Ireland & Republicanism

Easter 1916 mural panoramioIreland was Britain's oldest colony. For 400 years, the British capitalists and landlords pillaged Ireland and first perfected their system of divide and rule there, pitting Catholics against Protestants. The nationalist bourgeoisie, weak and dependent on British capitalism, failed to complete the revolutionary task of expelling British imperialism and instead came to a reactionary compromise with the latter, resulting in the partition of the island.

Ever since, the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists have led the struggle to disaster. This was particularly true after the revolutionary events of 1968-69, when the IRA led the movement into the cul-de-sac of individual terror.

British imperialism had hoped it had solved the problems in Ireland with the sticking plaster of the Good Friday Agreement. The re-emergence of the crisis of capitalism has completely exposed this hope as false to the core. Nothing was solved. Today, the national question is reemerging with renewed force. British imperialism no longer has any interest in maintaining partition, but the sectarian monster that it has created means it cannot rid itself of Northern Ireland either.

The Irish Revolution is full of lessons for Marxists: on the national question, the role of individual terror, reform versus revolution, etc. Above all, it teaches that the task of undoing partition can only be completed by the Irish working class through socialist revolution. In the words of the great Irish Marxist, James Connolly, "The cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour. The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland."

As Ireland enters a new turbulent period, it is imperative that Marxists – in Ireland and internationally – study its rich revolutionary history so as to learn its lessons and to avoid old pitfalls.

Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent ceasefire of the IRA after 30 years raises the question: after so much sacrifice and bloodshed, what has been achieved? Yet this question is being studiously avoided by the leaders of Sinn Fein, who have exchanged the armed struggle for the hope of a minister's portfolio. Though they publicly deny it, the unification of Ireland is off the agenda. The strategy, methods and tactics of non-socialist Republicanism have ended in complete disaster.

A remarkable document written by a Republican Socialist, Ta Power, while in gaol in Ireland in the mid-Eighties. The significance of the conclusions drawn by this young thinker and fighter, who made a careful study of Marxism whilst imprisoned, will not be lost on our readers. Above all the demand that politics and ideology must play the central role in the struggle for national liberation and socialism, in the building of a revolutionary party of the working class, will come as a surprise to many, especially knowing the period and the circumstances in which this document was written. With an introduction by Gerry Ruddy.

The election of a Labour Government in Britain has raised enormous expectations, not least by workers in Northern Ireland who are looking for a way out of the impasse they have faced for nearly a century. Yet the Labour leadership remain tied to a "bi-partisan" approach that has solved nothing in the past, and looks set to present more of the same for the future. In a short series of articles, Cain O'Mahoney examines labour's role in Northern Ireland and the lessons that must be learnt.

The partition of Ireland, following the Government Of Ireland Act in 1920, gave strength to the reactionary 'theory' that has always been perpetuated by pro-Unionist elements amongst the Northern labour movement that workers' interests were better served by maintaining the link with British capitalism.

After 1945, British imperialism had a different agenda for Northern Ireland. Ireland had been partitioned in 1920 to keep hold of the profitable industries of the North, as well as the important military bases that protected Britain's western flanks. More importantly however, Partition served to act as a break on the growing social revolution that accompanied the struggle for national liberation in Ireland, which had included land and factory seizures by the workers.

The decision by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969 reflected that government's abandonment of any semblance of socialist policies. It was a squandered opportunity that tied the Labour leadership to the blind alley of 'bipartisanship' for the next three decades.

On 17th April 1916 the Irish Citizen Army, together with the Irish Volunteers, rose up in arms against the might of the British Empire to strike a blow for Irish freedom and for the setting up of an Irish Republic. Their blow for freedom was to reverberate round the world, and preceded the first Russian Revolution by almost a year.

Born in 1868 into a poor family in Edinburgh, James Connolly was a genuine proletarian. His working life commenced at the age of ten. All his life he lived and breathed the world of the working class, shared in its trials and tribulations, suffered from its defeats and exulted in its victories. Connolly was a self-educated man who became a brilliant speaker and writer. He alone in the annals of the British and Irish Labour Movement succeeded in developing the ideas of Marxism.

"The declaration of an unconditional ceasefire by the I.R.A. on the 31st of August represents a crushing defeat for the policy of individual terrorism. For 25 years the I.R.A. waged an armed struggle against British imperialism, with the declared aim of driving out the British army and achieving the unification of Ireland. Now, after a generation of bloody conflict, with 3,170 dead and 36,680 injured, the goal of a united Ireland is further away than ever." Ted Grant in 1994.

This article was originally published in the Militant under the title "Northern Ireland - For A United Workers' Defence Force" just after the British troops were sent into the North of Ireland in 1969. While most of the left capitulated and supported the sending in of troops the Marxists explained clearly that, "The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil Rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interest of British and Ulster Big Business."

It is impossible to understand the Easter Rising without understanding the ideas of its leader, James Connolly, who considered himself a Marxist and based himself on the ideas of Internationalism and the class struggle. (Written by Ted Grant in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the uprising.)

In this little book Connolly challenges the nationalist myths about the Irish struggle for freedom from British rule. Connolly’s aim was to convince the radical nationalists that their policy of a ‘union of classes’ would lead to disaster. He argued that Irish independence would bring little in the way of freedom and progress for the majority of the Irish people unless it included a fundamental challenge to the structure of society. He also shows graphically how the Irish capitalist class was always prepared to abandon and betray the struggle for liberation if its economic and social interests were threatened.