Corkman in the Kremlin

Michael O'Riordan of the Communist Party of Ireland is the longest serving general secretary of any communist party in Europe. He has uncritically supported a pro-Soviet line on every major issue which partly accounts for his party's poor success here.

The Communist Party of Ireland will not disclose its membership figures. Michael O'Riordan, the General Secretary of the Party, sees nothing odd in this. He thinks the question of the actual membership of a political party is an irrelevant and probably misleading one. The figures probably mean very little. ''What, after all, is the actual membership of Sinn Fein the Workers Party, or the Labour Party, or, come to that, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael", he asks.


He has been General Secretary of the Party and of its predecessors, the Irish Workers' Party and the Irish Workers' League for over thirty years now which certainly makes him the longest serving General Secretary of of any Communist Party in Europe; and means, in effect, that he has been General Secretary of the Irish Party for longer than Stalin was of the Russian. This makes him a well-known figure both on the Irish left and on the international communist scene.


 At the last major international gathering of European Communist Parties. in Berlin two years ago, Michael O'Riordan was in the chair for the final session; and the Irish Parly delegation, as was expected, took the "hard" or "pro-Russian" line on most questions: the condemnations of China among them. It scarcely therefore takes rank as a "Euro-Communist" party; though as a western European Communist party which supports some of the sterner aspects of Soviet policy it has an undoubted importance in Soviet eyes, whatever its membership figures ..


O'Riordan carne into the Communist Party from the republican movement, the first organisation of which he was a member as a boy in Cork being Fianna Eireann. A literate man occasionally somewhat impatient of litterateurs, he began to read early and found Connolly's "Labour in Irish History" the first eye-opener. Soon, although still a member of the IRA, he was in contact with the Communist Party which was then - around 1935 - at 32 Lower Ormond Quay. He was not so much a member of both organisations as a member of one who was in "organised contact" with the other. There was not much possibility of being a member of the Communist Party anyway, he says, since it had little or no existence in Cork.


Then came the Spanish Civil War, about which he has recently written a book, Connolly Column, "The story of the Irishmen who fought in the ranks of the International Brigades in national-revolutionary war of the Spanish people, 1936-1939". This well-produced and illustrated volume, printed in the German Democratic Republic and published by New Books, the Communist bookshop in Essex Street, has had a surprisingly large sale; but O'Riordan scarcely mentions his own part in the fighting, the book's heroes being Kit Conway, who was killed in an early engagement and Frank Ryan, whose subsequent career in Germany, after his release from a French gaol, is now, as the result of two television documentaries, the subject of some bewilderment on the left.


Although the book doesn't make a point of it, O'Riordan says now that the membership of the International Brigade was ''ninety per cent" communist but one and all they entered "antifascist" in the space left for "political affiliation" in the military pass-book each men carried. Their appalling losses - sixty-five out of a total contingent of one hundred and forty five died - were of course a severe blow to the communist movement in Ireland; and soon afterwards the party publicly dissolved itself in order to work within the Labour Party.


The larger world conflict had come by then anyway. There was no work in Ireland. A number of members had had to emigrate; and the organisational basis of the party was thus considerably weakened. There remained a Marxist nucleus, centred first round the bookshop in Pearse Street and then round the Irish Review, the one being run and the other edited by another veteran, Sean Nolan, who still runs the bookshop, now in Essex Street. The Review thrived for a while and had a number of somewhat unlikely contributors, including the Earl of Wicklow and Eleanor Butler.


At no stage, however, had the Irish party in the thirties attracted the sort of intellectuals whose tormented conversions and apostasies were such a feature of the British and European scene, a fact which may be a commentary on the party or the intellectuals or both together. In any case, says O'Riordan, when the Spanish Civil war came along, the intellectuals hereabouts all ran for cover, the young poet Charlie Donnelly, himself a casualty of the fighting, being an exception.


During the war Michael O'Riordan was interned in the Curragh, not as a communist but as a member of the IRA. The bitter post-war era was not an especially propitious time for the revival of the communist movement in the southern part of the country where communist hunting and denouncing had become a national pastime, though paradoxically in the north, whither Sean Murray, formerly a prominent figure in southern communist circles had returned at the outbreak of hostilities, the Party had thrived and had not inconsiderable Protestant worker membership.


In 1948, however, it was decided to revive the Party organisation in the south in the form of the Irish Workers League, a title which had good historical connotations, since Jim Larkin had founded an organisation with that title in 1924 which was part of the Communist International. The Workers League (which the present writer remembers quite well) had a membership of about thirty or forty. This did not prevent the Irish Independent, true as ever to William Martin Murphy tradition, and the Catholic Standard, then a very lurid publication indeed, from working it up into a serious threat to the religious liberties of the Catholic Irish people; its Sunday morning meetings at the corner of Middle Abbey Street were broken up by organised opposition, on one occasion the then Lord Mayor, Alderman "Alfie" Byrne, being present in his bowler hat and carrying a blackthorn stick to lead his fellow citizens (some of whom had been mobilised in a billiard hall round the corner) into battle.


Nevertheless, the little meetings at the corner of Middle Abbey Street managed to continue. "I like to remind some people nowadays", says Michael O'Riordan, "that we fought for the right of the left to speak in the streets of Dublin at that period; and that if we never did anything else that should be remembered."


 Meanwhile he himself had polled 4000 votes as a communist candidate in a Cork election but as the cold war got colder and anthcommunist witch-hunting became· a major pastime in the Labour Party and elsewhere the Worker's League made understandably little progress. During the 1948 Italian elections masses were said and a collection realising twenty thousand pounds was made in the Dublin Diocese for the defeat of the Italian Communist Party.


Early in the fifties the windows of Sean Nolan's bookshop in Pearse Street were broken by a mob with religious inclinations. Under the editorship of that perfervid defender of Catholic liberties, Peadar Ward, the Standard carried photos of members with their names and occupations on its front page, and more or less invited their employers to sack them. And when, in 1951, the Worker's League contested its first Dublin election with O'Riordan as a candidate, a letter from the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. McQuaid, was read at all Masses on the Sunday before which forbade anybody to vote for him under pain of mortal sin. Faced with this threat, not many people did.


But still the gallant little band carried on, picketing the US Embassy when the Rosenberg's were executed, protesting .against British activities in Kenya and Malaya, opposing, needless to say, the wars in·Korea and Vietnam. In 1962, as the more liberal sixties dawned, the Irish Workers' League became the Irish Workers' Party. Then finally, in March 1970, in Belfast, the Communist Party of Ireland was reconstituted on an all Ireland basis.

ut along the way had occurred the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the second of which had caused considerable discontent and heart-searching on the part of some of the most active members of the party.


Michael 0 'Riordan himself had no qualms about Hungary at the time, nor has he had in the intervening years. "No matter what anybody says, what happened in Hungary was a pro Mindzsendty counter-revolution. Not only did I not criticise the Red Army for moving in, but I would have been the first to criticise them if they hadn't. After all, it's supposed to be a workers' army, and if they hadn't come to the aid of the workers who were being executed, massacred and assassinated in the streets of Budapest, then I would have protested."


He admits that "the situation in Czechoslovakia was a much more complicated one because it had developed under the leadership of the Party there. Novotny should have vacated the leadership of the Party when breaches of socialist legality were discovered." The real point, however, was that "in 1968 the American forces in central Europe and the West German forces were poised to go in. They had the idea that if they could neutralise Czechoslovakia they could break up the Warsaw pact and the next step to that was the old Anglo American imperialist idea of the encirclement of the Soviet Union."


And while the Party did condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia - the one and only occasion on which it has had a major disagreement with Soviet policy - O'Riordan worked, in the long term successfully, to get the decision reversed, so that in 1975 a group of old stalwarts, some of whom, like George Jeffares and Paddy Carmody, had been there since the early days of the Workers' League, saw fit to resign. They drew up a long list of grievances, most of them to do with the Party's automatic endorsement of the Soviet line on questions such as Czechoslovakia and China, but including such matters as the freedom of the individual artist in the Soviet Union and left en bloc forming themselves into a loosely knit organisation called the Irish Marxist Group, which, for a while, held regular meetings and discussions.


It was not only the first example of serious disagreement in the Party's history, it was the first split; and it has repercussions to this day, some would say in a tightening of the Party's ranks and an imposition of greater uniformity on the membership. Michael O'Riordan claims that he regrets their departure. He says they should have stayed in the Party and fought for their point of view: that there is plenty of opportunity for internal discussion within the organisation until by the normal process a policy is decided on; and that the recent expulsion of Roy Johnston proves nothing more than that the Communist Party, like any other political organisation, must require a basic adherence to the party line from its members. "Sometimes I think that we occupy too much time in internal discussion", he says.


Nevertheless, "looking at the whole sweep of history since 1917", there is no major issue on which he himself would disagree with Soviet policy. Asked if he has any feelings of regret about the course that history has taken there, or any reservations about major directions of policy or directions of organic growth within the Soviet Union, he answers quite bluntly, "no". And then he adds: "When I say no, I realise that there are people who will say: 'There he goes again. Uncritical.' But this is untrue about me. There are things I might be critical of about the Soviet Union, but they are not major things."

He thinks the whole question of dissidents in the Soviet Union is related to its history. "You've got to look at the real historical background. You've got to remember that they went through a revolution, which was the easiest part of it; that they went through the civil war, the famines, the blockades, the encirclements, the Hitler onslaught; that they had twenty million dead. There is a tremendo feeling of patriotism in the Soviet Union, so if you get a fellow like Sakharov and a few other people who are actually collaborating with Americans against their own motherland you will get a reaction against them.


"The fact is that Sakharov is a supporter of the Pinochet regime in Chile, was concerned that the Americans had to pull out of Vietnam - almost everything that's bad and reactionary he's on the side of. There is the picture built up here of Sakharov being a martyr. I don't believe he is, because every time he opens his mouth in Moscow he seems to be surrounded by the CBS and the BBC and has great facilities. Well, these facilities are finished now, since he has been simply sent away to another city."


He believes that there is much more artistic freedom and freedom of artistic discussion in the Soviet Union than the outside world is prepared to admit. "If you look at the skyline of Moscow, which, by the way, is a very beautiful city, you will see that there are several different types of architecture represented and this is a result of tremendous debate and discussion between different architects and schools of architecture", a concrete instance of the sort of debate that goes on in all the arts. "In several respects at the moment, compared to here, the Soviet Union is not a bad place for a poet or a writer to be in."


That there have been times in the past when the Communist Party of Ireland maintained a stony silence in the face of the persecution of writers, artists and hundreds and thousands of ordinary people in the Soviet Union is something about which Michael O'Riordan remains unperturbed. Apart from the ultimately-to-be-reversed decision to speak up about Czechoslovakia there has never been an instance of the Party disagreeing with Soviet actions or public protest, "for the simple reason that we didn't feel there were grounds for any protests." Nor, although he admits that, in spite of what his interviewer called "the presence within its ranks of daughty warriors and brave men" there has been a persistent failure to attract membership or votes at election time, does he relate this in any way to the party's general subservience to Soviet policy.


"It is symptomatic of the failure of the working-class-labour-movements as a whole. The Communist Party is, if you like, part of a general weakness of the left. We haven't built up a Labour Party in this country, even along the safest social democratic lines. O.K. they've been in government. And we all know the circumstances in which they've been in government. The failure is part of the general conservative structure of our society. That's one part of the answer. The other part of the answer is what I would call the general Labour indifference to the national question. The fact is that Labour is not only confused, but sometimes even downright reactionary on the whole national position and the whole national question. And this has resulted ever since post-Connolly in a situation in which the leadership not only of general politics in this country but specifically in everything that relates to the national question has been taken over by the middle-class parties. This weakens Labour ideologically and when Labour is weak ideologically, speaking in a general sense, then the Communist Party is also weakened."


Nevertheless ever since the first foundation documents the Communist Party itself has always spoken out loud and clear on the national question, and never, its General Secretary claims, soft-pedalled the issue because of its Northern Protestant membership; indeed he is proud to call attention to the fact that they have put themselves at risk on many issues and that Andy Barr and others were in the forefront of things when the last loyalist strike was broken.


So the failure, if there has been a failure, to attract any sort of mass support cannot be attribute to remissness about the national question either. "We have always had a very clear position about the national question. Of course there are people who say that to be clear you must be with the Provos. We don't accept that. All right, we're with the Provos when they say they're fighting for a united anti-imperialist Ireland. So are we, but we don't agree with their concept of elitist military action, we don't agree that they can reduce Britain through economic bombing. The unity of the Northern working class which would have brought about the ending of partition a greater deal sooner began to seem possible at the time of the civil rights movement. But the Provo bombers drove the people off the streets. They made, if you like, the streets safe for the British army."


At the same time there has certainly been some progress from the Party's point of view in the south. It is now, says Michael O'Riordan, "quite normal for a Communist Party candidate to stand for election, like in the last case Johnny Montgomery in Ballyfermot and Sean Lamb in Dublin North Central. This is accepted now as part of the ordinary run of things and is a big jump from the days when you were told that if you voted for so-and-so you were committing a mortal sin and would be damned for ever and ever. There is of course a smell of the cold war about at the moment, what with a priest leading people up to the Soviet Embassy etcetera, but I don't think it will last very long."


Challenged to describe a situation in which the real parties of the left could ever gain any sort of a mass following, Michael 0 'Riordan replies that "no section of the left can ever win anything by itself and until such time as we have some sort of union of the left on some sort of common platform - and we were very near this by the way at the time of the Mansion House meeting, the time of the Left Alternative - there can never be any real progress." Asked how this could ever come about he replies that a precondition would be agreement on some sort of common programme, which would have to include the question that comes up time and time again, the national question. "That is where we disagree with Sinn Fein the Workers' Party. They dismiss the national question, whereas we think that if you look back over the whole history of the working class movement - using the term in a broad sense - you can't ignore the national question. It won't ignore you."


And so he doesn't think that any real progress can be made while the national question remains. In the first place, he believes, where there is an unsolved national question ''you will always get a paralysis of logical thinking and political theory and the whole question of class consciousness is confused also." Now it will of course be seen, even by the cloudiest intellect - and Michael 0 'Riordan is by no means that - that there is a bit of a cleft stick here. The parties of the left, by which he means principally the Communist Party, Sinn Fein the Workers' Party and the old liaison of the left element in the Labour Party including that part of it now in the Socialist Labour Party, cannot make any real progress until they unite. In order to unite they would have to achieve some sort of "programmatic unity" on all the important questions including the vital national question itself. But they cannot achieve this programmatic unity while the national question remains. It is the national question which, more than any other, divides the parties of the left. To say the least, a bit of an impasse. Perhaps in order that they may unite and make some progress somebody else will have to solve the national question for them.