Guerrilla Parliamentarianism– In Defence of Costello’s Vision

“I favour guerrilla tactics in parliament, the same as I do in many other respects… And I see no reason why with a few TDs or a few MPs of the right calibre, pursuing the right policies, why they cannot destroy the confidence of the people in these institutions and bring them tumbling down in ruin.” – Seamus Costello

Although much has changed in the political, economic and social landscape of Ireland since Séamus Costello was gunned down by counter-revolutionaries 41 years ago, the above quote still carries much weight today. At a time where republicanism, and more specifically socialist-republicanism, is at a rather low ebb with arguably no real immediate prospects for progression of a mass movement. Where the Irish people have, for a large part, lost all faith in the ability of their so-called elected representatives to actually represent them. And where the old guard of the political establishment remain cemented in their positions of power and wholly confident of forwarding the cause of Capital and Empire. At such dire times as these, there’s a lot to be said for seeking out those of the “right calibre” to enter the fray in defence of the cause of Labour and the working class!

Firstly, I have to put down my uncompromising belief that electioneering is not and can never be a mechanism for revolutionary change by itself. To paraphrase James Connolly, our governments are but committees of the rich propped up to do their bidding. By this understanding I accept and assert that Leinster House, Stormount and even Westminister are not the theatres where within our revolutionary Republic shall be borne. But by all means, it is within these bleak chambers of imperial power, capitalist greed and chauvinistic corruption that the seeds of revolution can be sewn to bring these institutions “tumbling down in ruin”. Therefore, as a tactical endeavour in line with a much larger mass political and social movement, contesting elections and taking seats in parliaments and councils can be a very revolutionary act when done within the frames of an ideological goal.

Selling out and settling in

There are many within the broad ideological school of socialist-republicanism who would argue, and with some validity, that taking seats in parliaments set-up to suppress the revolutionary Céad Dáil Éireann is an inexcusable act of betrayal. A “selling-out” of those whose struggle we continue today. Whereas there is undoubtedly some merit to this argument, given that a degree of compromise would be necessary, it is however an argument generally steeped in puritanical thought and one blinded by a fundamental zeal. Though it may be a hard pill for many republicans to swallow, the fact of the matter is, the Republic proclaimed in 1916 was suppressed and defeated and the Free State unfortunately won through in the end. That is not to say our ideological goal has been defeated, but rather the curtains have closed on that particular revolutionary act. Moreover, our struggle occupies a much grander stage, where everyone, Republican or otherwise has their own particular part to play”, and our ability to re-evaluate our position and adapt, instead of clinging to the deeds of others, is a vital trait for the revolutionary movement. And no amount of historical fetishism can negate from that fact. We honour those who came before us by picking up their torch to light the path of our own revolutionary journey. By contesting elections within a strategic and ideological framework, we as socialist-republicans can utilise a powerful weapon which we have used to our advantage many times before. Comrades of the “right calibre” taking seats in any parliament or council, regardless of how regressive the institution, can serve to benefit our cause without fear of being “sell-outs”. However, it is also essential that these comrades do not get too comfortable in their position and lose sight of the part they were chosen to play. TDs expenses, pensions, salaries and the many other perks of the job can potentially lead to some people “settling in”, and shows the necessity for candidates of unquestionable character and commitment in relation to their politics.

The right candidate, the right calibre, the right policies

For any socialist-republican candidate to be successful, whether as part of a larger political/social movement or as an independent activist, they would of course need to be unwavering in their commitment to their ideology. As Costello pointed out, they would need to be of the “right calibre”, and our broad movement is abundant with such people of integrity, commitment and honour. Though I am not advocating running candidates in every election, in every constituency purely for the sake of electioneering and lack of strategy, I am saying the right person, at the right time, with the right vision has the real potential to further our cause.

Anyone who doubts the benefit of having a few elected reps of the right calibre, then bare in mind when a young Bernadette Devlin walked across the floor of West Minister and punched the then British Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, in the face for defending the actions of the British Army’s bloodletting the day prior when they massacred 14 Irish civilians in the Bogside of Derry on Bloody Sunday. Ever the stalwart, when a reporter asked her if she intended to apologise for her actions, her response was that of a true representative of the people who voted for her – “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat”. 

Of course the business of parliaments consists of more than protest actions, but giving our movement and communities a voice within these institutions has proven to be advantageous, as can be seen with the likes of Míchéal Mac Giolla Easbuig in Donegal and Gary Donnelly in Derry, and many other councillors and TDs around the country. This is what I believe Costello was referring to by “guerrilla tactics”, and this is how standing in elections has the potential to benefit our movement. Not careerist politicians or political movements based entirely around electioneering and getting into government, but a few TDs or a few MPs of the right calibre, pursuing the right policies” working to “destroy the confidence of the people in these institutions and bring them tumbling down in ruin”. This is guerrilla parliamentarianism.

A question of tactics, not decree

Although elections are a valuable tactic to engage in when appropriate, they should never be viewed as the go-to option, and the decision to run candidates should be done so from an ideological and strategic vantage point. Election campaigns are extremely costly, not only financially but mentally and emotionally too. Therefore elections should not be contested on the back of an individual’s ego or a false collective sense of worth. Neither should elections be contested purely to give a party or politician a platform and media access otherwise denied to them. Elections should only be contested when the candidate has a real fighting chance of taking a seat and furthering their work in parliament. Otherwise the exhausting nature of election campaigns can deflate a movement’s momentum and leave those not so well seasoned in politics gravely disheartened and dejected should their efforts not prove fruitful. There are many examples of movements here jumping blindly and pre-maturely into elections, only to be almost entirely derailed as a result. We need to learn from these mistakes. 

Elections have always been, and will no doubt remain, contentious topics within republicanism, and our movement has been fragmented many times in the past due to the issue of taking seats in parliaments. Therefore, it safe to say, this is not something that all socialist-republicans will come to an overall agreed view on. But getting the discussion going on the topic is essential nonetheless. I believe I have set down a decent contribution to the argument, which I hope will spark some comradely debate. Conversation is healthy comrades, and all of us should allow room for our own pre-existing ideas to be challenged and further developed.

Contributed to An Spréach ISSUE 2 by Lar Ó Tuama