What goes around comes around as Provisional IRA’s heirs defeat Gilmore

Posted By: May 28, 2014

By Gerard Howlin. Irish Examiner ( Cork). WednesdayMay 28, 2014.

THERE is a symmetry to the departure of Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, the highest-ranking
alumni of the former Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party, The Workers’ Party, Democratic
Left tradition, after a devastating defeat at the hands of Sinn Féin at the polls.

There is no division in Irish politics that runs more bitterly than that between the
political heirs of the Official and Provisional IRAs’ split in 1969-70.

Much of this, if remembered at all, is recalled as only a curiosity. But for
stalwarts who started in politics in the 1970s, like Gilmore or Gerry Adams, none of
the irony will be lost. Having first split, and then feuded, about who would man the
barricades and about the ideological underpinning of those barricades, their final,
decisive struggle was fought snout to snout over the trough of government, on an
island irretrievably partitioned until a majority in Northern Ireland agrees
otherwise. The ultimate spoil now is neither ending partition nor capitalism. It is
operating the system both promised to bury.

Before fussing over who will lead Labor on, and where it might be headed, it is
worth reflecting that beneath the froth of events, sometimes grandly called current
affairs, are deeper trends. The results of last Friday’s elections are highly

But among a myriad of facts is a simple one. Sinn Féin did-in Labor and Gilmore’s
departure is a consequence. Independents contributed to his woes, perhaps even
Fianna Fáil, to a degree, though I doubt it contributed much. This is about Sinn
Féin, at first slowly, but ultimately more effectively, following the route
pioneered by the Officials through myriad name changes and identities, from the
paramilitary to the parliamentary and eventually into government. For all who follow
that mirage from left to right, the nirvana of government is ultimately destined to
be a circle of Hell. But no matter, it’s a well-trodden route. This summer, it is
also a very busy one.

Eamon Gilmore, who came into politics in the late 1970s, caught up with that caravan
after the political vanguard he joined had stopped shooting. Its rear-guard, the
Official IRA, had no such compunction. It continued its paramilitary activity well
into the 1980s and spawned then, as dissident republicanism has now, a spin-off into
common criminality. The disentangling of the political from a paramilitary tainted
by criminality is the story of the progression of Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party into
the Workers’ Party and on into Democratic Left in the South. It is a story very well
told in Dr Kevin Rafter’s book, To the Left of Labour: the Workers’ Party and
Democratic Left, 1982-97.

It was also an ideological journey, which, intending to rescue a working class from
sectarianism, increasingly eschewed nationalism. In the killing fields of the 1970s,
this was a bitter betrayal from the Provisional perspective. The lowest life forms
were the ‘Stickies’, so called because the Officials fundraised by giving out
stick-on badges to donors.

In the North, it was the breakaway Provisional movement that avowedly put its
nationalism ahead of its socialism. Much more successful at terrorism, they turned
their back on electoral politics, at first. The Officials, instead, turned to it,
attracted a small group of very talented people, including Gilmore, and set to it.
At their zenith, they had six TDs, led by Prionsias De Rossa, himself a veteran of
the IRA’s 1957 border campaign.

Parallel, and arguably greater, success came elsewhere. A defining characteristic of
the Official movement, in all its iterations and acronyms, was its capacity to find,
or place, talented people in places of power across the media and in the trade

Its highly assertive presence in RTÉ coloured, and perhaps insidiously slanted,
coverage of key issues, such as the hunger strikes. As a group of talented people,
with a remarkable mutual affinity through an extraordinarily changing range of
objectives over time, the durability of the Official tendency is incredible. Always
more about key people than a mass following, or even any following at all, it was
hard-wired for power from the beginning.

Long after all its ostensible forms had melted away, its echo could be heard on
Monday, when Gilmore talked about Labor needing a “new voice at the microphone”.
Yesterday’s talk about Labor’s “message”, from his former acolyte turned dissident,
TD Aodhán Ó Ríordán, continued an ingrained analysis that, in part, there is always
a presentation that can triumph over substance.

The substance of Labor’s problem, however, is that it went into government, in 2011,
in circumstances where, for the first time in the history of the State, its presence
was unnecessary for an alternative administration to Fianna Fáil. That was done for
power and, at the price of regressing for a generation, the possibility of
effectively pursuing a social democrat agenda. This was the judgment made at the
ballot box by Labor voters last Friday. Labor’s problem is not its message, nor its
voice at the microphone, nor even what is has done in government. It is what it said
in opposition. In the end, for Gilmore, there was one costume change too many.

Now Sinn Féin, which so bloodily put its nationalism before its socialism, which
belatedly adopted democratic politics, has emerged triumphant at the ballot box and
as the ‘real’ Left alternative to Laboor. What we have seen this past week is old
scores being settled long after the original row was forgotten, except by a few

More importantly for the future, we are in the midst of a highly evocative reprise
of the past. Belatedly, but in much greater numbers, Sinn Féin are following the
furrow ploughed, first through nationalism, then socialism and finally into
government, by their Official antagonists.

One of the seminal changes in Gilmore’s adult political life was the fall of the
Berlin Wall. That was a key prompt for the move onto Democratic Left, before it,
too, ran out of steam, and it remains a seminal modern event. In the modern world,
socialism is not only utopian; it is nonsense. The words ‘social democracy — always
passwords for betrayal on the Left — now forming on Sinn Féin’s lips are about
redistributing the leftovers, but never the substance of our existing system.

Labor’s problem now will sooner or later be Sinn Féin’s problem. Socialism, even
social democracy, like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, is an unobtainable

Pat Rabbitte said at the weekend that even if John the Baptist came back, it would
not have done Labor any good. That’s the point. You can’t fight the fundamentals
and, in politics, you can’t perform miracles, so you should not promise any. But,
for politicians, there is an irritable attraction to try to walk on water.
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