On the Election of Bobby Sands: How a tactical short term victory was turned into a strategic defeat for the Revolution

The following opinion piece has been submitted by a supporter of Anti Imperialist Action Ireland, to mark the anniversary of the Election of Volunteer Bobby Sands to the as yet unconstituted Revolutionary 3rd All Ireland Dáil in 1981. We publish it in the hope of generating debate among the Republican Base.

On April 9 1981, IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands was elected to the Revolutionary 3rd All Ireland Dáil Éireann, with over 30,000 votes, as he lay dying on Hungerstrike in a British Occupation Gaol in Ireland, combating and resisting British attempts to criminalise the Irish Republican Struggle for National Liberation and Socialist Revolution.

The election of Bobby Sands, a Republican Prisoner, standing on an Smash H-Block/ Armagh ticket was a major propaganda victory for the Republican Struggle and the Prisoners Campaign, at a time when the British Imperialist Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was insisting that Irish Revolutionaries were criminals.

Thousands of people across the 32 Counties were mobilised into a mass movement supporting the prisoners and campaigning for Prisoner candidates in a number of constituencies across the country. This mass movement had real revolutionary potential if it had been directed into the militant struggle for National Liberation and Socialist Revolution and not shaped to become an electoral vehicle for a reformist political party.

There has already been widespread exposure of the nefarious activities of sections of the provisional movement during the Hungerstrike, hiding the details of negotiations with British Imperialism from the leadership of their own movement, the prisoners themselves and the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, 3 of whose cadre would die on Hungerstrike. This article does not attempt to deal with those complex issues except to say that this author agrees with the position put forward by Richard O’Rawe and the IRSM.

This article will instead deal with how the election of Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew to British Imperialist and Free State Counter Revolutionary parliaments, was used by a section of the provisional movement to run down the revolutionary struggle and replace it with a reformist, and ultimately collaborationist strategy.

In order to understand the strategic defeat suffered by the Republican Movement in the aftermath of the election Bobby Sands, it is necessary to return to the relaunching of the Revolutionary War for National Liberation and Socialist Revolution in 1969/70 and in particular look at the Class forces that were joining the movement at that time.

Reaction: The Seed of Reformism and Collaboration

Before the relaunch of the war, the membership of the Republican Movement was largely ideologically cohesive, having an unshakable revolutionary allegiance to the All Ireland Republic, Proclaimed in 1916 and established in 1919. In the 1960s the movement as a whole moved to a revolutionary socialist position and the ideology of militant Republicanism was set out by then IRA Army Council member Seamus Costello, during the annual oration at the grave of Wolfetone in 1966. The movement, Costello asserted, aimed to deliver the ‘stated aims of Pearse and Connolly’, or in other words, the All Ireland Socialist Republic.

In the aftermath of 1969, added to this ideological base, was an influx of raw recruits joining the movement, not necessarily from an ideological position, but in reaction to British Soldiers on their streets and the massacre of the Nationalist population of the Occupied Six Counties.

Many of these new recruits had as their objective, not the reestablishment of the All Ireland Socialist Republic, but simply the destruction of the orange state and the reform of the illegal British Occupation to include the veneer of democracy. This group of recruits has been classified as armed civil rights activists, civil rights with armalites, as opposed to a revolutionary cadre committed to the defeat of imperialism, the conquest of power by the working class and the reestablishment of the All Ireland Socialist Republic. It was a great failure of the Republican Movement at this time not to attend to the political and ideological education of recruits to ensure only revolutionaries ever carried a gun, but the excuse of fighting the war was often advanced as an excuse for the lack of political education. The effects of this mistake are still felt in the ranks of the Revolutionary Movement today. Unsurprisingly then, it was from among this section that the provisional leadership that betrayed the revolution would emerge as there class motivations had always been about securing a northern nationalist seat at the table of Imperialism and the Garrison Class.

The Election

As the war waged into the let 1970s and 1980s, the reactionary elements began to become more influential and to win positions of leadership within the the movement in the occupied six counties, positions that allowed them to promote their own interests of compromise with imperialism.
With the outbreak of the Hungerstrikes, first in 1980 and then in 1981 the entire movement was united behind the prisoners and their 5 demands. The mass movement in support of prisoners that had been building from the 1970s, firstly through the Relatives Action Committees and then through the mass Smash H Block/ Armagh Campaign was more and more coming under the influence of the provisional reactionaries in Belfast, despite the sterling work of Socialist Republicans such as Miriam Daly, Bernadette McAliskey and Ronnie Bunting.

The Hungerstrike mobilised thousands upon thousands to get involved in the prisoners struggle and the war for National Liberation. In 1981 this United Mass Movement had massive revolutionary potential. With Smash H Block/ Armagh committees in virtually every town and village in the country, Republicanism had come as close to the possibility of developing alternative revolutionary power structures then at any time since the Tan War. All that was needed was the political leadership to lead the mass movement in the Struggle for National Liberation and Socialist Revolution.
At the highpoint of this mass movement, a bye election arose in Fermanagh/ South Tyrone for a seat in the Imperialist Westminster Parliament in London. Bobby Sands was selected as an abstentionist candidate running on a Smash H Block/ Armagh ticket with the support of the entire Republican Movement. As an abstenstionist Republican candidate, Sands was in fact contesting for a seat in the Revolutionary Third All Ireland Dáil Éireann, that had yet to convene. Standing a prisoner as an abstensionist candidate was not a new tactic for Republicans and went back to at least the election of O’Donavan Rossa during the Fenian Amnesty Campaign. The election of Sands was different however because it would be used by reformists to push a new strategy in the Republican Movement that would led to the running down of the Revolutionary Struggle.

The Election of Bobby sands on April 9 1981, demonstrated before the world that the Irish Republican struggle was not criminal but a legitimate war for National Liberation. The Election of Sands put Thatcher and her criminal government on trial but ultimately was not enough to save the lives of Bobby sands and nine of his comrades who would give their lives that summer. While the election had the immediate effect of being a tactical victory for Republicanism, winning the high ground and attracting more and more support for National Liberation, the potential of this victory to convert the mass movement into a revolutionary alternative was stolen by the provisional reactionaries in Belfast.

The correct and revolutionary approach for the Republican Movement at this Revolutionary juncture was to constitute the Third All Ireland Dáil that would have consisted of the remaining faithful members of the Second Dáil Éireann, Ruairí Ó’Bradaigh, John Joe McGirl and Eighneachán Ó hAnnluain who had been 3 of the four TDs elected to the Third Dáil in 1957 and Tom Mitchell, an earlier prisoner candidate that had been elected in 1955 along with Bobby Sands, Kierian Doherty and Paddy Agnew lelected in the course of the 1981 Hungerstrike. The option of establishing the legitimate People’s Government to led National Liberation and socialist Revolution, therefore restablishing the organs of democratic power of the All Ireland Republic was rejected in favour of what would become the reformist strategy of reactionary elements growing in power within the movement.

Having been largely responsible for running the successful election of Bobby Sands, the victory strengthened a reformist Belfast clique known as the Kitchen Cabinet that c entered around Gerry Adams. Adams and his kitchen cabinet would use the election of Bobby Sands and indeed the deaths of our Hungerstrikers to push for power within their movement, build an electoral machine in place of a Revolutionary Army and advance a strategy for compromise with British Imperialism that would ensure they won themselves a seat at the imperialist table in Ireland.

The first step for the kitchen cabinet strategy was the sidelining of the Republican Socialist Movement in the Anti H Block/Armagh Campaign, taking control of the mass movement themselves and redirecting it towards supporting Sinn Féin Electoral Campaigns. This it managed with such effect that the IRSM were not even made aware of the negotiations between the Kitchen Cabinet and British Imperialiosm during the Hungerstrike. The next was to remove the revolutionary leadership of the Republican Movement by presenting them as old fashioned and incapable. This reformist strategy won a victory when Gerry Adams replaced the veteran Revolutionary leader Ruairí Ó’Bradaigh as Sinn Féin President in 1983 and was further advanced when the Kitchen Cabinet usurped the Sinn Féin Constitution and split the movement in 1986 when it dropped abstenstionism as a principle and gave recognition to the illegal pro imperialist parliaments in Ireland at Stormont and Leinster House. Ó’Bradaigh was stated clearly that the new strategy would lead to compromise and collaboration. In a defiant defence of the All Ireland Republic he asked the Sinn Féin Ard Fhéis, ‘where are our revolutionary socialists, how do you expect to build a democratic socialist republic out of Leinster House? How can serious social change come out of Leinster House? How can the fundamental change in property relations come out of Leinster House? No way can it do that.’ Ó’Bradaigh was of course right, but few listened, with genuine revolutionaries being convinced to back the reformist departure with the promise of new arms shipments and an escalation of the war for National Liberation and Socialist Revolution.

By 1986 however, the potential of the revolutionary mass movement built up in support of the prisoners and the Hungerstrike had dissipated and had been absorbed into the electoral machine of Sinn Féin. The Kitchen Cabinet maintained their power in the movement by claiming that they would win victory with the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other, yet with each passing year the Revolutionary Armed Struggle was increasingly scaled back in favour of elections and constitutional politics.

By the late 1980s, the kitchen cabinet, now in the leadership of the Provisional Movement, were in direct negotiations with British Imperialism to find a way to end their involvement in Revolutionary Armed Struggle and to take up their seat in the British Colonial Administration in Ireland. This was achieved through the 1998 treaty of surrender and the Kitchen Cabinet’s long process of turning the tactical victory of the election of Bobby Sands into a strategic defeat for the Revolutionary Movement was complete.

Elections No- Revolution Yes!

There can be no doubt that the election of Bobby Sands on this Day in 1981 was a massive boost for the Prisoners Campaign and an important propaganda victory for the war for National Liberation. The victory however was short lived. With the benefit of hindsight, a benefit not afforded to Sands and his 9 comrades, it can now be seen that involving the Revolutionary Movement in the capitalist and imperialist electoral process allowed reformists elements to seize power, drop revolutionary principles, abandon the Revolutionary Armed Struggle and ultimately to compromise with Imperialism and become a key part in the British Administration in Ireland.
All Republican organisations that have attempted to enter the capitalist and imperialist system since the violent suppression of our People’s Republic in 1922, have ultimately been absorbed by that system or have faded into obscurity. The lessons of our history demonstrate that it is time for new tactics and an unrepentant Revolutionary approach.

To drive the Revolution forward, Irish Republicans in 2020 must unite behind the All Ireland Socialist Republic proclaimed in 1916 and established in 1919 and on the fundamental principle that there can be no compromise with imperialism. To build a successful revolutionary movement Irish Republicans must reject the poison of electoralism and build a boycott of all capitalist and imperialist elections in Ireland. As the Socialist Republican leader Seamus Costello correctly pointed out, there can be no parliamentary road to socialism and instead, republicans must rebuild our All Ireland Socialist Republic through the development of its modern functioning intuitions as alternative working class power structures, developed at the community level and replacing the functions of the old reactionary states across the country. This can be started today by the building resistance committees, centres of resistance and revolutionary People’s Councils across the 32 counties as the foundation blocs of our Republic.

We can only truly honour Bobby Sands and the Hungerstrikers by achieving their revolutionary goal, the All Ireland Socialist Republic, that they gave their lives to uphold.
‘I may die, but the Republic of 1916 will never die.’- Volunteer Bobby Sands

One reply on “On the Election of Bobby Sands: How a tactical short term victory was turned into a strategic defeat for the Revolution”

Excellent article, just finished reading Ed Maloney’s book ‘ History of the IRA, a lot of what you wrote could be seen happening in the way Adam’s and co took control.

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