Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Three

Feargus O'Connor and the Fenians

All history has shown that the bourgeoisie is only concerned with its selfish class interests, and merely uses the national flag to conceal this fact and blind and disorient the masses, until the moment when it finally stabs them in the back. When Feargus O'Connor, a sincere Irish democrat, attempted to win over O'Connell, he soon realized the real state of affairs:

"He earnestly strove to impress this view upon O'Connell, only to find that in the latter class feeling was much stronger than desire for Irish National freedom and that he, O'Connell, felt himself to be much more akin to the propertied class of England than to the working class of Ireland." (Labour in Irish History, p. 125, my emphasis.)

That is the crux of the matter. What is decisive is class interest. In the final analysis, the bourgeoisie of any nation will always unite with the bourgeoisie of an "enemy" state against its own working class. For all the theatrics and "patriotic" demagogy, the likes of O'Connell (and there have been many O'Connells in Irish history, and there are at present) will always feel more at home with the bankers, lawyers and businessmen of London than with the working people of their own land. Thus, when we accuse them of ‘betraying the cause', we must add that, in reality, they have always been, and remain to this day, remarkably faithful to their cause: the cause of Rent, Interest and Profit.

The national struggle of the Irish people in the 19th century unfolded against a background of falling living standards and increasing class struggle. Marx pointed out that between 1849 and 1869, while wages in Ireland had increased by 50 or 60 per cent, the prices of all necessities had more than doubled. Poverty and hunger were widespread. But a similar situation existed in Great Britain. The basis was thus laid for a revolutionary alliance of the English and Irish working class, as both Marx and Connolly pointed out. But the Fenians were regarded with hatred by the wealthy Irish nationalists and the Catholic Church, which condemned them. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Paul Cullen, even refused to allow them a Christian burial. Connolly comments:

"It is notorious that Fenianism was regarded with unconcealed aversion, not to say deadly hatred, not merely by the landlords and the ruling class, but by the Catholic clergy, the middle class Catholics, and the great majority of the farming classes. It was in fact only among the youngest and most intelligent of the labouring classes, of the young men of the largest towns and cities engaged in the humbler walks of mercantile life, of the artisan and working classes, that it found favour." (Labour in Irish History, p. 161.)

The Fenians were the most advanced wing of the Irish revolutionary democratic movement. They were heroic and showed socialist inclinations, but they also made mistakes. Marx and Engels naturally supported them but at the same time they severely criticised them for their adventurist tactics, their terrorist tendencies, their national narrowness and their refusal to accept the need to link up with the English workers' movement. On November 29th, 1867, Engels wrote to Marx:

"As regards the Fenians you are quite right. The beastliness of the English must not make us forget that the leaders of this sect are mostly asses and partly exploiters and we cannot in any way make ourselves responsible for the stupidities which occur in every conspiracy. And they are certain to happen."

Engels was soon proved right. Just two weeks later, on the 13th December 1867, a group of Fenians set off an explosion in London's Clerkenwell Prison in an unsuccessful attempt to free their imprisoned comrades. The explosion destroyed several neighbouring houses and wounded 120 people. Predictably, the incident unleashed a wave of anti-Irish feeling in the population. The following day Marx wrote indignantly to Engels:

"The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletariat to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy."

A few days later, on December 19th, Engels replied as follows: "The stupid affair in Clerkenwell was obviously the work of a few specialised fanatics; it is the misfortune of all conspiracies that they lead to such stupidities, because 'after all, something must happen, after all something must be done'. In particular, there has been a lot of bluster in America about this blowing up and arson business, and then a few asses come and instigate such nonsense. Moreover, these cannibals are generally the greatest cowards, like this Allen, who seems to have already turned Queen's evidence, and then the idea of liberating Ireland by setting a London tailor's shop on fire!"

We should cherish and respect the memory of the Fenians, but we must not repeat their mistakes. The tactics of individual terrorism alienated the English working class and proved completely counterproductive. Instead of furthering the Irish cause it harmed it. Unfortunately, the right wing of the Republican movement repeated all these mistakes in the last period, and produced even more fatal results. The idea that "after all, something must be done" does not constitute a strategy or a policy, and, despite its appeal to impatient elements, always has the most negative consequences for the movement as a whole. The way to hell is paved with good intentions.

Michael Davitt and the Land League

Throughout all this period the landowning class in Ireland formed a bulwark of reaction in Britain itself. A bitter class war raged in the Irish countryside, and the national question was inseparably linked to the land question. In the latter half of the 19th century, the land question was the burning question in Ireland. Gladstone made concessions in the hope of getting the support of the Irish group in the Westminster parliament. The Land Act of 1870 was a mild reform intended to improve the lot of the downtrodden Irish peasantry. But the collapse of the income of the Irish peasants as a result of the economic depression meant that the mass of peasants gained nothing from it. What use were tenants' rights if rents could not be paid? The real issue was not addressed: the ownership of land.

The landed interests in Ireland combined with the English Tories to sabotage the Liberal plan and crush the peasants' revolt. In order to split and destroy the movement for land reform, they deliberately encouraged religious sectarianism. The Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Mayo, wrote to Disraeli:

"Ireland is an infernal country to manage....Impartiality is impossible, statesmanship wholly out of place. The only way to govern is the old plan (which I will not attempt) of taking up violently one faction against the other, putting them like fighting-cocks, and then backing one. I wish you would send me to India. Ireland is the grave of every reputation." (P. Johnson, Ireland, a Concise History, p. 135.)

Michael Davitt came from a family of poor dispossessed peasants. He set up the Land League in 1879. The Land League advised the peasants to pay only what they considered a fair rent, and if that was refused, to pay nothing. Evictions were to be resisted (Davitt's own family had been evicted) and anyone who took over an evicted farm was to be boycotted. This was a militant campaign against landed interests in Ireland - the backbone of reaction.

The agrarian movement was met with vicious state repression, embodied in the Coercion Laws. This merely stiffened the resolve of the masses, who fought back bravely, risking eviction and imprisonment. As usual, all the risks and dangers were run by the poor peasants. But the fruits were reaped by the English Liberals and Irish bourgeois Home Rulers who climbed to power on the backs of the revolutionary Irish peasantry. Connolly wrote:

"...When the rising tide of victorious revolt in Ireland compelled the Liberal Party to give a half-hearted acquiescence to the demands of the Irish peasantry, and the Home Rule-Liberal alliance was consummated, the Irish businessmen in Great Britain came to the front, and succeeded in worming themselves into all positions of trust and leadership in the Irish organizations. One of the first and most bitter fruits of that alliance was the use of the Irish vote against the candidates of the Socialist and Labour Parties." (Labour in Irish History, p. 166).

In the 1880 election, 65 Irish nationalists were returned to Westminster, thirty of them supporters of Parnell. Gladstone, who became prime minister, carried out a land reform, but coupled it with a Coercion Bill directed against the militant actions of the village poor. The middle class peasants were given a pat on the back, and the poor received a kick in the teeth. The 1881 Land Act was so complicated that it was said that only Gladstone himself and his parliamentary draftsman could understand it. But the 100,000 poor peasants who were in arrears and threatened with eviction, who were excluded from the Act, could understand it only too well.

"As we have again and again pointed out, the Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis, into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland." (Labour in Irish History, p. 167.)

Michael Davitt adopted a consistent revolutionary class policy in his agitation on the land question. He appealed to the peasants on a class basis, thus cutting the ground from under the feet of those who sought to divide the masses with the poison of religious sectarianism. In 1881 the Land league was able to hold a meeting in the local Orange hall at Loughgall. Davitt told the crowd that the "landlords of Ireland are all of one religion - their God is mammon and rack-rents, and evictions their only morality, while the toilers of the fields, whether Orangemen, Catholics, Presbyterians or Methodists are the victims."

Like all the consistent fighters for Irish freedom, Davitt strove to unite the downtrodden and oppressed on class lines, cutting across religious and sectarian divisions, while the enemies of freedom strove to exacerbate the divisions. The danger posed to the Establishment by class unity set the alarm bells ringing and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland responded with a manifesto claiming that the Land League was a conspiracy against property rights, Protestantism, civil and religious liberty and the British constitution. When the question was put this way the Orange Order fulfilled its role and went on to provide the scab labour, which attempted to harvest Captain Boycott's crops.

This revolutionary movement of the Irish peasantry threatened the landlord class - the basis of English rule in Ireland. The latter took determined action to undermine and destroy the movement of the masses. For this purpose they recruited the support of the Irish nationalist middle class and the Catholic Church whose fear of the revolutionary movement of the masses has always been far greater than their attachment to Ireland. The increase in repression led to a drop of "agrarian crimes" from 4,438 in 1881 to 870 in 1883.

In the end the Land League was sold out by its middle class leaders. Connolly, who took a great interest in this question, advocated a revolutionary solution to the land problem, based on a revolutionary alliance between the working class and the peasantry to defeat both imperialism and capitalism. However, the prior condition for a revolutionary solution of the agrarian problem in Ireland was that the poor Irish peasant should break with the middle class politicians and join forces with the only genuinely revolutionary class - the proletariat.

The Land League, which sought the diminution of landlordism and the promotion of peasant-proprietorship, was ultimately banned in October 1881 and many of its leaders interned. In the end, the land question in Ireland was partially solved in a reactionary way, by a deal at the top. This succeeded in defusing the issue and transferred the land back into Irish hands. In 1870 only 3 per cent of Irish farmers had owned their own land (20,000 holdings out of 680,000). By 1895 the figure was 12 per cent. In the three years after Wyndham's Act it nearly doubled, to 29 per cent; and by 1918 it had reached 64 per cent. In itself this solved noting for the poor peasants. Irish ownership of the land and the means of production, on the basis of capitalism simply means swapping one oppressor for another as far as the Irish workers and peasants are concerned.

The combination of repression and concession carried out by the ruling class succeeded in its objective: the revolutionary agitation in the Irish countryside declined. The demise of the Land League, however, led directly to a revival of the socialist movement in Ireland. The "land war" of 1879-82 led to the politicization of many in Ireland and in Britain. The Democratic Federation, which had formed as a result of the Irish agitation, went on to develop into Britain's first 'nation-wide' socialist organization and in 1884 was renamed as the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In 1881 the Democratic Federation was founded in Britain by radicals (and some socialists) who opposed the use of coercive legislation against the Irish Land League. This was a reflection of the fact that the bourgeois Liberals had failed to provide a solution for any of the problems of the Irish people.

Home Rule and Ulster

The attempts of Gladstone to resolve the Irish question through Home Rule were aborted by the opposition of the reactionary Tory and landowning interests, which feared that Home Rule would mean the end of their power and privileges. They made use of the Orange reactionaries to block the movement. In 1886, Lord Randolph Churchill went to Ulster, and rallied the Protestants and Presbyterians there under the slogan "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right." In February of that year he wrote:

"I decided some time ago that if [Gladstone] went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out to be the ace of trumps and not the deuce."

The immediate result of this maneouvre was an outbreak of sectarian rioting in Belfast against Home Rule. The British imperialists were prepared to use sectarianism and to whip up prejudices for their own ends. But they cared little or nothing for the problems of either Protestants or Catholics, except as cannon fodder and pawns in a game. Their attitude was one of unbridled cynicism, as shown by the remark of Sir William Harncourt in a conversation with Gladstone: "The only difference is that where you can buy a Nationalist for five pounds, you must pay six pounds for a Loyalist." (Quoted in P. Johnson, Ireland, a Concise History, p. 135.)

The House of Lords defeated the second Home Rule Bill in 1892 by the enormous majority of 419 to 41. Gladstone wanted to go to the country on the slogan "Peers versus the People" but the proposal was unceremoniously turned down by his colleagues. In this way, Home Rule was killed off for a further 15 years.

Despite this, the Irish bourgeois nationalists continued to place all their trust in the Liberals. When the latter won a landslide victory in 1906, John Redmond's Nationalists solidly backed them in parliament, although with an overall majority of 88, the Liberals had no need of them. In this atmosphere of craven capitulation, the revolutionary spirit of the Irish people was only kept alive by the working class.

In 1906 the Lords rejected the Lloyd George budget and in the elections of 1910, the Irish question once more came to the fore. The Liberal majority had shrunk to the point where they depended on the votes of the Irish MPs. Having pushed through legislation that reduced the power of the Lords to a delay of two years Asquith was now obliged to back a Bill for Home Rule.

At this point the Ulster question assumed a burning importance. In 1800, Belfast had a population of only 20,000 - less than one-third of Cork (70,000) and one-seventh of Dublin (172,000). By 1881 it was 186,000 and by the turn of the century 400,000. Whereas the South remained predominantly agricultural, the North had a heavy concentration of industry, inlcuding shipbuilding. The British imperialists therefore had powerful economic and also strategic reasons for holding onto the North at all costs. Thus, by stoking the fires of religious sectarianism, the imperialists were pursuing a cynical, cold and calculating self-interest.

The 1911 census (the last taken in a united Ireland) showed a total population of 4,390,219, of which Catholics made up 75 per cent, and 25 per cent were Protestants of different denominations: 576,611 Church of Ireland, 440,525 Presbyterians and 60,000 Methodists. Most of the Protestants lived in Ulster - a region originally consisting of nine counties as opposed to the artificial six county statelet given that name by British imperialism. In four counties of Ulster - Armagh, Down, Derry and Antrim - they were a large majority. But in Fermanagh and Tyrone they were a minority, although a substantial one. There were large Catholic minorities in both Derry and Belfast. And it was not possible to separate the two communities without the kind of violent ethnic cleansing we have witnessed in recent years in Yugoslavia.

In 1798, the Revolution of the United Irishmen had been enthusiastically supported by the poor Protestants. Ever since then, the imperialists had encouraged the growth of sectarianism. Originally the Orange Order was composed mainly of artisans and working class elements. Only after 1886, when Home Rule became a major issue, did the Orange Order become transformed into a weapon of reaction and a bulwark of Order, Property and Imperialism. It was in effect taken over and absorbed by the Unionist movement.

For opportunist reasons, Randolph Churchill pledged physical support from Britain to resist Home Rule - a pledge that united Ulster Unionists, Liberal Unionists and Conservative Unionists for the next thirty years. The Ulster Unionists were a mass movement based on the farmers, small businessmen and backward sections of the working class in the North. But it was led by landed aristocrats and wealthy businessmen who managed to control and manipulate the Protestant masses, playing on their fears of domination by Rome. A factor in the resistance of Protestants to Home Rule was the conduct of the Vatican, with the reactionary Pope Pius X (1903-14), who condemned "Modernism" in all forms and laid down new rules for mixed marriages which were an insult and a provocation to Protestants, playing into the hands of the bigots who argued that "Home Rule is Rome Rule".

The only hope of defeating the forces of Orange reaction was to split away the Protestant workers and small farmers from the control of the landlords and capitalists. This could only be done on a class basis. In fact, under the leadership of Connolly and Larkin, the organized working class posed a serious threat to the Orange Establishment in the period of stormy class struggles before 1914.

The Orange movement has never been homogeneous. Within it there is a sharp class division that reappears at every decisive turn and threatens to produce a split along class lines. In the period of the reawakening of the working class movement in the 1900s, pressure from the working class led to an open split in the Orange Order, as Emett Larkin explains:

"The result of this discontent was the formation of the ultra-militant Belfast Association by Arthur Trew and TH Sloan. The Grand Orange Lodge watched the BPA with the suspicious and waiting eye that all orthodoxies fixes on its rigorists, but it had to tread carefully because the rank and file of the Order vigorously backed Trew and his Association. There was also an indication of a split along class lines, as the ‘majority of the Grand Lodge were well-to-do merchants, Justices of the Peace, and clergymen having little to do with Trew and his supporters who were chiefly working men." (Emmett Larkin, op cit., p. 282, our emphasis.)

The Independent Orange Order

Trew was an extreme Protestant bigot who was eventually jailed for inciting violence against Catholics. But the man who replaced him, T.H. Sloan was another matter. A shipyard cement worker, Sloan contested the seat of South Belfast in 1902 as the "Democratic candidate" and defeated his Tory opponent, a wealthy landowner from County Down by 800 votes in a total poll of nearly 6,000. As a result the Grand Lodge suspended him. Several Belfast Lodges protested against this and were themselves suspended. In an act of defiance they united with other dissident Lodges to form the Independent Orange Order.

The evolution of the Independent Orange Order must be one of the strangest of history's many peculiar transformations. Under the guidance of R. Lindsay Crawford, a Dublin Orangeman and editor of The Irish Protestant, the Independent Orange Order broke from the old Protestant bigotry of Trew and advocated a more tolerant line on religion and even on the national question. In July 1905 the Order issued a manifesto "To all Irishmen Whose Country Stands First in their Affections" in which we read:

"The victory of our forefathers at the Boyne was not a victory over creed or over race, but a victory for human liberty, the fruits of which our Roman Catholic countrymen share no less than ourselves…As Irishmen, we do not seek to asperse the memory of the hallowed dead whose fortunes were linked with those of the ill-starred hose of Stuart, and whose courage and daring were proved in many a hard-fought field. We stand once more on the banks of the Boyne, and not as victors in the fight, not to applaud the noble deeds of our ancestors, but to bridge the gulf that has so long divided Ireland into hostile camps, and to hold out the right hand of friendship to those who, whilst worshipping at other shrines, are yet our fellow-countrymen - bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. We come to help in the Christian task of binding up the bleeding wounds of our country, and to co-operate with all who place Ireland first in their affections…

"In an Ireland in which Protestant and Roman Catholic stand sullen and discontented, it is not too much to hope that both will reconsider their positions and, in their common trials, unite on a true basis of nationality. The higher claims of our distracted country have too long been neglected in the strife of party and of creed. The man who cannot rise above the trammels of party and of sect on a national issue is a foe to nationality and to human freedom." (Quoted in Emmett Larkin, op. cit., p. 236.)