Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Six

Guerrilla war

In November 1918, having won a sweeping victory in the general elections, Sinn Fein declared for an Irish republic. This led to a national liberation struggle. The Auxiliaries - ex-officers of the British army - acted as the shock troops of British imperialism in this war. Their leader, General Crozier, had recently returned from fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia. This was an extension of the same international class struggle.

A guerrilla war followed for three and a half years, until Lloyd George agreed to negotiate the "Irish question". But the cause of national liberation was betrayed once again by the Irish bourgeois Nationalists who accepted a sell-out deal that renounced the Republic and handed the North to British imperialism. The Irish bourgeoisie proved in practice that it was unfit to lead the national liberation struggle. The so-called Irish Free State was just a semi-colony of the British Empire, and the Irish bourgeoisie was quite happy to accept this state of affairs. The deal split the Dail, the Army and the Irish people and prepared the ground for a bloody and ruinous civil war.

Under the leadership of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalists, the movement was side-tracked into a guerrilla struggle, and then betrayed. Fearful of the prospect of revolution, the rotten Irish bourgeoisie reached an agreement with London to divide the living body of Ireland. This had been the plan 'b' of British imperialism all along. Connolly had warned against this for years:

"The recent proposals of Messrs. Asquith, Devlin, Redmond and co. for the settlement of the Home Rule question deserve the earnest attention of the working class democracy of this country. They reveal in a most striking and unmistakable manner the depths of betrayal to which the so-called Nationalist politicians are willing to sink…

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

All Connolly's warnings about the treacherous role of the bourgeoisie were confirmed by the terrible events surrounding partition. The legacy of this betrayal is still with us today.

"Labour must wait"

The history of Ireland for centuries has been the history of the struggle of the workers, peasants and artisans to free themselves, and of the constant shameful betrayals of the masses by their middle class and bourgeois leaders who have led the movement from defeat to defeat. It was this realization that led Wolfe Tone to turn his attention to the "men of no property". A century later James Connolly placed this idea on a more solid footing when he argued, "Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland." The bourgeoisie, for all its nationalist coloration, could not play a progressive role. The task of securing Ireland's freedom from imperialist domination now became incorporated into the tasks of the socialist revolution to be led by the working class. In freeing themselves from British imperialism the Irish working class will hardly place their necks voluntarily into the yoke of Irish capital, but march on to the Workers' Republic and the socialist transformation of society. It follows then that the central problem for both the national liberation struggle and the socialist revolution which are now welded together, is the need for the building of a genuine revolutionary party.

We have stated that the failure to build such a party was undoubtedly Connolly's most serious mistake. Although he had started out with the idea of building the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), his attention was later concentrated on the ITGWU, the Citizens' Army and the Labour Party. The goal of building a revolutionary Marxist cadre party was lost sight of. So that when Connolly was no longer present, there was nobody to take his place.

It was undoubtedly correct to fight for the establishment of an independent Labour Party based on the unions. But what was necessary was to create a disciplined Marxist tendency inside the Labour Party, fighting for a genuine Marxist programme and policy. This was not done and the Irish workers paid a terrible price for it. The tragic events after the defeat of the Easter Rising show the decisive role of leadership in the revolution. After Connolly was removed from the scene, as we have seen, the leaders of the Labour Party moved in a reformist direction. They did not play an independent role but subordinated themselves to the nationalists. This was a fatal mistake and in flat contradiction to the policy of Connolly of uncompromising class independence. The working class lost the possibility of playing the leading role in the national struggle. The hegemony of the movement fell into the hands of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists, although they never earned it. Such a leadership, as the history of Ireland amply testifies, dooms the movement to defeat and betrayal in advance.

The Irish working class showed its potential in the general strike of 1918, which was rock-solid in all Ireland. The working class came into collision with the Irish bourgeoisie from the very beginning, as shown by the stormy increase of the trade unions, strikes, land seizures and the formation of industrial and agricultural soviets. The movement was particularly advanced in the South West. There were land seizures in County Clare, where soviets were established. The miners took over the Arigna coal mine in County Leitrim. In 1919 the workers of Limerick set up a soviet that took control of the city. The following year the Dublin workers refused to unload a cargo of munitions sent from England and the railway workers refused to transport soldiers. Trade union membership was experiencing an explosive growth. Yet, tragically, in all the stormy events after Easter Week the Labour Movement played no independent role.

This outcome was by no means inevitable. The conditions for revolution were rapidly maturing. What was lacking was a party and a leadership. In the general election of 1918, the Labour Party stood down in favour of Republican candidates, and thus abdicated all claims to lead the movement. The leadership of the workers' organisations in the main accepted the slogan of the bourgeois nationalists: "Labour must wait." The idea that the working class must set aside its class interests and unite with the "liberal" bourgeoisie was not new then, yet it is still repeated today. The same old song was sung by the Mensheviks in Russia before 1917, as explained earlier. Lenin and Trotsky answered this nonsense a thousand times. In Ireland Connolly had demolished this argument on countless occasions. Even ealier Marx and Engels had explained many times the need for the workers to defend an independent class policy, even in the classical period of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

This contradiction reflected itself in a bitter left-right split in the Labour movement. There was, in effect, a civil war within the Labour movement. The workers of Ireland clashed repeatedly against the limitations of bourgeois property and law. The Labour Party took no official stand on the Treaty, and was generally suspected of being in favour. But many were bitterly opposed. Liam Mellows' opposition to the Treaty led to his execution on December 8th, 1922. Mellows, who in effect succeeded Connolly, was a Marxist and organizer of the Fianna. Today not many people realise that the Fianna was founded by the socialist, Countess Markievicz, and started off as a socialist youth movement. Indeed until the 1970s that was still the case.

A hollow victory

Countess Markievicz denounced the treaty to establish the Free State, and advocated James Connolly's ideal of a Workers' Republic. Those who supported the treaty were to be "set up to uphold English interests in Ireland, to block every ideal that the nation may wish to formulate, to block the teaching of Irish, to block the education of the poorest classes, to block, in fact, every bit of progress that every man and woman in Ireland today amongst working people desire to see put into force….A state run by the Irish people for the people before the rights of property. And I don't wish under the Soarstat (Free State) to anticipate that the directors of this and the capitalists' interests are to be at the head of it. My idea is the Workers' republic for which Connolly died. And I say that that is one of the things that England wishes to prevent. She would sooner give us Home Rule than a democratic republic. It is the capitalists' interests that are pushing this treaty to block the march of the working people in England and Ireland…" (Quoted in Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, pp. 113-4.)

Four days after the deal was announced, on December 10th 1921, a manifesto was issued (written from jail by Larkin) that stated: "We pledge ourselves now and in the future to destroy this plan of a nation's destruction. We propose carrying on the fight until we make the land of Erin a land fit for men and women - a Workers' Republic or Death." (Emmett Larkin, op cit., p. 236.)

For the working class, the proclamation of a "free Ireland" was a hollow victory. The crisis hit weak Irish capitalism hard. Unemployment was widespread and the wages of those in employment were low. Conditions were particularly bad in the rural areas. The conditions existed for an explosion of the class struggle. The Irish bourgeoisie, copying the tactics of their British class brothers, launched a policy of savage wage-cutting. In Waterford the farmers pushed through wage cuts of the agricultural labourers. The dock employers announced a cut in the already miserable wage of the men of two shillings a day. They were followed by the coal merchants and others.

The Irish employers went onto a general offensive, slashing wages and worsening conditions and hours. Police and troops were used to break strikes and end workers' occupations. The Cosgrave government intervened to force the workers to accept "mediation" resulting in wage cuts. The slogan "Labour must wait" now assumed its genuine content. The workers and peasants were required by the bourgeoisie as foot soldiers in a war that was not their own. The men and women of no property were obliged to shed their blood for Ireland, but the fruits of victory were seized by the avaricious men of money.

As late as 1922, the Labour Party won 17 seats in the Dail and actually polled more votes than the Anti-treaty Panel. But it lacked a genuinely independent policy. Having thrown away the initiative, the workers' movement was forced onto the defensive. In the general election of August 1923, the Labour Party was reduced from 17 to 14 seats. Following a series of defeats, the trade unions went into steep decline. Membership fell from about 130,000 in 1923 to 95,000 in 1926. The Irish workers movement had been pushed back to where it stood before 1914. Despite everything, the working class remained loyal to Labour, which in 1927 won 22 seats and was the official opposition. But politically it was moving to the right, abandoning the ideas of Connolly.

The Labour Party, which had a big following in the early years of the Irish Free State and Republic, threw away its chance to become a decisive force when it moved to the right and abandoned Connolly's ideas upon which it had been founded. Its vote in Irish elections between 1923 and 1938 peaked at 12.6 percent in 1927 and fell to its lowest point in 1933, when it got a mere 5.7 percent. Overall, the Labour vote in this period oscillated around 9.7 percent. This could have provided a base from which to become a mass force, but in order to do this Labour would have had to put forward a radical policy, totally different from that of the two main bourgeois parties. In other words, it would have had to have gone back to the ideas and programme of Connolly. This the reformist leadership was not prepared to do, and that is what condemned the Party to impotence. At its tenth annual Conference in 1941, a resolution was passed by 51 votes to 16 that stated "This Conference is of the opinion that not enough is being done effectively to organize the Party throughout the country." The same song has been sung repeatedly ever since.


The betrayal of the nationalist bourgeoisie led to the division of the living body of Ireland. The Government of Ireland Bill introduced by Lloyd George in the autumn of 1920 became law on December 23rd. In effect, Ireland was partitioned. However, the Northern Ireland statelet was unviable from the beginning. This was virtually admitted by the fact that two counties with a Catholic majority - Fermanagh and Tyrone - had to be included in it in order to give it the slightest impression of viability. Had the inhabitants of these counties been asked their opinions in a referendum, they would certainly not have agreed to being separated from the South. But they were never asked. British imperialism deliberately detached the Six Counties in order to weaken Ireland and ensure its continued dominance.

The British imperialists were determined to hang onto the North for both economic and strategic reasons. Most of the industry of Ireland was concentrated in the North (textiles, shipbuilding). T.A. Jackson explains the economic motives for Partition:

"Ireland has ample natural resources. In 1923 she had ample labour for their development. But thanks to centuries of foreign exploitation she was starved of capital. Apart from the important commercial centre of Dublin there was massive investment only in the neighbourhood of Belfast, then the most populous city in the country. For Belfast, dominated by the linen and shipbuilding industries, the supreme need was diversification. This diversification could have arisen ideally from the impulse of developing the remainder of the country. There the great need was an adequate infrastructure, the development of electricity, turf, transport, building materials (especially lime and cement) and certain categories of engineering. The role of Belfast would have been the production of means of production for all Ireland.

"Partition destroyed all such prospects. Thus obviously state investment was essential and the state required access to the entire taxable capacity of the nation. But forty percent of this was held at the disposal of the English exchequer. How was the remaining sixty percent to finance recovery at a time when war and revolution had destroyed capital both in industry and agriculture, and delayed the replacement of more?" (T.A. Jackson, Ireland her Own, pp. 441-2.)

Even more decisive than the economic question was the strategic importance of Ireland's ports. As an island power, control of the seas was a vital question for British imperialism. They needed the ports of Ireland. That is why in the negotiations over the Free State, Lloyd George insisted stubbornly on the question of the Irish ports. As late as the Second World War, Churchill considered occupying Ireland, fearing that its ports might fall into German hands. This was spelt out by Winston Churchill in a letter to Andrews, the prime minister of Northern Ireland after the War:

"We were alone and had to face, single-handed, the fury of the German attack raining down death and destruction on our cities and, still more deadly, seeking to strangle our life by cutting off the entry to our ports of the ships which brought us food and the weapons we so sorely needed. Only one great channel remained open. That channel remained open because loyal Ulster gave us the full use of Northern Irish ports and waters and thus ensured the free workings of the Clyde and the Mersey. But for the loyalty of Northern Ireland and its devotion to what now became the cause of thirty governments of nations, we should have been confronted with slavery and death and the light, which now shines so strongly throughout the world, would have been quenched…" (Quoted in Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, p. 20.)

The treaty guaranteed Britain access to certain harbour facilities, and in time of war, it would be given such further facilities as might be needed "for purposes of defence". The Six Counties would be given one month after the ratification of the treaty to opt out and remain part of the United Kingdom, in which case, a boundary commission was supposed to decide where the border would be.

Born in a bloody welter of sectarian pogroms, this 'Ulster' was a reactionary sectarian creation from the beginning: "Roman Catholic families in the humble streets of Belfast were terrorized. Petrol was thrown into their houses and a hand grenade tossed in after it to start a blaze. People piled up their sticks of furniture and their children on to donkey carts and fled from their homes into the countryside where some, with nowhere to go, camped out in the open fields." (Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, pp. 128.)

Before the First World War, Connolly and Larkin succeeded in uniting the working class in Belfast against the employers, cutting across the poison of sectarianism with class policies. In 1919 there were big strikes in Belfast, which shook the ruling class. In January 1919 the shipyard and engineering workers of Belfast went on strike and 20,000 workers marched on Belfast City Hall to demand a reduction in hours. The whole city was in a state of ferment. The strike soon became general: in addition to shipbuilding and engineering, gas, electricity, transport and most public services were out.

This coincided with a huge strike wave in Britain. In Belfast power was really in the hands of the strike committees and the Trades Council. In his book Revolt on the Clyde, the Scottish Communist Willie Gallagher - then a young shop steward from Glasgow - describes the feelings of trepidation he experienced when he went to Belfast to address a mass meeting of strikers. He need not have worried. The overwhelmingly Protestant working class of Belfast gave him an enthusiastic welcome. This posed a mortal threat to the ruling class both in Britain and Ireland, and it was this that determined their subsequent actions. Whatever their differences, the capitalists of England and Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, Green or Orange, were always ready to sink their differences and unite to defeat their own working class.

Fear of Revolution

A major element in the calculations of the British ruling class in forcing through Partition was fear of proletarian revolution in the north and south of Ireland. The first action of the Orange reaction was therefore to move to split the working class along religious lines. Without this, the victory of reaction and the partition of Ireland would have been impossible. The Orange Order through the press issued attacks against "Bolsheviks and Sinn Feiners" who were deceiving good Protestant workmen. When these attacks failed to break the strike, Carson himself gave a speech on the 12th of July to a meeting of 120,000 Orangemen, in which he specifically singled out the Labour movement for attack:

"They (Sinn Fein) have all kinds of insidious methods and organizations at work. Sometimes it is the Church. That does not make much way in Ulster. The more insidious method is tacking the Sinn Fein question and the Irish Republican question to the Labour question….These men who come forward posing as the friends of Labour care no more about Labour than does the man in the moon. Their real object and the real insidious nature of their propaganda is that it may mislead and bring about disunity among our own people; and in the end, before we know where we are, we may find ourselves in the same bondage and slavery as in the rest of Ireland in the South and West." (Quoted in Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, p. 96. our emphasis.)

This wily representative of the ruling class understood the central question very well: in order to keep the working class in subjugation it is necessary to bind them hand and foot to the chariot of the ruling class. It is necessary to convince them by all means that they have a community of interest with the class that oppresses and exploits them. It is precisely necessary to mislead and bring about the disunity of the working class, by splitting it on religious, national and sectarian lines. The division of Ireland was based from the beginning on the division of the working class. It will only be overcome when this division is done away with.

The workers of Belfast understood the meaning of this avalanche of sectarianism and through the Labour organizations attempted to stop it, mobilizing 2,000 trade unionists to patrol the City and keep order. But as the strike waned, the initiative passed to the reactionaries. The police attacked pickets with great brutality. The poison of sectarianism was used most effectively by the bosses. The lumpenproletarian rabble was mobilized by the Orange Order to whip up riots and pogroms. Catholic workers were thrown into the docks and pelted with rivets. There was looting and murder, shops and houses were smashed up by hooligans. The losers, as always, were the working class and the poorest sections of society. The plight of the Catholic workers in the Six Counties was dramatic:

"The unemployed amongst them found it difficult to get jobs, and others, who had jobs, were having to count themselves fortunate when they were able to hold onto them. The religious differences, always marked, being whipped up, as they were, had to produce in the opponents a bitterness and savagery, unusual even for Belfast, but surely not unanticipated by those currently responsible for the situation." (Clifford King, The Orange and the Green, p. 127.)

In the pogroms, which lasted from June 1920 to June 1922, 1,766 people were injured and 428 killed. Nevertheless, the repression was not aimed exclusively at the Catholic community. Of the 9,000 workers sacked from their jobs after the defeat of the strike, one quarter were Protestants. The Protestant ascendancy was a cynical trick to divide the working class and ensure that the bosses would remain in control. However, in order to achieve this end, the oppression and discrimination of the Catholic population were built into the foundations of the 'Ulster' six county statelet. Its first prime minister, Sir James Craig stated in 1932: "Ours is a Protestant government and I am an Orangeman." Two years later he emphasized the same point in the Stormont parliament: "I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and a member of this parliament afterwards…All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state." (P. Johnson, op. cit., p. 209.)

"Stick and Carrot"

Although Catholic workers have been and continue to have a higher chance of being unemployed than Protestant workers for much of the North's history, rates of Protestant unemployment have still been high. This gave the Orange Order both a 'carrot and stick' to encourage Protestant workers to join. The Order was a place where workers could meet employers, and formally or informally receive job offers. On the other hand, particularly in rural areas, employers would be aware of who was a member and discriminate in job applications against those who were not.

As late as 1959, when the question was raised of allowing Catholics to join the Unionist Party or the Orange Order, Sir George Clark, the Grand Master of the Orange Order said that while Catholics might support Unionism through the ballot box, membership was another matter:

"I would draw your attention to the words 'civil and religious liberty'. The liberty, as we know, is the liberty of the Protestant religion. In view of this, it is difficult to see how a Roman Catholic, with the vast differences in our religious outlook, could be either acceptable within the Unionist Party as a member, or, for that matter, bring himself unconditionally to support its ideals. Further to this, an Orangeman is pledged to resist by all lawful means the ascendancy of the Church of Rome, abstaining from uncharitable words, actions and sentiments towards his Roman Catholic brethren." (P. Johnson, op. cit., p. 210.)

Systematic discrimination against Catholics in jobs and housing continued in the Six Counties for decades, backed up by gerrymandering in elections that in practice denied them their civil rights. The Ulster Volunteers, a Protestant paramilitary force, were transformed in 1920 into a special constabulary to put down the Belfast riots, which they did with extreme violence. Later the RUC was backed up by the hated "Specials" - the A-Specials who were on duty all the time, the C-Specials who were for use in emergencies, and the notorious B-Specials, part-time policemen who played such a brutal role in suppressing the Civil Rights movement in 1968-9. In practice, all these bodies were open only to Protestants.

The repressive nature of the Six County statelet was underlined by the 1922 Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. It contained a catch-all offence that gave the authorities a free hand to deal with dissent:

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

However, at key moments in the development of the class struggle the tendency for united action of Catholic and Protestant workers reasserted itself. In 1932, the Falls and Shankill rioted together against unemployment. Once again the Orange Order warned "loyal subjects of the King, the vital necessity of standing guard against communism". The class question was always uppermost in their minds. Sectarianism for the ruling class was only a means to an end.