After the defeat of the Fenian uprising in 1867, the opposition to British rule in Ireland mainly came through the Land League and Parnell’s leadership of the Irish (Home Rule) Party in the British House of Commons. The last years of the 1870s saw bad harvests in Ireland and famine soon threatened again. The peasantry organised in Michael Davitt’s Land League resisted evictions and seized land from the landlords - the land war had begun. They were supported by the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had secretly reorganised in 1873. Parnell became President of the Land League, so reinforcing his parliamentary campaign and ‘obstruction’ tactics in the House of Commons with the implied threat of a resort to violence if efforts to obtain Home Rule should fail. The Irish Party also held the balance of power between the Liberal and Conservative Parties, so the Irish question could not be pushed aside.

Gladstone’s response to this was typical of the British ruling class - coercion mixed with partial reform. Exactly the policy the British ruling class were to adopt in our own period in the early 1970s when faced with a resurgence of revolutionary nationalism in Ireland. It was designed to crush the revolutionary wing of the movement and bring closer to British policy the reformist wing.

In August 1881 a conciliatory Land Act was passed giving some fixity of tenure to the Irish peasantry and creating Land Courts for establishing fair rents but falling far short of the demands of the Land League. In October 1881 the Land League was proclaimed illegal, meetings were broken up by the police, habeas corpus was suspended and over 1,000 people were imprisoned including Davitt and Parnell.

In 1882 a deal was concluded between Gladstone and Parnell for a ‘peaceful’ settlement of the land question through improvements to the Act and a repeal of the Coercion Act then in force. The political prisoners were released. Soon after, the new Chief Secretary and the Under-Secretary for Ireland were assassinated in Phoenix Park, Dublin. The Crimes Act 1882 was passed which more or less introduced martial law again in Ireland -this was the fifty-seventh Special Act dealing with Irish resistance to British rule since the Act of Union in 1801. And so it went on.

In 1886 Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill, a concession forced out of the British government by the revolutionary land war, was introduced into parliament offering the Irish limited self-government. It was defeated by an alliance of Liberal Unionists and the Conservative Party, backed by the promised use of violent resistance to Home Rule, by the Orange Lodges of Belfast. The latter were given great encouragement by none other than Lord Randolph Churchill of the Conservative Party. New elections saw the Conservative Party come to power.

The activities of the Land League continued and a perpetual Coercion Act -the Crimes Act 1887- was introduced. Five thousand people were charged under the Act in 3 years. Parnell died in 1891. A new Home Rule Bill was introduced by Gladstone in 1893 but was defeated by the veto of the House of Lords. Gladstone retired in 1894 and the issue of Home Rule in the British Parliament retreated into the background.

The Land Act 1903 offered a Government loan to tenant-farmers to buy their land and to repay the government over a period of, in the main, less than 70 years. As Lenin pointed out, the Liberals’ ‘system of land-purchase at a “fair” price’ means that the tenant-farmer will continue to pay for many years ‘millions upon millions to the British landlords as a reward for their having robbed him for centuries and reduced him to a state of chronic starvation’.1 As a result of the Land Acts the land question ceased to be the dominant issue. It became one component among others in the struggle which was to build up over the next 15 years - that of a fight for an Irish Republic. In this period a new force - the Irish working class - was to take up the struggle.


The debates in the First International had already shown that many of the leaders of the English trade-unions were not prepared to criticise Gladstone and the Liberals for their policy on Ireland. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the trade-union and labour leaders drew even closer to the Liberals standing as Liberal candidates and supporting Liberal policy. Even in 1906, 25 out of 29 constituencies won by the newly formed Labour Party were won with the help of the Liberals.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the new Unions of unskilled workers. They had been founded and promoted by Socialists in conditions when faith in the capitalist system was being severely shaken. They began to challenge the domination over the labour movement of the Liberal-Labour leadership of the old aristocratic unions. The next 20 years would see this struggle take place. The Irish question decisively influenced its outcome.

At the Paris Congress of the Second International (1900) Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (founded in 1896) achieved separate representation for Ireland in the face of opposition from the British delegates. The latter argued that Ireland was not an independent country, but part of Great Britain. At the Congress the Irish delegation gave the British a further lesson in revolutionary socialism by being one of the two delegations totally opposed to socialists entering bourgeois governments. Connolly, unable to attend the Congress, fully supported the Irish delegation’s stand.2 The ISRP unfortunately had little influence at that time in Ireland but it began the struggle to unite the cause of Irish Labour with national independence.

The Irish TUC (1894) was formed at a time when British unions were still predominant in organising Irish workers and British parties like the Independent Labour Party and the Fabians had a few branches in Ireland, especially in Dublin and Belfast. However, from 1907 onwards the process of Irish workers joining the British amalgamated unions began to receive a succession of major jolts as ‘New Unionism’ raised its head in Ireland. James Larkin was at the centre of this process.3

Larkin was born in Liverpool of Irish parents in 1876. He had to earn his living at the age of 11. By 16 he was a member of the Independent Labour Party and a socialist. During the Boer War he was arrested and fined several times for his street-corner denunciations of the War as a ‘jingo-imperialist venture’. In 1901 he joined the National Union of Dock Workers and soon after leading a strike in 1905 he was elected to be the Union’s general organiser. It was in that capacity that Larkin first went to Ireland in 1907 on an organisation drive for his Union.

Larkin very soon after arriving in Ireland set about organising the dock workers in Belfast (1907), Dublin (1908) and Cork (1909) in the Union. In Belfast in 1907 he led a bitter and violent strike when fifty English dockers imported through the Shipping Federation to Belfast were being used to smash the Union. During the strike troops fired on workers in the Catholic Falls Road area killing three and injuring many others. The employers and the authorities tried to sow divisions between the Catholic and Protestant workers, using the fact that Larkin was a Catholic, but due to Larkin’s efforts, they did not succeed. The strike eventually went to arbitration with the dockers, although organised, having to go back on not very satisfactory terms. Nevertheless in managing to unite Protestant and Catholic workers in organising the docks in Belfast, Larkin’s achievement, while not to be durable in the long run, was remarkable.

John Maclean, the Scottish revolutionary socialist, who on the invitation of Larkin had been in Belfast for a few days during the strike, on his return to Scotland, wrote articles defending the strikers and accusing the Liberal Government of murder. He was attacked by Philip Snowden, that vile reactionary Labour MP, who had defended the Government’s ‘employment of the military to quell disorder’.4 The Socialist, the paper of the Socialist Labour Party -a left -wing split from the Social Democratic Federation -also took up the defence of the strikers, and in particular attacked the Labour MPs in parliament. ‘Beyond asking a couple of questions, they did nothing…From Shackleton to Will Thorne they have become accomplices of capitalist murder’.5 Just like the Labour MPs on Ireland today. Already the divide in the British labour movement on Ireland was becoming clear.

Larkin now concentrated his energies in organising the dockers in Dublin. In 1908 he was involved in another series of bitter strikes, with the employers again attempting to smash the Union. During this period Larkin increasingly clashed with Union Headquarters. On one occasion, the Union leadership in England settled a dispute over his head. Sexton, General Secretary of the Union, was bitterly opposed to Larkin’s activities and, particularly, the sympathetic strike. The dispute soon came to a head. In 1908 Larkin appealed for assistance. Sexton sent a postcard saying ‘Stew in your own juice’.6 When Larkin warned the Executive who were intent on holding his work back that ‘there was a movement on foot for organising the whole of unskilled labour in Ireland’,7 Sexton’s reply was to notify Larkin and all the Union branches of his suspension from the Union on 7 December 1908. Larkin’s reply was to form the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) decisively separating from the reactionary leadership of Sexton and Co.

The ITGWU, in its rule book, announced an end to the ‘policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trade Union Movement’. The Union was unique in many respects. It embodied a political programme which included nationalisation of all means of transport, the legal eight hours-day, provision of work for all unemployed and ‘the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’.8 It declared its dedication to the organisation into one union of all workers - skilled and unskilled - in an industry. It argued for the use of boycotts and sympathetic strike action (a revolutionary position for trade-unions) to achieve its ends. In 1911 James Connolly, having returned from America, became the Belfast Secretary of the ITGWU. So an Irish union, having broken with the English trade-union traditions, born out of bitter struggles against the capitalist class in Ireland was now led by two revolutionary socialists - James Larkin and James Connolly.

The revolutionary potential of the British trade-union and labour movement was now to be gauged by its attitude and support for the ITGWU.


By 1911, the ITGWU had established such an organisation amongst unskilled workers in Dublin that the employers had set up their own federation to combat it. In August 1913, William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company and the Irish Independent Group of Newspapers, took the initiative in the effort of the Dublin employers to smash the ITGWU. He told the workers in the dispatch department of his newspaper company that they must resign from the Union and sign an assurance they would not strike or they would be dismissed from the company. The Union put pickets on retailers selling Murphy’s paper the Irish Independent. The ITGWU members were locked out on 26 August. 700 workers from Murphy’s Tramways Company walked off their trams leaving them wherever they happened to be. Murphy called a meeting of the Dublin Employers Federation and on 3 September 400 employers agreed to lock out all their workers. By 22 September 25,000 workers had been locked out, involving, with their families, one third of the population of Dublin. If the same proportion of workers were locked out in London today, there would be about three quarters of a million locked out.

A meeting in support of the locked out men and the strikers was called for Sunday 31 August in O’Connell Street. It was to be addressed by Larkin. Rumours suggested that the meeting would be banned. On the Thursday, 28 August, Larkin and other ITGWU officials were arrested for seditious libel and seditious conspiracy. They were released on bail on the understanding they would not break the law while awaiting trial. On the Friday the meeting was banned by proclamation. That evening Larkin burnt the ‘Proclamation of the King’ in front of a crowd of 10,000 people at Beresford Place. Announcing that ‘People make Kings and people can unmake them’ he said that ‘we will meet in O’Connell Street, and if the police and soldiers stop the meeting let them take the responsibility’.9 Another warrant was put out for Larkin’s arrest. Larkin, however, turned up in disguise on the balcony of a hotel (owned by Murphy) in O’Connell Street at the time of the meeting. After he started to speak to the crowd he was immediately arrested. Soon after, the police indiscriminately baton charged the crowd and the result was yet another Bloody Sunday in Ireland’s history. Two men were killed over the weekend of Bloody Sunday and hundreds were injured.

Connolly was also arrested with Larkin. Connolly refused to recognise the court and was sentenced to three months. He was released after a week’s hunger strike. Larkin was released on bail on 12 September and decided to leave for England and Scotland to appeal for support.

The support of the British trade-union movement for the strike was to be critical. At its 1 September Congress the British TUC could not avoid discussing the Dublin events. In the debate James Sexton called for support, ‘black as James Larkin might be, and James Connolly too’10 Very useful! The Congress did not vote support for the strike. It simply condemned the conduct of the Dublin police and decided to send a delegation to investigate the situation there. A motion demanding the release of Larkin and Connolly and calling for finance for the strikers was not put to the vote. ‘Revolutionary speeches’ were made by Ben Tillett and Robert Smillie, but this couldn’t help the strikers.

While the TUC delegation was in Dublin it spent a great part of its time trying to patch up a dirty compromise with the employers. But the employers refused to comply, no doubt confident in the knowledge that if the TUC hadn’t acted at the beginning of the strike they had little to fear. In contrast, the strength of the Dublin workers was demonstrated on 3 September when 50,000 workers marched behind the coffin of James Nolan, one of the workers murdered by the police. The funeral procession was guarded by ITGWU squads bearing make - shift arms - an embryo of the Irish Citizen Army formed the following month as an armed workers defence force against the attacks of police and scab workers. The Dublin police kept out of sight.

Soon the number of workers on strike or locked out grew. The British TUC began to send money and foodstuffs to Dublin. The Miners Federation voted to give £1,000 a week and various Labour newspapers opened subscription lists. But the bulk of this aid did not come until late September. Although the money and foodships were vital to workers whom the employers were trying to starve back to work, they could not take the place of solidarity action.

While the British TUC was as afraid of the ITGWU as the Dublin employers, the rank and file responded quickly to the example of the Dublin workers. The Liverpool railwaymen went out on strike on 9 September and began real solidarity action, which the Executive of the National Union of Railwaymen and the British TUC did their best to destroy. 3,000 in Liverpool came out one day, followed by 4,000 in Birmingham the next day. Transport strikes took place in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. NUR officials led by J H Thomas were trying everything they could to get the workers back. (Eventually, they did succeed.) The strike spread to other parts of the country. The rank and file wanted a national strike. The British TUC responded by announcing a fund and the first of the foodships for the strikers. The revolutionary socialist Sylvia Pankhurst’s comments were well placed when she said:

‘In the long-drawn misery of the Dublin lock-out its victims pleaded vainly for sympathetic action by British transport workers, and received instead a “food ship” from the Trade Union Congress - a mere handful of crumbs in the vast desert of their need’.11

When, at the end of October, the Dublin Strike Committee appealed for direct financial aid, the British TUC sent £2,000 to be distributed only to affiliated unions. As the ITGWU was not affiliated to the British TUC it was not able to have any of this money.12

On 27 October, Larkin’s trial was held and he was sentenced to seven months in jail. On the following Sunday a gigantic meeting took place in the Albert Hall in London to protest against Larkin’s sentence. Sylvia Pankhurst defied arrest to speak at this meeting in support of Larkin. Connolly called on everyone to work and vote against the Liberal Government until Larkin was free. Public opinion and the by- election results soon had the desired effect as the Liberals lost votes. Larkin was freed after only 17 days in gaol.

Larkin then launched his ‘fiery cross’ campaign of public meetings in England, Scotland and Wales. 5,000 heard him speak in the Manchester Free Trade Hall with 20,000 waiting, outside. The workers called for national strike action. A few days later, mid-November, the British TUC decided to call a special Congress on the Dublin lock out for 9 December in order to head off the pressure of the rank-and-file workers for national strike action. Larkin addressed a massive meeting in the Albert Hall the next evening -10,000 inside and 15,000 waiting outside. George Lansbury, Editor of the Daily Herald, and other socialists denounced the Labour Party and the reactionary trade union officials for their inaction.

A few days later Larkin decided to go over the heads of the trade-union leaders and appeal to the rank-and-file. He told them through a manifesto printed in the Daily Herald to tell their leaders ‘for the future they must stand for Trade Unionism’ and ‘that they are not there as apologists for the shortcomings of the capitalist system’.13 Larkin had issued a revolutionary appeal to the British workers to split from their treacherous leaders and unite with the Dublin workers. Attacks on Larkin now began. J H Wilson, head of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, issued a manifesto denouncing Larkin and the methods of the Transport Union in Dublin. Larkin was soon to reply. He told a massive meeting in London in referring to J H Wilson and Philip Snowden that ‘I am not going to allow these serpents to raise their foul heads and spit out their poison any longer’. He denounced the union leaders and the Labour Party for failing to support the strike. J H Thomas was particularly singled out for forcing rank and file railwaymen back to work.

The 9 December British TUC Congress took place. Connolly presented the Irish case for holding out. Then, to everyone’s amazement, Ben Tillett moved a resolution condemning Larkin’s unfair attacks on British trade union officials. He was then considered one of the most militant trade unionists in Britain and had only a few weeks earlier stood on platforms with Larkin calling for armed worker squads. He went on to ask the Congress to affirm its confidence in the ability of these officials to negotiate an honourable settlement. Armed squads were one thing. Attacking the leadership of the trade union movement quite another. Larkin confronted Tillett with a choice: stand with the masses, with Larkin and against his fellow trade union leaders, or desert the workers and go over to the other side. Tillett went over. When the First Imperialist War broke out nine months later Tillett became a recruiting sergeant for imperialism.

Speaker after speaker got up and condemned Larkin. He was finally called on to reply. He began, ‘Mr Chairman and human beings’, and amidst continual uproar he denounced those leaders who had betrayed the strike. He told them the Dublin workers would struggle on to the end. The Congress offered nothing. After all it had only been called to stave off the pressure of the rank-and-file.14

The strike was eventually lost. Without British TUC support it could not be won. It revealed, as events in Britain were later to show and Ben Tillett’s sell-out conclusively proved, that the revolutionary trends in the British working class were not strong enough to defeat the opportunist leadership of the British labour movement. Opportunism had triumphed.

The opportunist leaders of the British labour movement and the employers of Dublin certainly were in agreement on one vital thing. As William Martin Murphy so clearly said about his stand:

‘It is not a question of ah attack on trade unionism at all. I have been in business for nearly fifty years, and I have never before known anything like Larkinism. It is not trade unionism in the ordinary sense at all.’15

The Secretary of the Engineering Employers’ Federation made the same point.

‘A victory for the syndicalist leaders there would be disastrous for the employers not only in Dublin, but throughout the United Kingdom.’16

The revolutionary unionism of the Dublin working class had shown the way. Larkin instinctively followed what Lenin was later to call ‘the essence of Marxist tactics’.17 He went deeper and lower into the masses. The ITGWU represented the organisation of the unskilled Irish workers and exposed to the world their revolutionary strength and courage. The democracy of the ITGWU was firmly based on the masses, its organising principle proletarian solidarity. It created the first armed workers’ militia - the Irish Citizen Army. It later opposed the imperialist war. It spurned ‘respectability’, ‘compromise’ and ‘moderation’. The ITGWU had only one measure for its actions: the needs of the working masses. Little wonder that British imperialism, the Dublin employers and the British trade union leaders hated it.

In the years just before the lock-out the British working class had demonstrated its ability to fight in a series of bitter strikes - the transport strikes of 1911 land 1912, and the miners’ strikes of 1912. But in 1913 it could not rise to the challenge of Dublin’s revolutionary lead. The British working class had proved unable to prevent its leaders selling out the revolutionary Irish. As a result those same leaders were able to draw the British working class into support for the imperialist war and so lead it to political defeat. The same leaders were to betray the struggles of the British working class right up to the defeat of the General Strike.

The defeat of the Dublin workers had established one essential point. The Irish working class could only free itself as part of a revolutionary national struggle to separate Ireland from Britain. Behind the Dublin capitalists lay British imperialism and its agents in the British working class.

The lock-out had, however, also exposed the fundamentally reactionary character of the Irish (Home-Rule) Party. During the lock-out the Redmondite Nationalist newspaper Freeman’s Journal had sided with the employers, most of whom anyway were members and supporters of the Home-Rule Party. William Martin Murphy was in fact a millionaire former Nationalist MP.

The bourgeois character of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein was also exposed. Griffith had always attacked Larkin as an ‘English trade unionist’. He defended the Dublin employers.

‘Not the capitalist but the policy of Larkin had raised the prise of food until the poorest in Dublin are in a state of semi-famine ...’18

During the lock-out the attitude of the British TUC in substituting food-ships for solidarity action played straight into Griffith’s hand. He rightly regarded the food-ships as an insult and declared ‘when the Irish brother Goes Out the English Stays In’. The action of the TUC confirmed Griffith’s long held position that ‘whether the English call themselves Liberals or Tories, Imperialists or Socialists - they are always the English’.19

The revolutionary wing of the Republican movement, however, stood by the workers. The seven men who were to sign the 1916 Proclamation in fact sympathised with the workers.20 During the lock-out Irish Freedom said, in attacking the employers,

‘The cause of Irish liberty is more the cause of the people than the plutocrats, and the new Ireland we work for will not be governed by money-bags.’21

In the lock-out the alliance of the working class and the revolutionary wing of Republicanism came into existence. The strike was lost, but the ITGWU and the loyalty of the workers to trade unionism still remained. Further, the Irish workers possessed the Irish Citizen Army which in March 1914 proclaimed:

‘that the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.’

And that one of the principal objects of the Irish Citizen Army was ‘to arm and train all Irishmen capable of bearing arms to enforce and defend its first principle’.22 The Irish Citizen Army was to join with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the next stage of the struggle - that for an Irish Republic. This alliance led by Connolly and Pearse was to carry out the Easter Rising.


The General Election of December 1910 created a parliament in which 84 Irish (Home-Rule) Party members held the balance of power between the Liberal/Labour majority and the Conservative opposition. In August 1911 an act was passed limiting the veto of the House of Lords, so removing one major obstacle to the passage of a Home-Rule Bill. The Liberal government was forced, through pressure from the Irish Party, to introduce a Bill in April 1912 to give a very limited measure of Home Rule to Ireland. In this Bill, the British Parliament retained the sole right to make laws connected with foreign relations, defence and external trade. It retained full control over taxation. It held the power to alter or repeal any Act of the proposed Irish Parliament. While Redmond’s Irish Party enthusiastically supported the Bill, many sections of the national movement denounced it.

The Ulster Unionists began a militant campaign against the Bill. They made it clear that they would ignore the British Parliament and would take over the Province of Ulster instantly Home Rule came into force. The leadership of this rebellion fell to Sir Edward Carson. Preparations for armed resistance to the British Parliament began. Following the precedent of 1886, Ulster Unionist thugs demonstrated against Home Rule by attacks upon Catholics. On 12 July 1912 two thousand Catholic workmen were driven out of the Belfast shipyards.

Under Carson’s leadership, Unionist paramilitary forces, the Ulster Volunteers, began training openly in the use of arms. Carson repeatedly said that he didn’t ‘care two pence whether it was treason or not’. He knew he could get away with it. After all, Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative Party, in July 1912 in a speech at Blenheim in England in the presence of Carson had said:

‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities. I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them…’23

Although Asquith, leader of the Liberal Party, described this as a ‘declaration of war against Constitutional Government’, he took no action against those involved. On 28 September, Carson’s infamous Covenant was drawn up which said that if Home Rule was ‘forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority’. It was signed by nearly half a million Ulster men and women. In December 1912 all those men who had signed it were asked to enrol for either political or military service against Home Rule. The aim was to get an armed force of some 100,000 men. The Liberal Government took no action against Carson.24

All through 1913 arms were imported into Ulster for use by Carson’s volunteers. Ex-officers and reserve officers of the British Army offered their services to train the volunteers. During March, orders were sent, by the Government to the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in Ireland, General Gough, to move troops from the Curragh camp in the South to Ulster to protect arms depots which it thought were to be raided by the Ulster Volunteers. General Gough and other officers from the British Army said they would resign their commissions rather than serve against Ulster Unionists. The officer class of the army had mutinied. The Liberals refused to take action against them. The army officers had, after all, close links with the English landed aristocracy as well as the leaders of the Conservative Party, that is, they were linked to a significant section of the British ruling class. The Liberals, knowing where their real class interests lay, gave assurances that the armed forces would not be used to crush opposition to the Home Rule Bill. The following month, under Carson’s orders, 35,000 rifles and 2,500,000 rounds of ammunition were openly landed on the Ulster coast. Parliament and the law had been overruled by the officer class of the British Army.

The lessons from this episode are important. The Liberals had no qualms in sending Tom Mann and others to prison in 1912 when they called upon soldiers not to shoot striking workers. The Liberals had, in fact, used armed soldiers against striking workers at Tonypandy in 1910 and Llanelly and Liverpool in 1911. But they refused to confront Carson, Bonar Law and the army officers who mutinied at Curragh. Why did the Liberals allow the aristocratic officers at the head of the British Army to tear the British law to shreds and give British workers, in Lenin’s words, ‘an excellent lesson of the class struggle’? Essentially, because even this mild Irish Home Rule Bill challenged the interests of a significant section of the British ruling class, and threatened to begin the process of undermining British imperialism’s rule in Ireland. And, as Lenin argued:

‘These aristocrats behaved like revolutionaries of the right and thereby shattered all conventions, tore aside the veil that prevented the people from seeing the unpleasant but undoubtedly real class struggle...

Real class rule lay and still lies outside of Parliament...And Britain’s petty-bourgeois Liberals, with their speeches about reforms and the might of Parliament designed to lull the workers, proved in fact to be straw men, dummies, put up to bamboozle the people. They were quickly “shut up” by the aristocracy, the men in power.’25

The Liberals, concerned to maintain British imperialist rule, had no choice. In a period of the growing polarisation of class rule, they could not appeal to the only force capable of putting down the rebellion - the working class - they had, after all, been using the army to put down strikes. They simply gave way to the demands of those who held real power. And real power was outside Parliament.

The Home Rule Bill had been put forward to contain the growing opposition to British rule in Ireland. It was an attempt to use the moderate bourgeois Irish Party as the vehicle for preserving British rule in Ireland in a more acceptable and less naked form. The Ulster Unionists backed by a powerful section of the British ruling class protested. Even at this time to speak of Ulster as though it was overwhelmingly Loyalist was simply nonsense and everyone knew that. After a by-election in early 1913, Ulster’s elected representatives in the House of Commons consisted of 17 Home Rulers and 16 Unionists. Anyway, the issue for the British ruling class was not democracy - then or today. The issue was to preserve British imperialist rule in Ireland and democratic rights would be brushed aside when that was threatened. Lloyd George demonstrated this when, in May 1916, he gave Carson a written pledge that ‘Ulster does not, whether she wills it or not, merge in the rest of Ireland’.26 Thirty years later this position was repeated by the post-war Labour Government which said:

‘So far as can be foreseen, it will never be to Great Britain’s advantage that Northern Ireland should become part of a territory outside His Majesty’s jurisdiction. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Great Britain would ever be able to agree to this even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it.’27

The Labour Party, faithful as ever to Great Britain, that is, British imperialist rule, gives the game away. Democracy - well, that is for those prepared to be fooled. That is why British rule in the North of Ireland today is defended on the basis of ‘democracy’, that the people in the Six Counties want to preserve the Union with Britain.

In May 1914, the Liberals announced an amendment to their Home Rule Bill which excluded part of Ireland from the operation of Home Rule. Ireland was to be partitioned in order to preserve British rule. The Irish national movement was immediately split. Griffith’s Sinn Fein, the revolutionary Republicans and Irish Labour were totally opposed to the partition of Ireland. The Irish Party accepted it. The Irish bourgeoisie, represented by the Irish Party, knew that it could only oppose partition by mobilising the revolutionary forces of the Irish people. Having experienced the revolutionary determination of the Irish working class during the Dublin lock-out, it knew that mobilising such forces would threaten its very existence as a class. Forced to choose between the struggle for national freedom and its own class interests, the Irish bourgeoisie abandoned that struggle and formed a corrupt alliance with British imperialism.

The revolutionary socialist James Connolly completely understood the real meaning of partition for the Irish working class:

‘Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.’28

All hopes of uniting workers irrespective of religion and sectarian divisions would be shattered if apart of Ulster were to be separated from the rest of Ireland. Connolly understood all too well how British imperialism had perpetuated divisions in the Irish working class through the union with Britain. He knew why the Protestant working class invariably sides with British imperialism against the national aspirations of the Irish people. He was able to explain why the Protestant working class supported Orange ideology, which was not only hostile to nationalism but also opposed to the interests of the working class. Connolly recognised the basis of these facts in the different social economic and political positions occupied by Protestant and Catholic workers. And it was British imperialist domination of Ireland that was the root cause of these divisions in the working class:

‘...the Orange working class are slaves in spirit because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own. In Catholic Ireland the working class are rebels in spirit and democratic in feeling because for hundreds of years they have found no class as lowly paid or as hardly treated as themselves.

‘At one time in the industrial world of Great Britain and Ireland the skilled labourer looked down with contempt upon the unskilled and bitterly resented his attempt to get his children taught any of the skilled trades; the feeling of the Orangemen of Ireland towards the Catholics is but a glorified representation on a big stage of the same passions inspired by the same unworthy motives.’29

The Protestant working class, just like the skilled workers in Britain possessed certain privileges (better wages, better conditions, greater job security, political rights) denied the rest of the working class. The Protestant workers, therefore, feared and opposed the Irish workers’ fight for equality because they thought this would undermine their own position. They likewise accepted Orange ideology and sided with British imperialism because of their privileged position in relation to the Catholic worker. That is why Connolly could argue:

‘the doctrine that because the workers of Belfast live under the same industrial conditions as do those of Great Britain, they are therefore subject to the same passions and to be influenced by the same methods of propaganda, is a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity.’30

What prevented basic class interest uniting Catholic and Protestant workers was precisely the Union with Britain. While suppressing the democratic rights of the Irish people as a whole, British imperialism guaranteed certain rights and privileges to the Protestant minority in Ireland. By bolstering the Northern industrial capitalists in Ireland, it guaranteed a relatively privileged position for Protestant workers. The Protestant workers saw their privileged position as a consequence of British rule and that is why they supported that rule.

Connolly understood that independence for Ireland would result in equal rights for Catholic and Protestant workers. And only the loss of its privileged position would allow the ‘possibility of an immense spiritual uplifting of the Protestant working class’. Only in such circumstances would the Protestant working class be able to recognise its real class interests with ‘its brothers and sisters of different creeds’.31 While British imperialism remained in Ireland such developments were not possible. Partition would block any hopes for the unity of the Irish working class. The Irish capitalists in the South and Orange capitalists in the North therefore had a common interest in supporting partition.

Such was Connolly’s hostility to partition that he argued that it should be fought with armed resistance if necessary. He reminded the workers of Belfast how during the Belfast Dock Strike (1907) none of the officer class resigned when told to shoot down workers and shed blood in Ulster. No Cabinet members apologised to the relatives of the workers they had murdered. British imperialism had an interest in supporting Carson and the Loyalists in order to maintain British domination of Ireland. Without British backing, the Unionists could easily be dealt with. For:

‘...were the forces of the Crown withdrawn entirely, the Unionists could or would put no force into the field that the Home Rulers of all sections combined could not protect themselves against with a moderate amount of ease.’32

It was not for nothing that the British ruling class had turned a blind eye to the arming and drilling of the Loyalists. Indeed, it was only on December 1913, nine days after the inauguration of the Irish Volunteers, an armed force of the Irish Nationalists, that the British Government issued a proclamation prohibiting the importation of military arms and ammunition into Ireland. The Ulster Unionists were reputed to have already between 50,000 - 80,000 rifles at this time. Then, as today, behind the Protestant armed gangs and thugs were the British imperialist forces. The Liberal Government and Ulster capitalists had a common interest in the exclusion of Ulster, as the best available way to prevent the ‘new unionism’ and the rapidly developing Irish labour and socialist movement from uniting the Catholic and Protestant working class. A divided working class, whilst aiding the Ulster capitalists, also perpetuated British imperialist rule and seriously undermined the possibility of a united socialist movement in Ireland.

The internationalism of the British labour movement was now to be tested. Partition of Ireland not only threatened to undermine the struggle of the Irish working class, but was also a direct denial of the right of the Irish people to self-determination. The working class in Britain had an internationalist duty to uphold this right and oppose the partition of Ireland. This was the only possible basis for unity of the Irish and British working class and for a united struggle against their common enemy, British imperialism.

Instead of following the lead of the revolutionary Irish working class, the British labour movement followed the Irish bourgeoisie. It followed Redmond rather than Larkin and Connolly. The British Labour Party ignored resolutions from the Irish Trade Union congress, preferring to adopt the recommendations of the Irish Party. The British Labour Party acted like its British imperialist masters towards the Irish TUC when Irish representatives proposed to establish a separate and independent party. The Irish members requested that political contributions of Irish members of amalgamated unions (British based) be turned over to the Irish Congress to aid the formation of an Irish Labour Party. The British Party refused because, according to Arthur Henderson, the constitution of the Irish Labour Party, unlike the British, did not allow affiliation of socialist and co-operative bodies: the differences made the objectives of the two parties different. The Irish explanation that their different circumstances demanded this, did not move these Labour Party leaders like Henderson so infected with that British imperialist mentality which had such deep roots in the British labour movement. Henderson wanted the Irish Labour Party to be the tail of the British Labour Party.

The Irish Congress executive in 1914 urged the British Labour Party to oppose partition and, if necessary, to vote against the entire Home Rule Bill in order to prevent it. But the British Labour Party knew better, it followed the lead of the Irish Party - the party of Irish capitalists -in supporting partition. George Barnes, Labour MP, justified this treachery on the grounds that ‘the Nationalists of Ireland have sent men to Parliament and the Labour men have not’. Connolly’s reply to this will suffice: ‘The love embraces which take place between the Parliamentary Labour Party and our deadliest enemies - the Home Rule Party - will not help on a better understanding between the militant proletariat of the two islands’.33 Once again, the corrupt and privileged leadership of the British labour movement joined with British imperialism and the Irish bourgeoisie against the Irish working class. Having betrayed the revolutionary trade-unionism of Larkin and Connolly during the Dublin lock-out, it now betrayed the revolutionary nationalism of the Irish masses. It was now clear that no section of the Irish people, apart from the Irish bourgeoisie, could place any trust in the official labour movement in Britain. Once again, Connolly’s stand was confirmed; the only way to defend the interests of the Irish working class was complete separation from Britain.

At this point, the First Imperialist War broke out. The Home Rule Bill was passed, but was suspended until after the end of the war.


On the declaration of war the European Socialist movement disintegrated, as socialist parties sided with their own imperialist bourgeoisie. The major exceptions were the Russian and Irish labour movements. Lenin and Connolly were among those very few who stood by the resolution on war passed at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International (1907). This argued that it was the duty of socialists, should war break out, to use the economic and political crisis ‘to rouse the people and thereby hasten the abolition of capitalist rule’. As Connolly said:

‘Should the working class in Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.’34

And if this did not occur then it was ‘our duty to take all possible action to save the poor from the horrors this war has in store’.

Connolly was among those in Ireland who saw the war as an opportunity to end British rule. ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ Connolly, and then Lenin after him, both following in the tradition of Marx and Engels, saw a national revolution in Ireland as a blow delivered against the English imperialist bourgeoisie, which would sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe. Connolly proposed as an immediate step that the labour movement should prevent the food that ought to feed the people of Ireland from being exported in ever greater quantities so ‘that the British army and navy and jingoes may be fed’. To prevent the working class in Ireland from starving, it may mean more than transport strikes, if necessary it could mean ‘armed battling in the streets to keep in this country the food of our people’. He continued:

‘Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war-lord’.35

James Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport Union, before he left for America on 24 October 1914 to collect funds for the Union, vigorously denounced the war and any Irish participation in it. ‘Stop at home. Arm for Ireland. Fight for Ireland and no other land.’ By the end of August 1914 he, like Connolly, saw that Ireland had now the ‘finest chance she had for centuries’ to free herself from British rule. Addressing 7,000 people in O’Connell Street, he told them that the Transport Union was prepared to do all it could to facilitate the landing of rifles in Ireland. He appealed for recruits to the Irish Citizen Army.36

In Ireland, the majority of labour and socialist organisations opposed the war. No representative labour body officially supported the British war effort, and the leading figures of the labour movement were strongly opposed to it. The Dublin Trades Council declared against Irish involvement in the war in September 1914. In Belfast, the anti-war feeling was at its weakest. Whole sections of the Protestant working class were ‘loyal’ to Britain. Nevertheless, Connolly and his supporters fought to win the Belfast workers to an anti-war position, often in a very hostile environment. In this development already can be seen the consequences of the forthcoming partition of Ireland. For with partition, the Protestant workers of Belfast would be completely cut off from the anti-imperialist forces of the Irish working class.

On 10 August 1914, the Irish TUC Executive issued a proclamation, ‘Why should Ireland starve?’, and it declared that ‘a war for the aggrandisement of the capitalist class has been declared’ and urged all workers ‘to aid us in this struggle to save Ireland from the horrors of famine’ by means of control of foodstuffs and the prevention of profiteering etc. In September 1914, the ITUC executive passed a resolution, sponsored by Larkin, condemning economic conscription. The resolution condemned ‘the insidious and cowardly action of employers in dismissing men from their employment with a view to compelling such dismissed men, by a process of starvation, to enlist volunteers’.37

While the Irish working class had revolutionary leaders like Larkin and Connolly there would be no Irish labour movement support for Britain’s imperialist war. In fact, the Irish labour movement, after Connolly’s murder by the British, and Larkin’s absence in America, continued to prevent conscription of any kind until the end of the war. On 23 April 1918, with the exception of the Belfast area, there took place the first general strike in the European labour movement against, the more vigorous prosecution of the war through conscription in Ireland.

This stand of Irish labour was in sharp contrast to the totally pro-imperialist response in Britain. The British TUC and Labour Party enthusiastically supported the war. On 24 August 1914, they declared that there should be an Industrial Truce for the duration of the war; and on 29 August, the Labour Party agreed to an Electoral Truce and placed the party organisation at the disposal of the recruiting campaign. In May 1915, the Labour MP Arthur Henderson, having already sided with the Irish bourgeoisie against the Irish working class, now joined a War Coalition Cabinet with the most reactionary forces in Ireland, including no less than 8 Ulster Unionists. The loyalist thug and reactionary, Sir Edward Carson, was made Attorney-General and Bonar Law, Secretary of State for the Colonies. A more calculated insult to the Irish people could not have been conceived. A more destructive blow to any hope of united struggle between the Irish and British workers against imperialism could not have been conceived. Two other Labour MPs, William Brace of the Miners, and G H Roberts of the Printers, joined in this filthy act of betrayal by taking junior offices.

The small socialist movement in Britain was not able to make any effective stand against the war. The largest organisation, the British Socialist Party, under Hyndman’s control, wholeheartedly supported an allied victory in the war. It later split and after the Hyndmanites left in 1916, the new leadership, while disowning a chauvinist line on the war, did not elaborate any clear alternative. Leading labour movement figures such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury MP (editor of the Daily Herald) and Ramsay MacDonald supported the war once war broke out. Only the tiny Socialist Labour Party and the Women’s Suffrage Federation (later Workers Socialist Federation) developed a revolutionary opposition to the war. There were also small numbers in the ILP who opposed it on pacifist grounds. John Maclean in Glasgow and Sylvia Pankhurst in London were the revolutionary leaders in Britain who maintained the most consistent opposition to the war. It is no surprise that they also gave unwavering support to the Irish struggle for self-determination.

To return to Ireland: the anti-war forces of the labour movement were soon joined by the revolutionary wing of the national movement. Redmond’s Irish Party necessarily supported the war in alliance with British imperialism. Redmond and his supporters organised recruiting meetings up and down the country in defence of Britain and the Empire. His efforts were supported by the Irish employers, who sacked workers in their thousands in order to force them, by starvation and poverty, to ‘volunteer’ to join the British army. Once again, the Irish bourgeoisie betrayed the national struggle to protect its own class interests. The Irish Party was as ‘loyal’ to Britain as the Ulster Unionists.

The revolutionary wing of the Irish Volunteers led by, among others, Padraic Pearse, opposed any support for British imperialism. On the contrary, they saw the war as an opportunity to strike a blow for Irish national freedom. ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ Redmond’s support for the war led to a split in the Irish Volunteers. A National Convention on 25 October 1914 saw a section of the Irish Volunteers, 12,000 out of 200,000, affirm their determination to maintain a defence force in Ireland, resist conscription and defend the unity of the nation and its right to self-government. Those who remained with Redmond became known as the National Volunteers. Most of the National Volunteers joined the British army.

From the outbreak of war, the Irish Citizen Army co-operated fully with the Volunteers. When Connolly made contact with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, forerunner of the IRA, secretly organised within the Irish Volunteers, the first steps towards the Easter Rising were made. The IRB had also decided on the outbreak of war that an uprising must be organised. They had, in fact, sounded out other nationalist groupings for their views. It is of note that Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein opposed arising and broke with the IRB and the Volunteers. Padraic Pearse was made director of the IRB in December 1914. The alliance of revolutionary nationalism and Irish labour had now been forged. Under the leadership of Pearse and Connolly it carried out the Easter Rising.

Starting from the interests of the working class, Connolly opposed the imperialist war and saw it as an opportunity to free Ireland from British rule. Starting from the interests of the Irish national struggle Padraic Pearse equally opposed the war and equally saw it as an opportunity to end British rule in Ireland. The alliance of revolutionary nationalism and Irish labour which was born in the Dublin lock-out came to fruition during the imperialist war.

We have already said that the main consideration for the socialist revolution today is a united fight against the imperialist powers, the imperialist bourgeoisie, and their bought-off agents in the working, class movement. And that this requires the working class to fight in alliance with national liberation movements to destroy imperialism. In the struggle for Irish self-determination the significance of this position is clearly seen. On the one side we see the forces of revolutionary nationalism in alliance with the class-conscious workers in Ireland. On the other the forces of reaction: the Irish bourgeoisie, the British imperialist bourgeoisie, and its agents in the British working class. The defeat of the Irish struggle for national freedom and the working class struggle for socialism in both Ireland and Britain, was decisively influenced by the failure of the British working class movement to unite with the Irish national liberation movement against British imperialism.


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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