ON THIS DAY: 6 JULY 1969: Jimmy Steele oration, and the beginnings of a split in Sinn Féin and the IRA

There is an interesting snippet of Irish republican history available on You Tube. It is part of Belfast IRA volunteer Jimmy Drumm’s oration in 1969 at the reinternment of Peter Barnes and James McCormack who had been executed in England in February 1940.

The speech was a significant gambit in the simmering split within the IRA as Steele, with the support of others who were founding members of the Provisionals, lambasted the existing IRA leadership for what many regarded as their plans to jettison the traditional republican position on Partition.

Key to that was what Steele referred to as the infiltration of the IRA by members of Communist organisations. My research into the Communist Party’s own records confirmed what people like Steele, Mac Stiofáin, the Ó Bradaighs knew anyway. Cathal Goulding had appointed members of the Irish Communist Party to leading positions within the movement, and they were intent on disbanding the IRA into a so-called National Liberation Front in which the Communists would provide the intellectual leadership. Laughable but true.

In an interview I had with Ruairi Ó Bradaigh about that surrender of policy to the Communists, he made a cutting but perhaps apt reference to some of those on the IRA Army Council who thought this was a great thing. Ó Bradaigh attributed this to an intellectual inferiority complex on the part of men who deferred to anyone who appeared sympathetic to republicanism and had had the benefit of higher formal education.

Ó Bradaigh’s own background and wide reading meant that he was not susceptible to the infantile Marxist theories being propagated. Nor was he unaware of the reality of socialism in the countries which they cited as some sort of model of what Ireland might be. Republican sympathies in the 40s and 50s were very much with the victims rather than the oppressors in Soviet dominated eastern and central Europe.

The reaction to Steele’s speech was immediate. One of the Dublin Brigade firing party at the funeral, who later joined the Officials and then the Communist Party, told me that he wondered whether he ought to have shot him. Goulding had to be content with throwing Steele out as they had done with increasing numbers of people who dissented with the party line. The United Irishman made no reference at all to the oration.

In it, Steele had stated: “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? Indeed, one is now expected to be more conversant with the teachings of Chairman Mao than with those of our dead patriots.”

You can be certain that Steele’s question will not be appearing any time soon on a mural on the Falls Road. Sinn Féin don’t want to have the objective facts of what happened leading to the 1969 split told by one of their own. Ironically, my book which was attacked by others as “foundational Provism” was not stocked by the Sinn Féin bookshop even though I was working for them at the time. Even their origin myth has to be revamped.

An Phoblacht did refer in 2015 to Steele’s having “denounced the political direction of the IRA leadership,” but without detailing for obvious reasons what that direction had been then, and what it was in 2015.

Interestingly, although the IRA’s ill-conceived bombing campaign in Britain after 1938 was subsequently used by leftists as an example of mindless militarism, the bombing campaign had been supported by the Irish Communists. That was because they supported the Stalin Hitler Pact and were engaged in sabotage of the British war effort until June 1941 when the Soviet Union was invaded.  The IRA favoured neither the Nazi nor the Soviet side in that conflict but were naively disposed to seeking aid from both at different times.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Communists who had infiltrated the IRA in the late 1930s either left or were expelled when they engineered a split among the republican internees in the Curragh, most of whom had no part at all in the bombing campaign and were arrested simply on the basis of their membership past or present of the IRA.

Belfast Communists were suspected by the IRA of supplying information to RUC Special Branch, and two leading members Betty Sinclair and James McCullogh were only saved from being killed through the intervention of Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer.

To return to Steele’s speech, the simplistic dismissal of it by leftists as some sort of reactionary rant ignores what else he had to say. He made the point that Irish nationalists had no need of Marxists to whom nationalism is anathema, to educate them on anything.

In place of the Communist dogma, Steele recommended that republicans re-embrace the “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.”



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