The Communist Tradition on Ireland - Part Five: Revolutionary nationalism in retreat

Orange Day celebrations in Belfast

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 11, July/August 1981

After the signing of the Treaty in December 1921 the small British Communist Party made it clear that, as far as it was concerned, ‘there is no Irish settlement’. In an article ‘A Fresh War in Ireland Soon’, The Communist argued:

‘The war on the British Empire is not over. It may be forced to assume other methods and disguises, but it will go on. Not till every trace of the British connection is wiped out will the Irish war of independence cease.’ (14 January 1922)

British communists then understood that the Republican struggle was not at an end. They fully supported the anti-Treaty forces. They urged Irish workers to continue the war against British imperialism. And they were critical of the Irish Labour Party’s and Transport Union’s neutrality in the face of the national struggle, arguing that they were seriously undermining the working-class cause.

Communists recognised that British imperialism had gained a considerable victory by splitting the Irish national movement from top to bottom. Not only had the ‘Orange garrison’ been supplemented by the ‘Griffith garrison’ but a ‘deep weakness of the Imperialist structure’ had ‘been repaired just when the revolt of subject nations in India, Egypt and Ireland was seriously threatening it’. In the Dáil debate on the Treaty the Irish revolutionary Liam Mellows referred to this same point. The acceptance of the Treaty would mean that ‘we are going into the British Empire now to participate in the Empire’s shame, and the crucifixion of India and the degradation of Egypt. Is that what the Irish people fought for freedom for?’ As a result, British workers and oppressed peoples now faced in British imperialism ‘a strengthened and stabilised foe’.

The Communist emphatically rejected the simplistic view held by some ‘socialists’ that the normal course of economic development in Ireland, by intensifying the class struggle ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the border, would reunite the Irish working class and lead to a united struggle against the Irish bourgeoisie. This was based on the false assumption that the signing of the Treaty had disposed of the national issue. The unity of the Irish working class would not be possible until British imperialism was driven out of Ireland. For this reason communists were on the side of those ‘who carry on the tradition of 1916’. British and Irish workers had a common interest in the victory of the anti-Treaty forces and in the defeat of British imperialism in Ireland. The Communist, in July 1922, called upon British workers, not to make or send munitions to Ireland, to demand the withdrawal of British troops, and to ‘do for the Irish what you did for the Russians’.

The partition of Ireland had divided the Irish working class. The artificial statelet created by the British in the Six Counties was designed to maintain loyalist dominance in that part of Ireland. The loyalist (Protestant) workers in the Six Counties were a privileged section of the working class and the maintenance of their privileges (higher wages, jobs, housing etc) depended on the union with Britain. They were the most implacable enemies of a united independent Irish Republic for this reason. Any improvement in the conditions of the nationalist (Catholic) working class in the Six Counties they regarded as a direct threat to their own interests. It was clear that as long as British imperialism remained in Ireland there could be no unity of the Irish working class.

The capitalists north and south of the border had no interests in seeing a united Ireland. The partition of Ireland had, after all, divided the Irish working class and severely weakened the opposition to capitalist rule in the whole of Ireland. Once the opposition to Partition had been put down this arrangement would suit the Irish capitalists in the North and South very well.

Imperialism will never voluntarily relinquish political control over an oppressed nation because such control enormously strengthens its ability to economically exploit an oppressed nation. British imperialism, faced with a revolutionary war against its rule in Ireland, had partitioned Ireland and conceded a degree of independence to the Irish bourgeoisie in the South with the creation of the neo-colonial 26 counties ‘Free State’. It would however maintain its dominance and control over the whole of Ireland through its political, economic and military presence in the northern Six Counties. Partition of Ireland is the mechanism by which imperialist exploitation over the whole of Ireland is maintained. And the key to the continuation of partition is the support of the loyalist working class. It would obviously have the support of the northern capitalists who would lose their main markets if left outside the British Empire. British imperialism therefore has a direct interest in maintaining the privileged condition of the loyalist working class. For these privileges are the basis of loyalty to the union with Britain and the key to imperialist control over the whole of Ireland. So both British imperialism and the Irish capitalists North and South had a direct interest in a divided Ireland and a divided working class.

It follows that a united Ireland can only be achieved by revolutionary means. The partition of Ireland can only be ended by revolutionary forces which defeat both British imperialism and the Irish ruling class. Such a struggle is a revolutionary challenge not only to British imperialism but also to its agents in the British working class.

The British Labour Party gives organised political expression to a privileged layer of the British working class. This privileged layer, as we have argued (see FRFI 8), has a material interest in the continuation of imperialism because it is the source of its economic and political privileges. This is why the British Labour Party has never supported the revolutionary democratic struggle of the Irish people for self-determination. For the defeat of British imperialism in Ireland would seriously undermine those economic and social conditions which give rise to the continued domination of the British Labour Party over the British working class. It would give tremendous strength and impetus to any emerging revolutionary forces in the British working class. That is why those organisations in Britain supporting the revolutionary struggle for a united Irish Republic have always been forced to confront those reactionary sections of the British Labour and Trade Union movement which form the British Labour Party. The Communists in 1921 were no exception to this rule. William Paul explains:

‘The Communist Party of Great Britain hails the fight of the Irish Republicans in their struggle against the British Government. Unlike the Labour Party, which does not desire to harass the Government during the present negotiations, we defiantly declare that it is our intention to so challenge the Government, that it will gladly yield all the demands made by the Irish Republicans. In lending every assistance to Ireland, it is not only necessary for us to attack the Government, but also to warn our Irish friends that the political and trade union leaders of the British Labour movement are as dangerous to them as even a Lloyd George or a Hamar Greenwood. The cowardly ineptitude of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, so far as Ireland is concerned, is at once humiliating and treacherous. The barefaced betrayals of Ireland and her workers by the British trade-union leaders is on a level par with that of the Labour Party. We assure our Irish friends that these elements are being exposed by the Communists.’ (The Irish Crisis, 1921)

The small Communist Party did not succeed. The barefaced betrayals of the British Labour and Trade Union movement allowed British imperialism to impose Partition on the Irish people.

It is important to understand what this meant. Imperialism was able to impose the ‘carnival of reaction’ that Connolly predicted would follow Partition: the creation of a police state in the Six Counties and the bloody and barbaric repression of the anti-Treaty forces in the 26 Counties. By the end of the civil war the Republican movement was deeply divided and many of its best leaders had been executed by the ‘Free State’ forces. The Irish masses, who formed the backbone of the independence struggle, had been exhausted and demoralised by two wars – one against the British and the other against the Treatyites. These were the conditions in which the sectarian Six Counties statelet was erected and in which the revolutionary nationalists struggled to rebuild a movement.

A carnival of reaction – the loyalist state

Repression and discrimination have been a permanent feature of the northern statelet from its foundation until today. These features are built into the system and are essential to maintain the loyalty of Protestant workers to British rule.

The northern statelet was formed from six of the nine counties of Ulster, carefully chosen so that the Unionists would have a large majority. This meant the large Catholic minority, who would never be reconciled to a loyalist state, had to have it forced on them. And forced on them it certainly was. In a period of Unionist orchestrated terror between July 1920 and July 1922, 453 people were killed in Belfast, 37 members of the Crown Forces and 416 civilians, including 257 Catholics and 157 Protestants. Outside Belfast more than 100 died, 45 Crown Forces and 61 civilians, including 46 Catholics and 15 Protestants. Of the 93,000 Catholics in Belfast almost 11,000 were driven from their jobs and 23,000 rendered homeless. Over 500 Catholic owned shops and businesses were burnt, looted and wrecked. The Catholics were being beaten into submission.

The state set up a whole machinery of repression. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was the loyalist state’s armed paramilitary police force, mainly recruited from the Orange Order and the Special Constabulary, with access to rifles, sub-machine guns, and armoured cars. This force was supplemented by a Special Constabulary originally in three categories: A, B and C. However, it was the part-time B-Specials who were to be maintained in force until they were ‘disbanded’ in 1969. All were recruited from the Orange Order and formed a Protestant and loyalist militia. The average membership of the B-Specials was between 11,000 and 12,000. The Specials were a formidable force. They had regular drilling and weapon training. They were armed with rifles, revolvers, bayonets and later sub-machine guns which they kept in their homes. In the 1950s and 1960s they had access to Bren-guns and Shortland armoured cars. The role of this force can be judged by the fact that the pogroms against the Catholics between 1920-1922 were conducted mainly by the Ulster B-Specials side by side with Orange mobs. When Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of fascism in England, visited Belfast with the object of extending his organisation to the Six Counties, Lord Craigavon (Northern Ireland Prime Minister honoured yet again for his service to British imperialism) assured him that it was unnecessary. Northern Ireland had already, in its armed Special Constabulary, a fascist force in being.

Loyalist ‘law and order’ was further strengthened by an extraordinary piece of legislation – the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922. It had been pushed through the Northern parliament in April 1922 at the height of the Belfast pogroms as an emergency measure to last one year. However, it was annually renewed until 1928, then renewed for five years and finally in 1933 it was made permanent. The Act gave the civil authorities all the powers of a police state. The first section began:

‘The Civil Authority (the Minister of Home Affairs) shall have power, in respect of persons, matters and things within the jurisdiction of the Government of Northern Ireland to take all such steps and issue all such orders as may be necessary for preserving peace and maintaining order.’

This measure introduced the death penalty for some firearms and explosives offences and flogging and imprisonment for others. It permitted indefinite internment without trial. It allowed the authorities to suspend at will any and all of the basic liberties, from habeas corpus to the freedom of the press. People could be arrested on suspicion, and people and buildings could be searched without warrant. The onus of proof could be reversed and the holding of inquests dispensed with. It also gave the Minister power to make any further regulations, each with the force of a new law, and to delegate his powers to any policeman. And just in case anything had been overlooked in the regulations, even that was provided for when it stated:

‘If any person does any act of such a nature to be calculated to be prejudicial to the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland and not specifically provided for in the regulations, he shall be deemed to be guilty of an offence against the regulations.’

The most effective power of the Act was internment enabling the government to jail indefinitely anyone it considered a political or military threat to it. It was used immediately until the end of 1924. It was re-introduced in 1938 and lasted until 1946. It was introduced again in December 1956 and lasted until 1961. And finally it was introduced on the largest scale ever in August 1971 – being the measure which eventually brought down the government which had introduced it.

In April 1963, J Vorster, at that time Minister of Justice of the racist South African police state, whilst introducing a new Coercion Bill in the South African parliament, could say that ‘he would be willing to exchange all the legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act’. An enquiry carried out by the (British) National Council of Civil Liberties in 1936 commented that the Unionists had created ‘under the shadow of the British constitution a permanent machine of dictatorship’. Northern Ireland was compared with the fascist dictatorships then current in Europe.

Another instrument to maintain Unionist supremacy was that of gerrymandering. The technique is a very simple one. Constituency or ward boundaries are drawn in such a way as to spread Unionist (Protestant) votes over as many seats as possible, so as just to be sure of winning the seats. Whereas nationalist (Catholic) votes are crowded into as few seats as possible. This process was aided by the ending of proportional representation, and by the restricted franchise – limited to rate-payers and their spouses – which discriminated against the poorer Catholic population. The clearest example of gerrymandering was Derry City. In 1966, the adult population of Derry was 30,376 – 20,102 Catholics and 10,274 Protestants. Restricted franchise reduced the Catholic majority substantially; 14,429 Catholics to 8,781 Protestants. Finally, after numerous boundary revisions, the city was divided into three wards as follows:



Nationalist Voters (Catholic)


Unionist Voters (Protestant)


South Ward





North Ward





Waterside Ward











A large nationalist majority in this way was turned into its opposite – a Unionist majority. Yet another way had been found to secure the Unionist supremacy in the northern statelet.

The Unionist alliance depended on the support of the loyalist working class. The loyalist working class were a privileged section of the working class at the foundation of the state. This privileged status has been maintained by systematic discrimination against Catholics in the areas of wages, jobs and housing. Conditions in the North of Ireland are worse than in Britain but this only serves to emphasise the importance of any discrimination in favour of the loyalist working class.

Discrimination means that Catholic workers in the Six Counties tend to be unskilled manual workers while Protestants have by far the greatest share of the skilled jobs, and therefore the higher wages and privileges associated with such jobs. This was still the case in 1971. In 1977, the Fair Employment Agency published an analysis of the 1971 Census which showed that the loyalist labour aristocracy has been preserved until this day. It said:

‘ … it is clear that the Protestant is most likely to be a skilled manual worker while the Roman Catholic will be an unskilled manual worker.’

A report of wage rates since 1914 in engineering, shipbuilding and construction, published in 1957, showed that for a large part of the period the rates of wages prevailing in the Six Counties for skilled workers were higher than the corresponding average in Britain as a whole. The wage rates for unskilled workers were lower than for Britain. This means that the differential in favour of skilled workers over unskilled workers was greater than the corresponding differential for Britain as a whole. Protestant privilege was no small thing. The 1971 census confirmed this trend of much higher wages for loyalist workers.

The differential in wages concerns those who are able to get a job. The attitude of Unionist politicians on the question of jobs leaves no doubt as to who will be most likely to be unemployed. In July 1933, Sir Basil Brooke (later, Lord Brookeborough, Prime Minister of the Six Counties) made a speech in which he said ‘I have not a Roman Catholic about my place’. While J M Andrews, the Minister of Labour, (and Prime Minister before Brooke), responded indignantly to what he regarded as a smear:

‘Another allegation made against the government, which is untrue, is that of 31 porters at Stormont 28 are Roman Catholic. I have investigated the matter and I have found that there are 30 Protestants and only one Roman Catholic, there only temporarily.’

When the Nationalists in the Stormont Parliament proposed a motion of censure on Sir Basil Brooke for his speeches, Lord Craigavon moved an amendment saying ‘the employment of disloyalists (Catholics) ... is prejudicial to the state and takes jobs away from Loyalists’. The Unionist state had a clear policy of discrimination in employment against Catholics. The results can be seen.

Catholics, while only one third of the population, provided 90,000 out of the 159,000 who emigrated looking for work between 1937 and 1961 – that is nearly 57%. In July 1961 the average figure for unemployment in the Six Counties was 7%. The highest figures were in the predominantly Catholic areas of Newry (17.2%), Newcastle (16.4%), Strabane (14.4%), and Derry (13.8%). The lowest figures were Ballyclare (2.2%), Bangor (2.7%), Lisburn (3.3%) – all solidly Protestant areas. And recent figures all show that nothing has changed. The influx of multinational companies’ investment and British state aid into the Six Counties over the last twenty years has altered nothing at all. Most of the new investment was overwhelmingly located in loyalist areas.

Harland and Wolff, the biggest source of employment in Belfast, has been kept alive by massive British state subsidies over the last 20 years. On numerous occasions Catholics have been driven out of employment from the yards by Unionists. In 1970 among the 10,000 workers in Harland and Wolff, only 400 were Catholics. By 1975, as a result of intimidation and assassinations, the number had been reduced to 100. In the three largest firms in Belfast in the late 1960s the proportion of Catholics employed was 3%, 1.4% and 0% respectively.

The situation in housing and health reinforces the extent of Protestant privilege. Nationalist areas suffer most from unfit housing – 40-45% in nationalist Fermanagh against only 10-20% in loyalist areas like Antrim, Lisburn and Down. In the mid-1970s a nationalist in the west of the sectarian statelet was at least twice as likely to be struck down with an infectious disease (tuberculosis, acute meningitis, scarlet fever etc) as a Protestant in the east. The infant mortality rate is again consistently higher for the nationalist areas than for loyalist areas. In the loyalist north and east of the Six Counties the figures are 18.1 and 19.7 per thousand respectively. In the nationalist west it is 24.8. This rises to 32.3 in Fermanagh.

The loyalist workers’ ties to Britain and its ruling class, their refusal to unite with the Nationalists in the struggle for democracy and socialism is based on the real material privileges they receive. They do not defend the sectarian statelet out of some obsession with theology. Their reactionary Unionist politics grow out of their immediate social conditions. Compared to the conditions of exploitation of the mass of Catholics beneath them, the loyalists are a labour aristocracy. Anything that threatens British imperialist rule in Ireland, threatens their privileges. That is why the loyalist worker is so opposed to the struggle of the Republican movement for a united Ireland.

This, then, is the Six Counties statelet, a police state based on terror, repression and sectarian discrimination. It was this which the British Labour government defended when, in May 1949, it enacted the new Government of Ireland Act. This Act said ‘in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland’. True to its history, the British Labour government – and this one was said to be progressive – legitimised the rule of a reactionary police state in order to defend British imperialism. British governments ever since, both Labour and Conservative, have upheld this standpoint. It has nothing to do with democracy. It has everything to do with maintaining British imperialism’s rule over the northern statelet and through it the protection of British imperialism’s fundamental interests in the whole of Ireland.

Republicanism under siege

The northern statelet is clearly unreformable. If the Irish working class is ever to be united, then Partition has to be destroyed and British imperialism driven out of Ireland. The revolutionary wing of the national movement has always made the unification of Ireland the major plank of its platform. This is the key to any social progress in the whole of Ireland. And it can only be achieved by revolutionary means. In the years following Partition, the revolutionary Republican forces, in the face of the most difficult conditions, strove to find the means to continue the struggle for a united Irish Republic.

On 24 May 1923, the civil war ended with the IRA order to dump arms. There was no surrender, simply a recognition of the present defeat and a decision to hold back the Republican forces until a new opportunity for a successful struggle occurred. W T Cosgrave, the leader of the pro-Treaty forces and the Cumann na nGaedheal Party had, with the aid of British imperialism, crushed the Republican forces in a vicious campaign of legalised terror. During the civil war, the pro-Treaty government had executed 77 Republicans including Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joseph McKelvey and Richard Barrett, who were taken out of Mountjoy prison and shot without trial. By July 1923, the Free State government held over 11,000 prisoners.

Even after the civil war the anti-Treaty forces still had considerable support. The Republicans, organised legally as Sinn Féin, contested the elections of August 1923 on an abstentionist platform. In spite of government harassment and disruption of meetings, campaign workers being attacked, and many candidates in prison or on the run, Sinn Féin won 44 seats to Cumann na nGaedheal’s 63.

As a ‘concession’, the Treaty had included a clause providing for a Boundary Commission to revise the border ‘in accordance with the wishes of the population’. The Northern Ireland government refused to appoint a representative to the Commission. The British government – a minority Labour government under Ramsey MacDonald – eventually appointed its own representative, an imperialist judge in the South African Supreme Court, and later nominated one for the Six Counties, an Orangeman and staunch Unionist. In 1925 the Commission met and, after a charade of investigation, decided by a majority to propose minor frontier changes which included the transfer of the richest land in nationalist Donegal to the Six Counties. The ‘Free State’ government panicked, which was no doubt the purpose of the whole exercise, and, in December 1925, agreed to recognise the existing boundary. The Partition of Ireland was now consummated. The nationalist minority in the Six Counties had been sold out by the Cosgrave government and left to face the terror of a loyalist police state.

The ‘Free State’ government was clearly hand-in-glove with British imperialism. The Dáil had become the organ of British imperialist control. This was recognised in November 1925 at the General Army Convention, when the left-wing Republican Peadar O'Donnell proposed a motion which called on the army of the Republic

‘to sever its connection with the Dáil, and act under an independent Executive, such Executive be given the power to declare war when, in its opinion, a suitable opportunity arises to rid the Republic of its enemies and maintain it in accordance with the proclamation of 1916.’

The motion was carried. It had the effect of forcing out into the open those sections of the IRA/Sinn Féin talking about entering the Dáil. Revolutionary Republicans knew that the ‘Free State’ was the creation of a British-imposed coup and to enter its Dáil would be a recognition of the Treaty and an acceptance of Partition. De Valera, on the other hand, arguing that the Republic could be achieved by constitutional means, wanted to enter the Dáil. He was soon to raise the question of taking the oath of allegiance (to the King and Empire), which was part of the Treaty settlement, as the issue of principle in order to obscure the real issue – acceptance of the British-imposed Dáil and Partition. He argued that Sinn Féin should enter the Dáil once the oath was removed, with a programme to achieve a Republic as rapidly as possible by constitutional means. His position was put to the test at an extraordinary Ard Fheis of Sinn Féin in March 1926 and was defeated by 233 to 218 votes.

The most visible section of opposition to de Valera was Cumann na mBan, the Republican women’s organisation, which had also voted overwhelmingly to reject the Treaty. On 11 March de Valera resigned as President, withdrew from Sinn Féin, and organised his followers into a new party, Fianna Fáil. This party, he said, would enter the Dáil only on the removal of the oath.

The assassination of Kevin O’Higgins, a Minister in the Cosgrave government, in July 1927, was used as a pretext by Cosgrave to introduce a Bill which said that every candidate for election to the Dáil must on nomination swear to take the oath. On 12 August 1927 de Valera led Fianna Fáil members into the Dáil where they signed the book containing the text of the oath of loyalty to the British King. De Valera maintained this was accepting the oath ‘as an empty formula’. Nevertheless he admitted that ‘what we did was contrary to all our former actions and to everything we stood for’. In participating in the British-imposed Dáil he had broken fundamentally and irrevocably with the revolutionary nationalist standpoint.

In the election of 1932, Fianna Fáil obtained more seats than Cumann na nGaedheal and formed the government with Irish Labour Party support. De Valera informed the British government that he was abolishing the oath and withholding payments of land annuities due to the British government as a result of the earlier Land Acts (see FRFI 8). The British then imposed punitive tariffs on Irish imports, principally cattle, into Britain. The measure was announced by the Dominions Secretary to the National Government, the Labour traitor J H Thomas MP. The aim was to cripple the trade of the ‘Free State’ so it would be forced to surrender within six months. The British government hoped that the resulting hardships for the farming population would lead to the return to power of the Cosgrave party. The latter collaborated by organising itself on fascist lines and developing a campaign of violent obstruction against the new government with the object of winning small farmer support away from Fianna Fáil. The Economic War with Britain, in fact, lasted six years.

Cumann na nGaedheal represented the pro-British cattle-ranching and trading interests. It was a party totally subservient to British imperialist interests. Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, came to power as the champion of smaller capitalist interests and tillage farmers. Its mass support came mainly from farmers working small holdings and from rural and urban wage-earners – from the people who were the backbone of the independence movement. The acquiescence of the Irish Labour Party and ITUC in the destruction of the Republic in 1922 made it easy for Fianna Fáil to gain and hold on to working-class and small-farmer support. On coming to power, Fianna Fáil appeared to be opposing British imperialism, and many accepted its Republicanism at face value. Fianna Fáil seemed to many people to offer an alternative to war and hardship in the quest for an Irish Republic.

The bulk of Irish industry in the northern Six Counties had been lost with Partition. De Valera’s economic policy was to begin to build up new industry in the ‘Free State’ behind high tariff walls. It had a limited amount of success. Industrial employment rose from 111,000 in 1931 to 154,000 in 1936 as a number of small industries were set up. But the attempt to build an independent capitalist Republic, doomed to failure in any case, could only be made by increasing the suffering of the working masses. The average income per head dropped from 61% of the British figure in 1931 to 49% in 1939. The new jobs created didn’t cover the pool of unemployed. And the period of protection had a disastrous effect on trade – exports falling by 40%. Eventually the vulnerability of the Irish economy to the vastly more productive British monopoly capital, together with that of other imperialist interests would begin to tell. The policy later was to be drastically changed.

In December 1937 de Valera introduced a new Constitution for the South. It claimed the whole of Ireland – including the Six Counties – as the national territory, though specifically excluding the Six Counties from the jurisdiction of the Dublin government ‘pending the reintegration of the national territory’. In 1938 the Economic War was brought to an end. The Irish ‘Free State’ (now Éire) paid £10 million to Britain in final settlement of all claims of a financial character. In return it received concessions including the handing back of ports and naval depots retained under British control as a result of the Treaty. But Partition remained. The history of the Fianna Fáil party in this period proved that the attempt to pursue the struggle for a Republic by constitutional means, could only be based on the interests of Irish capitalists, who, sooner or later, were obliged to come to terms with British imperialism and accept Partition. Once again, the standpoint of revolutionary Republicanism had been proved correct. From de Valera in the 1920s and 1930s to the Official IRA in the 1970s, those who have rejected this standpoint have ended up supporting British imperialism.

Republicanism searches for a mass base

By the end of the 1920s, the IRA was in no position to accomplish its goal of a united Irish Republic by a military campaign having mass support. Given that Partition could only be ended by revolutionary means, the IRA, while maintaining its armed organisation intact, knew it had to find the means to win mass support for a renewed offensive against British imperialism and Partition. However, the masses, with the memory of the recent years of bloody and bitter fighting followed by the establishment of the reactionary Cosgrave government, were ready to believe Fianna Fáil’s empty promise of a united Irish Republic achieved by peaceful means. The problems which confronted the IRA in this period were to prove insurmountable.

The IRA involved itself in the social issues inevitably arising among the masses. Already in 1925, Peadar O’Donnell editor of the IRA weekly newspaper An Phoblacht, was using its columns to support the campaign in Donegal to withhold land annuities. An organisation initially called the Workers Defence Corps, later renamed the Irish Labour Defence League, was formed in 1929, and it included Trade Unionists and members of the IRA, including prominent ones on the left. On 13 March 1930, the Workers Revolutionary Party was organised as an avowedly communist group. Peadar O'Donnell and several other IRA men were deeply involved. On 15 February 1931, the General Army Convention committed itself to set up Saor Éire, an organisation of workers and working farmers committed to overthrow British imperialism and Irish capitalism. The organisation was committed to agitation against landlordism and for state direction of essential industries, and state monopoly of banking, credit and export services. The Cosgrave government and the Catholic Church, once they realised the extent of these developments within the IRA, began a campaign against the ‘Red Menace’ and ‘pagan communism’. New draconian ‘public safety’ legislation was introduced and very quickly twelve radical and revolutionary organisations including Saor Éire, the IRA and the Workers Revolutionary Party were banned. Raids and arrests took place everywhere. After the election of de Valera, Saor Éire quickly disappeared.

In 1932, the IRA became involved in the massive demonstrations and riots which took place in Belfast. Unemployment was reaching unprecedented levels, over 28%, and in the Belfast shipyards employment had fallen by over 80% in less than 2 years. The Protestant skilled workers were as hard hit as Catholic labourers. The Unionist politicians had treated with contempt a demand for improvement in starvation-level wages paid on relief schemes. Mass demonstrations of unemployed workers took place and were met by the police and military. Within a short time the streets in every working-class district in Belfast were barricaded against armoured cars, and in some areas IRA men and Ulster Protestant Association men were standing together in armed defence against the forces of the Crown. It was soon over. Faced with a serious threat to the loyalist alliance, the government acknowledged defeat, and offered more money for relief schemes and increased relief rates. The trade union leaders, terrified by the involvement of the IRA and left-wing groups during the demonstrations and strikes, were very quick to make a deal. The Unionist ruling class did their best to blame the events on ‘communist Sinn Féin’ elements. They began to campaign on sectarian lines. By 1935, sectarian riots against Catholics were taking place in Belfast. The loyalist alliance might temporarily be disturbed over some single issue and under extreme economic conditions, but it can never be destroyed unless the prop of the Union with Britain is taken away.

It was during this period of deep economic depression and two years after the election of de Valera that the idea of a Republican Congress was formed. A section of the Army believed that, if the IRA was to find mass support for the anti-imperialist struggle to unite Ireland, it was necessary to win industrial workers and small farmers away from the leadership of Fianna Fáil. This could only be done through a revolutionary party committed to building such an anti-imperialist movement. Many of the IRA who had supported Saor Éire were in favour of a Republican Congress, but the Executive and Army Council were less enthusiastic. At the next Army Convention, the proposal for a Republican Congress fell by one vote. Those in favour of the Congress then decided to go ahead. Gilmore and O’Donnell, in order to carry out the work, left the IRA.

A group of IRA officers and others prominent in Republican and Labour organisations met at Athlone in April 1934 and issued a call for a Congress. They argued that a ‘Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except under a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way’. They appealed to anti-imperialists to attend, including those from working-class organisations from the Six Counties urging them to take up the struggle for national freedom. The immediate response was encouraging and work for the Congress began at once. A weekly paper, the Republican Congress, was published.

The IRA reply to the Congress appeal was published in An Phoblacht on 14 April 1934. It said

‘In so far as the statement referred to is an attack on the present social and economic system, and an indictment of the policies of the Governments of the Six and Twenty-Six Counties, the Army Council is in complete agreement with it.’

But the Army Council objected to the Congress criticism of the IRA saying ‘this attack by Republicans can only assist the campaign of the Capitalists and Imperialist elements’. The central objection, however, was the issue of forming a new political party

‘This Party will, in course of time, contest elections and enter the Free State parliament. Inevitably it will follow the road which has been travelled by other constitutional Parties, which, though setting out with good intentions, ended in failure. It is not very long ago since Fianna Fáil leaders told us that they wanted to go into the Free State Parliament only for the purpose of smashing it up. But they now hold this institution and the Free State machinery as sacred.’

This had been the Republican experience and is a view which has been proved correct countless times. It is quite wrong to see the dispute between the Republican Congress and the IRA as one between socialists and militarists. Those who attempt to use the Republican Congress to justify their own attack on the IRA, slander both the Congress and the IRA.

At the Congress which met at Rathmines Town Hall on 29 and 30 September 1934, two positions emerged. The first called for the formation of a new political party – a Workers’ Republican Party committed to a fight for an Irish Workers’ Republic. The second called for a united front of the Republican masses – workers and small farmers for a united Irish Republic. The second position eventually was won by 99 votes to 84. But the Congress was split and leading members holding the first position refused to be on the Congress Executive.

The work went on but with little eventual success. Besides the damaging split in the Congress, the reactionary character of the Irish Trade Union movement and the commitment of whole sections of workers and small farmers to Fianna Fáil lay behind the failure. It was precisely because of the success of Fianna Fáil in holding on to the support of large sections of workers and small farmers, that the call for a united front to fight for an Irish Republic was undoubtedly correct. This was the position Connolly took in practice in 1916. Only in this way would the sham Republicanism of Fianna Fáil be exposed. To call for a Workers’ Republic as an immediate demand at this stage in the struggle was to be totally out of touch with reality. Peadar O’Donnell explained why:

‘We dare not jump through a stage in the fight, raising now the slogan, “Workers Republic”, and leaving Fianna Fáil to escape, saying they are standing for one kind of Republic, but that we stand for a different one. My quarrel with de Valera is not that he is not a Socialist, for he makes no pretence to be one. My quarrel is that he pretends to be a Republican while actually the interests for which his Party acts – Irish Capitalism – are across the road to a Republic.’

After the failure of the Congress, the IRA and the Republican Congress went their own ways. The Republican Congress having detached itself from the IRA collapsed within two years. The IRA continued its efforts to unite the national question with the social questions of the day. It led the struggle against the growing fascist movement in Ireland, the Blueshirts, suffering many arrests after clashes with the fascists. It gave support to major strikes offering armed assistance to picket lines and carrying out punishment shootings of scabs. By April 1935, 104 Republicans were in prison. In June 1936, the IRA was once again banned, this time under de Valera. Many rank-and-file IRA members went to fight on the Republican side in Spain.

All the efforts to build a mass anti-imperialist movement in this period failed. The IRA, since the defeat of the revolutionary forces during the civil war had not been able to unite a mass movement behind the military and political struggle to defeat British imperialism, and end Partition. The social and political conditions required simply did not exist. But the IRA did keep alive the revolutionary tradition and did maintain an armed organisation to seize any available opportunity to renew the struggle. However, it was not until the late 1960s that revolutionary Republicanism was again to merge with a mass movement which saw the central enemy as Partition and British imperialism.

Continued in Part Six

David Reed
July 1981

[Material from this article later went on to become part of Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed]


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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