The Ta Power Document Examined by Alex McGuigan
This article is a brief analysis of the Introduction section and Part One of Ta Power’s dissertation on the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, which is now widely known as the Ta Power Document. It is hoped that this article will be of help when discussing Ta Power’s critique of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM.)
What Is The Ta Power Document?
We hear a lot about the Ta Power Document but what exactly does it contain? Certainly, one could probably read Ta Power’s critique in an afternoon, but arguably the best way to appreciate fully what is contained in his critique, is to take the time to read it as one would approach a serious study. This is because there is so much data compounded into those pages, that a quick reading will not do justice to Ta Power’s project, which was so comprehensively written under the most difficult of conditions, partly in a cramped prison cell.
It is also helpful to acquaint oneself with the life of Thomas Ta Power as the INLA guerrilla and the Revolutionary Socialist theorist. Ta Power’s life was very closely associated with the earlier years of the nascent Irish Republican Socialist Movement. Contained within the pages of the Ta Power Document is the genuine, early history of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, written by an INLA Guerrilla who knew only too well, that as a committed revolutionary, he was simply, as he fearlessly stated, a dead man on leave!
James Connolly, Ireland’s first Marxist Revolutionary, wrote 89 years before Ta Power’s assassination that:
“Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when alive.”
They were prophetic words both for Connolly, Ta Power and all those who have sought to bring revolutionary change to Ireland, defy Imperialism and fight for a Socialist Republic.
Who Was Ta Power?
Thomas ‘Ta’ Power was an INLA guerrilla fighter and an Irish Republican Socialist Party activist from the Market area of Belfast, whose revolutionary military actions were backed up with an insightful analysis of the age old struggle for National Liberation and Socialism in Ireland. The Republic that Ta Power believed was worth fighting for was one that guaranteed economic liberty for the Irish working-class, not just an exchange of one ruling class for the homegrown Gombeen variety, which successive one-dimensional Nationalists have repeatedly eventually settled for throughout Irish history. Ta Power believed in the Workers Republic of Marxist revolutionary James Connolly, who rejected traditional Nationalism espoused by the likes of Sinn Fein, just as vehemently as he opposed British Imperialism.
Ta Power’s Legacy To Contemporary IRSM members
Ta Power’s legacy to contemporary Republican Socialism was his insightful analysis of how the Irish Republican Socialist Movement needs to be structured along democratic centralist lines, to become the effective vanguard for a Socialist Republic. The Ta Power Essay could arguably be described as being as important to Irish Republican Socialism, as VI Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done’ was to the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the 20th century.
Contemporary comrades of Ta Power will have their own personal and revolutionary memories of one of Irelands most outstanding Republican Socialists, who by all accounts was very much cut from the same cloth as the late Seamus Costello. It is glaringly apparent that British imperialism and their lackeys in the Gombeen Free State feared Ta Power’s Republican Socialist ideology and that they viewed him personally as a dangerous revolutionary foe. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) held him in de facto internment without trial in prison for nearly 5 years, on the word of 5 separate bribed ‘supergrass’ paid perjurers! When Ta Power was assassinated in January, 1987, along with his comrade, John O’Reilly, at the Rosnaree Hotel, by members of the counter-revolutionary IPLO, we can be sure that Imperialism uttered a sigh of relief.
Before his tragic assassination at the young age of 33, Ta Power spent part of his lengthy time in prison, held without trial, conducting a root and branch analysis of the revolutionary forces involved in the struggle for National Liberation and Socialism in Ireland and the IRSM in particular. Ta Power recognised the leading role of Republican Socialism’s most outstanding advocate, Seamus Costello and the nearly ‘incalculable loss‘ the movement faced by his assassination at the hands of an Official IRA gangster. Power pulls no punches in his critique of the IRSM’s varied fortunes but his analysis points out that at the heart of any excesses and contradictions in the movement were structural defects, which made those mistakes not only possible but inevitable..
Ta Power’s historical analysis of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement
Power begins by plotting the course of the Republican Movement pre-1969 split and again pre-1974:
“the Republican Movement at that time, as indeed throughout its history was a monolithic movement, ideologically united and disciplined in its strategy and tactics.”
He rightfully asserts that even at that time, within the monolithic pre-1969 Republican Movement, a distinct reformist tendency was gaining in strength, in tandem with the more traditionalist Republican strand and an overtly more Socialistic strand. A smaller, more radical trend, centred round Seamus Costello, sought to marry the need for both National Liberation and Socialism, correctly treating them as intrinsically linked. The Official IRA leadership was at variance with the more militant grassroots and Ta Power cites the friction between the militant Belfast OIRA leader, Joe McCann and the reformist Official IRA leadership. Costello was of the same militant ilk as McCann and similarly was victimised by the Official’s leadership, culminating in his eventual expulsion at the 1974 Official Sinn fein Ard Fheis. Ta Power correctly states that:
“the dismissal of Costello formalised what was already a fact…’the parting of the ways’ of a revolutionary & reformist strategy on the National question!”
The Birth of the IRSM
In the gaols and all over Ireland, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) grew out of the militant grassroots, disaffected membership of the Official Republican Movement. In Belfast the Officials’ leadership ordered immediate armed pogroms against the fledgling IRSP, which initially left 3 dead and many more wounded. When counter-revolutionary attacks on the fledgling IRSP, ordered by the Official IRA leadership were concerned, Ta Power points out ironically that:
“the arms the officials had starved and denied their own membership to confront Imperialism had been delivered in plenty!”
Power was just as scathing of the Provisionals, as he was of the Officials’ leadership in his critique. While he viewed the reformism of the Stickies, as ignoring the proverbial elephant in the living-room of partition, he viewed the Provisionals as being hopelessly elitist. Ta Power correctly saw the Irish Republican Socialist Movement as the only vehicle to:
“stand for the unity of the anti-imperialist struggle & the class struggle.” (4)
The IRSP and the Broad Front?
He saw that a movement which placed genuine equal emphasis on the struggle for both Socialism and National Liberation, was ultimately capable of leading an anti-Imperialist Broad Front, while the IRSP retained the clear understanding that there could be no reformist ‘parliamentary road to socialism‘. However, their political agitation was not to be restricted by any elitist, traditional republican principle of ‘abstentionism’ (although in some circumstances that would be acceptable as a tactic.) The anti-Imperialist Broad Front would adhere to core progressive Republican Socialist principles.
Ta Power rounds off his recounting of the complicated birth of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, by recalling that by mid-1975, the worst of the Official IRA attacks had ended and by later in the year the IRSP had a politically healthy membership of 800 activists in Ireland. The party had a quarterly internal theoretical bulletin, plus the monthly newspaper ‘The Starry Plough‘.
Basically by this stage, Ta Power states that, the IRSM had survived the counter-revolutionary Official IRA attempts to strangle it at birth and Republican Socialism was on the road to party political stability, progress and growth.
The IRSM and concerted state repression
Ta Power continues with his historical analysis of the IRSM by stating that after a brief period on the road to party political stability, following the early attacks on the fledgling movement, the party had a healthy active membership. The southern Free State government then set out to systematically smash the Republican Socialist Movement. By April 1976, after the Sallins Train Robbery, the Gardai’s Heavy Gang conducted systematic repression and brutality on IRSP members, culminating in the framing of 6 party members, including Nicky Kelly, for the mail train robbery. Amnesty International were partly responsible for exposing the brutality of the Garda Heavy Gangs habitual tactics of torture and perverting the course of justice, to frame those they perceived to be ‘Enemies of the State’.
In the north of Ireland, the IRSM were involved in all facets of the anti-Imperialist struggle which included armed guerrilla actions against the British occupational forces. The IRSM also took a leading role in the nascent agitation on the streets against the criminalisation of Republican POW’s both inside and outside the gaols, which included the earlier INLA successful mass escape from Cage 5 in Long Kesh concentration camp on the 5th May, 1976.
The impact of Costello’s assassination
Ta Power stressed the massive blow to the Republican Socialist Movement caused by the assassination of Seamus Costello in 1977:
“the sheer stature of the revolutionary Seamus Costello is too great for what can be expressed in feeble words, yet words are the only (way) to express and convey this stature albeit in a feeble way” (5)
He goes on to list many of the testimonials to Seamus Costello’s outstanding Revolutionary character from the likes of Nora Connolly O’Brien (James Connolly’s daughter), Fr Piaras O’Duill, Sean Doyle and Dr Noel Browne. He recounts the lengthy list of elected and appointed positions held by the Indefatigable Seamus Costello from 1964 until his tragic murder in October 1977 in Dublin’s North Strand as he sat unarmed in his car by a Sticky hitman, allegedly the ‘bagman’ Jim Flynn.
The Struggle in the H-Blocks
Ta Power admits that the IRSM were the main beneficiaries of disillusionment within the Official IRA in Long Kesh, in the early 1970’s, which produced a ready made reservoir of recruits, but at the time it was in a volatile state. At first the gaol authorities did not grant recognition to the IRSP prisoners, but after the correct pressure was applied, they did give in.
Shortly after this, the infant IRSP had the morale boost of 5 prisoners escaping from Newry courthouse and then the first ever mass escape from Long Kesh by 9 INLA prisoners from via a tunnel in May, 1976. However, by this stage political status was being phased out by the British as part of their ‘Ulsterisation‘ aka “Normalisation” counter-revolutionary strategy. The H-Blocks of Long Kesh concentration camp then became the main focus of the anti-Imperialist struggle for the Republican Socialist Movement and indeed the entire Irish Republican community:
“suddenly, captured republicans were thrown back to an active role & again to the forefront of the struggle. Their courage, resolve & mettle would be tested to the full. The tremendous responsibility, which was imposed on them, was a heavy burden to carry but carry it they did!”
As well as invigorating the Republican Socialist Movement, the campaign for political status was a double edged sword:
“with the end of [political] status came the end of segregation. The effects of this on our movement was more profound than are sometimes realised. Because of our numerical weakness we were always a minority within the broad republican family & this created further problems for us. The IRA always set the tempo & pace but we always retained our seperate organisational structures, independence & identity .” (7)
What is to be done?
From page 14 Ta Power begins his ‘What is to be done‘ and quotes Seamus Costello:
“..we must make no secret of the fact that we are a Revolutionary party, prepared to give leadership on the streets as well as in the elected chambers & that we are out for a revolutionary state.”
Ta Power’s sentiments in this part of his critique echo those of Seamus Costello, in that he advises a multi-faceted Revolutionary Socialist approach. For instance, agitation both on the streets and in elected bodies, bluntly emphasising that there can be:
“no easy way to the Socialist Republic, no shortcuts!”
Power bluntly states that neither can the IRSM fool the Irish working class, as they know only too well ‘who the phoneys‘ are. Power prophetically states that:
“we must be vigilant that we dont sink into the morass of sectarianism, mixing, pettiness etc. We must not get involved in unprincipled slagging matches etc or into positions that are sectarian, anti-revolutionary, morally damaging that give succour to the enemy & that confuse & divide the working class” (10)
Power states that an important facet of Irish Republican Socialism is that it should be able to describe it’s vision for a Democratic Irish Socialist Republic, not just limit their vision to the transitional stages and the process to achieve it. He again echoes James Connolly, in his belief that it is only by the actions of the Irish working class that the age old project of Ireland’s liberation from British imperialism can be achieved. Bourgeois parties will always compromise with Imperialism, which VI Lenin accurately described as the most advanced stage of Capitalism.
Ta Power writes that the might of the pro-Imperialist forces can only being defeatable by a Broad Front of progressive anti-Imperialist forces. Power advocated the convening of a conference of anti-Imperialist parties. This is very relevant in today’s context where Irish republicanism is very much splintered, despite various half-hearted calls for Republican Unity. He criticizes Stalinist Stage-ism, as adhered to by the likes of the Officials, as a deflection from the National Liberation struggle:
“it is only by strengthening ourselves ideologically, inculcating in ourselves the values & ideals of the struggle and building up the ranks of the revolutionary party that we will make it! Finally, we must constantly review, criticize & self criticize all aspects of our actions, policies, tactics etc. Keep appraising the whole situation & keep striving to raise the class consciousness, spirit & capacity to fight & win of the working class.”
The Primacy of Politics
As Ta Power indicates, the Irish Republican Socialist Movement followed what is known as the ‘party/army model’ and Ta Power critiques the ‘contradictions’ in that relationship.Ta Power utilises Marxian dialectics to explain the relationship between the political activities of the IRSM, which he refers to as:
‘A’ the party (IRSP) and: ‘B’ the military wing, (INLA.)
He states that ‘group A’, the party, should guide ‘group B’, the army, but due to structural defects that Ta Power identifies, group B ended up being the dominant element and therefore a very retarded form of Marxian Praxis existed. He states that for many within group B, overtly political work was viewed as being unimportant, unfashionable and a distraction from armed struggle:
“therefore there arises a definite trend of spurning “A”[political] type work as being beneath their standing, style etc; there arises contempt for those involved in “A” type work ”
He questions why political work came to be looked down upon as a lesser form of revolutionary struggle, despite there being so many extremely intelligent individuals involved. This one dimensional militaristic political culture within the IRSM at that time led to factionalism and power-base building:
“Are we amateurs & not professionals? We know the lessons of history, we know the mistakes & we either act accordingly or collapse. Salvation lies in clarity & the courage to implement change!”
Ta Power states that doing things in half-measures will only prove to be counter-productive, as he states that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions!’
He then uses Lenin’s polemic against the myopic, cordite soaked Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s) in Russia, to critique the purely militarist tendencies within the then IRSM. (It is worth noting that Lenin and therefore Ta Power, are using the term ‘terrorism’ in the strictly sociological sense here, not the bourgeois subjective sense)
“their terrorism is not connected in any ways with work among the masses……it distracts our very scanty organisational resources from their difficult & by no means complete task of organising a revolutionary party “
Although this article deals primarily with Part One of the Ta Power Document, the central theme of his dissertation is to assert the principles of ‘Politics in Command‘ as the only salvation for the Irish Republican Socialist Movement. Power is fearless in his critique of one dimensional militarism within the IRSM and how that culture of disdain for overtly ‘political work’ led to such tragedies as the emergence of the IPLO counter-revolutionaries, power-base building by individuals and a general ‘running down’ of the role of the party.
Unlike the Irish Republican Socialist Movement’s various detractors who spend their time sniping from the sidelines, Ta Power’s critique came from within and therefore his essay should be studied, discussed and itself critiqued and indeed added, to if need be, in light of today’s political climate which has changed significantly since 1987 when the only ‘Republican’ groupings were essentially the Provisionals, the IRSM and the Officials, whereas in contemporary times there are a variety of Provisional movement splinter groups competing for primacy.
However, Ta Power’s critique of the IRSM still retains it’s resonance, even after a quarter of a century and it’s final prophetic lines are as apt today as in the late 1980s:
“It will take a resolute leadership and the use of a firm but fair hand to drag this movement back onto the rails. Those who stand in the way of development and progress must be cast aside, no one or group will dictate solely the pace and path this movement will take to overcome its difficulties.
Those who seek to impose shackles must be cast aside without hesitation. We either go forward or backward.
Finally let us return to what we said in the first page of part one. There we said our objective in this draft, was an attempt to UNDERSTAND THE PAST so that we may ANALYSE THE PRESENT in order to INFLUENCE THE FUTURE. This is a bold claim to make, and an even bolder one to succeed with!”
Ta Power’s final words of his essay pulls no punches and is stridently honest and relevant in the tasks facing the Irish Republican Socialist Movement in contemporary times if they are to grow as a viable revolutionary movement and not fall into the sad guise of a commemorative body, a one-dimensional nationalist grouping or a reformist movement far removed from it’s revolutionary raison d’etre but continue on as Ireland’s most progressive and revolutionary movement as envisioned and encouraged by Costello, Power, Bunting and Gallagher into the political and economic realities of the 21st Century. Thankfully the IRSM continues to be involved in the struggle against imperialism, builds links and often leads the most militant elements workers’ movement in the struggle against Gombeen Capitalism, has created links in solidarity with revolutionaries abroad and continues to spread what Connolly described as ‘the divine gospel of discontent!’