Closer to Berlin - not politically but by begging letter

BACKGROUND: Archives of East Germany’s ruling party reveal decades of political donations to Irish partners, despite doubts …

BACKGROUND:Archives of East Germany's ruling party reveal decades of political donations to Irish partners, despite doubts about their political prospects

For decades, East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) maintained contacts with a shifting cast of Irish characters. But files seen by The Irish Times indicate that East Berlin’s ambitions for Ireland dwindled under a steady flow of begging letters suggesting their Irish comrades were more interested in raffles than revolution.

The files of the SED central committee reveal no contacts with any of the major Irish political parties. Instead East Berlin engaged first with the Communist Party of Ireland and, later, the Workers’ Party (WP) and its general secretary, Seán Garland.

One of the earliest contacts with East Berlin in the files is a 1963 telegram from Dublin on the 70th birthday of Walter Ulbricht, de facto leader of East Germany from 1950 to 1971. The telegram from the then Irish Workers’ Party (from 1970, subsumed into the Communist Party of Ireland, the CPI, and not to be confused with the Workers’ Party of Seán Garland) praises Ulbricht’s “selfless life’s work” for which “humankind will forever be thankful”.


The same year, the SED invited Irish Workers’ Party central committee chairman John Nolan to address the party’s sixth congress on January 18th, 1963. Some 18 months after the building of the Berlin Wall, the Irish visitor said the “measures taken . . . to safeguard the territory of the GDR have been fully justified”.

Contacts were stepped up after the so-called Unity Congress of March 1970, reuniting the Communist Party of Northern Ireland with the Workers’ Party in the south to form the CPI. Two months later, files indicate the first of many fundraising letters arrived in East Berlin.

A curiosity in the files is a 1970 pamphlet, written by Dr Roy HW Johnston of Rathmines, suggesting that realising socialism’s full economic potential required a “sophisticated cybernetic system” – which he could provide.

An unsigned assessment, most likely from the GDR’s London embassy, said Dr Johnston “is convinced that once transitional political problems are overcome superiority over capitalism will rapidly become evident to all”.

The files suggest SED contacts with Ireland began in earnest in November 1971 when a delegation headed by ZK member Rudi Singer attended the CPI annual conference, bearing greetings from new party general secretary Erich Honecker and “gifts of a slide projector and a camera”.

Political breakthrough

In his conference report, however, Singer was pessimistic of the CPI’s chances of a political breakthrough on either side of the Border.

He noted a “disorientation and fragmentation” of the Northern Irish working class thanks to London’s “conscious reduction of the conflict to religious struggle”. Dublin, too, avoided class struggle issues by reducing the Northern Ireland question to “an unrealistic concept of ‘national unity’”.

Singer wrote: “Although the Lynch government is, in certain ways, forced to support the social and political demands of the Northern Irish civil rights movement – and polemicises loudly against the British politics in NI, its political line presents no danger to British imperialism.”

Despite difficult circumstances, Singer wrote that the CPI had nevertheless “achieved considerable influence in the civil rights movement”. This crystallised in apparent CPI attempts to influence the Peace People organisation.

“The Communist Party supported and gave orientation to develop themselves further as a force of struggle against terrorism and brutality,” said Michael O’Riordan, CPI general secretary, according to minutes of a November 1st, 1976, meeting in East Berlin with Politbüro member Hermann Axen, a close Honecker ally.

A Cork native, O’Riordan fought on the republican side in the Spanish civil war, joined the original CPI in 1935 and was interned in the Curragh during the second World War.

As head of the reunited CPI after 1970, he informed East Berlin that progress infiltrating the Peace People was hampered after organisers established contacts with the British government and the West German embassy in London.

“The tragedy is that, in this way, a potential force in the battle against British colonial politics has been undermined and, for all intents and purposes, brought to a standstill,” the CPI general secretary reportedly added.

‘Rich man’s club’

The files indicate ORiordan was a regular visitor to East Berlin. At the 1976 SED congress, he told delegates that the then EEC was a “rich man’s club” with relationships based on “ruthless competition, its weighted undemocratic voting structures which make the rich members richer and the poor ones, like Ireland, poorer”.

During his 1976 East Berlin visit, minutes of meetings suggest O’Riordan flagged another danger in the rise of Official Sinn Féin as the self-described “avant garde of the working class”. The SED ignored his warnings and, by the early 1980s, was hedging its bets by building up parallel contacts with Sinn Féin, by then known as the Workers’ Party.

In 1980 the Republic established diplomatic relations with the GDR on a non-residential basis, managed from the Irish Embassy in The Hague.

But files indicate political party contact was limited to the competition between the CPI and WP for the affections – and funds – of East Berlin.

Workers’ Party general secretary Seán Garland’s name first appears in an October 1987 request to the SED to finance party printing equipment.

The request was denied but apparently sparked curiosity. A memo from the GDR London embassy at the time noted the partys “broader population reach” than the CPI which held little sway beyond “some union influence in two largest cities”.

By 1988, with SED files recording growing CPI divisions, the Workers’ Party star was in the ascendant.

In April, Günter Sieber, head of the SED ZK’s international relations department, attended the WP’s annual conference in Dublin. In his report, he noted that the party’s reputation among the working class had “risen continually”.

Sieber recorded, too, Garland’s description of the WP as “a left-socialist party that is in the process of developing itself to a Marxist vanguard of the working class”.

While in Dublin, Sieber paid a courtesy call to the CPI’s O’Riordan, who warned his visitor that the WP harboured “many adherents to armed struggle” and favoured a “scientific socialism . . . without openly embracing Marxism-Leninism”. Despite growing reservations in East Berlin, the CPI remained the SED’s official Irish partner and new CPI general secretary James Stewart was invited to attend the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations in October 1989.

Wall about to fall

In the last months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, fundraising requests from the WP and CPI in this period were declined almost without exception due to what one ZK official notes as the GDR’s “tense market situation”.

Apparently sensing this, WP officials changed tack and used regular visits to the GDR – often in transit to North Korea – to lobby for trade deals.

In September 1988, for instance, a ZK report says Garland brought to a meeting samples of mattress covers, asking if similar products were available from GDR companies. The reply was positive and patterns, designs and colours were forwarded to Dublin.

Further meetings were set up to explore importing “spring steel for mattresses, motorbikes, angling equipment, home electronics, beer”.

But history intervened in Garland’s fundraising efforts when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989. Three decades of contacts in the files conclude with a November 2nd letter confirming the dispatch of gifts for the CPI’s Christmas bazaar through London via diplomatic bag – so as to avoid customs.

Send us your teddys Christmas wish list

The SED central committee, ZK, granted a request for items to sell in the Irish Communist Party Christmas bazaar. The list of gifts, worth 10,000 marks, included 21 watches; 30 books; 51 records (workers' songs, classic, folk, dance); 500 toys (soft toys, dolls, gyroscopes, balls, bags); 435 items of folk art (tins, dishes, vases, lamps, cushions, bags, wooden animals, coffee warmers); and one marquetry (wooden) image of Lenin.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin