Revisiting 1969: the myth of a pre-August 1969 split

I have a few posts on events in 1969 taking a fresh look at some key events. This will include the deployment of the British Army, the introduction of internment and the split in the Belfast IRA in September 1969. But they are for another day. Firstly, I’m going to wrap up the previous post on the speeches given at a major IRA event in Mullingar in July 1969 (you can read them here and see some more here).

So, was Jimmy Steele’s speech in Mullingar really the first sign of the 1969 split in the IRA, or was the treatment of Steele simply an example of methods and attitudes of the IRA leadership at the time? Steele, a former IRA Adjutant General, had been President of the Directory of Republican Clubs in the north as recently as 1967-68. The excerpt from his speech quoted by Peter Taylor (in Provos) is used in most accounts of the 1969 IRA split to support an argument that the split reflected broad left/right divisions within the republican movement. The surviving audio of his speech neither corresponds to the text quoted by Taylor nor provides much evidence that left/right ideological issues were really the major factor in the later IRA split.

Jimmy Steele at Mullingar in 1969 (from Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA).

That the speech prompted internal ructions within the IRA isn’t at doubt. The day after it was given, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding, had Steele removed from Sinn Féin’s official panel of speakers for republican events. Steele had been involved with Fianna Éireann and the IRA since 1920, spent numerous periods in prison or interned and edited a variety of republican newspapers and pamphlets. According to Belfast IRA veteran Billy McKee, on the Wednesday evening he was in Steele’s house when Malachy McGurran (an IRA Army Council member) and Jim Sullivan (the Belfast IRA Adjutant) arrived. McKee, who had not been active in the IRA since the early 1960s, was asked to leave as Sullivan and McGurran told him they had IRA business to discuss with Steele. When McKee met Steele again a couple of days later, Steele told him that McGurran and Sullivan had been sent by Goulding to inform him of his immediate expulsion from the IRA. Any reference to Steele’s speech was omitted from the subsequent coverage of the event in the subsequent issue of the main republican newspaper, The United Irishman.

Steele’s speech had been delivered in front of crowd of 10,000 at Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, at the reburial of Peter Barnes and James McCormick. Barnes and McCormick had been hung in England in 1940 after a 1939 IRA bombing in Coventry in which five people died. A repatriation committee had campaigned for the return of their remains since 1949 and Steele spoke at the reburial on its behalf. Various other people spoke from the platform including Sinn Féin President Tomás MacGiolla (who had chaired the repatriation committee). The main speech on behalf of the IRA was by Cork man Jim O’Regan, an International Brigade veteran who had also been active during the 1939 English campaign and imprisoned along with Barnes.

 

Peter Taylor’s text

Taylor published the following text as a quote from the speech: “Our two martyred comrades who we honour today … went forth to carry the fight to the enemy, into enemy territory, using the only methods that will ever succeed, not the method of the politicians, nor the constitutionalists, but the method of soldiers, the method of armed force. The ultimate aim of the Irish nation will never emerge from the political or constitutional platform. Indeed, one is expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots. [At this point there is applause and shouts of ‘hear, hear’ on the tape.]

From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. May we hope that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit … a spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task that our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

Subsequent references to the speech all seem to be solely quoting Taylor. This includes the likes of Patrick Ryan’s The Birth of the Provisionals, Robert White’s biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-72 (which specifically cites Taylor’s quote as a transcription). Almost all use it to support an analysis of the ideological split within the IRA over opposition to a ‘leftward’ drift under Goulding.

Taylor gives his source as a tape recording of the speech played for him by McKee. The recording had been made in Mullingar by another Belfast IRA veteran Leo Martin who later donated it to the Republican History Museum in Conway Mill in Belfast before his death. The surviving recording includes the speeches by O’Regan and Steele. Despite the dreadful weather the audio quality is still remarkably good although the very start of Steele’s ten minute speech is missing.

 

Steele’s speech

The extant audio (you can read the transcript here) starts with Steele criticising People’s Democracy’s Michael Farrell and the Derry Labour Party’s Eamon McCann for refusing to march behind a tricolour at a recent James Connolly commemoration in Belfast. Here Steele chimes exactly, in tone and language, with coverage of the same issue in the June and July 1969 issues of United Irishman, and with recent statements by people close to Goulding like Tomás MacGiolla and Derry Kelleher, all  of whom emphasised James Connolly’s combination of socialism and republicanism.

The excerpt below, following his criticism of Farrell and McCann, illustrates Steele’s theme of Connolly’s vision of left-wing Irish republicanism. “Barnes and McCormick did not accept this position. They acted as Connolly would have acted and fought to the death against it. That was why they died. There are those who would decry their sacrifice and speak of the futility of martyrdom and cynically refer to glorious sacrifices. I will let Connolly answer those people as he answered the judges at his own court martial, “Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in every one generation of Irishmen of even a respectable minority read to die to affirm that truth, makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.”

The reference to “the teachings of Chairman Mao” then appears in a different context in the audio than that implied by Taylor’s account: “A period that cost the lives of twenty-six soldiers of the Irish Republican Army, nine by execution in England, Belfast and the Twenty-Six Counties, five in gun battles with enemy forces and the remainder on hunger-strike or in the prisons. Yet, until recently, there seems to be this deliberate blackout of that glorious period. Could it be that it is so fashionable to be tinged a deep red, to be militantly anti-British in the Forties, as Barnes and McCormick and their comrades were, is now considered to be tantamount to being dubbed fascists. These men were not fascists, nor were they Communists, nor murderers as their enemies allege them to be. They were simply guilty of the unpardonable crime of being Irish patriots, imbued with a deep love of Ireland and her cause of freedom.

Today, in many places, pure and raw patriotism is frowned upon. As is adherence to the policy of non-compromise and force. Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots. Barnes and McCormick were not intellectuals, they were just ordinary working class lads who looked upon it as their duty to right Ireland’s wrong. Can we assume that most of you who are assembled here today consider their cause and their methods just and necessary? Or will you assemble afterwards, in small groups, the more progressive as some of you like to be called, and speak of these poor misguided men and then propagate your ideas as to how Ireland’s freedom can be attained without fighting, without suffering, without martyrdom.

There comes a time in every generation when men try to re-direct the republican movement along a different road to that upon which our freedom fighters trod. When, Liam Mellows a few hours before he faced the firing squad, wrote about that road, he said “The signposts on that road are plain and broad and straight. It is the road on which Tone and all our martyrs are the guides. A road marked by truth, honour, principle and sacrifice.” That was the road upon which Barnes and McCormick trod, even onto martyrdom.

A great deal of propaganda is still being made on the question of unity among all who claim to be working for cause of unity and independence of our country. And Connolly’s words on this matter should give us all food for thought when he said, “Unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives, to achieve political ambition, or ultimately, to seek power and control in a united movement.” Therefore in striving for genuine unity we must be careful that such efforts may not lead to that seizure of power and control by the wrong people as defined by Connolly.” [Text in bold is the quote given by Taylor].

Despite Taylor’s annotations, there is no interruption in the audio for applause or shouts of ‘hear, hear’. Some of the text Taylor quoted could come from the start of the speech that is missing on the audio held in the Irish Republican Museum in Conway Mill. That, however, doesn’t explain other discrepancies with the text and annotations here.

 

A Raw Nerve

The final section of Steele’s speech also varies from the text given by Taylor (the text missing from Taylor’s quote is marked in bold): “From the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations, said Pearse. My real hope, is that from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha. A spirit that will ensure the final completion of the task which our martyrs were compelled to leave unfinished.”

The missing reference to the “…social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly…” again continues that James Connolly zeitgeist that ran through Steele’s speech, MacGiolla’s Bodenstown address and recent United Irishman articles. Clearly, though, given the speed of his dismissal from the IRA, Steele hit a very raw nerve. But what raw nerve did he hit? Politicisation? Left wing policies?

A longer term view suggests neither of the latter was much of a problem for the Belfast IRA (and the likes of Steele who had been active republicans for much of the previous fifty years). Steele had stood as a candidate and acted as an election agent in previous decades, and the IRA had ran candidates in Belfast in the 1960s. The Belfast IRA had also engaged with a series of political projects since the 1920s which usually included collaborating with the left although that relationship was often fraught. Tarlach Ó hUid, in his 1960 memoir Ar Thóir mo Shealbha, recounts how the IRA and various left wing groups formed an anti-imperialist republican club in Belfast in the late 1930s, only for it to fracture in 1941 when communist members withdrew support on the entry of the Soviet Union into the war as an ally of Britain. Publications like Irish Freedom and statements by leading communists like Billy McCullough show a shift in tone in 1942 away from ‘anti-imperialism’ (which included colonial powers like Britain and France) to ‘anti-fascism’ (i.e. Nazi Germany, Italy etc). Betty Sinclair later claimed Belfast communists were accused of passing the RUC information on former allies in the IRA leading to arrests and arms finds. That fallout in 1942 coloured the Belfast IRA’s perceptions of the Communist Party as an entity rather than left wing politics itself (and, based on that experience, Sinclair’s own prominence in the Civil Rights Movement was viewed with suspicion). This attitude was reinforced by the role local communists played in defending the Soviet Union’s suppression of national movements like the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968.

Those present at Steele’s speech like Joe Cahill, Sean Dunne, Roy Johnston and John Kelly all show they clearly understood the references to control and strategy as direct criticisms of Cathal Goulding. Goulding himself, in an interview with Seán Ó hÉalaithe published in Comhar in 1973, claimed that despite regularly meeting Steele, Steele had never raised any concerns with him over politicisation or left-wing IRA policies. Although there is evidence of Steele previously criticising the direction Goulding was promoting within the IRA policy. Steele had been the main speaker at the Manchester Martyrs centenary in Manchester in November 1967. His speech had carried criticisms of the ‘New Departure’ of Davitt and Devoy, a deal between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and constitutional nationalists over attendance at Westminster. This was obviously allegorical and cut across Cathal Goulding’s own push to end abstentionism, but this clearly wasn’t that raw a nerve since Goulding took no action against Steele after the 1967 Manchester speech. Notably, though, Goulding had pushed through an expansion of the IRA’s Army Council, from seven to twenty members in September 1968 which enabled him to co-opt supporters of his politicisation strategy and force through reforms of the IRA. Goulding’s methods here may have been one focus of Steele’s criticisms.

The Mullingar speech also took place in the shadow of loyalist bombings in April, May and June 1969 and increasing concerns in Belfast at Goulding’s refusal to relax his control over access to IRA arms. In May and then again in July, Goulding told meetings of IRA GHQ staff that there were plans in place to defend northern nationalists in the event of unionist violence. However, he told a meeting of local IRA O/Cs that, in a crisis, it would be the British government who would have to step in and disband the B Specials and bring in reforms. In May the northern O/Cs had met and had a request for weapons approved but they never got them. Matt Treacy, in The I.R.A. 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic, records that Roy Johnston, then on the Army Council, claims Goulding intended to leave Belfast undefended as he hoped that a backlash to any sustained violence against Catholics would lead to the disbanding of the B Specials. Goulding himself admits that G.H.Q. had arms but they withheld them from the north as they had not believed what they had been told about the threat of violence (Goulding as quoted in Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War: The Military History of a Domestic Conflict). I am a little dubious about this last point though, as on 16th August 1969, when the IRA demanded Goulding issue weapons, it seems clear that there no longer were any significant dumps of IRA weapons for Goulding to release.

Cathal Goudling (centre) being spoken to by Jim Sullivan (with armband) while Tomas MacGiolla stands behind him.

While Goulding’s plans to end abstentionism were a clear focus of Steele’s speech, I think the atmosphere around the Mullingar event was created by Goulding’s policy on weapons. The Belfast IRA had collected its existing stocks of weapons prior to the 1956 border campaign and then transported outside Belfast to be redistributed to units involved in the border areas during that campaign. Afterwards, throughout the 1960s, the Belfast Battalion only had access to a handful of weapons. Steele and others may have been conscious that Goulding’s intention was to leave Belfast undefended (as claimed by Johnston). The Belfast IRA was acutely aware of how its lack of weaponry made it unable to respond to the kind of crises that occurred in 1920-22 and 1935 and which its older members had directly experienced.

Whether over constitutionalism or weapons for the Belfast Battalion, Steele’s quote “unity is a word used by many with ulterior motives” intentionally insinuated that Goulding was now acting in the interests of someone other than the IRA (clearly meaning the Communist Party). All of this obviously hit a raw nerve. Despite his speech never referencing the weapons issues in Belfast, those present seem to have understood Steele’s point (and it seems unlikely that a long time IRA veteran like Steele would breach IRA protocols by openly discussing IRA business at a public event). What perhaps made matters worse was the fact that there were almost always longstanding enmities between Belfast and Dublin over control of IRA strategy. While rarely discussed openly, this clearly had been a recurring problem for the IRA and had been central to previous crises, such as in 1922 and the Stephen Hayes affair of 1940-41. Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees actually quotes Steele as saying he would “Get his own back on Dublin” after his expulsion.

So arguably, the real tensions within the IRA were over access to the weapons that everyone believed Goulding had securely under his own control. On 16th August 1969 when violence began to consume the north, Goulding was besieged by IRA units demanding he open up all the dumps. Only then did it became clear that the IRA’s stocks of arms and ammunition, that were central to that crisis in the IRA that summer, did not really exist.

While Mullingar clearly represented an event in the journey towards the split in the IRA later in 1969, I suspect it was actually less significant than is claimed. It was later to suit those on both sides of the subsequent split in the IRA to reach back before the events of August 1969 for the split’s origin. As far as the Official IRA was concerned, this served two purposes. It allowed it to claim that the basis of the split in the IRA was one between what it could present as ‘progressive’ versus ‘militant’ republicanism. The second purpose was that this neatly deflected from the criticism of Goulding and the IRA’s failure to respond to unionist violence during mid-August 1969. More so, in extremis, the likes of Roy Johnston have even sought to actively implicate those who were on the Provisional IRA side of the split as intentionally complicit in fomenting the violence of mid-August 1969 and cite Steele’s speech in Mullingar as evidence. As far as those on the Provisional IRA side of the split were concerned, though, Steele’s speech evidence of internal resistance within the IRA to the policies that led to the IRA’s own failures in mid-August 1969. Thus the Provisional IRA could also disassociate itself from Goulding and the events of that August by placing the roots of the schism before that August.

It that regard, it is hard to see beyond the IRA’s failure to prepare to counteract the extreme violence of mid-August 1969 as the real basis for the IRA split later that year but I’ll cover that another day.

 

You can read a full transcript and hear some audio of Steele’s and O’Regan’s speech here. Notes on 1969 meetings of Sinn Féin’s Coiste Seasta are available on Roy Johnston’s website (see www.rjtechne.org). The account of Steele’s dismissal from the IRA is based on information from Billy McKee.

There is more on the context of the Mullingar speech in Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969.

5 responses to “Revisiting 1969: the myth of a pre-August 1969 split

  1. Pingback: Revisiting 1969: the deployment of the British Army, April 1969 | The Treason Felony Blog

  2. Pingback: Revisiting 1969: standing idly by | The Treason Felony Blog

  3. Pingback: Revisiting 1969: the Belfast IRA, reactions and responses | The Treason Felony Blog

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