The Hidden Connolly 14

Issue 14 in November 2002 published more articles by James Connolly which hadn’t been published since his execution.

Home Thrusts

[The Workers’ Republic, September 17 1898]

The Horse Show is past and gone, but it has left its mark behind it. Our own Lord Mayor of Dublin will “remember it with pride,” I understand, for did he not at that function shake hands with the representative of royalty?

Of course he did. But it is not true, as has been rumoured, that he has resolved never again to desecrate with soap and water the hand once honoured with the vice-regal grasp. The statement is totally without foundation.

But here is a statement even more startling and unfortunately true. It refers to no less a personage than the Mayor of Cork, who also attended the Horse Show.

There seems to have been quite a number of Mayors at the Horse Show. NB—This is not a pun.

Well, the Mayor of Cork attended in state whereat a Cork paper comments in the following fashion: “Had an invitation came voluntarily from the Royal Dublin Society there would be no objection, but it can hardly be said to have been very dignified on his part to send a request to that body soliciting permission to attend in state, nor was public appreciation of his action increased by the letter in which his secretary next morning hastened to inform the public that his lordship was escorted by a body of mounted police… There was too much of a suspicion of aspiring Vice-royalty about the whole business to be palatable.”

But I am not quite satisfied in my own mind that the Mayor of Cork should be held responsible for the toadyism of the Lord Mayor, especially when he has sins enough of his own to answer for.

Here, for instance, is a report from the Cork Daily Herald of a luncheon given by the New York Life Insurance Company, at which attended Mr P H Meade TC, Mayor of Cork; Mr Maurice Healy MP; Alderman Fitzgerald, and a few other patriots of the same peculiar brand. The first toast honoured by these fire-eaters was “Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen.” Hurroo for ’98.

Paragraph for the sporting papers. I hear that the Mayor of Cork has sent a challenge to the Lord Mayor of Dublin for a contest with him for the championship of Irish Phlunkeydom. Betting is even.

“While the lamp holds on to burn, even a Mayor may return.”

Somewhere or another I have heard that beautiful sentiment, and I now, with my wonted generosity, offer it free to Mr P H Meade, Mayor of Cork, and as a help to a better frame of mind I desire to quote for him the following beautiful sentiment also which I think he will require.

“He (Brian Dillon) was a man who had the courage of his convictions.” No loyal toast drinking for him, Mr Meade, eh. “He found in his day parliamentary agitation a farce,” just like now, O Mayor of Cork. Parlia­mentary agitation is a farce, and the parliamentarians low comedians. “That huge demonstration by the side of the monument erected to the memory of Brian Dillon showed that there in Cork the memories of the men of ’67 and their principles were revered and cherished” (what about that toast?) “and if the occasion arose the Corkmen who admired the noble and unselfish example of Brian Dillon would show to the world that Irish Nationality was not dead and would never be conquered.”1

Thim’s my sentiments, Paddy Meade, almost. You recognise the speech, no doubt. It was made by a man for whom you have a great regard, viz., yourself.

But what is meant by that curious phrase, “if the occasion arose”? What occasion? If by the “occasion” is meant the necessity for fighting for freedom, it is here now.

We are still slaves, nationally and socially; and the occasion is present ever and always, whenever we are men enough to rise to it. But the atmosphere of a country ripe for revolutionary action would be fatal to that peculiar kind of Mayoral patriotism which cannot withstand the seduction of any invitation to drink—even when the toast given is a dishonourable one.

Here let me work in a little Latin. Hold your breath. Facilis descensus Averni. The descent to the nether regions is easy.

It is only a small step from preaching a ‘union of all classes’ to kow-towing to royalty—and kicking the working man.

The Mayor of Cork is started on the down grade. After the festivities alluded to above one is not startled to read that on the occasion of the discussion in Cork Corporation, he gave his vote against the proposed night sittings of that body and therefore, as far as in him lay, against labour representation.

The tradesmen of Cork, recognising that the ‘right’ to sit on the Corporation is a mere farce if the ‘opportunity’ is denied to them, sought to get the time of Corporation business changed from mid-day to evening, that they might attend after work was done.

The voting on the proposal was evenly balanced, and the ‘un­compromising’ Mayor gave his casting vote against the workers.

So that the Tory government gave to the workers of Ireland a right which the Home Rule councillors deny them the opportunity to exercise.

Such is middle-class patriotism.

What will the Cork workers do? Sit quiet under it. I hope not. I hope to see the men of Cork teaching a much needed lesson to a few of these gentlemen who acted against them in the Cork Corporation. Let it once become a recognised principle in politics that any man acting in antagonism to the workers on any public question will never again receive a working­man’s vote, nor be tolerated in any organisation which the workers can influence, and politics will no longer be the fool’s game they are today.

In this connection it was interesting and instructive to observe how the Cork Constitution (newspaper champion of orange aristocracy and loyal West Britishism in general) rushed in to defend the Home Rule Mayor from the attacks of the Cork working men. These men see where their class interests lie, and are not in the least deceived by the sham politics of today.

While on the question of municipal politics, I cannot but express my deep regret at the foolish action of the Dublin Trades Council over the matter of the Lord Mayoralty.

In my view the proposal to invest a Tory with that office is indefensible and foolish. Except the criminal opposition of our Home Rule councillors to every proposal calculated to benefit the working class, it is the least defensible public act of recent years.

Toryism represents the most insulting form of privilege, national and social. The man who preaches toleration of Toryism is of necessity either a knave or a fool. Toryism ought not to be tolerated but extirpated, crushed out of public life wherever possible.

Our Home Rule leaders are now pretending to great indignation over the act of the Trades Council in coquetting with Toryism, but it was themselves set the example.

They wanted a ‘union of classes,’ and behold, here it is. Representatives of the trades proposing to elect a representative of the moneyed and aristocratic class as Lord Mayor; a veritable ‘union of classes.’ Presto, the trick is done.

A broad platform, my friends—the one thing needed for Irish politics. How do you like it?

The Trades Council say they are sick of the trickery of politics. Well, so am I. But when I am tired of a game I don’t rest myself by taking a hand in it. I get out.

We are not yet deprived of all choice between a Home Ruler and a Unionist—the devil and the deep blue sea.

Which is the devil and which the deep sea I don’t pretend to say. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

There is another alternative. Several of them in fact. The Socialist Republican party to which I belong aims at placing in every official position in the power of the Irish to bestow, a representative pledged to use the influence of that position in such a manner as to arouse the hatred of the people for our present governors.

Can the Trades Council not find in Dublin a thoroughgoing republican and class-conscious worker, and run him for the Lord Mayoralty.

One of their own number would fill the position quite as well, aye and a thousand times more creditably than either M’Coy or Tallon has done.

Let them run their candidates on the understanding that they support a republican worker for the Mayoralty, let them make every candidate in the city make a similar pledge, and either abstain or vote against him if he refuses, and when the election is over let all the elected candidates of what I might call the anti-tory party meet and decide who they shall support for the job.

That, I think, is practicable. At all events it would be better than voting for the open enemy of the freedom of your country and your class.

But the present course of action taken by the Trades is only playing into the hands of the Home Rule faction, and giving them the needed excuse for opposing the labour candidates. An excuse they are already grabbing at with joyful eagerness.

At a recent meeting of the Independent League,2 Mr William Field MP declared that that body were willing to debate the question of the wisdom of their tactics with any body in Ireland.

But he omitted to say what the tactics were. And as nobody outside the League has any idea, and as the Parnellite Press carefully suppressed that portion of Mr Field’s speech, it looks as if the challenge was only bluff.

Mr Field is, I believe, a thoroughly honest man, but I also believe he is being used by men of whom the same cannot be said.

He should remember that about a year ago, when the Independent League was launched, it was triumphantly declared that ‘Home Rule’ was to be thrown overboard and Repeal or Grattan’s Parliament substituted in its place.3 Mr Field MP and Mr Redmond and all his following joined in dis­crediting Home Rule and shouting for Repeal.

Now the same men are shouting for Home Rule, and Repeal is never mentioned.

There’s tactics for you. The tactics of a porker going to Cork by way of Garryowen.

Spailpín.

Regicide and Revolution

[The Workers’ Republic, September 17 1898]

As most of our readers are probably aware the Empress of Austria was assassinated in the streets of Geneva, Switzerland, on Saturday last.

We deeply regret the untimely death of this lady as we would regret the untimely death of any other unoffending woman, but we cannot see any reason for the hysterics into which our daily papers are attempting to work their readers on the subject. A woman has been foully murdered. Stated thus simply the fact would arouse in all thinking men a righteous horror of the deed. But when column is piled upon column, when we are told “humanity stands aghast,” that the crime is “unparalleled,” that the “world is plunged in mourning,” etc., we begin to suspect the presence of more cant than sincerity in all this newspaper grief. When sailors are lost in rotten ships at sea, miners choked in the mine, labourers killed by falling machinery, women and girls poisoned in match works, etc., our friends on the capitalist press do not shed many tears over or devote many columns to the matter. Wherefore we conclude that these newspaper tears are shed for the Empress and not for the woman.

For our part we regard all human life as equally sacred, whether it be the life of an Empress or the life of a charwoman, and we have no desire to emulate our contemporaries in their attempt to magnify the horror of a crime because the victim belonged to the former rank of life rather than the latter. The deed was the deed of a madman, its perpetrator will be punished, in all probability with the utmost severity the law of Switzerland allows. Had we the power we certainly would not lift a finger to save him from or to modify that punishment, whatever it may be, but we can see nothing in the case to justify the outbreak of savagery to which our Dublin daily and evening papers are at present treating their readers. When we find ‘respect­able’ newspapers actually regretting that the barbarous tortures of the Middle Ages are no longer possible, indulging in fearful and disgusting recitals of the fiendish cruelties perpetrated in the name of Law upon regicides in the past, and openly wishing they could be revived, we feel that even the fear of being misrepresented would not justify us in keeping silent longer, in longer refraining from uttering a protest against this outburst of ferocity in those who are so fond of posing as guardians of public morals. The old Mosaic law demanded a life for a life, but our newspaper oracles, who at ordinary times are so fond of mouthing their devotion to the new dispensation which replaced the stern justice of the Mosaic code by the more merciful ethics of Christianity, would now surpass that code in the ferocity of their vengeance. A life for a life, it appears, may serve as a basis of justice among ordinary mortals, but the life of a crowned head must be hedged round with greater terrors, or else the masses of desperate and starv­ing people whom society creates in our midst cannot be kept in subjection. Here, then, we find the real reason of the outcry. The governing classes seek through Press, platform, and all other means to impress the public mind with the divinity of their persons, the ‘divinity’ which doth hedge their positions. A hundred working-class women are murdered in the streets of Milan—bayonetted and shot with their starving babes at their breasts;4 society grudges a paragraph in its newspapers to chronicle the fact; one Empress is stabbed in the streets of Geneva, and lo! Humanity is Shocked. Yet, perhaps the remorseless hand of history will reverse the procedure: give to that holocaust of the workers a dedicatory chapter as to the martyrs of humanity—and dismiss this murder of an Empress with the curtness of a footnote. As we progress toward a proper recognition of the dignity of humanity we lose the inculcated respect for the tinsel glory of a crown. Democracy is ever merciful and humane. The crime of a Luccessi is in no sense attributable to the revolutionary party in Europe, no more than the Phoenix Park murders were justly attributable to the Nationalist party in Ireland.5 The criminal passions which blazed out in Geneva last Saturday are nurtured and blossom only in the dark shadows cast by capitalist society and its financial and hereditary rulers. The present social and political order in Europe breeds such criminals. They are its children. Let them deal with each other.

We, who detest equally the criminal and the social order which creates him, work unceasingly for the coming of the day when an enlightened people by abolishing the latter will render impossible the former.

Notes

  1. Dillon fought in the Fenian uprising of 1867.
  2. An organisation representing the Redmondite faction of the Home Rule movement, still fragmented after Parnell’s downfall.
  3. Repeal of the Act of Union, and re-establishment of the Irish parliament that existed until then, involved a greater measure of autonomy for Ireland than that envisaged by Home Rule.
  4. Earlier in the year, workers demonstrating in Milan against food shortages and inflation were brutally attacked by troops.
  5. Luigi Luccheni was the actual name of the empress’s killer. In 1882 the colonial Chief Secretary and his deputy were killed in the Phoenix Park by a Fenian splinter group, the Invincibles.

Palaces of memory, rooms full of light

Issue 13 (July 2002) saw Kevin Higgins review a novel telling of Trotsky’s last years.

Meaghan Delahunt, In The Blue House (Bloomsbury)

Meaghan Delahunt’s debut novel—a fictionalised version of Leon Trotsky’s last years in Mexico and, in particular, his relationship with the artist Frida Kahlo—bucks a number of the trends which have lately come to dominate the rather precious world of contemporary English language fiction. Given the typically oh so self-obsessed novels about getting divorced in Hampstead (à la Martin Amis) or going to find yourself in Spain (à la Colm Tóibín) which currently dominate the bookshelves in Eason’s and Waterstones, it was refreshing indeed to find a novel in which history, far from being over, is writ large; and to encounter characters who, for better or for worse, actually mattered in the grand scheme of things. However, perhaps the way this novel differs from most of its contemporaries is best illustrated by the fact that I actually managed to read it from beginning to end—all 304 pages—without once being tempted to see what was on the television. Episode after episode of Home and Away and The Bold and the Beautiful drifted into oblivion as it grabbed and held my attention.

Delahunt successfully weaves the messy details of Trotsky’s personal life (such as the affair with Kahlo and its aftermath) and the tumultuous events of his political life into an impressively seamless whole. To do this she uses an occasionally bewildering variety of narrators, everyone from Trotsky and Kahlo themselves to Stalin, Beria, the poet Mayakovsky and Ramon Mercader, the man who eventually wielded that ice-pick. She also skips around considerably in time. For example, the story ‘starts’ shortly after Frida Kahlo’s death in July 1954 with Señora Rosita Moreno reminiscing about Kahlo’s life in the Blue House of the title. On page 175, though, we’re suddenly back in 1898 and the young Trotsky is pacing around his first ever prison cell in Odessa. Changing narrator with each chapter, Delahunt’s version of the story moves relentlessly back and forth through time before ending back where it began with Frida Kahlo’s death in 1954. A structure which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could have made the novel confusing and episodic actually works very well.

The chapters are short and punchy, and almost entirely devoid of self-indulgent first novel rambling. The book apparently evolved from a short story of Delahunt’s, ‘In the Blue House at Coyoacan’, which was published in the Australian literary magazine Heat back in 1998. And one gets the impression that it has been through several drafts. Facing into a story like this must have been an absolutely daunting task for a first-time novelist such as Delahunt. To begin with, the fact that it is based on the lives of prominent historical figures, who were alive as recently as the middle of the last century, means that you need more than dramatic tension to keep the reader interested. Hardly anyone will read on simply to find out ‘what happened in the end’, because the vast majority of Delahunt’s potential readers will already have known at least the basics of the ‘Trotsky story’ long before they picked up her book. Of course, one definite advantage In The Blue House has from the outset is that, quite unlike the typical Hampstead divorcee, its characters are all such interesting people.

It is, above all else, a book about Trotsky’s personal reaction to the dev­astating political defeats he suffered during the last decade and a half of his life. As Delahunt tells it, his affair with Frida Kahlo was something of an attempt to recapture his former glory at a time when, deep down, he knew perfectly well that his days were numbered:

He had seen himself new, had felt as if all the accumulations of his past had been rolled back in the body of a person much younger than himself who knew only the grandeur of him and none of its fading.
For Natalia [his wife] knew the lustre. She knew, also, the efforts to maintain it, to polish. The effort, sometimes, to keep going.
The younger woman saw none of this, and this cheered him. Made him forget how much effort it took to rise again in the morning, preparing for battle, wondering if that day would be his last and, if that were the case, how best to live it.

How different this Trotsky is from the caricature ‘Strelnikov’ in Doctor Zhivago with his deadpan declaration about the personal life now being “dead in Russia”. Much has been made of the way Trotsky supposedly shrugged off even the most devastating political setbacks. And no doubt he had an amazing capacity for picking himself up and starting from scratch again. However, I have to say that I think Delahunt does us a service by making her Trotsky rather more completely human than the one we are used to. Shortly before his death in August 1940 she has him suffering from insomnia and wondering if he had “like Marx, neglected those closest to him? Made intolerable demands upon them?… Maybe he had no talent for love or intimacy.” Some will undoubtedly read these thoughts as belonging more to Delahunt than to Trotsky, and as such will see them as the self-justification of someone who simply hadn’t the stomach for the long, hard haul of revolutionary politics. However, this would, I think, be a crude reading to say the least. After all, who among those of us who’ve had any sort of serious involvement in revolutionary politics has not, on occasion, paused to consider the toll that involvement has taken on their personal life?

My favourite passage, though, is on page 253 in a chapter narrated by Trotsky’s wife Natalia:

Of course, later, when personal tragedy consumed us, when we lost everyone [including all of their children]… He would stand at the window and look up at the moon. He would pack the dead away inside himself. So many spaces for the dead inside. We spoke often of our palaces of memory. In these rooms our children still played. Friends still embraced; we clinked glasses in rooms full of light. But some rooms, after we had endured too much, could never be opened.

Though this is clearly a description of a deeply personal tragedy, it could also be read as a sustained metaphor for the complete crushing of revolu­tionary optimism in any time or place. And, while it would certainly be ludicrous to make any direct comparison between the relatively small sacri­fices activists today sometimes make and the gothic tragedy which engulfed Trotsky, there are, I think, many of us who know something about what it’s like to have long-lost comrades with whom we still occasionally clink glasses in imaginary “rooms full of light”. As a former Trotskyist activist herself, Delahunt clearly knows what she’s talking about here. However, far from being some dry political tract, In The Blue House is, on the contrary, a very accomplished work of art indeed. By avoiding hero worship and, instead, painting this picture of a decidedly fallible Trotsky grappling with the con­sequences of a catastrophic political defeat, Delahunt succeeds in making him someone the contemporary reader can really believe in.

Nervous dispositions and vestigial knowledge: The 1970 arms crisis

In Issue 12 (March 2002) Maeve Connaughton drew lessons from a pivotal moment in modern Irish history.

When the arms trial opened in Dublin on 22 September 1970 one juror was excused on the very first day due to being of “a nervous disposition”. He wasn’t the only one, and recent revelations of official cover-up and minis­terial sleight of hand must have put the wind up some of the protagonists. Most of them have since gone to the great Bridewell in the sky, but beneath all the hints and allegations lies a story still relevant to today’s political struggles.

The arms crisis was only part of a far wider political crisis that swept Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement for civil rights in the north was gaining strength and meeting with increasingly fierce repression from the state. The armed forces of that state were complemented by paramilitary loyalism, with a considerable overlap between the two. Nationalist areas were no match militarily for such a combination and, for the most part, came off worst in the confrontations, with huge numbers of Catholics driven from their homes, injured or killed.

There was a fightback, as people resisted heroically with stones, petrol bombs, even the odd old gun that could be dug up. In Derry’s Bogside they effectively kept the state out altogether and ran their own community. Elsewhere in Ireland there was a wave of sympathy for the victims of the attacks, and a determination not to let it happen again, especially when the situation reached a height in August 1969.

The fallout of the crisis landed heavily in two political quarters: the republican movement, and Fianna Fáil.

Since its latest military campaign had petered out in 1962 a rethink had been going on in the IRA. The old notion of gathering guns and sympathy with an eye to the next round of sallying forth across the border wasn’t getting anywhere. A new strategy of getting involved in social and political agitation was adopted, and republicans began to take a central part in campaigns for decent housing, for national ownership of rivers and lakes, in the trade union movement. The idea was that IRA military action would only enter the picture at a later stage, to enforce an uprising of the working people for an Irish socialist republic.

The northern axis of the new departure centred on the demand for civil rights. Instead of bemoaning partition, republicans would build a broad coalition against the systematic discrimination against the Catholic popula­tion in voting, housing and employment. The intention was not to overthrow the northern state but to unite Protestants and Catholics in democratising it. That achieved, the north would hopefully unite peacefully with the south, but raising the spectre of fighting for a united Ireland was ruled out.

But what if civil rights proved to be more than the state could stand? What if it just couldn’t be reformed? What if the majority of Protestants opposed the demand for equality instead of supporting it? When precisely this came to pass, the republican line came under severe strain. Rather than modify their approach to meet the new reality, the IRA leadership main­tained that Stormont was an Irish parliament and abolishing it would mean less democracy; that armed defence of nationalist communities equalled sectarian battles of Irishmen against Irishmen; that partition was not on the agenda. Despite all their best-laid plans collapsing around them, they stuck to their guns.

Or rather, their lack of guns. Not surprisingly, the IRA was the first port of call for those looking for weapons to defend northern nationalists. But much of its arsenal had been got rid of (sold to the Free Wales Army, by all accounts) and the chief of staff was nowhere to be found when the August crisis broke (he was up in the Dublin mountains doing a TV interview). For many who had traditionally sympathised with the IRA, its failure to defend them against loyalist and state attack totally discredited it. Graffiti in west Belfast claimed that IRA stood for “I Ran Away”.

It was this that lay at the bottom of the split in the republican movement in 1969/70. While the issue was fought around the corner—on the question of whether republicans should take seats in parliaments—what was actually at stake was whether to support a continuation of the leadership strategy or not. It wasn’t its designation of Leinster House as a usurping assembly that caused the Provisional IRA to grow, but the fact that it was prepared to defend nationalists and fight against the northern state.

The stereotyped portrayal of militaristic right-wing Provos breaking from sophisticated left-wing Officials holds little water. While those inter­ested in nothing more than war with Britain did go with the Provisionals, so did a fair few left-wing republicans who had been heavily involved in social and economic struggle. Provisional Sinn Féin’s founding statement even declared for a democratic socialist republic (far more explicitly than its present descendants do). The socialism rejected in the split was a ‘socialism’ that was trying to force a popular revolt back into a reformist mould.

The crisis in the north caused not a little alarm for Fianna Fáil. They had held power for all but six of the previous 37 years, and the June 1969 election had just ushered in their thirteenth consecutive year at the helm; but they had their problems. Long and bitter strikes were becoming a frequent occurrence as Ireland topped the international league for industrial disputes. Fights for better housing and other political campaigns were growing, with the republican movement in the thick of them for good measure. The inter­national atmosphere of radicalism following the revolutionary annus mirabilis of 1968 still gave the ruling class nightmares. All this led Fianna Fáil to resort to red scare tactics on the hustings, and even refined politi­cians with intellectual reputations were warning of the danger of subversion.

People booting out the state and taking control of their own destinies always makes capitalist politicians uneasy, so the example of Free Derry was not to Fianna Fáil’s liking. Southern solidarity with the oppressed in the north also put them in a corner. After half a century of talk about the nation­alists’ plight, they were now faced with calls for action. Unless they did something, their own legitimacy would be undermined as elements beyond their control challenged their monopoly of armed force by arming communities under siege.

Within Fianna Fáil itself an ill-concealed power struggle was being waged. Jack Lynch’s assumption of the leadership in 1966 had only papered over the cracks: scheming in the wings were Neil Blaney, party organisation man par excellence, and Charles Haughey, epitome of the new breed of arrogant money-grubbing Fianna Fáilers. Bellicose nationalism had always been a string to Blaney’s bow as he lamented the predicament of “our people” in the north—“our people” not including any Protestants, of course. Haughey had no republican pedigree—had gleefully interned IRA men in his time as minister for justice, in fact—and seems merely to have seen a chance and grabbed it. They presented themselves as champions of the beleaguered northerners, and got themselves on to a cabinet subcommittee with £100,000 to spend on the relief of distress following the August attacks.

This money was used to buy and import guns for the defence of nation­alist areas. As well as taking some of the heat off the government, the aim was to ensure that if there was to be gun-running, it would be under the auspices of the southern state—albeit unofficially. But there was also an attempt to kill two birds with the one stone. The guns were to go only to those who disagreed with the IRA leadership’s policy. That way, the threat to the 26-county state posed by republican involvement in left-wing activism could be lessened.

Contrary to Official republican mythology, this does not mean that the Provisional IRA was the bastard child of Fianna Fáil. Undoubtedly, Fianna Fáil preferred a republican movement that confined its activities to the north and left them in full control down south, and they did their level best to get one. But the split arose from the divergent responses to the August debacle: if there wasn’t a penny or a bullet forthcoming from Fianna Fáil, something like what happened would have happened anyway. Seeing that there was, the Provisionals saw no harm in getting their hands on some of it—nor, for that matter, did the Officials, whose chief of staff got £2,500 out of Haughey.

While others in the government had an idea of what was going on—and the latest evidence points more and more in that direction—the exact nature of Blaney’s and Haughey’s operations was kept from Lynch and his faction. By pushing a more belligerent policy than Lynch’s, they hoped to embarrass him and force him from the party leadership, leaving a vacuum for them­selves to fill.

The proverbial hit the fan in May 1970 when news of the state-sponsored gun-running began to leak out. Lynch sacked Blaney and Haughey from the government; both were charged with illegal arms importation along with three others, including a military intelligence officer. The case against Blaney was thrown out for lack of evidence; after a tense trial that had to be abandoned and restarted, the others were acquitted.

Unlike the other defendants who stood over their actions, claiming that the state knew and approved of them, Haughey’s defence was to play dumb, saying that he didn’t know there were any guns in the cargo he tried to speed through customs. Nevertheless, he emerged from the court speaking “On behalf of myself and my fellow-patriots…” He called on Lynch to do the decent thing, as did Blaney, in the name of a more vigorous northern policy. With Lynch out of the country on a diplomatic mission, the stage looked set for a palace coup.

But Lynch was met at Dublin airport, not by his political obituary, but by the serried ranks of his ministers and party grandees. He saw off his opponents in votes of confidence as the soldiers of destiny rallied around their chief. Blaney brought his local political machine out of the party with him. Haughey spent the rest of the decade in the political wilderness, but a very comfortable wilderness, as evidenced by recent tribunals.

The ruling class closed ranks rather than risk being split down the middle. Just as unsettled by the northern upheavals as their counterparts in London and Belfast, they made sure to consolidate their own rule before all else. The decades of rhetorical anti-partitionism were all as sound and fury signifying nothing. Defence minister Jim Gibbons claimed at the trial that his awareness of the arms smuggling amounted only to “vestigial knowledge”. The dictionary definition confirms that the same description could apply to the southern state’s aspiration to national unity:

vestigial adj. 1 forming a very small remnant of something that was once greater or more noticeable. 2 Biology (of an organ or part of the body) degenerate, rudimentary, or atrophied, having become func­tionless in the course of evolution.

The Free State was not born in the fires of the GPO in 1916, or in a Tipperary hillside ambush in 1920: it was born in the rubble of the Four Courts bombarded in 1922, and the scattered flesh of prisoners tied to a landmine in Kerry in 1923. From the word go, it was a state committed to maintaining its grip on what it had. Keening after the fourth green field was useful to that end, but it was quite happy to be Three Quarters of a Nation Once Again. If 26-county patriotism was baptised in the civil war, it had its confirmation in the arms crisis 47 years later.

The accepted wisdom of the nationalist consensus was now clearly ‘unity by consent’: a united Ireland, but only when the unionists agreed to it. This apparently profound concept, tortuously adumbrated in the keynote addresses of Taoisigh and Nobel prize-winning nationalists, actually boils down to the old evasion ‘Live, horse, and you’ll get grass’. In its pure form it gives what it calls the unionist tradition a complete veto for as long as it likes. Its modified, Good-Friday-Agreement version promotes a demo­graphic race where nationalists and unionists do whatever it takes to out­weigh each other in the scales of sectarianism.

The events surrounding the arms crisis are instructive for those who still look to a more hopeful future for the working people of this island. Firstly, socialists need to unconditionally defend the rights of the oppressed in the north—opposing Orange parades, loyalist attacks, and discrimination now as then. Secondly, the very existence of a separate state carved out for communal convenience is a standing monument to sectarianism, whether that takes the naked form it did then or the respectable form it does now. Thirdly, the southern state is just as much an obstacle to achieving justice in Ireland, and needs to join its northern oppo on the scrapheap. Fourthly, the object of the struggle has to clearly be a socialist Ireland, a society in the hands of the workers: a goal that has the potential to lead northern Protestant workers to reject the dead end of unionism, and instead enrich a fight against exploitation.

At the time of the arms crisis, these ideas could often be heard, but usually in isolation. What is needed is a movement that can unite all these aspects into an integrated challenge to capitalism as it operates in Ireland. That difficult task faces socialists today, and drawing the lessons of thirty years ago can help us carry it out.

Revolutionary Lives

In first eighteen issues, Red Banner carried the Revolutionary Lives feature. Each article critically examined the life and work of a great socialist. Those covered were Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Friedrich Engels, John Maclean, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, William Morris, Victor Serge, György Lukács, Alexandra Kollontai, Karl Marx, Ernesto Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. The individual articles can all be accessed on this website, but the entire series is also available as a PDF here: