Going 'left', going 'broad'

Liam O Ruairc examines Sinn Féin's turn to the left in the late 1970s from the point of view of republican socialism

By its own admission, the seven-and-a-half months truce in 1975 "left the IRA in a more weakened position than before it" (IRA statement: 'Confidence, maturity and military expansion' An Phoblacht/Republican News special supplement August 11 1979). The operational capability of the republican movement underwent a gradual decline, as the 1970s progressed. The British government was boasting that it was "squeezing the IRA like a toothpaste". In 1978, a senior member of the IRA leadership admitted that there had been "a marked reduction in military activity", and this for a number of reasons. The extended and more sophisticated nature of British surveillance made it increasingly difficult to operate, especially in the Belfast area. Due to counter-insurgency successes, it was necessary to reorganise the IRA as a whole by replacing battalions and companies by a cell system. The organisation did not have as many volunteers as five years before. There was an absence of explosives, and it was difficult to acquire weaponry. Partly for that reason, the IRA had to cut down on commercial bombings. Whatever republican claims to the contrary, the British state had been relatively successful in implementing its 'Ulsterisation' policy, by replacing the British army by the police and local army regiments at the front of counter-insurgency operations. It became increasingly difficult for republicans to inflict casualties on the British army - the majority of its fatalities being RUC and UDR members, whether on or off-duty. On the more positive side, the organisation pledged itself not to become involved in sectarian assassinations or feuds ('There will be no ceasefire until the end' Republican News August 5 1978). On the political side, there was the republican movement's so-called 'left turn'. There was a strong emphasis upon the socially 'radical' nature of the republican project and the need to build an alternative political movement. This was signalled in a 1977 speech written by Gerry Adams (but read out by Jimmy Drumm), in which republicans were urged to take a stronger stand on economic issues and the everyday struggles of the people, and to forge strong links between the republican movement and the working class, as well as radical trade unionists. (Interestingly in light of subsequent developments, the speech also included these words: "We are not prepared even to discuss any watering down of our demands. We can see no future in participating in a restructured Stormont, even with power-sharing and a bill of rights. Nor certainly will we never accept the legitimacy of the free state, a fascist state, designed to cater for the privileged capitalist sycophants. No. Even to contemplate acceptance of either of these partitionist states would be a betrayal of all that Tone preached and died for" [Bodenstown oration Republican News June 18 1977]). As Adams later put it, "Our most glaring weakness to date lies in our failure to develop revolutionary politics and to build a strong political alternative to so-called constitutional politics." He concluded: "We must ensure that the cause of Ireland becomes the cause of labour, a task neglected since Connolly's time, and we must also ensure that the cause of labour becomes the cause of Ireland" ('Revolutionary politics needed to back up military gains' APRN June 23 1979). In January 1980, Sinn Féin adopted a more socially radical programme, Eire Nua: the social dimension (see Seamus Boyle, 'Radical update of Eire Nua' APRN January 26 1980). The earlier anti-communism of the Provisional movement disappeared. If in 1971 they could write: "We have seen Cuba, where after the revolution they slaughtered all their opponents, thus having a one-party state. So the people of Cuba changed from one dictator to another - from Batista to Castro" ('The red glow of republicanism' Republican News January-February 1971), that now changed to a positive evaluation of the Castro regime (see, for example, 'Cuba today Republican News November 12 1977; and 'Cuba: achievements of the revolution' Republican News November 19 and 26 1977; or 'The Cuban revolution: 20 years later' APRN February 17 1979). Those political developments led the British press to allege that "their aim is no longer 'Brits out', but a Marxist revolution in all Ireland" (WF Deedes, 'The changing face of Ulster' The Daily Telegraph November 13 1979). This was a wild exaggeration. Asked whether there was any Marxist influence within Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams replied: "First of all there is one thing which should be said categorically - there is no Marxist influence within Sinn Féin - it simply isn't a Marxist organisation. I know of no one in Sinn Féin who is a Marxist or who would be influenced by Marxism." Asked in the same interview whether he agreed that the republican movement had moved to the left, he replied: "To be a republican in the true sense you have to base it on the 1916 declaration, which in itself is a radical document ... Also as radical was the democratic programme of the first Dáil. If we are to be true republicans, we have to adhere to what it says in those documents. Our form of republicanism is radical republicanism. We genuinely believe that when the struggle for independence is completed and the democratic process is re-established, the best solution or philosophy is decentralised socialism and government structures" ('The Brit propaganda tag - from "fascist" to "communist"' APRN November 3 1979). In the same issue of APRN, both the IRA and Sinn Féin issued statements officially stating that they were not Marxist and were ideologically based on the 1916 proclamation ('IRA's republican socialism is a radical native brand'; and 'Sinn Féin statement of aims' APRN November 3 1979). This clarified the extent to which the organisation had moved to the left. But parallel to this were more worrying developments in the campaign against criminalisation of republican prisoners. The prison campaign was originally led by the relatives of the prisoners, the Relatives Action Committees (RAC), and based directly on the nationalist working class. It called for political status in recognition of the fact that those held were prisoners of war captured in the course of a war of national liberation. A statement from the central RAC made the point: "We have always maintained a firm line that our campaign is to establish that a war of national liberation is being waged in Ireland. While in the past we have publicised the inhumane conditions of the POWs ... we have not allowed ourselves to be sidetracked into seeing the prisoners as a civil rights issue, rather than a political issue" ('Prisoners are not a civil rights issue' Republican News December 10 1977). The struggle of the prisoners was not concerned with better prison conditions, but for their recognition as political prisoners of war. This meant that "the sharp end of the campaign should be directly cutting against criminalisation, while the rudder is steering for 'Brits out'" ('The armed struggle and the fight for political status' Republican News February 4 1978). However, in late 1979, the RACs were replaced by the National H-Block Committee, which, giving prominence to middle class, non-republican elements in order to broaden the prison campaign, changed its direction away from the nationalist working class and towards putting pressure on bourgeois nationalist elements, such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Fianna Fáil, as well as the catholic church and the trade unions. This strengthened the influence of those elements and allowed the restriction of the campaign to what was acceptable to those bourgeois forces (for an extended discussion of this, see D Reed Ireland: key to the British revolution London 1985). In opposition to the earlier RACs, the political basis of this united front - the so-called 'five demands' - was a humanitarian and civil rights approach: "What is needed now on the H-Block issue is a mass, single-issue campaign aimed at drawing in whatever support possible - whether it be on a purely humanitarian basis ... or whether it be full-blooded support for the IRA's armed struggle" ('Determination and unity' APRN October 27 1979). This represented a downgrading of anti-imperialist demands to humanitarian ones. Also, militant revolutionary action was not compatible with a 'broad campaign', because it would alienate the 'broad forces' of constitutional nationalism. It was the first time that the republican movement was attempting to build a 'broad front' and to find a broader base. The issue is important, because the H-Block campaign is the direct ancestor of the pan-nationalist front. Could a campaign built on a specific appeal to those 'wider forces' who did not support the republican struggle force the British government to grant the five demands? The experience of the hunger strikes period shows the limitations of calling on political establishment and church leaders to demand to the British government to concede. It showed that the British government would not respond to diplomatic protests and electoral successes. It proved that Fianna Fáil, the SDLP and the rest of the broad campaign not only failed to pressurise the British government, but actually played a central role in undermining the prisoners' campaign. ('Why we ended the hunger strikes' APRN October 10 1981). The failure to win the five demands of the prisoners was a setback for the liberation struggle. Despite the experience of the prison campaign, the Provisional movement a decade later readopted the same strategy - this time not for the five demands, but for self-determination l