Just before he was tied to a chair and shot by a firing squad in May 1916, the injured James Connolly is said to have remarked, “The Socialists will never understand why I am here”. Well might he have felt guilty, from a socialist and working class point of view, about what he had done. For he was being executed for his leading part in the Easter Rising, an armed insurrection aimed at establishing, with aid from imperial Germany, an independent, and unavoidably capitalist, Republic in Ireland.
Before the war Connolly, who was well acquainted with Marxist and Socialist ideas*, had been a prominent and successful trade union organiser. At the time of his execution he was the secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and “commandant” of its armed defensive force, the Irish Citizen Army. This had been formed in the course of the great Dublin lock-out of 1913 to protect union members from police violence and intimidation, but Connolly turned it into a Republican body. He himself was almost certainly admitted to the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood before being appointed commander of its forces in Dublin during the rising.
The 1RB had no social programme and was simply dedicated to using physical force to establish an Irish Republic. The Declaration of the Republic which was proclaimed from the steps of the GPO in Dublin does, it is true, express a few democratic and reformist sentiments, but only in the vaguest terms. Its main concern was obviously “the Republic”. In fact when, only a few years later, it came to adopting a definite social programme the IRB endorsed Arthur Griffith’s long-standing policy of Irish capitalism, stock exchange and all. Connolly had died not for international Socialism, not even for trade unionism, but for an Irish capitalist republic.
The Easter Rising, and the merciless execution of its leaders, did have the effect of transforming the Irish political scene: the Nationalist parliamentary party rapidly lost ground to Sinn Fein. Taking their cue from the Ulster Unionist, the Nationalists and Republicans too had formed an armed militia before the war. Called the Irish National Volunteers, prominent amongst its leaders were secret members of the IRB. On the outbreak of the first world war the movement split, the great majority following the pro-war lead of the Nationalist MP’s. It was the minority, who retained the name Irish Volunteers, that the IRB planned to mobilise for its 1916 insurrection but the plan misfired and only a few of its units actually took part. After the rising the Irish Volunteers were popularly known as the Sinn Fein Volunteers.
Sinn Fein, now republican, began to win by-elections at the expense of the Nationalist parliamentary party. In the 1918 British General Election Sinn Fein won a large majority of Irish seats, 73 compared with 6 for the Nationalists and 26 for the Unionists. In accordance with their abstentionist policy, instead of going to Westminster, they met in Dublin in January 1919, declared themselves to be the parliament (Dail, in Irish) of an independent Irish Republic and appointed a provisional government under De Valera with Griffith as Minister of Home Affairs. This was no idle declaration since behind it stood the armed Sinn Fein Volunteers, to be renamed later that year the Irish Republican Army or IRA.
For two years a brutal war of reprisals and counter-reprisals waged between the IRA and the British Army with its notorious “black and tans” (no-good soldiers) and “auxiliaries” (no-good officers). A truce was arranged in December 1921 and negotiations for a peace treaty started. The British government offered the 26 counties of Southern Ireland political independence as “the Irish Free State”, nominally subject to the British Crown, and threw in the power to impose tariffs to protect Irish industry as an added concession. A majority of the IRA and the Sinn Fein government accepted this; a minority including De Valera, regarding the Treaty as a betrayal of Republican ideals, did not. The new Free State government with Griffith as Prime Minister resolved to crush this minority and eventually did so, but only after a bitter Civil War which didn’t end till 1923 and which killed more people than the previous war with Britain. Although the IRA stopped fighting, they didn’t give up their arms. They hid them and continued to exist as an illegal underground organisation.
The new government settled down to governing Irish capitalism, in the interests of the bigger capitalists and big cattle ranchers who exported to Britain, and with callous indifference to the problems of the working class. “It is no function of government”, one Minister once said when criticised about the level of unemployment, “to provide work for anybody”. Strikes broke out as wages fell; trade union membership declined; poverty, ill-health, slums, unemployment and emigration continued. Independence, in short, had made no difference whatsoever to the position and problems of the working class. They had merely experienced a change of masters from the capitalists of Britain to the capitalists of Southern Ireland.
Civil liberties began to be eroded as Home Rule came to take on some of the features of “Rome Rule”. In 1925 divorce was abolished. Until that time people living in Ireland had been able to get divorced on the same terms, strict as they then were, as people living in England. This was stopped, and it applied to Protestants as well as Catholics. In 1929 a “Censorship of Publications Board” was set up which proceeded to ban the import and sale of books the Catholic hierarchy found offensive. Education in Ireland always had been denominational, but the new government made no attempt to set up non-sectarian State schools. Quite the contrary. It gave the Catholic Church a virtual free hand in the education of those whose parents were Catholics, i.e., the overwhelming majority of Irish school-children. The only price they had to pay for this was the cost of subsidising separate Protestant schools for the small Protestant minority. But the move that was to make the South of Ireland virtually a Catholic State—the 1937 Constitution—was the work not of the pro-Treatyites but of their Republican opponents.
In 1926 De Valera led a group of supporters out of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, after a small majority had refused to endorse his proposal to use the ballot-box and Free State parliament to try to establish (or restore, as he put it) "the Republic”. Thus was founded Fianna Fail, now Ireland’s normal governing party.
Fianna Fail inherited its economic programme from the original Sinn Fein, promising “to encourage native industries that minister to the needs of the people, to protect them by such tariffs, subsidies and other methods as may be necessary”. The new party also promised protection for agriculture and "to break up the large grazing ranches and distribute them amongst young farmers and agricultural labourers”. Fianna Fail in fact was basically the party of the small farmer and its agricultural policy, which included increased tillage in place of raising cattle for export to Britain, opposed their interests to those of the big cattle farmers which the then government (whose political descendants are Fine Gael, the main Irish opposition party) tended to represent.
Fianna Fail made rapid headway and by 1932 was the majority party, with De Valera as Prime Minister. The new government proceeded to do precisely what the Belfast capitalists had always believed a Home Rule government would sooner or later do: erect tariff walls behind which Irish manufacturing industry could grow. Indeed the declared—and quite unrealistic—policy of Fianna Fail at this time was “a self-sufficing Ireland, an Ireland not dependent for its economic life on its external trade” (Fianna Fail 1926-1951).
Steps were taken to emphasise Ireland’s formal independence from Britain—the oath of allegiance was abolished; the Governor General sacked, and a brand new republican constitution enacted—none of which had any relevance whatsoever to the problems the working class of Ireland were facing in the midst of the Great Depression of the thirties.
The new 1937 Constitution was a peculiar blending of Irish Republican ideology and Catholic social and political teaching. It embodied all the aspects of “Rome Rule” which had come to the fore under the Free State. Article 44(2) proclaimed that “the State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of its citizens”. Article 40, making censorship constitutional, declared that “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punished in accordance with law”. And Article 41 baldly stated, “No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage”. So pleased was the Vatican with these arrangements that they have never bothered to draw up a formal agreement with the Irish government about the position of the Catholic Church as they have done with the governments of other Catholic countries. Nor has the Catholic hierarchy ever been bashful about interfering in politics, to denounce some harmless social reform or some luckless politician.
During the 1930’s the IRA rapidly degenerated from a popular movement into the small gang of terrorists it is today. In 1936 the De Valera government banned it. When three years later the IRA launched its notorious bombing campaign in England (whose main achievement was the killing of 5 and the injuring of over fifty innocent workers in Coventry in August 1939) the Irish government took even more drastic action: it introduced the Offences Against the State Act which gave it the power to intern without trial members of any organisation it chose to declare “unlawful”, and which, together with the “special position” of the Catholic Church, is the other great undemocratic feature of the Southern Irish State which survives to this day.
Trade unions in Ireland too have had to suffer from more restrictive laws than in Britain, at least until the introduction of the British Industrial Relations Act.
While Ireland was politically a part of Britain the law on trade unions was the same, though industrial conditions were different. Ireland was largely an agricultural country and, outside Belfast, its towns were commercial rather than industrial centres. Corresponding to this lower level of industrial development the leading Irish trade unions tended to be general rather than industrial, as best typified by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union founded by James Larkin which is still the largest union in Ireland. In 1895 most of the trade unions operating in Ireland, including those with headquarters in England, set up an Irish TUC which in 1912 decided to finance an Irish Labour Party. For years this was only a trade union pressure group trying, none too successfully, to get a few reforms of benefit to the working class and which, since wage workers were till recently a minority of the population of Southern Ireland, never seriously aspired to be an alternative governing party for Irish capitalism. Later, however, on two occasions, in 1948 and again in 1954, it did join with the openly conservative Fine Gael and others in anti-Fianna Fail coalition governments and so has taken part in running capitalism for the benefit of the Irish (and British) capitalist class. The Labour Party now says it won’t enter into a coalition with “capitalist parties” again, but it probably would if the occasion arose—not that it’s not a capitalist party itself of course.
In 1941 the Fianna Fail government brought in a Trade Union Act which largely anticipated, by thirty years, Britain’s Industrial Relations Act. Only trade unions which, in return for a financial deposit, had been granted a “negotiation licence” by the State were to continue to enjoy protection against claims for civil damages arising out of strikes; any other union which tried to negotiate over wages and working conditions not only lost this protection but was to be subject to continuing fines till it stopped. A further section allowed a majority union in a particular industry to claim sole negotiating rights for that industry on application to a special tribunal and subject to an individual ballot of the workers involved. This was later declared unconstitutional, but the rest of the Act remains in force. The Irish Republicans, including the Fianna Fail government, had on nationalist grounds never liked “English” trade unions operating in Ireland and the third section of the Act was partly designed to drive such unions out of Southern Ireland. It didn’t work but for a while nationalism did split the Irish trade union movement. After Partition trade unionists North and South of the Border continued to be united in the Irish TUC, a sound arrangement since the Border was of no relevance to the working class in either part of Ireland. But after the second world war, under nationalist influence, the ITGWU split from the Irish TUC and set up a rival and exclusively Southern Irish Congress of Irish Unions. All-Ireland trade union unity did not come again for twenty years when the two rival centres united to form the present Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
Up until 1922 social benefits in Ireland had been the same as in the rest of Britain, but afterwards lagged behind as mainly agricultural Ireland could not afford to pay (or would not have gained much economic advantage from paying), the same level of benefits as industrial Britain. Indeed, paying lower pensions and benefits was one of the reasons given for the 1912 Home Rule Bill. The Primrose Committee set up to examine the financial implications of Home Rule was particularly concerned about “the extravagance and waste that results from too close an assimilation of the scale of expenditure in Ireland to that of Great Britain” and specifically singled out the newly- introduced Old Age Pensions as an example. Paragraph 13 of their Report declared:
. . . it is impossible not to feel that, if the Government had had to construct a scheme of Old Age Pensions especially for Ireland, they would have devised a much less costly and a much less comprehensive scheme than the one now in operation. But the Act had to be framed to suit the conditions of the industrial workers of Great Britain, and, in consequence of the political connection, had to be extended, unchanged and unadapted, to a population whose conditions were widely dissimilar. If Home Rule had been granted to Ireland before the passage of the Old Age Pensions Act, it is very doubtful indeed if an Irish Parliament would have in that regard followed the example of Great Britain. So much has been almost in terms stated in public speeches by the leading Irish politicians (Report by the Committee on Irish Finance Cd 6153).
The Committee conceded that current pensions should not be reduced, but insisted that an Irish government would have to give priority to cutting expenditure below the level the British government has been forced to shoulder in Ireland adding.
From what we have said in Paragraph 13 it will be gathered that we regard Old Age Pensions as an item of expenditure on which reduction would be not only legitimate but desirable in the new conditions to be established in Ireland—of course in respect of future pensions only (Report Paragraph 55).
So, from one point of view, “Home Rule” and “Independence” for Ireland was a way of saving the British capitalist class money on unnecessary social reforms. Social benefits in Southern Ireland are still less extensive than in the rest of Britain (including Northern Ireland) but the gap has been closing as Ireland has become more industrialised.
If anything, then, the working class in Ireland suffered—with less political democracy, a divided and more restricted trade union movement, lower social benefits—from so-called independence which was for them, as we said, basically only a change of masters. But for the nascent Southern Irish capitalist class it meant the political power to legislate to further their own economic interests. This their governments did, through protection, during the period 1932- 1959. Then, as protection became increasingly inefficient, the Fianna Fail government completely reversed its previous economic policy, took down the tariff barriers and invited outside capitalists to invest in Ireland. In 1965 an Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, providing for full free trade between the two countries by 1975, was signed. And now, along with Britain, Ireland is to join the Common Market (E.E.C.).
When this process of full economic re-integration with Britain is completed Ireland will be back where it was before 1922—and the thousands of young men who sacrificed their (and other people’s) lives “for Ireland” will be clearly seen to have died and killed merely to have got about thirty years of protection for Irish capitalist industry to catch up with the rest of Britain plus a few superficial political changes which, where they weren’t for the worse, amounted to little more than “painting the pillar boxes green” as the popular saying accurately puts it.
Next month: an exposure of the Northern Ireland statelet.
* As a member of the Social Democratic Federation at the turn of the century he [Connolly] had been involved in the “impossibilist revolt” against its undemocratic and reformist nature which led to the founding of the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Connolly had been the chairman of the first SLP Conference.