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View more articles by Tom Farrell
Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist who has published in several national Irish newspapers.
DUBLIN – Party headquarters are usually garish affairs, with posters and symbols plastered in windows and above doorways. But this isn’t the case at 48 North Great Georges’ Street, a crumbly-looking terrace of Georgian houses on a slight rise just off Dublin’s main thoroughfare.
There is no sign, for example, of the ‘Starry Plough,’ the 99-year old flag of Irish Republican socialism. This, however, is the headquarters of the rump Workers’ Party Ireland, a once highly influential left-wing party where many of today’s leading Irish political and media figures cut their teeth.
But most young left-leaning politicians have little truck with today’s Workers’ Party (WP) and even older voters might be forgiven for thinking the party folded twenty one years ago.
The WP briefly returned to the public eye in October 2005 when its President, Sean Garland, a now 79-year old veteran Republican and frequent visitor to North Korea, was arrested in Belfast. He was accused of involvement in the distribution of so-called ‘super dollars.’ At least some of the fake dollar bills circulating in the world’s monetary system are thought to have originated from Bureau 39, tasked with raising revenues overseas to bolster the Kim dynasty.
Garland was released on bail but in December 2005, the High Court issued an arrest warrant when he failed to turn up for an extradition hearing. His supporters claimed that this part of an attempt by the Bush administration, in the absence of any Al Qaeda operatives in Pyongyang, to gather dirt ahead of a new military operation.
The campaign against Garland’s extradition to the United States attracted widespread support from political, religious and entertainment figures in Ireland.
So far it has been a success.
Despite being arrested again in Dublin in 2009 and an application being heard in the capital’s High Court to have Garland extradited, in December 2011, the case was dropped. It was later announced that the case against Garland did not warrant extradition to the United States because he had not a crime there.
“I have always believed that the US extradition demand was a vindictive demand by the former Bush administration designed to punish and isolate North Korea and anyone who had connections with that country,” said Rev Chris Hudson who chaired the campaign.
THE REPUBLICAN AMOEBA
The Workers’ Party today is what remains of a split in a radical left party that had evolved in turn out of a split within the Republican movement in Northern Ireland.
In 1992, having shifted their attentions south, most of the old WP reorganized themselves as Democratic Left, the name emphasizing its leaders’ desire to distance themselves from the old ‘red flag’ Marxism-Leninism that had been so ignominiously buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall three years before.
Irish Republicanism has always had an amoeba like quality, characterized by drift, expansion, split and merger. ‘Dem Left,’ under the leadership of former Minister of Social Welfare, Prionsias De Rossa, would last just seven years before merging with the Labour Party.
Compared with the other great social-democratic parties of Europe, Ireland’s Labour Party had always been something of an also-ran, consistently in third place in Ireland in terms of the seats it won in the Dail (parliament).
And far from being swallowed up by Labour, erstwhile WP members soon took commanding roles in the merged party to the extent that Labour, part of Ireland’s ruling coalition as of March 2011, is led by Eamon Gilmore, currently Ireland’s Foreign Minister.
North Korea is occasionally used as a stick by conservative pundits and politicians to poke Gilmore and other ex-WP members in Labour.
“Mr Gilmore has never had to pay a political price for being a member of a party that had a fraternal links with North Korea and the countries of the former communist bloc,” wrote the right-wing Irish Independent columnist David Quinn recently, irked at the tribute that the country’s President paid on the death of Hugo Chavez.
SHOULDER PADS AND SKI MASKS
This is a bit disingenuous. Most of Gilmore’s generation of Labour members had a junior position in the WP during the 1980s, when the party sent delegations to Pyongyang. Gilmore condemned North Korea’s nuclear test in February this year.
The irony is that the rump Workers’ Party, and their support for North Korea is not in doubt, has never forgiven the splitters of 1992. One image on the website depicts the Labour leader giving the Hawaiian good luck sign and the tagline: ‘Eamon Gilmore, telling the Irish working class to go f*** itself since 1992.’
The Workers’ Party, previously known as Sinn Fein the Workers’ Party and before that, the ‘Official’ IRA, is first thought to have made contact with DPRK diplomats in the mid 1970s. A decade earlier, senior Republican figures such as Cathal Goulding and Seamus Costello had tentatively and unsuccessfully approached Chinese diplomats in Paris to explore the possibility of acquiring money and weapons.
Back then, the island of Ireland appeared somnolent, almost confirming the postcard stereotype of green pastures and homely little towns. But tensions were bubbling under the surface.
Half a century earlier, a war of independence had culminated in a sectarian partition of the island. Workers’ Party pilgrims to North Korea in the 1980s would sometimes, rather implausibly, draw comparisons between the Irish and Korean partitions. On 29 September 1984, for example, The Pyongyang Times reported on a visit made by Garland, Seamus Lynch and Tomás MacGiolla, a onetime Lord Mayor of Dublin who had preceded De Rossa as WP leader.
The article was picked up by Dublin’s Sunday Tribune newspaper who rather gleefully reported on the delegation’s meeting with Kim Il-sung. The Great Leader reportedly praised the WP’s efforts to eject the British from Northern Ireland and lauded the Party (in fourth place in both Ireland’s 1982 elections) as having “struck deep roots amongst the broad masses.”
MacGiolla, whose tenure as WP leader tended to represent a compromise between the pro-Soviet hardliners ranged around Garland and De Rossa’s aspiring social democrats, was quoted by the North Koreans as saying that “just as there was one Korea and one Korean people, so there was only one Ireland and one (Irish) people.” The WP later claimed MacGiolla had been mistranslated.
CATHOLIC MARXIST WARRIORS
But if Korean partition had been an unlucky consequence of Cold War politics, Ireland’s partition harked back to far more ancient and tribal rivalries.
The Government of Ireland Act in 1920 had created two entities on the island. In the North, the Stormont parliament, essentially ruled as ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people,’ despite the presence of a large disenfranchized Catholic minority.
In the south, the Free State–latterly the Republic–laid a Constitutional claim on the Six Counties of Ulster. As for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), by the 1960s, under Goulding’s leadership, it had abandoned a ‘cross border’ guerrilla campaign against the Stormont regime, to embrace Marxist politics, an ironic stance given the strong Catholic conservatism of the southern Republic at the time.
During this campaign, Sean Garland had been seriously wounded, then imprisoned in 1957-9 for leading an attack on a Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland’s overwhelmingly Protestant police force) station in County Fermanagh.
But the IRA suffered as a result. Ten years later, Catholic Civil Rights marchers took to Ulster’s streets, protesting at decades of discrimination in housing, employment and local government. Many Protestants regarded ‘Civil Rights’ as a Trojan horse for eventual reunification of the island in which they would become the marginalized minority.
The marchers came under attack by ‘Loyalist’ mobs, backed by an almost comically partial police force. Marxist intellectuals with few weapons could offer Catholics little protection. In the Catholic areas of Belfast city taunting graffiti read: ‘IRA: I Ran Away.’
TROUBLES AHEAD ON THE ROCKY ROAD TO PYONGYANG
Once Harold Wilson’s Labour government had dispatched the British Army to the restive province in 1969 to restore order (temporarily as governments usually imagine such measures will be) the dismal dynamics of the ‘Troubles’ established themselves.
Thus a generation of savagery followed: a crawl of bomb blasts, sectarian murders, intermittent rioting and hunger strikes. Belfast became partitioned by tribe and faith, the brick strewn street and smouldering vehicle a staple of the nightly news. Army checkpoints and patrols near housing estates were a way of life. Lavish murals on walls paid tribute to each community’s heroes and mythologies.
The road from Belfast to Pyongyang began with one Republican faction’s move away from armed insurgency in the North towards parliamentary politics in the South. In 1969-70 the IRA split into its Marxist left ‘Official’ and Catholic nationalist ‘Provisional’ factions.
Led by Goulding, the ‘Officials’, sometimes called the ‘Stickies’ on account of the adhesive Easter lilies worn by members of its political wing, Official Sinn Fein, were theoretically on ceasefire after May 1972. In practice, the OIRA’s involvement in violence would continue for many more years. Sean Garland reorganized the OIRA into ‘Group A’ (political) and ‘Group B’ (military), although the official line of the former was that the latter did not exist.
The ‘Troubles’ were always a multi-pronged conflict. While Republican groups pledged to forcibly eject the British Army from the province and Loyalist groups brutalized supporters of a United Ireland, both sides filled many graves eliminating renegades within their own camps.
The ‘Stickies’ and ‘Provos’ clashed intermittently in the 1970s. Soon after an anti-ceasefire OIRA faction formed the Irish Republican National Army (INLA) in December 1974, Sean Garland was one of their first targets. He narrowly survived being shot outside his home in Dublin in March 1975. OIRA i.e. Group B killed the INLA leader Seamus Costello in October 1977.
THE KPA TRAINED THE IRA?
It was in late 1986 that two Group B operatives travelled to Pyongyang to train with specialized units of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA). The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar describes another visit by a dozen Group B members to North Korea. The men went via Moscow and were assisted by the KGB, concealing their true whereabouts by writing Soviet-stamped postcards that were passed on by a Moscow-based Group B member.
While in the DPRK, the Irishmen found themselves brushing shoulders with a motley array of Third World insurgent groups. The pedagogy of terrorism has long been a North Korean speciality. One Group B member reported that the training included intelligence gathering, the use of heavy machine guns and this was “just an exercise in keeping (volunteers) happy.” Other visitors reported that the training included the establishment of an “elite assassination squad.” Around this time, Group B utilized its North Korean connection to import two dozen .32 automatic pistols, collected from DPRK diplomats in Paris.
Why did the Party deem such links necessary? In 1986-7, the ‘Provos’ were still fighting the British Army in the North. In the South, the Workers’ Party was increasingly making its presence felt in local and general elections.
By now, the leadership were abjuring what it saw as the sectarianism of emerging Republican leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in favour of class-based politics. And its old guard looked for inspiration to the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea.
In 1983, Garland and the party’s Director of International Affairs Sean O’Cionnaith travelled to North Korea at the invitation of the DPRK Ambassador in Copenhagen, with whom the Party had been contact for some years. Whilst in Pyongyang they met with the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Young Nam and were escorted around the usual monuments and places of pilgrimage to the Great Leader.
Several more visits followed before the split of 1992. In September 1988, for example, Garland led a delegation to Pyongyang to join mass celebrations marking the fortieth anniversary of the DPRK’s foundation. The vast displays and rallies were also intended to upstage South Korea, hosting the Olympic Games in Seoul. During that visit, the delegates met with the emergent ‘Dear Leader,’ Kim Jong-il.
The invitations were reciprocated with DPRK diplomats being brought on guided tours of Ireland. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was not uncommon to spot a suited North Korean functionary with his obligatory ‘Great Leader’ badge at the WP Ard Feis (annual conference) in Dublin.
In June 1984, the North Korean Ambassador to Denmark, who had arranged the previous year’s visit, came to Ireland. Four years later, a delegation from the WPRK visited and expressed the hope that they could “contribute to further strengthening friendship and co-operation between our two parties.”
Typically, the visiting diplomats would be taken to State-run industries and places of historic importance during Ireland’s independence struggle.
Sean O’Cionnaith died in 2003 but Colm Breathnach, who was involved in the WP youth wing, was also a member of the International Affairs Committee.
“In many ways, they were more old fashioned Republicans who had kind of grafted on pro-Soviet politics on to some kind of left-wing Republicanism,” he says.
“And they weren’t fools. Of course they knew it was a load of shit. And they’d laugh at it in private. I think where the ‘ideological’ thing came in was, what they really bought into was the so-called anti-imperialist element, an element of ‘look, whoever is really hostile to the Yanks must be on the side of the angels.’
‘The North Koreans would send us loads of their books and stuff. And Sean O’Cionnaith, who ran the bookshop, would just dump them down behind the desk! I was the only person who read them. O’Cionnaith would say: ‘you wanna read these?’ And just for a laugh I read them. And I suspect the North Koreans knew this as well. The interactions were for more pragmatic reasons.”
SOLIDARITY UNDER THREAT
In the mid 1980s, the horrors of the North Korean famine, atomic blasts and the ‘Axis of Evil’ rhetoric associated with George W Bush, were still in the future. To many in the West, Kim Il Sung’s North Korea was just another link in the Cold War chain, a communist state, albeit one with a personality cult so overbearing it raised even the eyebrows of its foreign well wishers.
“Over the last few years, I’ve seen discussions where people have criticized the Workers’ Party relationship with North Korea,” says Brian Hanley.
“And they’ve argued that it’s the same as defending as Cuba: it’s solidarity with a socialist country under threat, what’s the difference? Loads of people on the Left have no problem defending Cuba. Korea is a divided country with a massive military. It’s been singled out for attack. Why do you have such difficulties with it?”
As for the training of Group B by the North Koreans, in 1987 Northern Ireland’s ‘Good Friday’ peace agreement was still over a decade away. The ‘Stickies’ still had a presence in the North.
“It was really as insurance,” says Colm Breathnach, “to say to the Provisionals: you can’t attack us. If you attack us we have the capacity to cause you a lot of damage. But the second, and I think increasingly important, aspect in the 1980s was funding for elections.”
The relationship did attract some dissent within party ranks, however. The WP had launched Workers’ Life in 1980 with the intention of using articles and contributors beyond the party membership. As such, its content was rather more eclectic than most party journals. But when journalist Paddy Woodworth wrote an article in 1983 highlighting the bizarre nature of Kim’s regime, it was binned and Garland reportedly told the author:
“Ah come on Paddy, I’m looking for support from these people.”
IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE IT’S TRUE
Earlier Workers’ Life had reported on a visit made by Garland and O’Cionnaith to Nampo, location of the much-vaunted West Sea Barrage. According to the visitors, “the standard of living is quite high and the ships are well stocked…the people are well dressed and there were no indications of the sort of poverty that we witness in this country.”
Prionsias De Rossa, who would lead the apostates of 1992, was unimpressed by North Korea following a 1986 visit he made with Garland, later describing it as “a completely unreal society where people were basically treated as children, not as adults at all.”
Colm Breathnach, who attended an international youth festival in Pyongyang in 1989, maintains that back in the 1980s, most of Kim Il Sung’s Irish guests were more amused than shocked at what they saw in North Korea. He himself was removed from the International Affairs committee after he wrote a document urging the party to sever links with North Korea.
“The problem with the Workers’ Party history is that everyone wants to rewrite it to make themselves look like they were saying the right things,” he says.
“I never heard anyone, including De Rossa, saying anything about these things until around 1989-90 when the WP began to unravel anyway. I heard people laughing at it as if ‘Oh ho ho, those f****n’ North Koreans’ kind of thing. But I never heard any kind of critique.”
In any case, the breakup of the Workers’ Party was motivated by concerns closer to home. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it became rather difficult for a party in Western Europe to offer the electorate the prospect of living in a centralized command economy if it hoped to gain a surfeit of votes.
Moreover, more revelations had surfaced in the Irish media concerning the links between the Party and Group B.
A RUMPY BIDE
After the De Rossa and his supporters, temporarily calling themselves ‘New Agenda’ narrowly failed to get a two thirds majority needed to change the WP constitution, they broke away, leaving a rump WP with one member in the Dail and seven councillors.
After a decade as President Garland resigned his position in May 2008 and was replaced by Mick Finnegan, a former electoral assistant to Tomás MacGiolla. In recent years the WP has maintained a residual presence in the south east, particularly in the city of Waterford.
But none of the six parliamentary candidates fielded in the 2011 General Election won seats. It seems unlikely that Garland, now enfeebled by various ailments including bowel cancer, will leave Ireland.
But as far as the party is concerns, he and his party still “salutes the continuing struggle of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Korean people for national independence, sovereignty and socialism[…] congratulates the DPRK on the 76th anniversary of the Korean Peoples’ Army which has defended the Korean people against Japanese and U.S. imperialism and supports the call of the call of the DPRK for the reunification of the country and peace on the Korean peninsula.”
Headline illustration: NK News