Obituary: Cathal Goulding

THE DUBLIN playwright Brendan Behan once quipped that at IRA meetings the first item on the agenda was very often "the split". The remark, though meant to raise a smile, aptly sums up much of the career of Cathal Goulding, Behan's old IRA colleague.

Goulding's career included many years as IRA chief of staff, many more seeking to break into politics, and an exotic love-life which included having a son by Behan's widow.

He played a crucial role in Republicanism at the time of the birth of the Provisional IRA in 1969-70. He failed to persuade the hard-faced men of Belfast to follow him into Marxism, watching powerlessly as they instead marched off to fight the war which has cost so many lives in the last three decades.

The course of his career says much of how Republicanism has changed in the last half-century. In 1953 he found himself in a Hertfordshire dock together with the Republican Sean MacStiofain, with whom he later split, getting eight years for stealing a van-load of rifles.

MacStiofain recalled: "Without retiring, the jury found us guilty in a record 90 seconds by the simple procedure of turning to each other and nodding their heads." Even by that stage Goulding was an IRA veteran, he and Behan having joined in the 1930s as schoolboys in short trousers.

The Republican tradition had run for generations in the Dublin working- class Goulding family, his father and grandfather both having rebelled for Ireland. Cathal made his living as a painter and decorator, though it was a career interrupted by a total of 16 years spent in British and Irish jails.

His Hertfordshire escapade meant that he missed most of the IRA's disastrous "border campaign" in the late 1950s and 1960s, which ignominiously fizzled out in the face of overwhelming nationalist apathy. When, in the early 1960s, he became IRA chief of staff, he was leader of an organisation which barely existed.

For Ireland, however, the 1960s were a time of great modernisation and the challenging of long-accepted ideas, and the IRA itself changed. Goulding, linking up with left-wing intellectuals, became attracted to Marxism and concluded it was time to broaden Republicanism's horizons.

Socialism and internationalism, which had always been strains within Republicanism, were elevated above gelignite and the Thompson gun. Goulding later wrote that the IRA changed its slogan from "Get the British troops out of the north" to "Defeat imperialism and capitalism in all of Ireland".

In the heady days of the 1960s the IRA became almost hip. As Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop wrote in their book The Provisional IRA (1987):

In 1969 Goulding was often to be found in the fashionable bars around St Stephen's Green, drinking with writers, musicians and painters, a recognised feature of Dublin bohemia.

His revolutionary style at that time was closer to Berkeley campus and the Rive Gauche than the bogs and backstreets where the IRA tradition was rooted. Critics of his leadership invariably portrayed him as a good but easily influenced man fallen among Marxist highbrows.

The pubs of Dublin were a world away from the grim sectarian realities of Belfast, where August 1969 brought hand-to-hand fighting in the backstreets and the first deaths of the Troubles. Northern Republicans claimed that Goulding had fiddled while Belfast burned, and that what they needed was guns and not quixotic dreams of uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in a new utopia.

It was not long before traditionalists like MacStiofain broke away to form the Provisional IRA and Provisional Sinn Fein, leaving Goulding in charge of a much-depleted organisation which became known as the Official IRA. The Provisionals went on to dominate Republicanism in the north.

Goulding was left with most of the ideas but little of the manpower. He may have been hoping for broad left alliances and a steady move away from the gun and into politics but in the north many of his men were opening fire on soldiers and the RUC. He found himself giving graveside orations over the coffins of Official IRA volunteers, often threatening retaliation for their deaths.

The Official IRA's most spectacular act of violence was also its most inept. This was the attack on the Parachute Regiment's Aldershot headquarters within weeks of "Bloody Sunday" in 1972, when paratroopers had shot dead 14 people in Londonderry. The seven people killed at Aldershot were six members of the domestic staff and a Catholic padre.

During the 1970s the Officials (or "Stickies" as they were nicknamed) killed about 50 people and had around 40 of their members and supporters killed in return. Many of the casualties were caused by outbreaks of vicious feuding with the IRA and other republican groups.

The Official IRA remains in existence, though today it is not so much an openly active terrorist organisation as an armed gang surreptitiously involved in running pubs, clubs and other business enterprises.

In the south of Ireland Cathal Goulding and others moved towards more conventional political activity and the political mainstream. But again there were splits and again he ended up in the smaller faction, so that as his life ended he was attached to a tiny grouping.

His career thus began in the IRA at a time when it was an essentially inconsequential grouping, and ended in a politically inconsequential party. In between, however, he was witness to some formative events with historic consequences for all of Ireland.

David McKittrick

Cathal Goulding, political activist: born Dublin 30 December 1922; married (four sons); died Dublin 26 December 1998.

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