Letter in reply to “Seán Mac Stíofáin: An Unyielding Revolutionary”

Dear comrade,

In the spirit of comradely discussion I wish to reply to the above opinion piece and its author.

I must be honest and say that, like many others, I disagree with what I read as an unfairly generous appraisal of an anti-communist republican.

The comrade seeks to establish and defend internationalist and pro-communist credentials they believe can be attributed to Seán Mac Stíofáin. I wish to focus my reply on the claim that Mac Stíofáin was not opposed to communism per se, but only to the communist organisations present in Ireland during the 60s when he co-led the split in Sinn Féin. As I understand it the author is a young comrade relatively new to the movement, and while it’s only a short opinion piece they have written, the comrade has built their case on an inadequate foundation utilizing only 1 direct quote from Mac Stíofáin himself stating he was ‘anti-capitalist’.

As you are no doubt aware the split which the Provisionals led was in part a response to two motions to the Sinn Féin 1969 Ard Fheis calling for

1) A National Liberation Front to be established with other left wing radical groups,

2) The end of abstentionism.

The split was fundamentally a rejection of the Marxist leadership of Sinn Féin, and of their agenda to engage with other socialist organisations, and to pursue socialism through all means including participation in bourgeois parliaments, a socialist tactic advised by such comrades as Vladimir Lenin.

If the provisionals talked in any sense of ‘socialism’ it was a socialism of defending the Irish working class from capitalism’s excesses perhaps, but quite separate to Marxist socialism as we would understand it, with its agenda of seizing the means of production and the eradication of class distinction. The first act of Provisional Sinn Féin, alongside calling for support for the PIRA, was to reject ‘extreme forms of socialism’. The pages of An Phoblacht set out Provisional Sinn Féin’s stall as being one which adhered to traditional Republicanism and which rejected ‘foreign’ Marxist socialism which the previous leaders of Sinn Féin had become distracted with.

The bloody purge which followed the split in Sinn Féin, instigated by the PIRA, has left deep wounds on our society, wounds which despite the many years are still very much raw. The comrade should not be insensitive to the hurt caused by the carnage PIRA gunmen began carrying out following the split Mac Stíofáin led. The lives of many socialists and communists volunteers were snuffed out as a consequence, as well as the lives of civilians such as Eileen Kelly, only 6 years old.

The domination of the one party state rule under the Official Unionist Party was not smashed by the Provisional’s bombs and bullets; the rotten edifice of the Orange statelet only began to melt under the heat of a working class united under the banner of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Communists put their lives at considerable risk organising NICRA, comrades like Betty Sinclair and Madge Davison, the first General Secretary of the all-Ireland CYM. Would the author genuinely write off such comrades, and NICRA, as ‘reformist’? This would be of great offense to leftists across Ireland.

And what progress did physical force achieve in comparison? Did the bombing and shooting campaign realise Mac Stíofáin’s mission: to remove the British presence in the North and establish the Irish Republic by “force of arms”? It did not.

By now I’m sure the comrade will be aware that their article has generated a considerable backlash. I have to be honest and say I feel that much of it is deserved, it was inappropriate to try and count Mac Stíofáin among the ranks of Irish socialists, more so to do it with only one Mac Stíofáin quote as evidence. Mac Stíofáin’s denigration of the CPI, Official Sinn Fein (now the Workers Party), and other Irish socialists, denigration the author seems to believe was justified, is completely unjustified. Pointing the finger and accusing others of reformism is an easy and lazy tactic utilized by ultraleftists as much today as it was in the late 60s.

I hope my reply gives you insight into why your article has generated a great deal of acrimonious feedback. My advice would be don’t let this put you off writing and expressing yourself, but equally don’t just reflexively dig your heels in and double down on what you have said either. Keep reading, keep talking to comrades who lived through that period, and try to understand why the vast majority of socialists opposed Mac Stíofáin’s insistence that physical force was the only way to unite Ireland. He will be proven wrong in our lifetimes.


Adam Murray
CPI member from Belfast

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One thought on “Letter in reply to “Seán Mac Stíofáin: An Unyielding Revolutionary”

  • February 22, 2021 at 10:02 am

    “The split was fundamentally a rejection of the Marxist leadership of Sinn Féin, and of their agenda to engage with other socialist organisations, and to pursue socialism through all means including participation in bourgeois parliaments, a socialist tactic advised by such comrades as Vladimir Lenin.”

    Not completely true.

    The “rejection of Marxism” angle was used as an all encompassing phrase to explain away some deep rooted issues:

    1 – The bad experiences the Belfast IRA had working with communists in the 30’s/40’s (which led to them believing some communists were RUC informers).

    2 – Cathal Goulding’s lack of understanding re. the sectarian dynamics in Belfast, leading to his inability to accept any role or agency unionists might have in actively fomenting violence.

    3 – Jimmy Steele’s speech in July 1969 about how “…one is expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots…My real hope, is from these graves of Barnes and McCormick, will emanate a combination of the old and new spirit, a spirit that will inspire men and women with the noble idealism of Pearse, the social and economic philosophy and aims of Connolly, and the fighting and courageous heart of Cathal Brugha.”

    Combined with Goulding’s inability to take criticism, and it was inevitable a split would occur.


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