September 2011        

Lies, damn lies, and anti-communism

by Tom Redmond (National Executive Committee, CPI)

The publication of a book by Matt Treacy, The IRA, 1956–1969, has caused some controversy around the question whether the Communist Party, and some individuals linked to it, may have directly intervened in the republican movement to promote a swing to the left in the 1960s and 70s.
     The author is an active member of Sinn Féin who writes for An Phoblacht and is an adviser to the party in Dáil Éireann.
     The allegations mentioned in the book are not new—they have surfaced before in books on and by veteran republicans, such as Mac Stiofáin and Ó Brádaigh—and range from a Moscow-inspired conspiracy channelled through the Communist Party of Great Britain by way of C. Desmond Greaves of the Connolly Association to Irish communist parties and the utilising of the services of Anthony Coughlan and Roy Johnston. Variations on these allegation surfaced in this book and, recently, in the Phoenix.
     I say Irish communist parties, because until they unified in 1970 the communist party in Ireland took the form of the Irish Workers’ Party in the South and the Communist Party (Northern Ireland) in the North.
     I feel qualified to answer these allegations with some degree of authority because I was a member of the Connolly Association and the CPGB from 1957 to 1968 and, on my return to Ireland, of the IWP and then CPI from 1968. I was a member of the leadership in most of these parties throughout those years and—the left being a small place—knew these individuals personally as well as politically.
     While I am more concerned with the politics behind all this, it is as well to clear the decks of claims and counter-claims. They may hold a fascination for the sensation-hunters, but they are also part of the quagmire of anti-communism.
     Anthony Coughlan has answered the claim that he was a member of the CPGB and the IWP, and all the related claims, in an open letter to Matt Treacy. The latter does not accept this and supports the counter-claim in the current issue of the Phoenix. Roy Johnston has documented openly and in detail his affiliations (in his book A Century of Endeavour), although, being in the CPGB on his return to Ireland, he did not join the IWP.
     Tony Coughlan was a leading member of the Connolly Association and is in fact the executor of Desmond Greaves’s will. He returned to Ireland in 1962 and played a role in the Wolfe Tone Society and wrote and spoke for left-wing and radical groups, including Sinn Féin. He never joined the CPGB, IWP, or CPI.
     The Phoenix, hot on the muck-raking trail, has gone trawling through the CPI archives, recently handed over to the Gilbert Library in Dublin, looking for any mention of Anthony Coughlan. Lo and behold, they did find references to him in a list of donors and, worse still, with a C behind some of these, indicating, they claim, “cleared.” The Phoenix and Matt Treacy suggest that this is proof of a membership subscription and arrears.
     The real explanation is that the IWP produced a weekly bulletin, Workers’ Voice, in exchange for a monthly subscription. It was a newsletter as well as a means of appealing for donations. Tony Coughlan subscribed to this bulletin; hence the financial transactions. I often wrote it and can remember receiving friendly criticism from him. Tony also wrote a monthly column for the Irish Democrat, the Connolly Association’s paper.
     Another reference in the Phoenix is an extract from the minutes of the Executive Committee of the IWP, which states: “It was agreed that Cde. O’Riordan should arrange to discuss Cde. Coughlan’s articles in the Irish Democrat.” Does the title “comrade” imply membership? Or what is suggested?
     I can’t remember the detail but imagine that some comrades felt that the Irish Democrat articles were a bit dodgy—not unusual in those fluid days, and it would be common to discuss fraternal differences with someone seen as a political ally and, in minutes, using the term “comrade.”
     All this could be seen as irrelevant except that it smacks of anti-communism and the witch-hunting of individuals. It reminds me of an incident in Dáil Éireann when Justin Keating of the Labour Party, a member of the coalition Government of the time, was shouted at for being a communist. The haranguer was able to produce the minutes of the Executive Committee of the Irish Workers’ League (precursor of the IWP), where he was listed.
     It’s true that Keating had briefly been a member; but the purpose, in the tradition of Joe McCarthy, was to do lethal political damage to the individual and to the Labour Party and to keep aflame the anti-communism of the Cold War. The information had obviously been passed from the Special Branch to Fianna Fáil.
     But to get to the meat—the real politics.
     In the mid-1960s Irish society had begun to awaken from the dark of its inward-looking conservatism. The answers were not just “blowing in the wind,” they were being sought in social agitation and industrial militancy. The fiftieth anniversary of 1916 had kindled an appreciation of, above all, Connolly and his glossed-over role as a Marxist.
     The fresh thinking, particularly among young people, was to fuel 1968 Paris and Prague Springs, in the United States the civil rights and anti-war movements, and of course our own civil rights movement. Social agitation, mass movements and the questioning of orthodox thinking affected all those seeking alternative strategies.
     This was the background of the republican movement encouraging a process of re-evaluation. It was to be a painful process, even before the pogroms of 1969, and the repressive response to civil rights demands increased divisions.
     In looking for answers, many in the republican movement, often characterised as the Cathal Goulding leadership, looked for guidance in socialist republicanism. At different times and in different circumstances the Wolfe Tone Society served as a think tank, and people like Peadar O’Donnell, George Gilmore, Tony Coughlan, Kader Asmal, Brendan Scott, Mick O’Riordan (and even myself) had an input to their journals, seminars, and debate. Roy Johnston has documented his role in all this.
     The main point I want to stress is that this political process came from within as part of a quest for ideas and discussion from all levels of their movement. The politicising of individuals and the volatile debates were part of a movement in transition under its own contradictions.
     The idea that all this took place as a result of “outside infiltration” is a mere conspiracy theory. “Éire Nua” was as much a necessary contribution to their internal debates as was Séamus Costello’s national liberation concept. In that milieu it was obvious that views, polemics and debates of the broad left, including communist viewpoints, would be avidly read and debated. Personal contacts helped this process and established initial mutual respect.
     Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin has produced a valuable book, Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, tracing the development of their movement through previous generations and the lessons for today. Matt Treacy, also of Sinn Féin, should reread it and devote his energy to focusing his party to define and practise what is modern socialist republicanism rather than playing the witch-hunter.

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