Workers' Liberty #57


What is Irish Republicanism?

Part One

Sinn Fein/IRA is now a force and a power in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in broader British "mainstream" politics. One might say it is a power because it is remains a "force". It is becoming a power in the 26 Counties, and on present showing must become a bigger one, where coalition government is now the norm and a few TDs, or even one, can hold the balance.1

By John O'Mahony

More than that, they have - in part and for now - brought to life something resembling the dream that tied the old Irish Home Rule nationalists to the Liberal Party for the 28 years before 1914 - that the British government would pressurise the Irish Protestant minority for them. They would be the fools they plainly are not to rely on it, but that is how things stand now. They have in the Good Friday Agreement a delayed-action commitment to a united Ireland on a bare head-count majority in the Six Counties, without any provision for home rule for the British-Irish minority. The Blair Government is manifestly afraid of them. Sinn Fein/IRA has much international support; it has the "support" of the "Pan Nationalist Alliance", Irish political parties and Irish Americans who have always shared their goals, balking only at their militarism.

The clearest measure of the power the Adamsite "Republicans" exercise is that under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the release of IRA prisoners was linked to progress in implementing the Agreement, including at least the beginnings of disarmament. Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly gave his word on this and other things in his campaign to secure a Yes vote in the June 1998 referendum on the Agreement.

There has been no disarmament, not a pretence of it, or even a token beginning. The IRA has said plainly that it will not disarm. It is public knowledge that they are re-arming. In the two years of the ceasefire they have killed, maimed and exiled Catholics at gunpoint. They have faced no sanctions in retaliation.

Prisoner releases have continued steadily. Over 250 prisoners have been released (there are fewer than a hundred left). Blair said publicly last year that to stop releasing prisoners as a means of putting pressure on the IRA would abort the "peace process". (He did not say what will happen when he runs out of prisoners to release.) In slightly plainer words, they did not dare - and do not dare.

The British acted as "enforcers" for Sinn Fein/IRA in the negotiation of late June and early July, putting all the pressure they could on the Unionists to concede places in government to Sinn Fein, without even a token of intent by their putative Sinn Fein/IRA partners in government that their private army will be decommissioned.

It is as if Blair and his friends, who have proclaimed themselves heirs to Gladstonian and Asquithian Liberalism, are trying to undo the Liberal betrayal of Irish Catholic nationalism when, in face of a Northern Irish and British Tory-Unionist revolt, they decided on partition.

They are also picking up the broken threads of the 1960s Labour government policy, which was to move slowly towards a United Ireland once the UK and the 26 Counties were within the European Union. The Protestant backlash, the return of a Tory government (June 1970), which was a great deal less sympathetic to the nationalists, the eruption of the Provo war, the prolonged political stalemate and the long war of attrition, the abolition of Belfast home rule in March 1972, the wrecking in 1974 by the Orange general strike of the Sunningdale Agreement on institutionalised, Protestant-Catholic powersharing, and a Council of Ireland - all this derailed the tentative British government policy of the mid- and late-1960s, which had destabilised the Six Counties by encouraging a Catholic civil rights movement and alarming the Protestants.

There must be strict limits to how far a British government will go in twisting Protestant arms for the nationalists - and it will be set by Protestant reaction. Britain takes the line of least resistance. That the fear of IRA bombs in British cities has the power to enlist the British Government as enforcer and bamboozler for the other side, may not be lost on Unionists.

Revolutionary socialists throughout the world have backed, and most still back, Sinn Fein/IRA as revolutionary nationalists, or even as "socialists". Their "socialist" projection of themselves has won wide credence. In Ireland itself, in the 1980s, they won over a large part of the Trotskyist groups affiliated to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, including its most prominent trade unionist, Anne Speed. They simply joined Sinn Fein.

What then in political terms is Sinn Fein/IRA? Sinn Fein/IRA's relationships with the British, US and 26 Counties governments, and with the British Government now, partly answers the question. One way of answering the question what is Sinn Fein/IRA is to ask and answer the broader and deeper question of not only what is Sinn Fein/IRA now, but what is Irish republicanism?

Oliver Cromwell

There have been many different editions of Irish republicanism. It has at different times expressed the interests of different classes. It has migrated from one of the two distinct peoples on the island to the other. Its political content has changed radically, again and again. The best way of giving a defining account of it in a manageable space is to use snapshots of republicanism in its various historical incarnations. The first republicans in Ireland were the conquering, murdering armies of Oliver Cromwell. They went around slaughtering Catholics, or capturing young people and shipping them in slave ships to the West Indies. The idea that the Gaelic Catholic Irish are the black people of Europe has more to it than self-pitying victim-psychology and nationalist hype. The conquerors had a saying to justify killing Irish children; the great, late 19th-century, Liberal-Unionist historian, Lecky records it: "Nits will make lice".

Lecky also records that those of Cromwell's soldiers who settled in Ireland on confiscated land, needing wives, married Irish women who raised their children as... Catholics. Catholics will make Catholics.

If there were native born republicans in Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s they were amongst the English and lowland Scots settlers, whose relationship to the Gaelic Irish was that of white American settlers to surrounding hostile "Indians".

For Cromwell's republican regime a good case can be made out that, perhaps excepting the Netherlands, it was the most tolerant government wielding real power in the 1300 years since the Catholic Christians had won control of the Roman Empire and suppressed all their Christian and pagan competitors - tolerant for all shades of Protestants. Cromwell allowed the Jews - Jews had been expelled from England 400 years earlier - to return. But Catholicism and Catholics were regarded both as agents of the Pope and of Catholic foreign powers, and as a sect which, if it was allowed to thrive, would suppress all others.

In the English Civil War Royalist Irish soldiers were, when captured exterminated to the last man - made to dig trenches to drain off the river of blood unleashed when the bound soldiers were made to lie down by the trenches and had their throats cut. Irish women and children camp-followers of the royal army were automatically slaughtered too.

Religious and national bigotry and what would now be called ethnic chauvinism or racism combined to ensure that English republicanism appeared as the devil's work to Irish Catholics. That some of Cromwell's most radical soldiers had refused to go to the wars in Ireland was not known, nor could it have affected how Irish Catholics saw Cromwellian republicans.

William of Orange

And during Britain's "Glorious Revolution" in 1688 and its wars fought in Ireland between Kings William and James? English republicanism had given way to the Whig politics of aristocrats and rich plebeian merchants, who finally imposed parliamentary sovereignty on the Monarch. They did it by kicking out the Catholic King James and putting in a king of their choice, on their terms - William.

Residual republicanism was a submerged, underground current. In his bungling attempts to make himself absolute monarch, James II relied on subventions from the absolutist king of France, Louis XIVth, and on Irish Catholic soldiers. Their importation and encampment on Blackheath was one of the causes of the final break between King James and Parliament. After the defeat of the Irish Catholic royalist and French armies at the Battle of the Boyne (1690) an Irish officer, disgusted at the pusillanimity of King James, is supposed to have said to one of his English counterparts: "Swap kings with us and we'll fight you again". Kings were part of an unchangeable natural order.

Shiploads of Irish officers and soldiers, chose to migrate to France - the hills around the bays from which their ships set sail echoing with the "wild ochone", the high-pitched, funereal cries of mourning from the women and children left behind . They fought for King Louis, whose regime, measured in human liberty, was, compared to the London government where English, Scots and Irish Protestants were concerned, the embodiment of the worst reaction. Many of the Republican goals earlier summed up in the demand "No kings, no bishops" had been realised in the oligarchical Whig "compromise" of 1688 - a constitutional monarchy under Parliament and a state church subordinate to Parliament. The curious but well-know Protestant toast to "the glorious and pious memory of King William of Orange, who saved us from popery, knavery, slavery, brass money and wooden shoes" is not redolent of republicanism, but it does celebrate one they had a right to think of as their liberator and custodian of old "Republican" goals. Not for the Irish. The conquered Catholic Irish were from this point on condemned by the Dublin Protestant parliament backed by London to a hundred years of helotry, under a system of "penal laws" remarkably like South Africa's late and unlamented apartheid.

Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmert

Republicanism as a mass force for all-encompassing democracy came to Ireland from revolutionary France in the 1790s. Yet that republicanism, which appeared in Ireland now as the very name of personal and national liberty, was a direct descendant of the republicanism that had confronted the Gaelic-Catholic Irish as a merciless, would-be genocidal force of unrestrained butchery in the 1640s and 1650s.

The principles of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which to many 18th-century Europeans embodied their own aspirations to liberty, helped shape the American republic set up by Britain's former colonies after they rebelled in 1776. In turn, the American revolution was a mighty example to those in France who began the revolution in 1789.

Who were the Irish republicans in the 1790s? They were mainly Protestant, and of those, through such leaders of the Society of United Irishmen as Wolfe Tone and Edward Fitzgerald were Anglican, mostly Presbyterian. Belfast, where large parts of the population in the early '90s marched on 14 July to celebrate the French revolution, was the heartland of republicanism. They wanted independence from England, protection for Irish trade (which had suffered badly from English repressive legislation in the 18th century) and an end to the rule of the Anglican-Protestant landed oligarchy who controlled the parliament in Dublin.

Benefiting from the 18th century "Age of Reason" and the indifference to religion produced by the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, which had ended in stalemate between Protestant and Catholic Europe, republicanism had broadened its appeal, cut off from 17th century religious dogma, and purified itself into secular, modern politics. This republicanism was new in its attitude to Catholics, for whom it demanded full religious and civil equality. It stood for what the French revolution stood for - the rights of man and the citizen. As Wolfe Tone put it, the Society of United Irishmen stood for "the rights of man in Ireland". The United Irishmen were linked to equivalent secret societies in England. The nationalism associated with this stage of the French revolution was a generous, liberating nationalism which saw its own salvation inextricably linked to the freedom of all peoples. The United Irishmen looked to France for military help in winning Irish liberty.

The United Irishmen chose to link up with Catholic agrarian secret societies, such as the "Defenders". The Orange Order was founded after a battle at "the Diamond" in County Armagh in 1795, between Catholic and Protestant peasant secret societies.

The Society of United Irishmen was destroyed by systematic British terror and by the failure of French help at decisive moments, particularly by the inadequacy of that which finally came in 1798 - and by the deep Protestant-Catholic divisions.

In 1798 the United Irishmen was broken. "The rebellion of 1798" was a number of scarcely connected movements. Protestant United Irishmen rose in rebellion in the north, where they were defeated and their leaders, such as Henry Monroe, hanged. In Mayo in the west, a small French army under General Humbert landed, rallied the local people, proclaimed the "Republic of Connaught" and inflicted defeats on a more numerous British army sent against them, before they were finally defeated themselves. In Wexford in the south-east, a Catholic peasant rebellion, led in part by priests, erupted. They inflicted defeats on the English and Protestant yeoman forces sent against them, before being defeated and massacred. The Wexford rising was a shaping event for subsequent 19th century Irish history. In the rising of the Catholic peasants anti-Protestant sectarianism - like Protestant sectarianism the opposite of republicanism - came out in all its ugliness.

The final stand of the Catholics took place at "Boolavogue". A song called "Boolavogue"2 which celebrates the Wexford rising and its terrible end is still one of the most popular of Irish nationalist songs. In Wexford, there was also a place called Scullabogue. Into a barn in Scullabogue local Protestants were herded by armed Catholic rebels, who then set fire to the barn.

1798 was probably the last chance for the fusion of the Gaelic Irish and those of planter stock into one people: even the Anglican peasants could have been mobilised in a victorious, French-aided revolution that broke the power of the landlords. An island-wide Irish nation could have been forged in the crucible of a great democratic revolution. The British state was too strong, the Irish too weak and too divided; French aid was too little, too half-hearted (in 1796, a great fleet had been assembled to go to Ireland, but was by General Bonaparte taken instead to invade Egypt…).

Five years later, another United Irish rising was planned by Robert Emmet, but aborted by an accidental explosion in a republican arsenal. This was mainly a movement of Dublin artisans and semi-proletarians, many of whom would, like Emmet, have been Protestants. Emmet too had links with underground Jacobins in England. After this defeat republicanism disappeared for four decades.

Young Ireland

When republicanism reemerged in the early 1840s as "Young Ireland" it was, in its philosophy of equality and unity amongst all the Irish, the descendant and heir of the United Irishmen. But it was still a heavily Protestant movement, in its "prominents" at least - lawyers and journalists and members or future members of the so-called liberal professions - and probably in its cadre. Moreover, Young Ireland found itself in conflict - political, not primarily sectarian, antagonism - with the mass Catholic political movement that had grown up in the decades since the United Irishmen. Catholic "politics" had moved a long way from the peasant societies Tone had worked with. Most of the old Protestant mass republican base in the north was gone. The Dublin parliament too was gone, the target of much republican animosity in the 1790s. Ireland was, since 1801, united with Britain in a "United Kingdom". Wolfe Tone's goal, to unite the religious sects and the Irish people of different origins, was much further away than it might have been in the 1790s. What had happened?

When Ireland was united with Britain, civil disabilities against Catholics were not removed, not until three decades later (1829). In working to achieve "Catholic emancipation", Daniel O'Connell, with the powerful network of Catholic priests as the backbone of his political-religious political machine, mobilised the masses of Catholics in enormous meetings and the collection of petitions. Their demands had liberal Protestant support. When Catholic Emancipation won and Daniel O'Connell began to call for "repeal of the Union" - Irish Home Rule - the priest-stuffed O'Connell movement, controlling the big majority on the island, came to be seen by the Protestants as a threat of priest rule in an Ireland again separated from Britain. Daniel O'Connell said that he took his religion from Rome, not his politics, but it did not carry great conviction because it left unanswered the question: where did the priests so ubiquitous in his movement take their politics from?

The north-east had prospered under the Union. In short, the children and grandchildren of the Protestant United Irishmen came to be reconciled to unity with Protestant England and deeply afraid of coming under Catholic domination.

Young Ireland was a splinter from O'Connell's movement - republican, looking back to the United Irishmen for inspiration ("who fears to speak of '98?" demanded their best party song), resistant to the Catholic-sectarian dimension of O'Connell's movement (on education, for example), and demanding more militant tactics, including possible armed force, which O'Connell shunned and sincerely rejected. (In 1798, as a young man, he had turned out to fight the United Irishmen).

Two facts shaped the fate of Young Ireland: the separate and independent organisation of Catholics as Catholics, led by priests and political allies of priests; and the gap between separatist republicans and the Protestants, which was a byproduct of the relations of Catholics and Protestants. Nor was political virtue entirely with them as against O'Connell.

O'Connell was a liberal Whig. Leading Young Irelanders followed Thomas Carlyle, a great, perhaps the greatest, intellectual influence in Britain for much of the 19th century. While O'Connell for example was against black slavery, some of the United Irishmen were, like Carlyle, outspokenly for it. Carlyle was what Karl Marx called a "reactionary socialist" - a bitter critic of industrialism and the capitalism which left no tie "between man and man" but "the cash nexus", who idealised the half-imaginary past. That too influenced such Young Irelanders as John Mitchell, who therefore won much praise from the first Irish socialists, especially from James Connolly. Mitchell was also the most determined on revolutionary action (he was locked up before he could act).

Famine devastated Ireland between 1845 and 1848. Preaching armed rebellion and resistance to the removal of food from the starving country, the best Young Irelanders were arrested and deported; others organised a tragic parody of an armed rising. James Connolly would use this incident to forever stigmatise as comic opera posturing what Young Ireland did in 1848: a rebel-band led by William Smith O'Brien, an MP and a landlord, moving about the starving countryside, sent into a landlords "big house" for permission to cut down trees to build a barricade!

The Young Irelanders were a modern middle class movement in a country unripe for their sort of politics, except for the north, from which they were cut off by their alignment with the Catholic movement and their republican separatism. Significantly, the fate of the prominent Young Irelanders was far from that of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. O'Brien was, indeed, sentenced to death, but reprieved; Charles Gavan Duffy became a head of the government of New South Wales; John K Ingrams, who had in 1842 demanded to know, who feared "to speak of '98", became a professor of economics in London, John Mitchel an Irish-American politician: in the American Civil War he wholeheartedly supported the south and, outspokenly, advocated slavery for black people.

The Fenians

The Irish Republican Brotherhood, know after their US branch as Fenians, was founded in 1858 by veterans of Young Ireland and the tragic fiascos of 1848. There is republican continuity from now on, yet this was a new sort of republicanism, far more radical than Young Ireland. The Fenians were mainly an urban movement and had their greatest support among the massed Irish emigrants mainly of rural origin but now working in British cities and in the USA. They were organised as an oath-bound, secret society, and yet by the 1860s had attained the dimensions of a mass movement (in 1865, there were perhaps 15,000 Fenians in the British army in Ireland!). By now real republicanism had more or less made its migration from Protestant, "planter" Ireland to Catholic Ireland, though there would always be Protestant republicans, and prominent ones, until modern times. The Sinn Fein/IRA lack of Protestant supporters today is very significant and symptomatic.

The mass emigration since the famine - it would continue until about 1970, and has recently resumed - internationalised the Irish question and made hitherto unthinkable financial support, political pressure-group action in the UK and USA available to nationalism: today's pan-nationalist alliance is the continuation of it. Karl Marx said of Fenianism - he persuaded the International Working Men's Association, the "First International", to back the Fenians - that it was "socialistic" in the negative sense of opposing the massive land clearances then going on, expelling people to make way for grazing animals.

Fenianism was denounced as both an oath-bound secret society and as a violent revolutionary movement by the Catholic bishops. Notoriously, one of them said that "eternity is not long enough or Hell hot enough" to punish the Fenians. Some Fenians - for example, Thomas Clarke, one of the leaders shot after the 1916 rising - were made hostile to the Catholic church for life. Most were not. It was the beginning of the long and strange tradition in which the church has repeatedly anathemised republicans, refused them the sacraments, done its best to rouse Catholic opinion against them and actively aided their enemies - and yet the republicans in the main remained Catholic. The Fenian paper, The Irish People, sided with the Pope against those fighting to unify Italy.

Like the Jacobin/Blanquist secret societies of France, which influenced them, the Fenians believed that revolution was a matter of a well-prepared, set-date uprising. They hesitated until their best chance (in 1865) was lost and finally organised a feeble rising in March 1867, which was easily quelled. Thereafter, the Fenians fragmented. Some, in the 1880s, became terrorists, setting off bombs in London. One of their leaders memorably described such terrorism as the weapon of the weak against the strong. It proved not to be an effective weapon then.

At this time the politics which republicanism in most of the 20th century would treat as dogma was laid down. The franchise in Ireland excluded most of the people. There was no possible electoral road forward. It was an Ireland that had lost three-eighths of its population in two decades, and from which people were being driven at a great rate. The Fenians laboured under the belief that the Irish would win control of their country either "soon - or never!". There would not be many Irish left in Ireland. Like other mid-century democrats - for example, the Chartists of the 1830s and 1840s, who sought the vote because they saw it as the tool that would allow them to change society - the Fenians saw power, (won in the only way it could be won, by force), as the goal only because they saw no other way to win social redress. It was the only political means to their goal. They were, however, far from clear about how, and about what, they would do once they had power. Their belief that armed insurrection was the only way they could possibly at that point win their goals were true to reality and therefore rational. When the Fenian rump and its splinters rigidified that into timeless dogma, they separated from rational politics. Some Fenians graduated to socialism - for example, Jim Connell, the author of The Red Flag (in 1889).

Degenerate Fenianism

Move on a third of a century so that we can look back from the year 1900. What is republicanism now? The failure of 1860s Fenianism led to decline into a variety of sects. The main Fenian founder and leader - called "Head Centre" in a constitutional structure modelled on that of the American Republic - James Stephens was deposed in 1866, in preparation for the abortive rising. Stephens was in social questions a radical of the left. In exile in France after 1848, he had joined one of the French left-wing insurrectionary secret societies. But questions like that were for the time when Ireland would be free to solve them. For the republican movements thereafter, that would be the pattern: particular social and political questions and issues, and differing opinions on them, would have to wait on the victory of the "armed struggle".

In the Fenian's heyday, constitutional politics consisted of Irish MPs at Westminster individually allying with British parties. In 1870 a movement re-raising O'Connell's demand for "Repeal of the Union", now called "Home Rule", was started by Isaac Butt, a Protestant lawyer who had defended Fenians in court. The new party had MPs, but it was weak, loose and feeble. Joseph Biggar MP, a Belfast Protestant pork merchant and a member of the Fenian supreme council when he first became an MP, started to use the rules and customs of the House of Commons to disrupt its business. Charles Stewart Parnell, a Wicklow Protestant landlord with Irish republican and American anti-British ancestors, joined him. Over years, they forged a new party, tight-bound, organised for maximum striking power in the House of Commons.

The Irish bourgeois revolution

The Act of 1884 which gave the vote to large numbers of rural Irish, gave the Parnellite party a mass electoral base. The Fenians had already frightened the British establishment into making reforms in Ireland, reforms that would, by the eve of World War One, grown into a thoroughgoing Irish social revolution. This Irish "bourgeois revolution" was organised by the British bourgeois state, not by an Irish bourgeoisie.

First the Anglican church, "the Church of Ireland", was disestablished and partly disendowed in 1869. Then legislation to prevent tenant farmers being robbed by an evicting landlord, who could until then simply seize any improvements made by an evicted tenant - that is, confiscate his capital. In 1881, far more drastic legislation was brought in, giving tenants the so-called "3 Fs" - free sale (of tenants' assets on the farm), fair rent, fixity of tenure - no evictions except for non-payment of rent. Courts were set up to fix rents. In effect, the tenant was given rights that seriously encroached upon the private property rights of the owning landlord. This was quasi-revolutionary legislation and the Liberal PM Gladstone was denounced for encouraging communistic tendencies. It was an event which accelerated the transfer of the allegiance of the industrial bourgeoisie from their old Liberal Party to the Tory Party.

In 1886 Gladstone came out for Irish Home Rule, splitting off both the right and the radical wings of his party, who eventually fused with the Tories.

More than that though. The legislation of 1869-70 gave tenants the chance to purchase their holding from a landlord willing to sell. The state would put up one-third of the price, which the tenants would pay back over time. Very few transfers occurred as a result of this.

From the mid-1880s, the Tories began to make available to the tenant the full cost of buying the holding on a mortgage basis, with the repayments usually notably lower than the rent had been. The Liberals were highly critical of this: only "deserving" tenants, with savings, should get such benefits.

The Fair Rent courts took the fixing of rents out of the landlords' hands, and kept them down. The development of the trade in frozen meat, and bulk movements of grain from the USA and Australasia, led to a prolonged crisis in UK agriculture. Increasingly, landlords were willing to sell. In 1902 a conference of tenants and landlords met and jointly proposed the wholesale transfer of land. The Wyndham Act of the following year provided the necessary state finance. This was the Irish bourgeois revolution - for the achievement of which the republican Fenians had wanted to seize power - carried out by the British bourgeoisie.

In Protestant Ulster the same years had seen a tremendous growth of industries such as shipbuilding. The Protestant settlers had long ago had their bourgeois revolution - as part of the British bourgeois revolution. When the relationship of the Catholic tenants to their lords of the land was feudalistic - as we have seen the landlords right until 1870 to confiscate the farmers' invested capital - that of the Ulster tenant farmers was akin to the bourgeois relationships in England.

The Liberal proposal in 1886 to concede the Parnellite demand for limited Home Rule polarised Ireland radically. The Protestant majority in north-east Ulster pledged themselves to refuse to accept and to fight Home Rule. There were demonstrations and conferences, including mobilisations of the Ulster Protestant working class, the main proletariat in Ireland, against Gladstone's two failed Home Rule Bills, in 1886 and 1893.

The Tory social revolutionary measures were intended as an alternative to the Liberal proposal for Home Rule. The alternating tugging of these two approaches - and and of these parties of their allies in Ireland, the Orange Unionists with the Tories and the nationalists with the Liberals - ultimately wrecked havoc in Ireland.

Eclipse of republicanism

Where was republicanism? The Irish Republican Brotherhood gave support to Parnell and Biggar for a limited experimental period, and then concentrated on breaking up Parnellite meetings. The Head Centre of this depleting sect was Charles J Kickham, a novelist, poet and writer of at least one fine song still widely sung about the experience of the immigrant poor. Kickham led them into a cul-de-sac, where the movement continued to shrivel and die. Kickham was near deaf as a result of an explosion, half blind and he had a speech impediment: his enemies saw in his personal afflictions a metaphor for the state of the movement he led. It declined to nothing. Politics was now the Home Rule Party, under varying names. Once the Liberals came out for Home Rule it became increasingly a satellite of that party, relying on it to eventually carry a Home Rule Bill and set up a Dublin parliament.

Gladstone had talked of local autonomy for then northern Protestants, but it led to nothing. The Home Rule Party and the northern Unionists felt no need to reach a democratic modus vivendi, the one looking to the Liberals to eventually coerce the Unionists into accepting rule from Dublin under an all-Ireland Catholic majority, the other relying on the Tories to continue to stop Home Rule forever. The Home Rule Party soon came to dominate everything in Catholic Ireland, including the early labour movement.

James Connolly

In the middle of this period a different strand of republicanism appeared for the first time. The Fenians and earlier republicans had in varying ways expressed and embodied social and class concerns. In their time and place, the Fenians, or some of them, had been radical. So in the 1840s had John Mitchell in some of his many facets, and James Fintan Lawlor.

Now, for the first time, the need for a republic with a boldly stated class allegiance and class goals was proclaimed - the workers' republic. In 1896 James Connolly and a few others founded the Irish Socialist Republic Party. In August 1898 James Connolly started a newspaper in Dublin whose title embodied his programme - The Workers' Republic. By that time, Connolly later recalled, the bold proclamation of republicanism of any sort was a shocking and startling thing in post-Parnell Dublin.

Connolly embraced and attempted to build on the Irish revolutionary republican tradition that stretched back a hundred years to Wolfe Tone, and to give it a consistently radical, modern interpretation. Connolly redefined republicanism.

In France, the Third Republic was bourgeois and corrupt, far distant from the objectives of the ragged Parisians who won the First Republic in the 1790s; in America the republic was ruled by plutocrats. In Ireland, Connolly rightly thought that Republic still had a pure, clean meaning, whose goal of liberty, equality and fraternity, The Rights of Man in Ireland, could only be achieved in a "republic of the workers", in a "co-operative commonwealth".

His credo was that a republic worth the name had to be measured by the well-being of the lower class within it and be the rule of that class. It had to be a workers' republic. Within that framework, Connolly, educated in the British Marxist movement, advocated aggressively the Marxist ideas common throughout Europe then.

He tried to root and vindicate his political message in the experience of the Irish in history, portraying capitalism as an alien, English imposition and much of Irish history as the conflict between that alien social force and a native, Gaelic, primordial communism, which he saw in the old Irish clan system, (remnants of which had survived into the 17th century, to go down before the Cromwellian land confiscations and "ethnic cleansing"). Connolly based himself on statements by John Stuart Mill, on Lewis H Morgan and on Frederick Engels account of Morgan in The Origins of Private Property and the State.

Connolly did what the Stalinised Communist Parties would do, often ludicrously, in the Popular Front period - uncover for his movement a revolutionary genealogy stretching far into the past. It was not false, because Ireland remained unemancipated, and Connolly did not falsify: he surveyed Irish history with the eyes of a proletarian and denounced some of the icons of conventional Irish nationalism. His Labour in Irish History, which appeared in book form in 1910, is, I believe, a "living book" - exhorting to action, trying to forge revolutionary working class consciousness in the proletariat of a long oppressed people. Despite Connolly's intentions, it did not sufficiently distinguish the working class outlook from other "republicanisms". This would have grave consequences for workers' republican, socialist, politics in the future.

The republican renewal

Let us move forward now to 1914. When mass republicanism reappeared it was an overwhelmingly Catholic movement; and yet it was a by-product of Protestant Ireland - this time a reaction against what was happening in Protestant Ulster.

Dependent on the Home Rule Party in the House of Commons to sustain it in office, the Asquith Liberal government brought in a third Home Rule Bill. There was an assured majority for it in the House of Commons - and the House of Lords (which had vetoed the Home Rule Bill passed in the House of Commons in 1893) had recently lost its absolute veto.

Led by Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionists openly organised a strong, armed force, the Ulster Volunteer Force, pledged to resist a London-empowered Dublin parliament. They had the active backing of the Tory Party, whose leader, Bonar Law, reminded the Liberal government that "there are things stronger than parliamentary majorities".

In response, Catholic Ireland organised an armed force, the Irish Volunteers, to defend Home Rule.

The underground Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had recently been reorganised and given some life where there had for a long time been virtually none, expanded in the Home Rule crisis. Previously moderate Home Rulers such as the schoolteacher Padraig Pearse, faced with the Orange revolt, transmogrified into militant republicans. The Ulster Unionists had brought the gun back into Irish politics; their example fed Fenianism and brought its withered stump back to vigorous life.

The Home Rule and Irish Volunteer leaders accepted in principle that Ireland should be partitioned for a supposedly limited period, and then went on to back Britain when World War One broke out, acting as recruiting sergeants for the Army. A minority, under the Irish Republican Brotherhood's secret control, broke away from the volunteers, retaining the name (the majority became known as the National Volunteers) Fenian republicanism had quickly become a greater force than it had been for four decades.

Who were the republicans? Schoolteachers, journalists, academics were the leaders. The rank and file were mainly workers in town and country. What did they believe in? In the old Fenian principle. "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" - the Irish could not hope to win an armed conflict except when England was at war, and then only allied to England's enemy. They believed in a rising to win Ireland's independence and set about preparing it, in alliance with Germany and, they hoped, with German help. That was all they had in common, though some of the leaders - Pearse, for example - were broadly socialistic and had sided with the workers during the Dublin labour war of 1913-14 led by socialist trade union leader Jim Larkin.

James Connolly, at the head of the small "Citizen Army" that grew out of the self-defence militia set up to fight the police in the 1913-14 strike, shared the immediate objectives of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He allied with them, though he saw this as the first step in the fight for the workers' republic.

Though some of the leaders were Protestants - Sir Roger Casement, Constance Marckewicz - and one, Tom Clarke, a staunch anti-clericalist, this was a Catholic movement. But it was not a sectarian movement. Padraig Pearse, the leader of the IRB, had publicly, though not wisely, offered the support of republican Ireland to Edward Carson and the UVF if they would declare separation from England.

The Home Rule Party had before the war fallen under the control of the then powerful Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians. (They claimed origins in such Catholic peasant societies as the Defenders, with which the United Irishmen had allied.) The IRB paper Irish Freedom denounced the Hibernians in terms more bitter than they used on the Orange Order, blaming the Hibernians for making conciliation with the Protestant-Unionists even more difficult. They ruled out the idea that they might try to coerce north-east Ulster. This was a Catholic republicanism that still had living roots in the United Irishmen.

It had, however, another aspect - a commitment to Gaelic culture and to the revival of the Gaelic language. The cultural Gaelic revival movement had nurtured some of them, such as Pearse, towards revolutionary politics. From now on this would be part of republicanism. It inevitably would lead to "cultural sectarianism" where the Northern Irish Protestants were concerned and, bizzarely, also where the children of self-ruling Catholic Ireland whose native language was English, were concerned.

Republicanism triumphant

Move forward to the aftermath of the December 1918 General Election. In January 1919 a majority of the MPs just elected secede from Britain and set up an Irish Republican Parliament in Dublin.

Republicans had won 48% of the vote and 73% of the Irish seats, many of which were not contested. It was common in the UK then that "hopeless" seats would not be contested. What was republicanism now? Though for some it was a shining ideal, republicanism was now essentially a flag of convenience. Under it the antagonistic and potentially antagonistic forces of Irish nationalism, indeed of the Irish Catholic people, had rallied.

There were individual Protestants in it, but the north-east Ulster community was far outside its remit. For them "republicanism" now meant Catholic "Rome Rule", the opposite of the liberties their United Irishmen ancestors had aspired to. Republicanism seemed to have subsumed the old Home Rule movement. Or was it the other way round?

The Rising of 1916 had been the great turning point. Against the plans and intentions of its organisers, the Rising was confined to Dublin, striking only a couple of fleeting sparks elsewhere. They surrendered after a week. As prisoners were marched off, some to their deaths, there were hostile demonstrations from the Dublin crowds. Over a period of 10 days, ending with the killing of the wounded Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada on 12 May, 15 of the leaders where shot. Roger Casement was hanged two months later. The Larkinite socialist Peadar Kearney - who wrote the Irish national anthem, The Soldiers Song - could write: "They are not ancient heroes/From the dim and misty years/But the dearest friends we had on earth/Who shared our joys and tears." But mythical heroes is what they quickly became. The shootings awoke historical memories, and transformed the much-resented rebels of Easter week, who had turned Dublin into a battlefield, from seeming maniacs into legendary heroes.

The Home Rule Party had rested on a culture that incongruously glorified the struggles and rebellions of the past. A tame and venal MP, living well on "Home Rule" in London, would go home to his constituency and make a rousing speech telling them that his "patience" and that of the Home Rule Party was not infinite - that if they did not get their way they would know in good time how to once again "unsheath the Fenian sword". The insurgents set fire to this sub-culture and the blaze consumed the old Home Rule Party. The republicans replaced the Home Rulers.

However, without the fuel added to the fire of 1916, by Britain's attempt to introduce conscription (in operation in Britain since 1916) to Ireland, it is improbable that the annihilation of the old Home Rule Party would have happened with anything like the speed and completeness that it did. About 200,000 men from Catholic Ireland joined the British army, town and country labourers mostly. Yet imminent conscription stirred up a tremendous storm. Resistance to it was preached and organised in Catholic churches by priests and bishops. Britain backed down, but not before the Home Rule Party had withdrawn, under pressure, from Westminster.

The Irish bourgeoisie had been bitterly against the Rising. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution condemning the rising as "Larkinism run amok". The Irish Independent, the newspaper of Murphy, who had organised the Dublin lockout in 1913-14, urged on the British to shoot the wounded James Connolly. Provincial Chambers of Commerce followed where Dublin led. The Chamber of Commerce in Ennis, County Clare, where Eamon De Valera would win a landmark by-election a year later, passed a resolution identical in its sentiments.

The insurgents had no party. The Rising was popularly and, to the British, officially known as the "Sinn Fein Rising" ( Sinn Fein means "we ourselves", not "ourselves alone" as it is often rendered), but Sinn Fein had had nothing to do with the rising. Sinn Fein was a monarchist party!

Its founder and leader, a one-time IRB man, Arthur Griffith, wanted the UK reorganised into a "British-Hibernian Monarchy" modelled on the reorganisation of Austro-Hungary in 1867. Personally an honest man and a poor one, who detested the corrupt politics of the Home Rule Party, he was fanatically committed to market economics and to the development of Irish capitalist industry. Therefore he was an enemy of trade unionism because it raised wages and thus costs for manufacturers. He had long advocated the withdrawal of Irish MPs from Westminster, as the Hungarians had done before the Austro-Hungarian state reorganised itself.

In 1917 a second Sinn Fein emerged from the first Sinn Fein's Convention. Eamon De Valera, the senior surviving leader of the Rising replaced Griffith as President (Griffith was his deputy), and the goal of an Independent Republic, the Republic proclaimed in 1916, was agreed as the Party's goal - until it was won. After that differences on the best constitutional arrangement could safely have free play. Withdrawal from Westminster would be its tactic and the re-proclamation of the Republic its first goal. Thus was a great national coalition put together around the single goal of winning an independent republic. In 1919 Dail Eireann would adopt a Democratic Programme recognising some responsibility for social welfare. It never got beyond paper.

The Catholic bourgeoisie was dragged in the wake of this movement.

The fate of the Workers' Republic

The idea of a workers' republic did not disappear - far from it. Connolly's martyrdom gave socialism and the idea of a workers' republic a tremendous and widespread popularity. But there was no coherent, properly organised revolutionary workers' movement able to transmute it into hard working class consciousness and purposeful activity. There were powerfully organised forces doing the opposite. Connolly was hardly dead before clever priests started to publish "interpretations" of what he "really" stood for. Worse, the workers' republic on its own was a vague concept that could easily be assimilated to both Catholic social teaching and ideas of "restoring" a mythical Gaelic past.

Connolly had invoked that past in order to use it as a springboard to a modern working class socialist class consciousness. But that proved to be a double-edged weapon. For example a book advocating the workers' republic as a variant of backward-looking arcadia, rooted in the quasi-mythical Gaelic past won wide readership even in Britain where it was circulated by those who would soon form the British Communist Party. It was written by Aodh De Blacam. De Blacam would live to be an apologist for the Catholic Francoites during the Spanish Civil War…

In the course of the battle that developed between the British occupation forces and the IRA , defending Dail Eireann, working class radicalism led to the raising of the Red Flag by strikers over occupied creameries (dairy factories) and in perhaps as many as 40 separate cases the declaration of local soviets. A soviet existed in Limerick City for a while in early 1919 - with the support of the nationalist bishop Fgarty (who would be a prominent blue shirt fascist in the '30s).

Central to the inconsequentiality that was the fate of this splendid militancy was the alienation of the northern working class . It deprived the southern Irish working class of the proletarian big battalions: the workers fought and organised strikes against the occupying forces, but socially we were a weak force, in mainly agrarian Ireland. In the north the workers organised great strikes in 1919 - and in 1920 pogroms against Catholics and "soft" Protestants in the shipyards.

United Catholic Irish "republicanism" fought Britain to the conference table to offer previously unavailable concessions. A truce was called in July 1921.

Civil war and partition

Move on a year from the truce to the civil war that broke out between two wings of Sinn Fein in June 1922. One of these would be the root of all subsequent republicanism until the emergence of the present Adamsite Sinn Fein/IRA.

Britain offered Ireland the same Dominion status under the British crown as Canada and Australia. But Britain said that under no circumstances would it accept an independent Irish Republic. The 1917 Sinn Fein "compromise" had postponed resolution of the differences within Sinn Fein on desirable and acceptable constitutional arrangements to the aftermath of victory over Britain and the consolidation of the Republic. Under British pressure, the differences re-emerged now. Griffith, the dual monarch man, found his maximum demands satisfied in Dominion status; Michael Collins, who had organised the fighting IRA squads, thought it would "give us the freedom to win freedom". They signed the proffered treaty in London and then went back to Ireland to enforce it against their former comrades who would not agree. Collins was head of the underground Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood helped push the compromise through.

Partition had been "sold" to Griffith and Collins by trickery. The Six Counties population is one third Catholic and they are the majority in large parts of it? That is to your advantage, Prime Minister Lloyd George told Griffith and Collins. In a few years we will redraw the boundaries, lop off the Catholic majority areas - which included the Six Counties' second city Derry - and attach them to the 26 Counties. At that point, deprived of so much territory, all of the present Six Counties will feel obliged to come into a United Ireland.

Lloyd George told the Unionists that once their sub-state was set up, they could dig their heels in. They did. Six Counties Catholics were second-class citizens for 50 years, after which they revolted.

Yet no faction of Sinn Fein had any proposals for resolving the Six Counties problem. At the turn of 1921-22 when Dail Eireann debated the Treaty, the issue of Northern Ireland played remarkably little part. That the Treaty decreed compulsion to take an oath of allegiance to the British king was the emotive issue. By a small majority Dail Eireann backed Griffith and Collins. The minority walked out; the majority set about constructing a state, building up a professional army from ex-British soldiers and a minority of the fighters in the war of independence.

The well-off classes rallied around the Griffith/Collins wing of Sinn Fein. What did the diehard republicans represent? Commitment to an independent republic, which for some of them was a metaphysical abstraction; repugnance for the oath of allegiance, which would mean breaking their oath to the republic. Their alternative to the Treaty was the idea that an independent Irish republic could be in "external association" with the British Empire. In practice, the republican militarists led by Rory O'Connor acted as if they wanted military rule.

Rationally, Collins was right and has been proved right by subsequent history. But it is not as simple as that. All the way back to Daniel O'Connell there was an element of millenarianism in nationalist mobilisations - people expected that their whole lives could be radically transformed by the desired political changes. The people who rallied to the republicans were the poor, the have-nots, those who wanted revolution but had no idea how to achieve it. Frederick Engels in the 1880s had called the Fenian terrorist faction of the Invincibles, Bakunists. In truth, from this time onwards, there were unmistakable elements in republicanism that had gone to the making of anarchism in underdeveloped southern Europe in the last century and well into this one. The whole movement was incoherent and socially and politically immature.

The small new Irish Communist Party lined up with the anti-Treatyists. Though it would have been better if the civil war had not happened, they were in the circumstances right to do that.

The republicans were crushed in a year's fighting that at the end was mainly in Munster, in the south-west. It was a war of great savagery and bitterness. And yet a functional bourgeois democracy was more or less intact at its end.

De Valera and his orphans

We move now to 1926, a fateful year for republicanism. The order to "dump [hide] arms" was given in June 1923. The defeated were let out of internment camps and jails a year later in 1924, where thousands of them had participated in a mass hunger strike that had finally collapsed. Their political leader is Eamon DeValera. The republicans suffer police harassment, unemployment and forced emigration. They denounce the Dublin parliament as a usurping partition parliament, bound by the oath which every TD has to take to the English crown. They stand in elections, which show that they retain strong support, but, on principle, they refuse to take their seats. At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheish (conference) in 1926, Sinn Fein splits.

De Valera, faced with imminent government legislation to prevent abstentionist candidates contesting elections, proposes that they should abandon abstentionism. Defeated, he walks out and founds the Fianna Fail [the Soldiers of Destiny] Party. He takes most of the Sinn Fein support in the country with him. Fianna Failers take the oath to the king, but declare it an empty formality.

The 26 County political landscape has now set in the shape that still exists. The two main 26 County parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (originally called Cumman Na Gael) stem from the 1921-22 split in the second Sinn Fein. Fianna Fail would form a government early in 1932 and rule for 16 consecutive years.

What was left of republicanism? The principle of boycotting the Dublin, Belfast and London parliaments (Northern Ireland sent MPs to Westminster) and its corollary, that progress could not but be by way of armed force. Soon the IRA declared its independence from the rump of Sinn Fein.

Stalinists and republicans

Move on eight years to 1934, when another important split occurs. The IRA is in fact a political army, a party-army. Its concerns still centre on Oaths of Allegiance and such matters. There is no notion that anything can be done about Northern Ireland. The IRA publishes An Phoblacht, a lively weekly in which there is a lot of discussion. There are now people in the leadership of the IRA who are identifiably Stalinists - Peadar O'Donnell, Frank Ryan and others. They engage in attempts to organise west of Ireland small farmers and affiliate them to the Krestintern, the Stalinists' so-called Peasant International. At its 5th World Congress in 1924, the Communist International proposed to organise worker-peasant parties in backward countries.

But what are the IRA's goals? What can they be? Ireland is a land of peasant owners and sizeable capitalist farms. There is no land revolution to make. There are restraints on Irish self-determination, but the Statute of Westminster of 1931 gives the Dominions effective independence: in power after 1932, De Valera will use this "freedom to win freedom".

Here too the hold-out republicans will be made politically redundant. What is left? An inchoate anarchistic hostility to the existing society on the part of some of its least favoured, who are drawn into the IRA because it seems to embody a recognisable and much respected tradition and because there is no credible or acceptable alternative revolutionary movement. For the republican veterans, tradition now includes civil war bitterness. A general "anti-imperialism" and ingrained hostility to England - "burn everything English, except her coal" is an important part of it. So is a romantic fascination with guns and death and violence. That too is a trait in common with, say, Spanish anarchism.

In 1931 the IRA launches its own political party, "Saor Eire" [Free Ireland], with socialistic politics. It is immediately denounced by the Bishops as "communist" and banned by the government. Quickly, the IRA leaders, in the first place, Sean McBride, issue a statement of obeisance to the bishops' wishes. Saor Eire dies. Dead Fenians turn in their graves!

The backbone of Fianna Fail is made up revolutionary nationalists who have been hardened by war, prison and persecution. In many ways this provides them with an incomparable cadre in politics. The IRA's relationship to Fianna Fail is central. They boycott politics but they give "critical support" to Fianna Fail and have many and deep ties with that party.

When Fianna Fail, backed by the Labour Party, becomes the major Dail party and forms a government early in 1932, the Irish Free State's bourgeois democracy is put to the test. Will those who defeated them in the civil war less than a decade ago let them take over the government? The answer is: "Yes, but…" The "but" will grow larger and louder.


  1. A few years back, the independent left populist TD for a Dublin constituency, Tony Gregory, sold his decisive vote to the government, conducting public bargaining to get the best price in terms of benefits for his constituency. The state of the negotiations at each stage was reported in the press.

  2. The song was written a hundred years later by a Home Rule Party publican Dublin councillor called PJ McCall, against whom James Connolly stood in a bitterly fought election at the turn of the century.
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