Today, October 5, marks the 37th anniversary of the murder of the exceptional Irish revolutionary Seamus Costello (1939-1977).  Below we run an appreciation of Seamus by Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey, with an introduction by Philip Ferguson

From the coastal town of Bray, just south of Dublin, Seamus left school at 15, becoming a mechanic.  At age 16, he joined the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein .  By the time he was 17, he was commanding an IRA active service unit in the north of Ireland, during the guerrilla army’s Border Campaign (or Operation Harvest) of 1956-62.  He served a stretch in prison and, later, was also interned in the Curragh camp in the south, part of the Dublin regime’s crackdown on the Republican Movement during the Border Campaign.

Costello played a key role in the political rethinking that occurred in the Republican Movement in the wake of the failure of that particular military campaign (for an example of Seamus’ thinking see ‘Democracy and the Mass Movement’).  This rethinking focussed on the need to devote more attention to socio-economic struggles and tie these to the question of Irish national freedom.  At the forefront of this rethinking, Seamus became a top leader of both the IRA and Sinn Fein and was also elected to the local town council in Bray and to Wicklow County Council.

In December 1969 the IRA split, between the ‘Officials’ and the ‘Provisionals’, followed by a commensurate split in Sinn Fein in January 1970.  The dispute was quite complex, connected to the nature of the struggle unfolding in the north, the question of whether republicans should take seats in the southern parliament, and other issues.  Seamus stayed with the ‘Officials’ whom he saw as more left-wing at the time.  However, the Officials’ left-wing politics turned out to be economistic rather than revolutionary.  The main body of the Officials’ leadership, although briefly friendly with some Trotskyist currents, evolved quite rapidly in the direction of the politics of Moscow and the East European states.  They began abandoning the national question and armed struggle, declaring a ceasefire in 1972 after their disastrous bombing of Aldershot military barracks resulted in the death of a group of women cleaners.

Seamus led the opposition to the retreat on the national question and armed struggle and was driven out of both the political and military wings of the Officials in 1974.  He regrouped the supporters of the positions he had argued for within the Officials and also attracted a number of independent leftists such as Bernadette Devlin.  In December 1974, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) was founded at a public meeting at Lucan, while a private meeting established a military wing, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).  In 1976-77, Seamus served as chair of the Bray District Trade Union Council.

The Officials had been dismayed by the rapid growth of the Provisionals, who quickly overtook them in the north.  The Officials’ leadership decided they definitely didn’t want another republican current emerging, especially on their left flank.  They began a campaign to crush the new socialist-republican movement and murdered a number of IRSP activists.

At the same time, the southern state, fearful of the emergence of a socialist-republican movement oriented to the working class and small farmers and with a dynamic leadership consisting of people such as Seamus, Bernadette Devlin and Miriam Daly, began an intense round of repression.  Activists were arrested, beaten and tortured by the Dublin regime.  Even Amnesty International, which is usually reluctant to get involved in challenging state repression in either statelet in Ireland, criticised the Dublin regime over its repression of the new movement.

Just when it looked as if the murderous activities of the Officials had been brought to an end, one of their gunmen, Jim Flynn, murdered Seamus while he was sitting in his car in the centre of Dublin on October 5, 1977.

Below we’re running an appreciation of Seamus by Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey.  The appreciation was written at the time of his murder.  While Bernadette captures Seamus’ strengths, a couple of things need to be added by way of explanation of part of the appreciation.  Next to Costello, Bernadette was the best-known leader of the IRSP, in fact internationally she was its most well-known figure, having been a leading representative of the left-wing of the civil rights movement in the north from late 1968 onwards, and having been elected to the British parliament in 1969 and serving as an MP until February 1974.

Bernadette was not part of the meeting which established the military wing and she left in 1976 because she opposed the existence of the secret military wing.  A friend of mine who was the editor of the IRSP paper at the time, and whose background was previously in a small Trotskyist current, told me over 20 years ago about the IRSP national leadership meeting where Bernadette outlined her own views about how a revolution in Ireland would take place, in terms of the use of arms.  He described how she had suggested that when the big day arrived the workers would go to the soldiers and the soldiers, because they would have already become radicalised, would hand out arms to the workers and help overthrow the capitalist state.  Paddy dismissed this view as ‘textbook Trotskyism’.

Failing to win a majority for her view, Bernadette departed the IRSP, taking a core of members with her and establishing the Committee for a Socialist Programme in 1976; the CSP subsequently became the Independent Socialist Party but, within about two years, dissolved.

Her course seems to me to have been entirely the wrong one.  Indeed, in my view, despite having the tools of Marxism, she was politically wrong as against Seamus.  In 1970s (and, indeed, 1980s) Ireland, no political current professing to be revolutionary could or would be taken seriously without having an armed component.  Six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties were under armed imperialist occupation and the occupiers could not be forced out simply by people sitting in the street, holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome”.  The British Army’s massacre of peaceful civil rights protestors in Derry city in January 1972 had put that question beyond any doubt at all.

Thus when Bernadette wrote “I remained confident that he, again, if he found himself mistaken, would move further in his political analysis to another approach”, she might have more reflected on her own mistaken view about the role of armed struggle at the time and her own mistaken departure from the IRSP.  Bernadette is one of my all-time heroes, but her tragedy is that she has never been able to work as part of a team in a revolutionary leadership and the vast bulk of her political life has been spent as an individual activist, something which doesn’t help resolve the lack of an authoritative political movement of, for and by the Irish working class and their natural class allies, the small farmers.

A final word on Seamus.  These days it is extremely rare to come across essentially self-taught revolutionary leaders from the working class.  Seamus was a stunning example of what the Italian Marxist leader Gramsci referred to as ‘organic intellectuals’ – workers who developed as revolutionary intellectuals while remaining workers.  Only 39, when he was gunned down, who knows what he and his movement might have achieved had he lived.

Fittingly, the oration at his funeral was by Nora Connolly O’Brien, a participant in Ireland’s revolutionary struggle since before the 1916 Rebellion, and the child of James Connolly most associated with trying to continue the revolutionary tradition he epitomised.  Nora noted, “Of all the politicians and political people with whom I have had conversations and who called themselves followers of Connolly, he was the only one who truly understood what James Connolly meant when he spoke of his vision of the freedom of the Irish people.”

  • Philip Ferguson
Seamus Costello – revolutionary and mass leader

Bernadette, breaking pavement slabs to make stones to throw at police during Battle of the Bogside 1969

by Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey

My personal acquaintanceship with Seamus Costello began in 1973.  Before then I knew him only, as most people in Ireland, by reputation.

On hearing of his death, I could find no words of my own to express the deep sense of loss I felt, both personally and as a revolutionary socialist committed to the struggle for Irish freedom.

I took, therefore, the words of a fellow revolutionary on the death of Malcolm X, the black revolutionary champion of black liberation and socialism in the USA: “Without him, we feel suddenly vulnerable, small and weak, somewhat frightened, not by the prospect of death, but of life and struggle without his contribution, his strength and inspiration.”

Potential for leadership

There is no doubt that the struggle continues and its victory or defeat is not measured by the number or quality of our fallen comrades individually.  Yet it is equally true that in every generation of struggle the combination of circumstances, history and the nature of of the struggle itself, produces from the ranks of its rebels a few, and a very few, individuals who, notwithstanding the fundamental principles of organisation, political correctness and practical ability, common to many, rise head and shoulders above the rest, with a potential for leadership, far beyond the ranks of the already committed.  Such a comrade was Seamus Costello.

Brutally murdered by petty, small-minded men of no vision, whose only place in history is to serve as a warning to others how revolutionaries gone wrong can degenerate into worse than nothingness, Seamus Costello, for all that he was and did in his lifetime, was only at the beginning of his potential contribution to the achievement of national liberation and socialism in this generation.

That is not to say that Seamus was above making mistakes or that he was always politically correct.  There were many questions on which I disagreed with him, and which I considered crucial to the development of the struggle.  These remain unresolved.

Proved ability in practice

Nonetheless, in leaving the official republican movement and taking the initiative of forming the IRSP, Seamus Costello proved his ability in practice – once convinced that the approach of the organisation to which he belonged was wrong and could not be altered from within – to take on the daunting but necessary task of building an organisation capable and willing to carry the struggle forward.  The fact that he was capable of it underlined his key position in the struggle, and his recognition of the need to forge a revolutionary force in Ireland from the unification of the republican and labour movements.

If I did not accept his arguments on how it could be done, I remained confident that he, again, if he found himself mistaken, would move further in his political analysis to another approach.  He did not live to see the test of theory in practice.


Much is said of his single-mindedness, his ruthlessness and organisational ability.  At his hardest, Seamus Costello was never hateful, nor was there a fibre of his being that was petty or personally malicious, and despite the slanders of his enemies, he was neither politically nor religiously sectarian.

He owed his first allegiance to an ideal – a 32-county socialist republic.  His enemies he defined only as those who consciously strove to suffocate, distort or deny expression to that goal, and prevent its achievement.  As an orator, he was brilliant and inspiring.  In debate, he was uncompromising, skilled and learned.  As an organiser, he was efficient and did not easily tolerate idleness or half-hearted effort.

Yet in my mind’s eye, when I think of him, I see him laughing.  A sense of humour, the ability to laugh at oneself, and the predicament in which we find ourselves, is sadly too rare a quaoity among revolutionaries.  Seamus possessed it in good measure.

His single greatest attribute was, however, his ability to relate to the mass of the people.  His potential as a leader of mass struggle is not easily replaced.  He could inspire not only the dream but the confidence of its achievement, and the commitment to work towards that end.

From the ranks of mass struggle, others will come.  From the experience of struggle, the political programme, organisation and method of struggle will come.  But another Seamus may never come again.

When our freedom has been won, let us guard it well, remembering it was paid for in the blood and the lives of those now dead, but whose memory lives forever in the hearts of us who loved them for all that they were and all they might have been, had they been allowed to live.

For an appreciation of Seamus by a leading figure in the new generation of Irish socialist-republican activists, see the speech by Louise Minihan, here

  1. sebthered says:

    Great tribute. As a Lucan lad of 25 years now (jaysus, where does the time go?!), I was particularly surprised and delighted to learn that the IRSP was founded in my home town. Born in London to Irish parents of the ‘west Brit’ variety (Dad from Ranelagh, Mum from a bourgeois elite Ballsbridge family) I have always had a conflicted perspective on the national question, even after discovering my own socialist identity in college. Looking back at it now, I do feel that the INLA probably would have represented my ideals best – but who knows what I might have opted for had I been around at the time. Maybe I would have agreed with Bernadette, and decided that the last thing Ireland needed was another paramilitary outfit running around with bullets & bombs… The real tragedy is that PIRA OIRA spent more time killing eachother and perceived threats to their hegemony than they did fighting their class enemies.

  2. PhilF says:

    Costello and Devlin were both heroes of mine when I was a teenager. In fact, I was still in short pants when Devlin became a hero of mine. She was incredibly inspiring. Politically I would have been more aligned with her, until the 1981 hunger strikes. That was when I changed my views on the armed struggle. Of course, Seamus was already dead by then and his successor, the remarkable Miriam Daly, was murdered in 1981 and that was kind of the beginning of the end of INLA/IRSP for quite some time to come as they went off the rails.

    But, Bernadette was wrong to have left the IRSP in 1976. For one thing, you don’t leave an organisation until you decide it really is beyond salvage and when she left it was still a very healthy organisation. There was plenty of scope for her to continue playing an extremely productive role. Secondly, she was wrong anyway. As I say above, it was impossible for any revolutionary current in Ireland to have any credibility in the working class, especially in the north, without having an armed component. That’s why the Trotskyists failed so miserably in the north, despite being there from the start and leading People’s Democracy (although even the Fourth International Trots did talk in the early 1970s about establishing an armed group and PD flirted with armed actions in the mid-1970s).

    There was a big distinction between OIRA and PIRA. OIRA, drawn into the orbit of Moscow-line politics and abandoning the armed struggle against the Brits, pretty quickly degenerated into gangsterism and doing some of the dirty work of the Brits (like killing Costello).

    There was an occasional PIRA-OIRA feud, but PIRA never tried to suppress the INLA like OIRA did. PIRA was much healthier and, of course, as time went on loads of its members in jail started studying Marxism. As the INLA degenerated into lumpen behaviour in the 1980s, stuff that wpould have had Costello spinning in his grave, PIRA was unquestionably the most healthy revolutionary current.

    I arrived in Ireland in 1986; if I had’ve arrived ten years earlier I would have joined the Irps and I would have stayed rather than follow Devlin out. But by 1986, I wouldn’t touch the Irps with a bargepole, also the Provos had taken over much of the Irps’ politics anyway, after Ruairi O Bradaigh’s departure.

    Of course, it turned out that the Adams cabal weren’t really serious about those politics. When I was in SF one of the things I found odd was that our movement had taken over Costello’s politics but never given him credit. No wonder – later, when the Brits got serious about playing ball with Adams and co,, those politics were simply shelved and Adams and co took the Provisional movement to the right, to where they’re now just bourgeois-nationalists with a vaguely left economic platform which will be further modified when they get the opportunity to get into government in the south.

    I’m impressed by the fact that you came to socialist-republican politics from the background you outline. But, historically, that’s not rare in Ireland. One of the original leaders of the Irps was Ronnie Bunting, whose father (Major Bunting) was one of Paisley’s right-hand men. Miriam Daly, who became leader after Seamus was murdered, was the daughter of a Free State army officer.

    Going back further in time, you have a rake of women from upper-class backgrounds who became intransigent republican revolutionaries: Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Charlotte Despard (whose brother was Viscount French, British Lord Lieutenant in Ireland during the war for independence).

    So you’re in good company.