Union of Soviets in Ireland

Irish student leaders found themselves at the centre of an ideological tug of war from the 1960s onwards.

indepth1In the early 1980s, the congress of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in the history of Irish student politics when a young Joe Duffy accused its leadership of being “a puppet of Moscow”. A swathe of students joined Duffy in a walkout protest, decrying the increasingly pro-Soviet line the union was perceived to have developed over the preceding decade. The protest focused a lot of media attention on the USI, and many journalists were bewildered by what appeared to be a Soviet infiltration of an Irish student organisation.

Support for GDR and USSR

Looking at the USI’s resolutions for one year in the 1970s, one can immediately identify with their confusion. In 1975, the USI was so enthused by the East German regime that it resolved to “congratulate the GDR on its entry into the United Nations.” Clearly dismayed by the negative press image those irascible western journalists had been giving the Soviet Union, the USI decided to affirm that “the USSR is not an imperialist nation” and, just to stick it to the naysayers, put it on record that “anti-imperialist struggles across the world would have been much more difficult without aid from the USSR.”

Why was an umbrella organisation for students on a soggy island northwest of the continent engaging with international concerns? More pressingly, why were they doing so from the perspective of the Soviet Politburo? This astounding sequence in the history of Irish student politics is intimately tied to the wave of radicalism that swept the European continent during the sixties, radicalising the Irish Republican movement and many Irish students. Several groups and individuals associated with this telling moment in the USI’s history emerged from radical groups incubated within Trinity.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States fought an almost imperceptible battle through the proxy of international cultural movements. As the East bloc opened up in the twilight years of Soviet communism, it came to light that a number of organisations had become infiltrated by both sides to craft them in the image of their masters.

Allegations began to surface from western intelligence groups that a number of associations had been manipulated by Soviet agents, such as the Pugwash Conferences and the Esperanto Peace Movement, in order to convert them into organs of propaganda. With these revelations, public attention soon turned to the International Union of Students, a worldwide association of university student organisations that had originated in the hopeful atmosphere of international cooperation following the Second World War. Formed in Czechoslovakia and largely made up of student bodies in nations under Soviet influence, the IUS appeared to have been conceived independently of the Communist project.

However, when the United States saw the organisation emerging beyond their sphere of influence they funded the establishment of a rival group based in the Hague, the International Student’s Conference. As a counterreaction, the Soviets targeted IUS and dominated the group with relative ease during the early 1960s. In 1968, the USI held a vote on whether they should affiliate with the IUS or the ISC. In its essence, the vote decided which Cold War front the USI would align with. The Irish students of the 1960s, often portrayed as a conservative throng drenched in holy water to make themselves immune from the radical currents and bohemian ways of the continent, chose the IUS.


To explain this decision, which passed almost unanimously, one must look to the ‘Stickies’, a small but highly influential splinter group from Sinn Fein also known as the Worker’s Party, a political branch of the Official IRA. Many historians have claimed the Stickies received official recognition from the USSR to pursue Soviet-style communism in Ireland. The name ‘Stickies’ came from the adhesive they used to pin Easter Lilies to their clothing which distinguished them from the Provisionals, who used a metal pin.

The Stickies had a concerted campaign to influence the USI, noting early on that the 55,000 strong student community could provide an easily manipulated yet nationally respected platform from which to preach their Marxist revolution. Republican Clubs were set up in universities to recruit left leaning students for the movement.

Trinity would defy the Unionist stereotype and become the first Irish university to officially recognise one of these clubs. Of the seven TCD representatives that voted in the 1968 affiliation vote, six voted for IUS, all of them members of the Republican club.The group had an earlier precedent in the ‘Promethean Society’, an intensely cerebral circle of Trinity undergrads who met weekly in House 36 throughout the 1950s to discuss Marxism in Ireland.

A young Eamon Gilmore even got to attend a summer camp in Cuba as a result of the USI’s stance.

Stickie influence is clear to see in the anti-colonial resolutions mentioned above, that sought to echo out into the wider world. Yet the resolutions were not the only international aspect of the USI’s engagement with the anti-imperial struggle. USI delegates appeared throughout the seventies in a series of locations marked either by their postcolonial turmoil or Stalinist sympathies, such as Romania and Vietnam. A young Eamon Gilmore even got to attend a summer camp in Cuba as a result of the USI’s stance.

These trips were fully funded by IUS (read: the Soviet Union).  Cathal, a former UCC representative, can recall being awoken one night in the late seventies by a surreal phone call from the USI president, Liam Whitelaw:

“He asked me if I was prepared to accept a nomination to represent USI at an international conference.” This was the first time Cathal had heard of the conference and immediately asked where they intended on sending him: “Iraq, Liam told me, but added as reassurance that it was fully funded by the IUS.”

A group of radical Iraqi students had established an IUS branch in the Middle Eastern state and where on the hunt for international solidarity. The IUS, almost certainly using Soviet kopeks, was funding students from across the globe to go out and support them. “I was certain that this was an attempt being made by the Stickies to win me over and I categorically refused.”

Cathal noted “in hindsight Whitelaw was sincere, and I denied myself a free trip to Iraq.” Perhaps, the fact that most uniquely demonstrates the peculiarities of the scenario is this: for eleven years a Trinity graduate was made USI’s permanent representative to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia.

Trinity radicalism

Trinity proved particularly prolific in providing revolutionary USI delegates, though it would also give rise to their tireless opponent: the self-described ‘radical Catholic’ Joe Duffy. Opposition to the Soviet influence of the USI occurred as early as 1976, when a motion to condemn repression in the Eastern Bloc was shot down.

Upon election as education officer in 1980, Joe Duffy managed to herald a period of USI perestroika, though he would still need to contend with the peculiarities of the USI president Brendan Donlon, an ardent devotee of Mao Tse Tung’s revolutionary teachings.

Cathal noted that Donlon would often perform astounding feats of ideological acrobatics to balance USI mandates and Maoist dialectics: “When he found out I was gay he told me ‘Cathal, we support your struggle for rights at this juncture, but don’t you realise your sexuality will cease existing when the revolution comes? Homosexuality is, after all, an aberration of modern capitalism.’”

Originating largely from Trinity and DIT Bolton Street, Ireland’s Maoist ideologues believed that only two governments truly held the potential to liberate their people: Mao Tse Tung’s China and Enver Hoxha’s Albania. The moment for a broad based peasant insurrection in Ireland had long passed, but this didn’t stop the agrarian revolutionaries from getting into violent altercations with Limerick Street preachers and complaining to the Junior Dean when copies of Mao’s teachings were burned outside of Front Gate.

David Norris can recall one particular science student who would verbally assault the campus bourgeoisie: “He used to stand on the steps of the Dining Hall brandishing his Little Red Book denouncing myself and others, shouting ‘There goes Norris, the counter-revolutionary lackey!’ I loved it, really. I almost got up and joined him.”

The Stickies retained a residual grasp on student politics into the early nineties but Maoism withered away within years of its development. It became an embarrassing chapter in the lives of a generation of Trinity graduates, many of whom saw their revolutionary fervour redirected into upper middle class careers far removed from the fulfilling proletarian lifestyle they had once envisioned.

The USI disaffiliated itself from its Cold War battle along a similar timeline. The true extent of this story cannot yet be told as the USI archives remain closed to the public. An enquiry into when researchers might be able to peek inside this treasure trove of incidental Stalinism resulted in the unfortunate but telling typo: “We hope to have them open by 3016.”

This moment in the USI’s history evidences a broader and current issue. Students will always be targeted by groups wishing to promote everything from a product to a viewpoint, sometimes even agendas that would normally be anathema to the broader student populace. One instance of this is the recent Tomorrow’s Leaders conference held in Trinity. Many of those who attended lauded the statements of its principal figure Elie Wiesel with regard to the undeniably important task of remembering the crimes of the past.

However, in doing so, the same students, many of whom would come to proliferate their Facebook timelines over the summer with statuses decrying Israel’s actions in Gaza, elided the statements made by Wiesel denouncing the Palestinian people’s national aspirations. One attendee later noted that “to see Professor Wiesel make those statements was a rude awakening, I couldn’t see how he reconciled that position with his experiences and his writing, nor how I had allowed myself to become propaganda for this type of organisation.” Those who attended undoubtedly did so with the best of intentions, but it may be the case that other agendas sought to utilise these intentions.

One of the most laudable functions of the university as an institution is to promote issues that the rest of society takes some time to catch up with, yet this function must be bolstered by critical thought. Student movements must look to the mistakes of the past to avoid contradicting inherently progressive ideals. USI’s brief foray into the international project of Soviet communism is one such didactic moment that warrants our attention.

Pictured: Joe Duffy, then USI’s education officer, addresses students at a protest at the GPO (Student Movement Research Project, Irish Social Change Archive, DCU)