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The IRA 1956-69Rethinking the Republic$

Matt Treacy

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780719084720

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719084720.001.0001

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Abstentionism and the growth of internal divisions

Abstentionism and the growth of internal divisions

Chapter:
(p.45) 3 Abstentionism and the growth of internal divisions
Source:
The IRA 1956-69
Author(s):

Matt Treacy

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719084720.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

For traditionalist republicans, the refusal to recognise the parliaments in Leinster House and Stormont symbolised their allegiance to the de jure Republic of Ireland which they claimed had been illegally overthrown in 1922. For them, it still had legitimacy with legal authority having been passed to the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) Army Council in 1938 by the surviving anti-Treaty Sinn Féin members of the Dáil elected in 1923. Traditionalists, as represented today by Republican Sinn Féin and the Continuity IRA, still adhere to that belief. A proposal to abandon abstentionism was put to the IRA Convention in November 1964. The strength of the opposition led to a decision to instead hold an extraordinary Convention in 1965. At a local election convention in Louth, Larry Grogan claimed that contesting elections would dispel the notion that Sinn Féin were ‘wild and woolly characters’ divorced from day-to-day realities. As an attempt by the modernisers to change fundamentally the tactics and organisation of the republican movement, the Army Convention and Ard Fheis were failures.

Keywords:   Ireland, abstentionism, elections, Irish Republican Army, Army Council, Sinn Féin, republican movement, Army Convention, Ard Fheis

For traditionalist republicans, the refusal to recognise the parliaments in Leinster House and Stormont symbolised their allegiance to the de jure Republic which they claimed had been illegally overthrown in 1922. For them it still had legitimacy with legal authority having been passed to the IRA Army Council in 1938 by the surviving anti-Treaty Sinn Féin members of the Dáil elected in 1923. Traditionalists, as represented today by Republican Sinn Féin and the Continuity IRA, still adhere to that belief.

A proposal to abandon abstentionism was put to the IRA Convention in November 1964. The strength of the opposition led to a decision to instead hold an extraordinary Convention in 1965. According to Mac Stíofáin the ‘Goulding faction’ was ‘becoming obsessed with parliamentary politics and wished to confine the movement almost entirely to social and economic agitation’. Although he had been friendly with Goulding, Mac Stíofáin came into conflict with the Chief of Staff at an Army Council meeting following the Convention when he proposed that Roy Johnston be expelled on the grounds that IRA Army Orders prohibited members of Communist organisations from becoming members.1 Goulding implied that if Johnston were expelled then he would also resign and defended Johnston as ‘the best thing that had happened to the republican movement’.2

The 1964 Ard Fheis, held in the Bricklayers Hall on 5 and 6 December, approved a paper on Economic Resistance written by Roy Johnston. Seamus Costello’s cumann in Bray called for a re-examination of electoral policy but this was defeated. There was another motion that proposed expelling any member of the movement who advocated change but that also fell. As with the IRA Convention it was decided to hold an extraordinary Ard Fheis in 1965 to deal with those issues. Although the United Irishman had reported that a key aspect of the Ard Fheis would be the presentation of the draft social and economic programme, the document was not completed but the heads of the draft were agreed. Seán Ó Brádaigh claims that it was effectively put aside because Goulding had asked Johnston to work on an alternative programme3 which had been discussed at the Wolfe Tone Society.

(p.46) In his Presidential address Mac Giolla referred to the renewed ‘onslaught’ by foreign capital on the Irish economy. Despite the increase in foreign investment Mac Giolla pointed out that fewer people were working than in 1956. He said that the new land policy would lead to a hundred thousand farmers leaving the land, North and South. Sinn Féin’s proposal was to maintain the Land Commission holdings which would be farmed co-operatively.4 The republican and labour movements needed to revive their common aim of restoring control by the Irish people over natural resources.

Although the modernisers had lost the first battle to radically alter republican policy, they were determined to press ahead. The IRA internal journal An t-Óglach of January 1965 said that IRA Volunteers needed to be active within the community and that a ‘Republic without equality would not be worth fighting for’. The tone was dismissive of traditional republican attitudes. An interview with Tony Meade, in a special issue of TCD Miscellany in February 1965 devoted to the IRA, attempted to set the agenda for the Special IRA Convention and Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. The editorial described the efforts of a young radical ‘ginger group’ to politicise the republican movement and wean it away from militarism. The group was opposed to abstentionism and might transform Sinn Féin into a ‘new radical party which would give welcome new life to the present stale charade of Irish politics’.5 Elsewhere, however, Sinn Féin was described as a ‘dead group’ and the United Irishman as filled with ‘unrealistic fanaticism’. Another article in the Miscellany predicted that there would be an internal struggle within the republican movement between ‘diehards’ and the ‘new left-wing (but certainly not Communist) element’.

Despite the debate on abstentionism, when it was announced that Ruairí Ó Brádaigh would contest the next general election for Longford-Westmeath it was made clear that he would not be taking his seat if he repeated the success of 1957.

The decision to contest was described as ‘the first move in a new and vigorous campaign of political action by Sinn Féin’. At a local election convention in Louth, Larry Grogan claimed that contesting elections would dispel the notion that Sinn Féin were ‘wild and woolly characters’ divorced from day-to-day realities. Sinn Féin did not contest the general election held on 7 April owing to lack of finance, but also to the unresolved internal debate over electoral strategy. The party said it would concentrate instead on a campaign of militant agitation for a British withdrawal and opposition to the ‘growth of a foreign dominated capitalist society’. The Ard Comhairle announced that Sinn Féin would take part only when it was able to present a sufficiently strong team of candidates to secure an overall majority in Leinster House.

Such optimism had begun to irritate some of those who were impatient for change and in March 1965 the editor of the United Irishman, Denis Foley, delivered a devastating critique of the political strategy that had been pursued (p.47) by the republican movement since the 1920s. Republicans had properly criticised the state but had ‘done nothing constructive to alter the position’. Dismissing a Coiste Seasta statement which said that Sinn Féin would enter Leinster House as a majority and then ‘proceed to legislate for all Ireland’, Foley was scornful of the claim that the republican social and economic programme would be implemented in a ‘free Ireland’: ‘In the meantime do the Irish people have to wait indefinitely for the miracle which republicans promise “in the free Ireland”?’ He described this attitude as ‘Live horse and you’ll eat grass … The Republican Movement, if it is to be of service to the Irish people must put its policy into effect now and forget about waiting for the “free Ireland”.’ He cited Connolly and Davitt as examples of revolutionaries who ‘saw that the improving of the welfare of the people went hand in hand with the “freeing of them,” and that every avenue’ should be used in the pursuit of freedom.

Foley’s editorial gave rise to furious debate. A letter from Eamon Mac Tiomanai said it was an insult to Sinn Féin candidates to suggest that they would be corrupted by taking their seats in Leinster House, and it was inconsistent. After all, why take part in local but not state government and why do so in the Republic but not in Northern Ireland?6 Mac Tiomanai said that he could not conceive of a situation in which Sinn Féin would win a majority in Leinster House but that even if that did come to pass the party would still have to use the existing constitutional machinery of the state to establish an All Ireland parliament. He attacked the notion that ‘Republicanism is some form of a mystique esoteric cult’. The former Dublin Brigade OC Phil O’Donoghue congratulated Foley for his call on republicans to become involved in social struggles and contrasted what he described as the ‘trivial’ agitation over the Royal visit to a lack of republican commitment to attacking the existing social system. Roderick Corcoran of Dublin wondered how Sinn Féin proposed to win the majority they spoke of being ‘given’ to the party: ‘Majorities are never given – they are worked for and won and to suggest otherwise betrays a complete lack of political sense.’

There were also letters of protest but they did not appear until May. Seán Ó Brádaigh, the Sinn Féin Director of Publicity, refused to distribute the March issue of the United Irishman as did other party cumainn and IRA units. Ó Brádaigh wondered ‘by what authority this questioning of the official policy of the movement had been allowed’ and described the editorial as ‘an unwarranted attack’ by the ‘official organ of the Republican Movement on the political wing of that Movement’. Ó Brádaigh is still not certain whether Foley had official sanction from Goulding to publish the piece7 but suggests that Foley must have been acting with at least his tacit consent.

It is clear that Foley’s view was shared by a number of those on the IRA Army Council. The fact that Foley was to step down from the position later (p.48) on in the year, however, may also have been indicative that his intervention had been premature and indeed no similar attacks on abstentionism were published prior to the split. A later report claimed that Goulding had read the editorial only while on his way by aeroplane to England and that he was shocked by it. How genuine was his surprise is another matter. At the time, Foley was sharing a house in Rathmines with Roy Johnston, who was believed by others to be behind the initiative.

Seamus Ceitinn supported Foley but attacked the notion that there might be an alliance in the future between Sinn Féin and any of the three main parties. He was particularly wary of the Labour Party and was insistent that republicans could only join forces with those committed to an ‘Ireland, United, Christian, Gaelic and Free’.8 Proof that opposition to abstentionism was not necessarily of a piece with support for left-wing ideas was provided by J. Doherty of London who said that Sinn Féin should enter Leinster House but also that the United Irishman should have no articles on Communism ‘and the rest of that muck’.

The debate on abstentionism was encouraged by the political education programme that had begun in earnest in early 1965. The IRA leadership emphasised the priority of social agitation and ruled out a new campaign begun in the same manner as 1956. However, only the Dublin and Cork IRA had so far appointed a Political Education Officer. Johnston was Director of Political Education and on 7 March 1965 a series of debates and lectures on political education was held in Howth covering economic resistance, co-ops and trade unions. All Command areas were ordered to organise similar courses and were visited by officers attached to the Political Education Department.9 While electoral policy was not one of the subjects covered by the lectures, the climate of debate encouraged republican activists to challenge aspects of the movement’s policy including abstentionism.

The IRA Easter statement of 1965 expressed satisfaction at the manner in which the ‘internal examination of our Movement in all its branches’ was proceeding and implicitly encouraged members to look favourably on the proposals to be put before the extraordinary Ard Fheis. The United Irishman approved of the content of the orations that had been delivered at Easter and noted a ‘minimum of sabre-rattling’ and a concentration on social and economic issues. Roy Johnston, writing in the Irish Democrat, heralded what was described tentatively as a ‘Republican New Departure?’ and referred to the role being played by the Wolfe Tone Society which was ‘carrying new flexible and diversified republican tactics into other areas’.10

There were further clashes over Easter lilies in 1965 and an armed threat made against a Cork Garda. That incident highlighted the contradiction between the IRA’s commitment to militant action, and the desire of the modernisers to move away from militarism. Although a resolution passed at the (p.49) 1964 Army Convention had sanctioned ‘counter intimidation’ against Gardaí, an Army Council directive in 1965 banned any use of force. Special Branch attributed this to GHQ fears that the 1964 resolution was being misused. The Cork Volunteers involved had acted without the authority of the leadership and so their actions were disowned. A local republican activist of the period, however, believes that they had the approval of the Cork IRA including Mac Stíofáin.

The extraordinary IRA Army Convention was held on 5 June 1965. The modernisers hoped that it would initiate a radical reform of the movement and Goulding had appealed directly to Volunteers to give the proposals their full consideration. However, the proposals on electoral policy and the reorganisation of the movement caused such controversy that they were forced to back down and appoint a committee to draw up a plan that would allegedly embody the general feeling of the Convention. Traditionalists like Ruairí Ó Brádaigh believed that Goulding had underestimated the strength of opposition to the proposals and that the committee was a means to circumvent it. Goulding ensured that the committee was dominated by those close to him and it submitted an initial report to the Special Ard Fheis. Rejection there meant that the committee had to draft another report. It was partly approved by the Army Council in August 1965 and was captured by the Garda Special Branch when they arrested Army Council member Seán Garland at Mountrath, County Laois, in May 1966.

The extraordinary Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was held on 12 and 13 June 1965. According to Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, the proposals presented by the IRA committee included some that had already been rejected by the Army Convention. Ó Brádaigh had been appointed to the committee appointed by the Army Council to draw up the recommendations but did not attend any of its meetings. The proposals were first submitted to the Ard Comhairle but that body did not recommend that all of them should be passed. The fact that most of the Ard Comhairle members and a substantial number of the Ard Fheis delegates were IRA Volunteers familiar with what had transpired at the Convention made their rejection all the more likely. The document that was put before the IRA delegates came to be known as the ‘Nine Points’ but there were ten proposals in the Ard Fheis document. Point 1 proposed that the movement should develop ‘political and agitational activities and the infiltration and direction of other organisations’. That was the object of the ‘educational and training programmes in both organisations’. There also needed to be ‘closer integration of the executives of both organisations’ and closer integration of the IRA and Sinn Féin.11

Although the proposal was couched in terms of infiltrating and taking over other organisations it was regarded by traditionalists as opening the door to co-operation and indeed a formal alliance with the Communist parties and (p.50) the Connolly Association. The Ard Comhairle recommended that the first proposal should be accepted in its entirety but, while the delegates accepted the references to education, they removed the reference to ‘infiltration and control’, and referred to co-operation with other organisations on ‘limited objectives’, and turned down the proposal to merge the IRA and Sinn Féin. The Ard Fheis also inserted a clause which made it clear that nothing in the proposal implied altering electoral policy. The second proposal recommended that while ‘de jure recognition’ would not be given to the state, members ought to be free to defend themselves in court when charged with ‘political and agitationary activities’. Where the charges related to armed IRA operations, ‘the decision to defend or not rest with the executives of both organisations’. That was rejected although a proposal to establish a legal panel who could be contacted in the event of any republican being arrested was passed.

Proposal No. 3 upheld the convention that republicans refused to account for their movements as they were required to under Section 54 of the Offences against the State Act. Any prosecution under that section would be contested and a case prepared for the European Court of Human Rights. It was also proposed that some person who was not a member of the movement would bring a constitutional case against the Offences against the State Act. This was one of only two proposals that were accepted by the Ard Comhairle and the delegates and passed without amendment. No. 4 recommended that in general the organisers of parades and commemorations should notify the police. The Ard Comhairle accepted this but the delegates voted it down. Delegates also rejected a proposal that republicans should apply for police permits to hold raffles and collections.

No. 8 (a) recommended that Sinn Féin should register as a political party. The Ard Comhairle had decided to examine the full implications of this before coming to a decision but the Ard Fheis rejected it in any event. The next section proposed that the attitude of republicans to prison be reconsidered. That was passed, as was a proposal that republicans should be permitted to write to government TDs and another that republicans ‘acting as members of local organisations’ be encouraged to take part in delegations to meet government Ministers. The final section of the proposal, that republicans should co-operate with other organisations in the pursuit of specific objectives and adopt a pragmatic attitude to approaching individual parliamentary representatives, was rejected, again because of the belief that there was a plan for a formal relationship with the Communists.

Recommendation No. 9 was the most controversial, proposing that the movement ‘give consideration to action within existing parliaments on a guerrilla basis’. It is clear that the committee that had been appointed by the Army Council was not representative of the Convention, otherwise the proposal would not have been put to the Ard Fheis. As it transpired it was rejected by (p.51) both the Ard Comhairle and the delegates. The final proposal was the only other recommendation that was accepted as it stood, to organise a conference on ‘the foreign take-over of land, industry and trades and the general issue of foreign influence in Ireland’.12 This conference took place later in 1965, organised by the Wolfe Tone Society.

As an attempt by the modernisers to fundamentally change the tactics and organisation of the republican movement, the Convention and Ard Fheis were failures. Sinn Féin had rejected abandoning abstentionism and while delegates had accepted the proposals for involvement in social agitation and for limited co-operation with other organisations they had rejected any formal alliance. Traditionalists also clung to a curious existential relationship with the southern state which they recognised in all practicalities, even to the extent of allowing that others, not members of the movement, might take legal action against it on their behalf, but insisting on their own purity when it came to any engagement with the state, other than as normal citizens through their contact with the public service and even the Gardaí.

It could be argued that traditionalist opposition to the institutions of the Irish state allowed them to appear as revolutionaries while in other respects they were unprepared to challenge the economic and social status quo and that their reluctance to go down the road advocated by Goulding and Johnston was a reflection of their own conservatism. As White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh demonstrates, however, many traditionalist republicans were serious about both their desire to overturn the 1922 settlement and their belief in a more radical and egalitarian social system. It is also true to say that they shared most of the mores and attitudes of their Catholic neighbours whereas urban-based republican leftists tended to identify themselves with modern liberal attitudes on sexual issues for example and regarded themselves as part of a wider international movement for radical change as well as Irish republicans. In that sense, some of the divisions within radical republicanism reflected wider divisions within Irish society as it experienced the impact of economic and cultural modernisation.

Roy Johnston maintains that Sinn Féin was an impediment to the new departure in all its aspects and that IRA activists were making the running in whatever involvement the movement had in social agitation.13 That may have been true of the leadership but most IRA Volunteers clearly shared Sinn Féin’s opposition to change and the Ard Fheis refusal to alter electoral policy encouraged the modernisers to sideline traditionalists where they were particularly strong, as in Kerry, and thereby weaken any potential opposition.

The Sinn Féin Vice President Seán Caughey resigned over the failure to change electoral policy. The United Irishman made no reference to the extraordinary Ard Fheis although Tony Meade delivered what amounted to a potted version of the new IRA strategy in his oration at the Wolfe (p.52) Tone commemoration at Bodenstown on 20 June. He spoke of the need for republicans to engage in popular struggles and while he referred to a future campaign against the British presence as ‘inevitable’ it ought not be an ‘untimely attempt’ and the movement had to ensure that they would have behind them an educated people united in their opposition to economic speculators.

Speaking at Drogheda on 15 August Goulding promised that ‘there will be a fight’ on military, economic, social and cultural fronts with the military struggle having precedence.14 That reflected the pressure from traditionalists on Goulding following the Convention and, according to Johnston, they had no intention of pursuing such a strategy.15 Goulding told Patterson that the leadership needed to maintain a military strategy in order to win acceptance for the political changes,16 an analysis which was echoed by their close observer in the Department of Justice, Peter Berry.17

The first issue of An Phoblacht, the paper published by the Cork group formed from the Swanton Commemoration Committee, described the differences within the party as a symptom of the ‘violent contradiction between the petty bourgeois spirit of Sinn Féin on the one hand, and its decision to abstain from the country’s mainstream of petit bourgeois politics on the other’.18 An Phoblacht agreed that abstentionism was a ‘farce’ and that electoral participation was a logical step for a party that ‘stands only for the unification of the prevailing social, political and economic order, and not for its total destruction’. While the group accepted that Irish republicans had been fixated with armed struggle in the past, they dismissed the notion that republican objectives could be achieved without an armed organisation. They ridiculed Goulding’s Drogheda speech and claimed that the IRA was incapable of leading any fight as it had become a ‘standing joke’.

The report based on the modified 1965 proposals was discussed by the Army Council in August and contained two main components, one of which dealt with policy and organisational changes, the other outlining a plan for a future military offensive. According to the Gardaí the military plan had not, as of November 1966, been approved by the Council. In order to attract ‘people of national outlook in the Trade Union movement’,19 the IRA would have to adopt ‘a radical social and economic programme’. All of this would take place under the control of the Chief of Staff. It was also proposed that the IRA would ‘make the fullest use of experts to lecture to republicans on Trade Union, Economic and other subjects’.

Roy Johnston as Director of Education had responsibility for that aspect of what became known as the ‘Garland Plan’. Johnston says that the internal education programme came under the auspices of a Joint Education Centre that included himself, Seán Ó Brádaigh and Anthony Coughlan representing, respectively, the ‘Garland Plan’ – i.e., the IRA leadership – Sinn Féin and the (p.53) Wolfe Tone Society.20 Seán Ó Brádaigh was unhappy with Coughlan’s involvement and, seconded by Mitchell, proposed at the January 1966 Ard Comhairle meeting that Coughlan be excluded from the Education Department because he was a Communist. The motion was passed, reflecting the weakness of the leftist modernisers in the wake of the Special Ard Fheis and Army Convention.21 Coughlan, however, while never formally joining either the IRA or Sinn Féin, remained a key influence on Goulding.

According to the new strategy, committees needed to be established to work alongside other radical groups but reference to the Labour Party was deleted before the Army Council approved the draft. These would be under overall Army control, which was crucial not only to maintaining the cohesion of the IRA but also because the education programme was adjudged to be successful in the IRA but not in Sinn Féin, whose members were apparently reluctant to embrace the new policies. The IRA would use the committees to further the project of radicalising the movement through a process of re-educating and re-invigorating Sinn Féin and by attracting new members. Sinn Féin would confine itself to publicity and election work.

The IRA would recruit a different type of member with the emphasis on social and economic objectives rather than arms. The IRA would back up and consolidate revolutionary action initiated legally rather than initiate military action. To ensure that the Army would retain its capacity to act in the old way, specialist groups would be trained in military tactics but the eventual aim was to create a movement which would have an open membership and legal existence. In other words the IRA would cease to be a secret military force.

The document referred to ‘the transition from the gun to politics’ with the movement transformed into an open and legal ‘social-revolutionary organisation’. The basic organisational unit would be branches focused on community organisations, trade union branches and youth groups as ‘the basic channel for recruitment’. Regional conferences would co-ordinate the overall work and the annual conference would be the ruling body alongside regular regional conferences and a Standing Committee. The IRA would retain a separate structure and ‘function within the revolutionary organisation as a backbone’ comprised of the ‘best and most conscious members of the organisation’ and would jettison the ‘emotional appeal of arms’.

The IRA Convention would remain the main policy making body until the National Conference of the open organisation began to act ‘correctly’. The IRA would no longer exercise its dominance over the organisation as it did with Sinn Féin which was an ‘imposition on the many good people in Sinn Féin’. The Army Convention would then become a specialist conference for ‘examining technical problems connected to the military aspect of the revolution’. The Constitution of the new revolutionary body would be drafted in a way that would (p.54) allow the affiliation of the kind of organisations that would contribute to a ‘vast and diversified movement under the republican umbrella’. The latter proposal was to lay the basis for a formal alliance with the Communists.

There was a compromise proposal designed to postpone any decision on abstentionism which indicated that the restructuring of the IRA and the building of an alliance with the Communists had greater priority for the modernisers. Elections would not be contested until there was a chance of doing well and the question of taking seats would be considered ‘when necessary’. The document then indulges in a flight of fancy to propose that, when there was a Sinn Féin majority, MPs and TDs would meet in some central location like Athlone ‘and proceed to legislate for the whole country’. This would establish a dual power situation with the IRA, unions and co-ops confronting the old state. When the two structures came into conflict the situation would be resolved by the intervention of the IRA. It was a meaningless aspiration in the light of the movement’s weakness but did serve the purpose of postponing confrontation over abstentionism. It also illustrated that the modernisers were no less attracted to grandiose plans than were the traditionalists, and some of them appeared to assume that the organisational and electoral changes which they wished to implement would quickly place the movement in a position to challenge for power.

The second part of the ‘Garland Plan’, which was not approved by the Army Council, set out the details of a future military campaign. This was in contradiction to the stated aim in the political strategy of moving from the gun to politics. The military plan was broken down into five stages which were to begin immediately and proceed to the level where they would be combined with the type of revolutionary political actions described above, in a full-scale armed insurrection. The first stage was described as an ‘Anti-agent campaign’ aimed at the police. It was recommended to be commenced immediately and would be carried out ‘quietly’ to ‘prepare the way for a campaign’, and to ‘get our people psychologically prepared for future killing’. The next stage would consist of ‘large stunt-type operations’ but would not commence until the IRA had enough trained personnel to carry them out and ‘inflict as many fatal casualties on the British as possible’.

The staging of operations would prove whether the organisation was capable of sustaining a campaign; if not ‘we can draw back’. Interestingly, it was noted that while the campaign would be fought in Northern Ireland it was felt that the ‘structure, organisation and control of the army in that area is unsound for campaign conditions the nature of which is envisaged’. This would make classic guerrilla tactics worthless and so the IRA would have to ‘learn from the Cypriots and engage in terror tactics only’. That would bring police pressure on the organisation including the use of torture and, on the (p.55) assumption that this would lead to the divulging of information, it was recommended that units consist of no more than four men.

Part of the document deals with issues raised by those who had read it including the possibility of a coup d’état scenario either directed against the movement or one organised by the IRA itself through infiltration of the state apparatus. While assassinations of police would be kept quiet, informers could be assassinated openly. Kidnapping would be used to secure hostages where republicans were under threat of execution. If there was a repeat of the 1964 Divis Street riots in Belfast it was agreed that retaliatory actions would be taken. Given the fears expressed by the RUC in late 1965 and early 1966 concerning the alleged plans by the IRA to stage a military uprising, and that the military plan apparently came into the possession of the Garda Special Branch only when Seán Garland was arrested in May 1966, it is clear that the RUC knew of the proposed plan prior to that.

In order to mount the campaign it was estimated that the IRA would require ten tons of plastic explosive, timing devices, 5,000 grenades, 1,000 short arms of 9 mm or .45 calibre automatic, 1,000,000 rounds of short arm ammunition, 200 FN automatic rifles and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, and 300 bazookas with 3,000 shells.22 Volunteers active at the time were under the impression that there were not many weapons. The plan does not estimate how many IRA Volunteers would be involved in a future campaign. Special Branch believed that the organisation had 923 members at the end of 1965, an increase from 657 at the end of 1962.23 Again that illustrated the gap between IRA aspirations and the reality of a movement that was stagnating or actually in decline. People like Johnston would argue that they were aware of this and also that Goulding appeared to approve of the military planning only in order to keep as many people on board as possible while they went ahead with the political aspects.

Even if that were the case, most republicans assumed that Goulding was still actively planning a new campaign and in the May 1965 issue of An t-Óglach Goulding, with one eye on the forthcoming Convention, had promised that ‘the next military campaign will be the final one. I work for that now.’ In a letter circulated to Volunteers in September 1965 he referred to the plan for a ‘military campaign against the British’ and the need to raise money to finance it. That was despite the fact that the Army Council had not approved the plan and that Goulding himself was opposed to starting a new campaign. It is also interesting that, while presumably the majority of IRA members took Goulding at his word, the Irish government through its intelligence sources was able to assure London confidently that the IRA had no intentions of beginning a new armed campaign as was claimed by the RUC in late 1965 and early 1966.

(p.56) In 1965 the Army Council gave its approval for armed robberies in Northern Ireland. All raids had to be sanctioned by the Chief of Staff and on 30 October £1,300 was taken from a Belfast bookmaker by the Belfast Brigade. £1,000 was sent to Dublin and the remainder retained by the local organisation. Given that the IRA had only a small income from draws, collections and donations and that GHQ had a balance of £990 at the end of 1965, it was not in a strong position to pursue its plans but the money that was raised became the source of future unrest over the use of these funds for political rather than military purposes.

While a Special Branch report on IRA training camps shows a high level of activity in 1965 and 1966, Garland, who was in charge of the programme, claims that this was largely in order to maintain internal cohesion and that there was no plan to embark on a military campaign.24 Arms and explosives camps were permitted only under the strictest GHQ control and security. However despite the precautions, including the use of walkie-talkie radios that had been brought back to Ireland for the IRA, allegedly by the Clancy Brothers ballad group, Special Branch had detailed reports of the training camps and knew of 22 of the ‘more important’ camps held between February and November 1965.

A meeting of the IRA leadership took place in Dublin on 28 February 1966 to draw up a new training programme. The report states that it was held at a ‘secret rendezvous’ but that the Quartermaster General and other HQ officers were there which suggests that an informer was present but was not aware to what location he had been brought, as was the normal practice within the IRA. Instruction was given at the camps in short arms, rifles, Thompson and Bren machine guns, bazooka and explosives and there were also night exercises and firing practice. The biggest camp held in 1965 took place in Kerry and lasted from 10 to 23 July, when it was suspended owing to ‘adverse weather conditions’, and from 31 July to 14 August. Around sixty Volunteers including some from England and Northern Ireland attended: ‘An unusually large amount of ammunition was made available’ and the ‘general feeling of those attending the camp was that an early resumption of Border activities was likely’. Again, this illustrates the disjuncture between the intentions of the Goulding leadership and those of the membership, and also that Garda Special Branch was well aware of the former, whatever it might have been hearing or observing at grassroots level.

According to Johnston the military plan was a ‘sop’ to Mac Stíofáin and Ó Brádaigh, who he claims were opposed to the general thrust of the political proposals.25 He says that it was designed ‘presumably to keep the militarists busy while the politicisers got on with the job’. He also believes that Mac Stíofáin wrote the military plan which later served as blueprint for the Provisional campaign.26 Ruairí Ó Brádaigh believes now that there was never any (p.57) intention to implement the military plan and the intensive training programme was allowed to peter out.

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh also attributes the authorship of the military plan to Mac Stíofáin but says that the traditionalists believed that it was an integral part of a strategy that was broken into three phases: education in revolutionary principles and tactics, agitation around social and national issues, and a resulting revolutionary situation in which there was a full-scale military offensive. Ó Brádaigh believes that Johnston wrote the political section27 although Johnston claims that Goulding and Costello wrote the text that was presented to the Sinn Féin extraordinary Ard Fheis.28 Costello wanted an immediate change to electoral policy and was attempting to force the pace of internal change against the wishes of Goulding and his closest allies. Later events would also suggest that Costello saw no contradiction between the political and the military aspects of the plan and may also have held a different view of, or had a different insight into, the relationship between the IRA and the Communists.

Johnston describes the plan as ‘a transitional document of doubtful value’ and claims not to have been involved in writing it:

I was far at that time from being ‘in on’ any of this. All I saw was what Goulding was trying to do in the public arena. This military stuff in the background must have been under pressure from Mac Stíofáin and co to which Goulding at the time had to pay at least lip service. By the time I got elected, which was at the 66 Convention, there was no trace of any of this sort of crap in anything I saw. That was my deal with Goulding.29

Johnston, however, was a member of IRA headquarters staff in 1965 and did not have a high opinion of Dublin IRA members, most of whom he believes were motivated to join by ‘some kind of romantic militarism, or a sense of adventure’, which would complement his attitude to the ‘crap’ which the majority of IRA members believed to be the organisation’s raision d’étre.

Johnston claims that ‘The problem was how to keep the non-political military element contained while the political side was built up, to the extent that the military side could safely be run down’.30 According to the Official IRA in 1972, the decision not to organise another campaign in the Six Counties was taken as early as 1963 and Peter Berry held a similar view.31 If so, only a small number of those close to Goulding, including the Special Branch source(s), were aware of this although Johnston is no doubt correct in stating that this faction was intent on neutralising the IRA as a military force and focusing on the political aspects of the plan. Others like Mac Stíofáin were temporarily appeased by being given responsibility for the military plan.

The centrality of Johnston to the new strategy was underlined by the range of responsibilities that fell under his aegis. Among them were the (p.58) Joint Republican Education Centre, the Wolfe Tone Society, the Economic Independence Committee, Housing Action Committee and Comhar Linn, which was the republican co-operative organisation. These were clearly meant to function in the manner of the ‘front’ organisations that were associated with the Communist Party, of which the Connolly Association was a good example. Someone could be a member of a group but not necessarily be a member of the IRA or CPGB, or indeed be necessarily aware that one body was a creature of another. The reference to the Wolfe Tone Society also belies the claim that that organisation was not under IRA control.

The 1965 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis took place in Moran’s Hotel, Talbot Street, Dublin, on 30 and 31 October. According to a Garda report it was attended by 135 delegates who represented 84 cumainn.32 If so they represented only a small part of the membership, which was estimated by the Gardaí at 3,897 organised in 283 cumainn at the end of 1964: this is evidence of resignations or apathy due in part to dissent over the proposals put to the extraordinary Ard Fheis. In his presidential address, Mac Giolla stated that while there had been much condemnation of Communism in Ireland, little was said of the harm done by capitalism. Communism was anti-religious and materialist and did not commend itself to the Irish people. Capitalism was unchristian and individualistic. Echoing earlier influences of Catholic social teaching, Mac Giolla claimed that there was a third way between capitalism and Communism, the type of co-operativism that he claimed had been advocated by Connolly.33 Mac Giolla said that Lemass ought to have ordered the repatriation of Irish capital, frozen British assets, established a national currency, nationalised the banks and broken the Anglo-American grip on Irish industry.

An Phoblacht ridiculed co-operativism and the claim that the policy was influenced by Connolly. Socialism meant state ownership and if Sinn Féin needed to know what Connolly had in mind it ought to look at China.34 Sinn Féin had come to realise that its economic policy up to that point was inherited from Griffith but it couldn’t abandon its suspicion of socialism. It described the party’s economic programme as a ‘bizarre mixture of re-hashed Proudhonism and the Social Credit theories of Major C. H. Douglas’.

According to Special Branch, Mac Giolla had not wished to remain as party President but was persuaded by Goulding and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh to remain.35 The Ard Comhairle had a majority of traditionalists and, reflecting the centralisation and weakening of the movement, ten of the 15 members had addresses in Dublin and none was from Northern Ireland. Special Branch also pointed out that all except Clarke, who was almost 70, and the only woman member, Mairín De Burca, were prominent members of the IRA. According to Tom Mitchell only himself, Costello and Goulding were definitely in favour of abandoning abstentionism at this point.36

(p.59) There was a ‘heated debate’ on motion 46 from the Liam Mellows Cumann, Dublin, which asked the Ard Fheis to condemn Communism as the ‘lowest form of slavery and makes it clear that such people are not welcome in Sinn Féin’. The party was to be forbidden to enter into any collaboration with Communist organisations and anyone who was known to have Communist links was to be expelled. The motion was withdrawn before the debate ended and no vote had been taken.37 The motion on Communism was obviously directed at Johnston and the moves towards co-operation and merger. The Garda report claimed that Johnston’s was behind the new strategy.38 Johnston wrote an article entitled ‘Whither Ireland’ for the October issue of the United Irishman which claimed that there was now a theoretical system that could wed the concerns of ordinary people to the task of freeing Ireland, described as ‘the identification of nationalism with the ownership of property’. Republicans had for a time lost sight of that even though the economic neocolonialism that was described by the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah was first developed in Ireland after Partition. While republicans would continue to play a role in bringing about national independence a key element would be a broader alliance. One sympathetic observer, Proinsias Mac Aonghusa, who attended Wolfe Tone Society meetings, cautioned republicans that they would in the near future have to choose between real politics or remaining a ‘backroom debating society discussing the finer points of the Second Dáil, Document Number Two and the integrity of abstentionism from Parliament’.39

Following the Ard Fheis the Education Department organised a two-day conference over the weekend of 18 and 19 December in Dublin ‘to enable key people in each area of Ireland to participate in a study of the new Republican Social and Economic Programme’.40 Mac Giolla chaired the first session and Seán Ó Brádaigh spoke on ‘Social and Cultural Objectives’. Other issues included housing, rural life, the Irish language, education and the United Irishman as a tool for political education. The growing interest in civil rights was indicated by a seminar on ‘Local Democracy as a Threat to Unionist Rule’. Johnston chaired the second session and spoke about the need for republicans to infiltrate trade unions. The Special Branch report claims that of the 50 people who were in attendance 42 were IRA Volunteers, two were in Cumann na mBan while Johnston, presumably, was a ‘prominent member of the Irish Workers Party’. Seán Ó Brádaigh presented the education plan to the Ard Comhairle on 13 November 1965 as a joint initiative between Sinn Féin and the IRA, with Johnston as the key figure on the Army side. Johnston claims that it was part of Goulding’s plan to integrate both parts of the movement. The Secretary’s report given to the 1966 Ard Fheis by Mairín De Burca and Walter Lynch stated that the joint education centre had collapsed because of lack of support. Johnston claims that his intention was to use IRA training (p.60) camps for political education purposes and that he knew nothing of any military aspect other than that he recalls lecturing Volunteers on nutrition. He does admit that the political education programme was not particularly successful.41 Seán Dunne attended educational meetings where Volunteers were addressed by people such as Kadar Asmal and Anthony Coughlan. Dunne had no problem with this, or the perception that Asmal and Coughlan were communists, as it fitted with his own view of the Irish struggle as being part of an international revolutionary movement.42

The involvement of republicans in disputes such as the telephonists’ strike revived accusations that the movement was instigating communist subversion. The Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, quoted from a Garda report which confirmed that such elements had been active; and that there was ‘ample evidence that for some time anti-state organisations have adopted a definite policy of intervening under various guises in selected agitations and disputes’.43 That had been the government’s rationale for invoking the provisions of the Offences against the State Act in the ITA dispute. The IRA claimed that while it did support the strikers it had not been directly involved and denied stories in the Evening Herald and Evening Press alleging that Irish Communists and IRA leaders were meeting members of the Communist Party of France and that the latter was financing the IRA. The Herald also claimed that Irish Communists were attempting to infiltrate trade unions and ‘to take leading positions in national movements’.44

In a January 1966 interview with the new United Irishman editor Tony Meade, who had taken over from Foley, Mac Giolla said that Sinn Féin’s main problem was the need to redress its neglect of social and economic issues. In response to Meade’s suggestion that it was only in 1965 that this began to be addressed, Mac Giolla said that it had taken time to change people’s attitudes and that it was important not only to have a social and economic policy but also to take part actively in social struggles. Mac Giolla denied the claim that left-wingers had taken control of the movement and that Sinn Féin was opposed to private enterprise although they did prefer co-operative ownership as an alternative to both capitalism and communism. Mac Giolla said that the new political direction had nothing in common with the Republican Congress of the 1930s as the latter had been associated with the Communists. With regard to abstentionism, Mac Giolla said they had no intention of entering Leinster House ‘until such a time as we are given a mandate by the Irish people to establish a Republican legislature for the whole nation’.45

Mac Giolla’s remarks illustrated the extent to which the modernisers had been forced to pull back from their optimistic plan to change electoral policy and lay the basis for a ‘radical alliance’. Goulding had clearly underestimated the strength of the traditionalists. The regular media references to communist infiltration also indicate that the state, armed with high-level intelligence on (p.61) IRA policy, was happy to use this to weaken the movement further. It is also evident that, while Garda intelligence indicated an increase in IRA and Sinn Féin membership after 1962, by 1965 the movement was in decline, not least because of internal unease over the new political strategy.

There is nothing to indicate that the state was concerned about an impending threat from the republican left and indeed it is noticeable that the periods when state concerns were most prominent, in spring 1965, early 1966 and 1969, all coincided with the run up to the General Elections in the Republic in 1965 and 1969, a Presidential election in the Republic in 1966 and the northern elections of 1966. Republicans took part in none of those elections but were regarded as a handy stick with which to beat the opposition, particularly where it could be claimed that they had associations with the IRA.

Notes

(1) Mac Stíofáin (1974), p. 93.

(2) Interview with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, 22 May 2002.

(3) Interview with Seán Ó Brádaigh, 21 May 2005.

(4) United Irishman, February 1965.

(5) TCD Miscellany, no. 1253, 19 February, 1965

(6) Ibid

(7) Interview with Seán Ó Brádaigh, 21 May 2005.

(8) United Irishman, June 1965.

(9) Taoiseach, 98/6/495, Garda Report on IRA 3C/15/66, NAI.

(10) Irish Democrat, April 1965

(11) Document shown to author, p. 1.

(12) Ibid

(13) Email from Roy Johnston, 1 June 2001.

(14) Ibid

(15) Interview with Roy Johnston, 19 April 2001.

(16) Patterson (1997), p. 96.

(17) Justice, 2000/36/3, memo of 18 March, 1969, NAI.

(18) An Phoblacht, Vol. 1, no. 1, September 1965

(19) Document from Óglaigh na h-Éireann GHQ, filed with Garda Report 3C/15/66, NAI.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle Minutes, 29 January 1966, in Swan (2006), p. 168.

(22) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 9.

(23) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 1.

(24) Interview with Seán Garland, 28 February 2005.

(25) Interview with Roy Johnston, 4 April 2001.

(26) Email from Roy Johnston, 1 June 2001.

(27) Interview with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, 11 May 2002.

(28) Interview with Roy Johnston, 19 April 2001.

(p.62) (29) Email from Roy Johnston, 26 May 2001.

(30) Email from Roy Johnston, 1 June 2001.

(31) Justice 2000/36/3, memo of 18 March 1969, NAI.

(32) Garda Report, 3C/15/66, p. 52.

(33) Ulsterman, November 1965.

(34) An Phoblacht, Vol. 1, no. 3.

(35) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 52.

(36) Interview with Tom Mitchell, 11 January 2002.

(37) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 53.

(38) Ibid.

(39) Munster Express, 27 August 1965.

(40) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 21.

(41) Interview with Roy Johnston, 19 April 2001.

(42) Interview with Seán Dunne, 20 November 2001.

(43) Dáil Debates, Vol. 218, col. 1218.

(44) Evening Herald, 25 November 1965.

(45) United Irishman, January 1966.

Notes:

(1) Mac Stíofáin (1974), p. 93.

(2) Interview with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, 22 May 2002.

(3) Interview with Seán Ó Brádaigh, 21 May 2005.

(4) United Irishman, February 1965.

(5) TCD Miscellany, no. 1253, 19 February, 1965

(6) Ibid

(7) Interview with Seán Ó Brádaigh, 21 May 2005.

(8) United Irishman, June 1965.

(9) Taoiseach, 98/6/495, Garda Report on IRA 3C/15/66, NAI.

(10) Irish Democrat, April 1965

(11) Document shown to author, p. 1.

(12) Ibid

(13) Email from Roy Johnston, 1 June 2001.

(14) Ibid

(15) Interview with Roy Johnston, 19 April 2001.

(16) Patterson (1997), p. 96.

(17) Justice, 2000/36/3, memo of 18 March, 1969, NAI.

(18) An Phoblacht, Vol. 1, no. 1, September 1965

(19) Document from Óglaigh na h-Éireann GHQ, filed with Garda Report 3C/15/66, NAI.

(21) Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle Minutes, 29 January 1966, in Swan (2006), p. 168.

(22) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 9.

(23) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 1.

(24) Interview with Seán Garland, 28 February 2005.

(25) Interview with Roy Johnston, 4 April 2001.

(26) Email from Roy Johnston, 1 June 2001.

(27) Interview with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, 11 May 2002.

(28) Interview with Roy Johnston, 19 April 2001.

(p.62) (29) Email from Roy Johnston, 26 May 2001.

(30) Email from Roy Johnston, 1 June 2001.

(31) Justice 2000/36/3, memo of 18 March 1969, NAI.

(32) Garda Report, 3C/15/66, p. 52.

(33) Ulsterman, November 1965.

(34) An Phoblacht, Vol. 1, no. 3.

(35) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 52.

(36) Interview with Tom Mitchell, 11 January 2002.

(37) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 53.

(39) Munster Express, 27 August 1965.

(40) Garda Report 3C/15/66, p. 21.

(41) Interview with Roy Johnston, 19 April 2001.

(42) Interview with Seán Dunne, 20 November 2001.

(43) Dáil Debates, Vol. 218, col. 1218.

(44) Evening Herald, 25 November 1965.

(45) United Irishman, January 1966.