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How did Republicanism lose its way in the 1960s?

The slow learners took the IRA back to violence. Help me trace how the Adams’ path could have been followed 30 years earlier

The IRA in the 1960s, led by Cathal Goulding the IRA Chief and Tomás MacGiolla who chaired Sinn Féin, initiated a reform towards radical democratic politics. This was supported by Seán Cronin, later an Irish Times correspondent, who had led the 1950s armed campaign. I know this because he contacted me in around 1959 after his release from internment, to discuss left-republican ideas which I had been promoting in the Plough, an innovative Left periodical of the time with trade-union links.

I had earlier been associated with the Irish Workers League, a Marxist group which I had had a hand in setting up, with student-left support via the Trinity College Dublin Fabian Society. I was however seeking broad-left alternatives, and was supporting the Plough, avoiding the basically Stalinist Irish Worker League which superseded the Communist Party here for a while and was associated with Jim Larkin.

In 1960 my TCD/Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies post-graduate research period in physics ended, and I worked in London up to 1963, when I returned to a job in Dublin. In London I had worked politically with the Connolly Association and interacted with Desmond Greaves, a pioneer Marxist focusing on national questions. Greaves had come up with the need to focus, in the Irish context, on the civil rights issue in Northern Ireland, as an escape from religious sectarian politics.

After my return to Dublin, I cultivated links with the republican movement, initially via the Wolfe Tone 1963 bi-centenary events, which included broad-based seminars in the Mansion House. These were manifestations of the Goulding/MacGiolla/Cronin influence on IRA reconstructive reform. I interacted with the leadership and we came up with the ‘Wolfe Tone Societies’ concept as a promotional model for democratic reform. From this I went on to cultivate an active role in the leadership of a reforming republican movement, in which the Northern IRA activists set themselves up openly as Republican Clubs and supported the Civil Rights Movement.

We now have the problem: how did this evolve in the 60s and how and why did it occasion the militarist ‘Provisional’ split? I will not attempt this here and now, but I did try with my book ‘Century of Endeavour’ published initially in the US in 2003, with a revised edition in Ireland in 2006. This covers the century from my perspective and that of my father, a Tyrone Presbyterian supporter of all-Ireland Home Rule in 1913, who made his subsequent career in the Free State and in 1938 helped to set up the Irish Association to promote an all-Ireland cultural identity in the spirit of the de Valera Constitution.

There are 576 pages in ‘Century of Endeavour’ and the period of 1960s activism takes up about 150 pages for the 60s decade. There is much detail in the book about the 1960s politics of republican transformation, and I feel I need help in analysing the record of how it evolved into a ‘near miss’ of what now has, I hope, been achieved by Adams et al but could have happened then. Certainly I believe the split led by O Brádaigh and MacStiofáin who resisted moves to end abstentionism from the British, Irish and Northern Ireland parliaments, to form the ‘Provisional IRA’, was a disaster!

Will anyone interested in helping to research how the 1960s politics evolved into decades of mayhem, and the current complex ‘hard border’ problem, please e-mail me with some comments on the above overview; I am contactable via; please do not phone as my hearing aid is not phone-friendly.

You can usually get the ‘Century’ book in libraries; it is also still on the market, but I have some copies here that I can donate to people interested in analysing critically how the 1960s political problems were nearly deals with without the use of the gun!

Roy Johnston

Dr Roy HW Johnston (born 1929) is an Irish physicist. As a Marxist member of the IRA in the 1960s he argued for a National Liberation Strategy to unite the Catholic and Protestant working classes. He wrote extensively for such newspapers as The United Irishman and the Irish Times, remaining as a member of the Official IRA after the split. Johnston left the stickies in 1972 after the assassination of Northern Ireland Senator John Barnhill and joined the Communist Party of Ireland, which he left in 1977. He was later a member of the Labour Party, serving on their International Affairs Committee, and is currently a member of the Green Party. He wrote a bi-montly science column for the Irish Times in the 1970s.