Interview with Séamus Costello

Immediately following the formation of the IRSP, the new movement came under attack from the Official Republican Movement, which sought to prevent a recurrence of the Provisionals, that is, a rival organization. In the premiere issue of the IRSP newspaper, "The Starry Plough," Seamus Costello addressed the feud, differences between the IRSM and the Officials and Provisionals, as well as policies of the IRSP.

Q. What caused the present feud between the IRSP and the Officials?

As far as we can see, it is the fact that the IRSP is undermining the Officials organizationally, particularly in Belfast where the feud is most intense. During the past 3 or 4 months, since the party was launched on the 12th of December, the IRSP has taken some 200 members from the Officials in the Belfast area. This has led to a situation where, at the moment, the Officials in Belfast have only half the numerical strength of the IRSP. As a result of this, a request was made by the (Official) Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle to the Official IRA to prevent the organization of further IRSP branches in the Belfast area. Immediately after this request, starting on Dec. 12th, a number of our members were kidnapped in the Belfast area. From then until the murder of Hugh Ferguson, we have had dozens of people kidnapped, people beaten up, people wounded through shooting, houses petrol bombed, cars burned and so on. Undoubtedly the immediate cause of the feud is the fact that the Officials are losing members.

Q. What are the main ideological differences between the IRSP and the Officials?

The principal ideological differences would be their attitude towards the National Question as against our attitude. Basically, the position of the leadership of the Officials is that there is no hope of achieving National Liberation until such time as the Protestant and Catholic working class in the North are united and therefore there is nothing which can be done in political terms or in any other terms about this particular issue. Our attitude, on the other hand, is that the British presence in Ireland is the basic cause of the divisions between the Protestant and Catholic working class in the North. It follows from that, in our view, that the primary emphasis should be on the mobilization of the mass of the Irish people in the struggle for National Liberation. We believe, also, that the left in Irish politics should play a leading role in this struggle. Up until recent years, many of us felt that the Official Movement was capable of and willing to do this. Indeed the rank and file of the Official Movement had expressed their views on this at the 1972 and 1973 Ard Fheiseanna, where they rejected the position of the national leadership on the national question and put forward a policy which would have led to a more militant approach on this question.

However, the leadership disagreed with this policy and deliberately frustrated its implementation. The result of this was that the Official Republicans, who, at that time, were the largest single body of organized left-wing opinion in Ireland, deliberately divorced the working class struggle from the national struggle and gradually degenerated, taking a reformist position on a number of very important issues.

Q. What issues in particular?

The principal issues that come to mind immediately are the Civil Rights struggle, the Assembly Elections, the question of taking seats and the question of the rent and rates strike. In all these issues, the leadership of the Officials hesitated to take a stand. They have, for instance, regarded the Civil Rights struggle since 1969, as the only struggle worth taking part in. They ignored the presence of 15,000 troops on the streets. They ignored the torture and terror perpetrated by the British Army on the Nationalist population and they acted as though there was no change in the situation since 1969. In other words, they failed to realize the change in the nature of the struggle in Ireland, particularly in the North. They failed to realize that struggle within the context of the 6 County state to an outright struggle against Imperialism, as manifested by the British political and military presence in Ireland.

Q. The IRSP has been described as a "Stickie" organization with a "Provo" streak. How would you differ from the Provos?

The principal difference we would have with them as I see it, is that the Provisionals are not as an organization, dedicated to the establishment of a Socialist Republic. We feel that, from an organizational point of view, many of them would accept a theoretically independent state, with no significant change being made in the social and political structures of the state. However, there are individuals within the Provisionals ranks who are quite radical and support the idea of establishing a Socialist Republic. We are not in business to criticize the Provisionals. We have our own policy to pursue and we have our own objectives. To the extent that the Provisional policy runs parallel to ours, we are prepared to co-operate with them. The principal meeting point of our two policies at the moment is the question of British withdrawal from Ireland. I don't think anybody can question the sincerity of the Provos on that particular point. To that extent, we are willing to co-operate with them ON THAT ISSUE. We are also, of course willing to co-operate with the Officials, or any other radical organization in Ireland that we have common ground with on specific issues.

Q. Would you be willing to co-operate with Loyalist groups on short-term economic and social issues?

We should certainly co-operate with anybody on any aspect of our policy. But we think that any approach to the Loyalist and Protestant working class in the North, must be on the basis of a principled political approach. In other words, there is no use in us, as an organization, going to some Loyalist group and asking them for co-operation with regard to housing on the Shankill and Falls Road and at the same time pretending that we are not Socialists and we are not Republicans. We feel that the approach to the Loyalists must be an honest one and that we must explain to them what all aspects of our policy are. We must explain, for instance, that we are opposed to the British presence in Ireland and that we are not merely opposed to that presence because we want to establish a Catholic Republic in the whole country. We are opposed to it because we regard it as the principle means of dividing the Protestant and Catholic working class and because we regard the British presence in Ireland as the principle obstacle preventing the emergence of class politics in Ireland. We feel that, if we approach the Protestant working class on this basis, we may manage to convince some of them, at least, that our approach is correct. We see no point whatsoever in co-operating with them on short-term issues while at the same time trying to fool them about our politics. If we were to do that, we would be in the same position as the people in Belfast in 1913 whom Connolly described as "gas and water" Socialists. The Official Movement, during the last few years, have tried this particular approach and have now moved into what we would call "Ring-road Socialists." In other words they are prepared to adopt a common stand with Loyalist organizations on the question of the Ring-road in Belfast and to hope, or believe that the Protestants will not suspect that they are really Republicans or Socialists. We feel this is a very dishonest approach and that ultimately it is a counter-productive one. We have a situation arising from that, where the ranks of the Official Movement now find themselves moving in parallel directions to Loyalist murder gangs. This is the logical extension of an unprincipled political approach.

Q. You have criticized the Officials for contesting the Assembly Elections. Yet the IRSP has decided, in principle, to contest the Convention Elections. Is there not a contradiction?

First of all, let me say, that the decision which the IRSP made regarding the Convention Election was, as you point out, a decision in principle. This decision was made at the meeting at which the party was formed and we have explained quite clearly since then that this decision will be subject to review at our Annual Conference, which is taking place on April 5th & 6th.

What the final outcome of that discussion, at the conference, will be, I don't know. But the essential difference which we see between the Assembly Elections and the Convention Elections is that the Assembly was, in fact, a Parliament, with statutory powers of administration and powers of government. The Assembly Elections were an attempt, by the British government, to re-establish the Stormont Parliament under another name and to continue with separate political institutions in the North directly under British control. A large section of the population of the North had rejected the existence of the Stormont Assembly. In the context of that situation, we felt that it was a totally unrevolutionary and a very reactionary decision by the Official Republicans to agree to contest these elections. We felt that they were lending validity and credence to Britain's claim to govern any part of this country, despite their repudiation of this claim. The Convention, on the other hand, has no powers. It is not an Assembly. It is not a Parliament. The only task of the Convention will be to discuss constitutional arrangements for the future government of Northern Ireland. We understand from the British government's statements that, in fact, the Convention will be abolished after a stated period of time and it is for this reason that some of us, at the original meeting, felt we should contest the Convention Elections.

Q. You state that the IRSP is not an abstentionist Party. If you get candidates elected to the Dail, what kind of role will they play? The role of a social-democratic party (e.g. the Irish Labour Party)?

When we say that we are not an abstentionist party, what we mean by this is that we are not a party, in principle, committed to abstention. But there are circumstances and conditions under which is might be desirable to abstain and if we felt that it was tactically desirable at any particular point in time, in either the North or the South to abstain from Parliament, then we would do so. That would depend, however, on the circumstances existing at that particular point of time. If a situation existed, for instance, where there was a possibility of large scale dissatisfaction, on the part of the people, with either the 26 County parliament or the 6 County parliament then abstention, on our part would be a legitimate tactic. We are not, however, abstentionist in principle. As for the role IRSP representatives would play in Leinster House, we would see their primary task there as one of highlighting the policies of the IRSP using the parliament as a platform for the pursuit of these policies, and for achieving publicity for them. But we feel that, in addition to that, members elected to Parliament would have, by necessity, to be active in politics outside of Parliament, i.e., in extra-parliamentary and agitationary politics on the streets. We see a direct relationship between the successful struggle on the streets in pursuit of any particular political objective and the presence of people in parliament. We don't see Parliament as an institution that is likely to produce the results which we want from a long term point of view. We don't see it in a reformist way. We see both Parliamentary institutions in Ireland as institutions that have to be abolished if we are to make progress from the point of view of establishing a Socialist Republic.