The following oration was delivered by Austin Kelly, North Belfast branch, on Sunday 3rd September at the Workers’ Party Commemoration at Milltown Cemetery for our members and supporters who lost their lives in 1976 and 1977.
Oration, Workers’ Party Commemoration, Sunday, 3rd September 2017
Comrades and Friends,
We gather here today to remember our members and supporters who lost their lives in 1976-1977. I would like to thank you all for coming, especially the family members of those we are here to commemorate. We share your continuing grief at the loss of your loved ones.
Forty years have passed since the untimely deaths of Gerry Gilmore, Kevin McMenamin, John Short and Trevor McNulty. It is important to remember the political context in which these attacks on our members and their families took place. Until July 1977 the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government led by Liam Cosgrove (which had viciously attacked civil liberties) was in power in Dublin until replaced by Fianna Fáil under Jack Lynch.
In Northern Ireland our Party, then known as the Republican Clubs, reaffirmed its demand for the abolition of all repressive political and social legislation; called for a fully integrated, comprehensive system of education, a Bill of Rights and the introduction of a national minimum wage; demanded an end to the vicious campaigns of bombing and killings carried out by various forces and re-stated its position that peace was a revolutionary demand.
The Republican Clubs also condemned the period of 1976-77 as a “political vacuum” during which a vicious circle of murderous violence was carried out by various forces, including the state, maintaining a state of communal terror which undermined the capacity of working people to develop progressive politics. Despite the difficult political environment, the Republican Clubs secured six seats in the local government elections in 1977.
On 13 July 1976, Gerry Gilmore, aged 19, was murdered by the UDA/UFF at the Boundary Bar in Bawnmore. At the time of his murder Gerry Gilmore was protecting his class from sectarian attack (as many of you know the Greencastle area throughout the 70s & 80s had borne the brunt of sectarian violence from Orange & Green sectarian & fascist gangs) and there is no doubt that Gerry helped to save many other lives that same night we can only speculate as to how many.
Kevin McMenamin aged 7, was murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) when they carried out a bomb attack on a Republican Clubs Easter commemoration parade at Beechmount Avenue on 10 April 1977.
John Short aged 49, was murdered by the Provisional Alliance in Turf Lodge on 10 April 1977. He was on his way with members of the McMenamin family to tell other family members of Kevin’s death.
On Wednesday, 27 July 1977, Trevor McNulty was murdered by the Provisionals in the New Lodge. Trevor was a member of the Northern Ireland Executive of the Republican Clubs and held the post of Education Officer.
Young Kevin McMenamin was only 7 years of age when he was murdered.
Our comrades, our friends, were murdered because of their dedication to their principles, to the ideals of Tone and Connolly, to the unity of the working class, to building a socialist future, the establishment of a democratic, secular, socialist, unitary state on the island of Ireland – a Republic.
They were murdered because of their commitment to the cause of building a revolutionary party of and for the working class.
In 1976/77 Northern Ireland was in the grip of a belligerent, poisonous sectarianism. Our Party and its members were seen as a threat by a repressive state and openly sectarian para-military groups which included ultra-leftists and reactionary pro-British and pro-Irish nationalists. Those responsible for the attacks on our Party in 1976/77 shared a hatred of our democratic, secular, anti-sectarian, internationalist, socialist politics. The Provisionals, in particular, thought they had an opportunity to remove us from the political stage. They could not abide the fact that our political message and our anti-sectarian campaign was gathering support in areas they regarded as theirs.
Nor could they forgive the fact that the very existence of our Party exposed the hollowness of their sham republicanism, revealing it for the squalid sectarian nationalism that it was. That is why they targeted our Party and talented and committed comrades like Trevor McNulty.
The 1970 Ard Fheis was a defining moment in the history of republicanism in Ireland. It set the framework for the transition from narrow nationalist militarism to revolutionary socialism. During the 70s we clarified our ideology, strengthened our party organisation and began to develop clear class priorities to establish our credentials within the working class.
In 1972 Sean Garland, at the grave of Wolfe Tone, made clear that a revolution could not be made by a small conspiratorial elite, but only by a mass movement of the people. He laid out clearly what was needed if such a movement was to be built – a revolutionary party committed to building class consciousness and unity among all workers in Ireland.
As Sean stated:
“The revolutionary party of the people recognises only the unity of the working class and will not now engage in any campaign which could only have the effect of helping the miserable rulers of the working class to survive.”
In 1977, the year in which our comrades were murdered, the Party took the historic decision to add the words “The Workers Party” to the Party name, a vision that led ultimately to the adoption of the party name as “The Workers Party”, in 1982.
At the 1977 Ard Fheis it was manifestly apparent that this decision was a clear political message, as one delegate put it: “the end of the Griffith’s era and the beginning of the Connolly age”. This was aimed at making clear that our party stood in the revolutionary socialist tradition, stripped of the nationalist baggage and language of the past, confident of the future and seeking the allegiance of the entire working class, across the island of Ireland, in the struggle to build socialism. As Tomas MacGiolla, put it in his Presidential Address at that Ard Fheis:
“Sinn Fein is the party of the Workers and we have the policies which can build a democratic, socialist republic. We claim the support of the working people of both North and South because we are in the vanguard of their struggle.”
This was a direct declaration that our Party and its members was about to seriously take up the new phase of struggle and Sean Garland spelt out in explicit terms the nature and course of that struggle and how that differed from the tactics of the past. We had consciously adopted a new party name and a new strategy and programme.
We were now a Workers’ Party.
No longer prisoners of history our Party, as the advanced vanguard of the class-conscious working class, embarked on the long hard course of political struggle under the slogans of “Peace, Work and Class Politics”, raising class issues such as unemployment, poverty, homelessness, entering all geographical areas without exception to promote the socialist message. And all this was achieved at a time of ongoing state and paramilitary oppression, and the murderous attacks upon our members and their families from orange and green nationalists.
Those who did not understand this new phase of struggle, or who did not have the ability or imagination to comprehend a new revolutionary course, sought refuge in the grey romantic, militarist mists of the past. For them, there was no revolutionary future where workers might build a new society in which they were the masters and in which their rights were protected and guaranteed. For them, all efforts were to be devoted to the preservation of the glorious failures of the past.
Over the years we have had some who have tired of the struggle for a socialist Ireland, who have opted instead for the cosy embrace of social democracy with its ample personal rewards or who have retreated into the comfort of reminiscence rather than the demanding work required to build a revolutionary party and construct socialism. Some left to pursue what Malachy McGurran once referred to as “greener but safer fields”.
Those we honour today were committed to our struggle. To abandon that struggle and to retreat into some false nostalgia or mawkish sentimentality would be to betray the sacrifices made by our comrades, and would rob those sacrifices of their meaning.
We are now as we were then, The Workers Party, unambiguous and unashamed.
40 years on, the best tribute to the comrades we commemorate today is the legacy of a strong and vibrant Workers’ Party. Building our Party, on ideology rather than sentimentality, engaging daily in the hard slog to fund and mobilise our Party and its ongoing struggle to forge the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter; to raise class consciousness among workers; to educate, agitate, organise, and to create a socialist Ireland ruled by the workers, for the working class.
This will be the most powerful monument and memorial to those we remember today.