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Mao and The IRA's Chinese Takeaway

The following is a short article I wrote a couple of years ago after a research trip to the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives in Beijing.  It is based on original research.  For those who may be interested I can provide the original source document archive references.  Attribution requested.

UPDATE: On The Cedar Lounge Revolution Blog Brian Hanley has pointed out that the "Moscow was Rome to them" was one of his and Scott Millar's interviewees talking about Irish communists rather than the IRA.  In my defence, however, I did email Brian Hanley while writing the original article for clarification on a number of points, however I never received a reply.

On 16th September 1964 a lone figure knocked at the door of the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Paris. The embassy had only opened earlier that year following President de Gaulle’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and establish them with the Communist government in Beijing. The man at the door handed over a letter of introduction to the junior embassy staffer who had answered his knock. The letter was from the Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army, Cathal Goulding, and requested on his behalf that the letter’s deliverer be received by Ambassador Huang Zhen.

Huang Zhen

This unexpected call from an Irishman would prove to be the first of three such visits by Seamus Costello over the next five months, as part of the IRA’s attempts to procure arms from Mao’s China. The letter requested Chinese assistance in the “Irish struggle against British imperialist rule and to establish a democratic people’s republic” and hoped “China would support [the IRA] in the same way it supported the struggles of Asia and Africa.” Costello claimed to have been sent to establish contact with the Chinese government on behalf of the IRA and to have talks with them on the provision of assistance. Costello’s Chinese interlocutor made no response to his request, but accepted the letter (for which he later be reprimanded and told that under no circumstances in the future should he accept such a communication).

Costello returned to London the next day, and the Chinese embassy cabled Beijing to request that it inform the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires Office in London (Beijing and London had diplomatic relations, but would not exchange ambassadors until 1972) of what had transpired that day in Paris.

If the bona fides of the man from Bray who had turned up unannounced in Paris in early autumn were doubted by the Chinese, when he turned up unannounced at the Chargé d’Affaires' office in London a little over a month later, at least the London staff knew something of whom they were dealing with. However, when Seamus Costello came knocking on their door on 26th October, this time he was not alone, and was accompanied by none other than Cathal Goulding himself. The two men had come to inquire about whether the Chinese government had a response to the request contained in their letter and had hoped, presumably, to carry out talks as had been indicated during the visit in Paris. They had flown over from Ireland specially, they said, and hoped to meet with the Chargé.

Specifically they requested that China provide military assistance to help their anti-British guerrilla war, and hoped that they might be able to send men to Beijing to undergo military training. The low-level diplomat who received them (falsely) denied any knowledge of the letter that had been delivered in Paris, and was noncommittal in his response. Unsurprisingly, the two men were not received by the Chargé and were subsequently sent on their way.

Apparently uncowed by Chinese stonewalling, Costello approached the Chargé’s Office yet again in February 1965, this time calling himself the Adjutant General of the Irish Republican Army. He admitted, however, that because the IRA was an ‘underground’ organization, he used the cover of a car salesman. The Irish people “opposed British control” he told his Chinese contact, and because “China supported the liberation struggles of the world’s peoples, he sincerely hoped to receive Chinese support”, and this time put forward three very specific requests:

1. Chinese help in training for guerrilla warfare
2. Chinese military aid
3. Chinese help in training IRA members in the use of printing presses for the distribution of propaganda materials.

He also requested to see the military attaché, but was told that the Office did not have one. The Chinese did not respond to any of his requests, at which point Costello “expressed his disappointment and left.”


These incidents shed light on the intersection of two very disparate revolutionary movements who professed allegiance to the same ideals, but who found themselves in the mid-1960s moving in opposite directions. As Brian Hanley and Scott Miller have demonstrated in The Lost Revolution, from around 1963 onwards the IRA leadership had begun redefining the movement in the direction of communism. “Moscow was Rome to them”, as Hanley and Millar quote one of their interviewees. Given the antagonistic state of Sino-Soviet relations in 1965 however, marked by polemical allegations by the Chinese of Soviet 'revisionism' and by the Soviets of Chinese 'dogmatism', in this light the approach to China is all the more surprising. It must be concluded on this basis therefore that the approach to China was not out of any sense of ideological solidarity with China's anti-Moscow stance, but on the rather more opportunistic grounds of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. This also then prompts the bigger question of why Mao's China, which would within 18 months be the self-proclaimed capital of the world revolution, shunned participants in what Cathal Goulding and Seamus Costello clearly believed to be part of that same said anti-imperialist global revolution.

The timing of Seamus Costello’s approach to the Chinese embassy was, from the IRA's perspective, unfortunate. Since 1963 there had been a clear leftward shift in China's foreign policy, exemplified by a reversal of China's previously cautious stance towards the burgeoning guerrilla campaign (largely modelled on Mao's doctrine of 'People's War') of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam against the American-supported Ngo Dinh Diem government in Saigon. Although the IRA leadership would clearly have been unaware of Mao's decision in the summer of 1962 to supply the Vietnamese with some 90,000 rifles free-of-charge, they were clearly sufficiently inspired by China's rhetoric to believe that some military support might be forthcoming. What they could not have known,
however, was of a fundamental shift in China's perspective on the global revolution that had begun to take place at some point around the second half of 1964.

"And then the Irishman said..."
Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong, April 1965.



For the earlier part of the 1960s, Mao Zedong's ideological outlook, based on his own brand of dialectical materialism, had declared that
there were four basic 'contradictions' in the world: between the socialist and imperialist camps; between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in capitalist countries; between the oppressed nations and imperialism; and among the capitalist countries themselves. Clearly at least two of these contradictions could be seen as having relevance to the IRA, under the growing influence of socialist thought, and their struggle against 'British imperialism' in Northern Ireland. By early 1965, however, that outlook had changed. China had now begun to see “imperialism headed by the United States” as the principal contradiction in the world and the one, therefore, against which required the greatest struggle.

In 1950 Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and his Fianna Fáil government had been considered 'fascist' by the new communist government in Beijing because of Ireland's neutrality in WW2.



Thus, assistance to anti-imperialist struggles that would result in the establishment of a revolutionary anti-American national polity were given rhetorical prominence. Given what the Chinese knew about Ireland's generally pro-American and deeply Catholic stance in global affairs, even were the IRA to bring about a successful reunification of Ireland, it was probably considered unlikely that they would be successful in overthrowing the capitalist class that ruled Ireland. As a result a united Ireland would certainly not have fitted what China considered to be a revolutionary state. What might have emerged in Ireland would not have been a truly 'national democratic' revolution, designed to purge the country of both foreign imperialism and domestic oppression of the proletariat and peasantry.

While in the late 1960s and early 1970s Peking Review would announce to the world Beijing's support for the civil rights movements in both the United States and Northern Ireland, and hold them up as evidence of a rising tide of domestic anti-imperialism within the 'imperialist camp', China in 1964/5 also had very good, and less lofty, reasons for not wishing to involve itself in the problems of Northern Ireland. For historical reasons, as well as the continued British possession of Hong Kong and its role in essentially anti-PRC groupings such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and activities such as the establishment of Malaysia in 1963 (contrary to the demands of Indonesia's anti-imperialist President Sokarno) Britain was recognised by China as the second-most prominent imperialist power in the world, after the United States.

(Chiang Kai-shek’s (L) Kuomintang (Nationalist) government had been defeated by Mao Zedong’s (R) Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War of 1946-1950 and had fled to the island of Taiwan off the southeast coast of mainland China where it continued (and continues today) as the ‘Republic of China’. Some Western nations such as Sweden and Britain immediately switched diplomatic representation to Mao’s Communist government in Beijing, while others continued to recognise Chiang’s KMT in Taipei as the legitimate government of China. Neither Beijing nor Taipei would permit recognition of both.)



Nonetheless, Britain, unlike many other Western nations (most notably the United States, but also including Ireland) did have diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. General de Gaulle's break with Taiwan in 1964 had also been a major coup for Mao, the fruits of which might be imperiled by overt Chinese support for the IRA: if the IRA, then why not the Corsicans, Basques, Bretons or any other stateless ethnic or linguistic minority in western Europe? At a time when isolating the United States from its western allies had become the main focal point of Chinese attention, driving America's European 'allies' with whom its relations had become increasingly strained over the course of the 1960s back into Washington's arms was not part of Mao's plan. Thus, while the Simba rebels in the Republic of the Congo could expect material and military support from Beijing, revolutionaries who sought the dismemberment of an important western European nation could not.

So while the IRA was moving in a leftward direction in the early to mid-1960s, taking it toward the ground that Beijing had occupied, Mao's China was simultaneously moving yet further leftward in matters of ideology, with the result that anti-Americanism became the benchmark of a true revolutionary struggle. Isolating the United States internationally trumped any temptation that might have existed to strike a blow against Britain, China's oldest and most prominent imperialist aggressor. Unfortunately for Seamus Costello, Cathal Goulding and the IRA, this meant they wouldn't even get the loan of
an oul' printing press.

Chris A. Connolly

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The IRA's Chinese Takeaway by Chris A. Connolly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at http://ww2.ayellowguard.com/maoandtheiraschinesetakeaway/.

Further Reading (if you're interested):

Chen Jian, Mao's China and the Cold War,
(Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2001)

Brian Hanley & Scott Millar, The
Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers'
Party
, (Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2009)

Peter Van Ness, Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy
(Berkeley, University of California Press, 1970)