Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Four

The workers' movement

In the years before the outbreak of the First World War, British imperialism was facing a revolutionary movement both in Ireland and at home. The threat came not from middle class nationalists but from the organized working class. For most of the 19th century the land question had been the central issue in Ireland. But now a new force emerged on the stage - the Irish working class. Under the leadership of James Larkin and James Connolly, the class question came to the fore. Both men were revolutionary Marxists.

Marxism is often portrayed as something alien to Ireland, a kind of foreign import. In fact, it has a long and honourable tradition in Ireland. James Connolly, was a committed and militant Marxist all his life. But as often happens in the history of revolutionaries, Connolly was attacked and slandered all his life by the bourgeoisie, but after his death he has been turned into a kind of harmless icon. People are invited to genuflect before the icon, but are actively discouraged from taking a serious interest in his ideas. One of the central ideas of Connolly which has been systematically ignored is that the national liberation struggle is inseparable from the struggle for socialism. What is required is a militant united front against capitalism and imperialism, which would unite all the oppressed and exploited layers of society under the leadership of the proletariat. Without this, all talk of national liberation is just so much moonshine and demagogy.

In the years before the First World War, Connolly and Larkin struggled to unite the Irish working class and build an independent Labour movement. They built the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, not merely as an organization to fight for better wages and conditions but as a revolutionary vehicle to change society. The epic struggle of the Dublin workers in 1913 furnished ample proof of the revolutionary potential and fighting spirit of the Irish working class. For nearly six months, 20,000 men and women, on whom a further 80,000 depended for their daily bread, were locked out by the employers because they refused to sign a pledge that they would never join the union, or resign from it if they were members.

The British working class actively supported their class brothers and sisters in Ireland. The infant Labour Party in Britain supported the cause of Home Rule for Ireland, a fact that was commented on favourably by Connolly, who never saw the people of Britain as the enemy and consistently tried to establish close fraternal ties with the workers and the Labour Movement in England, Wales and Scotland.

The Irish workers' movement has an old and honourable tradition, beginning with the establishment of branches of the International Working Men's Association (or First International). In 1870, six years after its foundation, branches of the First International were formed throughout Ireland, with the main centres being, Dublin and Cork. However, because of the domination and control of the Catholic Church over working class people the International was soon suppressed. In Britain, Irish exiles were more active. A major focus of the International was the plight of the Irish political prisoners in British jails. In this respect the campaign in Ireland for the release of the Fenian Prisoners, united with the campaign already pursued by the First International. The international also recognized the Irish peoples right to self-determination.

The Dublin branch of the International first emerged in mid-February 1872 and was routed by April. All of its public meetings saw the section under severe attack because of the Paris Commune of 1871 during which the Catholic Archbishop of Paris had been killed. The final meeting, held at McKeon's premises in Chapel Lane on 7 April, sealed the fate of the branch when a mob of anti-Internationalists stormed the building. According to a hostile Irish Times: "The defenders of the Communists of Paris were set upon, and a hand-to-hand encounter ensued.... chairs and tables were upset, the glass was smashed in the windows, and every stray piece of wood was availed of as a weapon for attack or defence....several members of the detective force were in the room at the time, but exercising a wise discretion allowed the parties to fight it out".

The meeting was broken up and the members chased down the stairs and up the street by an incensed mob. The same story was repeated elsewhere. In Cork the Internationalists had had a certain success and established links with local workers (the coach-builders). According to The Freeman's Journal the Cork membership reached three hundred within a few weeks of the branch's formation in late-February 1872. But then the local clergy declared them to be ‘against religion' and called on Cork workers to crush them.

On 24th March three thousand people turned out for a rally against the International, but the Internationalists appeared with "a body of men, perhaps about one hundred in number, composed of working men, and in parts of roughs, nearly all of whom wore green neckties". In the ensuing riot the meeting-hall was wrecked: "They rallied at both sides repeatedly, and the taking and re-taking of the platform was conducted by leaders who were armed with bludgeons.... The building was very much damaged". After several hours of rioting the Internationalists emerged victorious. Within weeks, however, a "red-scare", exacerbated by the riot, caused the branch to dissolve.

Dublin Democratic Association

After the smashing of the International, Labour was dormant for a while, though there were always individuals and small groups who kept the flag flying. The main movement at that time was the Irish Land League. In January 1885 the Dublin Democratic Association was formed. Its stated objective was "to promote and defend the rights of labour, and to restore the land to the people", but it did not last long. The real beginning of modern organized socialism in Ireland was the launching of the Dublin branch of the Socialist League in December 1885. The following year this became the Irish Socialist Republican Party.

The birth of the Irish Labour movement and the development of the Labour movement in Britain were interlinked. At a time when the Labour Party was establishing itself as the party of the working class on the other side of the Irish Sea, the basis was being laid in Ireland for a genuinely Socialist Republican movement. It was James Connolly who formed the Irish Socialist Republican Party in May 1896. The ISRP, it is true, never gained much support outside Dublin and Cork, but the influence of the teachings of Connolly ensured that its ideology and objectives survived.

Connolly had a great "feel" for the mass movement and he immediately realized the importance of winning over the trade unions, which at that time were directly or indirectly under the control of the extreme right wing Nationalist Party, the Irish Parliamentary Party. These bourgeois nationalists represented the employers with the support of the Catholic Church. The prior condition for the emancipation of the working-class was to establish its complete political and organizational independence from the bourgeoisie. The idea of class independence was hammered home by Connolly from the beginning to the end of his life.

The first step was to found a newspaper in order to create a political awareness and to expose the false propaganda of the capitalist media. The Workers Republic was launched on the 13th of August 1898 as the Voice of the ISRP. Kier Hardie realized the potential of the ISRP and gave a donation of fifty pounds to start the voice of the ISRP. The Workers Republic was the first Marxist paper in Ireland.

Eighty-five issues of the Workers Republic were published between 1898 and 1903. The paper did not survive after Connolly's departure for America in 1903. However, the Workers Republic became the springboard for the ISRP and the emergence of Marxism in Ireland. For the first time socialists broke through the old secretive and underground nature of Irish politics and began to integrate themselves with the masses. In all the main cities, branches of the ISRP were established.

The basic idea defended by Connolly was expressed in the title of his paper. For the first time the workers of Ireland inscribed proudly on their banner the slogan of the Republic, but added, recalling the phrase of Wolfe Tone, that what was needed was a republic of the "men (and women) of no property" - a workers' republic. In this way the aim of national liberation was inseparably linked to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society. All subsequent history has shown that this approach was the only correct one.

The ISRP from the outset adopted a consistent internationalist position, as shown by its stance on the Boer War. It succeeded in defeating jingoism and organizing a mass protest movement against the war. One of the resolutions passed at a public meeting in College Green, then an area of the Dublin ruling class, called upon the Irish in Transvaal to take up arms against the army of British capitalism.

The ISRP under Connolly's leadership realized the potential of the masses. Public meetings were organized in protest against the Boer War, of which many thousands of people participated. The party was the main organizer of the Great Jubilee Protest of 1897, when the working class people of Dublin disrupted the Jubilee celebrations. An event on which the British establishment in Ireland had lavished many hundreds of thousands of pounds and two years of preparation was thrown into disarray. Connolly wrote a vitriolic attack upon the monarchy, British imperialism and those ‘Irish nationalists' who bowed before her majesty, opening his assault with his favourite quotation, from the French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins, "The great appear great to us only because we are on our knees. Let us rise!"

Unfortunately, when Connolly left for America in 1903, the Republican socialist movement fragmented. In 1908, a group of former members of the ISRP in Dublin invited Connolly back to Ireland, to help launch the new Socialist Party of Ireland, with a weekly wage of two pounds a week. When Connolly returned to Ireland, Larkin had already formed the ITGWU, which dominated the industrial and political scene. The scene was set for a stormy period of class struggle that lasted right up till the First World War.

The class struggle before WW1

In the general election of 1906, the Orange Order had a hard fight on its hands to keep control of Belfast council. William Walker, the Labour Party candidate came within 300 votes of capturing the Orange stronghold of North Belfast. The Loyalist reactionary F.H. Crawford moaned: "We have lost a lot of the staunch Unionist workmen in Belfast. They consider themselves betrayed by their leader Mr. Balfour and they have gone for the Labour and socialist programmes. This is what we have to combat locally. The old Unionist enthusiasm is dead among the masses here. These are facts and all in touch with the working men know it."

The reason for this transformation was a sharp upturn in the class struggle, which always cuts across the poison of chauvinism, racism and sectarianism. R.M. Fox describes the revolutionary scenes in Belfast in 1907 when one section of workers after another staged stormy strikes, in which the Protestant working class played a militant role:

"Mr. James MacDonald, manager of the Belfast Steamship Company, requested a head constable to remove the crowd clustering at the quayside. This he declined to do. District Inspector Dunlop was then asked to intervene and, on his orders, the crowd was pushed back. There was a growing disorder. Sometime in the afternoon a striker appeared with a Union Jack inscribed, ‘Down with the Blacklegs'. This was a centre of turmoil." (R.M. Fox, James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, p. 33.)

The employers, in customary fashion, tried to split the workers along sectarian lines. Using the occasion of the Orange parades of 12th July, the coal merchants closed the yards:

"The coal workers were renowned for their toughness. And the merchants probably reckoned on clashes between Protestant and Catholic groups when thousands of idle men were flung on the streets on this day, traditionally given over to sectarian combat. The papers had denounced Larkin as a Nationalist troublemaker and had prepared the ground well. It was a shrewd calculation that when the Orange processions streamed up with their drums and banners, workers would split into Orange and Green camps. This had always happened before. But this time Larkin had posters up all over the city appealing to the workers to come to a great demonstration at the Customs House Steps, not as Catholics or as Protestants, but as workers determined to enforce their economic demands. He marched at the head of a gigantic Labour Procession in which Orange and Green bands both took part. This was a new era, a lasting sensation. People rubbed their eyes and wondered. It was agreed that only Larkin could bring these contending factions together and infuse them with a single purpose. Larkin had been blackened in the Unionist press. It was widely said that he was only using Labour to advance his subversive Nationalist aims. The July 12th demonstration blew all this disunity propaganda sky high. To emphasise the general feeling, the Independent Orange Order, at a separate meeting, collected £50 for the strikers." (R.M. Fox, James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, pp. 44-5.)

Under such conditions the bigots and sectarians were powerless to split the movement. One strike followed another, and the class instincts of the workers predominated over all else. There were strikes of the Belfast dockers, carters and coalmen. Such was the charged atmosphere that even the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast mutinied over pay and its members had to be transferred to remote country districts. When the employers tried to whip up sectarianism to divide the workers, the union replied with a handbill reading "Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers, stand together and don't be misled by the employers' game of dividing Catholic and Protestant." (Emmet Larkin, James Larkin, p. 31.)

The role of the leadership - in this case Larkin - played a decisive role in uniting the workers. But the main point to understand is that the class struggle always tends to cut across all divisions in the working class, whether of language, religion, nationality, sex or race. Unity is the main weapon of the working class. To build unity, to eliminate division, to wield the class together in struggle against the common enemy - that is the principle duty of all who aspire to a better life. On the other hand, to divide the working class is the main task of reactionaries of all kinds. Once the class is united and mobilized in struggle, it will sweep aside all sectarian divisions as a man sweeps aside a gnat with a brush of the hand. But this can only be achieved by concentrating unswervingly on the class issues. This is what Larkin and Connolly did and they succeeded brilliantly. That is the lesson we must learn, and these are the methods we must strive to imitate.

Carson organizes the reaction

While the moderate bourgeois Nationalists placed all their hopes on parliamentary activity and deals with the British Liberals, the forces of reaction were organizing and arming outside parliament. That was quite natural. All history shows the limitation of parliamentary activity. Marxists are in favour of making full use of parliament for furthering the cause of the working class. We will make use of each and every legal opportunity that is available to us, but we are also realists and we understand that no ruling class in history has ever given up its power and privileges without a fight with no holds barred.

In the last analysis, all decisive questions are settled outside parliament, by the struggle of opposing class forces. What happened in the period before 1914 is a very graphic illustration of this fact. The "democratic" landlords and capitalists of the North of Ireland did not hesitate to organize 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.

The passing of the 1911 Parliament Act, which was intended to limit the powers of the House of Lords to block the Third Home Rule Bill, was the signal for the mobilization of the Orange reaction. In September Lord Carson told a parade of 50,000 men:

"We must be prepared, in the possible event of a Home Rule Bill passing, with such measures as will carry on for ourselves the government of those districts of which we have control. We must be prepared....the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the Government of the Protestant Province of Ulster (cheers)." (P. Johnson, Ireland, a Concise History, p. 164.)

The only force capable of defeating the reactionaries was the working class on both sides of the Irish Sea. Only united working class action could have undermined Carson's reactionary movement by driving a wedge between working class Protestants and the Carsonite leaders of the Orange Order. In the summer of 1911, the class struggle was in full swing in Britain and Ireland. In Britain there were two great national strikes - of the railway and transport workers, followed by strikes of the seamen, firemen, dockers, coal-fillers and carters. The Dublin dockers refused to unload ships from striking ports in Britain and Irish railway workers loyally supported the strike of their British comrades, who in return supported the Irish workers with money and food during the Dublin lockout.

Connolly was, first and foremost, a militant workers' leader and a revolutionary socialist. The Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU), under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly, led the stormy wave of class struggle that shook Ireland to its foundations in the years before 1914. Rarely have these Islands seen such a level of bitter class conflict. This affected not only Dublin but also Belfast, where Connolly succeeded in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in struggle against the employers. In October 1911 he led the famous Belfast Textile workers strike and organized the workers of that sector - predominately low-paid and very exploited women.

The Dublin Lockout

The wave of strikes was countered by the employers in the notorious Dublin lockout of 1913, affecting 25,000 workers by September. Here we saw the real face of the Irish bourgeoisie: grasping, repressive, reactionary. The Dublin bosses, organized by William Martin Murphy, the chairman of the Employers' Federation and owner of the Irish Independent newspaper, set out to crush the workers and their organizations. The ITGWU replied by blacking Murphy's newspapers, and he retaliated by locking out all ITGWU members. The locked-out workers were given a letter to sign, stating that they would have nothing to do with Larkin's union.

Here once more we see how class considerations weighed more heavily than anything else. The Irish bourgeois Nationalists led by John Redmond backed the employers in the lockout. Their paper the Freeman's Journal railed against "Syndicalism" in its editorials. For his part, Connolly urged the workers to vote Labour, even if it meant endangering the Home Rule Bill being put forward by the Liberals with the support of the Irish bourgeois Nationalists. This shows that Connolly put the class interests of the workers before all else, and refused to subordinate the class struggle to the siren appeals for "national unity". For Connolly, the "labour question" was always primary. Following in the steps of Wolfe Tone, he understood that only the working people (the "men (and women) of no property") could solve the national question. And all later history shows that he was right.

Connolly was shown to be right to distrust the British Liberals and their Irish nationalist stooges. Although the government was threatened by Carson, the Liberals took no action against him, while arresting and sentencing Larkin to hard labour on a charge of seditious libel. The representatives of the propertied classes on both sides of the Irish Sea knew who their main enemies were. The issue of class unity runs like a red thread through all the writings and speeches of Connolly: "Perhaps they will see that the landlord who grinds his peasants on a Connemara estate, and the landlord who rack-rents them in a Cowgate slum, are brethren in fact and deed. Perhaps they will realise that the Irish worker who starves in an Irish cabin and the Scots worker who is poisoned in an Edinburgh garret are brothers with one hope and destiny." (C.D. Greaves, James Connolly, p. 61.)

Throughout the lockout, Larkin and Connolly repeatedly appealed to the class solidarity of the British workers. They addressed mass rallies in England, Scotland and Wales, which were also the scene of big class battles in the years before the war. The appeal of the Irish workers did not fall on deaf ears. Their cause was enthusiastically supported by the rank and file of the British movement, although the right wing Labour leaders were preparing to ditch the Irish workers as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Despite the solidarity and sympathy of the workers of Britain, the trade union leaders refused to organize solidarity strikes, the only way that victory could have been achieved.

The Irish bourgeois nationalists played a shameful role. Arthur Griffith poured scorn on the solidarity of the Irish and British workers: "It has recently been discovered", he sneered, "that the Irish working man is not an Irish working man at all. He is a unit of humanity, a human label of internationalism, a brother of the men over the water who rule his country." Of course, the workers of England, Wales and Scotland did not even rule their own country, let alone Ireland. The class sympathy and solidarity of the British workers with their Irish brothers and sisters was as natural as that between Arthur Griffith and the Irish bosses who were starving their "fellow Irish" into submission.

The Catholic Church played an even more shameful role, encouraging sectarianism in order to divide the workers and undermine them. Above all, it strove to break the links between Irish and British workers. When the workers of Liverpool and Glasgow invited the starving children of locked-out workers in Dublin to their homes, the priests whipped up a hysterical campaign against Catholic children being shipped off to the homes of the "ungodly" English. Better they should starve than to accept the bread of Protestants! In the end, their wish was granted. The Irish workers were starved back to work. Bitterly, Connolly noted:

"And so we Irish workers must again go down to Hell, bow our backs to the last of the slave drivers, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal. Dublin is isolated." (Forward, February 9, 1914)

The Citizen's Army

In the years preceding World War One, the ruling class was facing revolutionary developments in Ireland and in Britain. Between 1907 and 1912 the graph of the strike movement rose steadily: the number of days lost in strikes increased from 1,878,679 to 38,142,101. Under the pressure of the working class and the rise of the Labour Party, the Liberals were compelled to make concessions, including an increase in democratic rights. In 1911 the powers of the House of Lords were limited by an Act of Parliament that reduced its ability to block legislation from the lower house. The Lords could delay the passing of a law for three times in one parliamentary session, but no more. In this way, the road was open for the approval of Irish Home Rule.

But all history shows that the ruling class is prepared to resort to extra-parliamentary measures when its vital interests are threatened. In order to head off the danger of Home Rule, the most reactionary circles in Britain and Ireland resorted once more to the "Orange card". Lord Carson organized and armed the hooligans of the Belfast slums in the Ulster Volunteers, with 100,000 armed members, pledged to resist Irish Home Rule by force. When the Liberal government in London made a half-hearted attempt to disarm them using the British army in Ireland, they were met with the mutiny of British army officers at the Curragh, supported by the Tory Party.

When their interests were threatened, the reactionaries simply tore up the laws of the land and came out onto the streets, and the working class prepared to confront them. Carson whipped up an orgy of sectarian violence in Belfast. The Liberal government, which did not hesitate to send troops to South Wales to fire on striking workers, did nothing to deal with the mutiny at the Curragh or to halt the pogroms against Catholics in Belfast. Connolly remained firm in the face of the sectarian madness. He organized a Labour demonstration under the auspices of the ITGWU, "the only union that allows no bigotry in its ranks." In answer to the sectarians and religious bigots, he declared class war, issuing his famous manifesto: "To the Linen Slaves of Belfast".

In 1913, as an answer to the threat of force from the counterrevolution, the Irish workers organized the Citizens' Army - the first Red Army in the world. This was a working class militia based on the trade unions. In order to protect themselves against the brutal attacks of police and hired thugs of the employers, the workers set up their own defence force: the Irish Citizens' Army (ICA). This was the first time in these Islands that workers had organized themselves on an armed basis to defend themselves against the common enemy: the bosses and the scabs. The latter, it should be remembered, were much more numerous than at the present time, as a result of the widespread conditions of poverty and despair.

The Irish Labour and trade union movement adopted a firm class stand. The Irish Trade Union Congress Parliamentary Committee issued a Manifesto to the Workers of Ireland that stated:

"As Irish workers we are not concerned with the officers of the British Army taking the line they have nor are we concerned because of the effects their action may have upon Britain's Army; but we claim that what the officer may do in pursuance of his political and sectarian convictions, so, too, may the private in pursuance of his; and if today British Generals and other Staff Officers refuse to fight against the privileged class to which they belong so, too, must the Private Soldier be allowed to exercise his convictions against shooting down his brothers and sisters of the working class when they are fighting for their rights…." (Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, p. 36.)

The Parliamentary Committee of the Irish TUC remarked: "that in strongly and emphatically protesting against the recent attempt of certain army officers to utilize the armed forces in this country for the purpose of furthering the interests of their class, we desire to impress on the workers the necessity for learning aright and fully digesting the full significance of this action, and in future apply it in a similar manner in the interests of their own class." (Emmett Larkin, op. cit., pp. 160-1.)

Just such an application of those lessons was the establishment of the Irish Citizens' Army. The two main leaders of the ICA were Connolly (himself an ex-soldier) and Captain Jack J. White DSO - a Protestant Ulsterman. Connolly saw the ICA not only as a defence force, but as a revolutionary army, dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism. He wrote:

"An armed organization of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto, the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained, and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future." (Workers Republic, 30 October 1915.)

As we see from these lines, Connolly envisaged the ICA in class terms, as an organization organically linked to the mass organizations of the proletariat. It was funded out of the subscriptions of the members of the union, and its activities were organized from Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU in Dublin. The Citizens Army drilled and paraded openly on the streets of Dublin for several years before 1916. Here was no secret organization engaged in the methods of individual terrorism, but a genuine workers' militia: the first workers' Red Army in Europe.