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 portioned 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 Labour 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 complex.
But among a myriad of facts is a simple one. Sinn Féin did-in Labour 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, and the tout.
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 unions.
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 Labour needing a “new voice at the microphone”. Yesterday’s talk about Labour’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 Labour’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 Labour voters last Friday. Labour’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 Labour. What we have seen this past week is old scores being settled long after the original row was forgotten, except by a few veterans.
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.
Labour’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 miracle.
Pat Rabbitte said at the weekend that even if John the Baptist came back, it would not have done Labour 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.