On Thursday afternoon I spoke to IRSP’s two candidates standing for Belfast City Council: Jim Gorman (Lower Falls) and Paul Little (Oldpark). The party has another three candidates standing in Derry and Strabane. The first part of the interview looked at their candidacy in next week’s local elections; the second part looked at the IRSP more generally, its link with the INLA, God, apologies, policing and their view on current dissident activity.
I asked about where the IRSP as a party had come from.
[Paul] IRSP like a lot of other parties was born out of the conflict here in Ireland. The INLA – which was part and parcel of the Republican Socialist Movement – made a number of historic steps over the last couple of years with voluntary disarming and that really has allowed us to try to hone in on what our political vision is and how we see the IRSP progressing. And we would see the first part of that as contesting the council election.
What makes the IRSP different from the other republican parties standing?
[Jim] We believe – I believe myself – that the IRSP has stuck to their values. They will not veer off being socialists and for the working class people. We would be there for the working class people, and they’re the ones we’d be fighting for if we got elected.
[Paul] What we aim to do is give clear working class representation where we believe none exists at present. The fact that the main levels of deprivation and areas of deprivation haven’t changed over the last fifteen or twenty years – in fact certain areas where I am hoping to get elected like the New Lodge Road have got steadily worse over that period of time. So whatever is happening for working class people is not working and we would hope to put that right.
The rhetoric on the IRSP website and historical pamphlets make much of the influence of Marx, Engels and Lenin as well as Connolly, so I was surprised when the two candidates avoided citing words of wisdom from these historical figures and instead described themselves as “republican socialists” who have been “influenced by Marx, but others as well, both Irish and further afield”.
What are the IRSP’s main policies?
[Jim] In the short term the main thing we’re going to be fighting against is cuts. Trying to bring jobs to the areas. Trying to bring leisure to the areas. To stop voluntary organisations being shut down. When there’s money there, it’s being spent in the wrong way.
Their election literature also highlights proposals for drugs-awareness and other initiatives to “curb anti-community activity”, ensuring “that the current republican prisoners in Maghaberry be afforded decent standards of living”, “opposing academic and religious segregation in schools” as well as rejecting water charges and demanding “an end to political policing … [and] the abuse of anti-terror legislation by the PSNI”. Over recent years, IRSP representatives have worked as part of the Milltown Babies campaign.
If elected, what would a constituent in Lower Falls notice?
[Jim] One of the main things I’m going to be fighting for is suicide awareness. At the moment there’s Lifeline which is only free to a landline phone. It’s not free to mobile phones. All the young people today have mobile phones and the adults as well. So that needs to be rectified so that call can be made on a mobile phone for free if someone needs to talk.
In passing, I’d note that that FAQ on the Lifeline website states that this is already the case.
Will there be a charge for phoning Lifeline?
Calls to Lifeline are free to people living in Northern Ireland who are calling from UK landlines and mobiles.
Regarding Belfast City Council …
[Paul] We believe that Council is a place of inertia at the minute. It doesn’t get things done. What we would like to see is Belfast City Council playing a progressive role in moving on working class politics in Belfast. It should be a working class institution that represents all the working class in Belfast. And to that end things like the cuts and the water charges, it should be coming out to the forefront to oppose them not implement them. And on the issue of what the council can do, we believe the council should be proactive – where it can – in bringing employment to areas of the city that are suffering from high levels of unemployment.
[Paul] In Oldpark, we’ve come up with a suggestion that Belfast City Council opens a recycling depot on the Hillview Road in the Oldpark. This would be a shared workspace. We’re the only part of Belfast that doesn’t have a cleansing/recycling depot. It would create shared employment … Recently we lost 270 jobs when ASDA pulled out of this area so we believe the council should be proactive in these things. There are things that it can do and if we’re elected we’ll be in there arguing that that’s what it does.
The IRSP aren’t talking up their electoral chances in Belfast (or beyond). They’re keenly aware that they’re building their voter base. But if they were successful, could a single IRSP voice in a council make a difference?
[Jim] If it’s loud enough. You just have to look back at history – people shouting loud enough got what they wanted.
Is it a mistake for the five council candidates not to have found a £150 deposit each and stood for the Assembly as well, triggering access to Party Election Broadcasts and election programming etc.
[Jim] It’s not about getting something free. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to try to help the working class people. We don’t believe the Assembly government is working, they’re just puppets for the British government. So we don’t recognise it at the moment and we don’t intend standing in it.
[Paul] There is no appetite within Republican Socialism to see the IRSP represented in the Stormont Assembly, but what there is an appetite for – we do believe – is for trying to change the councils. Make the councils the voice for the people who don’t have a voice, rather than a rubber-stamping machine. And we’ll work with any political party, unionist or nationalist, who wants to work on issues that affect our class.
With a week to go before polling day, what kind of reception are IRSP canvassers getting at Belfast doors?
[Jim] Very good actually …
[Paul] I think there’s a lot of disaffection, we’re certainly getting that at the doors. It’s a disaffection with politics generally … We did a street meeting in Carrick Hill last night. It was well attended by local residents. Fifteen minutes talking to them and explaining what the IRSP will do if we are elected. There was a very good response. I think the problem is the chance of an extremely low poll. That suits the larger parties who have their own voters and their own party machines. So it’s going to be difficult. We understand that. But we wouldn’t be standing if we didn’t think we stood some chance of getting elected. And if not this time around, certainly in five years time. We’re prepared to take our time at this.
For many readers on Slugger O’Toole – obviously not you, but some of the other ones – the IRSP is just another entry in the alphabet zoo of Northern Ireland politics. So I talked to Paul Little a bit more about the IRSP’s history, its place within republicanism, a place for God within socialism, policing and the current dissident activity. Interestingly, the INLA was born out of the Official IRA rather than the Provisionals.
The lack of unity across republican movements is clear from the schedule of independent commemorations in cemeteries over Easter weekend. But can they all be so different?
[Paul] I fundamentally believe so. The IRSP is a separate and independent republican tradition. It has its grass roots in James Connolly’s ISRP and the ideas of the Irish Citizen Army. At a later date, the party was formed in 1974 by community activists, trade unionists and disaffected members of the Official IRA. From that time, we’ve tried to give the republican socialist message a loud and clear voice. But we’re aware that we’re not the only republicans. We don’t claim to be the only republicans, we don’t think we’re super-republicans, and we accept that different republican traditions will have different views and different rights. We certainly see ourselves as the left of Irish republicanism and take our roots from James Connolly.
With a spectrum of left parties fragmenting the leftist vote, isn’t there room for republican socialist parties to work together on issues?
[Paul] One of the political theories that was expounded by our party at the beginning and by party leader Seamus Costello was the issue of Broad Front politics. We see and believe that Broad Front politics are the only means of which the left and socialism will get its voice heard in Ireland. And to that end we will work towards that.
Paul went on to give some examples of where they have already been working with other parties: “the prison issue in Maghaberry prison” and parades.
[Paul] I’ve been a community activist for longer than I care to remember and in my everyday work I work with all sections of the people, unionists and nationalists. Don’t have any problem doing it, and as long as my only base root is whatever decisions are being taken, what effect will that have on the most vulnerable sections of our community. From an IRSP view, we’ll not be supporting anything that leaves the working class worse off.
While there’s a shorthand that aligns republicanism/nationalism with Catholicism and loyalism/unionism with Protestantism, real life is more complicated. The INLA’s military leader in the late 1970s was a protestant republican Ronnie Bunting.
[Paul] My own uncle was shot dead along with Ronnie Bunting in 1980 and people like Miriam Daly, Seamus Costello our founder, we suffered with political assassination probably more than any other group and on a number of occasions the leadership of the Republican Socialist Movement was killed. It did have an impact on us, no point saying that it didn’t. On occasions it left us very disjointed. But for the last fifteen to twenty years, we analysed all that, we looked at it, we looked at the reasons why we had some trouble from within the movement. And we believe now that we have dealt with that, that is in our past. We’re offering a clear voice now and it’s one voice.
Is there room for God in the socialism Paul Little and the IRSP espouse?
[Paul] There’s room for everyone. We’re a secular organisation. We believe in a secular socialist republic. We believe state and religion should be separate. And whether that’s Christianity or Muslim or whatever. Certainly we see as a party an attempt to draw our membership from a broader spectrum. The difficulty however is that in the present political climate – certainly in an area like North Belfast where I live – a lot of the problems that seem to have been solved in other parts of the north haven’t been solved. Catholics still remain twice as likely to be unemployed in the north. The waiting lists in North Belfast for the whole community is about 3,000 houses, 97% of them are Catholic. There is no strategy to try to rectify what may be a form of benign discrimination. But it is discrimination nonetheless. As a party we’re not prepared to leave that behind. We’re not prepared to say everything’s ok, let’s move on. We’ve got to sort this problem. And we can sort it in a progressive way.
The IRSP has for a long time been known as the political wing of the INLA. Paul corrected my use of the word “decommissioned”.
[Paul] What the INLA did was they voluntarily disarmed. They didn’t decommission under the terms set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It was a decision the INLA took based on our political analysis and its own political analysis which turned around and said we believe in the primacy of politics now, there’s no appetite for armed struggle in Ireland we believe, there isn’t any support for it. And more than anything else we would say that as a tactic armed struggle coming out of that conflict failed for republicans because we didn’t recognise any of the known republican ideals and they’re really not on the agenda yet. So that is why we don’t hold any allegiance to Stormont and don’t seek to be represented there.
Could there be circumstances that would lead back to militarism?
[Paul] I’m not a pacifist, though I do believe that people should try to use politics in a positive and progressive way. But I’ve been around long enough to know that violence throughout the world is being used as a tool to oppress people or to get their resources. So to say that that idea of armed struggle is dead and gone forever, I don’t think you can say that. I don’t think Irish history teaches you that. And I think people need to recognise and try to engage with people who feel otherwise. But certainly from a republican socialist perspective, the INLA have said they’ve taken themselves out of the picture. As far as I am concerned, that is it.
At the time when Martin McMonagle (IRSP council candidate in Derry) made the statement about the “primacy of politics” he also said that the INLA made “no apology for [its] part in the conflict”. Was there nothing to apologise for?
[Paul] I think that’s a fair question. You’ll find that when the INLA made their ceasefire statement that there was an apology in it. It wasn’t a general apology in that sense of the word, but it was a recognition that parts of the struggle for republican socialism at times fell below the level that was required and that would have included sectarian incidents and stuff. So to me there was an apology to the working class people. There was no apology to the British, and nor will there ever be. We were engaged in a war of liberation. A war of liberation has two sides. Nobody’s ever apologised to us and we’re not taking an apology. And we’ll not be apologising either.
The IRSP “don’t accept the PSNI” seeing it “as just a repackaged RUC” and Paul pointed to “a case this week where one of our election workers who has been arrested and attempted blackmail from PSNI/MI5”.
[Paul] We don’t think it’s necessary for any blanket political support of any police force … I certainly see it round where I live, you see a police force that is for the rich against the poor … Still in many areas they [the police] are the problem rather than the solution … I can’t envisage a stage where our party would give blanket support to any police force. I think people need to be critical.
Does he condemn the murder of Ronan Kerr?
[Paul] We don’t use words of condemnation. But what we will say – and say it quite clearly – we believe that type of activity belongs in the past, should have stayed in the past. We don’t believe it moves things anyway forward, and really groups that are still engaged in armed struggle – for their own benefit – need to take a long hard look at what they’re at, make their analysis, and I would hope would choose to join with us to try and expose this state for what it is. And by that way advance the aims of a socialist republic and a United Ireland.
Where will the IRSP be in eight years time? Will it still exist?
[Paul] Oh we will certainly still exist. I’ve no doubt about that. This election is not make or break for the IRSP. This is us taking a political decision, deciding on a political strategy, that we believe has some chance of success. In eight years time I would hope to see a number of elected IRSP representatives on councils throughout the six counties and further afield.
Politically, the IRSP seem progressive – willing to work across political (and tribal) boundaries to resolve issues on the ground. While there’s a rich background of socialist ideology, and a series of long term goals and aspirations, but it’s not the first thing to cross the lips of the party’s representatives, who are much keener to talk about grass roots issues that affect constituents today.