ⓘ Workers' Party of Ireland

Workers' Party of Ireland

ⓘ Workers Party of Ireland

The Workers Party is a Marxist–Leninist political party active in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It arose as the original Sinn Fein organisation founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, but took its current form in 1970 following a division within the party, in which it was the larger faction. This majority group continued under the same leadership as Sinn Fein Gardiner Place or Official Sinn Fein, while the breakaway group became known as Sinn Fein Kevin Street or Provisional Sinn Fein giving rise to the contemporary party known as Sinn Fein. The party name was changed to Sinn Fein – The Workers Party in 1977 and then to the Workers Party in 1982.

Throughout its history, the party has been closely associated with the Official Irish Republican Army. Notable organisations that derived from it include Democratic Left and the Irish Republican Socialist Party. The party has one representative at local government level: Ted Tynan on Cork City Council.


1. Name

In the early to mid-1970s, Official Sinn Fein was sometimes called Sinn Fein Gardiner Place to distinguish it from the rival offshoot Provisional Sinn Fein, or Sinn Fein Kevin Street. Gardiner Place had symbolic power as the headquarters of Sinn Fein for decades before the 1970 split. This sobriquet died out in the mid-1970s.

At its Ardfheis in January 1977, the Officials renamed themselves Sinn Fein – The Workers Party. Their first seats in Dail Eireann were won under this new name. A motion at the 1979 Ardfheis to remove the Sinn Fein prefix from the party name was narrowly defeated. The change finally came about three years later.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein was organised under the name Republican Clubs to avoid a ban on Sinn Fein candidates introduced in 1964 under Northern Irelands Emergency Powers Act, and the Officials continued to use this name after 1970. The party later used the name The Workers Party Republican Clubs. In 1982, both the northern and southern sections of the party became The Workers Party. The Workers Party is sometimes referred to as the "Sticks" or "Stickies" because in the 1970s it used adhesive stickers for the Easter Lily emblem in its 1916 commemorations, whereas Provisional Sinn Fein used a pin for theirs.


2.1. History Origins

The modern origins of the party date from the early 1960s. After the failure of the then IRAs 1956–1962 "Border Campaign", the republican movement, with a new military and political leadership, undertook a complete reappraisal of its raison dêtre. Through the 1960s, some leading figures in the movement, such as Cathal Goulding, Sean Garland, Billy McMillen, Tomas Mac Giolla, moved steadily to the left, even to Marxism, as a result of their own reading and thinking and contacts with the Irish and international left. This angered more traditional republicans, who wanted to stick to the national question and armed struggle. Also involved in this debate was the Connolly Association. This groups analysis saw the primary obstacle to Irish unity as the continuing division between the Protestant and Catholic working classes. This it attributed to the "divide and rule" policies of capitalism, whose interests were served by the working classes remaining divided. Military activity was seen as counterproductive, because its effect was to further entrench sectarian divisions. If the working classes could be united in class struggle to overthrow their common rulers, a 32-county socialist republic would be the inevitable outcome.

However, this Marxist outlook became unpopular with many of the more traditionalist republicans, and the party/army leadership was criticised for failing to defend northern Catholic enclaves from loyalist attacks these debates took place against the background of the violent beginning of what would become "the Troubles". A growing minority within the rank-and-file wanted to maintain traditional militarist policies aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland. An equally contentious issue involved whether to or not to continue with the policy of abstentionism, that is, the refusal of elected representatives to take their seats in British or Irish legislatures. A majority of the leadership favoured abandoning this policy.

A group consisting of Sean Mac Stiofain, Daithi O Conaill, Seamus Twomey, and others, established themselves as a "Provisional Army Council" in 1969 in anticipation of a contentious 1970 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis delegate conference. At the Ard Fheis, the leadership of Sinn Fein failed to attain the required two-thirds majority to change the partys position on abstentionism. The debate was charged with allegations of vote-rigging and expulsions. When the Ard Fheis went on to pass a vote of confidence in the official Army Council which had already approved an end to the abstentionist policy, Ruairi O Bradaigh led the minority in a walk-out, and went to a prearranged meeting in Parnell Square where they announced the establishment of a "caretaker" executive of Sinn Fein. The dissident council became known as the "Provisional Army Council" and its party and military wing as Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, while those remaining became known as Official Sinn Fein and the Official IRA. Official Sinn Fein, under the leadership of Tomas Mac Giolla, remained aligned to Gouldings Official IRA.

The minority, those supportive of Sean Mac Stiofains "Provisional Army Council", endeavoured to achieve a united Ireland by force. As the Troubles escalated, this "Provisional Army Council" would come to command the loyalty of the IRA national organisation save for a few isolated instances ; eventually the media came to characterise the Provisionals simply as "the IRA".

A key factor in the split was the desire of those who became the Provisionals to make military action the key object of the organisation, rather than a simple rejection of leftism.

In 1977 Official Sinn Fein ratified the partys new name: Sinn Fein The Workers Party without dissension. According to Richard Sinnott, this "symbolism" was completed in April 1982 when the party became simply the Workers Party.


2.2. History Political development

Although the Official IRA became drawn into the spiralling violence of the early period of conflict in Northern Ireland, it gradually reduced its military campaign against the United Kingdoms armed presence in Northern Ireland, declaring a permanent ceasefire in May 1972. Following this, the movements political development increased rapidly throughout the 1970s.

On the national question, the Officials saw the struggle against religious sectarianism and bigotry as their primary task. The partys strategy stemmed from the "stages theory": firstly, working-class unity within Northern Ireland had to be achieved, followed by the establishment of a united Ireland, and finally a socialist society would be created in Ireland.

In 1977 the party published and accepted as policy a document called the Irish Industrial Revolution. Written by Eoghan Harris and Eamon Smullen, it outlined the partys economic stance and declared that the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland was "distracting working class attention from the class struggle to a mythical national question". The policy document used Marxist terminology: it identified US imperialism as the now-dominant political and economic force in the southern state and attacked the failure of the national bourgeoisie to develop Ireland as a modern economic power.

Official Sinn Fein gravitated towards Marxism-Leninism and became fiercely critical of the physical force Irish republicanism still espoused by Provisional Sinn Fein. Its new approach to the Northern conflict was typified by the slogan it would adopt: "Peace, Democracy, Class Politics". It aimed to replace sectarian politics with a class struggle which would unite Catholic and Protestant workers. The slogans echo of Vladimir Lenins "Peace, Bread, Land" was indicative of the partys new source of inspiration. Official Sinn Fein also built up fraternal relations with the USSR and with socialist, workers and communist parties around the world.

Throughout the 1980s the party came to staunchly oppose republican political violence, controversially to the point of recommending cooperating with British security forces. They were one of the few organisations on the left of Irish politics to oppose the INLA/Provisional IRA 1981 Irish hunger strike.

The Workers Party especially the faction around Harris strongly criticised traditional Irish republicanism, causing some of its critics such as Vincent Browne and Paddy Prendeville to accuse it of having an attitude to Northern Ireland that was close to Ulster unionism.


2.3. History IRSP/INLA split and feud

In 1974 the Official Republican Movement split over the ceasefire and the direction of the organisation. This led to the formation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party IRSP with Seamus Costello whom the Official IRA had expelled as its chairperson. Also formed on the same day was IRSPs paramilitary wing, the Irish National Liberation Army INLA. A number of tit-for-tat killings occurred in a subsequent feud until a truce was agreed in 1977.


2.4. History The Ned Stapleton Cumann inside RTE

Part of the partys plan to gain influence in the Republic of Ireland was the creation and maintenance of a secret branch cumann inside Irelands national broadcaster RTE. Centred around the leadership of Eoghan Harris, the members were all employees of RTE and many of them were journalists. Members included Charlie Bird, John Caden and Marian Finucane. una Claffey was considered to be aligned with the Cumann. The branch was created in the early 1970s and continued to operate in secrecy until the Workers Party broke apart in the early 90s as the Soviet Union collapsed and likewise the Workers Party saw a major split with the formation of the Democratic Left. Remaining undetected was fundamental to the existence of the Cumann as officially RTE reporters were not allowed to have party political affiliations, in order to remain objective as journalists. The Cumann was influential within RTE and they used to this to shape the output of RTE programming; they pushed for narratives which reflected the official Sinn Fein/Workers Party outlook, particularly in relation to the Provisional IRA.

One programme upon which the Cumann was able to leave its fingerprints on was Today Tonight, which aired 4 nights a week, and focused on investigative journalism. Although the Cumann members were not directly involved with the show, they able to ensure that SFWP members regularly appeared on the programme without having to acknowledge their membership. The Cumann was also able to influence one of RTEs flagship shows The Late Show, and were able to place SWFP activists into the shows studio audience, a studio audience who often took part in discussions on the show.

During 1981 Irish hunger strike the Cumann was deeply annoyed by the positive coverage that the hunger strikes such as Bobby Sands began to receive, as they were aligned with the Provisionals. In response, they created pieces which focused on the victims of violence by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland.


2.5. History The 1992 split

In early 1992, following a failed attempt to change the organisations constitution, six of the partys seven TDs, its MEP, numerous councillors and a significant minority of its membership broke off to form Democratic Left, a party which later merged with the Labour Party in 1999.

The reasons for the split were twofold. Firstly, a faction led by Proinsias De Rossa wanted to move the party towards an acceptance of free-market economics. Following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, they felt that the Workers Partys Marxist stance was now an obstacle to winning support at the polls. Secondly, media accusations had once again surfaced regarding the continued existence of the Official IRA which, it was alleged, remained armed and involved in fund-raising robberies, money laundering and other forms of criminality.

De Rossa and his supporters sought to distance themselves from alleged paramilitary activity at a special Ard Fheis held at Dun Laoghaire on 15 February 1992. A motion proposed by De Rossa and General Secretary Des Geraghty sought to stand down the existing membership, elect an 11-member provisional executive council and make several other significant changes in party structures was defeated. The motion to "reconstitute" the party achieved the support of 61% of delegates. However, this was short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the Workers Party constitution. The Workers Party later claimed that there was vote rigging by the supporters of the De Rossa motion. As a result of the conferences failure to adopt the motion, De Rossa and his supporters split from the organisation and established a new party which was temporarily known as "New Agenda" before the permanent name of "Democratic Left" was adopted. In the South the rump of the party was left with seven councillors and one TD.

In the North, before the 1992 split, the party had four councillors – Tom French stayed with the party, Gerry Cullen Dungannon and Seamus Lynch Belfast joined New Agenda/Democratic Left, and David Kettyles ran in subsequent elections in Fermanagh as an Independent or Progressive Socialist.

While the majority of public representatives left with De Rossa, many rank-and-file members remained in the Workers Party. Many of these regarded those who broke away as careerists and social democrats who had taken flight after the collapse of the Soviet Union and denounced those who left as liquidators. Marian Donnelly replaced De Rossa as President from 1992 to 1994. Tom French became President in 1994, and served for four years until Sean Garland was elected President in 1998. Garland retired as President in May 2008, and was replaced by Mick Finnegan who served until September 2014, being replaced by Michael Donnelly

A further minor split occurred when a number of members left and established a group called Republican Left; many of these went on to join the Irish Socialist Network. Another split occurred in 1998, after a number of former OIRA members in Newry and Belfast, who had been expelled, formed a group called the Official Republican Movement, which announced in 2010 that it had decommissioned its weapons.


2.6. History The party today

The Workers Party has struggled since the early nineties to rejuvenate its fortunes in both Irish jurisdictions. The Workers Party maintains a youth wing, Workers Party Youth, and a Womens Committee. It also has offices in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Waterford. Apart from its political work at home in Ireland, it has sent numerous party delegations to international gatherings of communist and socialist parties.

The party continues to hold a strongly anti-sectarian position and supported an independent anti-sectarian candidate, John Gilliland, in the 2004 European elections in Northern Ireland.

Waterford City remained a holdout for the party in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the 1997 Irish general election Martin ORegan narrowly failed to secure a seat in the Waterford constituency. However, in February 2008, John Halligan of Waterford resigned from the party when it refused to drop its opposition to service charges. He was later elected a TD for Waterford in the 2011 general election. The partys sole remaining councillor in Waterford lost his seat in the 2014 local elections.

Michael Donnelly, a Galway-based university lecturer, was elected as the party President at the partys Ard Fheis on 27 September 2014 to replace Mick Finnegan who had announced his decision to retire from the position after six years.

The Workers Party called for a No vote against the Treaty of Lisbon in both the June 2008 referendum, in which the proposal was defeated, and the October 2009 referendum, in which the proposal was approved. It was the only left-wing party to campaign for a No vote in the 2013 Seanad Abolition referendum. It called for a Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum in 2015. The party supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

The Workers Party has undergone a revival in the Dublin area since 2014. Eilis Ryan, an independent Councillor for the North Inner City ward of Dublin City Council, joined the Workers Party in 2015.

The party has been heavily involved in campaigning for public housing and renters rights as a response to the ongoing housing crisis in Ireland. In 2016 the party published Solidarity Housing, a public housing policy that proposed a cost-rental housing model for Ireland. Later that year a Workers Party motion for 100% mixed-income public housing on the publicly owned O’Devaney Gardens site in the north inner city was passed by Dublin City Councillors, but was later overturned after an intervention by then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney.

The party retains a strong tradition of secularism. In April 2017 Councillor Eilis Ryan organised a demonstration against the proposed control of the new National Maternity Hospital by the Sister of Charity. The Workers Party also campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in May 2018, having been the only party in the Dail to oppose the introduction of the 8th amendment in 1983.


3.1. Electoral performance Republic of Ireland

The Workers Party made its electoral breakthrough in 1981 when Joe Sherlock won a seat in Cork East. It increased this to three seats in 1982 and to four seats in 1987. The Workers Party had its best performance at the polls in 1989 when it won seven seats in the general election and party president Proinsias De Rossa won a seat in Dublin in the European election held on the same day, sitting with the communist Left Unity group.

Following the split of 1992, Tomas Mac Giolla, a TD in the Dublin West constituency and President of the party for most of the previous 30 years, was the only member of the Dail parliamentary party not to side with the new Democratic Left. Mac Giolla lost his seat in the general election later that year, and no TD has been elected for the party since then. However, at local authority level, the Workers Party maintained elected representation on Dublin, Cork and Waterford corporations in the aftermath of the split, and Mac Giolla was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1993.

Outside of the south-east, the Workers Party retains active branches in various areas of the Republic, including Dublin, Cork, County Meath and County Louth. In the 1999 local elections, it lost all of its seats in Dublin and Cork and only managed to retain three seats in Waterford City. Further electoral setbacks and a minor split left the party after the 2004 local elections, with only two councillors, both in Waterford.

The party fielded twelve candidates in the 2009 local elections. The party ran Malachy Steenson in the Dublin Central by-election on the same date. Ted Tynan was elected to Cork City Council in the Cork City North East ward. Davy Walsh retained his seat in Waterford City Council. In the 2014 local elections Tynan retained his seat; however Walsh lost his, following major boundary changes resulting from the merging of Waterford City and County councils. In January 2015, Independent councillor Eilis Ryan on Dublin City Council joined the party.

In the 2011 general election the Workers Party ran six candidates, without success. In the 2016 general election, the party ran five candidates, again without success.


3.2. Electoral performance Northern Ireland

The party gained ten seats at the 1973 Northern Irish local elections. Four years later, in May 1977, this had dropped to six council seats and 2.6% of the vote. One of their best results was when Tom French polled 19% in the 1986 Upper Bann by-election, although no other candidates stood against the sitting MP and a year later, when other parties contested the constituency, he only polled 4.7% of the vote.

Three councillors left the party during the split in 1992. Davy Kettyles became an independent Progressive Socialist while Gerry Cullen in Dungannon and the Workers Party northern chairman, Seamus Lynch in Belfast, joined Democratic Left. The party held on to its one council seat in the 1993 local elections with Peter Smyth retaining the seat that had been held by Tom French in Craigavon. This was lost in 1997, leaving them without elected representation in Northern Ireland.

The party performed poorly in the March 2007 Assembly election; it won no seats, and in its best result in Belfast West, it gained 1.26% of the vote. The party did not field any candidates at the 2010 Westminster general election. In the 2011 Assembly election the Workers Party ran in four constituencies, securing 586 first-preference votes 1.7% in Belfast West and 332 1% in Belfast North.

The party contested the Westminster general election in May 2015, standing parliamentary candidates in Northern Ireland for the first time in ten years. It fielded five candidates and secured 2.724 votes, with Gemma Weir picking up 919 votes 2.3% in Belfast North. The party did not field candidates in the December 2019 parliamentary election.


4. Publications

The party has published a number of newspapers throughout the years, with many of the theorists of the movement writing for these papers. After the 1970 split the Officials kept publishing the United Irishman the traditional newspaper of the republican movement monthly until May 1980. In 1973 the party launched a weekly paper The Irish People, which was focused on issues in the Republic of Ireland, there was also a The Northern People published in Belfast and focused on northern issues. The party published an occasional international bulletin and a womans magazine called Womens View. From 1989 to 1992 it produced a theoretical magazine called Making Sense. Other papers were produced such as Workers Weekly.

The party produces a magazine, Look Left. Originally conceived as a straightforward party paper, Look Left was relaunched as a more broad-left style publication in March 2010 but still bearing the emblem of the Workers Party. It is distributed by party members and supporters and is also stocked by a number of retailers including Easons and several radical/left-wing bookshops.


5. Leaders

  • Michael Donnelly 2014–present
  • Proinsias De Rossa 1988–1992
  • Marian Donnelly 1992–1994
  • Sean Garland 1998–2008
  • Tom French 1994–1998
  • Tomas Mac Giolla 1962–1988
  • Mick Finnegan 2008–2014
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