The Communist Tradition on Ireland: Part Four - The Irish Revolution

The Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, was the first workers' militia in Europe

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.10 May/June 1981

The first imperialist war gave revolutionaries in Ireland the opportunity they had been waiting for. England’s difficulty was again Ireland’s opportunity to free itself once and for all from the stranglehold of its brutal oppressor, British imperialism. By taking decisive action in this period, the Irish national movement could begin the process which would destroy British imperialism and lay the basis for the socialist revolution in Europe.

The revolutionary socialist James Connolly had fully grasped the importance of this opportunity for the Irish working class. He became one of the driving forces advocating an armed insurrection. He prepared the Irish Citizen Army for such an eventuality. In January 1916, after secret meetings with members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he became part of the Military Council preparing detailed plans for an armed uprising on Easter Sunday 23 April 1916.

On 8 April 1916 Connolly announced in the Workers Republic that,

‘The Council of the Irish Citizen Army has resolved after grave and earnest deliberation, to hoist the green flag of Ireland over Liberty Hall [headquarters of the ITGWU], as over a fortress held for Ireland by the arms of Irishmen.’

The flag was to be hoisted on Palm Sunday 16 April. It symbolised the commitment of the most advanced sections of the Irish working class to the revolutionary struggle for Irish freedom.

For Connolly the participation of the working class in the national revolution offered the only guarantee that a ‘free’ Irish nation would be ‘the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland’.

‘We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.

‘The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.’

The initial proposal to raise the green flag over Liberty Hall was defeated (7 votes to 5) by the Executive Committee of the Dublin Branch (No 1) of the ITGWU. Permission was only granted to raise the flag when, at a later meeting, Connolly threatened to sever his connections with the Union. And then, only on the understanding that the Citizen Army would shortly leave Liberty Hall and ‘probably never return’. Such a promise could easily be made as the planned Rising was only ten days away.

This clash of interests within the Union is of importance for later events. It pointed to a fundamental divergence of interests developing in the Irish working-class movement. Already an influential layer was emerging in the Union which sought to separate ‘trade union issues’ from the struggle against British imperialism. The split in the international working-class movement, between a reformist and revolutionary wing, which, with the victory of the reformists, had destroyed the revolutionary potential of the European working class, was starting to emerge in the Irish labour movement.

The ceremony to raise the flag over Liberty Hall took place as planned on 16 April, with the Citizen Army in formation in front of the Hall. After the ceremony, Connolly, in the presence of Irish Volunteer Officers, gave a lecture to the Citizen Army on street fighting. Later on that night he addressed the Citizen Army alone and informed them of the planned uprising. He told them that the odds were a thousand to one against them. And that,

‘In the event of victory, hold onto your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.’

Members of the Citizen Army were offered the opportunity to withdraw from the planned Rising with no recriminations. No one did.

The Easter Rising

The Rising was planned for numerous dates before Easter Sunday 23 April 1916 was finally decided on. The plan was for simultaneous risings throughout Ireland beginning with the seizure of Dublin City Centre at 6.30pm, to be followed shortly after (7pm) by risings in the provinces.

The national movement was split over the issue of offensive action. Griffith, the leader of Sinn Féin, opposed a rising. Eoin MacNeill, the formal head of the Irish Volunteers, argued that the Volunteers and the Citizen Army should build up their forces in readiness to respond to offensive action by the British – such as the introduction of compulsory conscription or mass repression against the Volunteers. He was opposed to offensive action. Connolly and Pearse, the leader of the revolutionary wing of the Volunteers, opposed the vacillating arguments of MacNeill. They believed that any delay would not only cause demoralisation among the Volunteers but put the movement in grave danger of pre-emptive action by the British. Connolly also believed the opportunity provided by the imperialist war would be lost if the revolutionaries did not strike a blow now. The Military Council which planned the Rising, therefore, did not inform Griffith or MacNeill of their plans.

The plan for the Rising involved the mobilisation of all the Irish Volunteers as well as the much smaller Citizen Army. Orders for the Rising under the guise of ‘three days of manoeuvres’ beginning Easter Sunday were sent out. Close to the appointed day for the Rising things began to go wrong. An expected shipment of arms from Germany was destroyed. Roger Casement, who went to Germany to organise support and arms, was arrested on his return. On Good Friday, Eoin MacNeill discovered that the ‘three days of manoeuvres’ were in fact the signal for the Rising. He confronted Pearse and was told the truth. On Saturday morning MacNeill issued a countermanding order calling off all Volunteer activities over the three days. This was printed in the Sunday Independent and sent by messengers into the provinces. The Military Council which had planned the Rising met on Easter Sunday and decided to go ahead the next day, Easter Monday 24 April. The orders were sent out. They knew the British authorities would now be warned of the Rising and would be preparing mass arrests and internment of those likely to be involved. It was ‘now or never’.

On Easter Monday at 10am the Rising began. About 1,200 answered the summons to parade in Dublin – nearly the whole of the Citizen Army and over 1,000 Volunteers. The plans which had been made required nearly twice that number. MacNeill’s countermanding order and arrests of Volunteers by the British authorities had had a telling effect. Throughout the rest of Ireland there was only sporadic and short-lived action – the most significant being the seizure of Athenry in Galway by the 1,000 strong Volunteer units led by the left-wing Volunteer leader Liam Mellows.

The first act of the revolutionaries was the taking of strategic buildings in Dublin. Outside the GPO Pádraig Pearse read the Proclamation of the Provisional Government. The Proclamation was a revolutionary democratic programme which united the aspirations of the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie and the Irish workers against British imperialism. It included the following:

‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible . . .

‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences, carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’

It was a democratic secular Republic which was declared. The Proclamation was signed by Thomas J Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, P H Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Éamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett. Thomas J Clarke was a living survivor of the Fenian movement of the nineteenth century, P H Pearse represented the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie, and James Connolly represented the most advanced sections of the Irish working class. This was the alliance which led the Easter Rising.

The battle lasted nearly one week. The revolutionaries were faced by overwhelming odds. British imperialism used straight-forward terror to destroy the Rising. Major buildings were simply blown to pieces. Heavy artillery, even warships, were used to bombard Dublin City centre. By-passers in the street were simply shot dead by the British forces. On 25 April Francis Sheehy Skeffington – a well-known Irish pacifist who took no part in the Rising – was arrested along with two journalists by Captain Bowen-Colthurst. That evening, Sheehy Skeffington, taken on a raiding party as a hostage by Bowen-Colthurst, witnessed Bowen-Colthurst shooting dead a young boy called Coade. The next day Bowen-Colthurst shot dead Sheehy Skeffington and the two journalists. There was, of course, no trial not even a court martial. These murders, like so many before and since, were simply covered up.

By the Saturday it was clear that nothing further would be gained by continuing the battle. Pearse and Connolly signed an unconditional surrender document at 3.45pm 29 April ‘in order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered’. Two more days went by before all the insurgent commanders surrendered.

During the Rising nearly 500 people were killed (over 250 civilians) and nearly 3,000 injured. 179 buildings in Dublin alone had been destroyed by fire or artillery. Total damage costs were in the region of £2½ million. Relief had to be given to 100,000 people, a third of the population of Dublin.

British Imperialism unleashes a reign of terror

Within a few weeks of the Rising, over 3,000 men and 70 women were arrested. Anyone suspected of Republican sympathies was imprisoned along with the Volunteers and Citizen Army members who had fought during the Rising. From all over Ireland they were brought to Kilmainham Gaol and Richmond Barracks in Dublin. The prisoners were crowded into bare rooms, unprepared for habitation, thirty to each room. Over 1,800 men and 5 women were deported and interned in prison camps in Britain – most without any trial.

Ninety of the insurgents in the Rising, including all its leaders, were tried and sentenced to death by a secret court martial. The first the Irish people heard of this reign of terror was the announcement of the executions of Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke on 3 May. Between that date and 12 May fifteen men were shot including all the signatories to the Proclamation. On 12 May Seán Mac Diarmada and James Connolly were shot. Their courts martial had been delayed as both had been seriously injured in the fighting. Connolly had been wounded twice and his leg was shattered. On the morning of 12 May he was taken from his bed, placed on a stretcher, carried to the place of executions, tied to a chair and shot. Thus was one of the greatest socialist leaders of the working-class movement murdered by British imperialism.

The number and manner of the executions caused a wave of anger and revulsion against British imperialism. Because of this, and after all the revolutionary leaders of the Rising had been shot, the executions, bar that of Roger Casement, were stopped. Those sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Among those were Constance Markievicz, Éamon de Valera, William Cosgrave, and Thomas Ashe.

At the time of the Rising it was widely argued that the executions and mass repression were ‘blunders’ by the British authorities. Even today the standard bourgeois history of Ireland still peddles the myth that without these ‘blunders’ the mass support that quickly developed for the Rising and the struggle for Irish independence would not have occurred. The real facts show, however, that British imperialism had no choice but to unleash such repression if it was to maintain its rule in Ireland. As the imperialist war dragged on, opposition to British imperialism was bound to intensify. The British ruling class knew this and was determined to deprive the national movement in Ireland of its revolutionary leadership.

The British ruling class recognised the significance of the Rising, and, in particular, the importance of its leaders, Pearse and Connolly. Connolly represented the militant working class. By uniting the armed Irish working class with the revolutionary wing of the national movement led by Pearse, Connolly had driven the national movement to the left. This alliance posed the greatest threat to British imperialism. In the middle of an imperialist war it threatened to begin the process not only of destroying British imperialism’s rule in Ireland, but also of sharpening the revolutionary crisis in Britain itself.

The Rising had shown that it was possible to take action against imperialism. It had fatally undermined the Irish Party’s efforts to secure a bourgeois imperialist resolution to the Irish question. Imperialism could not possibly allow Pearse and Connolly to live. It had to demonstrate to the Irish people that rebellion would be answered with terror. The British terror that followed the Rising was as inevitable as the support that built up for the Rising and the revolutionary struggle for Irish independence. The Rising represented the fundamental interest of the Irish people, just as the terror unleashed by British imperialism was carried out in the fundamental interests of the British ruling class.

How could the British ruling class allow Connolly – the greatest revolutionary produced within these islands – to live? Who better than Connolly was there to organise the Irish working class against the deepening crisis of imperialism in the First World War? Who but Connolly would ensure that the Irish working class united with the revolutionary wing of the national movement to fight the Home Rule charade? British imperialism had no choice but to use terror. That this terror failed to prevent the rise of a mass movement for Irish independence does not alter this fact at all.

Not only British imperialism but the Irish bourgeoisie demanded Connolly’s death. On 10 May, after 12 executions had taken place, William Martin Murphy continued the campaign, begun during the Dublin lock-out, to rid his class of Connolly. His newspaper, the Irish Independent, published a photograph of Connolly alongside a caption: ‘Still lies in Dublin Castle recovering from his wounds’. An editorial menacingly demanded: ‘Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve’.

Not only British imperialism and the Irish bourgeoisie applauded Connolly’s murder but so did the British Labour Party. The Labour MP, Arthur Henderson, was a member of the War Cabinet which brutally crushed the Easter Rising and ordered Connolly’s execution. When news reached Parliament that the army had summarily executed James Connolly, this vile social democrat, Arthur Henderson, led other Labour MPs in spontaneous applause.

The Irish bourgeoisie, British imperialism and its agents in the working class – the British Labour Party – had all united to put down with terror the Easter Rising. They were forced to crush the leadership of the revolutionary alliance of the working class with the revolutionary wing of the national movement because it threatened them all. The execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising, far from being a ‘blunder’, deprived the national movement of those leaders most capable of representing the interest of the Irish people in a mass struggle to totally destroy British imperialism’s rule in Ireland. As later events were to show, the loss of those leaders played an important role in the devastating splits and divisions in the coming struggle for Irish independence. Nevertheless, the Easter Rising was the birth of the modern revolutionary national movement in Ireland. And the working class, having provided one of its leaders, had shared in the formulation of the Republican standpoint – the position which has always guided the revolutionary wing of the national movement to this very day.

Socialists and the Easter Rising

Just before he was executed, Connolly remarked ‘(The Socialists) will never understand why I am here . . . They will all forget I am an Irishman’. How right was Connolly! The response, with very few exceptions, of the European labour and socialist movement was an almost unanimous condemnation of Connolly’s action in leading a section of the working class into a national uprising.

The Easter Rising demonstrated again the thoroughly reactionary character of the British labour and socialist movement. The Scottish ILP weekly Forward uttered the empty abstraction, ‘a man can be a nationalist or an internationalist’, to criticise Connolly. Socialist Review, journal of the ILP, announced in September 1916, ‘In no degree do we approve of the Sinn Féin rebellion. We do not approve of armed rebellion at all, any more than any other form of militarism or war’. Pacifism in an imperialist nation oppressing the Irish people by armed force is, as Lenin remarked, ‘the most pernicious opportunism’.

George Lansbury’s Herald informed its readers on 29 April that it was ‘against all war – civil wars no less than wars between nations . . .’. A week later it argued the reactionary consequences of that view: ‘the rising was doomed to failure and in my (George Lansbury’s) opinion was a crime against the Irish people’. For social democrats like Lansbury the question of Ireland came down to the issue of ‘how we are to administer in a satisfactory manner this small country?’. The Call, soon to be the official organ of the British Socialist Party, while understanding the efforts of the ‘Irish people to throw off the alien yoke’ nevertheless argued ‘to rise as the men in Dublin rose without adequate force . . . was foolish’. It then went on to support Home Rule for Ireland. The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Labour Party ‘left the merits, or demerits, of the revolt aside’ and simply told its readers in June 1916 that ‘armies are the force used by capitalist states to maintain their undisputed sway. Armies are not only used against “foreigners”’? Very practical!

‘[The Socialists] will never understand why I am here . . . They will all forget I am an Irishman.’

Only The Woman’s Dreadnought of 6 May 1916 (later to become The Workers Dreadnought) in a full page article written by Sylvia Pankhurst opened with a clear declaration of support for the right of the Irish people to self-determination. It was the most principled statement by a British socialist at a time of great anti-Irish hysteria. She thought the Rising may have been mistaken but she understood that ‘their rebellion was but a stage in the long struggle for Irish independence’. And she unreservedly joined ‘in common sorrow . . . for the Rebels who had been shot’.

Very few socialists were able to understand Connolly’s determined action in participating in the Rising despite his very clear writings on the national question. Trotsky in an article on 4 July 1916 on the Easter Rising showed how little he understood the national question and its relation to the working-class struggle for socialism when he wrote:

‘An all-Ireland movement such as the nationalist dreamers expected simply failed to materialise. The Irish countryside did not stir. The Irish bourgeoisie, and likewise the higher and more influential stratum of the Irish intelligentsia, held aloof. There fought and died only the workers of Dublin, together with some revolutionary enthusiasts from the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. The basis for national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland . . . The experiment of an Irish national rebellion . . . is over. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already it has brought into this revolt, even though under an archaic flag, its class indignation against militarism and imperialism. This indignation will not now subside.’ (our emphasis)

Trotsky’s assessment was totally wrong. His followers, to this day, refuse to recognise this fact. They, like Trotsky, deny the vital importance of the national question for the working class today. In attacking the Irish liberation movement as ‘petit bourgeois’ (nationalist dreamers) they, like Trotsky, write off the real forces fighting in a revolutionary manner and substitute for them an ‘ideal’ movement which does not exist. That is the essence of what is called petit bourgeois socialism.

Lenin alone pointed to the real significance of the Rising and in so doing laid the foundation for our understanding of the Irish revolution today. In attacking those in the European socialist movement who denied the significance of the national struggle or wrote off the Rising as a ‘putsch’, he argued:

‘The term ‘putsch’, in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interests . . . manifested itself in the street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! . . .

‘Whoever expects a “pure” revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.’

The misfortune of the Irish was, according to Lenin, that they rose ‘prematurely’ before the European revolt of the proletariat had time to mature. But Lenin knew that revolutions cannot be conducted according to a timetable:

‘It is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare the general onslaught . . .’

Connolly’s position, endorsed by Lenin, was vindicated by history when nine months after he died Tsarism was destroyed in Russia and nine months after that the Bolsheviks triumphed and the Soviet Union was established.

Revolutionary Nationalism after the Rising

The Easter Rising became popularly known as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, despite the fact that the leader of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, had played no part in the Rising, had condemned it and rejected its Republican standpoint. A new Sinn Féin movement was soon to arise on the foundations laid by the Easter Rising. The British jails and internment camps became training schools for this new Sinn Féin standpoint. When the interned, untried prisoners were released in December 1916, they spread the Republican position all over Ireland. The ex-prisoners were eager to build the organisations necessary for a new uprising. The IRB was reconstituted, and the Volunteers were reformed with Michael Collins, who had fought in the GPO during the Easter Rising, as Director of Organisation. They began drilling and training in secret.

Arrests of Volunteers and Republican agitators soon took place. The arrested men refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the courts. In gaol they demanded political status and answered the British refusal by going on hunger-strike. In September 1917, the death after force-feeding of Thomas Ashe, a Commandant during the Easter Rising, led to massive protests. Almost all Dublin was in mourning and on 30 September 1917, 30-40,000 people took part in a funeral procession in military formation. Its advanced guard were Irish Volunteers carrying rifles, and it included 9,000 Volunteers in uniform, and thousands of trade-union members marching in formation. Constance Markievicz led a Citizen Army contingent wearing full uniform with a revolver in her belt. At the cemetery three volleys were fired over the grave. Collins, in a very short funeral oration, said: ‘that volley we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian’. After this massive show of strength, the British authorities conceded political status. A new mass, militant and Republican Sinn Féin had been born.

On 25 October 1917, nearly 2,000 delegates attended the Ard Fheis (Conference) of a revitalised Sinn Féin. A new Constitution was drawn up. In the debate Griffith vigorously opposed Republicanism but was defeated. He stood down as President of Sinn Féin and was replaced by Éamon De Valera, the only surviving Commandant of the Easter Rising. Arthur Griffith became Vice-President and the executive included Eoin MacNeill, Cathal Brugha and Constance Markievicz. Sinn Féin, despite the very divergent trends in its membership, now stood firmly for Irish Republicanism.

Irish Labour after the Rising

The aftermath of the Easter Rising left the Irish labour movement in disarray. With Connolly’s murder, Irish labour lost its most capable leader – the only socialist leader who had really understood the importance of the national cause. Liberty Hall lay in ruins, files had been seized or destroyed, and the printing press and equipment of the Workers Republic were destroyed. Immediately after the Rising, the government arrested all trade-union leaders who had shown nationalist sympathies.

Connolly’s successors to the leadership of the Irish labour movement had not supported the alliance he had created with the revolutionary nationalists. They had not taken any part in the Easter Rising. After the Rising, they concentrated on ‘economic’ issues and on the revival of the trade union movement. Although prepared to use their association with Connolly to rebuild and expand the movement, they did not attempt to maintain organisational ties with the revolutionary nationalists. They made no attempt to revive the Citizen Army at the time the Irish Volunteers were being rebuilt. These men believed political power could be won through an advanced social-economic programme which would appeal to the workers. The national issue played little part in their calculations. For these leaders, Connolly’s revolutionary courage and leadership had gone unheeded.

The leadership of the Irish labour movement fell on two members from Belfast who were in no way involved with the Rising – Thomas Johnson and David Campbell. They disassociated the labour movement as a whole from any responsibility for the Rising. While they demanded the immediate trial or release of the imprisoned trade-union leaders, they did not protest at the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Neither did the Dublin Trades Council when it resumed its meetings in July 1916. The Irish TUC Executive, at its first Congress for two years in August 1916, announced through Johnson’s opening address:

‘This is not a place to enter into a discussion as to the right or wrong, the wisdom or the folly, of the revolt . . . as a trade-union movement, we are of varied minds on matters of historical and political development . . .’.

Delegates were asked to stand in memory of Connolly and others who died in the Rising, but were also asked to remember those that died fighting on the side of the British in the imperialist war ‘for what they believed to be the cause of Liberty and Democracy and for love of their country’. Johnson himself gave his personal support to the ‘Allied cause’. The Executive also attempted to disassociate the Transport Union from the Citizen Army stating that ‘not more than half’ of the army participants in the Rising were members of the Union and that the army was simply a tenant in Liberty Hall. The ‘unity’ of the Irish labour movement – there were the Unionist members in Belfast to consider – and the protection of its organisations became the dominant consideration. This was now put before the real interest of Irish labour which was to build an alliance with the revolutionary nationalists in the struggle to establish a democratic Irish Republic. Because of this, Irish labour’s political influence continually diminished in the revolutionary struggles ahead.

Irish Labour and Sinn Féin did unite in a successful mass campaign against the attempt of Lloyd George to introduce conscription in April 1918. The Irish TUC-Labour Party called a 24-hour general strike for 23 April 1918 – it was the first general strike against the war in any Western European country. It was a near total success apart from the Belfast area where Unionist workers were concentrated. It demonstrated the power Irish Labour could wield in the national cause.

The General Election December 1918

Immediately at the end of the war, Lloyd George called a General Election. This saw the destruction of the Irish (Home Rule) Party and a massive electoral victory for Sinn Féin. Out of 105 seats returned for Ireland, Sinn Féin won 73, while the Irish Party won only six, and four of these in Ulster were due to an agreement with Sinn Féin. The Unionists won 26 seats. Of the nine counties of Ulster, the Unionists polled a majority in only four. The vast majority of the Irish people, nearly 70%, had voted for an independent Irish Republic.

The Irish TUC-Labour Party did not contest the elections. Sinn Féin had offered a pact with Labour, to stand down in certain constituencies if Labour candidates would sign a pledge, which committed them to an independent Irish Republic and to unconditional abstention from the English Parliament. The Irish Labour Party refused to accept this principled position. Its manifesto supported abstention but said that they might attend the English Parliament at some time ‘if special circumstances warranted it’ and a special Congress-Party meeting approved it. The Labour manifesto also said nothing about participation in an Irish national assembly that Sinn Féin proposed to establish after the election. As the election drew near, it became clear that this position of the Irish Labour Party would receive little support. Nationalist workers would now vote overwhelmingly for Sinn Féin. Most Unionist workers would not vote for any degree of Irish independence. The Irish Labour Party decided not to stand. Its executive rationalised this on the grounds it wanted to give the electorate a chance to decide on the question of self-determination. But this was nothing more than the inevitable result of official Labour’s bankrupt policy on the national question.

Dáil Éireann

The extent of the Republican victory at the election was much greater than it seems. The British authorities had done everything in their power to prevent it. Sinn Féin election meetings were banned, election agents and speakers arrested, election addresses were censored or suppressed, and election literature was confiscated. More than a hundred Sinn Féin leaders were in gaol after arrests following the anti-conscription campaign, and the greater part of the country was under military rule. Of the 73 Republicans elected, 36 were in gaol, including De Valera and Griffith, and many others were ‘on the run’ or in the USA evading arrest. As with the recent election of Bobby Sands, the British would ignore the results. ‘Democracy’ for the British ruling class was only evoked when its effects strengthened their own class rule.

An Irish national assembly was called for 21 January 1919. Everyone elected in Ireland was invited regardless of Party. 27 Republicans eventually met in the Mansion House, Dublin. Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland) was declared. A declaration was adopted which affirmed Ireland as ‘a sovereign and independent nation’ and which ratified the 1916 Proclamation. The Dáil also adopted, but not without opposition, a ‘Democratic Programme’ which was drawn up after advice from the leaders of Irish Labour. It was a social programme which expressed the continuing influence of Pearse and Connolly.

There were now two ‘governments’ in Ireland. The one, Dáil Éireann, backed by the vast majority of the Irish people. The other, that of the British authorities, operating from Dublin Castle possessing the forces of repression to impose their decrees. It is worthy of note that it was not the so-called ‘Western Democracies’, which had just fought an imperialist war under the guise of protecting small nations, that recognised the newly founded Irish Republic. The only national government to recognise Dáil Éireann was the revolutionary government under Lenin in the Soviet Union.

‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences, carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’

On 6 March, all Irish political prisoners were released from gaol after a member of the Dáil died in Gloucester prison. De Valera, who had escaped from prison in February, now back in Dublin, became on 1 April 1919 President of the Irish Republic. One of those freed, Constance Markievicz – the first woman elected to Parliament in a British election became Minister of Labour in the Dáil.

War of Independence

The first phase of the war came with the actions taken by the British to prevent the Dáil establishing its machinery of government. The attempt by the Dáil to raise a loan of £250,000 was treated as ‘seditious’. Newspapers publishing advertisements for the loan were suppressed. Warrants were issued for the arrest of many of the Ministers and Deputies of Dáil Éireann. The National Arbitration Courts set up by the Dáil were declared ‘illegal assemblies’ and finally on 10 September 1919, Dáil Éireann itself was suppressed and all national movements in Ireland were banned.

Thousands of English troops were being poured into Ireland from the beginning of 1919, with tanks, armoured cars and other weapons. The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) with nearly 10,000 men maintained fortified barracks commanding each town and village. Clashes occurred with the Irish Volunteers – now renamed the Irish Republican Army. A clash between IRA men of Cork and the military in Fermoy on 7 September resulted in a soldier being killed. The response of the British gave some idea of the terror that was to come. 200 English regular soldiers on the following day descended on Fermoy and in an orgy of destruction sacked and looted shops and wantonly destroyed anything they could get their hands on. A guerrilla war had started.

Early in 1920 a Curfew Order was placed on the towns and the British adopted an official policy of terrorism with the introduction of the ‘Black-and-Tans’, named after their mixed uniforms, and the ‘Auxiliaries’. Both were officially off-shoots of the RIC – the British refused to admit officially that more than extended ‘police measures’ were necessary to maintain law and order in Ireland. The same policy they adopt today. The ‘Tans’ were recruited from England and chosen from a ‘tough’ class of men including ex-army recruits and criminals who had had their sentences remitted if they volunteered for service. The ‘Auxiliaries’ were a mercenary force recruited from ex-officers of the Army, Navy and Air Forces.

The struggle that developed shocked the whole world and eventually had a dramatic effect on public opinion in Britain once the truth became known. Murder, arson, torture of prisoners, systematic beatings, looting and destruction of whole areas became the routine of British-inflicted terror. The British forces were seen by the Irish people in the same way as the Nazi Gestapo were viewed in Europe during the second imperialist war. The IRA fought back. They ambushed British forces and destroyed official British government buildings. In one weekend in April 1920 most of the income tax offices in Ireland were sent up in flames. IRA ambushes of the British forces were replied to with terror – by beatings, looting and destruction of houses, buildings, businesses in the surrounding area. Recruits joined the IRA in larger and larger numbers and the British forces had to retreat into the larger towns from most outlying areas. In such areas Republican Courts were established which maintained basic law and order and were accepted by the people. The impotence of the British authorities in the face of the popular acceptance of the authority of the Dáil increasingly became clear.

The British then as today called the popular forces of the IRA ‘terrorists’ and ‘murderers’. Then as today the real terrorists were the British forces. A report of one of the ‘Tans’ atrocities gives some idea of what the British forces were like:

‘A party of the Black-and-Tans, capturing six unarmed Volunteers at Kerry Pike, near Cork, cut out the tongue of one, the nose of another, the heart of another, and battered the skull of a fourth.’ (Frank Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal)

In total contrast, then as today, as confirmed in non-official British army reports, the IRA were regarded as a highly trained disciplined force which ‘imbued the military spirit, the sense of military honour etc . . .’. Behind their organisation it was said ‘there is the spirit of a nation’. The secret army Document 37 recently captured and made public by the Provisionals gives a similar description of the IRA forces today.

The People's War

In this period of the war, small-holders and landless peasants were seizing large estates mostly owned by absentee landlords and dividing them up among the workers. The Dáil had set up Land Arbitration Courts in May 1920 to deal with the problem of land disputes. But these courts leant over backwards to be helpful to Unionist landowners. The majority of verdicts were in favour of the landlords and the IRA in certain areas was used as a counter-revolutionary force to put into practice what these Courts decided. However, in other areas, especially where the people were most active in the national struggle eg, West Cork, Co Clare, the IRA co-operated with the people in seizing, confiscating and re-dividing the large estates. The class divisions in the national movement, on issues like these, were bound to come to the fore.

The Irish working class became increasingly militant in this period. Already before this phase of the war, a general strike had been called by the Trades Council in Limerick in April 1919 in response to the British authorities proclaiming Limerick a special military area with special permit regulations for access to the city. The General Strike lasted 12 days. With support of the public, the local leaders of the IRA, and the IRA Chief-of-Staff, the Strike Committee organised food distribution, issued notes of exchange and controlled the operation of traffic. This strike became known as the Limerick Soviet. It achieved its aims and the British military order was soon withdrawn.

On 5 April 1920, a two-day General Strike was called by the Irish labour movement in support of 100 Irish prisoners who were on hunger-strike in Mountjoy prison for Prisoner-of-War status or release. It was dramatically effective. The prisoners were unconditionally released and British policies towards prisoners were forcibly changed.

May 1920 saw the munitions transport strike. It followed the example of the refusal of British dock workers to load munitions on the Jolly George because the arms were for the Polish government, then at war with the Soviet Union. Dublin and Dún Laoghaire dockers refused to unload a British munitions ship. The Transport Union supported them. The strike soon spread. When the British used troops to unload the munitions, the railway workers refused to move them. Some railway men were threatened with shooting by British army authorities, in some cases actually having a revolver put to their heads. But they refused to move the trains. These men were members of the British based National Union of Railwaymen and they also saw the Polish case as a precedent. While the NUR had supported the Polish boycott, it did not approve the actions of its Irish branch. The NUR Executive, led by the treacherous Mr J H Thomas MP, attempted to bargain the men back to work. A special TUC Congress was called to consider the whole Irish issue in July 1920, as a bargaining measure in the hope of getting the men to call the strike off. It refused to take a principled stand. Instead it passed a militant sounding call by the miners for a general strike if Britain did not call a truce, withdraw its troops, and give Ireland self-government under Dominion status with guarantees for minorities. Even this essentially reactionary motion (the Irish wanted a Republic) could not lead to action – it was never intended to do so – because it embodied no timescale after which the strike would be called. However, in spite of the lack of support from the British unions, the railwaymen continued their action for some months in defiance of the British authorities. 1,500 men were dismissed during the dispute which received wholehearted backing, including financial support, from the Irish Labour movement. According to General Macready, the British Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, this action of the Transport workers created ‘a serious set-back to military actions during the best season of the year’.

In spring 1920, after a strike for higher wages, fifty workers took over a creamery in Knocklong owned by a prominent Unionist. The creamery was a trading centre for all farms in the district – one of the biggest in Ireland. Under the slogan ‘we make butter not profits’ they decided to seize control of the factory and mill as the Knocklong Soviet Creamery. The farmers continued to supply milk to the creamery which continued to process and distribute. It was eventually destroyed by British troops on 22 August as part of a systematic attack on Irish industrial life. By April 1921 British troops had destroyed some sixty-one co-operative creameries alone.

In May 1921 the Arigna coal mines in Co Leitrim were taken over by the workers, and a red flag hoisted. In September, the port of Cork was taken over and run as a Soviet.

The Irish Revolution, as the War of Independence conclusively demonstrated, involved the mass of Irish people. It not only challenged British imperialism but threatened the continuation of capitalist class rule itself.

The response of the British Labour movement

The social democratic wing of the British labour movement – the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party – did not support the struggle of the Irish people for a democratic Republic. They only raised their voice on the Irish question to condemn the Republican movement or to head off any support for that movement which might be building up in the British working class. They opposed the violence and brutality of British imperialism only because it created a revolutionary opposition to imperialism among those it oppressed. ‘Repression has driven many Nationalists belonging to the Constitutional school into the arms of Sinn Féin’. And ‘under such conditions it is practically impossible to bring the Irish Republican Army to bay . . . Executions and torture are not deterrents; they have indeed, the opposite effect’. (Labour Party Report, Jan, Dec 1920)

The Labour Party and its supporters wanted better management of Irish affairs under some form of non-violent neo-colonial rule – that is Home-Rule or Dominion Status under the umbrella of the British Empire. The Irish however wanted an independent Republic and were engaged in a war against British imperialism to obtain it. The British, therefore, could only maintain their rule by atrocities and terror. Ireland had become ungovernable by British imperialism. It was in this context – and rather late in the day – that the British Labour Party started to speak on the question of Ireland. And its primary concern was to save British imperialism from its own ‘excesses’.

The Labour Party policy on Ireland in 1921 was arrived at after two Commissions of Enquiry in January and December 1920. It began by saying that the Labour Party was in favour of self-determination, and then went on to show that it clearly wasn’t. It called for

  1. The withdrawal of all armed forces from Ireland.
  2. The placing of responsibility for the maintenance of order in each locality on local authorities themselves, as in Great Britain outside the Metropolitan area.
  3. An immediate election by proportional representation, of an entirely open Constituent Assembly, charged to work out at the earliest possible moment, without limitations or fetters, whatever constitution for Ireland the Irish people desire, subject only to two conditions – that it affords protection to minorities and that the Constitution should prevent Ireland from becoming a military or naval menace to Great Britain.

This position might deceive some British socialists today but it was viewed by revolutionaries with contempt at that time. The question was ‘are you for or against the Irish Republic?’ (Workers Dreadnought 12 November 1921). On British Labour official policy, it therefore asked, what do Labour’s conditions for self-determination mean? It answered:

Labour Party Statement, Protection to Minorities.

Probable Meaning, The handful of people in Ulster to be given equal power with the rest of Ireland.

Labour Party Statement, The Constitution should prevent Ireland from becoming a naval or military threat to Britain.

Probable Meaning, Ireland to be kept within the Empire under the control of the British Army and Navy . . .’

The Communist 13 January 1921 (successor to the Call as paper of the British Communist Party) offered the Labour Party what it regarded as a ‘charitable’ suggestion. It was to cut out from their policy all but clause 1 the withdrawal of the British forces from Ireland. It asked of the proposed Constituent Assembly etc ‘By whose authority will this conclave assemble?’ and answered, ‘that of the British Empire of which the Labour Party is a worthy pillar’. It said that the only solution to the Irish question was ‘to recognise the Irish Republic as an established fact and to enter into a proper and reasonable treaty of peace with its accredited representatives’. Revolutionaries then recognised that the Labour Party’s policy on Ireland was only designed to protect British imperialism and maintain the British Empire.

Those very small sections of the socialist movement in Britain which took the communist side of the split in the international working-class movement did consistently support the Irish people’s struggle for self-determination. Revolutionaries such as John Maclean and Sylvia Pankhurst gave a lead to the movement speaking at meetings and writing articles and pamphlets commenting on the unfolding events. But they were never able to build a mass movement like that associated with the Hands Off Russia campaign. That campaign was built on an anti-war, pacifist mood in the British working class. A Hands Off Ireland Campaign would have had to directly confront British imperialism. It never got off the ground. The Communist International therefore took British Communists to task:

‘The International will not judge the British comrades by the articles that they write in the Call and the Workers Dreadnought, but by the number of comrades who are thrown in gaol for agitating in the colonial countries. We would point out to the British comrades that it is their duty to help the Irish movement with all their strength, that it is their duty to use all their resources to block the policy that the British transport and railway unions are at present pursuing of permitting troop transports to be shipped to Ireland. It is very easy at the moment to speak out in Britain against intervention in Russia, since even the bourgeois left is against it. It is harder for the British comrades to take up the cause of Irish independence and of anti-militarist activity. We have a right to demand this difficult work of the British Comrades.’ (Radek, Second Congress of Communist International July 1920)

It is one of those bitter facts of British Labour movement history that at the very time when the Irish struggle should have been central to communist propaganda and agitation, the communists in Britain were devoting pages and pages of their press to the question of affiliation to the Labour Party. That is, affiliation to the very Labour Party which throughout its short history had done even more to undermine the Irish people’s struggle for self-determination than anything done by the British ruling class.

The Treaty and Partition

The increasing political difficulties facing the British Government forced Lloyd George to introduce the Government of Ireland Act (1920) – an amended version of the old Home Rule Act (1914). It proposed two Parliaments, one for the six north-eastern counties of Ulster, the other for the remaining 26 counties. The Parliaments would be subservient to Westminster. Only six counties of Ulster were chosen, so that the Unionists would have a large majority. The Ulster counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan where the nationalists had overwhelming majorities were excluded whereas Fermanagh and Tyrone with small nationalist majorities were included. The Act included a provision that the two Parliaments might, if they chose, set up an All-Ireland Council, which could agree to a reunited Ireland. However this was mere window dressing for the benefit of Americans and the British Labour Party. Lloyd George knew that the Loyalists in the proposed six-counties would never agree to a united Ireland.

Dáil Éireann simply ignored the Act. Municipal and Urban elections in January 1920, under a proportional representational system designed by the British to severely undermine Sinn Féin, only confirmed that the majority of the Irish people wanted a Republic. In the nine counties of Ulster, 23 towns fell to Sinn Féin and only 22 to the Unionists. The June 1920 county election results strongly confirmed this result. The northern capitalists and the Orange Order began to panic. Pogroms were organised against the Catholics. All Catholic workers were driven out of the Belfast shipyards and out of factories where ‘loyalists’ predominated. Some 10,000 men and 1,000 women were expelled from their jobs by loyalist thugs wielding stones, bludgeons and revolvers. Only after four days did the military intervene. 22 civilians were killed and nearly 200 were severely injured. During August 400 Catholic families were driven out of their homes. Those responsible for this thuggery and murder received the backing of the British authorities. They were the ‘loyal’ friends of Britain who were there to prevent the establishment of a united Republican Ireland.

The inability of Britain to defeat the IRA, and the growing opposition in Britain to British terror in Ireland forced the Truce of July 1921. However in Belfast there was no truce. Orange mobs and the newly formed ‘special police’ burnt down 161 Catholic homes, killed 15 people and injured another 68. This was soon after the Northern Ireland Parliament had been elected with Craig as Prime Minister. Initial negotiations showed the Government was prepared to give the 26 Counties Dominion Status within the British Commonwealth, but Partition would remain as long as the parliament of Northern Ireland wanted it. The Dáil unanimously rejected these conditions on 23 August 1921 but appointed plenipotentiaries to resume negotiations.

On 6 December 1921, Collins and Griffiths signed the Treaty. It gave the twenty-six counties of Ireland Dominion Status within the British Commonwealth in the form of a ‘Free State’. The Six Counties were to remain partitioned and part of the United Kingdom. The agreement had been signed under the threat of ‘an immediate and terrible war’. It immediately split the Republican movement. On 7 January 1922, 64 members of the Dáil voted for the Treaty, 57 demanded its rejection. On 9 January, De Valera resigned as President of the Dáil and Griffith was elected. The IRA’s nineteen divisions had split into eleven for the Republic and eight for the Free State. The Civil War soon began. With the aid of British imperialist arms and weapons the reactionary ‘Free State’ forces eventually gained total control. A bourgeois neo-colonial state had been created. In the North pogroms and killings of Catholics continued. Connolly’s all too prophetic warning in March 1914 had come true. Partition of Ireland had brought a ‘carnival of reaction both North and South’.

The British Labour movement must take a great deal of responsibility for these developments. Time and again – Dublin lock-out 1913, Easter Rising 1916, War of Independence 1919-21 – through its subservience to British imperialism, the British Labour movement had betrayed the Irish people’s struggle for self-determination.

Lloyd George could not have threatened Griffith and Collins with a ‘terrible war’ if the Labour movement had taken a principled stand. After ‘pacifying’ Ireland, British imperialism could more easily take on the British working class. For it was the same leadership of the labour movement which having betrayed the revolutionary Irish, would so easily betray the struggles of the British working class up to and including the 1926 General Strike.

While the British Labour Party, the ILP, and the British TUC welcomed the reactionary ‘Free State’, the tiny Communist Movement in Britain continued to support the anti-Treaty forces. It followed the lead of the Communist International in siding with those revolutionary forces of Republicanism still determined to fight for a united Ireland. That stand taken by the Communist Movement should be our starting point today.

The legacy of the British Labour movement’s betrayal of the Irish people remains. Partition did not ‘solve’ the Irish question. Revolutionary Republicans have continued to fight. The Northern Statelet, artificially created by British imperialism to maintain its domination over Ireland, could never be stable. For it was based on the repression of a significant minority of its population. As a new crisis of imperialism approached at the end of the 1960s, the struggle revived again. Revolutionary nationalism was to re-emerge as a mass force in the North-East Counties of Ireland.

Continued in part five.

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

David Reed
May 1981


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