As we approach the 95th anniversary of the Easter Rising many Irish socialists and republicans will go out as they do every year to marches to celebrate the anniversary of the episode which asserted Ireland’s right to national self-determination. It was, however, also a revolution which saw the working class prove itself in the words of Connolly as “the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”
The rising was led by James Connolly’s Irish Citizens’ Army, the armed wing of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union established to protect workers during the 1913 Dublin lockout from scabs and the police.
Today workers in Ireland yet again find themselves confronted by capitalism in crisis. Yet today our class is far stronger than it was in 1916. The experience of international economic expansion and particularly the “Celtic Tiger” years which saw the economy more than double in size between 1995 and 2007 saw a massive growth in the size of the Irish working class. The period since the onset of the economic crisis has given the Labour Party an unprecedented opportunity that even saw it leading in the opinion polls. In the 2011 General Election Labour emerged as the biggest party in Dublin, winning 18 seats. If the 4 United Left Alliance seats and 4 Sinn Fein seats are also counted this marks an overall majority for the left in Ireland’s biggest city.
Unfortunately the response of the Labour leadership to this situation has been to go down the road of the failed policies of “social partnership” and they failed to learn the lessons of history or heed the advice of Connolly.
In 1916, shortly before the rising was due to begin, he warned the volunteers that even in the remote possibility of success they should “hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal.” This was in the context of the Citizens’ Army playing the leading role in the rising, with a vacillating layer of the middle class Irish Volunteers led by Padraig Pearse eventually also joining them. Even under these circumstances, when the rising was based around support for the Proclamation of the Irish Republic – which pledged the “right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies” – Connolly understood the fundamental differences in class interest and outlook.
Just as he recognised that “the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour and the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland” he also recognised the role of the Irish bourgeois as a class inherently linked by a thousand threads to international capitalism and reconciliation with British imperialism. Connolly commented that even as early as the late eighteenth century, “the Irish capitalist class was not able to combat the influence of the corruption fund of the English Government, or to create and lead a party strong enough to arrest the demoralisation of Irish public life.”
The period since Connolly’s murder in 1916, when he was shot tied to a chair despite being mortally wounded, has only confirmed his analysis. Labour’s failure to provide an alternative to Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election saw it willingly subordinate itself to Sinn Fein. The War of Independence was marked by the lack of a coherent leadership and independent role of the working class. This directly resulted in partition and the onset of the “carnival of reaction” Connolly warned would arise from it.
In more recent years this has been repeatedly confirmed. In the 1980s Labour joined Fine Gael in coalition only to see it forced to implement a raft of cuts. Once again we are entering a situation where Irish and international capitalism is in crisis and attempting to force the working class to pay for it. The policies of “social partnership” will only lead to exponential failure. Once again the Irish bourgeois will not hesitate to use Labour to implement a series of cuts which will only see a squandering of the gains that have been made.
We can’t afford to simply commemorate the Easter Rising and James Connolly, we have to learn the lessons from the historical experience of our class in struggle and the ideas advanced by Ireland’s most eminent Marxist. Only a policy of class independence and a refusal to implement cuts and to challenge a system which sees the sick, the poor, the unemployed and the young pay for its crisis can provide the answer we need.
The recent election results and the demonstrations and public sector strikes of 2010 showed the willingness to struggle, only a leadership dedicated to taking over the major parts of industry and the banks under workers’ control can truly make the causes of Ireland and labour one. The events of 1916 marked a major development in the struggle for a socialist, united Ireland. We must finish what Connolly and the working people of Dublin began!