The Stickies and the Provos

We examine a key division within Irish nationalism which reflected tensions between those who asserted the primacy of ‘nation’ and those who ended up seeking to prioritise ‘class’.

A significant feature of those who situate themselves in the anti-establishment tradition of any country is their attitude to nationalism and imperialism. While reformist politicians of the Labour and Social Democrat varieties tend to identify with their own ruling class and seek to work with them to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalism, those further to the left often seek alliances (even if just at a conceptual, ideological level) with the ruling classes of other countries. This is often done on the basis that an enemy of an enemy must be a friend. It is the reason why much of the left in Britain has been sympathetic to Irish nationalism and why Irish nationalists have repeatedly sought support from almost anyone hostile to the British state.

Behind this viewpoint often lies the concept of imperialism. This comes in various guises, though the most common conception is the idea that big powerful countries exploit smaller, weaker ones and that this is a fundamental feature of the way capitalism works. Some, such as Lenin, took this concept to its logical conclusion by arguing that sections of the working class in the stronger countries have shared in the fruits of the exploitation of all those in the weaker countries (creating a so-called ‘aristocracy of labour’).

One of the key divisions among people calling themselves revolutionaries has been around this issue. And in the countries deemed to be small, weaker and under the subjugation of a power like the British Empire, this has influenced the thinking and methods of those who wished to create a different type of society. Some have taken the view that the priority must be to fight a battle against the ruling class of the dominant country as they are construed as being the main enemy. Others have been more mindful that in attempting to overthrow the ruling class of a ‘foreign’ empire it is possible to merely install a domestic ruling class instead, leaving capitalism and its attendant problems intact.

This has been one of the most significant, historic divisions in the Irish republican movement for decades, though these days it receives relatively little attention (including from left-wing organisations and commentators in Britain).

The Troubles

In the late 1960s, when much of the developed world was impacted by waves of radical protest, and impelled by the events of May 1968 in Paris, a split developed among Irish republicans. It reflected a division between those who thought nationhood was more important than class interest, and vice versa. It was expressed very clearly at the time in this statement by the youth wing of Sinn Fein (Na Fianna Eireann):

‘The doctrine of Karl Marx is contrary to the Fianna teaching. It is contrary to the Fianna declaration which states – I pledge my allegiance to God and the Irish Republic. Marx also stated that the workingman has no country. We of the Fianna for the most part are the sons of workers but we have a country and we love it very dearly. We can in no way be associated with International Socialism’ (Irish News, 24th December, 1970).

Exactly what part of the country these young republicans owned (in truth, little if anything) was part of the problem identified by those on the other side of the debate. Whether republicans in Northern Ireland or the Southern Republic, these were people who took the contrary view that they had more in common with their fellow workers in the pro-British loyalist community than they did with the owners and controllers of capital on either side of the Irish border. In some ways, the ideas of this group were ill-formed and sometimes even contradictory but they were struggling towards a position where in answer to the question ‘which is more important – nation or class?’ they answered ‘class’.

During the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland from 1969, the division between these two groups of republicans was to become almost as poisonous as the division between Protestants and Catholics (or more accurately UK nationalists and Irish nationalists). It was so severe that it led to a fundamental split in both Sinn Fein and its paramilitary wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This division was between the ‘pro-communist’ group that held many of the leadership positions in these organizations at the time, around Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff of the IRA, and Tomos Mac Giolla, President of Sinn Fein – and those who opposed them. Though mainly Dublin-based, the leadership had considerable support in parts of the Republic and pockets of support in the North too, including republican strongholds in Belfast such as the Lower Falls and the Markets, some of the border counties and parts of Derry including the Bogside. Because of their leadership positions within the movement they became known in the press as the ‘Official’ IRA.

Those who criticised  their ‘communism’ and irreligion, placing emphasis on the nationalist, sectarian struggle against the British state and their loyalist ‘stooges’ instead, emerged  as a new, Provisional IRA – the ‘Provos’. Cathal Goulding labelled them blackshirts in balaclavas. Indeed, many of the Officials believed the Provos had been funded by elements in the then Irish government around Minster of Finance – and later Taoiseach – Charles Haughey, who wanted to see ‘communists’ removed from the IRA leadership (even if a later court case failed to prove this conclusively).


Over time, the Provos (who set up their own political party, Provisional Sinn Fein) became the majority within the movement – and the main reason for this was a very practical one. In a period when many Northern Irish Catholics felt themselves to be not only discriminated against but also terrorized by the British state and the Protestant mobs whipped up by demagogues such as Ian Paisley, the traditional IRA was seen to have failed. The epithet ‘I Ran Away’ was levelled at the Officials, and the Provos were often seen as being more proactive defenders of Catholic communities, while taunting the ‘Marxist’ Officials with the nickname ‘the Stickies’ after the new, adhesive lily they adopted when commemorating the Easter Rising.

In reality, the situation was more complicated than the stereotyping might suggest – some young Provos, attracted by romantic notions of the armed struggle, also had pronounced left-wing sympathies (including both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness). Meanwhile the Officials were often involved in bloody battles against the security services, loyalist paramilitaries and the Provos.

What was clear, though, over time, was the trajectory of the Officials away from traditional, Irish nationalist politics and the armed struggle to achieve a united Ireland. Indeed, in 1972 they became the first paramilitary organisation to declare a ceasefire. Catholic priests in Derry declared that as representatives of international communism the Officials were not welcome there, while ‘better dead than red’ graffiti was painted on walls in the Bogside by the Provos. For their part, the Officials declared that they were not a Catholic organisation and emphasized the need to win over loyalist workers to the cause of socialism (even if what they meant by this usually amounted to vague aspirations common on the radical left towards what would effectively be state-run capitalism, and a penchant for left-wing icons of the time such as Che Guevara).

Other elements emerged that became hostile to the Provos and Officials alike, adopting a mix of hardline Irish nationalism with Leninism. Most notably, this led to the foundation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and its paramilitary wing, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). This was effectively another breakaway from the Officials by those unhappy with their lack of proactive military engagement. It became an especially violent and sectarian organisation under the leadership of Seamus Costello and infamously blew up Tory politician Airey Neave. The INLA initially attracted tacit support from independent MP Bernadette Devlin who was to claim ‘the Provos are concentrating on getting rid of the British in a military campaign without any policy on the class war, and the Officials now have no policy on the national question . . . We will agitate on both the national and class issues’ (Irish Times, 14 December, 1974). But the INLA was prone to feuds – both internal and external – and while Costello had at one time been Director of Operations for the Official IRA under Cathal Goulding, he was almost certainly murdered by them in 1977.

Of more lasting significance was that the differing positions of the Provos and Officials was reflected in their attitudes when incarcerated in prison, typically at the time in Long Kesh and the Crumlin Road jail. The Provos refused to mix with Protestant prisoners and demanded political segregation – the Officials saw the opportunity to speak politically to fellow workers who had come from the other side of the religious divide, including in Open University seminars. It was here that contact was made with loyalist paramilitary leaders such as Gusty Spence of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). A secret meeting in Dublin between the Official IRA and UVF paramilitary leaderships followed in 1974 and while obvious differences remained, it was clear that a certain strand of Ulster Loyalism had some sympathy with positions taken by the Officials and their general approach to politics. In 1981 Gusty Spence publicly announced his conversion to what he called ‘socialism’ and – perhaps bizarrely – his nephew was arrested for membership of the Official IRA. This type of shift within a particular current of Protestant politics was later to be reflected in the emergence of the political wing of the UVF, the Progressive Unionist Party under David Ervine. This developed a political position that appeared in some respects to be non-sectarian and with an economic programme that was unashamedly leftist.

Workers’ Party

In 1977 the Official’s political organisation renamed itself Sinn Fein – the Workers’ Party, later to become just the Workers’ Party. Once again in distinction to the traditional IRA/Sinn Fein nationalist position, they were prepared to not only stand in elections either side of the border, but to take their seats too. This meant abandoning the policy of so-called ‘abstentionism’ which refused to recognise the legitimacy of either the British state in the six county Northern Ireland, or the ‘incomplete’ 26 county Republic in the South.

Thus began a long march towards a form of political respectability, and long before Provisional Sinn Fein began to make a similar journey. It was a journey though that wasn’t without trauma and led to a familiar leftist split in the 1990s when a ‘reformist’ faction around Workers’ Party Irish MP and MEP Proinsias De Rossa ended up forming the Democratic Left. This then drifted into the Irish Labour Party in 1998, though only after having formed a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ government with Fine Gael and the Labour Party first. 

This left the hardline rump of the Workers’ Party to soldier on around veterans Mac Giolla, Sean Garland and Seamus Lynch  – ‘soldier on’ being the operative phrase. For while the Official IRA had gone on conditional ceasefire in 1972, it had never entirely gone away or ceased activity. Though officially denied, overwhelming evidence suggests that this particular strand of republicanism had long organised itself into ‘Group A’, which was the political wing called the Workers’ Party, and ‘Group B’ which was the remnants of the Official IRA. The latter was mainly charged with protection of members and fundraising activities that were somewhat unorthodox. These notably included bank robberies, as their leftist politics was not to the liking of traditional republican fundraisers in the US who had helped bankroll the Provos.

Perhaps most bizarrely of all, in 2009 WP leader Sean Garland was arrested in Dublin by the Garda with subsequent (unsuccessful) attempts to extradite him to the US that made him an ageing cause célèbre for leftists and celebrities alike. The charge from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was that he had – through contacts in North Korea –helped create vast quantities of high-quality counterfeit US dollars. This was allegedly an attempt to both fundraise for the cause and undermine capitalism from within at the same time. Coincidentally, it was at this point that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland confirmed that ‘Group B’ armaments, including weapons used forty years previously, had finally been put beyond use.

So effectively ended a story partly tragic and partly comic. The WP does still exist (standing candidates in the 2015 UK General Election in Belfast) but is a shadow of its former self. It is a fascinating case study of the tensions between nationalism and class-based politics, and which nevertheless had a major, if partly hidden, wider influence including on its old adversaries the Provos. For they – under the leadership of Adams and McGuiness – ended up adopting many of its political positions (and allegedly even one or two high profile bank robberies) when decades before the Provos had all but attempted to wipe them out as traitors to their cause.

Books such as Inside the IRA by Andrew Sanders are worth reading for those interested in learning more about their political tradition and position within Irish republican politics, though The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar is indispensable – a veritable tour de force about this historical political curio. Partly hard-headed pragmatists who realised they had more in common with their fellow workers than with their bosses, and partly romantic rebels with naïve attitudes towards the rebellions and revolutions of the past, their history is one from which many lessons can be drawn – and not all of them in the way they intended.


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