Seán Garland 1934–2018

A historic leader of Irish republicanism, Seán Garland steered a difficult course between class politics and the demands of the armed struggle.

Seán Garland in 2011. The Workers Party of Ireland / Flickr

Seán Garland, who has died in Dublin aged eighty-four, was a central figure in the leftward shift in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the 1960s, in the Official IRA after 1970, and in the leadership of what became the Workers Party’ (WP) of the 1980s.

While he has been commemorated by his admirers as a “giant of the Left,” mainstream commentary on his death has tended to focus on his role in securing an Official IRA ceasefire in 1972, and latterly on attempts to indict him for involvement with North Korean counterfeiting. Yet in its heyday the Workers’ Party was a significant presence in the Republic of Ireland, winning seats at national and local level and carving out a niche in trade unions and communities.

A historic figure of Irish republicanism, Garland leaves a complex legacy, which his comrades’ eulogies have often struggled to get to grips with. His biography highlights not just a life committed to the struggle, but the dangers of the conspiratorial approach to politics which he never wholly abandoned.


Garland was born in 1934 to a family that lived in a one-room tenement in inner-city Dublin. Of his nine siblings, four died in childhood — a figure hardly unusual in the area where he grew up. In 1953, at the age of nineteen, he joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Three decades after independence, a still-divided Ireland faced many social problems, with almost fifty thousand people leaving the country each year. Republicans believed that ending partition would solve such questions almost automatically and in general saw little wrong with the dominant Catholic ethos of the southern state. The IRA focused on a military campaign to drive the British out of the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Shortly after joining the IRA, Garland went north to enlist in the British Army in Armagh, in order to prepare the ground for an arms raid. The IRA’s successful seizing of over a hundred weapons from Gough barracks in June 1954 brought them international headlines, and new recruits. Garland remained in the British Army, only deserting when his regiment was due to depart for Kenya.

In December 1956 the IRA launched its long-awaited war to drive out the British. What became the “Border Campaign” was fought on what the IRA (mistakenly) believed was the model of the Irish War of Independence of 1919–21. There was a deliberate effort to avoid civilian casualties and off-duty soldiers were not targeted.

Early in the campaign, Garland was seriously wounded in an attack on a police barracks, during which two of his comrades, Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon, were killed. The incident enhanced Garland’s reputation for personal bravery and determination. He resumed IRA activity and was jailed on several occasions, but in early 1962 he and his comrades were forced to declare a ceasefire.

Defeat provoked a re-think, chiefly associated with the IRA’s new leader, the Dubliner Cathal Goulding. Goulding’s desire for strategic discussion was supported by Garland, Sinn Féin president Tomas Mac Giolla, and senior IRA men like Seamus Costello, Mick Ryan, and Malachy McGurran. The organization moved slowly leftwards, influenced in part by intellectuals with experience of the Communist parties in Ireland and Britain. Tellingly of the conservative ethos of both Irish society and the republican movement, these figures’ essentially left-nationalist politics, such as opposition to the European Economic Community, was perceived as “communist.”

Of Goulding’s supporters among the IRA Army Council, Garland was the one most attuned to socialist thinking. While some commentators have described the IRA in the period as “Marxist,” in fact it moved only gradually to the left. Showing its doubts over Soviet socialism, in April 1968, the IRA’s journal An tOglach — part-edited by Garland — explained that “if Socialism were imposed on us from outside it would be as alien as the British Imperial Capitalism which has been imposed on us from the outside . . . Hungary is a classic example of this. In short, nobody can appreciate being freed by the scruff of the neck.” The paper was more broadly wary about debates between “Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyites and Maoists etc.” as “these quarrels are foreign to our people and only confuse them and give a bad image of Socialism, presenting it as an idealogy (sic) of splits.”

Garland, at least, had developed distinctly revolutionary politics. Already in 1967 he was clear that the IRA should be subordinate to a political leadership and act in support of social struggles. It was, in fact, increasingly active on this terrain during strikes and housing agitation. In June 1968, speaking in the wake of IRA actions during a strike against American multinational E-I, Garland argued that “the fight for freedom is a class struggle . . . The Republican army, North and South, must become the Army of the People in fact as well as name.”

Limited co-operation with leftists outside the IRA, especially the Irish Communists (a small but significant force in trade-union politics) produced stresses within the broader republican movement. So, too, did discussion of taking up seats in the “partition parliaments” of Dublin and Belfast (so named because they were the assemblies of states considered illegitimate by republicans because they were born of the 1921 division of Ireland) and an emphasis on political education over arms training.

These issues were always likely to provoke splits. But the traumatic circumstances of the violent Troubles after 1969 completely distorted the importance of the IRA’s commitment to armed force. The IRA leadership gravely underestimated the scale of Loyalist (Unionist) resistance to its own strategy in the North. Republicans had played a key role (in cooperation with others) in setting up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

In later years Garland and his allies romanticized this movement as nonviolent, reform minded, and seeking cross-community cooperation. In reality, the IRA had remained militarily active throughout and the mainstream civil rights movement said little about economic justice. Only a minority of activists (usually classed as the “ultra-left”) raised issues such as poverty among Protestant workers and the reactionary nature of the southern state; republicans tended to emphasize the unity of nationalists within the civil rights movement. As Garland himself reiterated in April 1969, republicans’ “most important task (was) the ending of British domination of this country” and forcing “the withdrawal, by any and every means in our power, of British troops.”

In the same period, after rioting in Belfast (during which the IRA had carried out fire-bombings to divert police resources) Cathal Goulding warned that “if our people in the six counties are oppressed and beaten up . . . then the IRA will have no alternative but to take military action against the police force . . . [we] have no alternative but to protect our people or allow them to be slaughtered and we are not going to allow them to be slaughtered.”

This gave the impression that the Goulding-led IRA was both willing and able to intervene militarily against the state forces, and indeed it did defend nationalist areas. Yet when, in August inter-communal violence erupted — killing seven, injuring hundreds, and driving over one thousand Belfast Catholics from their homes — the scale of this took the IRA by surprise. Opponents of Goulding’s leadership eagerly raised the argument that the IRA should have been militarily prepared for what occurred and that view proved a potent one for angry nationalists as well as disgruntled veterans and conservatives.

By 1970 the IRA had finally split, with Goulding and Garland’s Officials on one side and the new Provisionals on the other. At first, it was unclear which would emerge stronger, and the lines of division were not always reducible to left versus right. Garland himself was out of Ireland for much of this period, having gone on the run after an armed robbery at Dublin airport in May 1969. He spent some time in Scotland (British Intelligence speculated that he was in Cuba) and did not return until mid-1971.

By then the northern crisis had become a war. The Officials pushed for a revival of mass agitation and insisted that there could be no purely military solution. The Official IRA (OIRA), in theory at least, used force to back up popular struggles and to retaliate against repression. The Provisionals (PIRA; “Provos”) in contrast saw the crisis as an opportunity to drive the British from Ireland once and for all. The Officials warned that this would mean a sectarian civil war, as the North’s Protestant population would resist being forced into a united Ireland.

Amid escalating violence, the Officials tried to maintain a political focus. Garland argued for the development of a revolutionary party whose “central goal was political power for the working class.” In his view, such a party would be built “not by emotional appeal but hard argument and long debate.” However, the IRA would still play a central part; “let no one take . . . any suggestion or even hint [that] the army of the people will not be used and when necessary fully employed to defend the interests of the working people.”

Garland was influenced by his discussions with Gerry Foley, a supporter of the American Socialist Workers’ Party. Indeed self-described Stalinists within the Officials regarded Garland as dangerously close to Trotskyism at this stage. In Dublin especially, the politics of the Official movement remained eclectic, with a wide variety of viewpoints represented. But fear that violence was spiraling towards civil war was the major factor in the Official IRA calling a ceasefire in May 1972. The ceasefire was conditional and allowed for “defense and retaliation,” which meant that OIRA activity continued on much as before, though attacks often went “unclaimed.”

A sense that policies which stressed civil rights and cross-community unity were inadequate provoked a major debate. At the 1972 OIRA convention, Garland and Seamus Costello put forward a joint document arguing for a re-orientation towards more specifically republican demands. This sought to re-emphasize the Officials’ commitment to the “National Struggle,” and argued that “events of the past few years demonstrate that the struggle for democracy is also the national struggle since it is . . . British power and influence that maintains the undemocratic structures and it is the Nationalist population that suffers under this system.” The document thus argued that the “National Question” remained central and this was one of the reasons “why the Provos are still a force today and why they will not fade away for a long time yet.”

But while the Garland/Costello document won majority support, it was soon quietly shelved. In many areas armed actions (claimed and unclaimed) continued for many years. But they were ultimately wound down and the dissatisfied expelled or left. There were no more IRA interventions to back up strikes or agitations either. While the Officials’ critique of the Provos had insisted that the latter’s armed campaign was counterproductive, their rhetoric increasingly mirrored mainstream commentators’ discourse on “terrorism,” with denunciations of their republican rivals far harsher than that deployed about Loyalist or state violence. (This was also partly driven by the reality of frequent clashes, some deadly, in areas where both groups co-existed).

Those dissatisfied with the ceasefire rallied around Costello. In 1974 he was expelled and set up a new group, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, and ultimately a military wing, which became the Irish National Liberation Army. The 1974–75 split with Costello and the INLA left deep scars, personally and politically. Garland was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt and Costello was shot dead by the Officials two years later. (Symptomatically, as late as 2017, in an article in the WP magazine Think Left on the lessons of the Russian Revolution, Garland departed from his topic to denounce Costello for trying to disrupt the Officials’ political development). Anger was and is completely understandable; friends and comrades (including the leading Belfast Official Liam McMillen) were killed and no outsider can understand the dynamics at work in such situations. But Garland never explained how he and Costello could put forward a joint position paper in 1972 and then find themselves at war just two years later.

At the same time, Garland was attuned to international debates. A significant turning point in his own politics came in late 1973 when he was part of a delegation to the Congress of International Peace Forces held in Moscow. Mac Giolla and Belfast man Des O’Hagan also attended the event, after which many suggested that Garland became convinced that Soviet communism offered a model for the Officials.

Garland never deviated from Soviet orthodoxy (publicly at least) for the next twenty years. He was also effectively the leader of the OIRA after 1975, though he refused to adopt such a title. At his suggestion, the Official IRA now ceased to have a public presence. Its structures remained in place, not only for the security of activists, but also for intelligence-gathering, maintaining discipline among militants and, crucially, fundraising.

Defense remained a real imperative. In late 1975 the Provos launched a major attempt to crush the Officials in Belfast and several weeks of fighting left over a dozen people dead and many more wounded. The clashes fundamentally shaped the Officials as did a more limited but equally vicious feud in 1977.

By the late 1970s the Officials, (now called Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party and after 1982 the Workers’ Party) were adamant that the greatest obstacle to peace in Ireland was the Provisional IRA. Garland stated at an internal conference during 1978 that “it was only the state forces which could defeat Provisionalism.” The British state was now potentially part of the solution rather than the problem. With the Provos routinely denounced as “fascist,” this logic led to public support for the forces of the British state and secret cooperation with them.

Sectarianism was the product of bigotry on both sides, with no connection to the Northern Ireland state itself. During the H-Block hunger strikes the WP asserted that there were no political prisoners in the North. Contempt was even expressed for those campaigning around miscarriages of justice. Garland was central to these developments, often along with O’Hagan couching support for the Northern Irish state in the language of European communist opposition to “ultra-left” terrorism.

Meanwhile the existence of any kind of Official IRA was denied, not only to the media but also to activists, supporters, and voters. The majority of WP members in the 1980s (particularly in the south) were not privy to information about a whole variety of activities, from building site fraud to sending cadre to North Korea for arms training. It is difficult at the remove of almost thirty years to understand how hypocritical the WP’s damning condemnations of the Provisional IRA seemed. As a former activist, Paddy Woodworth, suggested in 1991, “It is one thing to say, ‘We did this, we won’t do it anymore and we don’t think the Provos should either.’ People can understand and respect it. It is another altogether to come on like a bunch of choirboys, when the dogs in the street know the WP’s history.”

By then diligent campaigning at local level, innovative use of the party paper The Irish People and a talent for finding cadre on the way up in student and trade union politics had made the WP a small but growing force. It gained its first parliamentary seat in 1981 and by 1987 had four members (TDs) of Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil. In its most successful phase it was essentially a left-wing social democratic party, an alternative to the Irish Labour Party, which was then, as usual, in coalition with conservative forces.

Though to outsiders the WP often appeared monolithic and highly disciplined, there were several elite factions competing for dominance within the party. If the party’s membership were far less eclectic politically than in the early 1970s, a variety of views could still be accommodated in its ranks. Its main base was among working-class activists for whom the attraction of the party was its emphasis on class politics.

While the party had notable enemies in the media, its strongly anti-Provisional position meant that it also had many “sneaking regarders” who despite having little interest in the WP’s politics admired it for its stance on the North, which seemed essentially an anti-Provo one. In the North itself the party was reduced to a loyal core and utilized to a great extent to provide funding. In 1989 it appeared to make a breakthrough, winning seven seats in the Dáil and one in the European parliament.

But the WP’s successes also came at a time when Eastern Bloc socialism was reeling from the glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The WP had secured fraternal relations with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1983. Contacts had also been opened up with the Chinese and North Korean ruling parties as well as those in power in Eastern Europe. Some members embraced these associations with enthusiasm while others paid little attention to them. Nevertheless, the questions posed by the “death of communism” could hardly be avoided.

The End

A genuine crisis of socialist politics, relations with the former Eastern Bloc, and the convenient discovery that the Official IRA still existed became factors in the departure of six of the party’s seven members of parliament, and some of its activists, to form a new organization, Democratic Left in early 1992.

Garland and his allies were in the minority, in seeking to maintain the WP as it was, but large numbers of members simply dropped out. Garland’s explanation for the split was that “opportunists” who joined the party in order to advance their careers had “betrayed” a “sound” membership.  As ever, the reality was more complex, though the WP (which quickly lost its sole parliamentary seat) maintained a commitment to class politics while Democratic Left soon entered a “rainbow” coalition government with the conservative Fine Gael party and Labour.

For his part, Garland returned dramatically to public attention in 2005 when he was subject to unsuccessful extradition proceedings by the United States after being accused of involvement in a plot by North Korea to counterfeit American dollars. The attempt to extradite him was unsuccessful and a defense campaign garnered broad backing from among others, (Provisional) Sinn Féin representatives (cynics pointing out that if the shoe was on the other foot, reciprocal support would not have been forthcoming). Garland’s party are now more active than they have been for several years. Like all political forces, they choose both what they remember and what they commemorate about their own past.

Though Garland was a central figure in the movement for over fifty years, the unpopular stances his party took tend to be blamed on others. Indeed, one of the Officials’ unfortunate traits was precisely their failure to account for their problematic twists and turns. It was regrettable that Seán Garland did not reflect more publicly on the successes and failures of his own remarkable political odyssey. It would be more of a pity if contemporary activists chose not to do so either.