Century of Endeavour


(c) assorted publishers
(comments to rjtechne at iol dot ie)

These reviews in the mainstream printed literature are presented in chronological order; some more extended and critical reviews in the electronic media are given elsewhere, with my interspersed responses to the critical points. RJ 11/02/2008.

Studies, December 2004

This review was based on the first edition, in which the index contained errors of which the origin turned out to be rooted in innovative publishing software procedures. The reviewer was informed of this. The indexing in the second edition has been corrected and enhanced.

Century of Endeavour. A Biographical and Autobiographical View of the 20th Century in Ireland, by Roy H. W. Johnston, Dublin, Oxford, Bethesda: Academia Press, 2004, pp.576.

The title is somewhat misleading. This interesting and unusual book is an account of a highly individual, highly intelligent parent, Joe Johnston, by his highly individual, and equally intelligent son, Roy H. W. Johnston, who also includes an account of his own unusual career.

Joseph Johnston was born in Co. Tyrone, in 1890, to a Presbyterian family. He attended Trinity College Dublin, where he took degrees in classics and ancient history. His early politics were Liberal, pro Home Rule, with a touch of romantic nationalism. In 1910 he went to Oxford, specialising in ancient history and archaeology. In 1913 he earned a fellowship in Dublin University, and wrote a book critical of Carson and the arming of Orangemen, and of the Tory's support for armed resistance against Home Rule. He obtained an Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship in 1914, with which he embarked on a world tour. The European side of the tour was curtailed by the world war, though he spent some time in France in 1916 engaged in an economic study of French agricultural production. Thereafter, he switched his interest in classics to economics, though he had not studied it formally. After 1916, Joe Johnston appears to have supported a Canadian form of Home Rule, in the context of the 1917 Irish Convention. In the social field he was actively involved in Horace Plunkett's cooperative movement, and especially in promoting consumer-cooperatives.

Subsequently, and into the early 1920s, he popularised the basic ideas of economics, and, in a book entitled Groundwork in Economics, he attempted to relate these to the needs of the cooperative movement. In the 1930s he began to farm for himself to see how it worked from below. Johnston produced a further book on economics and a considerable number of academic articles with a view to a TCD chair in applied economics, which he eventually gained in 1939. He was finally elected to the Senate in 1938. There he both stoutly defended the Protestant contribution to Irish nation building and strongly criticised the economic policies of Mr de Valera. He spoke on a variety of topics, usually against the tide of opinion. Re-elected in 1944, he continued to speak effectively on an even wider range of issues. In the 1950s and 1960s agricultural was his central interest. He was instrumental in getting TCD to develop an honours degree in agriculture. In 1962 he published Why Ireland Needs the Common Market as a sequel to his earlier Irish Agriculture in Transition. After initially favouring accession to the European Economic Community, he was later critical of it. His main point was 'the negative effect of subsidised agriculture in developed countries on the world market accessible to developing countries'. His last book was an annotated edition of Berkeley's Querist. It received little public notice, but for the achievement he was awarded, at the age of 82, the degree of D. Lift. Shortly afterwards, this gifted gad-fly of a man, who displayed the best Presbyterian tradition of public service, died reasonably contented.

His son, Roy H. W. Johnston, was born in 1929. He went to boarding school at St. Columba's, Rathfarnham, Dublin, where he was one of a group that took up Marxism. They received support from a teacher, El Mallalieu, who subsequently became a Labour MP in England. In 1946 Johnston moved to TCD, joined the Promethean Society, which had as it object the re-introduction of Marxist thinking into the labour movement in Ireland. Most members left Ireland. The most prominent member who stayed at home was Justin Keating, who became a Minister in the 1970s coalition led by Liam Cosgrave.

A considerable influence in their Marxist orientation came from C. Desmond Greaves, who, at the time, was researching Irish left-wing politics. The Promethean Society led to the reconstitution of the Students Representative Council (SRC), and the winning of direct elections to that body. The Korean War in 1950, however, brought a right-wing landslide and the end of the SRC until the 1960s. Many members of the Society looked to Eastern Europe for an eye to future development. Keating and Johnston concentrated their attention on Dublin and Ireland. Johnston, as a science student, endeavoured to link his science to his politics, and found help in this regard in the writings of J. D. Bernal. The Promethean Society established links with 1940s IRA and with former members of the International Brigade with a view to setting up an Irish Workers League. It made little headway. Their paper, The Irish Workers' Voice, sold with great difficulty; Johnston experienced hostility as he endeavoured to sell it. 'In retrospect', he observed, 'Our student Marxist group' might be described as 'well-meaning left-wing people with British connections reacting to European politics, oriented towards the USSR, and totally unaware of what was going on in the undergrowth of the emergent Ireland'.

In the 1960s Roy Johnston and his colleagues sought a 'creative fusion' of the Fenian tradition, without its military aspect, and the Marxist 'tradition, without the Stalinist incubus but with emphasis on James Connolly. He found support for such views in Cathal Goulding's Wolfe Tone Societies, which wished to jettison the army council in IRA/Sinn Fein and to transform Sinn Fein into 'a principled all-Ireland party of democratic social reform by constitutional means'. He joined Goulding's headquarters staff. The Wolfe Tone Society, Dublin branch, provided the momentum for the civil rights movement in 1966. The movement was supported by the Republican Clubs. Their commitment to the movement, however, was not sufficiently deep to withstand the militarism of Sean Mac Stiofain once Unionist guns met the movement. The B-Special pogroms in 1969 laid the basis for the emergence of the Provisional IRA - 'which was what the hard-core Unionist leadership wanted'. Civil rights was shattered as a movement, and a call for arms to defend the people gained support from Fianna Fail Ministers, supported by Dublin speculative property-developers.

In 1970 with the split in the movement, Roy Johnston was increasingly marginalized politically, and he increasingly gave his attention to building up an applied-science consultancy business. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, he became interested in devolved regional government, something sought by the Green Party, and encouraged by the Good Friday agreement in the North. At the time of writing, his main concerns are 'the ongoing role of science in society, the crisis in the left, and the perceived need for a "left-green convergence".'

This is a jumble of a book, with the stories of both men inter-mingling, and with a density of detail and technical language likely at times to deter even the dedicated reader. That being said, historians of the period, economists, and anyone interested in the parties of the left, will find much to engross them. The names of numerous prominent left-wing personalities figure in the index. The author was, he admits, very much at fault in a number of his political judgements, but, whatever the reader's political persuasion, it is heartening to read an account of a man following out ideas and ideals to improve society at a time when the horizon of most is bound by self-interest and immediate gain.

Thomas J. Morrissey, S.J.

Reviewed in Fortnight, January 2007, by Richard English

Roy H W Johnston, Century of Endeavour: A Biographical and Autobiographical View of the Twentieth Century in Ireland (Tyndall/Lilliput, 2006)

'If you do not want to understand the twentieth century, read the autobiographies of the self-justifiers, the counsels for their own defence, and of their obverse, the repentant sinners.' So argued the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his memoir Interesting Times - a book which in fact demonstrated that autobiography can prove brilliantly and powerfully insightful. In its own way, Roy Johnston's Century of Endeavour is also a very revealing and valuable book, a kind of dual life of father and son.

The son, and the author, Roy Johnston was born in 1929. A TCD-educated scientist and political activist, he became best known for his role in attempting to draw the 1960s Irish republican movement away from violent conspiratorialism and towards the politics of the more thoughtful left. Johnston's father, Joe Johnston (1890-1972), came from a small-farm County Tyrone Presbyterian background and was a liberal Protestant Home Ruler (and the author of a 1913 volume arguing against forceful unionist opposition to Home Rule). Johnston senior had also been educated at TCD, where he later became a Fellow; he served in the Irish Seanad between the late-1930s and the mid-1950s, became a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1943, and published extensively across a range of subjects.

Century of Endeavour is Roy Johnston's eccentric, fascinating and interwoven tale of these two intriguing lives. It represents a very useful source for historians, and especially so for the 1960s. Too often in historical accounts, 1960s Irish radicals seem to appear out of nowhere and without contextual explanation for their thinking. Johnston's book valuably adds to the layered explanation of what he sought (and why) in his own quixotic, radical quest during the decade of Northern Irish civil rights.

The book locates Johnston within that small but fascinating world of Irish non-Catholics engaged in nationalist Irish movements. It also contains interesting material on the grandfather of Ulster's civil rights initiative, historian Desmond Greaves. Again, Johnston presents 1960s IRA Chief of Staff, the left-leaning Cathal Goulding, as being politically 'somewhat at sea without a compass'; and the author himself displays repeated moments of lucid insight ('It is remarkable how destructive the presence of the gun is to the development of sensible politics').

Roy Johnston describes himself as having mostly been swimming against the dominant twentieth-century Irish Catholic nationalist tide. His projects were, in fact, drowned in it. By the year of his father's death - 1972 - Johnston had witnessed the north of Ireland descend into precisely the kind of sectarian carnage which he had sought to avoid (with 497 people being killed in the Ulster conflict in that year alone).

Indeed, the book has a rather poignant quality to it throughout, as the Johnstons' own civilized preferences seem repeatedly to become thwarted. 'The 1950s on the whole was a black period politically'; 'On the whole the 1969 leadership of the [republican] movement was not in a healthy state, and our failure was inevitable.' And Roy Johnston, an intelligent and sincere radical whose youthful Marxism had been firmly based on James Connolly, eventually witnessed the emergence of an Ireland which was starkly divergent from Connolly's and his own ideals - not to mention the broader international death of the Marxist project as a whole. Even so long-committed a Marxist as Eric Hobsbawm has himself limpidly pointed out that, 'Communism is now dead.' So, too, are immediate hopes of an Ireland in which northern Protestant and Catholic political communities overcome their sectarian divisions. Another century of endeavour may be required for that goal to be attained.

Richard English is the author of Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (Macmillan, 2006).

Irish Democrat, August 2006

This review by Ruan O'Donnell, University of Limerick, has been submitted to the Irish Democrat web-site, and may be subject to editing-down for the print version.

Roy H.W. Johnston, Century of Endeavour, A Biographical & Autobiographical view of the Twentieth Century in Ireland (Tyndall/Lilliput, Dublin, 2006)

Roy Johnston, a prominent and influential figure of the Republican Left in Ireland, requires no introduction for readers of Irish Democrat. After a problematic 'first edition' by Academica/Maunsel in the USA in 2003, Johnston's long awaited magnum opus is finally available in Europe. Lilliput Press, Dublin, deserve commendation for tackling this complicated work of years. It is immediately apparent that Century of endeavour is an unorthodox publication and arguably not strictly a book at all. Johnston has never taken the casual middle path and has consistently, over decades, agitated with purpose and energy for progressive politics.

The first indication that Century will not conform to traditional modes is its striking cover, adorned with images of scientists John Tyndall and John Desmond Bernal, as well as the more familiar portraits of Eamon de Valera and Sean MacBride. This coupling goes beyond standard definitions of eclectic and serves notice that the contents will defy expectations. A single authored biography that is also autobiography is extremely unusual, yet the novelty of this hybrid is surpassed by Johnston's development of a hypertext mode accessed via website and a planned CD-ROM. The hardcopy is the key to an elaborate archive of pertinent primary sources, secondary commentary and useful adjuncts. Further innovation is present in the form of interspersed passages, highlighted by italics, in which Johnston reflects with self-conscious retrospection on his own main narrative. The copious appendices which follow are essentially synoptic essays on the major themes explored in the book. Johnston's vision of information, education and transmission is not simply iconoclastic, it is revolutionary. He is pioneering a format which may well prove the model for the writing of political history and Century should rank as an essential text for no other reason. Unsurprisingly, given the inspirational ambition of this work and the dedication of its author, there are many, many salient reasons for adding Century to a collection.

Johnston clearly had several objectives in writing this book. One was to document the story of his father, Joe Johnston, a Tyrone Presbyterian and a leading Ulster liberal voice on all-Ireland self-determination and economic affairs. Author of Civil War in Ulster and a Senator from 1939-54, Johnston senior was an intriguing and important personality. Roy Johnston's autobiography is interspersed, where appropriate, with the account of his father's life and both progress by installments through the context of the 1900s. The result is a generally chronological dual biography with numerous digressions and anecdotes. This strand of the book counterpoints the author's analysis of a prodigious array of political, social and economic matters. The primary perspective is that of 'left-orientated elements', especially with regard to those grappling with the National Question whilst striving 'to take the gun out of Irish politics'.

The evolution of the Republican Movement during the tenure of Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff is treated with unrivalled insight and few would contend that Johnston's input was anything less than crucial. Chapters seven and eight cover this ground in a manner which Johnston acknowledges falls short of 'rounded history', an approach he defends as being necessary to avoid 'unbalancing' the memoir. Johnston may be correct in his assessment and there is still room for him to revisit this contentious topic in a discreet and fleshed out study. Opinion concerning the processes used by elements within the Irish and British establishments to derail 'political republicanism' in favour of less threatening traditional forms also warrants elaboration. Here, and in other places, Johnston poses questions for future historians. As yet, Johnston's former comrades have not seen fit to contradict his account. Access to the text might have explained this silence in the past but there are now grounds to suspect that many who took the route towards and into the Labour Party would rather not engage.

Detractors may well point to the excessive profusion of abbreviations, certain idiosyncratic narrative forms and structural complexities. These are not criticisms of substance given the scale of the book's achievement. The index, in four parts, fails to provide full coverage of the main text, yet this flaw is symptomatic of the vast scope of the project. The strength of the book is the constant presence of a leading participant who draws upon private archives, records of the Wolfe Tone Society, the diaries of C. Desmond Greaves, Worker's Party documents and many other inaccessible resources. In hard copy and hypertext, Johnston has made a valuable contribution to proving the potential of technology in modern research and writing.

Reviewed in Irish News, May 2007

Writer brings republicanism back to its roots

Opinion By Roy Garland

I find it strange that the 40th anniversary of the founding of the civil rights movement received scant attention in a country renowned for dwelling on the past. It perhaps raises uncomfortable questions but the birth of civil rights was a crucial aspect of our past. One of the people associated with that period is Dr Roy Johnston.

As a leading Young Unionist what fascinated me about Johnston was that a Protestant could end up a leading figure not only in relation to civil rights but within the republican movement. Decades later he followed a path not dissimilar to my own in being drawn to the Society of Friends (Quakers). He felt this was in keeping with a republicanism divorced from nationalism whereas I felt it was compatible with a unionism divorced from ascendancy politics.

Roy Johnston has published his memoirs combined with a record of previous work by his father Joe Johnston, a home ruler who hailed from a small farming Presbyterian background in Tyrone. Roy's work is well documented and outlines, as the title suggests, a Century of Endeavour. It forms a critical resource for anyone seeking to understand the genesis of civil rights and civil conflict here.

Johnston was a physicist and a political activist who - as Thomas McGiolla, a former president of Official Sinn Fein - said, could have been making atom bombs but instead was making revolution. He was central to IRA chief Cathal Goulding's mission to take the gun out of Irish politics and in Johnston's words bring republicanism back to its Protestant roots.

The intended revolution was not now to be violent but rather centred on ideas and, according to McGiolla, Johnston had many ideas. He might have a hundred ideas and they would run with one while he developed another hundred. McGiolla said Johnston stood out in many ways and was of great importance in moving the Republican Movement in support of civil rights. The revolutionary thinking was promoted through conferences that encouraged republicans to act politically and to end abstentionism in order to influence the Dail and Stormont.

After the split they held a 'school' in a cottage at Mornington near Drogheda where at weekends they engaged in intensive discussions to save the politicising process. However, Mornington was impossible to sustain after internment when the drift towards militarism became unstoppable.

Cathal Goulding had known members of 1930s Republican Congress which had also tried to politicise the republican movement. He may have had contact with Protestants who, in the wake of the Belfast outdoor relief demonstrations of 1934, carried a banner at Bodenstown with the slogan 'Break The Connection With Capitalism' in the name of Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Shankill Road Belfast Branch. For their pains, the Shankill men were stoned by Irish nationalists from Tipperary posing as republicans.

According to Johnston, some ex-Curragh internees from the 1940s moved to the political left and rejected the 1956–62 IRA border campaign. Those interned during that campaign also re-examined their approach and garnered ideas from the left having realised that to fight was not necessarily to win.

Most unionists saw the IRA campaign as a futile attempt to undermine Northern Ireland with bombs and bullets. The new approach associated with people like Johnston stirred a more negative reaction partly because the IRA was interpreted as Moscow's agent in the context of the Cold War. Seeking British rights for British people was more subtle and effective but there were fears of subversion in Britain and Ireland with civil rights demands interpreted as IRA propaganda.

Although some Young Unionists were members of the first NICRA executive, leading republicans were also members which increased unionist fears. This context helped to make Roy Johnston's task of rescuing democratic left ideas from 'the dead hand of Stalin' and the republican democratic tradition from 'the dead hand of Fenian militarism' exceedingly difficult. Opposition also came from the British and Irish establishments and crucially from a new militant Provisional IRA encouraged by, among others, elements within Fianna Fail.

Almost 40 years later the Provisional IRA is now politicised and we wonder what the intervening years were all about. Johnston's research of a century's work will remain a valued resource for students of the period for another century and more.

Century of Endeavour: A Biographical & Autobiographical View of the Twentieth Century in Ireland by Roy HW Johnston (Tyndall Press Carlow & Lilliput Press Dublin 2006)


Reviewed in Books Ireland, October 2007, by Carla King

This book represents an ambitious project - a dual biography of a father and son and their interactions with the social, political and economic issues of their day. The range is extensive, touching upon issues such as relations between the Protestant minority and the Catholic majority in independent Ireland; economic development; political change; the role of the academic in the wider society; and Northern Ireland, to mention but a few.

Joe Johnston (1890-1972), was born in Co Tyrone, into a Presbyterian, farming family. Educated at Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford, he began as a classicist but reinvented himself as a political economist, specialising in agriculture, while never completely abandoning his classical interests. In 1913, with hostility to Home Rule reaching fever pitch among many northern Unionists, he published Civil War in Ulster, an argument in favour of Irish Protestants abandoning their opposition and accepting a united Ireland. (It was republished in the UCD Press Classics of Irish History series in 1999). He was also strongly influenced by Horace Plunkett's co-operative movement and the economic policies of the early Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. Indeed, shortly after being made a Fellow of Trinity College, he established a co-operative shop there, which survived until the 1970s.

He was clearly a highly intelligent man, in touch with events and ideas outside Ireland, but also possessing a practical turn of mind, encouraging, for example, recognition of what is now termed 'know-how' as a factor in economic production. In order to test his economic ideas, he became a practical farmer, owning a succession of enterprises in various parts of the country. He was also a populariser of economic ideas and agricultural improvement, frequently engaging in public lectures, which may, as Johnston implies, have discomfited the more isolationist circles of Trinity College in the Thirties and Forties. Johnston senior ran unsuccessfully for the Seanad in 1926 but represented TCD in 1938-43 and 1944-47, and in 1951 De Valera, despite his closeness to Fine Gael and his opposition to Fianna Fail's economic policies in the 1930s, appointed him as a Taoiseach's nominee in 1951.

A further aspect of Joe Johnston's interests was his work on the monetary theories of Bishop Berkeley, particularly as expressed in The Querist. He published various articles in learned journals on the subject and eventually a book, Bishop Berkeley's Querist in Historical Perspective (1970). His son's comment: 'It was his "magnum opus" and it sank without a trace', encapsulates much of the experience of a man who in many respects appears to have been ahead of his time.

Roy Johnston is probably best known in Ireland for two things: his honourable, if unsuccessful efforts to steer the IRA away from their love affair with violence in the 1960s and his Irish Times Science and Technology column in the 1970s. In this account, he traces his own life, from a childhood spent in Dublin and on a succession of farms, to an interest in European affairs while at school, to student politics in Trinity College and the Promethean Society, which attempted to introduce Marxist ideas into the Irish labour movement. While at Trinity, Johnston became increasingly interested in the relationship between science and society, influenced by the ideas of J.D. Bernal, a concern he has retained to this day.

Like his father, he was influenced by developments in France, spending two years in Paris in the early 1950s employed in a high-technology scientific laboratory, after which he returned to Ireland, active in the Left politics in the hostile environment of cold-war Ireland. He casts light on the impact of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and of Czechoslovakia, twelve years later, within left-wing groups in Dublin. His politics clearly told against him in seeking employment in Ireland, coupled with the very underdeveloped scientific infrastructure at the time, which meant that there were few jobs available to scientists at his level of expertise.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is its very detailed account of the attempt, initiated by Cathal Goulding and Johnston, after the fruitless bombing campaign of the 1950s, to draw the IRA and Sinn Fein into Left politics. He documents a convergence, through organisations such as the Wolfe Tone Society, between the Left, in the form of the Connolly Association, Labour Party, Communist Party of Northern Ireland and Irish Association (later Council) for Civil Liberties, on one hand, and the IRA/Sinn Fein on the other. Here he uses a range of primary material, including his own notes, diaries of C. Desmond Greaves, and minutes of various organisations. With the unfolding of events in the North, Goulding & Co. attempted to push for a civil rights agenda, rather than resort to armed combat, and eventually in the face of escalating crisis, the Sinn Fein/IRA organisation split in 1970. By his own assessment he had, 'totally underestimated the strength and persistence of the Fenian "physical force as principle" culture, and likewise the strength and persistence of the loyalist culture of violence on which the maintenance of their hegemony depended,' but continues by observing that 'we must keep trying to identify areas of common ground, and build on them,' (p. 412).

Johnston discusses his involvement politics in the aftermath of the split, after which he left Sinn Fein and the IRA, focusing on issues such as the campaign against Ireland's membership of the EEC; the Communist Party of Ireland; the Labour Party; the Peace Cruise to the USSR in 1988; and his increasing interest in the environmental movement and the Green Party. The book concludes with a list of lessons learned and political suggestions for successors, which could well form the basis for political debates in the future.

There are interesting parallels between father and son, some of which, such as concern with the environment and interest in the co-operative movement, are alluded to by Johnston himself. Others might be the lifelong commitment of each, in different ways, to reform the Ireland of their day and often, too, moral courage in swimming against the tide of popular opinion.

Based on carefully preserved and researched sources and supplemented with supportive material on hypertext, this book will be an invaluable source for historians of modern Ireland. However, it's not an easy read and there are few concessions made to the general reader. At 532 pages of text, in small type, it is long and in places, turgid. It is also tightly tied to a chronological, rather than thematic, organisation of chapters, which leads to an element of repetition. The slightly Victorian-sounding title, 'Century of Endeavour' is apt, as it focuses on the ideas and achievements of father and son, and there is very little characterisation or description of surroundings that one would normally find in a biography.

There is practically no account of their family life, or of the relations between the two men (one wonders what Joe Johnston was like as a father). The structure of the chapters is also unusual, perhaps influenced by Roy Johnston's scientific background, with its clear demarcation between factual material and interspersed comment, set in italics. There is also relatively little explanation of who the political figures of the narrative are. This is all right for readers such as this reviewer, who grew up more or less in this world, but one suspects that those unacquainted with the Left in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s might become totally lost. The book doesn't do itself any favours in terms of accessibility. Nevertheless, it is worth persisting in this account of two remarkable men and their times.

Dr Carla King is in the History department of St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, now part of the DCU complex. In this context she is associated with An Foras Feasa: the Institute for Research in Irish Historical and Cultural Traditions. This is a consortium of four institutions, formally established in 2006, comprising staff from Humanities and Computer Science departments in NUIM, DCU, DKIT and SPCD; it currently has over 70 members. Foras Feasa supports individual and collaborative research projects in the areas of Humanities and Technology, and represents a unique contribution of traditional knowledge and dynamic innovation.

Saothar 2006

Review by Brian Hanley, UCD; my added comments are initalics; RJ.

Century of Endeavour is a joint biography of Roy Johnston and his father Joseph. Joseph Johnston was from Tyrone Presbyterian background, a liberal Home Ruler and author of Civil War in Ulster first published in 1913 (and republished in 1999 by UCD Press). Johnston was later appointed to the Seanad by Fianna Fail and sat as a Senator from 1939-54.

Roy Johnston will probably be somewhat better known to Saothar readers. He became an activist in the communist movement in Dublin in the 1950s before emigrating to London. There he was a trade unionist and member of the Connolly Association. He returned to Ireland in 1963 and is best known for his key role in the shift to the left within the republican movement. As IRA director of education he was a major intellectual influence on the organization's Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding.

As a result of his role in the years of the late 1960s, Johnston was demonized and caricatured in numerous accounts, often lazily described as a 'Stalinist' and even an 'agent of Moscow.' In his own view he was 'aspiring to a creative fusion of the Fenian and Marxist traditions, getting rid of the military aspect of Fenianism, substituting political education and intellectual discipline.' He also claims to have 'tried to get rid of the Stalinist incubus from the Marxist tradition.'

Certainly the documents written by Johnston for the Republican movement during the late 1960s point towards influences more eclectic than simple Moscow line communism, let alone Stalinism. The man widely perceived as his mentor, C Desmond Greaves, comes across, in the quotations from his diary at least, as a dislikable and arrogant character. In contrast to the still widely held view that Johnston was Greaves 'man' in the Republican movement, Greaves was hostile to Johnston's association with the IRA and on one occasion dismissed his ideas as 'Roy's nonsense.'

Greaves was always keen on helping to develop republicanism in political mode, and I tried to do this, in a manner which seemed to me to make sense and perhaps succeed, initially as I thought under his influence, but at the same time decoupling the process from what I perceived as the 'dead hand' of Moscow-dominated Stalinism. Greaves appeared to me also to be critical of the latter. His relationship with the CPGB and with the IWL was complex and in some ways ambiguous; the analysis must await a serious biographic study.

Eventually Johnston left the republican movement in 1972 disillusioned with the Official IRA's military tactics. In a grim conclusion he argues that 'on the whole the 1969 leadership of the movement was not in a healthy state and our failure was inevitable.'

Century of Endeavour is full of valuable source material, much of it fascinating, from the Greaves diaries, Wolfe Tone Society minutes and Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle and Coiste Seasta notes. There is a great deal of information that has never been published before, along with impressions from Johnston himself, former leading IRA figure Mick Ryan and Johnston's close collaborator Anthony Coughlan. It is to be hoped that the records held by the Workers Party of Ireland, from which much of Johnston's material is drawn, will eventually be catalogued and archived and made available to researchers in the future. Unfortunately the book is difficult to follow in parts and would be rather inaccessible to someone unfamiliar with the minute of the 1960s Republican movement.

More substantially, as this book has been the subject of several largely uncritical reviews, from Richard English and Roy Garland among others, I fear there are serious criticisms to made of Johnston's treatment of the key 1968-69 period. There has been a natural tendency in the light of the violence that followed to romanticize the civil rights era and to claim that it was focused primarily on 'British rights for British citizens', was making serious advances in terms of cross-community support, until it was thrown off course by the intervention of the Unionists, 'proto-Provisionals' and the 'ultra-left.'

I would argue to suggest that the 1960s IRA leadership were 'attempting to take the gun out of Irish politics' misunderstands the thinking behind the project of Goulding and his allies. On several occasions Johnston refers to a 'mythical IRA' and given that he naturally rejects the various conspiracy theories about himself he is very willing to ascribe events in the north to Unionist, British and/or Fianna Fail conspiracies.

Goulding's attempt to politicise the IRA was genuine as far as it went, but was fouled up by his perceived need to keep some of the activists on-side in traditional mode. I did my best to counter this, and was not always successful. The 'mythical' nature of the politicising 'IRA' was confirmed by Goulding's total unpreparedness in armed mode for August 1969.

In fact the actions of the Goulding led IRA itself at various stages contributed to the descent towards communal violence in August 1969. The civil rights strategy was explained to IRA volunteers in the north, not in terms of winning British rights for British citizens, but as a way of undermining the Northern state and opening up possibilities for its destruction. It must be acknowledged that the desire to win Protestant workers to both republicanism and the civil rights cause was deeply and genuinely felt by Goulding and his supporters.

The politics of Civil Rights while under British rule was consciously promoted as a stepping-stone in the direction of legalising political republican objectives in the NI political environment. The role of arms in the destruction of the NI State may have been in the minds of some republican club members steeped in the Fenian tradition, but it was not leadership policy.

However the IRA leadership also intended there being a continuing role for the gun. Johnston does not mention the IRA bombing of British army recruiting offices in Belfast and Lisburn in both 1967 and 1968, authorized by the Army Council, of which he was a member. He seems unaware that far from being united in hostility to the Burntollet march of January 1969 (which he depressingly accuses of 'coat trailing') the IRA was both confused and divided on what attitude to take to the marchers.

The politicising republicans on the ground were indeed in two minds how to react to the Burntollet march, but the leadership was supportive of the NICRA position which was to have no marches until we saw to what extent O'Neill was prepared in reality to deliver on his reforms. To march through those Protestant Antrim towns while this was trying to happen was pure ultra-leftist provocation in a delicate situation, and we saw it as disastrous at the time, which indeed it turned out to be.

Republicans took part in the march and armed IRA members defended the marchers as they rested overnight in south Derry....

This would have been local initiative, once people on the ground became aware of the ultra-loyalist threat; it was not the policy of the politicising leaderhip; the latter however was decidedly out of touch, and seriously underestimated the extent of the loyalist sectarian armed threat.

... Johnston also does not seem to realize that in April 1969 after serious police violence in Derry the IRA in Belfast firebombed ten post offices, causing chaos and widespread damage. These attacks were authorized by Liam McMillen, Belfast IRA O/C and founding member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, under orders from Dublin to 'take the pressure off' the Bogside.

The objective of 'drawing police away from Derry' was intended in political terms, but on the ground was interpreted in military terms. This reflected the lack of development of the politicising process.

Shortly afterwards Goulding himself made a public threat that the IRA would shoot RUC officers if they continued attacks on nationalists....

This would appear to be a reference to Goulding's public statement as from the IRA, which I identified in the book as a serious error of judgment; it did however reflect the internal contraditions in his position, having not yet completed the transformation of the IRA into a political movement. It was a vain attempt on his part to keep those who subsequently became 'provisional' under 'official' leadership.

....The IRA's actions in Belfast over the fateful days of 12-15 August 1969 are similarly misunderstood. Johnston seems unaware that again in response to events in Derry the IRA firebombed Springfield Road RUC station, organized a demonstration in order to draw police into an ambush on the Falls and actually did attack the RUC with gunfire in Leeson Street. The first person to be killed in the Belfast violence, Loyalist Herbert Roy, was shot dead by the IRA near Dover Street.

Again this probably was local initiative, according to their lights. The movement in Belfast was the least politically developed of the 'republican club' movment in the North.

The Belfast IRA did not act 'under the influence of [Sean] Mac Stiofain' but under orders from men who were loyal to Goulding, including McMillen and Jim Sullivan. The IRA was also active in Newry and Tyrone, carrying out the same orders, in order to draw police forces from Derry. Johnston asks rhetorically why McMillen and Malachy McGurran were jailed after these events but Mac Stiofain left at large. Perhaps it was because the two men were arrested in a house on the Falls Road in possession of weapons the morning after the worst violence in over thirty years, while Mac Stiofain was resident in Co. Meath?

My understanding was that McGurran, who was the leading politiciser in the North, was arrested with Proinnsias Mac Airt. McMillan remained locally in the lead. Mac Stiofain was at large in the North (from his home base in Navan), nominally acting for Goulding, but in fact laying the basis for the Provisional split, prioritising the armed struggle: that at least was my suggestion, a working hypothesis, in support of my main working hypothesis that the Unionist hard-core Establishment needed the traditional IRA to exist in order to unite the Protestants behind the Unionist State.

Goulding's statement as IRA C/S of August 18 confirmed that the IRA had been active in Belfast and had also sent units on the border. It could only have inflamed tension further in the circumstances but was hardly the work of 'proto-Provisionals' intent on derailing the political strategy.

It was Goulding's misguided attempt to upstage the Provisionals, reflecting the internal contraditions in his own position.

I find Johnston's view that Goulding wanted Catholics in Belfast to be undefended in order to discredit the northern state and force British intervention unconvincing. Johnston argues that at a meeting of the Sinn Fein Coiste Seasta it was decided that if trouble broke out in Derry than a demand be made of 'the government' that the full resources of 'the state' be used in 'defence of the Irish people in the six counties.' Johnston contends that this was a reference to the 'British state.'

The ambiguities of this situation lend themselves to this type of misunderstanding. The leadership tried its best to keep the demand at the level of 'civil rights in the UK', with the national political objective to be achieved subsequently, politically within a 'civil rights' situation, by undermining tribal politics with class politics. We undoubtedly underestimated the difficulty of this task, but Goulding on the whole bought it.

Goulding's statement however makes quite clear that the republican movement were demanding that the Irish Army be sent across the border. He called on the 'Dublin government' to 'immediately use the Irish Army to defend the persecuted people of the six counties.' In fact Goulding warned that if British troops allowed themselves 'to be used to suppress the legitimate demands of the people' then they would 'have to take the consequences.' Possibly the first attack by republicans on British troops in Belfast was actually carried by Goulding's supporters in Sunnyside Street during September 1969, in retaliation for the arrest of republicans.

As indicated above, he was 'riding two horses' in a contradictory position. After the August pogroms it was very difficult to work out any sort of rational response. It was a crazy and unstable situation. There was no time for meetings of the leading group, few if any records were kept. Goulding probably took his own decision, in the light of the situation as he saw it.

Johnston sees the development of the Official republican movement after 1970 as a reversion to 'traditional mode' inspired in part by competition with the Provos. This is only partially true. Rather than being an aberration the Official IRA's actions during the 1970-72 period were a continuation of the IRA leadership's tactics from 1966-69; physical force was to be used to back up popular struggles or retaliate for particular repressive acts. However the tempo of events in the north and the desire of their own volunteers to up the pace of activity made it impossible to sustain this strategy, as did the escalation of violence after internment. Rather than attempting to become a purely political movement however, the majority of the 1960s IRA leadership continued to be wedded to the idea of the 'army of the people' until the mid 1970s at least. Century of Endeavour is an important book and deserves a wide readership but is only one very personal interpretation of these key events.

I never claimed to be able to tell the full story, but we did make an attempt to address the problem of physical force in the political culture; the process however was indeed far from complete. We had got as far as persuading many of the intermediate leadership that if political gains were to be threatened by something like a 'right-wing armed coup', it would be necessary defend political gains with the aid of an 'army of the people'. The situation in the North, dominated as it was by the tradition of the Larne gun-running, presented problems pointing in a military direction. We made the attempt to politicise the situation, and we were foiled by the strength of what I suggest might be labelled the combination of the Larne and the Howth military traditions. It could be argued that origin of the Northern State was in the 1914 armed coup by the Tory-Orange conspiracy against the Liberal Home Rule process. We are still living with the consequences, but the current political situation in the North does begin to suggest opportunities for inclusive all-Ireland political processes, and is to be welcomed. It is a pity it did not emerge at Sunningdale-time, or as a consequence of the O'Neill reforms. RJ 23/02/2008.

Brian Hanley.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 2003