Category: Archive

A View North Cathal Goulding’s socialist journey

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The death of Cathal Goulding at age 76 on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) removes from the scene one of the modern republican movement’s most formative figures. Goulding was the last chief of staff of the old IRA. He will go down in history as the man who succeeded in doing what left-wing republican thinkers and activists such as Peadar O’Donnell failed to do: transform the IRA into a socialist party. But he did so at a cost to the organization, causing one split after another, ultimately rendering the party that emerged all but irrelevant.

Goulding, a working-class Dubliner, was born into a family with a long revolutionary tradition. His grandfather had been a member of the Fenian movement, and his father fought in the 1916 Rising. He himself went from being a member of the Fianna Eireann (junior IRA) to a fully fledged IRA volunteer in the 1940s. In the 1940s, he was interned in the Curragh. On his release, he found the IRA in a sorry state. It was practically nonexistent and certainly irrelevant to contemporary Irish politics. Goulding was determined to change that.

According to his obituary in the Irish Times, the struggle to do so began in 1945 when he and a small group of Dublin republicans met regularly at O’Neill’s Pub on Pearse Street. A year later, he was arrested with John Joe McGirl and spent a year in prison.

On his release, plans were laid for an armed campaign in Northern Ireland and Goulding was put in charge of IRA training camps in County Wicklow. He then moved to England and linked up with John Stephenson, an Englishman and former RAF corporal who was an Irish language enthusiast and a fervent republican. Stephenson, Goulding and Derry man Manus Canning raided a British arms depot in Essex, stealing 99 rifles, a mortar, a machine gun and ammunition. But police stopped the three as they drove to London with the stolen goods and arrested them.

During the period Goulding was in jail, the campaign against Northern Ireland was launched and quickly reduced to a border war. By the time Goulding was released, in 1959, it had effectively collapsed, though it was not until 1962 that the leadership acknowledged defeat and called a cease-fire. The old, demoralized leadership was phased out and Goulding was among a new generation of republicans who took command, determined not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. By then Goulding was quartermaster general on the GHQ staff, responsible for collecting and storing weapons.

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From New York, George Harrison was still sending the occasional cache across to Ireland, where it would reach Goulding’s hands. On one occasion, Brendan Behan, who was a cousin of Goulding’s and a friend, was asked to bring back a small supply from New York. Unfortunately, the address Behan sent them to did not exist, and the arms ended up sitting on a Dublin quayside because Behan had not bothered to inform Goulding of the shipment. According to Harrison, when Behan was warned that the quartermaster general was furious, he retorted: "Let me take care of Goulding. F*** him. I got it 3,000 miles over the ocean and if he can’t take it a couple of hundred more yards, he should quit." Eventually, the guns and ammunition reached their destination.

However, Goulding was becoming convinced that the guns he was importing were redundant and that the time of the IRA gunman was past. In 1962, he became chief of staff, replacing Ruairi O Bradaigh, and spearheaded the attempt to politicize the IRA, introducing socialist ideologues into the movement who scorned the verities of traditional republicanism. Many IRA veterans resigned in disgust as the leadership openly advocated that the movement should concentrate on fighting elections and recognize the Dail and Stormont parliaments, build up links with the Communist Party, and concern itself not with partition but with bad housing and the exploitation of Ireland’s natural resources. Many republicans opposed this revisionist course strongly, including former Sinn Fein President Paddy McLogan, arguing that those who tried it before — among them Eamonn De Valera, Sean McBride, and Peadar O’Donnell — had all failed, becoming incorporated into the system or utterly irrelevant. (When McLogan was found dead, in July 1964, with a bullet wound in his head, many who knew him ruled out the suggestion that it was a suicide and surmised that his opponents within the republican movement — the revisionists — were to blame.)

The crisis in Northern Ireland finally confronted the IRA with a stark choice: to follow Goulding’s line or to go back to basics. It split, with Goulding leading the Official IRA and his old friend John Stephenson, now metamorphosed into Sean MacStiofain, heading the Provisional IRA.

Goulding came under sharp attack for not sending guns into Belfast in August 1969 to defend Catholic areas. But his distrust of the Belfast IRA was based on his belief that it was sectarian, and he argued that to send more guns into such a volatile situation would have been like throwing gasoline on a fire. Goulding became a fierce critic of the Provisionals, saying that their violence — especially the civilian bombing campaign — would produce a loyalist backlash, which it did, beginning in 1972.

Goulding’s ambition to create a left-wing alternative to the Irish Labor Party was partly realized by the gradual breakup of the Official IRA and the transformation of the Officials’ political wing into Sinn Fein-The Workers’ Party in 1977. Five years later, it dropped all reference to Sinn Fein in its name. Unfortunately, the kind of left-wing politics it espoused — Soviet-style socialism — was shortly to be doomed with the collapse of the Eastern Block. Later, the WP split, and the Democratic Left took with it most of its members. It is ironic that the year Goulding died, the Democratic Left merged with the Labor Party, and ceased to exist. The Workers’ Party itself was reduced to a rump, and suffered yet another breakup in 1997.

Goulding remained convinced he took the right course, however. In January 1990, 20 years after the original split in the republican movement, he told the Irish News: "We were definitely right, but right too soon. Adams may be right in pushing the Provos toward politics, but he’s too late. And Ruairi O Bradaigh will never be right."

History will have to be the final judge of that.

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