Remembering the Founding of the IRSCNA
Twenty-five years ago this month, in March 1984, the activists who went on to found the International Republican Socialist Network were among a handful of activists who met in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota to found the Irish Republican Socialist Committees of North America--the first specific support organization for the Irish Republican Socialist Party and Irish National Liberation Army.
The founding members at that initial congress included the initiators of the call to found the organization from San Francisco (Peter Urban, Mary McIlroy, and Erin Clarke; a fourth member from San Francisco, Caitlin Hines, was hospitalized due to a stroke at the time), as well as seven other activists from throughout the US, including Washington, DC (Margie Bernard), Eugene, Oregon (Ralph), New York, New York (Dennis Hanratty; another member from NY, George Harrison, could not attend), and Minneapolis/St. Paul (Mike Whelan, Geri Fenton, Marcy Huiltquist, and John Harlis). Two Canadian comrades, from Regina, Saskatchewan (Michael Quinn) and Vancouver, British Columbia (Kevin Dooley) could not be present, but formed part of the network of activists sympathetic to the IRSP/INLA that developed into the IRSCNA.
The founding congress was the result of discussion with the IRSP's leadership over the course of years, initiated by the activists in San Francisco, which by that time had three IRSP members among them (Urban, Hines, and Clarke), one of which (Urban) was the first person admitted to the IRSP in North America. Though the 14 comrades either present or in solidarity with the founding congress of the IRSCNA had been active in the IRSM's support since at least 1981, the movement's commitment to attempting to build a Broad Front had taken precedence over the creation of a partisan support organization in North America initially. When Provisional Sinn Fein disbanded the H-Block/Armagh Committees in Ireland--the North American counterpart of which had been the arena for activism of the supporters of the IRSM in North America--it became clear that the IRSM must either support the founding of a partisan support organization for itself in North America or fall victim to the sectarian practices of Irish Northern Aid, the Sinn Fein/Provo IRA support organization in the US.
The IRSM's leadership was represented at the founding congress of the IRSCNA by Brigid Makowski, who then held the Ard Comhairle position of Party Treasurer in the IRSP. Brigid was called upon because her marriage to a Polish-American provided her with dual citizenship and thwarted the US government's policy of generally refusing visas to representatives of the IRSM. Brigid was also an elected Shannon Town Councillor, one of a tiny handful of IRSP members elected to public office in the 1980s. Margie Bernard, who was one of the IRSCNA members at the Founding Congress, later published a biography of Brigid Makowski, called Daughter of Derry.
The IRSCNA's Founding Congress met for two days in St. Paul and most of those attending the congress were guests in the home of Mike Whelan, which provided those in attendance with the ability to further engage in informal discussion and meet other Irish and Left activists from the Twin Cities during a social held at the house. Congress participants also joined in a mass demonstration against US policy in Central America, while in Minneapolis, which provided a rare opportunity for IRSM supporters from throughout North America to act as comrades together, in the same location.
Between the two days of the Congress, the founding members of the IRSCNA, filled with optimism, created a structure comprised of four regional sections (US West, US Central, US East, and Canada) and reserved the right to later create a fifth regional section to accommodate Quebecois supporters of the IRSM, so as to demonstrate respect for the aspirations for national liberation of the Quebecois people. Each of the four initial regions had a coordinator elected (Erin Clarke for the US West, Mike Whelan for the US Central, Dennis Hanratty for the US East, and Michael Quinn for Canada) and Peter Urban was elected to the position of North American Coordinator of the IRSCNA, a position he was re-elected to without interuption until he resigned from the IRSM in 2005 to protest the lack of internal democracy exhibited at the most recent IRSP Ard Fheis and the shift in direction taken by the IRSM, 21 years later.
Those 21 years provided a baptism of fire for the IRSM's North American organization, which saw some significant successes, as well as extremely dark times; when the IRSCNA, in cooperation with the Republican Socialist prisoners of war, struggled to keep the IRSM as a whole from disappearing completely. The years included the IRSCNA journeying to Libya to open up dialogue between the IRSM and the Libyan Jamahiriya; the launching of the Irish Political Prisoners' Children's Fund; the jailing of the North American Coordinator, Peter Urban; the provision of tens of thousands of dollars in material assistance to the IRSP and the POWs of the INLA; the building of other relationships with Republican Socialists in Scotland, Wales, and Brittany; IRSCNA activists being fingered to the FBI as responsible for an armored car robbery in San Francisco; the lifting of a Regina IRSCNA member under the Prevention of Terrorism Act; the detention and interogation of San Francisco IRSCNA comrades Hines and Urban by the French national police, and much more.
Throughout this history, the IRSCNA sought to be both the Irish component of the North American Left and the Left component of the North American Irish activist community. While the remnants of the IRSCNA continues a precarious existence today, the IRSN will continue with a series of reports on the organizations history during its most vital and productive period throughout this month, in recognition of the importance the organization had for the survival and development of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement as a whole and the manner in which it transformed the face of Irish activism in North America.
The early years of the IRSCNA were among its most exciting. Within months of the founding congress of the organization, the newly elected North American Coordinator, Peter Urban, travelled to Ireland to participate in the first of a number of IRSP Ard Fheisanna, but the 1984 Ard Fheis was particularly important. Comrade Urban had joined the IRSP in October 1981, after working with the party a little over half a year; but the leadership he had joined under--Chairperson Naommi Brennan, General Secretary Elis Flynn, Treasurer Brigid Makowski had all departed by the time the Ard Fheis of 1984 was held, as part of a bitter split that would have deadly ramifications a few years later. The split was partially ideological--the former ruling faction convinced that they were about to lose control to a coalition of other factions which they viewed as overly dogmatic Marxist-Leninists, but primarily part of a power struggle that arose from the far too rapid growth of the IRSP during t!
he period of the hunger strikes, at a time when the movement had only recently been deprived of its first two chairpersons, Seamus Costello and Miriam Daly, as well as leading figures such as Ronnie Bunting and Noel Little.
Comrade Urban landed at Shannon where he took the opportunity to meet with Brigid Makowski to hear her side of things, then travelled to Cork to meet Jim Lane, who was soon to become the party chairperson, as well as two leading lights from Limerick (John Gilligan and Mary Gilfoyle) and Chris Matthews, another leading figure from Cork. From Cork, party comrades including the IRSCNA Coordinator travelled to Dublin for the Ard Fheis, which was held in the IRSP's premisis (the large, two-story building has now, sadly, been lost).
The central issue of that Ard Fheis was the transformation of the party into a Marxist organization, but approaches differred. Comrades in Cork, led by Jim Lane, who had a long history with the (essentially Maoist) Cork Workers' Club as well as the Official Irish Republican Movement and the trade union movement in Cork, had put forward one motion, stating that the IRSP stood in the tradition of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The comrades from Belfast, more influenced by Trotsky than Mao and very much full of themselves at the time, and apparently feeling no Ard Fheis would be complete without a Belfast motion, put forward a motion supporting the Cork motion (one would think they could have just seconded it). Finally, the Limerick comrades put forward a motion which placed the IRSP in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Connolly.
During the debate on the motions, the IRSCNA's Coordinator spoke in favor of the Limerick motion. He explained that Connolly had developed an indigenous application of Marx to conditions in Ireland and could not be excluded, but went on to say that Connolly and Lenin's views differred radically (Lenin would have derisively called him a "syndicalist"), so that by adopting the Limerick motion, the IRSP would avoid the sectarian attitude of many parties of the Left and leave itself open to committed, revolutionary socialists of many different traditions, whereas adopting the Cork motion alone might well pave the way for even more sectarian battles in the future, such as between Maoists and Trotskyists. In the course of supporting the Limerick motion, Comrade Urban evoked the legacies of Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter, Balabanoff, and others outside the narrow confines of Leninism. In the end, the Ard Fheis passed all three resolutions, but the inclusion of Connolly in the Limer!
ick resolution served to keep the IRSP from becoming a narrowly Marxist-Leninist party and helped to forge its tradition as a multi-tendencied revolutionary Marxist organisation; thereby providing a unique model for the international Left to examine.
Two developments from the early years of the IRSCNA deserve special attention. The first of these was the founding of the Irish Political Prisoners' Children's Fund (IPPCF), while the other was the founding of the Republican Socialist Prisoners' Educational Fund (RSPEF).
The IPPCF was initiated by George McLaughlin of the IRSCNA in New York. The idea was relatively simple, to find sponsors in the US or Canada to take the children of Irish Prisoners of War in their homes for several weeks during the summer and sponsor the cost of their flying to North America. The brilliance of the idea was demonstrated almost immediately, as the IPPCF grew and spread like wild-fire.
During the mid-1980s when the program was initiated, the Irish Republican Socialist Movement had a huge number of POWs relative to the membership of the IRSP and relatively few funds to provide for their support. While the IRSCNA struggled to take on an increasing large amount of the financial support of INLA prisoners, the reality was that Provisional Sinn Fein's supporters in Irish Northern Aid jealously controlled the funding sources in the US and were not beyond claiming to raise money for all Irish republican POWs, while actually sending none to the aid of the INLA prisoners. As a result, INLA prisoners needed to be able to maintain their membership levels in the prisoners of the six and twenty-six counties, without the support from their movement that the Provos could provide. While the INLA POWs demonstrated tremendous dedication under extremely adverse circumstances, still morale suffered.
With the creation of the IPPCF, however, INLA POWs' children became the recipients of a form of support that the Provos could not equal. Each year, when the children of the INLA POWs were flown to the US and Canada, they were able to spend a significant period of time in circumstances that were in better material circumstances than they would have been at home. Moreover, while the children were away, overburdened spouses, forced to raise the children as a single parent due to their spouse or partner's incarceration, received a holiday of their own. Some of the parents left behind were able to get some respite at home from the demands of children on a single parent, while other spouses of INLA POWs were brought to North America as adult chaperones for the children, which provided them with a North American holiday of their own. Very soon the IPPCF was expanded to include the children and spouses of INLA martyrs as well.
One of the earliest participants in the IPPCF program were the two daughters of INLA martyr Ronnie Bunting, as well as his widow, Suzanne Bunting. Suzanne, like Ronnie, came from the Protestant community of the six counties. This did nothing to protect the Buntings, however, the night the SAS came to their home, pretending to be loyalist death squad members. In that attack, Ronnie Bunting was killed, as was his comrade Noel Little (the two, in addition to being leading members of both the IRSP and INLA, were members of the national leadership of the H-Block/Armagh committees); Suzanne Bunting was shot in the throat and mouth and left for dead and her two small daughters were forced to climb over the body of their dead father to get help for their seriously wounded mother.
It was activist/supporters of the IRSCNA in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Nick and Barbara Clark who brought Suzanne Bunting and her two daughters to the US and they placed them with a family on the Pine Ridge reservation of the Lakota people. Nick and Barbara were pioneering video producders and captured the experiences of the Buntings among the Lakota, as well as the reactions of the Native Americas on the reservation to being told about the struggle being waged in the six counties in a film called We are a River Flowing.
Before long, most of the chapters of the IRSCNA were also active centers for the IPPCF, such that the program was able to provide North American holidays for all of the children of INLA POWs' children who wanted to go, as well as many of the children and widows of INLA martyrs, and still not have enough children available for all the willing, potential sponsors. The ability to provide these holidays of its prisoners dependents was a source of pride for IRSM activists.
Sadly, at the peak of its success, the IPPCF fell victim to the attacks on the IRSM by the renegades who called themselves the Irish Peoples' Liberation Organisation (IPLO). The leader of a group that began as "Revolutionary Command" within the INLA and first used the name IPLO when it broke with the INLA late in 1986, was Tom McAllister. Tom's mother Faye McAllister was long a major figure in the IRSP's Prisoner Welfare Office, and Faye had also become the primary liaison between the IRSM and the IPPCF. Ater Tom left the IRSM and formed the IPLO, Faye was able to take the IPPCF away from the IRSM and, when Tom McAllister and a number of other leading members of the IPLO were admitted into the Provosional IRA, Faye McAllister delivered the IPPCF to the Provos as well.
The other organization mentioned, which owed its origins to the IRSCNA was the Republican Socialist Prisoners' Education Fund. The RSPEF was initiated by IRSCNA activists in the San Francisco Bay Area around the slogan, "turn the prisons into the universities of the revolution." The purpose of the RSPEF was to supply books and pamphlets to the INLA prisoners in Portlaoiose, Long Kesh, Magilligan, Crumlin Road, and the various gaols in England.
The books collected were primarily works on Marxist theory, the history of the socialist and anti-imperialist movements, Irish history, women's liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, and similar works. The books were collected or purchased throughout the year and sent over in large quantities during the winter holiday season. Year after year, the RSPEF shipped books and pamphlets to INLA POWs, until all of the prisons with INLA wings had extremely well-stocked libraries for poltical education. Over the years, these libraries received literally hundeds of books, ranging from Marx and Engels, to Connolly and MacLean, as well as works by Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Lenin, Trotsky, Balabanoff, Kolantai, and many, many others.
In the archives of the IRSN is a letter from Gino Gallagher written while he was in jail, thanking the program from the books it sent into him him and other INLA POWs and comrades were always tremendously gratified, when Gino rose to become perhaps the most important and charismatic leaders of the IRSM after 1985 to note that the one of Gino's favorite quotes, that "revolutionaries are just dead men on holiday," was taken from the German communist Ernst Meyer and first read by Gino in a book sent to him through the RSPEF.
Even following the departure of the founding comrades of the International Republican Socialist Network from the IRSM in 2005, the IRSN has continued the work of the RSPEF. To this day, the IRSN continues to send revolutionary literature to the POWs of the INLA and in recent years has expanded the role of the RSPEF to send revolutionary literature to POWs from the Puerto Rican, Breton, Catalonian, and Basque struggles for national liberation and socialism as well.
Comrade, International Republican Socialist Network
17 March 2009
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