For a socialist United Ireland: back to Connolly!

We were delighted to announce recently the republication by Wellred Books of Alan Woods’ Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution, the first edition of which came out in 2005 and has long been out of print. The brand new introduction to the book, which we publish below, draws out the processes that have been developing in Ireland in the years that have passed since: from the burgeoning crisis of capitalism, to the rise of Sinn Féin in the North and South, and the reemergence of the border question under Brexit.


[Click here to order your copy / click here to buy a ticket for the launch event]

This book first saw the light of day in 2005. At that time the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was barely six years old. The Provisional IRA had turned away from the armed struggle, put on suits, and climbed the steps of Stormont as members of the National Assembly. At the time Stormont was suspended, but within a year Sinn Féin would agree to join the Executive and jointly run the devolved administration with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The abrupt turn in the situation led to serious questioning among many Republicans. It was clear that the armed struggle had failed. But Sinn Féin’s turn towards electoral politics offered no clear route towards a united Ireland either. Far from having toppled British rule in the North of Ireland, Sinn Féin politicians were now co-administering it with their former enemies. What then was the purpose of all the sacrifices made over so many years? It was clear to many Republicans that a new departure was necessary.

Ian Paisley Image DUP PhotosWhen Sinn Féin agreed to join the Executive and jointly run the devolved administration with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it led to serious questioning among many Republicans / Image: DUP Photos

This book was intended as a contribution to that discussion. In it, Alan Woods predicted that the GFA and its institutions were doomed to failure and collapse; that they were a cruel trap designed to ensnare the desire of the masses for peace and an end to sectarianism.

Back then, such a prediction might have seemed quite distant, but the passage of time has completely confirmed its correctness.

It had once seemed so different. The prolonged boom of capitalism and the apparently inexorable tendency towards European integration gave the appearance of a softening of national contradictions in Ireland and elsewhere. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, capitalism appeared to have overcome its internal contradictions.

The same amount of time has now passed since the first edition of this book saw the light of day, as had then passed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This book was written towards the end of that period of triumphalism on the part of the strategists of capitalism. Capitalism, we were told back then, had won, and history had ended. But, as the Bible explains: “pride goeth before the fall.”

Cracks were already appearing in the system’s foundations. In the Balkans, war and genocide returned to the European continent in the 1990s. The attacks on 11 September 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent insurgencies in those countries exposed the extent of the contradictions that imperialism had enmeshed itself in and starkly revealed the fact that US power had reached its limits.

And in 2008, the boom times drew to an end. In the South of Ireland, the Celtic Tiger breathed its last, and Ireland joined the ranks of those nations in Europe whose eye-watering levels of indebtedness threatened to collapse the European Union itself.

In the wake of the crisis, the working class was hammered by wave after wave of austerity. In the depths of society an explosive rage has built up. A poll of 22,000 young people, aged 18 to 34, conducted in 2016 in the South of Ireland found that 54% would participate in a large-scale uprising against the government if it took place in the near future. By comparison, when French youth were asked the same question, the results were only a little higher at 61%. Two years later this was precisely what we saw in France with the gilet jaunes: an insurrectionary movement of the youth, workers and poor.

Every pillar of the establishment in Ireland is now facing a crisis of confidence – from the media to the church, the judiciary, the gardaí, to the Civil War parties that have dominated politics in the South for nearly a century. In short, we are witnessing a crisis of the entire regime, a regime established by the bourgeoisie one century ago on the back of its treacherous betrayal of the Irish Revolution.

In his masterpiece, The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky explained that “society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all.”

It is precisely this fact that makes revolutions inevitable.

The main institutions of capitalist rule in Ireland: the constitution, the two-party system, the position of the Church, and partition and British rule in the North – all are part of a settlement that arose from a betrayed revolution a century ago.

For decades, the two-party system cemented the political domination of the capitalists and landlords in the South of Ireland. Now those two pro-capitalist parties, which formed out of opposing sides in the Civil War a century ago, have been forced to govern jointly. They have been permanently exposed as the Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum of Irish politics.

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, secured the spiritual domination of the ruling class. Whenever the ruling class in Ireland has faced a threat, the Church would whip up hysteria against the influence of atheism, communism and revolutionary Republicanism. Since partition, under its brutal reign, women, children and the most vulnerable have suffered an atrocious catalogue of crimes. In a word, the Irish capitalist class – a weak and backward class – has always rested on all that is backward and superstitious in Irish society.

Ireland abortion referendum Image Katenolan1979Ireland's youthful working class dealt the Catholic Church serious blows in the same-sex marriage and abortion referenda of 2015 and 2018 / Image: Katenolan1979

What is remarkable is how little of that backwardness there is to rest upon today. The astonishing collapse of the Catholic Church since this book was first written has spectacularly attested to this fact. In the same-sex marriage and abortion referenda of 2015 and 2018, Ireland’s youthful working class delivered a one-two knockout blow to this once mighty bulwark of reaction.

This is an institution, let us recall, that has helped to undermine every revolutionary movement in the nation’s history. In the past, at each crucial moment, it threw its full weight onto the side of reaction and against the struggle for self-determination. As Alan explains in this book:

“It was a Pope who first handed Ireland to the English. It was another Pope who backed William of Orange against the Irish Catholics. The Catholic Church did nothing to protect the Irish language and culture when it was threatened with extinction. It opposed the United Irishmen and the Fenians and it destroyed Parnell. Above all, the Church bitterly opposed every advance of the labour movement in the early days. It denounced and persecuted Republicans, especially socialist Republicans.”

Hatred of the Church has become a touchstone of the brewing mood of anger among the youth. But this radicalisation is also reflected in a host of other ways: in growing anger against all forms of oppression – against sexism, racism and homophobia. It is reflected in a hatred of imperialism and sympathy among the youth for oppressed peoples all over the globe. And it is also reflected in growing support for Irish unification and an end to partition.

In the absence of a revolutionary party, this radicalisation has so far been expressed in the electoral rise of Sinn Féin. When this book was first published in 2005, Sinn Féin had one seat in the Dáil. In 2020, it was catapulted to first place in the popular vote, and took 37 seats.

This is a development that has left the ruling class aghast. They are not so afraid of Sinn Féin’s leaders or their policies. The ruling class calculate that they can be domesticated. Frankly, the party stands for quite a modest set of reforms, although from time to time its leaders speak in quite ‘left’ language in the South. No, what the ruling class really fears are the masses that stand behind Sinn Féin.

This is a curious turn of events because, as Alan Woods points out in this book, the origins and history of Sinn Féin are that of a right-wing trend within the Republican tradition. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Provisional movement spelled out that it would serve “neither Queen nor Commissar”. Marxism, its leaders claimed, was an ideology foreign to Ireland.

Such a claim flies in the face of reality. As Alan Woods explains, Republicanism is a movement which is riven with contradictory tendencies. Yes, there is a right-wing trend within Republicanism. Throughout its history, this tendency always veered towards treachery.

But there has always been another tendency too: a left wing, represented by Larkin, Mellows, Costello, and above all, by the colossal figure of James Connolly, the great revolutionary Marxist and martyr. In applying the Marxist method to Irish conditions, Connolly showed that, far from being some “foreign” ideology, the method of Marxism is an essential tool for shedding light on Irish history and on the task of revolutionaries in Ireland.

In the last analysis, the two tendencies within Republicanism reflect class contradictions in Irish society. Those contradictions have not gone away. If anything, they are sharper and more irreconcilable than ever. And Sinn Féin presently embodies that contradiction. It has been elevated in the South on the hopes of workers and youth, and a swelling wave of class anger. Yet its leadership possesses a petty bourgeois outlook, while the party’s very success has drawn defections from Fianna Fáil, and the attention of every manner of political careerist.

How can these two tendencies be reconciled? They cannot. In the long run, they will inevitably tear Sinn Féin apart.

The North

There is another reason that the rise of Sinn Féin in the South has caused a great deal of anxiety within ruling class circles: the implications that this has for developments in the North.

Free Derry Image kitestramuortThe capitalists' promises of peace, prosperity and an end to sectarianism in Northern Ireland have been exposed as a sham /Image: kitestramuort

The North is in a deep crisis and is becoming increasingly unbalanced. Whilst the South experienced a sustained boom in the 1990s, in the North this boom amounted to very little. Frankly, the connection with Britain has acted as a giant ball and chain, both politically and economically.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the ruling classes of Ireland and Britain arrogantly thought that the ghosts of the past had been put to sleep in the North. In fact it was they who had fallen asleep. With the IRA gone, and the violence over, politicians in Dublin and London praised themselves to the heavens for having brought peace to this corner of the world.

They then turned off the lights, and went back to ignoring the North. In the years that have followed, all their promises of peace, prosperity and an end to sectarianism have soured. As Alan Woods explained back in 2005, the GFA was doomed to an inevitable, unhappy ending:

“In reality the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions that have flowed from it are a sham and a deception. They represent a cruel trap with which to ensnare the desire of the majority of the population for peace. As such, despite its understandably gaining a majority in the referendum, the Marxists and the Republican socialists alike opposed it, and told the truth, no matter how unpalatable, to the working class of Ireland and Britain.”

The capitalists continued to dismantle industry. The predicted inrush of investment failed to seriously materialise. As in Britain, the North of Ireland has suffered from a deep productivity crisis. A 2019 report calculated that what the average worker in a G7 country produces in 3 days takes a UK worker 4 days, and a worker in the North of Ireland 5 days to produce.[1]

For the majority of workers – both Catholic and Protestant – conditions in the North have stagnated or deteriorated. The promised “peace dividend” failed to materialise. The Northern economy has continued to decline. 45% of households have no savings. The NHS has fallen into shocking disrepair. Even before the coronavirus pandemic ran a wrecking ball through the healthcare system, routine operations had waiting lists that lasted years.

But as long as the boom continued and the border wasn’t an issue thanks to common British and Irish membership of the EU, the GFA could more-or-less tick along. But since the 2008 economic crisis, and the Brexit vote of 2016, both of these props have been rudely kicked from under the GFA and the institutions.

With the DUP and Sinn Féin (not to mention the smaller Stormont parties) having spent a decade carrying out austerity cuts together, the devolved Assembly has come to resemble little more than a trough in which well-heeled careerists have buried their snouts. The Renewable Heating Initiative scandal confirmed this spectacularly when it was shown that big business, with the connivance of civil servants and politicians, had fleeced the people of the North of Ireland to the tune of £500 million. It was precisely increasing anger at this rotten setup that forced Sinn Féin to pull the plug and collapse the power-sharing executive in 2017.

Finally, the ruling classes of Britain and Ireland were forced to sit up and pay attention, alarmed at the situation which had developed right under their noses.

When Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly, their actions enjoyed a certain popularity, and naturally so. After all, for a growing layer of workers and youth – Catholic and Protestant – the status quo stinks to high heaven and deserves only to be overthrown. But Sinn Féin didn’t have a clue where to go next and, if truth be told, had done everything in their power to avoid collapsing the Executive in the first place.

Once they had abandoned the armed struggle and entered Stormont under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin not only signalled their de facto acceptance of British rule, they also accepted that they would co-administer this rule by agreement with the parties of unionism. In a time of capitalist crisis, that meant co-administering attacks upon the working class.

If Sinn Féin is capable of administering such attacks, what political principles can be said to separate the party from its ‘on-again, off-again’ partners in government? Only the party’s nationalism. James Connolly had some choice words for such ‘nationalists’:

“Ireland as distinct from her people, is nothing to me: and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for Ireland, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation brought upon the people of Ireland – aye, brought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements he is pleased to call Ireland.”[2]

The whole peace process has been a story of Sinn Féin’s journey from one concession to the next at the behest of an establishment which regards it, and Republicanism in general, with a full measure of contempt. From “Smash Stormont”, they have become Stormont ministers. Whilst agreeing to decommission IRA weapons, to this day the UDA, UVF and other loyalist paramilitaries operate with impunity. They recognised the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), yet the latter continues to harass Republicans. Its leaders deliver speeches paying tribute to the British monarch. In the South, they have accepted juryless trials that were once used against IRA volunteers. And they have implemented every policy dictated by the British capitalist class, from PFI to austerity.

To cover their bare backsides, the party leaders have tried to claim that the armed struggle wasn’t so much about achieving a united Ireland as it was about achieving “equality”.

Leaving objections about what the armed struggle was really about to one side: where is this much-vaunted equality today? In Derry, where the movement for civil rights began in earnest in 1968, and was extinguished in blood by the British Army massacre of 30 January 1972, today 47% of adults are ‘economically inactive’.

Progress towards democratic equality has also stalled. The Irish language is far from having achieved equal status. The laws governing marriage equality and reproductive rights in the North of Ireland are more backward today than in any other region on these islands. The right of self-determination is non-existent – the power to call a border poll rests exclusively with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. And none of this is to speak of the mockery of democracy that is the Stormont Assembly itself.

Constitutional nationalism

Whilst little progress has been made either in terms of material or democratic equality in the North of Ireland, that is not to say that things have stood still. In fact, enormous tectonic changes have been ongoing beneath the surface of a dysfunctional political settlement. These changes have aroused enormous expectations about the possibility of Irish unification in the coming years.

Bloody Sunday Image murielle29 FlickrTo this day, no one has been convicted for the Bloody Sunday massacre / Image: murielle29 Flickr

On the one hand, the North has seen significant demographic changes, with Catholics now representing a majority at all levels of education and in employment. Further to this, the rottenness of Stormont and Westminster alike, and above all the decline of living standards and crumbling services have radicalised increasing numbers of workers and youth. A growing, advanced layer sees partition and the ongoing connection with British capitalism at the root of their ills.

At the same time, unionism is in a deep crisis. The stranglehold of unionism in the past was based on the fact that the Protestant bosses, assisted by organisations like the Orange Order, were able to grant the kind of concessions to Protestant workers that created a false, cross-class community of interests. However, under the pressure to boost profits, and with the decline of manufacturing, the bosses have snatched away many of these crumbs. This decline, masked by the Second World War and the post-war boom, became particularly evident following the crisis of the 1970s. It has continued down to the present.

Today, this long-running crisis has reached a tipping point. The once-dominant unionist parties are in crisis. A brooding resentment has developed in working-class Protestant communities. Meanwhile, a significant layer of Protestant youth have completely turned their backs on the parties that claim to speak on their behalf.

All of these symptoms show the potential that exists to build a revolutionary movement on class lines in the North, and indeed across Ireland, in the tradition of Connolly and Larkin. But this is not the orientation of Sinn Féin.

As a result of capitalism’s crisis, it is not just the working class that is being radicalised. Whilst conditions generally stagnated for the majority in the North since the GFA, for a thin layer, conditions improved. Aided in part by EU disbursements, some nationalists were able to raise themselves up into the middle class. Moving out to the leafy suburbs, for a time, these ladies and gentlemen lost all interest in the idea of Irish unification.

But Brexit and the crisis racking Britain threatens to undo all their advances. Meanwhile, the loosening of the Catholic Church’s grip makes unification more palatable to liberally-minded, middle-class nationalists.

This layer is now radicalising in favour of Irish unification. It is towards such “moderate nationalist” middle-class layers that Sinn Féin’s leaders now face in the North. They believe that, if they can only win enough of these people round, they can secure a majority in a unity referendum that they are certain is round the corner.

As Marxists we stand unequivocally for a United Ireland. But Sinn Féin’s strategy is impotent to bring such a thing about. The party has voluntarily tied its own hands with the rope of constitutionality. It believes it can win Irish unification by merely asking British imperialism to grant the people of the North a democratic vote. Why should British imperialism grant such a vote? Because the Good Friday Agreement says so. But a political strategy, which places faith in British imperialism to act in a certain way because it is constitutionally bound to do so, is (at best) hopelessly misguided.

The law is little more than a scrap of paper to the British ruling class: a scrap of paper they will happily trample the moment it ceases to serve their interests.

The whole history of British imperialism, and of the Tory Party in particular, confirms this point. Referring to the Home Rule crisis in 1914, Alan Woods explains:

“The “democratic” landlords and capitalists of the North of Ireland did not hesitate to organise armed resistance to the legally elected government in London as soon as their interests were threatened. And they immediately got the support of the British Conservative Party and the tops of the British army, who rebelled against the Constitution and refused to obey orders. They put solidarity with their class brothers before all laws, constitutions, rules and regulations – and they won. There are many lessons in this.”

From the Home Rule crisis to Thatcher’s dirty war in the 1980s, the British ruling class has never seen any need to stick to the rules of “fairness” and “constitutionality” where its interests are concerned. And nothing has changed today. The last decade-and-a-half has furnished further proof of this fact.

We now know that some of the most grievous atrocities of the Troubles involved collusion by the British state. From the killings of the notorious Glenanne gang – including the Miami Showband massacre, and the Dublin and Monagahn bombings – to the Sean Graham killings, we find the fingerprints of the British state all over these crimes. Evidence of collusion is now coming to light, despite the attempts of the state to cover its tracks.

For decades following the Bloody Sunday massacre of 30 January 1972, the British state stuck to its official line concocted that very day by the British Army, and repeated in the notorious Widgery Report: that paratroopers had acted in self-defence and only fired when they were fired upon. Only in 2010 did the Saville Report exonerate those peaceful Civil Rights marchers who were gunned down in cold blood. And yet, once more, that report failed to point the finger at the criminals in the higher ranks of the army.

Old lies and cover-ups by the British state have unravelled in the face of an unrelenting struggle for justice by survivors and the families of victims. Yet, to this day, no one has been convicted for the Bloody Sunday massacre. No one has been prosecuted for the Ballymurphy massacre. No one has answered for the policies of collusion. And the British government is now acting to ensure that justice will never be served in any of these cases. Under the cover of protecting former British Army servicemen from “vexatious” claims, British imperialism has banned any future prosecutions.

It is the height of folly to trust in the promises and constitutional behaviour of British imperialism. Their promises are not worth the paper they are written on. Their actions are governed entirely by the interests of British imperialism.

The fraying fabric of the Union

Whilst the British ruling class no longer have a substantial economic or strategic interest in retaining a presence in Ireland, there are other, deeper reasons why the British ruling class cannot simply ‘let go’ of Northern Ireland.

DUP Johnson Image Number 10Boris Johnson wooed hard-right unionists in order to get himself into the Prime Minister’s office, only to then betray them / Image: Number 10

Britain, the world’s oldest capitalist nation, has gone further than any other in terms of decay. The economic crisis has plunged every once-mighty institution of the British Establishment into crisis. Now, the very fabric of the ‘United Kingdom’ is fraying. If it is allowed to unwind in the North of Ireland, what is to stop it from unwinding in Scotland? That would be something the ruling class could not countenance.

Furthermore, the Tory Party today is not what it was. It has been taken over by the most reactionary elements of the ‘Tory Taliban’. It won’t be from the vantage point of an ‘enlightened’ liberalism that the Tories will defend the Union.

They will not be restrained by democratic niceties. If it came to it, they would not be above putting off the question of a referendum in the North of Ireland – or in Scotland for that matter – by the foulest means.

Can we really say they would not once more “play the Orange Card,” as Randolph Churchill once put it, whipping up sectarian hatred and then kicking a border poll into the long grass “to avoid violence”? The ruling class could well live to regret the use of such methods in the long term, but their current crop of representatives can hardly be accused of an excess of forward thinking. There was a time when the British ruling class produced far-sighted strategists. But their modern representatives have inherited all their forebears’ vices and none of their virtues.

Brexit has made that quite clear. The referendum in 2016 was an enormous act of self-harm. It had no higher purpose than to secure the Tory vote. To this end, the long-term interests of British capitalism – not to mention the future of the Union and stability in Ireland – were gambled without a second thought. The Tory right, now in control of the party, whipped up the most vile, poisonous moods of racism for their own elevation. Lacking a single principled bone in his body, Boris Johnson wooed hard-right unionists in order to get himself into the Prime Minister’s office, only to then negotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol, received by the unionists with howls of betrayal. At the time of writing, his successor, Liz Truss, is toying with scrapping the same Protocol, opening up the prospect of a trade war between Britain and Europe, and a hard border and chaos in Ireland. All this too, for no higher goal than her own career advancement. Would she set sail on such a disastrous course? We cannot know. In all likelihood, Truss herself does not know. But one prediction we can make with absolute certainty: whatever the Tories do will be wrong, and will open up a new period of conflicts and upheaval on the island of Ireland and also in mainland Britain.

In the face of such a stupid, reactionary and brutal enemy, it would be foolish for Marxists or Republicans to bind our hands with the rope of constitutionality. Only the mass movement of the working class, united across the sectarian divide, can secure the democratic rights of the people and check sectarian mischief-making.

We should also note that the British government and British imperialism are not wholly in control of the situation in the North of Ireland. That Frankenstein monster of British imperialism, loyalist sectarianism, would also seek to scupper any chance of the people exercising their democratic right to self-determination. We’ve had a foretaste of this already. It has not gone away. Out of the poisonous soil of capitalist society, the weed of sectarianism continuously reemerges. Out of the struggle for survival, racial and religious hatred thrive and fuel reactionary demagogues.

This is by no means to suggest that Marxists oppose the absolute democratic right of the people of Ireland to determine their own destiny. To oppose a border poll because it may provoke reactionary loyalist violence – as some so-called ‘Marxists’ shamefully do – is to implore the masses not to press for their democratic rights lest they infuriate their oppressors who have deprived them of such rights. It is the same logic used by cowards who implore workers not to press their demands too forcefully lest they incur the wrath of their bosses.

Faced with a poll on unification, loyalist reactionaries would attempt to whip up the fear of Protestant workers of becoming a minority in a Catholic-majority united Ireland. There can be no doubt about that, and to try to blind people to this fact would be criminal. The question is: how can revolutionaries successfully check the attempt by reactionaries to whip up sectarianism?

This is where Sinn Féin’s methods really meet their acid test and are found wanting. All the arguments in the world for the “economic sense” of unification would not help to undercut such moods as loyalist sectarian troublemakers would attempt to whip up. Unification of Ireland on a capitalist basis offers no change to the poorest and most downtrodden layers of unionist workers. After all: does the South not suffer from deep inequality, crumbling healthcare and a growing housing crisis too?

Nor, as some petty bourgeois nationalists imagine, can unionist workers be won round by the mere outward displays of “respect for different traditions”. Grovelling respectfully before the monarchy, the Union Jack and the other symbols of British imperialism will not remove a single brick from the wall of sectarianism which continues to divide the working class.

This approach ignores the material basis of loyalism. The national question is a question of bread and butter. The attachment of Protestant workers to the union historically had a material basis. But British capitalism has abandoned them, as it has abandoned all workers in the North of Ireland. Many unionist workers hold tight to the symbols of British imperialism because they have been left with little else to hold onto.

We must tell the truth to unionist workers: you have been lied to. British imperialism has led you up a blind alley. Your political exploiters pit you against nationalist workers – your class brothers and sisters – in order to raise themselves up. Unionist workers hardly need convincing of these self-evident truths!

More than this, unionist workers must be offered a clear, class-based alternative, and must come to see the unity of their interests with the interests of nationalist workers in practice. Bonds of trust between Protestant and Catholic workers can only be built in struggle against their common enemy: the capitalist class. But this requires class struggle leadership. Republicans must therefore take up the fight for the defence of workers conditions and wages. And the struggle for Irish unity must be linked to the struggle against capitalism.

As Alan Woods explains, our slogan must be: “Back to Connolly!” Only on the basis of a 32-County Socialist Republic, in which the banks and big businesses are expropriated and placed under a democratic plan of production, can decent housing, healthcare and education be guaranteed for all. The demand for a border poll, if linked to the need to overthrow capitalism in Ireland, can be a useful demand to mobilise the masses for struggle. But a Socialist Republic will not be voted into existence. It will be achieved through revolutionary struggle. In the words of Connolly:

“An Irish Republic, the only purely political change in Ireland worth crossing the street for will never be realised except by a revolutionary party that proceeds upon the premise that the capitalist and the landlord classes in town and country in Ireland are criminal accomplices with the British government, in the enslavement and subjection of the nation. Such a revolutionary party must be socialist, and from socialism alone can the salvation of Ireland come.”[3]

If the struggle for national liberation is not linked to the fight for socialism, then defeat can be its only result.

A failure to win the Protestant layers of the working class to the cause would mean resting on demographic changes to tip the scales. Such an approach would have the disastrous result of feeding a feeling of bitterness in working-class Protestant communities that already feel deeply left behind. In such circumstances, a border poll would run the risk of becoming simply another sectarian headcount, out of which reactionaries of various stripes could be the only winners.

But the reverse is also true: the fight for socialism must be linked to the struggle for a United Ireland. It is no use ignoring the national question because of the pitfalls that it contains, as some so-called ‘Marxists’ do. Every day, it poses itself with greater and greater insistence and it demands an answer. The most advanced workers will settle for nothing less.

The mistake of Sinn Féin leaders is precisely that they do not see the forthcoming struggle for unification in class terms: as a class struggle. They do not see it as a struggle at all, but the result of legal, constitutional agreement with British imperialism. They are not the first to make such mistakes.

The history of Ireland provides a wealth of lessons and warnings in this regard. Throughout this history, the lessons of which Alan Woods analyses in this book, one lesson jumps out in sharp relief. Wherever middle-class leaders have been at the helm of the movement for self-determination it has, in the words of Connolly, without a single exception “ended its journey upon the rock of disaster.”

From the Irish Volunteers of the 18th Century, to Parnell’s agitation in the 1880s, the Irish War of Independence of the 1920s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s – all these movements, and others described in this book, suffered betrayal at the hands of middle-class leaders.

Why is this? One betrayal might be chalked up to the accidental qualities of a movement’s leadership. But such repeated betrayals point to an organic tendency towards treachery among the middle-class leaders. This tendency flows from their class position. The Irish bourgeoisie has always been a weak class, incapable of a serious struggle against imperialism. Economically dependent on foreign imperialism, the Irish bosses are completely unable to offer serious political resistance to foreign imperialism. In the words of James Connolly, the nationalist Irish bourgeoisie had “a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism as against every sentimental or historic attachment drawing them toward Irish patriotism.”

Thus, in the immortal words of that great Marxist revolutionary, “Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”

Reclaiming history

Despite a century of partition, the destiny of the North and South of Ireland are completely enmeshed. The struggle of a united working class in the South can offer an example to the workers in the North. The leftward shift in the South has already had a big impact in the North: victories in the struggle for marriage equality and abortion rights have inspired young people there too to push forward their own struggle for rights for women, LGBT people, and for Irish language speakers. Events in the South have also spurred on hopes for Irish unification.

ConnollyThe revolutionary traditions of Connolly and others represent the priceless inheritance of Ireland’s working class / Image: public domain

And events in the North are also having an impact in the South, where the bourgeoisie are, if anything, more concerned about the reemergence of the national question than the British bourgeoisie. Nowhere is its snivelling cowardice and dependence on foreign imperialism clearer than on the national question.

They have no desire whatsoever to absorb the North, which could only be done at great financial cost to themselves. Sinn Féin talks about how the unification of East and West Germany was eased by large amounts of EU spending. Notwithstanding how the East of Germany continues to lag behind the West, the comparison falls flat when we consider that Germany is the preeminent imperialist power in Europe. The German bourgeoisie were prepared to foot the bill. But why would they spend such sums in Ireland?

Leaving the purely financial calculation aside, there are political factors. The Irish bourgeoisie is concerned that support for Irish unification could bring them into collision with British imperialism. But more than anything, they fear any move that would put the constitutional basis of their rotting state apparatus up for discussion. A unity poll, North or South, would do just that. Doing so could open a Pandora’s Box. Any process that opens the door to the participation of the masses in politics could have very unpredictable consequences.

Despite all the shortcomings of Sinn Féin, the ruling class is filled with alarm at their rise because they see in it a sign that the working class – more powerful than it has ever been – is beginning to reconnect with its revolutionary, socialist Republican traditions.

These revolutionary traditions, which stretch back to Tone and Emmett, Larkin and Connolly, represent the priceless inheritance of Ireland’s working class. The weight of that history has made the past period, with its multitude of centenaries, deeply uncomfortable for the Irish ruling class.

One hundred years ago this parasitic class succeeded in usurping the Irish Revolution, leaving Ireland severed in two and dominated by international capital. Like a criminal covering their tracks, they have done all they can to revise this history. But facts are stubborn things. The inspiring example of the Irish Revolution, which in content was a proletarian revolution, cannot be so easily erased. And neither can the role of the ‘nationalist’ bourgeoisie, which sold out to British imperialism.

In 2014, former Taoiseach John Bruton expressed the feelings of his class about the “decade of centenaries” in quite candid terms. He described the Easter Rising of 1916 as “completely unnecessary”. Of course, for the bosses of Ireland, such a statement is perfectly true. A gentleman’s agreement with British imperialism over the exploitation of the Irish people would have been far more preferable for the Irish capitalists. It was a fact of deep regret for them that a revolution should have disrupted such a good business relationship.

Unable to earnestly celebrate the Irish Revolution, they could hardly ignore it either. In 2010, then Taoiseach Brian Cowan warned of the upcoming centenary celebrations for the Easter Uprising: “There will be those who oppose any such reflection – who will seek to hijack history, to fight again the old battles, to re-establish hostilities and to perpetuate division.”

Instead of reliving old battles, the ruling class has sought to make the centenaries all about “reconciliation”. The Irish Independent, which celebrated every volley fired by Britain’s executioners in 1916, was rapturous about the celebrations in 2016. Why should they not be? If 1916 was about class conflict, 2016 would be about the common heritage of all classes. Whilst 1916 was about the irreconcilable struggle against colonial oppression, 2016 would be about embracing the old colonial master.

All “traditions” were to be celebrated equally. Imperialist butchery at the Somme and the struggle against imperialist butchery at the GPO were to be celebrated together. In Glasnevin, a monument was erected to all the dead of 1916: members of the Irish Citizens Army, the Irish Volunteers… and soldiers of the British Army! A century later and all was forgiven. The sharp edges of history had been sanded away.

The Irish and British capitalists can try to bury the revolutionary heritage of the Irish working class under a heap of lies, distortions, and sectarian confusion. But, time after time, the advanced workers and youth will seek out the ideas that can offer a way out of the crisis of capitalism.

Assisting a new generation to uncover the lessons of Ireland’s revolutionary history is the aim of the republication of the revised edition of this book, which has been out of print for too long.


[1] Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, 2020

[2] Connolly J., The Workers’ Republic, 15 July 1900

[3] Connolly J., The Harp, March 1909