Saturday, February 13, 2010

The strange quiet surrounding the passing of Thoams McGiolla

Below is a piece received from Red Rebel.


Strange how An Phoblacht failed to mention the death of Tomas McGiolla except for an article by Micheal MacDonnchadh on the founding of the paper in 1970 which briefly mentions him.

McGiolla went from being a right wing Catholic of privileged farming background in the 1940s to leading a Stalinist Party to ending up a bitter old man who had fallen out with his erstwhile comrades one by one or sometimes six by six throughout his political life. His journey from being an alleged member of a Catholic Secret Society called Maria Duce, to his joining the IRA in the 1950s, to his Presidency of Sinn Féin in the 60s and the turn to the left, to the Leadership of Official Sinn Féin, to Sinn Fein the Workers Party with its Stalinist Democratic Centralism, to the Workers Party and to his betrayal by those who left to form Democratic Left and who now run the Labour Party, is a fascinating story.

The recent book by Hanley and Millar, The Lost Revolution, throws a lot of light on this journey but it is by no means the full story and a previous book by Sean Swan called Official Irish Republicanism (sic) 1962 to 1972 fills in some of the gaps. The Workers Party became the most successful Socialist party ever in the 26 Counties (having 7 TDs elected to Leinster House) before its inherent contradictions, its secret cadres and its military fund raising, amongst other reasons, led to disagreement and disintegration.

The statement by ex-member Eamon Gilmore now leader of the Labour Party highlighted by Conor Foley in a letter to An Phoblacht this week shows the political amnesia, the u turns, contradictions and animosity that McGiollas followers suffered from faced with the National Question.

The Stickies weren’t wrong about everything. Indeed in my view they were right about a lot of things especially on the economic situation of the 26 counties, the promotion of workers rights and the need for a Socialist solution, but I think they failed to understand the colonial nature of the 6 county problem and the depth of Loyalist sectarianism.

When they turned away from confronting the Loyalist Statelet and began to try and reform it they eventually floundered. Lessons for us all there maybe?


  1. Red,

    Macgiolla was clearly a major personality in the history of the republican socialist movement and I would agree that his life has lessons for all republicans.

    One of the things I wish us not to repeat is the manner in which his brand of republicanism turned on other republicans and began to see them as the real enemy. This in my opinion let the british and Ulster statelet off the hook.

    We must always remember what our long term objectives are and recognise our real enemies.

  2. A bitter old man? I seriously doubt that - not least from someone who expressed the thought more recently that he could talk to R Ó B easier than on PDB. As someone who went through the WP and later DL and had significant disagreements with both their stances on the North I'd be less sure that it was a turning away from the North that led to their downfall. More like a turning away from the South.

  3. I think the secret to understanding Tomas MacGiolla is simply that he was a loyal volunteer. He followed the IRA's line regardless of changes. Not that he was a military figure, he wasn't, he was political and, in a way, the political figure-head of the Movement. People might object that he was loyal to Goulding, but that's ignoring the fact that Goulding was the legitimate chief of staff. People can debate whether the Provos were right or not, but nobody can dispute the fact that they were a breakaway group and Goulding was legitimate c/s in 1969.

    Sean Swan

  4. Red,

    It seems to me they turned away from confronting the loyalist state because their political theory said that as the people doing the fighting in the main were working class on both sides (which was correct) but they then kept on with trying to fit reality into theory and "uniting the workers" according to theory and lost all touch with reality. eventually they got so bad they became a tool of the British.

    They failed to understand the depth of loyalism in working class communities because political theory told them all workers were the same etc etc.
    True indeed but a very naive way of looking at things.

    For me the lesson is the application of political theory too far leads to unmitigated disaster.

    Finally I guess Thomas has received only a cursory review because his and the workers party project has failed totally.

    Just as they could not adapt and develop their political outlook in the north to match reality then so too they failed to develop it in the south.
    The result was someone like deRossa took it over and turned it into his own career vehicle.

    The lesson in the south might be that you cant keep trucking on with the same approach year in year out.

    Workers party members might blame deRossa for destroying the party. Instead it was the failure of the workers party to manage their growth properly that gave deRossa the space to do what he wanted. The workers party had to keep developing its outlook for the times it lived in. It didnt do that and as a result deRossa took their political potential and harnessed it for his own end.

    Blame for that is nor De Rossa's alone.

    Coverage of Thomas has been small maybe because ultimately the WP failed totally.

    The irony now is that the total irrelevance of arguing over obscure points of stalinist control, reformis, etc etc. is apparent to all.

    Its like the SWP and the SP arguing about how you govern a country and faalling out over it but in the real world not even managing a council.

    Huge lessons in the WP for republicans today

  5. Starry Plough, unfortunately that has been happening for years and shows little sign of easing up. The similarities with the Sticks are remarkable. It is not essential for a movement heading off in the current SF direction to behave like that in order to get there so it must be part of the cuture within the longer history of the Movement.

    Informative post Red

  6. Mac Giolla was president of Sinn Fein from 1962-70 and for that reason alone should have recieved a decent obituary in AP/RN. Furthermore he was an important figure in the movement from the mid 1950s and made important contributions during the mid-late 60s, some of which republicans take for granted now.

  7. A really interesting post.

    I think you are right, the Stickies did not understand/rejected the idea that NI is a colony. They also misundertood Unionism, which has cemented Unionist workers to a reactionary political creed based on relative privileges. That's why the Equality Agenda is so important; not only is it democratic and anti-discrimination, every success (such as closer equality of employment for Catolics in the public sector) undermines the basis for the alliance between Unionist workers and their rulers.

    But the Stickies and similar also have an incorrect view of the Southern state too. The reason FF pursue such vicious policies is that they are literaly the party of the big farmers, the property speculators and failed banks and the gombeen men. In Britain or the US, the government ultimately represents Barclays, BP and the brewers, or Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Chevron and Wal-Mart. In the South, comparable indigenous entitities just don't exist, and over 75 years after independence I think we can safely say they aren't going to. It is therefore a fruitless exercise looking for some progressive or forward-looking section of Irish capital. It doesnt exist.

    Only the workers of Ireland, and their allies among the poor (the 'people of no property' in a modern context) can build both a modern and equitable society.

  8. "McGiolla went from being a right wing Catholic of privileged farming background in the 1940s"

    That's a lie.

  9. Nora,

    I have to ask you this: are you sure that the Ulster Protestant identity (working class or otherwise) can be reduced to a simple economic question? I mean your assumption seems to be that full socio-economic equality would lead to the Prod working class becoming nationalists or, at the very least, neutral on the national question? Why is this outcome more likely than that the Catholic working class would then become unionist, or neutral - they would, after all, have lost their main grievance with the existence of NI?

    I deliberately did not mention socialism because all socialisms must be either pro-union or pro-united Ireland. They can't be 'neutral' on the national question because socialism can only exist within the borders of a state. Socialism can claim to be 'neutral' on the national question, but that amounts to accepting the status quo (which at the moment is unionist).

    Might it not be time to think about whether or not the unionist identity might have a real existence independent of economic factors? Call it ‘two nationalism’ if you like. Usually people see this as a unionist argument justifying the existence of NI, but it is a bit more complicated than that. The point isn’t that there are ‘two nations’ (or more accurately ‘two nationalities’) in Ireland, but that there are two nationalities in NI. If this rules out a united Ireland, it also rules out the ‘Ulster is British’ position.

    Sean Swan

  10. Sean,

    This is a really interesting point and one which must be central to any analysis of the way forward in the six counties.

    I would be very interested to hear you expand on this. Why not send an article in expanding on your opinions.

  11. UKHT

    Is that all you have to offer on the subject. What is the truth then?

  12. "Only the workers of Ireland and their allies among the poor"

    Who do we understand to be the workers of Ireland?

    Are the 60% on 40k the workers?

    Are people on 90k a year but working for others the workers?

    The word workers is almost meaningless in 2010. It was very appropriate in the 1900s when the disparity in wealth between factory workers the labourers, peasants etc and the factory owners was so great.

    But what does it actually mean today?

    I agree with what you are saying by the way[that the poorest are the only ones who will give a mandate to change Ireland] but I have not yet been able to identify what the left when we use the term the workers.

    I dont think the voters have any idea either.

    If we have a targetted group or demographic i.e the worst off 30% in the state and represent that dempgraphic by the term the workers then good. But if we cant pin down precisely who those workers are then its a pointless term.

    For example I noted some commentators in reference to the Killian Forde departure stated how could he represent working class when he was writing about winter sports, as if that was not a working class option.

    Because the term workers is so loosely defined that type of crazy comment can be made even though people can go on a ski holiday for €450. Some lad on the Average industrial wage who takes a trip to Manchester to watch the soccer musnt be a worker either then.

    We need a precise understanding of what the term worker means and it has to be the definition accorded by the demographic we target.

    Apologies if i belaboured the point but I believe this is a very important issue for the left and how we build in the south.

    Die Linke im Ierland

  13. Well apparently he wasnt born into a priveleged farming bacground.

    BUT more importantly so what if he was. Big deal about it.

    Is there a difference between the left judging the character of a person because they are born rich and the Right judging the character of a person because they are born in the poor part of a town.

    None, none whatsoever.

    (And I aint a TmacG fan at all by the way. I think his project weakedned republicanism, and failed workers)

    Die Linke

  14. Die Linke,

    I dno't know much about MacGiolla's background and like you I do not think it is that important in judging what a person does. However, I think the author is simply showing the journey MacGiolla went on.

    Many other republicans have gone through a similar journey especailly following the 50's campaign.

    In relation to your other point about what is a worker in a modern economically priviledged country, I think you are bang on.

    Why not put your ideas down on how a left wing party should deal with this issue. Send it in as an e-mail or post and I,m sure we will put it up

  15. Ok in response to telling lies here’s my sources. Tomás McGiolla’s father Robert Paul Gill aged 47 of Fatthen (Fatheen) is listed in the 1911 Census as a Civil Engineer and Farmer. (Which I presume meant that he was a substantial landowner) as well as being a Civil Engineer. My presumption is based on the fact that as the land question was settled by then and as he ran for Parliament for the Irish Parliamentary Party on two occasions he would have had to be from a privileged background as government payment for MPs was not introduced until around 1910. He lived in a first Class house with eleven rooms which made him not only privileged but extremely privileged at the time. (See 1911 Census Available online at National Archives Website.) I think that takes care of the farming background.
    The following is an excerpt from a report on McGiolla’s funeral in the Nenagh Guardian in which Tomás’ nephew Tom Hogan spoke… ‘Mr MacGiolla’s nephew Tom Hogan, addressing mourners at the funeral in Dublin on Monday, pointed out that the father of the deceased had stood twice for national election. He said MacGiolla came from a family steeped in politics, pointing out that his uncle had served in the House of Commons alongside Charles Stewart Parnell.
    He said Mr MacGiolla had three half brothers who fought in the First World War, including one who died at the Somme.
    His uncle Tom (TP Gill .. see Wikipedia) had been an MP in Louth and later served for a long period as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. He told mourners that Mr MacGiolla’s granduncle Peter Gill was a member of the Fenian Movement and held the position of Editor of the Nenagh Advocate, a precursor of The Guardian. Mr MacGoilla was born near Nenagh in 1924 and went to school in the local Christian Brothers and at St Flannan’s College, Ennis, where his classmates included the future archbishop of Dublin, Kevin McNamara, and the future distinguished Dominican, Austin Flannery. . A student at University College Dublin during the 1940s, he graduated with a BA in 1947. Afterwards, as a night student, he obtained a BComm degree. His contemporaries at UCD included future taoisigh, Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald. On graduating, Mr MacGiolla joined the ESB, where he became a revenue accountant. He left the ESB in 1977 to devote himself full-time to politics. ’
    From all this I think it is fairly obvious that privilege runs through McGiolla’s background. St Flannan’s was a boarding school that charged fees and was not an option even to children of parents of average means.
    I know he got a scholarship to UCD which shows he was hardworking and bright but that still doesn’t mean he wasn’t privileged.
    Now as to the right wing Catholic reference see The Southern Star newspaper Sat 13 Feb 2010 where a columnist called Archon had the following… ‘Interestingly the eulogies to McGiolla did not mention the fact that in 1950 when he sought to join the IRA his application was held up while his membership of Maria Duce, an extreme right wing Catholic organisation was investigated.’

  16. @Red Rebel
    I think that's abit unlikely - I mean about his membership of the IRA having been held up because of his supposed membership of Maria Duce. Why? Because at that time it would not have been a problem. Sean South was known to have been a member of Maria Duce but it didn't prevent his membership of the IRA. Remember your talking of Ireland in the 1950s...
    I'd like to know what sources this 'Archon' got this information from. I never heard it claimed before that TMG was in Maria Duce.

    Sean Swan

    @ Mellows, Thanks. I'll see what I can do.

  17. Sean Swan

    The idea of 2 nations is a deservedly dicredited one. Its suporters, like BICO (I know most people won't know who they were- that's instructive by itself) always end up supporting the Union as they have 'identified' a separate nationality for Unionism.

    There aren't just 2 nationalitiess in Ireland, the recent influx if immigrants ad other communities makes a 3rd, 4th, 5th, nationality, etc. These are people with separate, and welcome traditions, beliefs customs, religions, languages, cuisines,etc. All of which enrich Irish society both materially and morally.

    But there's only one nation as, when the Brits depart, there is only the possibility of one economy, and even that will have its work cut out in a globalised economy.

    So, no, the Unionist identity, cannot be *reduced* to economic relationships. But it has no future except in a united Ireland. Then, shorn of supremacy and discrimination, it too can only add to diversity and demands inclusivity.


    There are dozens of meaningless definitions of 'worker'. "The word workers is almost meaningless in 2010".

    But there is a scientfic definition of worker, not based on pay, reading habits, holiday locations, accent, school, voting, etc. etc.

    It is what do you do for income? (your relationship to the means of production, in jargon). If most of your income derives from work, as a teacher, dentist, roadsweeper, bus driver, journalist, nurse, clerk, etc, etc, you are a worker because your income comes from selling your labour.

    If you make most of your income by living off the labour of others, a landlord, a share-owner, a business owner, a shopowner, you are not a worker.

    The overwhelming bulk of Irish society is comprised of workers. We are the majority, even if it doesn't always feel like that.

  18. @Nora

    First, as to B&ICO, I think you'll find you'r behind the times on their attitude to unity, but visit their publishing house, read a few articles and decide for yourself

    You say that there are many nationalities in Ireland. True, but they are politically irrelevant as they make no claims on the borders of the state. I mean Poles in Ireland for example do not want Ireland to be part of Poland. Further they are only 'Polish' as opposed to Irish because they were born in Poland. Their children will be Irish (and possibly Polish too - I mean in terms of nationality, not ethnicity) I think you'd have to admit that things are different in NI. Firstly there is a large community that was born there and has been there for generations, but rejects an Irish identity (except as British-Irish), it claims to be a different nationality, it has - for example the UWC strike in 1974 against Sunningdale-demonstrated a will to assert that identity (and has done so consistently since 1886). You say the unionist identity has 'no future' - would you have said that in 1886, 1912, 1920, 1969? It has a past, why has it no future? what are the conditions today, in 2010, that mean it can not continue to exist? You refer to 'when the Brits leave' and say that then the unionist would have no choice but to join a united Ireland for economic reasons - perhaps, but what is going to suddenly make the Brits leave?

    BTW you say that 'The idea of 2 nations is a deservedly dicredited one'. You offer nothing to prove this except a reference to the fact that B&ICO used to support the union - but disapproving of a policy position taken by a group does not disprove the existence of 2 nations. Anyway, I did not say 'nations' but 'nationalities' So, apart from what I said about, where is the proof of 2 nationalities in NI? How about the bit in the Agreement that guarantees everybody in NI the right to be considered 'British or Irish'? And that passed in referendums north and south. The real problem (in my view) with the Agreement is that it didn't draw the full conclusion from its recognition of the existence of 2 nationalities - joint sovereignty.

    Sean Swan

  19. So Sean how would you see joint sovereignty working? Where would the economic power rest, tax rasing powers, currency, foreign policy, legal system, etc

  20. @ Starry Plough

    Good and important questions. Here’s a possible scenario:

    The heart of it would have to be an NI parliament which is internally sovereign over NI, which can set the tax rate, make laws etc. BUT this parliament would exist as only a devolved, not a federal, parliament – its existence, sovereignty and powers would only be devolved from Dublin and London. Its acts would have to be signed into law by both Dublin and London to have legal effect. In the vast majority of cases that would be a mere technicality, but it would be an important reserved power in cases of any potential discrimination. All taxation raised in NI would stay in NI plus it would continue to receive a subvention from Dublin and London in proportion to the GDP of both states. As to foreign policy, it wouldn’t have one. NI would absolutely not be a sovereign state for any external purposes. That would be the province of the national governments. It would make sense to maintain NI as a demilitarized zone in relation to either the British or Irish army except in the case of invasion by a foreign power (not a likely event for the foreseeable future). ‘Designation’ would be dropped, but the D’Hondt formula for allocating seats in the executive would stay. NI would become part of the Republic while remaining part of the UK, but the relevant tax rate, currency, laws, etc would be decided by the NI parliament. NI would continue to send MPs to London but would also return TDs to Dublin – though in both cases a good argument could be made for reduced representation for NI TDs and MPs compared to what exist for southern constituencies in the Dail or English constituencies in the House of Commons.

    Ending ‘designation’ and granting the NI parliament the right to raise taxes, make all laws pertaining to NI, etc, would make the emergence of left/right politics more likely. Here’s the bit nationalist won’t like – no future referendums on the constitutional status of NI. That’s the only way unionists would agree to joint sovereignty which they currently see as simply a staging post on the way to a united Ireland. That does not mean there could never be a united Ireland. That could still evolve out of the situation. Britain’s actual sovereignty over NI could fade over time if it was never exercised, whatever the technical status. This is what happened in Canada where the British North America Act remained on the statute, but despite this actual British control over Canada faded to nothing. Of course this lacks the appeal of an ‘instant karma’ situation where tomorrow the British government says they are kicking NI out of the UK (which is what ‘Brits out’ would amount to) or a referendum in which there’s a 50.1% vote in favour of a united Ireland. But the trouble with the ‘instant karma’ situation – apart from anything else – is how the unionists might react to this ‘doomsday’ scenario. How does UDI or repartition, a rerun of 1912 (remember that unionists were happy to let 3 counties go when it became clear that they couldn’t run a 9 county Ulster) sound? Like a nightmare. Nora will argue that a smaller ‘rump’ NI would not be economically feasible. I think that’s possibly wishful thinking. Firstly NI is not economically feasible now – though it goes on existing. Secondly there’s no minimum size for economic feasibility (particularly in the context of the EU) and it’s a mistake to imagine that economics trumps everything. North Korea is, compared to South Korea, an economic disaster – but there’s still no united Korea. The Republic was an economic disaster in the 1950s, but it didn’t lead it back to the UK.

    Sean Swan

  21. mcgiolla should have got an obiturary at least. he was a formour president of SF and vol. there are lessons in him. rather than rehashing old battle he should be looked at objectively to avoid his failures and emulate his sucesses.

    alot of biterness came out of that party, that shouldn't be emulated. dosen't do anything.


  22. @ Sean

    There's aterible muddle here-and not all it my doing!

    You said there were two nationalities in Ireland. I responded that there were many, especially after the recent immigrations. You replied by saying that the children of workers from Poland will be Irish, or Polish-Irish. That is, within one generation you believe them to be Irish, or a combination of Irish and Polish. I agree.

    Yet after hundreds of years you want to accord the privilege to the northern Unionists of being a separate nationality. This privilege, not extended to recent immigrants, is part and parcel of all the other privileges that have been accorded them, based on sectarian privilege in jobs, housing, education and so on.

    'Two nationalities' or 'two nations' is a poor attempt to dignify a squalid and reactionary arrangement, based on sectarianism. Removing the economic basis for that privilege, through the Equality Agenda is the surest way to undermine the basis of unionism.

    Malcolm X put it better than I can. The field slave and the house slave are treated very differently. The house slave feels himself superior to the field slave. When the master's house is ablaze the house slave will rush to put out the fire, while the field slave will cheer. But they are both still slaves.

  23. Nora

    Malcolm X and 'Field slaves' and 'House slaves'?
    The only sense I can make of that is that you mean the unionists are 'house slaves' (?) But slaves to what or to whom? You COULD say that the unionist working class are slaves under capitalism, in the same sense as the working class everywhere - though there seems to be very little sense of that in the unionist working class, the southern working class, the British working class, the French working class etc - certainly not based on the way they vote. So in that regard the unionist working class is no more slavish than any other European working class.

    Or do you mean 'slaves' in the sense of nationality? That it is only privilege that stops them hearing the call of their 'true' nationality? Their nationality can't be up to much if they'd abandon it for whatever privilege they currently get from being unionist in NI - always assuming that you are right about their nationality. What EXACTLY are the privileges enjoyed by unionists but not by nationalists in NI today? You mention 'sectarian privilege in jobs, housing, education and so on'. You can't be talking about today, 2010, not in housing and education! And the difference in unemployment levels between nationalists and unionists is far smaller than, for example, between blacks and whites in London. But you maintain that this is enough to make unionists reject their 'real' nationality? No, there's not enough there to explain unionism. The REAL privilege unionists enjoy over nationalists is not economic at all; it is simply being part of their preferred nation state. And that takes us back to the question of nationality...

    If economics really trumped nationality, then wouldn't the ending of discrimination simply make nationalist indifferent to a united Ireland - or maybe even pro-union given the fact that things like the NHS are still beyond Dublin? You don't expect nationalist to turn into unionists under the 'equality agenda', but, and without seeing any contradiction, you expect unionist to turn into nationalists. I think we're now in the land of 'heart's desire' rather than serious political analysis...

    Sean Swan