Uncovering Ireland’s Communist History / by Owen Dowling

Connolly Youth Movement flags raised in Dublin on a day of national protest against the privatization of water in Ireland, September 17, 2016. (Azzy O’Connor / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 29, 2023

A new film offers a visually attractive, fair-minded, and substantial introduction to the lost world of Irish Communism, and the vision of a more just future that Irish Communists sought to create.

When I speak of scientific socialism I speak in terms of bringing about a revolution, bringing about the workers’ republic which Connolly spoke to us about. A workers’ republic to us means one thing and one thing only, the economic domination, the ownership of every factory, mill, and mine in this country, by the working people.

Gliding over the frosty rooftops of a wintry north Dublin suburb, as the voices of the Red Army Choir swell from hushed tones to their full, bombastic chorus, the camera descends into a garden inhabited by a trampoline, basketball hoop, and, at its center, a six-foot marble bust of Lenin. A sharp cut to stock footage of Brezhnev-era Red Square, and to our red-clad, beret-sporting narrator Daracha Nic Philibín, accompanies a tonal shift, as the Alexandrov Ensemble gives way to the synthetic beats of modern-day Belarussian post-punk outfit Molchat Doma. “It’s easy to forget, as we look back at the closing years of the twentieth century, that competing ideologies still remained about how life should be organized.”

Reds! na hÉireann, a new Irish-language TV film on the inner lives of the later-twentieth century Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) from director Kevin Brannigan, evokes in its opening vignette the dynamic medley of contrasts that defined the experience of the Irish Communists, south and north. A montage of the global Cold War — when “revolutionary left-wing groups emerged . . . even here in Ireland” — culminates in grainy film of a rainy Connolly Youth Movement (CYM) march against the Vietnam War, with the Marxist grouping’s namesake depicted on a banner reading: “For Peace and Socialism.”

Looking back on these events from the far side of the “End of History,” Reds! frames its subject from the offset as indelibly rooted in the prelapsarian era before the definitive, disillusioning collapse of Soviet socialism. Pairing kitschy Soviet aesthetics with futuristic electronic scores, and black-and-white footage of idealistic young faces in packed meetings with present-day, high-definition interviews in old cadres’ sleepy homes, the film’s stylized, multimedia impression of the Irish Communist experience conjures a resonant sense of nostalgia for a lost alternative modernism.

Communism and Ireland

Reds! is a snappily constructed, engaging panorama, leading viewers along the — for many, likely unfamiliar — social and cultural tracks of Communist politics in the Ireland of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. All manner of historical materials are drawn upon, including a wealth of remarkable footage of CPI and CYM meetings sourced, Brannigan tells me, from “deep in the RTE [Ireland’s public broadcaster] archive” (likely unseen since original broadcast in the late 1960s). Periodic narration gives loose structure to this collage, offering viewers new to this history a handrail throughout, but for the most part, the film’s titular reds are allowed to speak for themselves — primarily via extended, intercutting interviews with eleven stalwarts of the contemporary CPI.

The Communist Party of Ireland (the third historical organization to claim that title) was, the film explains, formed in 1970 following the merger of the Irish Workers’ Party and Communist Party of Northern Ireland, as “an all-Ireland party” — with concentrations in Dublin and Belfast, and other branches throughout the island.

The organizational history of the CPI otherwise receives little discussion, but the significance of a sense of history among these young cadres is obvious throughout. White-bearded party longtimer Sean Edwards, interviewed from a living room festooned with republican, communist, and Spanish Civil War memorabilia, explains: “We forged a dream of Irish socialism from our own history, and our own struggle.” Alongside Lenin, the figure of James Connolly looms large within these Communists’ iconography. Through wonderful footage of the CYM headquarters in Pembroke Lane, Dublin, we see giant canvases being painted of Connolly and Lenin, with the walls adorned by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) flags and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

A strong pedagogical culture within the CPI’s youth wing stands out. As RTE footage pans over bookshelves lined with editions of Lenin, Engels, Connolly, and Eurocommunism: Myth or Reality?, present-day interviewee Mick O’Reilly — seen in the recording as a young man, addressing a room of late-’60s haircuts on “Connolly’s Marxist teachings” — explains: “The one thing about the Communist movement and the Connolly Youth Movement and all of that was reading.” Another cadre concurs, recalling that where some “went to TCD [Trinity College Dublin ] or UCD [University College Dublin] . . . we went to the CYM for our education.”

The relationship of the Communist Party to Irish republicanism receives some discussion, though is perhaps not as prominent a theme here as one might have expected. Philadelphia-born former nun Helena Sheehan (author of the well-known Marxism and the Philosophy of Science) and Eoin Ó Murchú were both members of Official Sinn Fein before finding “a new home with the Communist Party,” following internecine splits and the murders of Billy McMillen and Seamus Costello.

Recollections of the path to Communist politics by former cadres hailing from ostensibly nationalist west and loyalist east Belfast bolster the claim of one interviewee that, in the Six Counties, the CPI “was a nonsectarian space in the middle of a sectarian conflict . . . a really precious thing in terms of Northern Ireland.” Beyond this, however, there is relatively little discussion of how Communists in Northern Ireland confronted the problem of sectarianism among the broader working class, or of the heated contemporary debates over the national question and so-called Two Nations Theory. This is consonant with the film’s general focus, primarily interested not so much in the specificities of CPI high politics as in the zeitgeist of what it meant to be a young Communist in contemporary Ireland.

Raphael Samuel, recalling his youth in the Communist Party of Great Britain, wrote that “[to] be a Communist was to have a complete social identity, one which transcended the limits of class, gender, and nationality. . . . [W]e lived in a little private world of our own.” This element of the Communist subcultural experience is a strong feature throughout Reds!; one interviewee, having joined the Communist Party in Sheffield, found that upon moving to late-’60s Belfast that “there were ready-made friends here within the Communist Party, you know.”

Through contemporary footage, photos, and descriptions, we get a picture of the meetings, marches, “Party bazaars,” and other get-togethers where Irish Communists congregated, families in tow. For Belfast poet Sinead Morrissey, the youngest interviewee, Communism was “a very familial affair as well because it was the party that had brought my parents together.” Morrissey’s bittersweet recollections of her “communist childhood,” and of the “really clearly defined spaces where this world unfolded . . . where I felt I really belonged,” give valuable dimension to the daily lived reality of these reds: “I just remember posters of Marx, and I remember everybody smoked . . .”

Post-Soviet Melancholia

The emotional relationship of these Irish Communists to contemporary Eastern Europe occupies the final third of the film. The CPI was generally close to Moscow, with many of its cadres, we learn, often venturing to the Eastern Bloc for party congresses or family holidays. “There was always a welcome for us in Moscow.”

Reds! paints an interesting picture of these Irish cadres’ reception of repression and reform in the Soviet bloc, up to its terminal crisis in 1989–91. The Warsaw Pact suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, O’Reilly (who eventually left the CPI for the Eurocommunist Irish Marxist Society) recalled, was “a disgrace . . . condemned by the Communist Party here in Ireland” — but one that “started a split that lasted for years,” and in his view “poisoned everything.”

On this, and into the years of perestroika, most interviewees speaking on the subject identify themselves as having been increasingly critical of the unfreedoms and corruption in the Eastern Bloc, and supportive of reform initiatives. We don’t really hear from the pro-Soviet hard-liners they reference having contended with at the time.

Forthright narration and contemporary RTE footage of discontent and demonstrations as these governments flagged offer a correctly negative diagnosis of the political systems of Eastern Europe in which the Communist Party leadership of the 1980s still maintained illusions. Despite this, the film’s concluding treatment of the collapse of the USSR, and our protagonists’ contemporary responses, is ambiguous and affecting.

Testimony recalling dashed hopes that the Soviet system could have been reformed into “a better form of socialism, a more democratic form of socialism,” the collapse in Belfast of Sinead Morrissey’s “childhood family,” and the lamentation in hindsight of the subsequent epoch of untrammeled capitalist triumphalism worldwide, all help communicate to the audience a palpable sense of loss.

It might be said that the film’s considerable focus on the course of the Soviet Union’s dissolution comes at the expense of greater engagement with the political and social conditions faced by the Communist Party in contemporary Ireland. This editorial decision probably owes in part to the nature of the program, as a film primarily aimed at Irish audiences about Communism, rather than at established left-wing audiences about Ireland.

That said, there is no question that Reds! has a great deal to offer international audiences interested in the place of Communist politics within the Ireland of the Troubles. This is a real example of serious historical filmmaking, drawing creatively upon diverse original and historical source materials to proffer a visually attractive, fair-minded, and substantial introduction to the lost world of Irish Communism.

Owen Dowling is a historian and archival researcher at Tribune.

Commentary: On transphobia / by Miranda Lynch

Recently, right-wing and liberal media have been attacking trans people in increasingly vicious ways. How can we analyse this from a left-wing viewpoint?

     In 1919 Lenin said the following in a speech on anti-Semitism: “The hate of the workers and peasants, the landowners and capitalists tried to divert against the Jews. In other countries, too, we often see the capitalists fomenting hatred against the Jews, in order to blind the workers, to divert their attention from the real enemy of the working people: capital.”

     In Labour in Irish History, Connolly wrote the following: “Hence the bourgeois press and politicians incessantly strive to inflame the working-class mind to fever heat upon questions outside the range of their own class interests. War, religion, race, language, political reform, patriotism—apart from whatever intrinsic merits they may possess—all serve in the hands of the possessing class as counter-irritants, whose function it is to avert the catastrophe of social revolution by engendering heat in such parts of the body politic as are the farthest removed from the seat of economic enquiry, and consequently of class consciousness on the part of the proletariat.”

     While anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, transphobia, sectarianism, hatred against refugees etc. are unique struggles that should certainly not be compared directly, the tactics of the ruling class are far from unique each time. Again and again we see the ruling classes exploit bigotry and prejudice, to divide the working class and to distract workers so they don’t examine their place in society and become class-conscious.

     The goal is to divide the working class, by positioning trans people as outside the working class, and claiming that the interests of trans people are somehow opposed to working-class interests. We can see in the areas of housing, health and employment that this could not be further from the truth.

     According to research by Stonewall, one in four trans people in Britain have experienced homelessness. Trans people are also likely to be living in a precarious or unsafe housing situation because of discrimination by family members or flatmates.

     The waiting-list for trans health care in Ireland at the National Gender Service in Loughlinstown is at present between 2½ and 3 years. This is a symptom of an underfunded HSE but also of a “gatekeeping” protocol which requires trans people to prove their transness and increases waiting-lists further.

     On the employment side, precarious work has become increasingly common, especially among young people. Flexible or temporary contracts and bogus self-employment constructions put trans and LGBT people at risk of employment discrimination, as their bosses can easily reduce their hours or fire them.

     For housing, health and employment we can thus see that trans people are hit by the double whammy of discrimination and economic issues. As socialists we should use our strength in this area and push for public housing, better public health, and an end to precarious employment contracts.

     However, we must not limit ourselves to strict economism. Nor should we accuse trans people of dividing the movement when they stand against their own oppression. We should stand with the trans and LGBT community against cynical attacks on them from right-wing media and politicians. Most importantly, we must bring the working class together and unite against all forms of oppression.

Miranda Lynch writing for Socialist Voice, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.

Socialist Voice, July 4, 2022, https://socialistvoice.ie/

Northern Ireland elections – the communist view / by Eugene McCartan

Sinn Fein’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill, centre, reacts with party colleagues after being elected in Mid Ulster at the Medow Bank election count centre in Magherafelt , Northern Ireland, Friday, May, 6, 2022

Communist Party of Ireland general secretary explains how solutions to Ireland’s problems cannot be found within the political structures created by and bolstered by imperialism

THE outcome of the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly should not come as a surprise to anyone who pays the least bit of attention to one of the last remnants of the British empire.

With Sinn Fein securing 29 per cent of the popular vote, 250,398 first-preference votes and winning the largest number of seats (29) to become the largest party in the assembly, Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill will be entitled to be nominated to become first minister. The DUP secured 27 seats.

That Sinn Fein is now the largest elected party in the enclave has sent a huge shock-wave through the unionist political leadership as well as through the southern, Republic of Ireland political Establishment.

For the first time since the founding of the gerrymandered northern statelet, established under the control and direction of British imperialism over a century ago, unionism is no longer the largest party nor the deciding force in six county politics.

Following on the election result, unionism has reacted in its default mode of threatening violence to prevent change, and its imperial masters in London will be only too ready to manipulate those threats to maintain a unionist veto on anything they consider challenging to their interests.

Political unionism has always used the dogwhistle of “protect the union” or “not an inch” dressed up in sectarian rhetoric and backed up by extreme violence against the nationalist minority to hold the unionist-orientated people in check.

A number of factors have brought about this election result. Unionism remains in a political, economic and cultural cul-de-sac, still hankering after a lost relationship to its former imperial benefactor.

Unionism has down the decades fed generation after generation of its political support base the belief that they would always be top dog, that there would be, nor could be, any change in who governs the six counties.

They bred a mentality of “no surrender,” which was to ensure conformity and obedience and a show of force against any nationalist resistance. Britain was only too willing to let the situation pertain so long as its interests in Ireland were secure.

Today the demographics have changed, with a growing nationalist population and a declining unionist one. In addition, the nationalist people are no longer the cowed and battered-down populace they once were. They are politically and culturally much more confident and surer of themselves.

Unionism’s constant display of the settler colonial mentality of “no surrender” has left many of their supporters confused politically and culturally locked deeply into the past of a settler-colonial mindset, a mindset not too dissimilar to that of the zionist settlers in Palestine, the white minority in South Africa or the white supremacists in the US.

Today British imperialism has other allies and interests to cultivate and develop in Ireland.

British imperialism has succeeded in locking radical republicanism into institutions that are still controlled by the British and by whose outcomes they exert significant control, locking them into a political process around some vague idea of “consent,” an exercise some would call a “pacification process.”

British imperialism is pursuing more strategic interests with the ruling class of the south, a relationship far more important to their overall imperialist strategy in Ireland.

The southern ruling class is central to securing the triple-lock of US, EU and British imperialism.

Unionism stood in the elections on two main planks, firstly to abolish the “Northern Ireland Protocol” (part of the Brexit process) and secondly to end the legal statutory obligation that the largest party in the assembly automatically gets the office of first minister. It has clearly failed on both strategic issues.

Once again it has demonstrated its backward anti-democratic world view.

The other big winner in the elections was the Alliance Party, which secured 13.5 per cent of the first-preference votes. The Alliance secured a greater number of votes from the old Ulster Unionist Party (11.2 per cent) fighting on a pro-Protocol pro-EU platform with the unionist business community and the professional classes switching to vote in their own material self-interest, a clear indication that unionism continues to fracture and fragment.

The DUP lost votes, dropping down to 23.1 per cent of the vote and losing voters to the Traditional Unionist Values Party, a party even more entrenched in bigotry and pro-imperialist ideology.

The election result has also not been welcomed by the Dublin Establishment. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Labour Party canvassed for the SDLP while the Dublin-based media promoted the SDLP against Sinn Fein.

While the nationalist people in the six counties may take some small satisfaction at the discomfort of unionist politicians, elements on the “left” within the six counties lamented that real politics did not feature in the election debates. We have to ask the question what is real politics?

What they suggest is that social and economic demands and struggles take place in some sort of void. Struggles devoid of political context which ignore concrete material conditions are doomed to failure. They also imply that a democratic solution to the question of imperial interference is of secondary importance rather than being primary.

What is clear is there is no lasting stable solution to be found within the political structures created by and bolstered by imperialism.

Partition has been the major roadblock to the national democratic struggle of the Irish people. It is only by ending the partition of Ireland and the allowing the people of Ireland to decide their future that true democracy and peace can be built.

The ending of partition of Ireland would also be a major democratic advance for progressive forces in Britain itself.

The strategy of the Communist Party of Ireland is to develop maximum economic, political, social relation between north and south and to shrink the east-west controls from London, thereby providing greater potential for national working-class unity on a national democratic basis.

To link and develop all-Ireland struggles in areas like health, housing, industrial development, social and workers’ rights. To strengthen the national content in the class struggle and the class content in the national struggle.

Morning Star (UK), May 6, 2022, https://morningstaronline.co.uk/