It is 35 years this month since the great Irish revolutionary leader Seamus Costello was shot dead in Dublin by the pro-Moscow Official IRA (not to be confused with the Provisional IRA, the ones that fought the British state through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s).
The Seamus Costello Memorial Committee organised a number of events to mark the anniversary, the main one being a large public meeting in Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow on Saturday, October 6. The following is the text of the speech given at the meeting by Louise Minihan of the Irish socialist-republican organisation éirígí. Louise is also an elected Dublin City Council member for Ballyfermot/Drimnagh. More material on Costello is available over on our sister blog, theirishrevolution. A commemorative site for Seamus is here.
I would like to begin by thanking Séan, John and the Séamus Costello Memorial Committee for inviting me to speak at this event tonight. I consider it a great honour to be part of the 35th Anniversary Commemoration for Séamus Costello – a giant of Irish Socialist Republicanism and a personal hero of mine.
To say that Costello is a giant of socialist republicanism is an understatement, yet in my opinion his contribution to the republican struggle remains undervalued today. The events organised by Costello’s comrades on the memorial committee are of vital importance to ensure his inspirational and revolutionary legacy are kept alive and passed on to a new generation of republicans.
When we think of the architects of modern socialist republicanism, a number of names spring to mind. James Fintan Lalor, the great James Connolly, Liam Mellows and Séamus Costello. Costello was an ardent disciple of Connolly and, to me, was the personification of socialist republicanism in the modern age. To him the revolutionary class struggle and the fight for national liberation were one and the same. Costello took up and proudly fought under James Connolly’s mantle that “the social and national questions are not antagonistic, but are two sides of the same coin”.
Speaking at Costello’s funeral, Connolly’s daughter, the veteran socialist republican Nora Connolly O’Brien said, “My father told his court martial that the British had no right in Ireland. Séamus Costello felt the same way. He was the greatest follower of my father’s teachings in this generation and I hope that his example shall be followed and that his vision for Ireland will be realised in this generation.”
In the political, social and economic circumstances that the people of Ireland face today, socialist republicanism, the vision of Connolly and Costello could not be more relevant. It is, therefore, the duty of all of us who meet this evening to honour Costello to not only remember him, but to work to repopularise his ideals and make his vision a reality.
So what was Costello’s vision for Ireland, and what lessons can we learn from his life and times?
Costello became interested in republicanism at the early age of 14, when he read about the IRA arms raid on the officer Training Corps in Essex, England.
At the age of 15, while in Croke Park, Costello bought a copy of the United Irishman, the paper of the republican movement, and in it he read an advertisement for that year’s Easter Commemoration concert in the Gaiety Theatre. Former IRA Chief of Staff Éamonn Mac Thomáis has written about what happened next.
“It was in the early fifties that Séamus came along to me at the Easter Commemoration concert in the Gaiety Theatre and he asked to join the IRA. I asked him how old he was, he said he was fifteen. So I said, ‘Look son, you are too young. Join the Fianna.’
“‘No’, he says, ‘I want to join the IRA.’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘Come back in a year’s time and we’ll see what we can do for you.’ So I thought that was the end of him, but lo and behold a year passed by and the next Easter Commemoration concert in the Gaiety he walked up and looked at me straight in the eye and says, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said I did all right. ’Well,’ he says, ‘I’m sixteen now and I want to join the IRA.’”
That was the determination of Costello. Even at the tender age of 16, he was going to let nothing stand in his way from playing a full a part in the struggle for national liberation.
Costello was not a blind militarist, however, and he understood the importance of building a revolutionary political party. At the same time that he joined the IRA he became active in Sinn Féin and he was the driving force in the establishment of a Sinn Féin cumann in Bray, the first since the Tan War. In the beginning, the cumann confined itself to the sale of the United Irishman newspaper in Bray. But as Costello found his feet as a political organiser, it wasn’t long before the paper was sold in every area in Wicklow.
Costello played a full role in the IRA’s Border Campaign. Aged just 17 Costello took command of the IRA active service unit in South Derry, where his skill as a leader earned him the nickname, ‘The Boy General’. The unit was engaged in several successful operations including the burning of Magherafelt Courthouse.
Arrested in Glencree, County Wicklow in 1957, Costello was sentenced to six months in Mountjoy. As soon as he was released, Costello was interned in the Curragh concentration camp.
It was while in prison that Costello sharpened his political and military skills. Referring later to his time in the Curragh as his university days, Costello used this time to discuss and debate the future of the struggle, its strengths and weaknesses and how the republican struggle could be successful.
He also studied international struggles for national liberation, and attempted to apply their lessons to the Irish context. He was particularly impressed by the struggle lead by the communists in Vietnam, which saw badly armed peasants, deeply driven by a politically Ideology, defeat a larger professionally armed and trained enemy.
His time in prison did not prevent him from taking part in revolutionary activity. Costello was appointed to the camp’s escape committee, and he was one of the driving forces in the successful escape of Ruairí Ó Bradaigh and Daithí Ó Conaill.
It was while in gaol that Costello came to the conclusion that the border campaign had failed not due to lack of popular support but because it had failed to win the popular involvement of the Irish people. On the ending of internment in 1959, Costello threw himself into the re-organising of the republican movement.
It was Costello’s firm belief that for the republican struggle to be successful, republicans must become involved in the everyday battles of the people, and provide leadership in their communities. Purely militarist movements were not going to win the popular involvement of the masses because they were elitist and removed from the struggles of the people.
As part of this republican re-organisation, Costello began to build a strong republican base in Wicklow. It was his belief that by building revolutionary strongholds in the areas where republicans had a presence that these strongholds could become the foundation blocs of a successful revolution.
In the early Sixties, Costello became a full time republican organiser for Wicklow and set about building strong links with the county’s urban and rural communities, as well as local working class organisations.
Throughout the 1960s Costello was one of the main architects in moving the republican movement to the left. It was no surprise that the leadership of the republican movement chose Séamus Costello to give the historic Bodenstown oration in 1966. That oration officially announced the movements embracing of socialism and should be required reading for all socialist republicans.
Costello continued the hard graft of building the republican base in Wicklow. As part of this strategy he pushed for Sinn Féin to contest the 1967 local election in a number of carefully selected constituencies. The movement accepted his proposal, and along with Joe Doyle, Costello contested the election in Bray. Costello’s skill as an organiser paid off. Both candidates were elected to Bray Urban Council and Costello was also elected to Wicklow County Council.
Costello brought the same revolutionary determination into the council chambers as he displayed in all aspects of the republican struggle. Himself and Joe Doyle brought the message of socialist republicanism from the streets into the council and made sure the voices of the workers and small farmers of Wicklow were heard.
In 1968 Costello stood as the republican candidate in the Wicklow by-election. He polled over 2,000 votes, evidence that his hard work was paying off, but failed to win the seat. Costello believed that the policy of abstentionisim had cost the movement the election and felt the time had come to end it.
Costello had a revolutionary approach to parliaments. He saw them as a national platform for the socialist republican message, giving the republican movement access to a far wider audience and potential pool of recruits and resources. However he maintained that there was no parliamentary road to socialism and no short cuts for building a revolutionary base in Ireland.
In 1969, Costello delivered a lecture at a republican education conference in Dublin which he called Democracy and the Mass Movement. In the course of the lecture he explained his approach to political organisation. He made clear that it was key for republicans to become involved in the building of local strongholds aimed at organising the working class and winning the masses to republicanism.
He gave clear examples of how this might be done based on his experiences in Bray and throughout county Wicklow. The lessons from that lecture, the clear strategy and tactics Costello set out for socialist republicans at a local level are as relevant and as important for republicans to understand and adopt today, as they were in the 1960s.
At the same time Costello was building a strong republican base in Wicklow and organising the county’s workers and small farmers, he never neglected the national question. Throughout this time Séamus remained active within the IRA and was a driving force in setting up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
Costello believed such a mass organisation could mobilise the protestant and catholic working class in the north to unite against the injustices of the orange state and come onto the streets and confront it. He believed that mass agitation by the working class, backed up and supported by a revolutionary armed struggle by the IRA, would lead to a republican victory in Ireland.
Costello was key in convincing the IRA and Sinn Féin to drop abstenstionism as a principle. Tension now began to grow within the ranks of the republican movement over the issue of abstentionism and the role of revolutionary class struggle in the fight for national liberation.
Costello was against a split, and worked hard to prevent it. However when the movement split in 1969-1970, Costello sided with the Officials. Costello now believed the time was right to push his strategy of mass agitation and revolutionary armed struggle across the thirty-two counties; in a campaign to destabilize both failed states and establish a socialist republic.
However the leadership of the Official movement began to play down the role of the armed struggle and began a slide to reformism. In the early 1970s they began to abandon armed actions and in 1972 they called a complete military ceasefire, despite the fact that the full brunt of British imperialism and Orange fascism was being unleased on the nationalist population of the occupied Six Counties.
Costello was against the ceasefire, seeing it as a major mistake for socialist republicans to make. He began to fight a rearguard action within the Officials, attempting to have already existing revolutionary policy implemented. However as the Officials slide to reformism continued, disillusionment began to set into its ranks and volunteers and activists began to leave.
By 1973 the Official leadership felt their hand had been strengthened enough to begin a witch hunt against internal dissidents, mainly focusing on Costello and his supporters. In 1974 Costello was dismissed from the Official IRA and suspended from Official Sinn Féin. However, once again he refused to be beaten or have setbacks prevent him in advancing the struggle for national liberation.
He contested the 1974 local election as an independent republican candidate and topped the poll in the Bray Urban District Council elections and the Wicklow County Council elections. At the same time Costello was elected president of the Bray Trades Council. Finally after many years hard work his strategy of building a local base for the revolution was coming to fruition.
Séamus believed the time had come for the establishment of a new socialist republican movement that would combine the revolutionary class struggle with the struggle for national liberation. On the 8th of December 1974 Costello and about 80 supporters founded a new party which they named the Irish Republican Socialist Party in honour of James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party.
On the same day they began the formation of a new revolutionary army and the work of implementing Costello’s twin strategy of mass agitation and revolutionary armed struggle.
The leadership of the Officials launched a counter revolutionary strategy to crush the new movement at birth, seeing them as a republican threat. The states, North and South, were determined to crush any attempts at organising the working class to establish a socialist republic and came down hard on the IRSP. Despite his commitments as a national leader and the work of building a new movement Séamus never neglected the work of building a revolutionary base in his native County Wicklow.
Unfortunately for Ireland, and the working class, the forces of counter revolution couldn’t allow Séamus Costello continue with his revolutionary work, he posed far too much of a threat to them and their system. On the 5th of October 1974 Séamus Costello was gunned down in cold blood as he sat in a car at the North Strand Road in Dublin. That morning Ireland lost its greatest leader since James Connolly.
However Costello’s death has not been in vain, and his life and vision continue to provide inspiration to socialist republicans today. In his life he led by example and set down a clear strategy and tactics for socialist republicans to follow to victory. So what are the lessons we can learn from Séamus Costello today?
There are many, but we would need days rather then hours to discuss them all. To conclude my contribution to this topic I would like to summarise some of the key lessons we can learn from Costello.
The first is that partition is the biggest issue facing the people of Ireland today and it is the duty of all republicans, socialists and progressives to join the national liberation struggle to fight the injustice of partition.
The second is that the revolutionary class struggle and the fight for national liberation are one and the same. It is by combining the class and national struggles that republicans can achieve victory and establish an Irish Socialist Republic.
The third lesson from Costello, and one of the most important for republicans today, is that republicans must build not just the popular support of the people but also the popular involvement of the masses. To build a successful movement to challenge British imperialism and domestic capitalism today, republicans must build a vehicle that can mobilise the working classes.
And finally, Costello also set out the key task for republicans who aim to build a successful revolution – the building of strong republican bases in the communities where republicans have influence. This is of critical importance to republicans now as we rebuild the republican movement from the defeat it suffered in 1998.
Republicans must become leaders on their streets and in their communities and become the vehicle for the mass mobilisation of the working class. Costello proved here in Wicklow that by building strong republican bases republicans can win the support of the masses for a revolutionary programme. This must be the guiding policy for republicans today as we rebuild and repopularise the struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland.
To finish I would like to leave you with the words of Séamus from that powerful oration in Bodenstown 1966 which for me best sums up Costello and his socialist republican strategy:
“We can expect the same reaction to the implementation of these aims from the forces of exploitation, whether native or foreign sponsored, as the originators received in ’98, ’48, ’67 and 1916. Therefore, to imagine that we can establish a republic solely by constitutional means is utter folly.
“The lesson of history shows that in the final analysis the robber baron must be disestablished by the same methods that he used to enrich himself and retain his ill-gotten gains, namely, force of arms. To this end we must organise, train, and maintain a disciplined-armed force, which will always be available to strike at the opportune moment.”