1. A short summary
2. Ancestral ethnic unity
3. The first modern colony
4. Riding the wave of the American and French revolutions
5. Marxism and the National Question
6. Marx and Engels on Ireland
7. Extermination and Industrial Revolution
8. From the Eighteen to the Nineteen Hundreds
9. Bourgeoisie and Proletariat in Ireland during the First World War
10. The Revolt in Dublin
11. Towards a National State
13. Bourgeois Counter-Revolution in the South
14. A Nationalism "Betrayed"?
15. Social Struggle under Threadbare Banners
16. Armed Irredentism
17. From the Bullet to the Ballot
This article, which combines the work of three comrades, was published in our Italian press in 1989 and part of it appeared in the same year in Communist Left, under the title ‘Ireland – Sinn Fein: from the Bullet to the Ballot?’ we are now pleased to publish this translation of the entire article.
It is true that the title, on its own, might give the impression that we have always been opposed to the national struggle, but this is not so. There is nothing in the article that says the Irish struggle for independence has always been counter-revolutionary or pointless; or that it would have been better if Ireland had remained as part of Great Britain; or that we oppose an eventual reunification of the island. But at the time the article was written, with internationalism in Ireland almost a dirty word, a robust attack on nationalism was required, and the title was appropriate to the circumstances. In a word, the article must be seen in the context of the time it was written, addressed to Irish proletarians in 1989, not to English workers in Marx’s time.
In preparing the text for publication in the English language, 32 years later, inevitably we found a few things that appeared disproportionate, a few inaccuracies, a few points that could have been included, or stated better. We have therefore made a few minor changes here and there, and no doubt some inaccuracies will remain; but those aside, we stand by the substance of the article in its entirety.
An old joke from Northern Ireland depicts an encounter between two strangers: “So, are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” the first one asks. “Well, I’m an atheist” says the second. “Ah!” replies the first, “But are you a Protestant atheist, or a Catholic atheist?”.
This sense of there being no way out from the entrenched sectarianism, even if slightly blunted, is still very real in Northern Ireland today. But by directing the spotlight of Marxism onto this seemingly intractable impasse the article reveals that the deadlock can be broken, and that the resetting of loyalties on a class foundation, is not only possible, but is an urgent necessity. The translation of this article from 1989 is therefore long overdue, and will hopefully contribute to that process of redefinition.
For more than sixty years our current has strictly adhered to a set of programmatic and tactical positions that are indissolubly linked to the totality of our doctrine. And it isn’t that we do this out of love for abstract coherence, or in pursuit of ultimate logical consistency, but in the secure knowledge that it is the only way of ensuring, in the course of the Communist movement’s disorientating alternation of phases of advance and retreat, that “the future is safeguarded only by safeguarding in the present the past and projecting it into the future”.
The need to continue our research into national and racial issues, formerly undertaken by Marx and by Engels, continued by Lenin, and then by the Left and then by our party minuscule though it is, requires us once again, in light of recent and ongoing upheavals, to revisit the Irish question. It is a case of dealing with reality by plugging the leaks that have weakened the revolutionary front.
In one of our texts we wrote: “the current situation, characterized by the temporary absence of an autonomous proletarian movement restricts us – in the field of practical activity – to defending the integral nature of our classic texts, to combatting their adulteration, to remembering that inevitably changing circumstances will pose anew the problem of making practical connection between the programme and proletarian struggles, to not putting in place of those struggles our intellect, and using it to resolve problems that ten times out of nine have been raised by the bourgeoisie”.
The report on Ireland became the introduction to a much more comprehensive study by the party on the Irish question.
By applying the scalpel of historical determinism to the subject of Ireland we can hardly fail to notice how, throughout all its misfortunes, this ancient people managed to resist historical adversity, due mainly to the misfortune of finding itself in such close proximity to another larger island which had had the opportunity to develop earlier on both the economic and socio-political levels.
If the first nation to emerge with a bourgeois capitalist system was England, it can certainly be said that Ireland was its first colony; indeed, the occupation of Ireland by the English can be dated back to around 1170, whereas the union of the English people with the Scots and the Welsh to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain would occur in subsequent centuries and after bitter internecine struggles; but as a real union, not as a subjugation!
For centuries, the Irish people were trampled underfoot first by feudal landlords then by the English bourgeoisie; hunger, epidemics and forced emigrations did not allow a natural development of this people to take place and the worst brutalities and atrocities were the order of the day, even if accompanied by demagogic half-measures which did nothing to resolve the most urgent problems. The speaker, after pausing to consider the latest electionist evolution of the IRA, which is showing its democratic-populist and bourgeois face ever more clearly, then gave a synthetic description of the ups and down Ireland has experienced over the course of the last two centuries.
The generous struggles of this period, from the time of the American Revolution to the first decades of the 19th Century, were all of them defeated, mainly because Ireland had the misfortune to be too near to England.
The great famine in the 1840s was caused not so much by insects (the potato blight) but by the merciless economic laws of a capitalism in rapid development. The industrial development of Ulster also dates to this period, and it would mark the first step towards the differentiation of the two parts of the country and is the key to understanding the real reasons for the present division. But it was only from 1800 onwards that the English government started to systematically exploit the differences between Catholics and Protestants, the reflection of real and growing economic differences between the North and South of the island. This policy would intensify over subsequent decades as the government in London came to realize it couldn’t maintain its rule over the whole of Ireland; henceforth the struggle for independence would come to be increasingly identified with the Catholics whereas previously numerous Protestants had played a distinguished role.
In an Ireland split in two civil war became inevitable: temporarily postponed by the war (except for the courageous but unsuccessful insurrection in Dublin in 1916), it exploded immediately afterwards.
The status, offered by London not long afterwards, of formally independent State, although deprived of Ulster, was accepted by many pro-independence leaders, and in 1922 the new government proceeded to form its own army, whose aim was mainly to control the numerous “malcontents” demanding a united Ireland. Fighting would break out even more violently between the ex-comrades in arms, but the Irish bourgeoisie managed to “pacify” the country.
Irish capitalism, more agrarian than industrial, had managed to obtain “its own” State, but only thanks to an unwarlike compromise with London and not by means of political or military force. It was, moreover, at the price of renouncing the wealthiest part of the island. Its “revolutionary” violence was expressed above all against the rebels who didn’t accept the cowardly treaty.
Today Sinn Fein continues to talk about a united Ireland as though a paradise on earth which, once conquered, could magically resolve all the problems of the country; problems which are actually caused by an economic situation which exists on a global scale. In reality it is a false objective which the Irish bourgeoisie waves in front of the proletariat to ward off its subversive power, and which the proletariat must ignore in order to be free to fight on its own behalf, and for itself alone.
If in the far off times of the revolutionary bourgeoisie Marxism hoped for an independent Ireland, mainly because this would also have freed the English workers to struggle for their own emancipation, today the objective of national reunification is a distraction from the revival of economic and political struggle on a class basis.
After the slow retreat of the last glaciations, human beings would be impelled by natural necessity to direct their continual peregrinations towards zones where the land had been revived and transformed, in which certain types of flora and fauna had disappeared and others replaced them.
It is difficult to establish much about the first communist societies on the Irish island, but it is certain that before the arrival of Celts it was already inhabited, as evidenced by the remains of a Megalithic civilization which existed more or less between the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC.
In fact it is only in the first centuries of the 2nd millennium BC that the Celtic tribes inhabiting central-Southern Germany begin their slow expansion to the East, towards Asia Minor by way of the Balkan peninsular, and to the West crossing France to reach the Iberian peninsula (where mixing with the indigenous peoples they gave rise to the Celto-Iberians) and to the British Isles. The Celts were never really a politically united people, but they shared a distinctive language and for many centuries a religion (druidism).
Subdivided into various tribes they bring to mind the Boii, who in 390 AD, after occupying the valley of the Po, reached Rome and put it to fire and sword. Those tribes which occupied the area of present-day France the Romans called Gauls, while various others moved across to the British Isles: Cantii, Iceni, Cornovii, Brigantes, Picts, Caledonians, Scots, Welsh, etc.
There is not much evidence of the ancient history of Ireland. This is partly because for many centuries it lay outside the sphere of action of the great expansionist movements of those peoples who were the forerunners of the future civilizations. The Greeks make vague allusions to it, the Romans, who for almost four centuries were installed in Britannia, found themselves in serious difficulties there due to the continual revolts and raids but had neither the time nor the inclination to cross the stretch of sea which separated them from Ireland. In fact it might well be said that they never actually managed to completely subjugate the “big island” either.
We know that for many centuries Ireland, divided into various tribal territories, was not a compact, centralized or politically organic unit, in fact there were frequent struggles and wars between the tribes; and the same was the case in England before the unexpected arrival of the Roman legions. In fact one can say it was actually the Irish who on many occasions landed on the shores of Britannia and mounted lightning attacks on Roman legions, before immediately withdrawing.
In the final centuries BC, pressure increased from Germanic peoples, who sweeping down from the North gradually occupied the lands of central Europe, and pushed the Celts towards the peripheries both Eastwards but especially to the West, to the extent that for several centuries the Romans were engaged in a continuous struggle to hold back the “barbarian” avalanche.
These continuous wars on all fronts would in fact contribute to the collapse of the Roman Empire, which meanwhile had opened its door to Christianity; which would then gradually be assimilated by the barbarian peoples from the North and East.
Around 400 AD, the Roman legions would be forced to withdraw to the continent under the weight of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. These would continue for several centuries and meet with strong opposition from the Welsh and Scots.
The islands that for many centuries had been occupied by Celtic tribes, and which for the last few centuries had been dominated in part by the Romans, would now undergo invasion by the Germanic peoples, who over time would assimilate a good number of the indigenous tribes of the central and southern parts of the larger island and, at the same time, open the way to the spread of Christianity.
In around the year 400 of the Common Era that Christianity begins to spread throughout Ireland, introduced there by the Briton Patrick, and it is not until three hundred years later that the Viking invasions begin.
From then on continouos battles would be waged between Irish princes and invading Vikings, wars that would see now one Irish chief then another gaining the upper hand, and respectively now the Irish then the Vikings. These battles of tribe against tribe, and Irish versus Vikings, would culminate in the battle of Clontarf in 1014, although struggles between the warring factions would continue.
But if on the British island the invaders had managed in part to Germanize the conquered, in Ireland it would be the indigenous people who would absorb the invaders, and by this means the race would continue to be transformed, without however affecting the main principles and characteristics of the Irish people.
The years 1169-74 marked the initial phase of the English invasion. Wars, guerrilla warfare, revolts and the ensuing blood baths; betrayals, expropriations, robbery, sackings and general destruction follow one after the other and become more acute after England severs its ties with Rome. And the Cromwell period was no better, from which we recall the Drogheda Massacre, in which the survivors from that battle, including many priests, were put to the sword.
This long period lasts until the year 1800.
A few remarks are relevant here: 1) everything shows that the initial collision between Germans and Celts in Britannia gave rise to a distinctive race; 2) the English, though ruthless in their dealings with the Irish, had been at war with the Scots and Welsh for centuries but had managed to partially assimilate them; 3) their industrial and capitalist development was favored to the extent that Ireland was viewed as, and exploited as, a colony, from which it drew meat, dairy products, wool, and proletarians for its factories and as cannon fodder in its wars.
Well knowing the terrible consequences of England’s eight centuries of oppression in Ireland, Marxism hoped that this national question would be resolved by freeing Ireland from the military and political grip of England.
A more detailed study of the political and economic events involving Ireland and England will be published in due course, but for now it suffices to say that the possibility Ireland had to attain full independence was obliterated by two major events: the slaughter which followed the rebellion of the United Irishmen at the end of the eighteenth Century, and the Act of Union with England in 1800.
During this period the struggle was conducted by both the landed and mercantile sectors of capitalism, whose interests conflicted with the imperial interests of England. The thirteen colonies, which would become the United States of America, would see their rebellion crowned with success, but Ireland would once again suffer the tragic consequences of its geographical position, so close to England.
On the 1st of January, 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was officially proclaimed. (Wales was already unified in 1240 and had submitted to the English Crown in 1283: Scotland on the other hand was united with England in 1707, although the two regions still retained, at least in part, their original Celtic languages). The London government abolished the autonomous Irish parliament and made the country still more dependent; although 100 Irish members were admitted to the House of Commons and 32 to the House of Lords.
The struggle continued and in the 1820s the watchword became “Repeal of the Union”. But these nationalistic movements were led by the Irish liberal bourgeoisie, whose main purpose was to use these agitations to exert pressure on the English government and induce it to make minor concessions to the Catholics but to favor the Protestant capitalists and landed proprietors, for the most part of English and Scottish origin.
Hundreds of thousands of Irish people are set in the motion, stirred to rebel, but unfortunately they are led by unscrupulous men who just use them for their own political ends.
That common front of two centuries before, the union of agrarian and mercantile interests, would soon be broken, it having had among its disastrous consequences the famine of the 1840s. But the potato blight masks the effects of developing industrial capitalism, in the wake of which vast swathes of agricultural land in the British Isles were abandoned, in large part due to the repeal of the Corn Laws. But what in England was a financial calamity became in Ireland, across the whole of the island, a death sentence, along with an industrial revolution which was restricted to Ulster alone.
Another 50 years would be needed before the land question was tackled in the south of Ireland, but meanwhile Ulster’s industrial development had locked it into England’s economic machinery. This tight economic link with the British Empire allowed Ulster to access a much larger market than could be expected from a national protectionist economy that not yet fully developed.
If the last two centuries are regarded from a purely economic point of view, the tragic events that ensued can be given a materialist explanation: it is not really about religious, tribal or sectarian differences, but a struggle between divergent economic interests.
Marx and Engels were always convinced that in order to resolve, in a dialectical way, the problems of oppressed peoples the international unity of the working class was necessary, and Ireland’s situation today, like those of many other nationalities around the world, shows just how right they were.
Marxism hoped that the question of national self-determination in Ireland would be resolved in such a way as to allow the unembellished class struggle to proceed unencumbered by the national struggle. According to Marx the achievement of Irish independence would be as a dagger directed at the heart of the English bourgeoisie, and would contribute to clearing the way to the revolution in England itself; even if after independence England and Ireland might reunite in a federation.
Marxism has on the other hand always scorned nationalism as an end in itself. For Lenin the question of national self-determination was of vital importance in combating reaction and imperialism, but that didn’t mean national independence was an end in itself. Citing numerous examples Lenin made clear that the right to national self-determination wasn’t a matter of abstract justice but depended on the capacity of the local bourgeoisie to win independence. An example was Sweden: it wasn’t enough for the representatives of the Swedish workers to vote in the Swedish parliament for Norwegian independence; the Norwegian bourgeoisie had to be able to constitute its own parliament and then attain independence on its own.
The example of the Ukraine was given by Lenin as a model of how to examine the key problem. Russia dominated the Ukraine; so might not the action of the proletariat have the effect of aggravating the national feudal or bourgeois oppression? Certainly not, says Lenin, the proletarian movement must combat national oppression otherwise it would not only reinforce reaction but would also be effectively accepting the divisions that imperialism imposes on the workers’ movement. National self-determination for the Ukraine, certainly! But the criminal division of the workers’ movement between the Russian and Ukrainian nations, never! Marxism has never accepted the national division of the workers’ movement not only because in a material sense the workers’ do not have a country (Communist Manifesto) but also because national borders are a legacy of the prehistory of the human race and will disappear with Communism. For us Marxists proletarians (along with the oppressed and the dispossessed) in Ireland are our brothers and sisters, and it is their fate that interests us. We do not share with the bourgeoisie the notion of “our country”; we intend to pursue our international class interests, organized in one party to accomplish a planet-wide revolution.
But what if the national bourgeoisie is incapable of performing its historic task? Does the honor of bringing it to completion on behalf of the bourgeoisie then devolve to the proletarian movement, postponing until later, that is until afterwards, the transition to the struggle for socialism? The answer to this question is that the proletarian movement must accelerate its struggle to fill the void left by an ineffective bourgeoisie but without restricting itself to the bourgeois phase.
In Russia Lenin realized that the bourgeoisie was incapable of bringing about the democratic revolution, and that this gave the proletariat the opportunity of leapfrogging the phase of bourgeois political power and fighting for a socialist State straightaway. In a similar vein, if the Irish bourgeoisie was incapable of winning national self-determination, the task of the proletariat, struggling in defense of its own interests, was to prepare for the double revolution. The proletariat doesn’t need to wait until the bourgeoisie has installed itself in power before it starts to fight its own revolution because the struggle for socialism is sparked off by the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie and wage laborers, and wherever it has the strength to do so the proletariat takes power on its own behalf.
Marxism, therefore, only favored the completion of the bourgeois democratic phase so that the struggle going on in society between the national bourgeoisie and its proletariat could get underway, and not out of any kind of respect for the myths of democracy and liberty. The events of 1848 clearly showed that there was no other way the proletariat could go than struggling for its own interests. Referring to the uprising in Cracow in 1846, Marx made some important points in a speech on 22 February 1848, on the occasion of its 2nd anniversary:
There are striking analogies in history. The Jacobin of 1793 has become the Communist of the present day. In 1793, when Russia, Austria and Prussia divided up Poland, the three powers produced the constitution of 1791, which had been condemned unanimously because of its alleged Jacobin principles.
And what had it proclaimed? The Polish constitution of 1791! Nothing other than a constitutional monarchy: legislation placed in the hands of the representatives of the country, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, public judicial trial, abolition of serfdom, etc. And all this was then called pure Jacobinism! Thus you see, gentlemen, that history has moved on. The Jacobinism of those days has today become, as far as liberalism goes, the most moderate imaginable.
The three powers have marched with history. In 1846 when by incorporating Cracow in to Austria they confiscated the last remains of Polish nationality, they gave the name communism to what they once called Jacobinism.
Now, what is the communism of the Cracow revolution? Was it communism to have wanted to restore Polish nationality? This is as much to say that the war waged against Napoleon by the European coalition to save nationalities was a communist war, and that the Congress of Vienna was made up of crowned Communists. Or was the Cracow revolution communist because it wanted it set up a democratic government? Nobody will charge the millionaire citizens of Berne and New York with communist leanings.
Communism denies the necessity for the existence of classes; it wants to abolish all classes, all class distinctions. The revolutionaries of Cracow wanted only to abolish political distinctions between the classes; they wanted to give equal rights to the different classes.
But, briefly, to what extent was the Cracow revolution communist?
Was it perhaps that it tried to break the chains of feudalism, to turn tributary property into free property?
If one asked French proprietors: “Do you know what Polish democrats want? The Polish democrats want to have the kind of property ownership which you already have”, the French proprietors would answer, “They are quite right”. But if you say, with M. Guizot, to the French proprietors: “The poles want to abolish property as you instituted it by the revolution of 1789 and as it still exists in your country”. “What!” they will shout, “they are revolutionaries, Communists; these scoundrels must be trampled down!” (…)
Let us go further back. In 1789 the political question of the rights of man included the question of free competition.
And what then happened in England? In all the questions from the Reform Bill until the abolition of the Corn Laws, did the political parties fight about anything except changes in property rights, questions of property, social questions?
Here, in Belgium itself, is the struggle of liberalism with Catholicism anything but the struggle of industrial capital with large landed property?
Divisions exist among the ruling class in the various countries over the question of democratic reforms. Those already in power are conservative in their outlook and bitterly hostile to reforms. The new wealthy classes, who contest them for power, put forward their demands as reflecting the interests of the nation as a whole. But, as soon as the new lower classes made their voice heard, the ruling classes as a whole and the entire bourgeoisie suddenly discover a new found solidarity and lash out instinctively against the workers, against the poor and the dispossessed, who are silenced, often in a bloodbath. This was the indisputable lesson of the 1848 revolution in France and every other bourgeois revolution.
We will quote Marx once again, from an article in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung of 29 June 1848, ‘The June Revolution’.
Fraternité, the brotherhood of antagonistic classes, one of which exploits the other, this fraternité which in February was proclaimed and inscribed in large letters on the façades of Paris on every prison and every barracks – this fraternité found its true, unadulterated and prosaic expression in civil war, civil war in its most terrible aspect, the war of labour against capital. This brotherhood blazed in front of all the windows of Paris on the evening of June 25, when the Paris of the bourgeoisie held illuminations while the Paris of the proletariat was burning, bleeding, groaning in the throes of death.
This brotherhood lasted only as long as there was a fraternity of interests between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Pedants sticking to the old revolutionary tradition of 1793; socialist doctrinaires who begged alms for the people from the bourgeoisie and who were allowed to deliver lengthy sermons and compromise themselves so long as the proletarian lion had to be lulled to sleep; republicans who wanted to keep the old bourgeois order in toto, but without the crowned head; members of the dynastic opposition on whom chance imposed the task of bringing about the downfall of a dynasty instead of a change of government; legitimists who did not want to cast off their livery but merely to change its style – these were the allies with whom the people had fought their February revolution (…)
None of the numerous revolutions of the French bourgeoisie since 1789 assailed the existing order, for they retained the class rule, the slavery of the workers, the bourgeois order, even though the political form of this rule and this slavery changed frequently.
It is necessary to divide the capitalist era into two periods, which are however not neatly separated by a wall, but connected by numerous transitional links. The first period is during the decline of feudalism, which is gradually replaced by the bourgeois democratic system which drags onto the political stage vast mass movements involving all classes of all nationalities. In the second period the capitalist States have completely developed, and the clash between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie gradually assumes greater importance.
The proletariat esteems and places above all else the union of proletarians of all nations and it examines every national demand from the point of view of the workers’ class struggle. It is, therefore, against the bourgeoisie of the oppressing nation but also against the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation.
From Factors of Race and Nation, Part 3, chapter 7:
“Polemical deformations, old and new, have brought about confusion between the programmatic internationalist position of the communist proletariat and the formally national nature of some of the first stages of its struggle. Historically, the proletariat only became a class and only came to have a political party within the national framework; likewise, it engaged in the struggle for power in a national form, to the extent that it tended to fight the State of its own bourgeoisie. Even after the proletariat has conquered power, this power may, for a certain amount of time, remain limited to the national arena. But none of this detracts from the essential historical opposition between the bourgeoisie, which aims to constitute bourgeois nations, presenting them as nations ‘in general’, and the proletariat, which rejects patriotic solidarity and the nation ‘in general’ since it needs to construct an international society, while fully understanding that the demand for national unity is useful up to a certain stage, but always as a bourgeois demand”.
In the chapter entitled “The International and the Question of Nationalities” it is noted that: “A series of interesting debates within the General Council of the First International and under the personal leadership of Marx provide the facts enabling us to correct errors of principle on the question of the historic struggles of nationalities. The tendency to ignore these struggles instead of explaining them from the materialist point of view is a manifestation of particularistic and federalist positions derived from utopian and libertarian theories that Marxism had jettisoned, rather than being evidence of an advanced internationalism”.
And again it is explained, in the chapter “The Imperialist Epoch and Irridentist Leftovers”:
“In the epoch of bourgeois revolutionary wars of independence and the formation of nation States there are still many cases of lesser nationalities being subjected to States of another nationality, even in Europe; nevertheless, the proletarian International must reject every attempt to justify wars between States for reasons of irredentism, unmasking the imperialist purposes of every bourgeois war, and calling upon the workers to sabotage such wars from both sides. The inability to put this into practice has brought about the destruction of revolutionary energies under the opportunist waves that accompanied the two world wars; and if the masses do not abandon the opportunist leadership in time (social democratic or Cominformist) it will result in another war, thus allowing capitalism to survive its violent and bloody crises once again”.
We could continue with a hundred other citations, but we will leave that to future articles pertaining to the national and racial question.
In a letter from London in 1843 a young revolutionary, Engels, wrote:
“People who have nothing to lose, two-thirds of whom are clothed in rags, genuine proletarians and sansculottes and, moreover, Irishmen, wild, headstrong, fanatical Gaels. One who has never seen Irishmen cannot know them. Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I will overthrow the entire British monarchy. The Irishman is a carefree, cheerful, potato-eating child of nature. From his native heath, where he grew up, under a broken-down roof, on weak tea and meagre food, he is suddenly thrown into our civilisation. Hunger drives him to England. In the mechanical, egoistic, ice-cold hurly-burly of the English factory towns, his passions are aroused (...)
“But in England the Irishman saw a great deal, he attended public meetings and workers’ associations, he knows what Repeal is and what Sir Robert Peel stands for, he quite certainly has often had fights with the police and could tell you a great deal about the heartlessness and disgraceful behavior of the ’Peelers’ (the police). He has also heard a lot about Daniel O’Connell. Now he once more returns to his old cottage with its bit of land for potatoes. The potatoes are ready for harvesting, he digs them up, and now he has something to live on during the winter. But here the principal tenant appears, demanding the rent. Good God, where’s the money to come from? The principal tenant is responsible to the landowner for the rent, and therefore has his property attached. The Irishman offers resistance and is thrown into gaol. Finally, he is set free again, and soon afterwards the principal tenant or someone else who took part in the attachment of the property is found dead in a ditch.
“That is a story from the life of the Irish proletarians which is of daily occurrence. The half-savage upbringing and later the completely civilised environment bring the Irishman into contradiction with himself, into a state of permanent irritation, of continually smouldering fury, which makes him capable of anything. In addition he bears the burden of five centuries of oppression with all its consequences. Is it surprising that, like any other half-savage, he strikes out blindly and furiously on every opportunity, that his eyes burn with a perpetual thirst for revenge, a destructive fury, for which it is altogether a matter of indifference what it is directed against, so long as it can strike out and destroy? But that is not all. The violent national hatred of the Gaels against the Saxons, the orthodox Catholic fanaticism fostered by the clergy against Protestant-episcopal arrogance – with these elements anything can be accomplished. And all these elements are in O’Connell’s hands. And what a multitude of people are at his disposal! The day before yesterday in Cork – 150,000 men, yesterday in Nenaph – 200,000, today in Kilkenny – 400,000, and so it goes on.
“A triumphal procession lasting a fortnight, a triumphal procession such as no Roman emperor ever had. And if O’Connell really had the welfare of the people in view, if he were really concerned to abolish poverty – if his miserable, petty juste-milieu aims were not behind all the clamour and the agitation for Repeal – I should truly like to know what Sir Robert Peel could refuse him if he demanded it while at the head of such a force as he now has. But what does he achieve with all his power and his millions of valiant and desperate Irishmen? He is unable to accomplish even the wretched Repeal of the Union; of course solely because he is not serious about it, because he is misusing the impoverished, oppressed Irish people in order to embarrass the Tory Ministers and to put back into office his juste-milieu friends. Sir Robert Peel, too, knows this well enough, and hence 25,000 soldiers are quite enough to keep all Ireland in check. If O’Connell were really the man of the people, if he had sufficient courage and were not himself afraid of the people, i.e., if he were not a double-faced Whig, but an upright, consistent democrat, then the last English soldier would have left Ireland long since, there would no longer be any idle Protestant priest in purely Catholic districts, or any Old-Norman baron in’ his castle. But there is the rub. If the people were to be set free even for a moment, then Daniel O’Connell and his moneyed aristocrats would soon be just as much left high and dry as he wants to leave the Tories high and dry.
“That is the reason for Daniel’s close association with the Catholic clergy, that is why he warns his Irishmen against dangerous socialism, that is why he rejects the support offered by the Chartists, although for appearances sake he now and again talks about democracy – just as Louis Philippe in his day talked about Republican institutions – and that is why he will never succeed in achieving anything but the political education of the Irish people, which in the long run is to no one more dangerous than to himself”.
This letter from Engels, who was barely 23 years old at the time, gives a good idea of what the situation in Ireland was like in 1843. Over the ensuing years both he and Marx would become increasingly interested in the Irish problem as a whole, developing with dialectical criteria the importance of the struggle for national independence from the centuries old Anglo-Saxon rule.
A glance at the population statistics shows us the extent of the tragedy that struck Ireland around the middle of the nineteenth century:
During the three years of bad harvests between 1845 and 1848, which particularly affected the potato crop, around a million Irish people died and around the same number again were forced to emigrate. (The potato, originally from Central America, was introduced to Europe as a rare plant of interest only to botanists. From 1663 however, following a terrible famine, it became widely used in Ireland as a food plant).
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland (Ulster) the British industrial revolution linked the fortunes of the Protestant bourgeoisie – secessionist only a few years before – to that of the Empire. But the English colonialist policy also succeeded in winning over the Protestant part of the working class, thus creating an indissoluble split at the heart of the proletariat. Getting the Protestant workers to identify with the interests of their bosses undoubtedly contributed to religious sectarianism, which was also accompanied by economic privileges, all of which was influenced by the Orange Order, a creation of the colonial aristocracy in 1795 (named after William of Orange, the Protestant condottiere, who defeated the Catholic James II and grabbed the throne of Great Britain in 1688). This organization, with its inter-classist structure, was extremely active in fomenting sectarian discord between the Catholic and Protestant proletariat.
From the trauma of the famine, which had given the Irish definitive proof of the ruthless oppression of imperialism and the big landed proprietors, there arose in the seventies the republican Fenian movement, committed to the use of force to free Ireland from foreign domination.
The long struggle for independence, which inevitably meant open confrontation with England, experienced a revival at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Irish Nationalist Party succeeded in taking advantage of the rivalry between the two parties of the English ruling class, the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Irish MPs, led by Parnell, decided to support the Liberal Party, which had promised Home Rule, that is self government, to Ireland.
In the 1886 the English Liberal government, after being pushed into it by the Irish MPs, took the decision to propose limited autonomy for Ireland and introduced the Home Rule Bill. The Protestants of Ulster, supported by the Conservative Party, opposed the measure with such violence that the government fell. The bill would go to be defeated in the House of Commons on numerous occasions, both owing to the defection of reactionaries in the Liberal Party and, naturally enough, the opposition of the Conservatives.
From the 80’s onwards the latter began to systematically exploit the religious disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, to the reflection of real economic differences between the North and the South of the country. It was Lord Randolph Churchill who decided to “play the Orange card” in Belfast in 1886, exploiting religious differences in order to push the Protestant minority into defending their economic links with England. This was in effect a recognition that England could no longer hope to dominate the whole of Ireland and it had to get ready, when necessary, to hang on to only part of it.
The policy of fomenting religious conflict was one of the main causes of the decline of Charles Stewart Parnell, the last Protestant leader of the struggle for a united and independent Ireland. The collapse of his Irish Nationalist Party caused the question of a united and independent Ireland to be postponed, whereas the struggle for land reform meanwhile gathered pace throughout the Island, laying the basis for a Catholic landowning class and breathing new life into the campaign for self-rule.
Following the failure of the parliamentary road, and the death of Parnell, extremely popular leader of the Irish MPs in Westminster, there reappeared on the political scene organizations committed to obtaining independence by more radical methods.
The Liberal Party would see further Home Rule bills blocked, until finally in 1914 the law was passed, although disagreements still persisted within the English bourgeoisie: some wanting to grant independence to Ireland, others preferring to go to war rather than relinquish it. Winston Churchill was at the time the spokesman for the current which favored total Irish independence, and in 1912 he even went to Belfast to try and convince the Protestants of Ulster to place themselves at the head of the Home Rule movement, but his advice remained a dead letter.
In fact there existed a real danger in Ulster of a rebellion against the law, to the extent that Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, would later affirm that “if Belfast had got it into its head to put up armed resistance, my navy would have reduced the city to rubble in 24 hours”. As far as Churchill was concerned, good servant of the Empire that he was, any resistance had to be crushed, and he certainly wouldn’t have hesitated to crush any rebellion in Ulster had it broken out; just as he had shown he knew what to do when faced with workers’ strikes and agitations. And the prospect of the law on Home Rule being enacted would indeed bring the country, in the period up to the Summer of 1914, to the brink of civil war. Only the outbreak of the First World War prevented an open confrontation between the Irish Volunteers organized in the South and the Ulster Volunteers, led by Edward Carson in the North. But the war merely postponed the inevitable.
During the agitations and strikes which preceded the First World War, the official organ of Sinn Féin regarded the strike as an unpardonable sin. Arthur Griffith himself would condemn the independent workers’ movement and pour hatred and acrimony on the revolutionary leader James Larkin: he simply couldn’t stand the fact that Larkin put class before nation. Later he would have the satisfaction, when the war broke out, of seeing many of the “internationalist” leaders of the English working class suddenly becoming ultra-jingoist.
In 1913 Griffith formulated the following positions:
“Sinn Fein is a national, not a sectional movement, and because it is national, it cannot tolerate injustice and oppression within the nation. It will not, at least, through my voice, associate itself with any war of classes or attempted war of classes. There may be many classes, but there can be only one nation. If there be men who believe that Ireland is a name and nothing more, and that the interest of the Irish working man lines not in sustaining the nation, but in destroying it, that the path to redemption for man-kind is through universalism, cosmopolitanism, or any other ’ism’ than Nationalism, I am not of their company (...)
“I trust no man will tell me he loves all humanity equally well, for I know that the man who loves all humanity equally well can love nobody in particular. I know that the man who loves all his neighbour’s children with his own is a bad father” (Sinn Féin, November 1913).
The concept of the “Free Nation” which Griffith puts forward is largely based on his study of Hungary as a model, along with the economics of Friedrich List, a German bourgeois economist who advocated protectionism as a means of developing a national economy. But independent national economies, if such a thing exists or indeed ever existed, do not appear out of thin air. A national economy can only be held together by a State which guarantees the continuity of the relations of production against internal social attacks and foreign bourgeoisies; and for a State to arise, there must be some basis for it in the first place. But once the process is underway the State exercises its authority in defending the economic interests of the new ruling power, which means also clamping down on those who prove a threat to the new order.
As regards the contiguity of nationalist aspirations and the counter-revolution in the “Free State” of Eire, we will cite two famous people. The first one, referred to earlier, is Daniel O’Connell, an eminent nationalist during the early part of the nineteenth century who, as James Connolly tells it, found himself talking to an Irishman breaking stones by the side of the road. In reply to the latter’s question O’Connell couldn’t deny that in a future independent Ireland he would still be breaking stones. The second, and more explicit example, concerns Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin and “theoretician” of the nationalist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century: in which capacity he declared that Irishmen should be willing to work for less money for the privilege of living in their own country. It comes as no surprise then that the local bourgeoisie was extremely enthusiastic about this part of the national creed, and that subsequently Griffith would be one of the authors of the treaty with the United Kingdom which led to the formation of the Irish Free State.
In 1894 various trade unions, which had hitherto acted independently, came together to form the Irish Trades Union Congress. From 1908 to 1913 the workers’ movement grew steadily stronger, confronting difficult periods of crisis with strikes and agitations; and at the same time there arose the Irish Labour Party. Meanwhile in 1905 Sinn Féin (“Ourselves Alone”) was founded, a party that proposed that Irish MPs withdraw from Westminster and form a parliament in Dublin, in open defiance of English law.
In 1914, under the leadership of James Connolly, the Irish working class, despite persecution from the English police, engaged in an all-out struggle against the imperialist war.
In an article from July 1916 entitled “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up”, Lenin would write: “A blow delivered against the power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force delivered in Asia or in Africa“.
And further on he continues:
“It is the misfortune of the Irish that they arose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats. On the other hand, the very fact that revolts do break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement; but it is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught, just as certain strikes, demonstrations, local and national, mutinies in the army, outbreaks among the peasantry, etc., prepared the way for the general onslaught in 1905.
In March 1916 a Congress was held in America, attended by around 3,000 Irish people who were living there. The congress approved a resolution which demanded independence for Ireland and laid the basis for an organization which adopted the name Friends of Irish Freedom.
Among the working masses another organization was developing: the Irish Citizen Army, a workers’ militia tasked with protecting proletarians from attacks by the police. Over the same period inter-classist organizations arose: in Belfast there was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), formed by unionists to defend continued membership of the British Empire by force; on the other side, the Irish Volunteers.
During the world war the nationalist movement was by-and-large silent as regards the struggle against England was concerned, mainly because Home Rule had in effect been conceded. But there were two tendencies that pursued an active course during the war. The first, associated with Roger Casement, viewed Germany as a source of support and assistance, above all by supplying arms (in much the same way that some would look towards Nazi Germany during the Second World War): in this scenario Germany would have been assured of support from an independent Ireland in its war against England, but Ireland would simply have exchanged one master for another.
The second tendency, whose principal exponent was Connolly, saw that the hated England was in difficulties, and proposed there was an opportunity to mount a successful rebellion throughout Ireland.
The insurrection, the Easter Rising of 1916, will be long remembered in the history of the Irish people for the brutality with which it was put down. The insurrection was mainly confined to Dublin due to the Irish Republican Brotherhood pulling out at the last minute. By taking the British occupying force by surprise, the rebels were able to seize a section of Dublin. Bravely holding out despite their isolation, and faced with a force of 20,000 soldiers, the rebellion was put down amidst much slaughter. After a parody of a trial the leaders of the Easter rebellion were executed by British firing squads: to Connolly, with an ankle wound, was extended the favour of tying him to a chair before shooting him.
Connolly had particularly stood out due to his advanced ideas: unification of the class struggle with the struggle for national liberation in order to form a socialist republic; for this it was necessary to expel the British army.
Another key intuition of his was that if Ireland was divided (a proposal already making headway at the time) it would have tragic consequences for the proletariat in Ulster and throughout the Island: the unity between Protestants and Catholics within the workers’ movement was already fragile, and with an Ireland divided between North and South an “orgy of reaction” would be unleashed.
With the war over, the the struggle for Irish independence broke out again with renewed vigor, and the reaction of the London government was to attempt to drown any attempt at revolt in blood. The atrocities of the Black and Tans and the more refined terrorism of the Auxiliaries only further inflamed the struggle for independence. Irish towns and villages put to the torch, ambushes in the countryside, individuals executed in the streets; arrests, internments and hunger strikes; the secret war between the British Intelligence Service’s notorious ‘Cairo Gang’ and Michael Collins’ network, all were every day events in post-war Ireland.
In 1918, with the war over, the general elections held throughout the United Kingdom saw Sinn Féin capture 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. Military defeat – electoral victory.
On 21 January 1919 the Dáil Eireann, the Irish parliament was formed, composed of democratically elected representatives. It would ratify the bourgeois constitution of the republic and make a declaration of national independence. A democratic program was adopted and a cabinet nominated, courts were established and the IRA was placed under the control of the Minister of Defence.
Finally the London government began secret negotiations, eventually arriving at an agreement, according to which a separate parliament was offered to the 26 counties, on condition that special status was granted to the six counties in the North. The basis for this had already been set out in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which proposed separate parliaments for the two parts of the Island.
The British government had to make some further concessions before the conditions were achieved for a truce on 11 July, 1921, following which all Irish prisoners had to be released. Negotiations for a form of independence for Ireland in which the centre and south would become a Free State also got underway. The Treaty with London provided for elections to a Parliament in the South, which would have its own army, the National Army, and a police force. As a matter of fact in 1922 the formation of the National Army got underway when the armed formations of the Volunteers who had fought against the English were still in place. In the new army there were both raw recruits and experienced veterans, the latter of disparate provenance, but mainly former members of the American or British armies, or Irish formations.
To backtrack a little: in September 1919, a British military proclamation had declared the Dáil Eireann illegal, all republican newspaper had been banned, and the English had unleashed a reign of terror which lasted until the truce in July 1921. During this period the division of the country had been imposed by force of arms into a pseudo-independent State in the south (self-governing, linked to the person of the king of England, but with a government and army of its own, member of the Commonwealth) and a province of the United Kingdom (Ulster) in the north.
The key point is that Eire, with its 26 counties, remained a predominantly Catholic and agrarian region, and was the poorer of the two. Ulster on the other hand, in the north, with 6 counties, was predominantly Protestant, more heavily industrialised, equipped with a very efficient port, and it remained linked to the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The destiny of Ireland was mapped out and the proletariat had been divided and defeated. Defeated, but not broken!
Connolly’s intuition had proved correct, the English bourgeoisie had managed to divide Protestant and Catholic proletarians and set them at each others’ throats. But the creation of British Ulster also protected the interests of the unionist bourgeoisie concentrated in the North of the country, with its strong ties to English imperialist interests which had existed since 1800.
The inter-classism of the Orangeist ideology had managed to tie the Protestant working class of the North, in a position of material privilege with respect to the Catholic minority, to the interests of the local bourgeoisie. From the start Ulster was thus based on open religious discrimination, in which religious sectarianism was of course merely a distorting mirror, concealing the true face of imperialist class rule.
The power held by the unionist bourgeoisie in the Stormont parliament and government gave the unionist bourgeoisie complete control over the material conditions by which the Protestant workers could be separated from the Catholic workers. To be Protestant meant you would be prioritized in the allocation of housing and jobs. Being Protestant therefore meant you were unionist, identified with Great Britain and the ruling class, and nurtured feelings against Catholics very similar to those of poor whites in America against Afro-Americans. The inherent sectarianism embedded within the structure of the State would subsequently be reinforced and protected by laws on public order which were among the most repressive in the world.
The Special Powers Act of 1922 gave the government of Northern Ireland extraordinary powers against subversion. Amongst these powers were those of arrest without warrant, thereby abolishing legal defence; prohibition of meetings and political publications, internment without trial and for indefinite periods; the death penalty for the possession of firearms and explosives, and the flogging of prisoners and confiscation of their belongings. On the military level there was a heavily armed police apparatus composed exclusively of Protestants deployed, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), who were Ulster’s real police force, and an armed corps of Orangeist volunteers called the B-Specials, who supported the unionist party; and then there were the Orange Lodges themselves, social organizations whose task was to arouse Protestant political fervor by keeping a sense of Protestant superiority alive at the base.
Those who belonged to the Catholic minority became like the blacks in the Southern States of America, deprived of political representation, repressed by liberty-destroying laws and discriminated against as regards housing, education and above all employment.
But the Treaty did not meet with the unanimous approval of the Irish Republicans, in fact the division of Ireland that this entailed would cause major disagreements. For some months the new State in the south was paralyzed by the conflict between those who supported the Treaty and those who intended to continue to fight for its extension to the North. It was actually Arthur Griffith, one of the founders of Sinn Féin and a signatory of the Treaty, who urged Michael Collins, another signatory, to get the new State and army organized in order to silence any potential opponents.
For a brief period the two sides, composed of former comrades, appeared reluctant to settle their differences by violent means, but this situation couldn’t last for long. Any State worthy of the name needs to prioritize the economy, protect public safety and disarm anyone who opposes it, and the new State of the 26 counties was no different from any other. Open confrontation between this national State and its opponents therefore became inevitable.
The Irish Republican Army, as the forces which had fought the British were known, would split down the middle. Those who adhered to the Treaty with England gathered around the Government, with Griffith as President, while those who wanted the fight in the North to continue, until Ulster was included in the new Irish State, remained outside the new State.
The headquarters of the anti-treaty side was based in the Four Courts in Dublin. In order to enforce the boycott of Belfast businesses, a policy which had been resumed by the anti-treatyists following the IRA split, a local garage was raided, and the organizer of the boycott was then arrested in retaliation. The rebels replied by seizing a General of the National Army. In the meantime, the anti-treatyists had seized other key points in Dublin. Collins was furious and demanded that the situation be resolved immediately. The following day, on June 27th, 1922, the rebels received an ultimatum to surrender. At midnight the response of “No Reply” from the rebels was sent back. At 4am the next day the bombardment of the Fours Courts and surrounding area by the National Army began, with artillery borrowed off the English. It continued for three days, resulting in heavy losses among the besieged. For Cathal Brugha, veteran republican fighter, it was another 1916. Many preferred death to being captured by their former comrades, others were taken hostage.
Four of these hostages were in fact shot by firing squad soon after in retaliation for the shooting of a member of the Dail, an execution proposed and approved by the Free State cabinet. Four prisoners were chosen, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joseph McKelvey and Richard Barrett and they were all executed the following morning. There wasn’t even a parody of a trial. The four represented, it was said, the provinces of Ireland: Leinster, Connaught, Ulster and Munster, but, above all, they were killed because they knew too much. It was a declaration of war against anyone who intended to rebel against the State, and it showed that it wasn’t just the British who could oppress the Irish. A wave of arrests followed, often conducted at dead of night after the style of the old occupying forces. Some of the prisoners, such as Harry Boland, were shot “while trying to escape”.
The civil war then spread, village by village, into the countryside. Flying columns were formed to deal with the rebels – and it was on one of these incursions that Collins was killed in an ambush. All-in-all the number of actions against former comrades-in-arms was considerable. The bourgeois State had to be defended by its own bourgeoisie. It must establish oder!
And was this sequence of events any different from the experiences of other bourgeois revolutions? Not that much! As always, once the bourgeois revolution has been carried out the only revolutionary potential that remains is that of the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie regime.
Since 1923 Ireland has been full of internment camps of one kind or another – both in the North and the South. Despite their differences there has been a convergence of Belfast’s, Dublin’s and London’s interests in ensuring that any opposition to the existing States is combated and defeated.
The ruling class in Ireland has itr own form of self-determination and they intend to keep it that way.
If there is anything else we have to add on Eire, let us remember it is still equipped with special courts, internment camps, laws that criminalize offences against the State, censorship, etc. Not bad for the “Free State” that Arthur Griffith envisaged!
So how do we judge the Irish Civil War of 1921-23? Is there still an incomplete Bourgeois revolution that needs to be concluded? Is the national unification of Ireland an inevitable stage which has to be accomplished before anything else can be done?
An argument still used by Sinn Fein and the like today is that the nationalist aspirations were “betrayed”, with the Constitution of 1798 and the Declaration of the Dail of 1919 referred to as perfect examples of unfulfilled democratic principles. Old fallacies that need to be challenged.
In every country the bourgeoisie has always issued stirring slogans about liberty, democracy and national unity in order to inflame the passions and spur on the people, and in particular the proletariat, to fight their battles. In the struggle against feudal absolutism and imperialist domination, up to a certain point, it was right for the working class to form a common front with their bourgeoisie to fight the common enemy; but this was only until the opposing interests of local bourgeoisie and proletariat had caused the class struggle to break out within the “nation”, splitting it in two. Every bourgeois revolution has followed the same path, from the French Revolution – with Napoleon clearing the streets of Paris with volleys of grapeshot – to the proclamation of the Irish Republic and the subsequent Civil War. The bourgeoisie does not “betray” democracy as such, but defends class rule as personified in the State, which represents and defends the national economy on which the classes are founded, and whose interests remain in perpetual contradiction. It is not individual choices which bring about changes of this kind, rather they are the product of centuries of human history, and in the final analysis of the struggle and suffering of numerous generations of workers. The bourgeoisie, for all its talk of liberty and national harmony, is as much a prisoner of circumstances as the feudal barons who fought to defend their despotic regimes.
As soon as a bourgeoisie takes power it has to organize its State, protect property, develop laws, raise a police force and army, and, against the interests of the proletariat, function like the State that was just overthrown. Soon opponents are thrown into gaol, hostages are taken, special courts without juries and internment camps set up, etc.
No-one can deny that the Irish State known as Eire is just such a State. In fact as regards certain legal measures such as the Offences Against the State Act (1939), Special Courts, etc., Eire has been a pioneer, introducing innovations which the authorities in Ulster imitated shortly afterwards. This common interest of the two States is in fact reflected in the Anglo-Irish agreement, a bourgeois form of United Ireland in which the population is kept on a tight rein. Thanks to the marvels of bourgeois democratic rule, the whole Island is now under the strict control of the Police/Garda.
But of course within the bourgeoisie, both during and after its revolution, there have always been differences and disputes about how far the revolution should go, and this has led to intense in-fighting among the nationalists. It is this violent conflict which gives rise to the illusion of a “betrayal” by the bourgeoisie. Certainly there are individuals, disowned and expelled by the bourgeoisie, imprisoned and sometimes killed, for whom these events are sadly all too real, but the new ruling class as a whole is quick to establish a solid sense of community of purpose. The notion of discipline within the ranks of the bourgeoisie, and its declaration of war against the working class, are symptoms of the counter-revolution.
Religiously motivated disturbances would continue into the thirties and become particularly acute.
During the disturbances in the early seventies new political tendencies of both “right” and “left” would appear. On one side the RUC with the Reverend Ian Paisley, who during the fifties was the leader of the extremist anti-Catholic movement, rooted among sectors of the workers and organized around the Free Presbyterian Church; on the other a campaign for the peaceful creation of a united Ireland.
These tensions did not lessen after the formation of the Labour government in October 1964, although both Northern Irish reformers and Labour MPs had expected initiatives in favor of the Catholics. But the reformist projects of the Labourites were not realized and the resulting deadlock drove many to adhere to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) founded in February 1967. This extremely respectable association with a predominantly bourgeois membership, though supported by the “left”, obtained nothing from Stormont with its exquisitely constitutional protests; and nor was it supported in any way by Westminster. Up until the clashes in Derry in October 1968, every initiative taken was opposed by the local unionists. In this situation there arose a new “leftwing” group, People’s Democracy, founded by young intellectuals.
Although O’Neill, with his ‘liberal reform’ policy had become Prime Minister of Ulster, the situation remained tense and there followed a series of clashes between the RUC and the Reverend Ian Paisley and his followers on one side, and the Civil Rights Movement and People’s Democracy on the other. On 17 April 1969 Bernadette Devlin, candidate for People’s Democracy, was elected to Westminster as an Independent. O’Neill would resign in the same month.
In July and August the annual Protestant parades became detonators of violence: the RUC and B-Specials invaded the Catholic zones of the city, resulting in seven people killed, 400 wounded, and 500 houses damaged or destroyed. The conditions for an English military intervention could hardly have been more propitious.
On the 14th August 6,000 British troops arrived on the streets of Londonderry, an intervention made for two main reasons: 1) because Stormont had lost control of the State; 2) because this allowed the Labour Government to maintain its reformist position whilst at the same time safeguarding the structure of the Northern Irish State.
The Labour government showed yet again that if push came to shove “citizens’ rights” were not high on its list of priorities. The Catholic minority no longer had any illusions about whether or not the Labour party supported the unionists.
In this situation the Provisional IRA was born. The old organization, successor of the historical IRA, had not guaranteed the defense of the Catholic ghettoes in August 1969. On the walls the mocking slogan IRA = I RAN AWAY appeared. Republicans became split between “Official” republicans of the left, who supported change by constitutional means, and the “Provisionals” who supported national unification by means of armed struggle.
The fundamental similarity between the objectives of the Labour Party and of the Conservative Party, their common preoccupation with safeguarding the capitalist-imperialist structure, is borne out by the support the Conservatives gave to the Labour Party throughout the period under consideration.
From 1969 to the time of writings, this situation of complete political deadlock, given the hardening of London’s position, which ever more openly protects the Ulster Unionist Anglo-Protestant groups in Ulster, has shifted the struggle almost exclusively onto the military plane.
In fact, after 1969, the Irish question was transformed into a war with periodic truces. By 1984 the death toll had risen to 2,400, with more than 20,000 wounded. Repression, assassinations, internment camps, torture, the notorious ‘H Blocks’, entire districts transformed into battlefields, barricades in the streets, the RUC patrolling in armored cars, such is the desolate scene that Belfast has presented for the last 15 years. Moments of particular tensions resulted from the death of Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer held in the Maze prison, where he was allowed to die of hunger, followed by nine of his comrades.
The hunger strike in Ireland has often been used in modern times. Connolly, arrested during the Dublin Lock-out, would resort to it after he was imprisoned for refusing to recognize the courts. In 1917, during the upheavals of that year, many of those arrested again refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the courts, and went on hunger strike when denied political status. In September of that year, Thomas Ashe, a commandant during the Easter Rising, died after force feding, leading to massive protests.
But the hunger strike has an even longer tradition, not just as a political weapon but as a method whereby a person of low rank soughr justice,in a judicial controversy, when faced with someone of higher status.
In May 1983, on the initiative of the Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach of the Irish government, Garrett Fitzgerald, all the Catholic and Protestant political parties of the two Irelands were invited to attend a New Ireland Forum to try and arrive at a solution to the conflict. Sinn Féin, was not admitted since, or so it was claimed, “The Forum is only open to those who decisively reject violence”. Meanwhile the Protestant and loyalist unionist parties in Ulster also refused to take part, maintaining that the Dublin government shouldn’t be meddling in the matters of a British territory.
Without the war’s two main protagonists the Forum continued to sit for a year and eventually formulated some proposals for “possible” solutions. The end objective which was put forward was, of course, a united and independent Ireland composed of the thirty two counties; but two “transitory” solutions were also put forward: a federal State; and a ‘joint authority’ for the six counties of Ulster.
Sinn Féin, the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army rejected these solutions, and so did the loyalists and hardline Protestants. As for the Thatcher Government its response became known as ‘Out, out, out’: a unitary State was out; a federal Ireland was out; and joint authority was out.
This just exasperated the situation and served to reinforce the military campaign of the IRA, receiving sustenance, it would seem, from Irish supporters in America. Thus we arrive at the IRA bomb which demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, forty five kilos of gelignite, intended for Thatcher but from which she made a lucky escape.
The Provisional IRA/Sinn Féin is formed from a union between the militants of the North and the traditionalists of the South and its objectives are as follows: a commitment on the part of the British to withdraw from Ireland once and for all; official recognition by the British people of the right of the Irish people to decide their own future; amnesty for all political prisoners held by the British. Sinn Féin doesn’t call on the population in the six counties to unite with the State of the 26 counties, but wants to substitute the two States with a “democratic socialist republic” of the thirty two counties!
Towards the end of January 1989 a conference of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Movement, was held in Dublin to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the calling of the Irish Parliament (Dail) in 1919. The importance of this meeting lay not in its condemnation of imperialism and foreign capitalists (as if the local capitalists were not just as bad) but in the turn inaugurated on the strategic plane. It signaled a hegemony of the political wing of the Provisions over its military wing, and the debates are very similar to the ones which tore the IRA apart a couple of decades ago.
The last twenty or so years has seen the direct involvement of British military and intelligence forces in the six counties of Ulster. It was the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, aware of the inadequacies of the Protestant ruling elite in containing the unrest among the Catholic population over civil rights, which sent in troops in 1969, under the pretext of protecting Catholics from the brutality of the notorious ’B’ Specials.
But who was there to protect the Catholics from the British Army? In fact the role of the British Army became evident massacre of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when it opened fire on e demonstration. Since then a reorganised Provisional IRA has stepped up its campaigns against the British Government, not only in Northern Ireland but also in Britain, Germany, Holland – anywhere they felt they could strike back.
Northern Ireland had become more and more an armed camp riddled with informers, surveillance operations, divided areas partitioned by massive fences, with almost every conceivable counter-insurgency device being used. England, the inventor of concentration camps during the Boer war in South Africa, has little to learn from anybody else about such techniques. It is in Ulster where all the latest theories on anti-guerrilla operations are tested, a massive training ground for the Army.
Unable to successfully strike against the occupying forces, the IRA targeted civilian support industries, everything from builders to removal firms which serviced the Army units, as well as off-duty police and part-time soldiers. The bombing campaigns therefore impacted more on civilians than the military, which were harder to get at. The deaths piling up on both sides eventually led to the elimination of the hard-core elements of the IRA active service units, which only managed to offset its losses by provoking the invader even more, thereby fuelling and keeping the hatred alive.
The furore following the shooting of three IRA members in Gibraltar last year highlights the problems for both sides. The IRA wanted a publicity-grabbing event which gave the war an international resonance whilst the British Government wanted to demonstrate its determination to stop the terrorists, who were gunned down in the streets of a British colony in front of witnesses. The methods which had been used in the rural areas of Ulster were now shown in all their brutality before the wider general public. The State will stop at nothing to counter any attempt to challenge it, and using its long experience derived in all parts of the world, it will attempt to wipe out any attempt at armed resistance.
The campaigns in Ulster involving “softer” targets, that is, civilians and non-active security forces, and the killings of the members of Catholic and Protestant members of para-military groups (often described as “sectarian killings”) raises the question of why those particular people were killed. Corruption, bribes, protection rackets, sectarian “God Fathers” on the Protestant and Catholic side, makes it always open to question why such-and-such an individual was killed and in whose interests.
It was against this background that the statements of Sinn Fein were important. Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein, has criticized recent operations which had led to an “exceptional and regrettable level of civilian casualties” and warned that if they continued it would lead to an undermining of morale amongst republican supporters. The vice-President, Martin McGuinness, announced that the IRA had disbanded a unit in Fermanagh “because the killing of civilians is wrong”. A few days before, the Provisional Republican paper An Phoblacht printed an interview with a spokesperson of the IRA’s leadership, who confirmed a unit had been disbanded and disarmed for killing a former policeman.
In commenting on the unfortunate consequences of civilian deaths, the IRA was making it clear that it would be subordinating itself to the political requirements of the movement. “As I said, we realize that we have a responsibility to correct the problems and refine our activities so that they do not hinder but complement efforts to build a broad-based front against imperialism.... Having said all that, it is our intention to encourage the climate for radical politics in Ireland and to assist that process”.
The strategy of the Provisionals was for many years presented as that of a rifle in one hand and a ballot box in the other, symbolizing of its intention to fight on both fronts at the same time. It is now clear that the political side will have preference from now on. The political strategy was expressed by Adams as a recognition that they could not win by themselves. He further declared that “elitism and dogma is finished” – in other words, everything is up for grabs.
Overtures had already been made to the Protestant side and assurances given that their interests would be taken into account. The only way Ireland could be reunited was with their cooperation.
Such an assurance was certainly not given at the last moment, but was part of a change in strategy that had been underway for some time. At a Public Meeting in Dublin on January 19th, a declaration of struggle for “Irish Unity” was reaffirmed not only by Sinn Féin, but also by the hopelessly opportunist Communist Party of Ireland. A leader of the CPI stated that the achievement of a democratic program “clearly represented the radical mood of the times”.
A statement at this meeting was read out on behalf of Adams which condemned the Fianna Fail Government:
“Their self-seeking opportunism, their reactionary economic and social policies, their moral conservatism and their open and active support for British imperialism are in stark contrast to the policies and programme adopted by the First Dail (...) A million and a quarter people have emigrated from the 26-county State in the last 70 years. One million of the population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment continues to rise and the weak, sick and poor are increasingly victims of the Government”.
The conclusion that Adams arrives at is that the Irish nation, in order to overcome all the problems that the Eire government cannot tackle, must have sovereignty over its own economy.
Whilst not wanting to prevent anyone from criticising the ruling class in Eire and its actions, we cannot let the illusion of national control of the economy pass without comment. One fundamental aspect of capitalism is that it is invariably subject to crises, and that there are no remedies that do not involve depressions, wars, poverty, unemployment and immense suffering for the working class.
If large nations, including the United States, cannot avoid the ever-deepening crisis of capitalism, does Adams really think that a unified Ireland could do better? In or out of the Common Market, Ireland (divided or united) will continue to be a prisoner of the uncontrollable crisis of the world market. The only way the problems of the poor and oppressed in the 26 Counties will be brought to an end, there and everywhere else, is to abolish the capitalist property owning economy, that is, to establish Communism.
The State of Ireland would gradually detach itself from England and in 1937 it adopted a new constitution, and changed its name to Eire. During the Second World War it remained neutral, and in 1949 it left the Commonwealth.
The conflict however remained unresolved in Ulster, with the Irish Republic continuing to press its claim on the six counties.
Ireland is today a very youthful country (more than 50% of its population is under 25) but there are few job prospects. This contradiction was solved in the past by means of direct emigration to the English speaking countries, but nowadays this way out is largely blocked because Britain, given its circumstances, no longer has the job openings it once had, while the United States, Canada and other countries are putting up ever stricter barriers to immigration. What is more, the irruption onto the social scene of masses of young people with serious economic problems could seriously undermine the ideological hold of the Church; which might create not insignificant tensions and induce them to instinctively take to the straight and narrow path that leads to radical social transformation.
The Republic of Ireland today, with an area of 70,273 km², has a population of around 3 million inhabitants and an average density of 43 inhabitants per km²; 2.7 million are Catholic, most of the rest are Protestant. Ulster, with an area of 14,130 km² has around 1,500,000 inhabitants and an average density of 109 inhabitants per km². (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a density of 236 inhabitants per km²); little more than a third are Catholics, the rest are Anglicans and Presbyterians.
This shows that whereas the Republic is mainly agrarian and Catholic, the more highly developed North is mainly industrialized and Protestant. And here we have the reason why British imperialism has always been reluctant to make any concessions as regards Northern Ireland.
Today Sinn Féin feels the situation has become more fluid. If at the start of the 19th century the military and economic power of England appeared indestructible, things have changed a lot since then. The British economy is in serious decline – indeed for the first time in centuries it has become a country that is predominantly an importer, rather than exporter, of industrial goods! Who knows, maybe in the not distant future the six counties in Ulster will become such a burden that it might suit England to simply get rid of it. But if such a case arose, under what conditions would it occur? What would it need to bring the Protestants in the North around to the idea? To what extent would the economy of Eire have to be transformed to be able to include the industrial zone of the North?
It is no longer in the realm of science fiction to consider the possibility that a federation with the old enemy could be created, just as Marx proposed more than a hundred years ago! Naturally the Common Market would dilute the phenomenon to a certain extent, but an economic federation is still a federation. Poor Mr Griffith!
Maybe those who still dream of a unified Ireland, and who think it is the answer to all of the problems of those living on the island, should meditate on the possibility that the miracle will happen; that Gerry Adams and the other members of Provisional Sinn Féin will manage to convince the Protestants and London to reach an agreement. This would involve conditions that would be difficult to stomach, such as a secular State: the separation of the Catholic Church from the State would cause a lot more discontent among the bourgeoisie than the union with Great Britain, and in such a case one can imagine the measures that a Unified State of Ireland would have to take to maintain the peace. How many ex-comrades in arms would be hunted down, oppressed, imprisoned or killed this time? Who would be the new Michael Collins (deserving of the nickname of the Irish Pilsudski) who would take the war everywhere in the name of order?
However the prospects for a united Ireland are different to what they were two centuries ago. Today we have a crumbling social system which is dumping all of its problems onto the poor and exploited. There is no longer any room to create free and independent States; the world now consists of blocks of States in fierce competition among themselves for a share of the world market. Within this framework, what would the role of a united Ireland be, even if it was provided with an industrial base? Which weaker country would it choose to oppress or invade? In the past Eire, insofar as it was a small agrarian country, was able to build a façade of neutrality, but it’s a different case entirely when you have to fight it out in an ever shrinking world market.
And if there was a war, which countries would Ireland side with? Over the last fifty years, the country’s neutrality has been guaranteed in practice by England and the United States, but the question arises whether a unified Ireland would allow its defence to rest on this foundation. Maybe one of the requirements for unification to be conceded would be joining NATO. So, Mr Adams, it is highly probable that instead of resolving problems unification would aggravate them.
Certainly we do not deny the terrible oppression that exists in Ulster, or that the Catholics, descendants of the Irish race, have been subjected to ferocious, vindictive attacks by the Orangeists, and we are not going to condemn anyone for combating oppression. But if the Irish Catholics are oppressed, Catholic proletarians are doubly oppressed; and proletarian Catholic women thrice oppressed. However, we will continue to underline the falsity of the national objective for the Irish working class.
In Ireland as well, in the absence of the class struggle, with ita capacoty to draw the overwhelming majority of the disinherited and oppressed behind the proletariat in is fight for its immediate and historical objectives, we can expect only individual reactions, and a relapse into nationalism.
On the other side of the Irish sea the English working class continues to support the imperialist aspirations of its own bourgeoisie, which in itself involves a renounciation of its own struggle to free itself.
The formation of a united Ireland is not something we aspire today. If it should happen, the proletariat will only find it has a new enemy.
It is therefore to the unification of the relentless fight against the bourgeoisie in both parts of the British Isles that we dedicate our work.
We will conclude with some final remarks on the Irish question.
The English proletariat missed its appointment with revolution in the first post war period, both because it lacked a consistent revolutionary party and due to the opportunist and reformist trade union leaders. As a result Irish proletarians were unable to count on support from the proletariat of the ruling nation in their bid to win their class independence.
Millions of Irish proletarians live in England, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc., and they could be the source of a future proletarian internationalism if they don’t allow themselves to get dragged into the same old reformism and opportunism.
The most rotten of the drugs the proletariat is exposed to, more pernicious than morphine or cocaine, are the various religions. In every clime they serve as a cover for imperialist and bourgeois exploitation. In Ireland there is Catholicism and Protestantism; in Poland, Italy and all of the Latin countries the Catholic priest holds sway; in Lebanon and the Middle East there are the Jews, the Arabs of various sects, the Christians, etc.; in the Persian Gulf, the Shiites and Sunnis; in India – well let’s not even go there – while from America “new” drugs are exported, by the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on and so forth.
What the proletariat needs to do is organize itself into an autonomous class, expressing this by means of its international revolutionary communist party; which prepares a solid theoretical and programmatic foundation, and which organizes the first vanguard units in the various national spheres by bringing them into conformity with a centralized global organization, prepared for the struggles ahead that are bound to arise within this dying society.
For that to happen young proletarians, whether or not they happen to belong to one of the many minorities (Istrians, Corsicans, South Tyroleans, etc.), will need to walk away from their individualist, anarchistic conformism, walk away from the opportunism of the myriad small sectarian groups, and make their contribution to the realization of the true formal communist party, precursor to the great international Human Nation!