We are in the midst of a decade of centenaries and this year a great deal of attention has been focused on the Irish republican rebellion in Dublin and the Battle of the Somme. This decade will continue through to 2021 and the centenary of Northern Ireland.
However, we are also at the start of a period of 50th anniversaries. We can look back 50 years to 1966, which marked the start of what is generally known as “the Troubles” and which was also the 50th anniversary of 1916. The two anniversaries are not unconnected.
Exactly 50 years ago this month, in August 1966, an article appeared in Tuairisc, the newsletter of the republican Wolfe Tone Societies. These had been set up Cathal Goulding, the IRA chief of staff, and the membership included communists and other Left-wing nationalists, as well as republicans.
They were used as a means of disseminating and developing support for the ideas of the Connolly Association, a front organisation linked to the Communist Party of Great Britain and its guru, Desmond Greaves, an English communist with Irish roots.
Several of his proteges, such as Roy Johnston and Anthony Coughlan, who had been members of the Connolly Association, became leading figures in the Wolfe Tone Societies, where they mingled with members of the IRA.
Coughlan was the author of the article, that set out a strategy to undermine Northern Ireland using a “civil rights” campaign and Johnston became the IRA’s director of education, with a seat on the ‘Army Executive’.
Then, on August 13-14, a secret meeting was held in Maghera in the home of Kevin Agnew, a solicitor and a member of Sinn Fein. It was held under the auspices of the Wolfe Tone Societies and Cathal Goulding and other senior IRA officers were present.
Coughlan was unable to attend, but a paper he had written, an expanded version of the Tuairisc article, was read at the meeting.
Two years were to pass before the first “civil rights” march from Dungannon to Coalisland in August 1968 and that led on to Londonderry and Burntollet, but the secret meeting in Maghera was the seminal event in the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
Later, there were public meetings to establish a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, but it was there in Maghera that the Greaves strategy to undermine Northern Ireland and establish an “all-Ireland Republic” was unveiled and discussed.
The Wolfe Tone Societies had agreed that one of their elderly members, Alec Foster, an eccentric former headmaster of Belfast Royal Academy, should be the chairman of the seminar, a decision that was probably intended to reassure some possible waverers.
Other people at the Maghera meeting included Liam McMillen, the leader of the IRA in Belfast, and Jack Bennett, a member of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland.
Bennett was an interesting character, who worked as a journalist in Belfast.
However, he used the pseudonym ‘Claude Gordon’ when he wrote an anti-unionist column in the Dublin-based Sunday Press and, when he died in 2000, he was described by Sinn Fein as “one of the most incisive political thinkers and commentators of his generation”.
He was from a Protestant background, the son of an RUC officer, but had joined the Communist Party when he was 16. There he fell under the influence of Greaves and joined the Connolly Association, a front for the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Today, we hear much about “the past” and the need to “address the legacy of the past”. Unfortunately, that process has been distorted, to the delight of Sinn Fein, who want a one-sided process that will rewrite the past and erase the guilt of the IRA.
For that reason, we must not allow these 50th anniversaries to pass unnoticed.
Moreover, they help us to understand the often forgotten roles of organisations such as the Communist Party in fomenting a situation that led on to the Troubles.