attack
On December 12th, 1956, the IRA launched Operation Harvest, aimed at creating an area north of the Border that would be free of British government control. On New Year’s Eve, Garland led an attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks at Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh. It was a failure in paramilitary terms, but the deaths of IRA members Seán South (28) from Limerick and Fergal O’Hanlon (20) from Monaghan turned it into a propaganda success and the two activists are still commemorated in republican ballads. Seriously wounded himself, Garland recovered but was then imprisoned in Mountjoy. Freed in 1959, he went back on undercover work in the North, posing as a medical student, but was arrested and held in Belfast’s Crumlin Road jail until August 1962.
The failure of the Fifties Campaign, as it was widely-known, led Garland, his fellow working-class Dubliner Cathal Goulding and others such as Tomás Mac Giolla to reassess the role of paramilitary activity and acknowledge the need for a greater political dimension, with a strong tendency towards the radical left and the trade unions as well as issues such as the housing shortage. This was at odds with the outlook of traditional republicans for whom armed force was the main focus. The eruption of the Northern Troubles at the end of the 1960s gave rise to allegations that the IRA had failed in its duty to defend beleaguered elements of the nationalist community. The republican movement soon split between the Officials, headed by Garland and his associates, and the more militant Provisionals, led by the likes of Seán Mac Stiofáin, Dáithi Ó Conaill and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as well as younger figures such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
The Troubles raged on and, in May 1972, three months after their disastrous car-bomb attack on the Parachute Regiment base at Aldershot in which seven civilians died, the Official IRA declared a permanent ceasefire. However, it held on to its weapons which were subsequently used in disputes with the Provisionals and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The latter organisation was established by former members of the Officials after a split that was especially bitter, even by republican standards.
In March 1975, the INLA launched an assassination attempt on Garland in Ballymun as he was returning from the theatre with his wife, Mary, whom he had married on New Year’s Eve 1974. He sustained at least eight bullet wounds but survived by holding his hands up to protect his head. Others were less-fortunate, with Liam McMillen of the Officials and Seamus Costello on the other side of the dispute among those killed.
On the political front, Garland became general secretary of Official Sinn Féin in 1977. At his suggestion, the organisation was renamed as Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party and, in 1982, the Sinn Féin element was dropped.
The party was doing well electorally, winning seven Dáil seats in the 1989 general election. But another split was looming and six of its TDs broke away in 1992 to form what later became known as Democratic Left, which subsequently merged with the Labour Party.
The Workers’ Party continued in existence but has not reached those electoral heights since then. On October 7th, 2005, Garland was in Belfast for the party’s annual conference when he was arrested on foot of a US extradition application. It was alleged that he had been involved in a long-standing and large-scale distribution and resale of counterfeit $100 bills or “supernotes” that were produced under the communist regime of North Korea. Released on bail but required to stay in the North, Garland made his way back across the Border. He was subsequently rearrested in Dublin, where the US application was heard in 2011. A campaign against his extradition attracted wide support across the political spectrum, the trade union movement and the entertainment industry.
On December 21st, 2011, the High Court in Dublin dismissed the US application for his extradition. Justice John Edwards later explained that, since the alleged offence was considered to have taken place in Ireland, he was obliged to refer the case to the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions. The Attorney General’s Office said in March 2012 that the State would not be appealing against the High Court order refusing Garland’s extradition.
Although beset by serious illness, Séan Garland had a longer innings than many revolutionaries and made a lasting impact on the politics of the republican movement and the radical left.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, daughter Caoimhe, son-in-law Danny, grandchildren Oliver and Alannah, brother Jimmy, sister Chrissie and sister-in-law Bernie.