Long journey’s end

Irish liquidators liquidate

In January 24 Ireland’s Democratic Left merged with the Irish Labour Party - for the DL it was the last step in a long and circuitous evolution from revolutionary anti-imperialism into the bourgeois mainstream.

In return for dissolving themselves its four TDs (MPs) have been rewarded with leading positions. DL’s last president, Proinsias de Rossa, is the new foreign affairs spokesperson. There are now 21 TDs on the Labour benches, but this is still well below the 33 members it had in the 166-seat Dáil after the 1992 parliamentary elections.

The groundwork for the liquidation was laid between 1994 and 1997, when both parties formed part of a right-left coalition government cobbled together by John Bruton’s Fine Gael. The FG-LP-DL alliance was defeated at the June 1997 general election by the present coalition of Fianna Fáil, under taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and the small group of Progressive Democrats.

Fianna Fáil itself had its origins in republican armed struggle against British rule. In fact the history of Ireland in the 20th century is in many ways a sorry saga of former militant liberation fighters first accommodating to, and then wholeheartedly embracing the bourgeois establishment (and imperialism). DL’s evolution is unusual only in the route it took - via an Irish version of ‘official communism’.

Organised in the Six Counties as the Communist Party of Northern Ireland, ‘official communists’ exhorted a reformist influence on the republican movement in the mid-60s, steering it away from armed resistance to British occupation and towards an emphasis on a nonviolent campaign for civil rights. But what was in effect the championing of catholic rights in the gerrymandered statelet was not seen as opening the way to a broader, mass revolutionary struggle. Far from it. The idea was to sideline the national question through the winning of a ‘democratic’ bourgeois Six Counties - where Protestants and Catholics would hopefully forget their nationality, and be able to get on with the job of fighting the ‘class struggle’ just as it was being fought on the other side of the Irish Sea - through ‘normal’ trade union-type politics.

But the abandoning of military methods (and thus guns) left the nationalist population defenceless when the sectarian Northern Ireland statelet, along with the Paisleyites, launched an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1969. First-hand experience of this CPNI form of ‘communism’ led militant republicans not only to reject its methodology, but to adopt anti-communism. The Provisionals were born on this basis.

The revolutionary situation in the Six Counties exerted continuous pressure on all republicans, including those who did not split to join the Provisionals. The Officials first declared a ceasefire and then slowly began to evolve in a counterrevolutionary direction. The Provisionals were branded “fascist terrorists” and “anti-working class”. In 1977 Official Sinn Féin changed its name to Sinn Féin-the Workers’ Party. As the name implies, here was an attempt to reconcile the traditions of republicanism and ‘official communism’. But it was ‘official communism’, albeit without the ‘official communists’, which proved the dominant pole. It was a short-lived experiment. In 1982 ‘Sinn Féin’ was dropped and the organisation became simply the Workers’ Party. The following extract from a 1985 pamphlet gives a taste of the transformation:

“The Workers’ Party states that the demilitarisation of Northern Ireland society is a critical component in the struggle for peace, democracy and the creation of new viable political institutions.

“... Northern Ireland has suffered terrorism for 14 years. It is vital that not only should terrorism be defeated, but that we should learn in the process lessons which will enable us to build a strong democracy ... The elimination of terrorism and the establishment of the rule of law must be considered a priority by all the democratic parties.

“... The state and all its institutions must be bound by the rule of law. To depart from that principle is not only to demean the state and its servants. It is to place the state on the same plain [sic] as the terrorist. Once again we say that there can be no question of the struggle against terrorism as being seen as some sort of war between the state’s gang and the terrorist gang” (Workers’ Party The case for devolved government in Northern Ireland Dublin 1985, p23).

The rejection by former IRA fighters like de Rossa of everything they had once stood for was already clear. The Workers’ Party, in its pathetic attempt to attract protestant workers in the Six Counties, had not only renounced republicanism, but embraced the unionist status quo and imperialism itself.

Those British reformists and ‘official communists’ who did not hail the WP outright considered nevertheless that at least its move from nationalism to ‘socialism’ was a positive step. The exact opposite was the case. The IRA conducted a revolutionary struggle against the state - although its nationalism prevented it from adopting an internationalist, working class approach. But the WP’s mouthing of ‘Marxist’ phrases were, as we shall see, a cover for a full-blooded retreat by its leadership into the arms of reaction.

Although the WP originated in the turmoil of the north, it never won much of a following in the Six Counties. Its present claim to fame is through its sponsorship of the anti-revolutionary Families against Intimidation and Terror - which receives open backing (and almost certainly covert funding) from the British state.

However, as with Sinn Féin, the WP adopted a different face in the south. When the Labour Party entered into coalition with Fine Gael in 1982, the WP was able to partially fill the vacuum Labour left behind. In the late 70s Labour had swung to the left after being ejected from a previous alliance with Fine Gael by electoral defeat in 1977. During its six years in the wilderness it had been viewed by some as a party of working class opposition.

During the 80s, with Labour back in government, the WP’s electoral support in the Republic began to rise. Opinion polls showed ratings as high as six percent. Although the Communist Party of Ireland remained in existence, the WP, without the disadvantage of having the word ‘communist’ in its name, assumed the mantle of ‘official communism’. In the general election of 1989 it made a national breakthrough with the election of seven TDs (4.97% of first-preference votes), while in the June 1991 local elections it won 24 council seats. The WP’s Tomás Mac Giolla became lord mayor of Dublin in 1993.

In parallel to these developments, however, a crisis was building up within the WP. As party president, de Rossa had been closely following events within the Communist Party of Great Britain and elsewhere. Like Marxism Today he condemned the use of the “outmoded terms of Marxism-Leninism” and regretted the “Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917”. For de Rossa, “In crude terms the communist tradition was only capable of taking power in economically backward countries or on the backs of the Red Army” (statement to members, February 1992).

De Rossa proposed to ‘reconstitute’ the party. After a major rebellion against his leadership he led an elite breakaway following the special congress of February 1992, taking with him six of the TDs and most of the councillors into Democratic Left. The WP claimed to have retained the loyalty of the majority of members, but it is clear that it is now a shell of its former self.

Prior to the split de Rossa wrote: “The decision to have a special ard fheis to reconstitute the party has been represented by some critics as a panic measure by a parliamentary cabal who would be better off in the Labour Party ... These statements are not true” (February 1992). Almost exactly seven years later de Rossa and co are Labour Party members.

Tony Heffernan, another prominent leader of the DL split and now one of the Labour Party’s two press officers, told me that the membership “wouldn’t have been ready” to go straight into Labour in 1992. Heffernan, who was Official Sinn Féin’s joint general secretary in the 1970s, described the republican movement he joined in 1968 as “sectarian” and “a spent force”. Yet back in 1982 he had opposed the dropping of ‘Sinn Féin’ from the WP’s name.

Just 18 months after its creation DL was propelled into government by the ‘Whelehan affair’, which caused the downfall of the Fianna Fáil administration. Labour abandoned its coalition partner and switched to Fine Gael, but the two needed DL’s votes in the Dáil to secure a majority. However, at the 1997 general election the support of both Labour and DL (compared to its previous showing as the WP) fell dramatically. No doubt their return to the opposition benches acted as a catalyst for the merger.

Despite the Labour Party’s temporary lurch to the left (“the 70s will be socialist” was its slogan), it is very much an establishment party, having formed a part of no fewer than five coalition administrations since then. The question as to which of the two main bourgeois parties it should back has been a secondary one. Of course it has never been in a position to lead a government, being very much a minority party. Its present leader, Ruairí Quinn, was instrumental in the expulsion of Militant in the 80s. Under Quinn and his predecessor, Dick Spring, Labour has undergone its own ‘Blairisation’, but this has been of little concern to de Rossa, whose positions in recent years have often been to the right of Labour. While still president of the Workers’ Party he called for the reintroduction of internment.

Nobody could have predicted 30 years ago that de Rossa’s trajectory away from revolutionary republicanism would have taken him into the Labour Party. Nevertheless, the untheorised, fragile nature of knee-jerk anti-British sentiment causes many to fall prey to demoralisation and eventually to abandon every anti-imperialist principle. They can end up in all sorts of strange camps. ‘Official communism’ allowed this particular strand to excuse its betrayal, while claiming still to espouse the cause of liberation.

As Proinsias de Rossa, writing for almost the last time as the WP president, put it,

“In the case of the Workers’ Party both a certain kind of Soviet Marxist ideology and the associated ideology of the vanguard party and democratic centralism may have served a positive transitional function, as the republican movement struggled to transform itself and shed backward nationalism and militarism” (statement to members, February 1992).

The likes of de Rossa have settled instead for bourgeois respectability. How long before Nina Temple’s Democratic Left follows the example and quietly slinks off into Blair’s Labour Party?

Peter Manson