The Irish Left, Symbolic and Real

by Michael Brendan Dougherty
An Irish Stamp for an Argentine Marxist

Demand for the Irish stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death is “unprecedented” reports An Phost, Ireland’s postal service. The demand is driven by the entirely appropriate controversy over honoring the communist killer.

The last time I saw Che’s image in Ireland was at a hurling match for Cork’s GAA club played in Thurles. Cork is known as the rebel county, and their color is red. A Cork fan in the stands held a flag pole with a red flag bearing Che’s image, and underneath it was another red banner often flown at Cork matches, the Confederate Battle flag

Irish officials have offered the tissue thin justifications for the stamp in Che’s Irish heritage; his father Ernesto Guevara Lynch had Irish heritage. And the famous Che icon, found on t-shirts and posters was also designed by an Irish artist in 1969. Letters on the Che stamp sent to the Irish Times sum up the debate almost perfectly. One citizen says he is disgusted that the postal service is honoring a mass murderer. Another says he is glad the stamp angered the Cuban-American lobby, which he blames for the parlous condition of Cuba’s economy. I don’t have to explain to readers here why the stamp is a nasty gesture, honoring one of the worst political movements of the 20th century.

What I can add is the observation that the gesture of this stamp is oddly consistent with Ireland’s oddly inconsistent political culture. Although Ireland has the same culture war found everywhere else in Western politics, the two main parties in Ireland  are not very ideological, and the official ruling ideology of the country could be described as low-tax clientelism, with a streak of hard left politics around the edges . But mainstream Ireland has lots of patience for purely symbolic leftism. The election of the avowed socialist Michael D. Higgins to the mostly-ceremonial role of President fits the pattern. 

For what it’s worth, Ireland’s modern left has a supremely colorful history, told exhaustively in The Lost Revolution by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. Here’s a capsule of it.  Readers may recall that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland the Irish nationalist paramilitary went by the name, the Provisional IRA. Provos, for short. That name is a reminder of its split in 1969 with the Official IRA, whose members came to be known as the Officials or “Stickies.”

The Provos felt that the IRA had drifted too far into Marxism, and were irrelevant in a renewed sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.  In fact many Northern Irish Catholics  in the late 1960s denounced the IRA as cowards, for refusing to fight the Orange State. The Official IRA found it nearly impossible to attract working class Ulster Protestants to their Soviet ideology. Working class Protestants preferred the sectarian leader Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party, now in coalition with Teresa May’s Tories.  The Officials denounced the Provos as “xenophobes” for their nationalism and abandonment of Stalinist politics. But, ironically, it was the Provos who attracted the support of support of the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, because their campaign of terror was inflicting real costs on the British state.

The Stickies went on to a variety of careers and roles in Irish life. So many of them adopted an entryist strategy in Irish media that the London Review of Books could say in 2010, “ It would be hard to spend even a day in Ireland reading the papers, listening to the radio and watching television without coming across a former Official.”  Some other Irish communists went on quixotic missions to North Korea for military training. And one Irish left winger, Seán Garland became one of the most notorious international counterfeiters of American dollars, selling his “supernotes”  to the North Korean regime.

This legacy of the Officials is part of why so much of Irish media leans to the left yet constantly betrays this unmistakable fear that somewhere, out there, middle Ireland scorns them. Issues like the Che stamp are an opportune time for them to take the temperature.

The Corner

The one and only.