Eoghan Harris: Mac Giolla was a true pioneer of good politics
THE death of Tomas Mac Giolla barely made the back of the RTE bulletin. But his benign ghost hovered over Hillsborough.
Because Mac Giolla was a pioneer of the principle of good authority — the ability to walk away from dogmas deeply held by your own side — which lies behind the Good Friday Agreement.
I worked with Mac Giolla for more than 40 years. In the early years he sometimes drove me mad by dragging his feet for years on matters like dropping the name “Sinn Fein” in favour of the “Workers’ Party”. But by the ard fheis of 1988 we were broadly, if briefly, on the same page. So I would like to say a few things about him to balance the empty rhetoric about “republican socialism” you will hear at his funeral.
I first met Mac Giolla in 1966, in the company of Cathal Goulding. The physical contrast was striking. Goulding looked like a small and perfectly formed Greek god.
Mac Giolla, disconcertingly, looked like Eamon de Valera. And as time went on I realised that the resemblances between the two men ran deeper than height and a hooked nose.
The first thing he shared with de Valera was a sense of dignity and destiny. But while his dignity demanded respect, some of Mac Giolla’s sense of destiny derived from the IRA’s inflated notion of its importance. Like Goulding and Garland, he had a proprietorial approach to the Republican Movement that would cause problems when it became a mass party.
Another thing Mac Giolla shared with de Valera was domestic happiness. May Gill was his wife, his comrade and his friend.
Their marriage was memorably happy. To see them together lifted our hearts in the dark days, particularly when the Workers’ Party took a hard and heroic line against the blackmail of the H-Block hunger strikes.
Lastly, both de Valera and Mac Giolla could slay sacred cows. They sometimes took too long doing it — de Valera in entering the Dail, Mac Giolla in shifting away from “republican socialist” dogmas — but both men always acted with good authority, and their iron integrity aroused affection as well as respect.
To my mind, when it came to making peace in Northern Ireland, Mac Giolla matters much more than de Valera. In the Seventies, he pioneered the path which the Provisionals would take some 30 years later. This rough and rocky road began back in 1962, when he was elected president of Sinn Fein, just as Cathal Goulding became chief of staff of the IRA, supported by Sean Garland.
These three men made a radical examination of their own republican beliefs and concluded they would have to reject raw nationalism.
This went further than they could then foresee. That is why the Taoiseach, in his well-meant tribute, was wrong to say that Mac Giolla “throughout his long career, remained unswervingly loyal to his convictions and beliefs”.
In fact, the opposite was true. Mac Giolla was at his best when disloyally lifting the dead hand of republican dogma from the Workers’ Party. He made three steely stands, which profoundly affected how the Provisionals saw the national question. Each stand emphasised Plato’s point that character comes from what we reject.
In the Seventies, Mac Giolla rejected Ruairi O Bradaigh’s call to republican unity against Protestant unionists, rejected any alliance with Charles Haughey and the fat cats of southern nationalism, and finally rejected traditional republican dogma about physical force by calling the Official IRA ceasefire of 1972.
In 1981, Mac Giolla slew an even greater sacred cow when he refused to be blackmailed by the H-Block hunger strikers. In taking this tough stand, he struck a mortal blow at the republican tradition of manipulated martyrdom.
This took considerable physical and moral courage coming up to the General Election of 1981.
My friend, Oliver Donohue, recalls canvassing in a cavern of a pub in Neilstown when a Provo supporter walked up to Mac Giolla and carefully spat in his face. The Workers’ Party team surged forward but Mac Giolla stopped them with a lift of his hand. He carefully wiped the spittle from his face with his sleeve, and said softly, “that’s what they want, so don’t give it to them”. It might have served as the motto of his whole life.
His finest hour was his farewell address as president of the Workers’ Party at the ard fheis of April 16, 1988. His speech, into which I had some input, rejects two dogmas favoured by republican socialists. The first was that socialism, or indeed any other ideology, was not subject to constant structural change. The second was the republican socialist delusion that northern Protestants were simply dupes of the British.
In his speech, Mac Giolla stated flatly that constant change was the iron law of politics. He said: “Freedom is the acceptance of the necessity to change. And what other principle but that principle is driving and guiding the second great renewal of socialism, which is now going on in the Soviet Union?”
Alas, Mac Giolla failed to act on that principle when Eamon Smullen wanted to reject “republican socialism” after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although Smullen was an old comrade, Mac Giolla sacrificed him to summertime socialists. It was the only time Mac Giolla behaved badly at a personal level, and I hope he regretted it.
But to his eternal credit, Mac Giolla remained loyal to the second principle he enunciated at the ard fheis of 1988, a principle far more important than socialism.
He said that Northern Protestants should not be bullied into a united Ireland, he paid tribute to their tradition of private conscience and he called for dialogue based on mutual respect for different traditions. A flavour of its still fresh rhetoric can be found from the following:
“This party wants to talk to the Protestant people of Northern Ireland. Every other party in Ireland, from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael, from the SDLP to Provisional Sinn Fein, wants to talk about them. Every faction in Britain from Thatcher Tories to Livingstone Trotskyites seems to want to talk around them or behind their back, or talk them into a corner or a cul de sac, as if they were some primitive tribe whose redundant religious rites and curious cultural riches should be sanitised and studied, as if they were exhibits in a museum rather than a living people — a living people whose courage and endurance has seen them take the genocidal butchery of some 200 small farmers and workers in Fermanagh without retaliation, and who gave an awesome display of tolerance and forgiveness as they knelt among their dead after Enniskillen.”
Twenty years ago, that was a revolutionary speech. And it did not fall on deaf ears. The Irish Times reported one: “The retiring president of the Workers’ Party, Mr Tomas Mac Giolla, was given a parting accolade yesterday by Mr Ken McGuinness, the Official Unionist MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
“Mr McGuinness said that in his summary of the Protestant principles of private conscience, rebellion against Rome, and industriousness, coupled with his appeal in his final speech to the ard fheis for Protestants to use these truths to ‘confront hypocrisy’ in Ireland, Mr Mac Giolla ‘has been keeping the good wine to the last’.”
Tomas Mac Giolla did two states some service.
And in time historians will acknowledge it. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal.