Ireland and the politics of bigotry – Part Four

Parnell’s Home Rule Party was divided by the exposure of his affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. She left her husband before she ever took up with Parnell and was his mistress for ten years before her husband sued for divorce, citing Parnell as co-respondent. His enemies had a field day when the scandal became public knowledge and the Catholic Bishops in particular condemned him. Parnell died eleven months later, in October, 1891, aged 45. His Home Rule Party never fully recovered. [part 1]

Organised Labour

James ConnollyJames ConnollyJohn Redmond became leader of the Irish Party in 1900, but the Party was dominated by Joseph Devlin and his group, the Board of Erin. The Board of Erin group, an off shoot of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, insisted that Irish nationalism was a strictly Catholic issue, thereby alienating Protestants and destroying hope of Catholic and Protestant unity in the movement. This attitude was deplored by patriots like Padraic Pearse and James Connolly, who branded the Board “The foulest brood that ever came into Ireland.”

In 1905 Sinn Fein was established, with the idea that England and Ireland would have separate parliaments and the King of Great Britain would also be King of Ireland. The founder, Arthur Griffith, hoped this would attract the support of the Ulster Unionists. Meanwhile, the Fenian movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was experiencing a revival. Many young and energetic men were joining, giving new blood and new vitality to the cause of Irish independence. It was at this time that two heroic men, neither of them Irish-born, stepped onto the stage of Ireland’s history: James Connolly and James Larkin.

Edinburgh-born Connolly was a Marxist, probably influenced by his uncle, John Leslie, who was a Marxist and a Fenian. He was persuaded by Leslie to try to establish a Socialist party in Ireland and at the age of twenty-six he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Dublin. The party was far in advance of any previous party in Ireland in its political thinking, advocating such social improvements as free education, pensions for the aged and the disabled, and nationalisation of banks and transport systems. In 1901 he published a pamphlet rebuking the religious hierarchy for accusing Socialism of being anti-religious:

“Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon the knowledge of facts of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual numbers if they so will. It is neither Freethinker, nor Christian, Turk nor Jew, Buddhist nor Idolator, Mahommedan nor Parsee – it is only HUMAN.”

In 1903, with his party failing to gain popular support and disrupted by internal quarrels, Connolly emigrated to America.

James Larkin arrived in Belfast in January, 1907. Liverpool-born Larkin was, like Connolly, the son of Irish emigrants, a Marxist, and deeply sympathetic to the cause of Irelands independence. Also like Connolly, he recognised the need to unite Catholic and Protestants in the struggle to achieve decent living conditions and free themselves from the virtual tyranny of the employers. He came to organise dockers for the National Dock Labourers Union. He soon had his hands full. The Belfast Steamship company provoked a strike by employing non-trade union workers, causing the dockers to go on strike.

In an attempt to smash the union the company now brought in ‘blackleg’ workers from England. Larkin was willing to negotiate an end to the dispute and even the Lord Mayor of Belfast offered to arbitrate, but the Chairman of the Steamship Company was adamant – it was a lock-out! On the third week of the strike Larkin was arrested for felling a blackleg who attacked him with a knife. He was later found ‘not guilty’, but his arrest increased the anger among the strikers and other workers struck in sympathy with the dockers. Then the employers confidently played their usual game: they claimed that Larkin was a Catholic and a troublemaker; all good and loyal Orangemen should shun him.

But this time it didn’t work. Larkin offered to resign from the strike committee, but the Protestants would have none of it – he was their leader and they were standing by him. The charismatic firebrand had united Catholics and Protestants in their common struggle and, to the employers’ astonishment, even won the support of the Orange Order. At a huge rally on August 11th both Larkin and Lindsay Crawford, leader of the Independent Orange Order, spoke in support of the strike. Meanwhile the army had been drafted into Belfast and stationed in Catholic areas like Falls Road, nowhere near the striking pickets’ positions. This was a deliberate provocation which led to rioting on August 12th in which two people were killed and several injured.

This could have led to sectarian riots which would have destroyed the united action of the workers, but Larkin immediately issued a handbill: “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.”

George Askwith was sent by the Board of Trade to arbitrate and on August 15th, after more than three months on strike, the hungry dockers agreed to return to work. They had to give an undertaking to behave themselves in future. It was a long, hard fight, but as historian Peter Berresford Ellis put it: “The Belfast strike was of tremendous significance. The workers had organised and, despite the establishment’s efforts to play off Protestant against Catholic, they had held together.”

In 1908, frustrated by the inability of his Union’s London executives to understand or sympathise with the situation in Ireland, Larkin formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in Dublin, ending the “policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trade Union Movement.”

The Return of Connolly

James Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 and had two of his works published: Labour in Irish History and Labour, Nationality and Religion. The latter was an incisive, withering rejoinder to a vicious attack on socialism made by Father Robert Kane in Gardiner Street Church, Dublin.

Many Catholic theoreticians were beginning to think that the official Church opposition to Socialism was a big mistake, resulting in growing controversy between them and the more conservative Catholic hierarchy. The way Connolly made his case during this controversy won him the respect of Catholics in London and he was invited to debate the issue at the Irish Club in Charing Cross Road. His opponent in the debate was the redoubtable Hilaire Belloc, one of Britain’s leading Catholic intellectuals. An astonished audience watched Connolly win the debate with effortless ease.

In 1911 he moved to Belfast and was appointed secretary of Larkin’s ITGWU. When a seamen’s strike broke out in July of that year Connolly succeeded in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers and persuaded 600 dockers to come out in sympathy. As a result the Union won the dispute.

Such was the impact of the trade union movement’s success, thanks to Connolly’s and Larkin’s efforts to unite both Catholic and Protestant workers in their common struggle, that the employers decided to smash the unions once and for all. In 1911 the Dublin Employers’ Federation adopted a policy of ‘locking out’ or dismissing any workers who refused to leave their union. By September 25,000 workers were locked out or sacked. The employers, with the tacit support of the Liberal government, used every foul means at their disposal to break the workers, including legal restrictions, arrests and vicious police brutality.

The blatant collusion of the police and the employers in attempting to crush the workers received widespread condemnation throughout Europe. After almost six months the struggle ended with neither side able to claim victory. But the police brutality gave rise to a greater feeling of class-consciousness in the Dublin working-class. It also gave rise to the Citizen Army. In 1914 James Larkin left for America and James Connolly took command in his absence.

The Easter rebellion

On Easter Monday, 1916, James Connolly and his Citizen Army, with a contingent of another armed group, the Irish Volunteers, occupied the post office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street and Padraic Pearse read out the proclamation of an Irish Republic. The rebels were heroic to the nth degree. They were idealists whose dream was to free their country from 750 years of pitiless oppression. They fought courageously, but they fought against overwhelming odds, and in the end the rebellion was doomed to failure.

Retribution was swift, vindictive and brutal. General Sir John Maxwell, governing Ireland under martial law, gave orders that a mass grave should be dug, big enough to contain 100 corpses. Then the executions began. The sentences were confirmed by the War Cabinet, which included the bigoted Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson, and the prosecution was in the charge of his friend and ally the Attorney General F.E. Smith.

The leaders of the uprising were quickly dealt with. Connolly, wounded twice in the fighting, had his foot amputated and had to be strapped to a chair before being shot. His old enemy, W.H. Murphy, a leading member of the Employers’ Federation and the richest man in Dublin, could not conceal his glee. In his journal, the Irish Catholic, he spitefully declared that Connolly deserved his fate and that Padraic Pearse was mentally unbalanced.

But Murphy’s vile propaganda was ineffective and many Catholic priests expressed outrage at the executions. When Sir John Maxwell asked the Bishop of Limerick, Dr. O’Dwyer, to silence the priests in his parish he was astonished by the reaction of the usually pro-British Bishop: “You took care that no plea for mercy should interpose on behalf of those… who surrendered to you… I regard your action with horror… it has outraged the conscience of the country”.

The Apartheid State

The bloody suppression of the rebellion did not have the desired effect of subduing the Irish Republican movement. On the contrary, it angered the entire population outside of Ulster and set the scene for further rebellion. The ensuing ‘troubles’ are well known. The continuing struggle for independence manifested itself in the conflict between the IRA and the British Army and the Black and Tans.

Civil war ensued, and the murderous atrocities committed by the British Army, were followed by equally brutal retaliation from the IRA, and finally the establishment of an independent Republic of Ireland and the severing of Northern Ireland. On Dec. 6th 1921 Michael Collins and his delegation signed a treaty with the following conditions:

  1. Twenty six independent counties will be known as The Irish Free State.
  2. Six Ulster counties will continue to be part of the UK.
  3. A Boundary Commission will determine the dividing line between North and South and a Council of Ireland will discuss the eventual reunification of Ireland.

The Irish Free State would become an independent dominion like Canada, raising its own taxes and having an army and navy. The UK would maintain four bases in Ireland. The oath of Allegiance would be watered down to an oath of allegiance to Ireland and a declaration of fidelity to the King.

According to Collins, this was the best deal that could be negotiated but it led to civil war between the Free Staters and the Irish Republicans, who considered the treaty a betrayal, while those who accepted the treaty regarded it as a stepping stone to eventual total independence for all of Ireland.

When the Treaty terms were made public, the Orange reaction was immediate, vindictive and ruthless. The Northern Irish Parliament passed a law imposing severe penalties on anyone who was found to be a member of any ‘seditious’ association, or anyone possessing firearms without a permit. Under no circumstances was any Catholic allowed such a permit. Even applying for one could get a Catholic arrested. On the other hand any member of an Orange Lodge could have one for the asking.

As a result of previous pogroms of the Catholics in Belfast, the Catholic quarter was densely overpopulated. Families were forced to live in shacks and sheds on waste ground, in halls and church crypts. ‘Special’ police searched the Catholic quarter for concealed weapons, and once they were satisfied that there were no weapons to be found they spread the word. Orange mobs marched in, hell-bent on destroying the quarter. IRA men from other areas came to the defence of the Catholics, whereupon the military were called in to quell the riots.

Every time the military left, the riots flared up again.  Between June 1920 and June 1922, 9,000 Catholics had been forced out of their jobs and 23,000 made homeless; 428 had been killed and 1,766 wounded. Reprisals were inevitable: Sir Henry Wilson, Chief Military Adviser to the Northern Irish Government, was assassinated in London by two Irish ex-servicemen. The IRA planned a reprisal raid into the Six Counties, but this was ruthlessly crushed by the Free State Army, led by Michael Collins, at the behest of the English Government.

Northern Ireland was now a religious Apartheid State. The Six Counties Government allowed one third of its population to be victimised and persecuted relentlessly by the Orange establishment. The vast majority of skilled jobs in engineering and shipbuilding were denied to Catholics. The same applied in the civil service and in any employment that offered the chance of a career or a decent future. In their blind prejudicial arrogance the rulers of the six counties were storing up trouble for themselves.

Meanwhile the capitalist captains of Industry were dominating the Orange Order and keeping the working class divided against itself. The working-class members of the Orange order were naively ignorant of the fact that they were being manipulated by their capitalist Grand Masters to keep their fellow workers, and themselves, in poverty.

It is true that the wiser members of Belfast Government would come to realise that the cost of maintaining this Orange tyranny was exorbitant. The cost for policing and other security measures, the difficulty of persuading foreign businesses to operate in Ulster, and the image of the Six Counties in the eyes of the world - all these things had a devastatingly detrimental effect on Northern Ireland’s economy. But by the time they realised this and tried to take measures to limit the influence of the Orange Order it was too late. The Orange Order was now a power on its own. The Northern Irish Government had a tiger by the tail.

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