Roy Johnston, 1929-2019

Roy Johnston, who died last Friday, was a fascinating figure who had a central role in republican politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Privately educated at St Columba’s and then Trinity College Dublin, his family had roots in Tyrone although he mainly spent his life in Dublin. Johnston also lived in France in the early 1950s and England in the early 1960s. With a PhD in Astrophysics, a systems analyst role with Aer Lingus and prominence in Science and Technology circles, he seemed an unlikely candidate for a position on the IRA’s Army Council.

By the way, this quick post, focusing on politics, barely reflects the richness of Johnston’s outputs and achievements.

Moving in Marxist circles in Trinity in the late 1940s, Johnston had been active in the the Irish Workers League (IWL) under which a variety of Irish left wing groups coalesced in 1948. The IWL, known as the Irish Workers Party after 1962, was the name under which the Communist Party operated in the Republic of Ireland (the Communist Party of Ireland was reconstituted in 1970 when it merged with the Communist Party of Northern Ireland). Johnston, though, had moved to England in 1960 after his contract in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies was not renewed.

There he joined the Connolly Association (CA), having become disenchanted with the IWL. The Connolly Association is often (rightly or wrongly) portrayed, at that time, as largely a creature of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) particularly due to the influence of Desmond Greaves (a member of CPGB since the early 1930s) over the CA and in his role as editor of its paper The Irish Democrat. The CA adopted Greaves’ analysis that Irish republicans should target exposing the iniquities of the Unionist regime to Westminster as a way to force the British government to confront the legacy of partition, hopefully as a prelude to resolving how partition would end. However, internationally, communism was simultaneously associated with dynamic anti-colonial movements in places like Vietnam and Cuba and with Soviet-dominated suppression of nationalist movements in the likes of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The latter in particular provoked deep ambivalence about the motivations of individuals that were formally or informally aligned with the CPGB. Johnston himself was quite reticent in discussing his membership, formal or otherwise, of any communist groups.

Within a few years Johnston returned to Ireland where he became involved in the Wolfe Tone Societies that emerged during the early 1960s (see more here) and evolved into the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. He also became directly involved in the IRA under Cathal Goulding, joining the Army Council and acting as Director of Education. Analysis was being given to Goulding by Johnston and Anthony Coughlan (another gifted academic). However, both seemed to find the violent sectarian dynamic in northern politics utterly incomprehensible and so disregarded it entirely. Repeatedly in his later memoirs Johnston continually sought refuge in conspiracy theories to explain why they did not succeed in their proposed tactics around civil rights (you can read more on this in his, and his father’s, joint memoir – Century of Endeavour – accompanied by Johnston’s own notes and commentary here). To be fair to Johnston, embracing conspiracy theories may have been a trait he inherited from his father who had nurtured his own conspiracy theories, such as that the Unionist gun-running at Larne in 1912 was really just a plot to deceive the Germans into thinking the British would not go to war with them.

This disconnect between that analysis being put forward by Johnston and events on the ground provides a significant backdrop to events within the IRA during the summer and latter end of 1969 (see the likes of my own post here or search this blog for any #Revisiting1969 posts). When the Belfast IRA proposed that a number of individuals be removed from their posts over the IRA’s failures during the summer of 1969, Johnston was one of those specifically named. One of those of proposing Johnston’ removal was Billy McKee who died earlier this year. The proposed replacement for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff was Sean Garland, who died exactly a year before Johnston.

Having moved in both academic and revolutionary Marxist circles, Johnston appeared to have assimilated the elitism of both groups in disproportionately valuing his own analysis over that of others from outside those circles. A quirk of Johnston’s family’s having Presbyterian small-farming roots in Tyrone may have contributed to a misconception that he somehow genetically ‘understood’ the north while clearly underestimating the capacity both of the Unionist government for violence and the extent to which exposing its iniquities in Westminster might prompt a shocked reaction from the British establishment. The flaws in that latter strategy also continue to be starkly illustrated by British attitudes towards Ireland evident during the Brexit process and London’s long term disregard for basic human and legal rights in the north. As noted above, you can argue that his attitudes are echoed in his father’s recourse to explaining away the 1912 Unionist gun-running.

In Johnston’s favour, though, and perhaps his most notable legacy in Irish republicanism, is that the social justice and economic elements of his politics are seen as essential components of the political platform of most post-1970 Irish republican groups.

Roy Johnston died last Friday, 13th December.

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