With the outbreak of war the various sections of the bourgeoisie agreed to put aside their differences and concentrate on the task at hand – the pouring of as much human raw material as possible into the trenches. In parliament the Liberals, the loyalists and even the nationalists vied with each other to show that they “put the nation first”. Carson volunteered the postponement of the Home Rule debate until after the war. So did Redmond. So too did Asquith.
The Irish problem had simplified itself as far as the bosses were concerned. It was now a problem of how to pressgang as many Irishmen as possible into uniform to go and serve their “King and Country” in Flanders. Conscription was favored by many sections of the ruling class. However, a number of factors had prevented its implementation. First there was the question of opinion in America. The prime concern of the British bosses was to bring America into the war – on their side. The American government, with all its superficial phrase-mongering about defending the rights of small nations, would have to be sensitive to the tide of pro-Irish feeling at home. It would have had difficulty justifying an ally which practiced its defense of the rights of small nations by coercing unwilling Irishmen into its army. Secondly the very problem of implementing the policy of conscription without tying down huge numbers of troops in Ireland to maintain order was a deterrent. Finally, and particularly towards the end of the war, of major importance was opposition to conscription from the ranks of an aroused Irish labor movement.
If the Irish could not be press-ganged into uniform, more gentle measures would have to be employed! And what better than to employ the trusted leaders of the nationalist movement to plead the case of imperialism to the Irish people?
By 1914 Redmond proved most patriotic! Not only did he support the war; he even offered to use the Volunteers to look after security in Ireland so that the British garrison would be free for use in Europe. Of course the British preferred that the Irish Volunteers serve in the trenches so that their troops could be spared to keep order in Ireland.
And Redmond willingly obliged! He expended not a little energy touring the country to address recruiting meetings. With him were the other leaders of right-wing nationalism. As Connolly pointed out, the selfsame people who denounced the workers of Dublin in 1913 for sending children to “Protestant” homes to avoid starvation were now, with gusto, encouraging the youth of Ireland to clamber into khaki uniforms and shed their blood in the interests of their masters. In Dublin one of the slogans of the recruiting meetings was that the “trenches are safer than the slums”. Because of the risk of disease in the miserable hovels of Dublin’s ghettos this may well have been the case. Never more clearly had capitalism been indicted by the people who spent their time trying to preserve it than it had through this slogan.
Redmond was highly successful during the early war years in his recruiting efforts. The initial wave of jingoism which had accompanied the war had even stretched itself into Ireland. It had combined with the miseries of life in the slums and on the land, to drive some 200,000 Irish people into the army.
Those who volunteered, thanks to the efforts of the nationalists, found themselves scattered throughout the regiments of the British army. A concentration of Irish soldiers in any regiment would have spelt danger to the control which could be exercised by the army chiefs. These reactionaries who made up the bulk of Carson’s UVF received different treatment. The special 36th (Ulster) Division was formed almost entirely from the ranks of the UVF.
The overwhelming majority of the National Volunteers backed Redmond’s stance in 1914. When a few more militant sections of the Volunteers such as the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood talked in terms of “England’s difficulty” being “Ireland’s opportunity”, they were largely scorned or ignored.
Connolly and 1916
Among the few people who stood out against the war was James Connolly. In 1914, he was one of a handful of socialists who internationally denounced the carnage as an imperialist war. He stood with Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Luxembourg, and a few others, in his denunciations. In pitiful contrast were the leaders of the major social-democratic parties and major unions in Europe. These gentlemen had met in 1914 at the Basle Congress and resolved that the outbreak of war would be answered by an international general strike which would paralyze the war effort of every country. When the armies of Europe eventually descended upon each other, tossing worker against worker, the initial outburst of national chauvinism which accompanied the first shots was sufficient to dissolve the opposition of almost all the leaders of European social democracy. Inevitably those at the top of the strongest movements, with the greatest power at their disposal, became the most rotten, the most cowardly and the most open in their support of the war effort.
Faced with, and outraged by, these betrayals, Connolly, more than any other leader in Ireland, was determined that action on the part of the Irish people was necessary. He pressed the leaders of the IRB and the Volunteers to organize an insurrection. Suspicious of the role of the leaders of these organizations, he even threatened that if they were not prepared to rise he would do so, using only the tiny forces of the Citizen Army. On one occasion, he told his son that he thought the Volunteer leaders were prepared to fight only if they had “steam-heated trenches”.
When plans for a rising during Easter week 1916 were agreed, Connolly’s reservations about the role of the nationalist leaders were shown to be well founded. Connolly had once described the nationalist leaders as “the open enemies or the treacherous friends of the working class”. McNeill, the commander of the Volunteers, on the day before the 1916 rising, actually sent out an order stating that it had been called off. Arthur Griffith expressed vehement opposition to this “lunacy” and split away from all the groups that were involved. During the actual fighting he had a “change of heart” and offered support but was told by the insurgents to stand aside and instead concentrate on political back-up work. His subsequent arrest proved fortunate for his political career, since, in the minds of the people, if not in actual fact, it placed him side by side with the “heroes” of 1916.
On the morning of Easter Monday 1916 little more than a thousand men marched to the GPO in the center of Dublin. There the flag of independence was raised and a proclamation read. Other buildings throughout the city were seized, including the Four Courts, the South Dublin Union and Bolands Mill. The reaction of the military establishment was swift. Despite Connolly’s prediction, probably given to reassure his somewhat unwilling troops, that the capitalists would not shell their own property, within one day, artillery was being used against the insurgents.
Outside Dublin only a few areas were affected. In Galway over a thousand men were mobilized by Liam Mellows, only to be dispersed after several skirmishes. The town of Enniscorthy in Wexford was held for a time. Elsewhere there was little activity, except in North County Dublin, where a railway line was seized.
After one week of fighting, the Dublin rising was bloodily suppressed. Lacking any real basis of support, the insurgents did not have the slightest chance of victory. In fact, as the captured men were marched through the streets of Dublin in many cases they were met with the derision and abuse of the people. In Dame Street, a crowd actually waved Union Jacks in their faces. Elsewhere, in Thomas Street, for example, tomatoes and other fruit were hurled at them.
There followed a program of executions. General Maxwell, the head of the British forces, demanded that a grim example be made of the insurgents. Ninety people were sentenced to be executed by firing squad. As the program of executions got under way, demands for clemency grew in both Britain and Ireland. But the executions continued – continued, that is, until Connolly was dead. Then, with the greatest leader of the workers in Ireland dead, the killings were ended. Not surprisingly the Irish Independent, owned by William Martin Murphy, that money-grabbing capitalist of 1913, raised the call for clemency only after one of his arch-enemies, Connolly, had been shot.
Murphy’s stance was indicative of that of the entire establishment and business community in Ireland. When such representatives of Irish capitalism as millionaire Charles Haughey and others pay lip service to the “national heroes” of 1916 they deserve to be reminded that their class took a somewhat different position at the time of the rising. To a man, the capitalists of Ireland made themselves hoarse in 1916 by shouting their denunciations of Connolly, Pearse and Co.
The Irish Times in an editorial at the time celebrated the fact that “Liberty Hall is no more than a sinister and hateful memory.” On May 8 it insisted that the execution of leaders should continue. Calling for military rule to be extended, it stated: “We have learned that the sword of the soldier is a far better guarantee of justice and liberty than the presence of the politician.”
Alongside Murphy the Dublin Chamber of Commerce opposed the rising. So did the church. So did the ragbag of right-wing sectarian organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish National Foresters. “Respectable Dublin”, the kith and kin of the present rulers of Southern Ireland were not in the GPO during Easter week 1916. From their drawing rooms and parlors they were praising and encouraging the British forces. In their speeches and publications they were wholeheartedly demanding retribution in full against those who dared physically to oppose the national oppression of Ireland.
Few incidents in Irish history have been subject to such confusion and distortion as the 1916 rising. In particular, the participation of Connolly, fighting with the people he did, under the Irish flag, and as signatory to a declaration which demanded that the Irish people, not the Irish working class, should be the owners of Ireland, has sown endless confusion. Connolly’s role in 1916 has been and still is used by countless petty-bourgeois nationalists, republicans, “Green” so-called socialists and a hundred and one other self-ordained “followers” to give license to the crimes which they commit against the working class movement in his name.
Connolly stands as a giant when compared to all the other leaders, apart from Larkin, who have dominated the Irish labor movement before 1916 or since. His contribution in terms of ideas has not been surpassed. His readiness to struggle at all times and to make endless sacrifice has not been matched. In 1916 his motive was the advancement of the interests of the class he had faithfully served throughout his life as a conscious socialist.
Neither before nor during the 1916 rising did Connolly have any illusions in his nationalist “allies”. On the eve of the fighting he addressed the Citizen Army with the following words: “the odds against are 1000-1. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles, because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember we are out not only for political liberty but for economic liberty as well. So hold onto your rifles.”
Albeit with the very best motives, Connolly was nevertheless mistaken in 1916 in concocting the type of alliance he did between himself and the nationalists, and in doing this on the terms that he did. There were occasions in the pre-rising period when he even spoke on platforms with such right-wing petty-bourgeois enemies of the working class as Arthur Griffith. His decision in 1916 to fly the green flag over Dublin’s GPO, rather than have the Citizen Army march and fight separately under the red flag, was a decision which was not supported by many of his followers within the Citizen Army even at that time. But this mistake was not made because Connolly had a change of heart about the very people whom he had viciously polemicized against before the war.
Nor was Connolly at any time motivated by mere narrow, nationalist sentiments. His “mistake” in 1916 was made for the best of reasons. The battle of Dublin workers in 1913 had temporarily exhausted the movement of the Irish working class. During the war there were strikes, some successful, but never did the movement even begin to rise to the crescendo of the struggles of the pre-war period. The betrayal of the great lockout by the leaders of the British trade unions, and the mood of exhaustion which swept the Irish labor movement thereafter, undoubtedly had an effect on Connolly himself. His partial disorientation caused by these events was confounded by the outbreak of the war.
After 1914, his prime concern was with the war and the mood of jingoism which swept sections of the population. Aghast at the gross betrayal perpetrated by the tops of the workers’ movement internationally in 1914, and shocked that the carnage could rage for two years without any opposition, he looked in desperation for some way of provoking a movement against the war. He was prepared to sacrifice himself, his organization, and even to compromise on some of his ideas, in order to set the workers’ movement once again on a forward path. This attitude of struggle stands in marked contrast to the cringing chauvinism of the social-democratic leaders internationally who discarded their socialism in favor of patriotic phrases throughout this period. Connolly was isolated in his denunciation of the war. He could not see even a ripple of a class movement in Europe and therefore he decided to use every possible means and every possible ally, to create such opposition in Ireland: “Should the working class of Europe rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of the King and financiers proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy transport services that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly happy in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture class that rule and rob the world. But pending either of these consummations it is out manifest duty to take all possible action to save the poor from the horrors this war has in store.”
A revolutionary duty, not just to fight against national domination in Ireland, but to the international struggle against class domination – this was Connolly’s view of the need for a rising. As he graphically put it, the hope was that a rising would “set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until that last capitalist bond and debenture will be shriveled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.”
The mistake of the Easter rising was not so much that it took place, but that it took place prematurely. Connolly was wrong when he argued that it would ignite the class movement in Europe. The theory that any group of workers can be detonated into action by heroic example is false. Only when the conditions for mass struggle actually exist, only when the masses are prepared to do battle and make enormous sacrifices, can a mass revolutionary movement be created. Many of those who advocate the false tactics of individual guerilla warfare today draw, in part, their inspiration from the Easter rising. If they removed their blindfolds they would discover that the actual experience of the rising proved the futility of isolated action.
In any case the 1916 rising was an attempted insurrection, not a part of a guerilla campaign. Had Connolly had the slightest illusion in the methods of individual terror, he had ample scope to use such methods between 1914 and 1916. Not only did he have the “opportunity” provided by the war, he had an armed organization in the Citizen Army. But Connolly during these years neither conducted, nor advocated a campaign of bombings and shootings.
The conditions for mass revolutionary action expressly did not exist in 1916. They did not exist in Ireland and they did not exist in Europe. In Ireland the IRB and the Citizen Army were only a handful in number.
True, the advanced workers had stood out against the war. All the groups who fought in 1916 were working-class in composition. The Citizen Army was the army of the workers led by workers’ leaders. The other organizations, such as the IRB, while their leadership was petty bourgeois, were chiefly made up of workers, albeit largely of white-collar workers. In fact many of the Volunteers were people who had wished to join the Citizen army but who had been refused because of lack of equipment. Yet these advanced sections of the class had not gathered behind them the active support of the mass the workers and the small farmers and farm laborers.
In the period after the industrial battles of 1913, and because of the jingoism which had accompanied the war, Connolly had actually on some occasions advised against strikes because of the depleted resources of the ITGWU. Activity within the workers’ organizations remained low-key right up until 1916.
A reflection of this, and also of Connolly’s desperation to stage an insurrection, no matter how hopeless, was the lack of any real preparation for a rising. The power of several thousand armed men is one thing. Such power, linked to the overwhelming might of organized labor, is something entirely different. A general strike to paralyze supplies and to bring the masses into activity was an ABC demand. Yet even Connolly did not raise it.
Even within the Citizen Army and among the labor activists, opposition to the war had not yet crystallized to the extent of broad support for an uprising. Connolly used his tremendous authority as a revolutionary leader, and a trade union organizer, to drag his men behind him. He ignored criticism from the other leaders of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union because his sights were set on action, no matter how futile.
It is an incredible fact that at the Congress of the Irish Trade Unions and Labour Party which met in August 1916 no separate protest was made about the execution of Connolly. Instead the Congress leaders tried to be all things to all people by proposing a minute silence to both the dead of the Easter rising and those killed in the trenches of Europe. This despite the fact that Connolly had, prior to 1916, been, in Larkin’s absence, acting general secretary of the ITGWU. Many of his opponents within the trade union movement would not have been disheartened to see him removed from activity within the unions. But the fact that no protest occurred reflected not only the opportunism of the Congress leadership but also the lack of any mass basis of active support among the trade union rank and file for Connolly’s participation in the rising.
The difference between Connolly and other Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky was that they maintained a perspective for future struggles and were thus capable of preserving their ideas despite the most difficult objective circumstances. Lenin understood that events would turn themselves inside out. He saw that the same war which had reduced the revolutionary wing of social democracy to a handful in 1914 would itself be a generating factor in producing a new wave of class storms which would shake Europe.
In 1916 the tiny forces of those internationalists who stood out against the war attended a conference at Zimmerwald in Switzerland. It was joked that the entire forces of international revolution at that time could be put into the few coaches which carried them to the conference. And of those attending only a minority were prepared to give support to the ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Yet this tiny, tiny nucleus, because it applied the tested methods of Marxism, was able, on the basis of a movement of the masses themselves, to become the center of the new and mass revolutionary organization of the international working class.
In Dublin in1916 it was the advanced workers in the main who fought. Thus the flower of the Irish proletariat rose up, but was slaughtered, before the movement really began in Europe. The tragedy of the rising lies in this fact. Above all the most farsighted leader of the Irish workers, the most outstanding Marxist to have emerged from the British or Irish labor movement, was dead. No Marxist party had been created by Connolly to carry on his struggle and keep alive his real ideas and his real traditions. A large section of the head and of the brain of the workers’ movement was destroyed – and was destroyed before the really decisive movement of the class as a whole had begun. Into the vacuum stepped a whole breed of shabby opportunists ready to lavish praise on men like Connolly, in order to trample on the traditions of revolutionary struggle which, throughout his whole life, Connolly had maintained.
Alongside the fact that the action was premature, Connolly was also incorrect in the manner in which he participated in the rising. He should have fought on his own program, not on the vague ideas contained in the proclamation read from the steps of Dublin’s GPO on the first day. Much of the present day confusion surrounding Connolly’s role would never have arisen had he clearly presented his own alternative program. Had he issued a call to the workers of Ireland and of the world on the question of hours of work, of wages, of factory conditions, and of the ownership of the land, the banks and the major industries by the working class, his clear socialist ideas would not have been open to the slightest misinterpretation.
Connolly had given up none of these objectives in 1916. He ensured, for example, during the rising, that the flag of Irish labor, the Starry Plough, was raised above the Imperial Hotel, owned by Martin Murphy. But in his efforts to ensure that a rising went ahead he had been prepared to compromise on ideas with members of the IRB. That mistake has opened up a chink in the armor of Connolly’s socialist thought and has allowed people who are opposed to everything for which Connolly sacrificed his entire existence to pretend to stand in his shoes.
Of course, all the mistakes which Connolly was prepared to make in order to prepare for the rising, his alliance with the nationalists, his willingness to temporarily forgo aspects of the socialist program, have been exalted to positions of “genius” and “examples to be followed”. His real contempt for the petty-bourgeois nature of the nationalist movement, his uncompromising revolutionary ideas, the real reasons why he pushed for an insurrection, have too often been forgotten. Coalitions, dirty deals of all sorts with all types of people who, were he alive today, would have fought tooth and nail against Connolly are prepared to toast his memory. As Connolly himself once commented, “apostles of freedom are ever idolized when dead but crucified when living”.
Those who justify coalitions between the workers’ organizations and other political parties on the basis of Connolly’s participation in the 1916 rising would do well to study Connolly’s whole lifetime experience of struggle against such unholy alliances. On January 22, 1916 he made a statement which many leaders of the labor movement would do well to digest today: “The labor movement is like no other movement. Its strength lies in being like no other movement. It is never so strong as when it stands alone.” At the turn of the century the French socialist leader, Millerand, accepted a position in the French cabinet. Connolly denounced this betrayal, on the basis that a workers’ party should “accept no government position which it cannot conquer through its own strength at the ballot box”. He denounced Millerand’s stand by saying that “what good Millerand may have done is claimed for the credit of the bourgeois republican government: what evil the cabinet has done reflects back on the reputation of the socialist parties. Heads they win, tails we lose.” It takes no genius to work out what stand Connolly would have taken on the Southern coalition between the organization that he helped to create, the Irish Labour Party, and the group of former blueshirts who call themselves Fine Gael.
In 1917 the perspectives of Lenin and Trotsky were borne out by the events in Russia. In February of that year the workers of Russia rose up and swept aside Tsarism. Only because the political consciousness of this movement, and of its leadership, was still at a low level, this did not immediately result in the passing of power into the hands of the workers, but in the emergence of a Constituent Assembly including representatives of the capitalist parties. However, side by side with this body, the workers established their own organizations – the soviets or workers’ councils.
It was soon apparent that the program of piecemeal reform could not ease the burden of the Russian workers and peasants and could not put an end to the war. The soldiers and workers were demanding peace and bread. The peasants were demanding the land. The liberal capitalists could provide none of these. And so the task of implementing these demands fell to the working class, who also carried out their program, the abolition of capitalist rule. In October 1917 the Bolshevik Party, supported by the mass of the population, wrested power from the bosses and established the most democratic form of government which has ever existed – rule by the soviets.
Thus were vividly demonstrated the importance of clear ideas, correct tactics and above all a perspective of future events. Before October 1917 the Bolsheviks had warned against premature attempts to seize power. In July the workers in the cities, en masse, had been champing at the bit. But the Bolsheviks urged caution, advising that the mood in the countryside and army was not yet at a revolutionary pitch. The workers, provoked by the government, refused to sit back, and the July demonstrations were suppressed by the government. Because the Bolsheviks, despite their advice to the workers not to go onto the streets with arms at that stage, did not turn their backs on those workers who did demonstrate, but put themselves at the head of the demonstrations, the movement was able to retreat in good order. By October 1917 the revolutionary fever had infected the countryside. The soldiers were ready to turn their backs on the trenches and to face their officers. Genuine mass support for the seizure of power existed. The Bolsheviks were able to carry through a successful insurrection. As a result of this overwhelming support Petrograd was in the hands of the workers with the loss of only ten lives. Moscow, the second city, fell within a week. What a sharp contrast with the bitter experience of the Dublin workers! After a week of fighting in which over 1300 people were killed or wounded, defeat was the result. A tradition of struggle had been maintained – but at a terrible cost to the working-class movement.
Working Class Offensive
Easter week 1916 did not set the spark for the European conflagration hoped for by Connolly. The Russian revolution did. Here again is underlined the importance of correct perspectives, and of the ability to evaluate precisely the mood of the masses. With the Russian workers in power the international situation was transformed. Despite the crude distortions later laid upon these events by the Stalinist bureaucracy which was later to emerge and usurp the democratic institutions and traditions of the Soviet state including the soviets themselves, Lenin and Trotsky never conceived of socialism being built in Russia alone. Internationalists to the core, the Bolsheviks saw the Russian revolution as part and parcel of the international socialist revolution.1917 produced an enormous revolutionary wave which swept across Europe. Revolutionary situations developed in Hungary, Italy and France. In Germany in 1918 workers returned from the front lines to find they had sacrificed themselves for a future of destitution at home. Towards the end of that year a series of upheavals actually left the working class in virtual control of the country. Whole towns and cities were for a time in the hands of the German workers’ organizations. A piece of thread would have been strong enough to tie the hands of German capitalism at that stage. All that was needed was the final half-step to the consolidation of workers’ rule. Then the bells would really have begun to toll not only for German but for world capitalism. That half-step forward was not taken. No Lenin, no Bolshevik party sufficiently strong, existed in that country. Instead, the utterly rotten leadership of the German social democracy, by leaving the machinery of the state and the wealth of the country in the grip of the capitalists, took several paces backwards.
These revolutionary developments, mirroring discontent nurtured by the war itself, rekindled the class struggles which had been cut across in 1914.
In many countries the pace of class warfare had been accelerating before 1914. War had cut across and actually reversed this process. But the war also laid down the conditions for a resumption of the struggle, at even faster pace and with even more dire consequences for the bosses.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, this was the case. Between 1918 and 1921 the class movement which had developed was the major preoccupation of all sections of society. It transformed the national movement. It convulsed the labor movement, North and South. It determined the attitude of the bosses in Britain. It struck dread into the hearts of the reactionary Unionists and right-wing nationalists alike.
It is impossible in a brief space to give an impression of the extent of the movement. All that can be given is a catalogue of only a few of the major developments so that readers may draw their own conclusions.
Moves to impose conscription in 1918 were answered by a general strike. Over 1,500 delegates from the shop floor and from union branches came to Dublin in 1918 to discuss the organization of this strike. They returned to their areas and on April 23 were successful in closing shops and factories throughout the country, except in Belfast. This movement was enough to persuade the government to hold its hand on this issue.
After 1918 the struggle in the South took a different turn as the opening shots of the War of Independence were fired. However, although many labor leaders and nationalist leaders willed otherwise, the class struggle would not wait. In 1920-21 the southwest of the country became the center of a series of major battles which showed how far the workers were prepared to go in their demands.
County Clare was convulsed with land seizures. Soviets were actually established in rural areas in this relatively backward and isolated part of the country. In 1920 workers in the Knocklong Creamery took over the enterprise and ran it as a cooperative. Their slogan was “We make butter, not profits”. The following year the workers in the Arigna coalmines in County Leitrim seized the mines and raised the red flag above their pits. Above all, the workers of Limerick demonstrated the mood of the working class as a whole when in 1919 they took over and ran the entire city as a soviet. They even printed their own money and controlled the prices of all goods within Limerick during this period.
At the top of the movement the leaders mouthed revolutionary phrases but made no attempt to swing the might of the industrial workforce of the east of the country behind these takeovers in the west. The full potential was not tapped. Yet what would have been possible was unmistakably shown.
In 1920 political prisoners in Mountjoy Jail arrested under the “Defense of the Realm” regulations went on hunger strike. The working class, which, other than on this occasion, had been held apart from the national struggle, intervened and intervened decisively/ A general strike was called in support of the prisoners. Industry was closed throughout the country outside Belfast. As in 1918 during the strike against conscription, shopkeepers and other middle layers of society backed the workers. On the second day of the strike against conscription, shopkeepers and other middle layers of society decisively backed the workers. On the second day of the strike the government recognized the “injustice” of imprisoning these men! In other words, they recognized the power of the working class and the dangerous consequences if that power were to weld itself behind the struggle for full independence. Such a dire consideration forced a change of heart. All prisoners concerned were released.
There were other, not less “dangerous” incidents when the workers’ organizations, despite the timidity of their leaders, involved themselves in the fight against oppression. For example, in 1920 the Dublin dockers refused to unload munitions from Britain. In may of that year railway workers refused to transport soldiers.
A further indication of the rising pulse of class activity was the situation within the unions themselves. From the position of 1916 when the ITGWU had been reduced to a paltry 5000 members, and possessed recorded assets of as little as £96, by 1921 that union could boast over 130,000 members.
All this represents a movement of revolutionary proportions. Such a movement knows no boundaries and scorns artificial barriers. It is profoundly and truly inspirational in scope. In Ireland the struggle did not develop in the North separately from the South or vice versa. Precisely the same infectious tide of militancy as gripped the South after 1918 also gripped the industrial area of the North by the throat.
1919 opened a general struggle for shorter hours in Britain and Ireland. In February 1919 a special Union and Labour Congress in Ireland issued a call for a 150 percent wage rise and a 44-hour week. This congress undoubtedly took its cue from the magnificent struggle of the Belfast engineering workers which had begun in January. These workers had come out behind the demand for a reduction in their basic hours from 54 to 44.
A TUC deal offered a reduction to 47 hours. The workers reacted against this “betrayal”. First of all in Belfast the demand for 44 hours became the focus for mass action. Then in Glasgow and other parts of Britain similar movements erupted, in some places with the demand for 40 hours being raised.
The Belfast strike began with a magnificent display of mass solidarity. On January 14, 1919, 20,000 shipyard and engineering workers downed tools and marched to the City Hall to a mass meeting, from which they went to their union halls to vote on the TUC deal of 47 hours. A little over a thousand workers voted in favor of the deal, while over 20,000 both rejected it and voted for strike action to achieve their own ends. At noon on January 25 the strike itself was begun.
After one week of strike action 40,000 workers were out and a further 20,000 were laid off. Almost every day there were mass meetings in various parts of the city. There was mass picketing of several factories. For almost four weeks the working class were in virtual control of the city. Transport, electricity, gas, most public services, the major engineering firms and the shipyards were all involved. Clerical as well as manual employees of Belfast Corporation had been brought out.
These four weeks provide a never-to-be-forgotten demonstration of the power of the working class. In Belfast the workers became the government. They controlled what moved and determined what did not move. At the center of this power were the recognized organizations of the working class, the strike committee itself and also the Belfast Trades Council. During the dispute the strike committee published its own newspaper which kept the workers informed of the strike activities.
As with trades councils in many British cities during the 1926 general strike, the Belfast Trades Council in 1919 according to its official history became a virtual organ of workers’ government in the city. “To an increasing extent the Belfast Trades Council was looked towards as the leadership of the people. The Council formed itself into a ‘Council of Action’ and to a great extent had control over the movement of goods in the city.”
Reaction was held at bay by the power of the workers. Initial attempts to invoke sectarianism only added to the workers’ strength. At the beginning of February the Orange Order had hung out its true colors by publishing a manifesto calling for a return to work. This document also chose to comment on the strike leaders – pointing out that leaders of the Labour Party were involved. The capitalist press foamed at the mouth at the activities of the strikers. Each issue of the Belfast Newsletter lamented the manner in which the “Bolsheviks and Sinn Feiners” could mislead the “good workmen” of Belfast. Such shrieks of horror failed absolutely to dent the solidarity of the strike.
Religious division was demolished by this strike movement. Symbolic of this was the composition of the strike committee itself. The majority of its members were Protestant, but the chairman was a Catholic. As in 1907, and to an even greater extent, it was demonstrated as an absolute law of history that, when the workers’ movement goes forward, sectarianism, together with all the other backward tendencies in society, is forced to retreat. Only vacillation, backsliding or defeat, on the part of organized labor, gives these reactionary tendencies the opportunity to regain a foothold.
A concrete example of the way in which the labor movement can deal with the menace of sectarianism was given. At the beginning of the dispute a few sectarian and hooligan incidents did occur. There was some looting in the city center. The workers reacted quickly. A body of about 2,000 men was set up to patrol the city, and keep it free of intimidation, looting, etc. For a brief moment in history the working class managed to suspend in mid-air the state machine of the exploiters and impose workers’ law and workers’ order.
Sir Richard Dawson Bates, who had been secretary to the UUC, and who was to be rewarded for his services by an appointment as Northern Ireland’s first Minister for Home Affairs in 1921, wrote to Sir James Craig about the strike. In his letter he revealed, for all who care to see, the total impotence of the forces of the state and the Unionist leaders when confronted with the might of the organized working class. The question of the use of troops, he reveals, was discussed and dismissed as “inadvisable”.
“I had several talks with Hacket-Pain who, notwithstanding a certain amount of pressure from scaremongers, declined to bring out troops, or do anything to make the workers think that they were being intimidated. What one wants to try to get the workers to see is that no one is really against them, except themselves: that the question is not a local one but a national one.” In other words the use of troops might have had the dangerous consequence of driving together the workers North and South and utterly destroying the credibility of the Unionists.
Bates also reveals that, desperately wanting to put an end to the strike, the Unionists thought of intervening. He advises against by outlining the consequences of such an action: “I am firmly convinced that at the present time is would be most injudicious to drag Carson or any of the other leaders into it. In the first place they were not consulted as to going out on strike, and in the second place, if the men went back unsatisfied they would subsequently say that they were ‘let down’ by their unionist political leaders”. “However,” his advice continues: “If the workers indicate a desire to go back, pending a national arrangement being carried out, the question of getting the political leaders over to mediate is a question that could subsequently be raised.” Thus, panic-stricken at the thought that intervention on their part would propel the workers into political opposition to Unionism, but on the other hand driven on by their class interests, the Unionists hovered like vultures waiting for a first sign of the weakness of their enemy before intervening.
Initially direct intervention by bigots and by the state was restrained. The bosses trembled at the possibility of provoking an even fiercer movement of workers. Instead they waited for the first signs that the momentum was waning. The first setback for the strike came from its own leaders. By the end of the second week it was clear from its own leaders. By the end of the second week it was clear that extra force would need to be applied to pressure the bosses to concede their demands. The support had been promised by transport workers, dockers, and railwaymen. But the strike committee hesitated and drew back from involving these sections. Thus the total power of the working class was not fully realized.
February 12 brought a major setback. Faced with police batons and ultimately with troops, machine-gun emplacements and even tanks, the workers of Glasgow admitted defeat. From this moment the Belfast workers were isolated. Discussions of settlement terms threatened to split them. A ballot taken two days after the Glasgow defeat produced a majority of over 3000 against settlement. But it revealed a sizeable minority of almost 9000 prepared to return to work. It was a signal for the bosses to act.
That weekend, troops in battle gear occupied the gasworks and power stations. The Defense of the Realm Act was invoked to arrest two shop stewards who refused to work. Police were used with savagery against pickets who tried to stop the trams in the city center. By physical means the strike was broken.
Despite its defeat the strike left precisely the deep legacy of class discontent which the Unionists had feared. 100,000 people marched in the 1919 May Day demonstration in Belfast. One year later the industrial unity of 1919 spilled over into political unity. Strike leaders and other trade unionists were nominated to stand for Labour in the 1920 local elections. No less than 13 Labour candidates were elected. Significantly, in many Protestant areas, such as the Shankhill Road and Sandy Road, Labour received amongst its highest percentage of the vote. Also significantly five of the thirteen newly elected Labour councilors had been members of the strike committee. Baulked on the industrial battleground, the tide of class militancy had turned to the political arena.
Labor Must Wait
Not only was it in the North that the awakening of the masses had an effect in radicalizing the political wing of the movement. Initially the pressure of the rank-and-file activists was placed on the leadership and the movement was driven to the left in response. It was entirely a reflection of this pressure that, in August 1918, the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party, by a conference decision, changed its name to the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. The political goals of the movement were being pulled to the forefront.This movement of the masses into action throughout Ireland had the effect of transforming the character of the national movement. The grip of Redmond was broken. His role, like that of other nationalists, in supporting the war effort, left him stranded when the tide of support for the war turned into outright opposition.
In February 1917 there came the first open sign of this transformation. A candidate from the previously tiny Sinn Fein organization stood against the candidate from Redmond’s party in a by-election in North Rosscommon. Sinn Fein won the seat by 3002 votes to 1708 votes.
North Rosscommon was the first clear symptom of a condition which was becoming general throughout Ireland. A general election in 1918 reduced the parliamentary party to rubble and placed radical republicans in Sinn Fein at the political head of the national struggle. Prior to 1918 the parliamentary party held 80 seats. After the election they could boast only seven, and, of these, one was in Liverpool. Sinn Fein won 73 seats, while the Unionists returned 26 of their candidates. This electoral process, reflecting the sweeping radicalization of the country, continued throughout the immediate post-war period. By 1920, 172 councils out of 206 were under Sinn Fein control.
Redmond had fought for independence, for a separate parliament with certain powers but with recognized limitations. The switch to Sinn Fein was a switch from right-wing nationalism to petty-bourgeois radicalism and populism. No longer could limited independence be the aim. Instead the demand was for a republic. The proclamation of 1916 became enshrined as the program of Sinn Feinn.
Those elected in 1918 established their own illegal parliament in Ireland. The democratic program of this “First Dail” was infused with populist phrases upholding in words the rights of labor. It declared that “all right to private property must be subordinate to the public right and welfare”. The Irish government, it promised, would cooperate with other governments “in determining a standard of social and industrial legislation with a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labor”. Likewise the foremost leader of the Dail, De Valera, went out of his way to pay extensive tribute to labor and even to Connolly. Thus he could state: “I never regarded freedom as an end in itself, but if I were asked what statement of Irish policy was most in accord with my views as to what human beings should be struggling for, I would stand side by side with James Connolly.”
In words De Valera stood with Connolly at this point in time – but only to draw the support of the aroused masses. The purpose of his words was to ensure that the real ideas of Connolly were into carried into practice.
So it was with the Sinn Fein leaders as a whole. The members elected to the First Dail reflected the class content of the top of this organization. 65 percent of its members belonged to the professional and commercial classes, mainly teachers, journalists, shopkeepers and small businessmen. It included figures such as Arthur Griffith, who had already proved himself no ally of the workers. Behind the scenes these individuals were strenuously attempting to maintain good relations with the native capitalists, with the church hierarchy and with the other “pillars” of the “Irish nation” they were in the process of creating. To use Connolly’s phrase, while the old nationalist had been the “open enemies” of labor, these “radical republicans” were its “most dangerous allies”.
On the one hand the radical phrases issuing from the mouths of these people reflected the leftward movement of the bottom layers of society. The ranks of Sinn Fein, and the grip it maintained, reflected the cowardly role played by the leaders of the labor movement.
While the ranks of the trade union and labor movement swung to the left and embarked on a program of direct action, the most prominent of its leaders temporized and vacillated. Connolly was dead. Larkin was languishing in an American jail. Into the gap stepped the William O’Briens, the Thomas Johnstons and the Cathal O’Shannons. With flowery speeches they echoed the sentiments of the workers. In deeds they shrank from the struggle. North and South one united class movement was developing during this period. What was required was a leadership which could tie together, in the minds of all the workers, the land and factory seizures in the South, the takeovers of towns such as Limerick, with the industrial muscle revealed by the Belfast working class in 1919. A common struggle against capitalist domination could have been begun. Al the demands of the republican leadership of Sinn Fein, for a republic, for the withdrawal of the English garrison, etc., would and should have been encompassed by such a movement. But it would have gone much further. Not just for a republic, but for a workers’ republic! Not just the right to have a parliament but for a revolutionary constituent assembly which could take the factories and the land out of the hands of the speculators and profiteers and place them in the hands of the working class! Not just for rule by the “Irish people” but for rule by the Irish workers, the only class capable of solving the problems of the small farmers and all the middle strata of society. Not just for independence, but for independence of British capitalism! Not just for freedom, but for freedom from exploitation! Not just against national oppression, but for socialist internationalism including the forging of the strongest possible links with the organizations of the British working class!
Such a program, linked to decisive action on the part of the workers’ organizations, could have placed labor at the head of the national struggle. By removing the fight for independence from the camp of petty-bourgeois nationalism it could have broken sectarian division and won the Protestant workers. Labor had the opportunity to intervene in this way. To do so was merely to provide the natural political extension to the industrial battles waging North and South.
At the time of the Easter rising, Sinn Fein was a tiny organization of not more than 100 members. Within a year and a half they could boast over a quarter of a million members. Only in a revolutionary situation could such a revolutionary growth have occurred. But Sinn Fein only attracted this support because of the role of the leadership of the labor movement.
In 1916 the labor movement also was weak. However, its potential for growth was infinitely greater than that of Sinn Fein. At bottom its ranks were surging to the left, demanding action. In complete contrast the top leaders of the movement were busy only abdicating their responsibility to show a clear lead. Even those struggles which did take place did so without direction or assistance from the topmost leaders of the movement. The land seizures were carried out despite the fact that the ITGWU leaders stubbornly refused to involve their 50,000-strong agricultural laborer membership.
In political terms the labor leaders played the role of silent allies of Sinn Fein. Non only did they fail to provide a challenge to De Valera and his friends, but they have this group every possible assistance. William O’Brien, the head of the ITGWU, actually supported and worked for the Sinn Fein candidate in one of the 1917 by-elections. Against the wishes of the rank and file of the movement, the labor leaders agreed to participate in a National Front involving the petty bourgeois nationalists. Later, Thomas Johnston, Labour Party leader, obligingly wrote a section of the program of the First Dail for Sinn Fein. Thus he assisted in constructing the disguise by which the Sinn Fein leaders made themselves presentable to the people.
For those activists who were appalled at such decisions at the maneuverings of O’Brien and the other leaders, there was little opportunity to express dissent. Incredibly, despite the crescendo of class struggle, the ITGWU, the biggest union in the country, held no conference between May 1915 and August 1918. No less incredibly the executive of this union held no meeting between January 1916 and February 1918. In 1918 this policy of backsliding and outright betrayal was consummated.
In November 1918 parliament was dissolved. Labour had the opportunity to fight for the political leadership of the awakening mood of revolt. The decision of the August 1918 conference to change its name to the Labour Party and TUC showed that the ranks were squaring up for the contest. At times the workers’ movement is defeated through battle. Such honorable defeats at least lay down traditions for future struggle which fresh generations will take up. But when the movement suffers defeat only because its leaders refuse to fight, all that remains is a sour taste in the mouth.
“Labor must wait.” Thus De Valera instructed the Johnstons and O’Briens that they must wait their turn. “The nation” must come before any specific interest within the nation! Sinn Fein must be allowed a clear field to show the maximum unity!
At first Labour decided to fight the 1918 elections. Then they decided to accept the advice of De Valera and stand down. A special congress of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress was held and the decision not to stand was forced through against opposition from many delegates. In a statement the leaders of the movement boasted of their generosity: “We shall show by this action that while each of the other political parties is prepared to divide the people in their efforts to obtain power, the Irish Labour Party is the only party which is prepared to sacrifice party interests in the interests of the nation in this important crisis in the history of the nation.”
For “the interests of the nation” read the interests of the capitalists. Only they stood to benefit from Labour’s gesture of “humility”. The “national unity” put forward by Sinn Fein was really the unity of the Catholic toilers and small farmers marching behind the banners of the pro-capitalist parties. For this Catholic, all-class unity, Labour was asked to sacrifice the more essential unity of Catholic and Protestant workers drawing behind them the middle strata of society. It was a poor swap!
Thus it was the humble silence of Labour which allowed Sinn Fein to gain 73 of the seats in this election. Instead of a contest dominated by class interests, extending the ever-increasing industrial militancy into the political sphere, petty-bourgeois nationalism was given a free rein. As on every occasion when the national issue has been presented in any other than social terms it became a sectional and ultimately a potentially sectarian issue.
The radical nationalism of Sinn Fein could hold no attraction for the Protestant workers of the North. If rule by the De Valeras and Griffiths was the alternative to British rule and to Unionism, the traditional allegiances of the Protestants would not be broken. The task of Labour, the only body capable of drawing working-class support from the unionists, was made more difficult. As we shall see later, Carson was partially able to contain the political movement of workers within his own brand of Labour Unionism. The four genuine Labour candidates who stood in Belfast in 1918 were isolated from the labor movement throughout the country and were decisively beaten.
The post-war revolutionary upsurge affected the outlook of the British ruling class no less than it affected the labor and national movement in Ireland. During the first years of the war, with the overwhelming need to conciliate Redmond in order to draw recruits to the imperialist slaughter, Lloyd George and Asquith went to great lengths to appear to seek a solution to the problem. In addition the need to conciliate American opinion increased the government’s anxiety to keep up this pretense. After 1916 in particular, these moves represented no more than attempts to keep the Irish talking until the war ended, when the real solution would be imposed, on the tips of bayonets if necessary. Open coercion, including conscription, was not possible during the war years. Such a policy would have tied down enormous resources in Ireland, resources much needed in Europe.
Therefore Lloyd George came up with an answer – an Irish Convention in which the Irish parties and interests could meet and hammer out their own solution. Confident that no agreement could be reached between Unionists and nationalists and even among the various shades of Unionism and nationalism themselves, Lloyd George was happy to let the Convention discussions continue for as long as these parties wanted. This talking shop met on July 25, 1917 and continued to meet until April 1918. By that time the British bosses were almost in a position to let the Irish have a taste of the real solution they had in mind.
The major preoccupation of the ruling class after the war was with the threat of the socialist revolution. Should the movement on the land and in the cities, the power of the workers shown in the general strikes in the South, be harnessed with the industrial muscle shown in Belfast in 1919, and should this power in turn be linked to the might of the British workers, the capitalist system would be faced with extinction.
When the bosses looked at the republican movement they saw its radicalism, they saw the demand for a republic and nothing else, above all they saw the shadow of labor and socialism in the background.
In this climate, concessions to the Redmondites or to Sinn Fein would have been futile. One unionist explained this clearly in a letter written shortly after the 1917 North Rosscommon by-election victory for Sinn Fein: “Fear was expressed that if John Redmond was put in control and had to face an election for a legislative object in that country, he would be replaced at once by Sinn Feiners, and what then? In local government elections the whole tendency is to fall to the lower stratum on each occasion.” And the lowest stratum is none other than the working class. Sinn Fein might take over, and what then! These words precisely summed up the anxiety of the bosses.
A republic, to the British ruling class, was ruled out. While their prime concern was with the impetus any concession would give to the social struggle, Britain also had military strategic reasons for stamping on any other than the most limited forms of independence.
Thus when outlining terms for a settlement the British made it clear that “the common defense of Great Britain and Ireland in defense of their interests by land and sea shall be mutually recognized. Great Britain lives by sea-borne food, her communications depend upon the freedom of the freedom of the great sea routes.”
Facilities were also required for the air force – “the Royal Air Force will need facilities for all purposes that it serves and Ireland will form an essential link in the development of air routes between the British Isles and North American continent” (July 1921). Particularly in relation to the strategic importance of Ireland’s naval bases the war had reinforced the resolve of imperialism that there should be no concessions in this direction.
Lloyd George (1919) stated this conclusion in black and white terms. If in the war, he postulated, “we had there a land over whose harbors and inlets we had no control you might have had a situation full of peril that might well have jeopardized the life of this country. The area of sub-marine activity might have been extended beyond the limits of control and Britain and her allies might have been cut off from the dominions and from the USA. We cannot possibly run the risk of that, and it would be equally fatal for the interests of Ireland… I think it is right to say in the face of the demands which have been put forward from Ireland with apparent authority, that any attempt at secession will be fought with the same resolve as the Northern States of America put into the fight against the Southern States.”
The demand for a republic would not be tolerated, not only because of the class danger inherent in it, but also for these military reasons. Britannia at this time might have found that she no longer “ruled the waves”, if her oldest and geographically closest country were permitted to wriggle free of her clutches.
In addition British imperialism was concerned with the effect of the granting of concessions to Ireland would have on other parts of the empire. To be seen to retreat in disarray from her oldest and closest colony could have a dangerous effect on India, parts of the African continent and other already “restless” dominions.
In 1919 the first shots of the War of Independence were fired by the newly constituted Irish Republican Army (IRA). Imperialism reacted quickly by returning to their long-established method of subjugation – coercion. First with their forces already in Ireland, especially the Royal Irish Constabulary, they moved to stamp out the republican “menace”. In 1919 the First Dail was suppressed. In March of that year Sir Nevil McCready was placed in command of the British forces. He had already won his spurs in the fight to uphold capitalism – in 1911, when he had let the miners at Tonypandy have a taste of his methods.
A gentleman named Colonel Smith, a First World War veteran, took charge of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Munster. He reveled in his newfound opportunity to demonstrate how a people can be subdues by force. His instructions to his men were to “lie in ambush and when civilians are seen approaching shout ‘hands up’. Should the order be not immediately obeyed, shoot them down.” Would such a policy not result in innocent deaths? Colonel Smith had thought of this and had an answer: “You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent people may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right party some time. The more you shoot the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”
In 1920 the existing forces were supplemented by the arrival of the Black and Tans, so called because of the mixture of uniforms they wore when they arrived. The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries have become infamous. In the true spirit of Cromwell they set about their task, and the toll of their atrocities, the sack of Cork, indiscriminate murder in the Croke Park, etc., is well documented.
In 1920 a curfew was imposed in the towns. Internment was used as a means to help break the back of the armed resistance. By 1921, 5000 republicans were interned. The generals and other army tops were consistent in their calls for a military solution. Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the general staff, perhaps summed up the attitude of these people with his call for the “shooting of Sinn Feiners by roster”.
Lloyd George, among others, was a little more sensitive to the real needs of the situation. He recognized the shortcomings of a purely military solution. Such a policy might hold the situation in check. On its own it would not resolve the problem. At best it would open out a long and protracted struggle. While the IRA, with their tactics, could never inflict a military defeat on the British forces, the task of crushing them would prove both protracted and expensive. By 1920 the war in Ireland was bleeding the British Exchequer of approximately £10 million per annum.
Above all, while the war against the republicans was being waged, the class movement was developing. Clearly military coercion on its own could not prevent the movement towards land seizures, factory seizures and towards the establishment of soviets. Nor could this “contagion” of socialism, if unchecked, be prevented from infecting the population of the English cities.
A further pressure on British capital to come up with something other than mere repression came from the aroused British labor movement. Today, the activities of the Provisionals, particularly the bombings of English workers in pubs, has utterly alienated the British labor movement. During the War of Independence things were very different. Then, there was real and active sympathy among British workers for the demands of the Irish.
When, in 1920, 130 Irish prisoners staged a hunger strike in Wormwood Scrubs, thousands of Irish people, together with British socialists, campaigned in support. The Liverpool dockers threatened to strike in sympathy. In 1921 a Labour Commission visited Ireland, and, upon their return, met with Lloyd George and urged that a settlement be reached. Labour meetings up and down Britain echoed the demand for a withdrawal of troops from Ireland and for an end to the use of coercive tactics against the Irish people.
This sympathy raised the fear that any advance made by the class movement in Ireland would similarly accelerate the revolutionary movement of the British workers. It was not long after the action by British workers in defense of the Wormwood Scrubs prisoners that the British working class was flexing its muscles on its own issues. 1920 saw a major strike by the miners. It saw, for example, a movement of the unemployed which brought 20,000 workers into physical battle with police in the streets of Whitehall and thereby brought the smell of revolution directly under the noses of the rulers of society.
Capitalism Means Division
To speed the derailment of the movement in Ireland the military coercion was spiced with the most blatant and open use of sectarianism in order to provide and weaken the workers. As in the pre-1914 crisis, and for precisely the same reasons, the antics of the Unionists were developed. Because the class threat was even more imminent, the use of sectarianism, and its encouragement by all sections of capital, was even more blatant. It was the failure of the labor movement, and the consequent dominance by petty-bourgeois nationalists in Sinn Fein, which permitted such a policy.Partition was seized upon as an answer. Partition did not flow out of the situation within Ireland itself. As we shall see it was not imposed in order to satisfy the demands of the republican movement in the South. Rather it was forced upon the leaders of the republican movement, who were compelled by British imperialism to come to the conference table and negotiate a cease-fire on the basis of the demands of imperialism. Nor did it develop out of the struggles of the Unionist movement within the North. It is a complete myth that the borders of the Northern Ireland state were agreed because of the determined resistance of an armed camp of Unionist reaction in the Northern counties.
Carson’s armed detachments had flourished in the pre-war period. The UVF developed only on the basis of the support received from the British ruling class. Had this organization been faced with the resistance of the tops of British society and the military machine of British imperialism, it would have disintegrated. Its aristocratic chiefs would have had no stomach for a fight against their class allied in Britain. They would have deserted at the sound of the first shot. Behind them their organization, because of its class composition, mainly of the petty bourgeoisie and of sections of the rural population, would have disintegrated.
In a letter to Carson, written in 1915, one of the UVF leaders, Lord Dunleath, gave expression to his private forebodings at the thought of battle. To him the fiery threats contained in the Covenant which he and his men had signed were not to be taken too literally. “Moreover I do not believe that our men are prepared to go into action against any part of his Majesty’s forces, and we their leaders should not consider ourselves justified in calling upon them to do so. As I said just now, many of us are prepared to risk a great deal for our cause, but even our covenant does not compel us to run our heads against a wall…”
The UVF would not have withstood any serious military resistance. But in addition those who argue that it was the military might of Protestant reaction which brought about partition of the country have one further “small” problem to explain. This is the fact that the UVF was virtually wiped out at the Battle of the Somme. “Ulster” did not emerge of the armed resistance of the Protestant population. In the post-war period, and in the years leading up to partition, a mass army of Protestant resistance did not exist. Certainly there were groups of armed thugs, used primarily against the unity of the working class and the organizations of the labor movement. But they were hardly a serious threat to the might of the British Empire!
Partition developed not out of the forces at war within Ireland. It was imposed from without by British imperialism in order to satisfy its needs at the time. It was imposed for a clear reason, not only to draw a visible line across the map of Ireland, but, more significantly, to draw an invisible line of bigotry between Catholic and Protestant workers in North, between workers North and South, and between the movement in Ireland and that in Britain.
During the pre-war crisis when the idea of partition had been raised the Unionists had been no more in favor of it than had their nationalist opponents. At that time partition when posed was merely used as a ruse to defeat Home Rule as a whole.
Carson and his Tory bands followed a similar strategy when they concentrated their efforts on the northeast of the country. There and there alone it was possible for their ideas to gain a base beyond the layers of privilege at the top of society. Thus, in 1913, Carson was prepared to threaten to establish a provisional government in Ulster if Home Rule became a reality. Behind such fiery declarations, behind the saber-rattling of military-style parades and behind the frantic efforts to gather signatures for the Covenant lay the belief that Ulster was the rock on which this and every Home Rule attempt would founder.
Time after time Carson made his position clear: “if Ulster succeeds Home Rule is dead. Home Rule is impossible without Belfast and the surrounding parts as a portion of the scheme.” Or the following statement contained in a letter he wrote to the Irish Times in October 1912: “not even Mr. Redmond could undertake the government of Ireland without being able to draw upon the resources of Ulster and the prosperity won by the energy and capacity of Ulstermen.”
Not until 1916, and then only after extreme pressure from Lloyd George, did Carson reluctantly accept the concept of partition. Even then, his acceptance resulted in further dissension and division among his supporters.
The “tactic” of leaning on the support of Ulster employed by Carsonites prior to 1914 was handed back by the British government as a “policy” in the post-war period. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 proposed two separate parliaments, one for the North and one for the South. It was accompanied with the threat that, if it would not work, the alternative was colonial government for Ireland.
The real purpose of this policy of division was soon clear. Partition was to be accompanied with a major campaign aimed at re-injecting the poison of sectarian division into the minds of the workers. As in 1906, when one reactionary had been able to comment that Unionism was dead among the masses, so after 1918 the ideas of socialism were developing apace among Protestant and Catholic workers. Sectarianism was used to reverse this process.
Once again the utterances of the Unionists give the clearest indication of the extent to which class ideas were destroying their grip on the situation. Dawson Bates, in 1919, in a letter to Captain CC Craig, Unionist MP for South Armagh, gave a glimpse of the desperation of the Unionists at the rise of labor. In different words but in the same dire tone, he repeated the message of Crawford of thirteen years earlier: that Unionism is dead among the masses. “There is a general desire to kick against all authority and all discipline all over the three kingdoms.” Bates was astute enough to realize the electoral consequences of this general revolt: “the Labor question is becoming acute in Belfast and the North of Ireland and egged on by nationalists, many of the electors are finding fault with their respective associations in the various districts.”
If the labor leaders in Ireland were not aware of their own strength, the Unionists were not so blind. They recognized the power of the class movement to dissolve their working-class base of support. To counteract this danger the Ulster Unionists Labour Association was formed in June 1918. President of this supposed working-class association was the champion of the workers’ cause – Carson himself!
In December 1918 the general election was fought. Carson, it is said, went to the lengths of refusing to cooperate with his colleagues unless three of the nine Unionist candidates in Belfast were trade unionists.
Why? Because Carson was anxious to ensure representation for the workers? On the contrary! Carson sought to present an impression of all-class representation in order to disguise the reality of the vicious anti-working-class nature of unionism. Three token trade-unionists were chosen, principally to halt the drift to real workers’ representation. Significantly these three “workers” who were offered the “privilege” of standing with their aristocratic rulers and “betters” were all skilled workers, probably filled with craft prejudices. One was a shipwright, one a tenter and one a lithographic printer. When elected, these three, even though drawn from the labor aristocracy, mixing with the lords and ladies of the British establishment at Westminster, became among the most degenerate of all the Unionist representatives, mere tokens, cardboard replicas of workers, toadies pulled forward and told to speak and behave like workers in order to please their masters.
The elevating of such stooges could not stop the irresistible drive of the working class towards independent action. Only weeks after the election of these people and of the better-heeled versions of Unionism, Belfast was virtually under the control of the working class. And the Unionists found themselves powerless to intervene. The conclusion, again clearly expressed by Dawson Bates, was that the influence of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association would have to be extended. Writing to Carson in June 1919 he complained that the “all class organizations, the parliamentary associations and the Orange Institutions do not find time to discuss matters which might better attract working people. The absence of such discussions frequently leads to the younger members of the working classes joining socialist and extreme organizations run by the Independent Labour Party where they educated in views very different to those held by our body. The defect has to a very large extent been made good by the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, but at the same time it is felt that having ordinary meetings, such as they have about once a month, is not sufficient. In other words, the Association will have to extent its sphere of operations”.
Smother the workers with sectarianism! Cultivate a labor identity in order to drag the workers away from those socialist organizations which were fighting to remedy such conditions! This was the role of the Unionists, particularly through the Ulster Unionist Labour Association. Bates is quite explicit about this “it is felt that it is desirable that this Association should extend its operations so as to afford a greater opportunity to the working classes to belong to it and so prevent them from joining political Labour organizations whose primary object may be the advancement of Home Rule.”
Thus is unequivocally stated the real basis and use of sectarianism – to prevent the development of the socialist movement.
Yet despite all these efforts the labor movement continued to develop. The January 1920 corporation elections resulted in the return of 13 Labour candidates from the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party. Labour Unionists also stood in an attempt to maintain the bridle of sectarianism on the workers. Only six Labour Unionists were returned. No less than ten trade-union officials were elected.
Nor was this a movement exclusive to the northeast of Ireland at this time. Despite the fact that Labour had not intervened in the previous election in 1918, and despite the fact that the leaders of the labor movement had failed to place themselves at the head of the revolt developing within Ireland, the elections held in 1920 throughout the country revealed the basis of potential support which existed for Labour. In total in Ireland in these elections, of the 1806 seats, 550 Sinn Fein councilors were elected. 355 Unionists were returned. 238 nationalists, 108 ratepayers’ candidates and 161 independents were also elected. Labour despite the failings of its leaders, managed to win 394 seats. In this result is clearly seen the potential of Labour to develop as the major political force within society.
Clearly more desperate measures from the bigots would be required if the menace of “workers’ unity” was to be put to an end. The “extension of the operations” of groups like the UULA and the Unionist leaders was soon apparent. Every conceivable method was used to infect the shop floor with sectarianism. Inflammatory speeches encouraging pogroms were made. The employers showed their hand. An extreme sectarian group, the Belfast Protestant Association, was given permission by many employers to hold meetings in the workplaces. In July 1920 this incitement came to a head with the outbreak of bitter violence against Catholics and socialists mainly in Belfast.
By the third week of July serious rioting had broken out and it did nor take long before it was driven into the Lagan and pounded with steel rivets (Belfast confetti!). These attacks on the shipyard workforce were launched from the outside. Gangs of Protestant thugs, many from the rural and semi-rural areas outside Belfast, attacked the gates of the yards.
Protestant Unionists soon intervened to fan these flames of sectarianism. One called for a show of revolvers in the shipyard. James Craig, soon to become the foremost figure of Ulster Unionism, in a comment directed at the shipyard men declared “if you ask me my opinion of your action I say well done.” Likewise Carson, a few days after the riots, considered the time was ripe to announce that he was “prouder of my friends in the shipyard than of any other friends I have in the world”.
The pogroms spread to other factories and beyond into working-class estates. Outside Belfast, in Lisburn and Banbridge, riots resulted in the expulsion of almost all of the Catholic families living there. Significantly not only Catholics but also socialists and active trade-unionists were driven from their jobs and homes. At the end of this upheaval there was not one Catholic working in the shipyard. This is common knowledge. Not so well known is the fact that an estimated 25 percent of those expelled were Protestants, in other words at least a quarter of the victims of their pogrom suffered as socialists and trade union activists.
Such atrocities were given the backing not only of the political heads of Unionism but of the representatives of capital. No protection was given to the Catholic workers by state forces. In fact it was at this time that the British government came up with its proposal that a special constabulary should be established – in other words that Protestant gangs should be given the stamp of official approval and should receive uniforms and arms.
The capitalist state is not the protector of the interests of the working class. This was again shown in these activities. The workers have only themselves and their organizations to fall back upon. In this period there were many honorable incidents where Protestant socialists and trade unionists attempted to intervene to halt the pogroms. The advanced layers of the workers were repulsed and made an open stand in defense of the expelled workers.
The National Union of Railwaymen in a resolution at a conference in Belfast stated: “without complete unity amongst the working classes, (we should not allow either religious or political differences to prevent their emancipation) which can be achieved through a great international brotherhood the world over, no satisfactory progress could be made.”
A delegation from the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners spoke to the shipyard workers’ attempting to defuse the situation. They went so far as to produce a blacklist of firms from which expulsions had taken place. This included the Workman and Clarke shipyard, the Sirrocco plant and union executive, while a further 2000, by staying at were, were expelled from the union.
It was the lack of an overall lead from the trade unions and from the labor movement generally throughout Britain and Ireland which determined that such courageous but isolated calls could not be successful. Without the support and active backing of workers’ organizations throughout the British Isles such calls were in fact foolhardy. At that time there were approximately 100,000 people in the area that was to become Northern Ireland who had no jobs. The labor organizations were not conducting a decisive struggle in Ireland around socialist policies and for jobs. It was therefore not surprising that 2000 members of the Amalgamates Society should have been reluctant to risk their livelihood and support their union.
The role of the republican movement was no help to the attempt of the labor organizations to call a halt to the bloodshed. The pogroms in the North were answered by the IRA with the boycott of Ulster goods. Later this boycott was ratified by the Dail.
Opposition from the labor movement was one thing. If strong enough it could have isolated the bigots. Opposition from the petty-bourgeois nationalists was something totally different. The stronger it was, the more it reinforced the influence of bigots over the minds of Protestant workers.
Until July 1920 the labor movement in the North had been going forward. Industrially and then politically it was moving from strength to strength. The 19 July pogroms and the passing of the Government of Ireland Act threw this process into reverse gear. The potential which had existed, for the movement to develop as never before, was temporarily lost.
In the period before 1914 the labor movement North and South had recognized the dangers inherent in partition. Leaders like Connolly concluded that only action by the workers’ organizations could avert disaster. At that time the weakness of the movement lay in its youth, in the fact that it had engaged in a series of exhausting industrial battles. Connolly and other leaders strove to overcome these objective handicaps. Under the then-existing conditions he and the other leaders of the movement faced an uphill battle.
From the war the movement emerged fresh, the scars of battle healed, and on the crest of a revolutionary wave. Its body was invigorated. But its brain was sadly weakened. Had Labour intervened in the 1918 election the forces of the working class would have been drawn together North and South. Workers would have lined up against sectarianism and against reaction in all its forms. Had the leaders of the movement launched a campaign for socialism from that time, taking it to every workshop, to every estate, they would have won the leadership of the national struggle. In the years after 1918 they failed to face up to this task. Had they done so, the radicalization of the country would not have mustered around the banner of mere nationalism. It would have been a struggle for socialism North, South and in Britain also.
From the criminal decision not to participate in 1918, and the subsequent lack of a campaign around any independent class program, stemmed the defeats suffered North and South in the early 1920s. That decision, that inaction, left the advanced workers in the North isolated in 1920 when the bigots drew their swords. Had the movement not sat back and allowed petty-bourgeois nationalists to tap the revolutionary energy of the masses, partition itself could have been averted.
The Government of Ireland Act was foisted on Ireland by British imperialism primarily in order to divide and disorientate the workers’ movement in Ireland and in Britain. It gave legitimacy to the activities of the Carsonite thugs in the North. It assisted the attempts of such reactionaries to break up the solidarity shown in 1919. And with the temporary paralysis of the workers’ organizations in the North, the ruling class was more able to concentrate their efforts on the southern parts of the country. Coercion was intensified and, at all times, the pressure maintained on the leadership of the republican movement to force them to come to terms.
It was the petty-bourgeois nature of this leadership which opened a way to a settlement – on the terms of imperialism, of course. The British government through Lloyd George pressed for negotiations to take place. On July 11, 1921 a truce was called. De Valera led a delegation to London to discuss terms. What they were offered amounted to a mere sham of token independence, approximately the proposals contained in previous Home Rule Bills, though spiced with a few additional concessions. Air and naval facilities were to be granted to Britain, and recruiting would still take place in Ireland for the British army. There was to be a limitation on the size of the Irish army. And on top of this the recognition of the Northern Ireland parliament, and with it the division of the country, was demanded.
De Valera rejected these proposals. However, in his correspondence it was made quite clear that some form of compromise might yet be reached. The struggle of the Irish masses was to be reduced to a game of swapping concessions with the representatives of British capital.
In October a fresh delegation, this time led by Arthur Griffith and excluding De Valera, went to negotiate with Lloyd George. The central objections to the British proposals raised by this delegation were the question of Ulster, and also the issue of the wording of an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. The military conditions were fairly readily accepted.
During the negotiations it became clear that the latter-day Daniel O’Connell, Arthur Griffith, was the most susceptible to the persuasive methods of Lloyd George. When the proposal to establish a Boundary Commission to determine where exactly the border would run was made, and when a modified version of the oath of allegiance was produced, it was apparent that Griffith was prepared to capitulate.
Lloyd George seized upon the cracks appearing among the Irish delegation and bluntly informed them that if they did not sign the treaty the British would embark on a course of all-out war “within three days”. Griffith had already given a personal assurance that he would sign no matter what his colleagues would do. But they were not long in following suit.
There is no doubt that Lloyd George’s threat of all-out war was no bluff. Had the treaty not been accepted, a savage offensive against the republican forces would have been begun. This was being seriously considered by the capitalists as the first part of a direct offensive against the working class. The leaders of the British military machine had been demanding an extension of their powers and of their operations in Ireland. For example, the commander of the forces, Sir Henry Wilson, had demanded powers “to intern anyone without charge or trial for an indefinite period, and the power to try any prisoner by court-martial and without legal advice, except in cases requiring the death penalty.” Had the republican leaders not been prepared to accept the terms being offered at this stage, imperialism would have no choice but to continue to escalate the military efforts in order to enforce these leaders to the conference table and to compromise at some future stage.
For their part the republican leaders agreed to the British terms firstly because ingrained within them and their class outlook was the spirit of compromise, but secondly, and more importantly, because they could see no prospect of victory. Of all the republican leaders few were more closely in touch with the actual military situation as was Michael Collins. Collins himself, in 1921, estimated that the IRA had only 2000-3000 men whom they could rely upon at any one time. In addition, their operations were being handicapped by a severe shortage of ammunition.
Only one force could have led a successful struggle against imperialism – the working class. The De Valeras, Griffiths etc., had no perspective for the mobilization of the workers. Their prominence was one of the factors repelling the Protestant workers in the North. History books tell us that the treaty arose from “the betrayal” of a few individuals. On the contrary! The need to come to terms arose from the methods that had been adopted by the leaders of the struggle in Ireland. Above all, it arose from the backsliding of the labor leadership in 1918 and soon afterwards.
The republican struggle was divorced from the social agitations welling up at the time. “Labor must wait” meant that the demands of the working class were dismissed. By pressing their interests the workers were said to be “endangering” the unity of the republican forces! On the land also the tenants were seizing the estates only to find themselves remonstrated by Sinn Fein and the IRA, who even went to the lengths of carrying out evictions in order to break the back of the land-seizure movement.
Pushing the social struggle to the background, Sinn Fein inevitably leaned towards the capitalists and away from the working class. In so doing it drained the struggle of the resources and reserves required to ensure success.
In addition, the methods of struggle which were adopted, those of a campaign of individual terror as conducted by the forces of the IRA, were incapable of defeating imperialism. History, drawn from the international experience of the working class, teaches that it is only mass action by the organizations of the working class which can change society. The truth of this was shown in Ireland during these years. Had a treaty not been negotiated in 1921, the IRA campaign could have been continued, but it would not have achieved the military and economic expulsion of imperialism. On the basis of the methods which had been adopted up to 1921, of guerilla activity, there could have been only one result of such a campaign – ultimate defeat and a settlement of some sort chiefly on the bosses’ terms.
It was the objective factors bearing down upon the republican movement, stemming from their false strategy, from their false policies, and also from the failures of the labor movement, which forced the compromise terms of the treaty to be accepted. The subjective factors, the willingness to compromise and betray inherent in the psychology and cringing class outlook of these petty-bourgeois leaders, merely accelerated this process.
The treaty was not a sudden and unexpected “betrayal” of a few individuals. It was the only possible consequence of the methods of struggle adopted and the social composition of the forces involved. No matter what individuals were conducted, nothing could get away from the fact that the cause itself was being squeezed by events towards shabby compromise.
Labor and working-class unity were the real victims of partition. Labor alone could have averted this menace. The all-Irish unity of the working class continues to be a victim of the political division of the country. But just as only labor could have averted partition in 1920 – so only united class action struggling for socialism can end partition today.