31 March 2016

Easter 1916 – A Terrible Beauty is Born

A United Ireland is yet to be achieved

William Butler Yeats: “Easter, 1916”


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.


Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Ireland is the oldest of Britain’s colonies and still it is not free.  As long as Partition remains, as long as Ireland is divided on sectarian grounds, so long will there be an Irish Question.

Ireland was partitioned at almost exactly the same time that the British Mandate for Palestine took effect.  Presiding over both was Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary.  In the words of its first Military Governor, Sir Ronald Storres (Orientations) a Jewish state would be 'a little loyal Ulster in a sea of hostile pan-Arabism'

Ireland was divided by force and it is unlikely to be united by consent of the Unionist minority.  Sinn Fein won 73 out of 105 seats in the all-Ireland general election of 1918 and 47% of the vote.   It would have won at least 53% but in 25 of the constituencies it was unopposed and there was therefore no vote.
The Countess Markievicz - socialist, feminist, member of the first Irish government

When the Easter Rising was defeated the crowds in Dublin spat on the survivors.  It was the stupidity of the British who in victory secured their own defeat by executing, day after day, the heroes of the Rising.  James Connolly, who had correctly predicted that Partition would give rise to a Carnival of Reaction, both sides of the border, was so badly injured that he had to be strapped to a stretcher in order to be shot.
Dublin’s GPO after the Rising
No one should be under any doubt that Ireland was partitioned by force.  It began with the establishment in 1912 of the Ulster Volunteer Force to physically oppose the Home Rule Bill then going through Parliament with the threat of forming a provisional Ulster Government.  In 1914  there was what became known as the Curragh Mutiny when British army officers made it clear that they would not enforce the provisions of the Home Rule Bill.

This was the context for the Easter Rising of 1916.  From 1919-1921 there followed the Irish War of Independence.  A truce was agreed on 11 July 1921 and on 6 December the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed establishing the Irish Free State.  Lloyd George had threatened to unleash massive violence through the Black and Tans (criminals released from British prisons who had already seen action in Ireland) if there was no agreement.
The Cairo Gang - a group of Police Intelligence Agents & Informers that the IRA killed in November 1920

In 1921 Ireland was partitioned.  It has been correctly called a crime against Ireland and led to the formation of a Catholic confessionalist state in the South, where the Catholic Church held the whip hand and in the North a Protestant police statelet in which Protestants were given access to housing, jobs and other amenities in preference to Catholics. 

In 1920 over 7,000 Catholics and left-wing Protestant workers had been driven from Harland and Wolff Shipyards and in the subsequent two years, thousands more Catholics would become refugees, either in the Irish Free State or would go to Glasgow and Scotland. 

In 1969, with the attack of the B-Specials, a paramilitary Protestant police force on Derry, the Troubles broke out. It led to the creation of Free Derry.  They lasted till the Good Friday agreement of April 1998.   In 1969 the IRA stood for I Ran Away as the Catholic ghetto in Derry was largely undefended.  What was the IRA split between the Officials (stickies) and Provisionals.  The Provisional IRA fought a war which eventually forced the British, after hunger strikes and over 2,000 deaths to negotiate a ceasefire and agreement.  However the question of Partition and Protestant Supremacy has not been solved but postponed.

Tony Greenstein

The British reacted quickly to crush the Easter Rising and then moved just as quickly to punish those who had dared to take part. From an Irish nationalist point of view, the rebels were freedom fighters engaged in a just campaign to gain independence for their country.

From a British loyalist point of view, they were traitors who had tried to overthrow a lawful government. The anger was multiplied by the belief held by many that Germany had been behind the Rising. This was completely untrue but it helped to fuel the sense of outrage, both in Britain and among many people in Ireland.
General Maxwell - British war criminal who snatched defeat out of victory
British Government declared martial law in Ireland

On April 26, at the height of the Easter Rising, the British Government declared martial law in Ireland and appointed Major-General Sir John Maxwell as Commander-in-Chief. Martial law gave Maxwell the power to try the rebels in military courts and impose the death penalty. It was a power that Maxwell was only too willing to use.

He didn’t just want to crush the rebellion; he wanted to extinguish any remaining flicker of Irish nationalism. He felt the best way to do that was by fear. He wanted the Irish to know they faced the full weight of British force if they stepped out of line again.

He declared his thinking in this statement:

“In view of the gravity of the rebellion and its connection with German intrigue and propaganda, and in view of the great loss of life and destruction of property resulting therefrom, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, has found it imperative to inflict the most severe sentences on the known organisers of this detestable rising and on those Commanders who took an active part in the actual fighting which occurred. It is hoped that these examples will be sufficient to act as a deterrent to intriguers, and to bring home to them that the murder of His Majesty’s liege subjects, or other acts calculated to imperil the safety of the Realm, will not be tolerated.”
More than 3,000 Irish citizens arrested and jailed
Maxwell was quick to put his policy into practice and ordered the arrest of more than 3,400 men and 79 women who were suspected of being involved in the Rising. More than 1,800 were sent to an internment centres at Frongoch in Wales.

However, the harshest treatment was reserved for those who had organised the rebellion. A total of 190 men and one woman were tried by military courts. The verdict in 90 of the cases was execution by firing squad.

Maxwell had the final say. He confirmed the death penalty in 15 cases, including all of the men who had signed the Proclamation read out at the General Post Office by Patrick Pearse, declaring that the arrival of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Ireland.

Fourteen men were executed by firing squads between May 3rd and 12th in 1916, only a few weeks after the Easter Rising took place. Click the links to find out more about each man.

Eamon de Valera spared  as public opinion shifts
Most people in Ireland had been hostile to the Rising at first, seeing it as unnecessary because the British had already promised Home Rule. They were also angered by the loss of civilian life and the destruction to major buildings in the city centre. The fact that the British, together with leading Irish politicians like John Redmond, put out statements saying Germany was behind the Rising also fuelled public hostility.

However, as each execution took place, public opinion began to change. People started to learn more about the leaders and their motives. They realised that far from being puppets of Germany, they were idealists who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their belief in the need for an independent Ireland. Many were also moved by the quiet and dignified way in which the leaders faced their execution; refusing to blame the soldiers about to shoot them and in some cases even being prepared to pray for them.

Some of the executions evoked particular sympathy, like the death of Joseph Plunkett only hours after marrying his fiancée Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol. The fact that the w0unded James Connolly was so weak that he had to be tied to a chair in order to be shot also outraged people in Ireland and around the world.

Irish politicians like John Dillon were quick to gauge the shift in public opinion and urged the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to rein in Maxwell before he turned everyone into a rebellious nationalist. Asquith agreed and Maxwell was instructed to reduce the number of executions and preferably end them altogether.

One of the first to be spared by Maxwell was Eamon de Valera even though he had played a major part in the insurrection. He was due to be executed on 9 May but the sentence was commuted. It’s not clear whether the reason was the acceptance that leniency was the best policy, or whether the British felt they could not execute de Valera because he was an American citizen. He was born in New York to an Irish mother and a Spanish father. De Valera would later become President of Ireland once independence was established.

Maxwell insisted on going ahead with the executions of Connolly and MacDiarmada on 12 May because he considered them to be among the worst of the leaders. Everyone else, however, had their sentences commuted to interment. The only exception was Sir Roger Casement who was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August.

Events would soon show that Maxwell’s harsh approach backfired completely. Instead of removing the move towards nationalism, it had the opposite effect and increased it. The main beneficiaries were Sinn Fein, who had nothing to do with the Rising but inherited the nationalist fervour that it created. Far from being the man who subdued Ireland, Maxwell later realised that he was the man who had lost Ireland. 

By Stephen Bell

In 1916 the Easter Rising represented the resumption of the struggle for Irish freedom. The decision in 1914 of the Irish National Volunteers and the Irish Parliamentary Party to support the British government in the inter-imperialist war effectively subsumed the national movement. By 1916 hopes for an early victory by either side in the war had disappeared. It was time to reclaim hope for Ireland at home, from its slaughter overseas.

Isolated though they appeared, the most advanced forces of Republicanism and the workers’ movement, understood that the war temporarily weakened the British government’s grip on Ireland. The Rising was an attempt to secure the military and political foundation for an independent Irish state. It was completely serious in intent and execution, and its subsequent failure could not be determined beforehand.

In defending the Rising, Lenin wrote:

“It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose 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 …”[1]

Written in July 1916, Lenin could not know that the Rising was only “premature” by a few months, for in February 1917 the Russian Revolution began. But Lenin fully grasped how significant this action was in Europe as demonstrating the vulnerability of the British Empire.

“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 Africa.”[2]

Lenin was following the classical Marxist estimate of the significance of Irish freedom, as established by Marx and Engels:

“If England is the BULWARK of landlordism and European capitalism, the only point where official England can be struck a great blow is Ireland. … The moment the forced union between the two countries ends, a social revolution will immediately break out in Ireland, though in outmoded forms … Any people that oppresses another people forges its own chains.”[3]

By 1916, landlordism, particularly absentee landlordism, was far less significant in Irish society, than in 1870 when Marx wrote the above. The Land League campaigns had won rent reductions. This hadn’t benefitted landless labourers, but it had aided small farms. Land Acts, culminating in the Wyndham Act of 1903 saw a modernisation of property relations in farming. 11 million acres of land were sold to farmers, with the British government subsidising the departing landlords. The Rising, and the revolution from 1918 – 1922, assumed a form Marx couldn’t have foreseen.

But the logic behind the timing of the Rising had been anticipated by both a classical and a contemporary Marxist:

“Without war or the threat of war from without, an Irish rebellion has not the slightest chance … “[4]

The huge power of the British Empire was not to be lightly assessed by Irish revolutionaries. But its vulnerability must not be ignored.

“We shall continue in season and out of season, to teach that the “far flung battle line” of England is weakest at the point nearest its heart, that Ireland is in that position of tactical advantage, that a defeat of England in India, Egypt, the Balkans or Flanders would not be so dangerous to the British Empire as any conflict of armed forces in Ireland, that the time for Ireland’s battle is NOW, the place for Ireland’s battle is HERE. That a strong man may deal blows with his fists against a host of surrounding forces, and conquer, but will succumb if a child sticks a pin in his heart.

But the moment peace is once admitted by the British Government as being a subject ripe for discussion, that moment our policy will be for peace and in direct opposition to all talk or preparation for armed revolution. We will be no party to leading out Irish patriots to meet the might of an England at peace.”[5]

At the heart of the Rising was an alliance between the forces of revolutionary nationalism, and those of revolutionary Marxism. The common command of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army was a practical expression of common aims, to use “England’s difficulty” to achieve Independence and the Republic.

The social basis of the Volunteers was the more varied including intellectuals, professionals, farmers, rural labourers, and urban workers. They were united by their interest in the free development of Ireland, and their preparedness to risk all for that. The social basis of the Irish Citizen Army lay in the extraordinary working class struggles in urban Ireland, particularly Dublin 1913. Led by Connolly, Larkin and Markievicz, a fusion had been made between a section of Irish workers and Marxist politics which opposed Ireland’s national oppression and the exploitation of its working class. According to Connolly, the Irish working class had become “… the incorruptible inheritors of Irish freedom”.

Although the Irish Volunteers were around 11,000 strong, only about 1,150 took part in the rising. The more passive section of the leadership under Eoin MacNeill countermanded the mobilisation orders, cutting off vital support for the Rising. The Irish Citizen Army was even smaller, only 152 members took part in the Rising. There were around 90 women on the barricades.

Yet the Rising was maintained against the British Army for six days, from Easter Monday, 24th April 1916. This is a tribute not just to the military skills and bravery of the insurgents. The morale of fighters is crucial in war. By the manner in which they carried the battle, organised the surrender, and held themselves through the subsequent executions, it is obvious that this was an army whose morale was of the highest order.

The source of this can be seen in the political aims of the Proclamation of the Republic. The document bears the imprint of both the long tradition of revolutionary nationalism, and the more recent tradition of socialism in Ireland.

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”. This statement of the sovereignty of Ireland’s people over the land, from sod to sky, is in sharp counter-position to the efforts being made by the Tories, Liberals, and Unionists to split the nation by allowing part of Ulster to be separated from any devolved parliament. A position being unwisely tolerated by the Redmonites on the assumption of post war concessions from British imperialism.

“… and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.” The combatants’ inspiration also lay in the generations of past fighters, and in anticipation of a nation reborn in their struggle.

“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The contribution of the socialist and feminist element of recent Irish history is forcibly expressed. It is a command to Irish women as much as Irish men. It guarantees their equality in its foundation and functioning. The remarkable statements of religious and civic equality are in contrast to the institutionalised discrimination imposed by the occupying power, and sustained by reactionary forces that benefitted from such discrimination. Without a trace of bitterness or recrimination, the Republic will embrace the whole of the island’s people, “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.
The Proclamation does “place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God”, but the content, and élan, of the document removes any doubt that whatever the citizen’s faith or conviction their rights are assured.

The Proclamation demonstrates that the Rising was extremely advanced in political conception. The revolutionary nationalist/Marxist bloc created a more coherent aim than comparable contemporary risings against imperialism. In Iran from 1905-1911, and in China in 1911, we see extraordinary actions by revolutionary nationalist forces which seriously shook imperialism. But in neither case did the working class participate in an autonomous manner.

So the Easter Rising was the first example of a new type of revolution in oppressed nations – an alliance between the advanced nationalist forces and socialist forces, or in class terms between the petty bourgeois masses and the working class. This was an anticipation not just of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but also most of the major revolutions since then.

Despite its defeat, it is evident that the Rising renewed the determination of the Irish people to secure their freedom. The first opportunity that the masses of Irish people had to express this determination was in the General Election of December 1918. Sinn Féin secured 73 of the 105 Parliamentary seats in Ireland. In January 1920, the municipal elections were equally convincing. Sinn Féin won 550 seats; the pro-independence Irish Labour Party won 395, the Unionists 238 and the Redmondite Nationalists 108.

The wisdom of the Rising leaders was clear to all once the British government refused to respect the wishes of the Irish electorate. It refused to recognise Dáil Éireann convened as the Irish parliament in January 1919. It commenced armed repression and prepared legislation for the partition of Ireland, hoping to retain overall control.

The rejection of Ireland’s decision led to the revolutionary war of independence. The Irish people stood up for their freedom, and fought the occupying power to a standstill.

The establishment of a new Irish state, mutilated by partition, represented the end point of this period of struggle. Having experienced uninterrupted warfare from 1914 – 1922 it is likely that exhaustion played a part in the victory of the pro-Treaty forces.

The war of independence drew in all the forces of Ireland, bourgeois, petty bourgeois and working class. But the working class had been divided by loyalist sectarian campaigns and intimidation in the North. It had also lost its finest leaders in the executions after the Rising. The Irish Labour Party did not have a comparable leadership, and had stood down in the Parliamentary elections to allow Sinn Féin a clear run on behalf of all the revolutionary nationalist forces.

Connolly’s execution is particularly significant. Of all the Marxists to have operated in the British state since the time of Marx and Engels, Connolly remains the most influential and profound. Perhaps only John MacLean and Sylvia Pankhurst can be spoken of in comparable terms. But neither of these achieved the national and international standing of the key political and military leader of the Easter Rising.

However one understands the Treaty, its opponents did not know how to restore a social alliance which could continue the struggle for complete Irish freedom. Partition of Ireland unleashed, as Connolly predicted, “a carnival of reaction” in the new Irish state, and in the British state in six county Ulster.

In the South, the concentration on nation building was given a more religious expression than in the Proclamation, with the Catholic Church being given undue weight. Neither the Pro-Treaty forces, nor De Valera’s “anti-Treaty” party differed greatly on this. The promotion of the Irish economy was important, but badly hampered by being cut off from the industrial centres in the North of the country. Equally the establishment of formal independence was marred by partition. Neither the pro or anti-Treaty parties in the Dáil showed any initiative in securing the reunification of Ireland.
In the North, the Parliament at Stormont was based on the political monopoly of Unionism. At a meeting of the Sinn Féin delegation and guests after the re-opening of Stormont under the Good Friday Agreement, Martin McGuinness told those present that the only piece of Nationalist originated legislation passed by Stormont between 1922 and its dissolution in 1972 was the Protection of Wild Birds Act. Such monopoly power was aligned to a complete ascendency in social terms on issues of employment, housing, welfare services, education and the general allocation of public resources.
The settlement after 1922 clearly did not meet the “sovereign and indefeasible” rights of the Irish people. It had been imposed upon the Irish nation under Lloyd George’s threat of “immediate and terrible war”. After the Dáil had carried the Treaty, the subsequent General Election was held to the Free State legislature. Even then, Winston Churchill, combining belligerence with racism, warned that if a republican majority was returned “the resources of civilisation are by no means exhausted”.
The pro-Treaty forces were composed of those, like Arthur Griffiths, who were prepared to accept remaining part of the British Empire, and those like Michael Collins, who regarded the Treaty as a staging point to a later independence and unification of the country. This “tactical” unity to secure the Treaty demonstrates that in reality there was a majority in favour of completing the journey to Irish freedom begun in 1916. Collins and allies could have demonstrated this, had they established a “tactical” agreement with the anti-Treaty forces.

In her book, “Unmanageable Revolutionaries”, Margaret Ward makes a strong argument that a majority of Irish women were against the Treaty. The six women deputies to the Dáil were unanimous in their opposition, led by Markievicz and Mary MacSwiney. Cumann na mBan, the women’s organisation auxiliary to the Irish Republican Army, voted against the Treaty by a large majority. Mary MacSwiney told the Dáil:

“You men that talk need not talk to us about war. It is the women who suffer, it is the women who suffer the most of the hardships that war brings. You can go out in the excitement of the fight and it brings its own honour and its own glory. We have to sit at home and work in more humble ways, we have to endure the agony, the sunshines, the torture of misery and the privations which war brings, the horror of nightly visitations to our houses and their consequences. It is easier for you than it is for us, but you will not find in Ireland a woman who has suffered who today will talk as the soldiers here today have of talked, and I ask the Minister of Defence, if that is the type of soldier he has, in heaven’s name send the women as your officers next time.”[7]

The significance of the Easter Rising is then also that it reminds us that the national revolution is still incomplete in Ireland today. The “national question” is an essential part of Irish contemporary politics, and will remain so until Ireland is unified and free from the ability of the British government to direct the lives of part of the island’s inhabitants. 1916 is a signpost to Ireland’s future, as much as it’s’ past.

Certainly the left in Britain did not understand this at the time, and nor does much of it now. Geoffrey Bell’s excellent new book, “Hesitant Comrades” gives a full account of British left responses to 1916. He highlights J.H.Thomas, Labour MP and General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, who:

“… wrote in May 1916 of the ‘sorrow and amazement’ with which Labour’s leaders reacted to the Rising. He also maintained, ‘There was no Labour leader in this country who did not deplore the recent rebellion in Ireland’.”[8]

Bell goes on to cite George Lansbury, and Bruce Glasier for the Independent Labour Party who condemned it from a pacifist perspective. Further to the left, the British Socialist Party paper recognised that it was an “… effort of the Irish people to throw off the alien yoke”, but that it was “foolish”. Sylvia Pankhurst’s “Women’s Dreadnought” was the most sympathetic, whilst still characterising the Rising as “reckless” but “… undoubtedly motivated by high ideals”.

The Rising, as a new type of revolution, was a test for all the socialist trends in Britain. Those most compromised in their relations with British imperialism were most hostile to the Rising. Those who were most supportive of Ireland’s struggle for freedom had to come to terms with their limited experience of anti-colonial struggles, and learn from the Irish revolutionaries.

According to Lenin:

“The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America … which called for Irish independence; it also manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a “putsch” is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon”.[11]

“Doctrinaire” responses to Ireland existed aplenty. At its most informed end it premised opposition to the Rising on Marx’s analysis of the role of the land question:

In Ireland, the land question has, so far, been the exclusive form of the social question; it is a question of existence, a question of life or death for the immense majority of the Irish people; at the same time, it is inseparable from the national question; because of this, destruction of the English landed aristocracy is an infinitely easier question in Ireland than in England itself – quite apart from the more passionate and more revolutionary character of the Irish than the English”.[12]

With that small “so far” Marx demonstrates his non-doctrinaire method, allowing for the possibility of change, even in such an apparently absolutely established phenomenon as the domination of the land question in Irish politics. But if the land question was solved, this was merely one form of the “social question”. The destruction of the link between the land question and the national question certainly was not the latter’s resolution.

In 1916, Ireland’s economy still fulfilled the role of farm to Britain, with an important workshop in the North. It was entirely governed from London. Its indigenous culture had been repressed and neglected for centuries. Many of its people had been forced to emigrate by poverty – Ireland had a smaller population than at the time of the 1841 census, before the great starvation of 1845 – 48.
A contemporary and concrete analysis was essential if Marxism was to mean anything in analysing 1916 and Ireland in general. Classical Marxism had provided a legacy on the significance of Irish freedom for the British working class. Marx continued:

“ … England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English PROLETARIANS and Irish PROLETARIANS. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his STANDARD OF LIFE. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. ... The Irishman PAYS HIM BACK WITH INTEREST IN HIS OWN MONEY. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

… It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a QUESTION OF ABSTRACT JUSTICE OR HUMANITARIAN SENTIMENT but THE FIRST CONDITION OF THEIR OWN SOCIAL EMANCIPATION.[13]

The division within the working class in Britain certainly coloured the politics of the socialist movement. The refusal, or failure, to confront prejudice amongst workers was overlaid with anti-Catholic prejudice amongst the socialists – viewing Irish society as “less developed” (i.e. reactionary and backward). Equally, British imperialism was at the apogee of its strength at the start of the 20th century. Its ideological hegemony in Britain being expressed by the fact that the most influential party created from the workers movement was a “Labour” party, rather than a “Socialist” party as was the case in the rest of Europe.

Marx’s assertion that the “national emancipation” (not even “socialist”!) of Ireland was the “first condition” of the British working class’s emancipation must then have seemed utterly incomprehensible to most British socialists. From the vantage point of 2016, it is clear that the failure of the British working class to support Irish freedom, and the freedom of those throughout the world oppressed by British imperialism, blocked any major socialist movement in Britain during the 20th Century.

In form, at least, the international socialist movement, prior to the catastrophe of 1914, had an appreciation of the significance of the struggle against national oppression as part of the long struggle for socialism. Referring to the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International in 1907, Connolly wrote:

“At Stuttgart, Comrade Bebel declared that one consequence of the growth of Socialism would be a renascence of national culture and sympathies in countries now politically suppressed, and he welcomed such a renascence on the ground that the civilisation of the future would be all the richer from the presence of so many distinctive forms of intellectual growth arising from different racial and national developments.

Such, in brief, is the real position of International Socialism towards subject nations. It is a concept based on the belief that civilisation needs free nations just as the nations need free individual citizens, that the internationalism of the future will be based upon the free federation of free peoples, and cannot be realised through the subjugation of the smaller by the larger political unit.”[14]

All the following figures are taken from Michael Burke’s valuable pamphlet “The Economic Case for Irish Unity”. In 1921, GDP per capita in what is now the Republic of Ireland was 45% of what is now Northern Ireland. The latter had a figure broadly comparable to the UK average as a whole. The disparity between South and North was a result of the concentration of industry around Belfast. In 2012, GDP per capita in the Republic of Ireland had become higher than that of the UK, whilst that of Northern Ireland had declined to 80% of the UK average.

However these figures may be qualified, it is evident that even a partial and mutilated independence has allowed the Republic of Ireland to grow faster than Britain. Equally, the initial “protection” that imperialism provided for the six county state, and especially for the loyalist community, has long since disappeared with the decline of British imperialism’s world power.

Political inertia, in the form of continued opposition to Irish reunification, has held back the development of the Irish nation, on both sides of the border. How artificial this is was demonstrated by Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, in her speech on “Anglo-Irish Relations” to British parliamentarians on 24th February 2016. She explained that in 1997, prior to the Peace Process, the land border with the least cross border trade in the EU was between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The Peace Process has modestly begun to repair this since 1998. But only the reunification of Ireland, under independent and single governance, can provide the rising living standards that all on the island of Ireland need. The Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Report on the All-Ireland Economy was published in January 2016. It found that unification would create:

“ … a long term improvement of GDP per capita in the North of 4 to 7.5 per cent, while the South would see a boost of 0.7 to 1.2 per cent. … Three unification scenarios were presented, with the most successful estimating a €35.6 bn boost to All-Island GDP in the first eight years of unification.”[15]

This 35.6 billion Euros equates to approximately 6000 Euros for every person in Ireland. Resolving the national question in its simple political form has tremendous potential for Irish economic progress. As the economic relations are the foundation of society, we can assume a wide variety of cultural and social benefits for a united Ireland arising therefrom.

In 2016 then Ireland’s reunification and independence remains the key issue for contemporary politics. Marxists and socialists need to support those campaigning for such a goal. Today, it is Sinn Féin that is the only credible party working on both sides of the border displaying the determination and imagination necessary to achieve this. It aims to play a pivotal role in the struggle for the New Republic. Its whole programme is for a 32 county Socialist Republic, independent and outside of NATO.

It has a considerable political weight in both states, with 4 MEPS, 4 MPs, 23 TDs, 28 MLAs, plus numerous councillors in both states. Amongst its leaders and activists are people who have engaged in almost every known form of struggle and tactic in pursuit of Irish freedom.
How does it understand the relationship between the national and social questions? Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin, wrote:

“You cannot be a socialist and not be a republican. Socialists will want an independent republic because it is a good thing in itself as an advance from today’s situation and because it is an essential step towards socialism. This will only be achieved, however, if the struggle is led by the most radical social groups and in particular by the working class – without whom it cannot succeed in developing the conditions for the establishment of a democratic and socialist state.

Such a struggle for national independence needs to encompass all the social elements in the nation which are oppressed or held back by imperialism. Independence struggles which are led by the conservative or middle classes, as in Ireland in 1921, tend to compromise with imperialism because their leading sections benefit from such a compromise. That is why those on the left in Ireland who regard themselves as socialists and as representing the working class should be the most uncompromising republicans.”[16]

Understanding the relationship between national freedom and the socialist struggle remains central. Socialists who believe that the national question is a diversion from socialism, or that the national question has been resolved in Ireland, should consider the example of the Official IRA and the Workers Party. This was a movement which successively abandoned national goals in order to effectively promote socialist ones, including through becoming a “Leninist Party”. It was led by people of great conviction, with many devoted and selfless militants. But in reality it was becoming assimilated into the structures of the Orange state and Irish Republic – counter-posing these to the national struggle. Its collapse, and absorption into the Labour Party in the republic, should give pause to any socialist who believes they have “gone beyond” nationalism. Brian Hanley and Scott Millar’s comprehensive study “The Lost Revolution” provides a very readable history of this collapse. Ireland’s national reunification has to be resolved in practice, not in theory, nor just in the minds of activists.

There are many socialists in Ireland who remain wary of Sinn Féin. To them a revolutionary nationalist organisation does not seem an adequate vehicle for socialists. Whilst avoiding the collapse of the Officials, these other trends have yet to demonstrate that they can build an all-Ireland party. The danger they face is becoming partitionist socialists, without tactics or perspectives for reunifying Ireland.

The recent electoral progress of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA/PBP) poses as many questions as answers. What guarantee is there that this bloc will not fall apart in a similar manner to its predecessor in the Dáil? If it starts to address the national question will its different tendencies split?

In this centenary year there are exciting developments in Irish politics. In the North the Orange bloc has been successively fragmented, the Ascendency destroyed forever in the struggles since the 1960’s. In the South the most recent General election saw the bourgeois parties reduced to a minority of the electorate for the first time ever. Socialists in Britain must continue to demand that the British government delivers on its commitment under the Peace Process, and promote the reunification on Ireland.

Inside Ireland regroupment and change appear to be the order of the day. Socialists inside and outside of Sinn Féin need to achieve effective and active co-operation in pursuit of the national goals, and against austerity. If the movement is able to take its inspiration from the women and men of 1916 then Ireland’s future progress will be secured.

[1] “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed up” CW Vol 22, page 358 (Emphasis as in the original)
[2] Ibid, page 357
[3] Marx “The General Council to the Federal Council of Romance Switzerland” CW Vol 21 pages 87-89 (Emphasis as in the original)
[4] Engels to Bernstein 26 June 1882 CW Vol 46 Page 287
[5] Connolly “What is our Programme?” January 22 1916, CW Vol 2 page 139 (Emphasis as in the original)
[7] Ward “Unmanageable Revolutionaries”, page 167
[8] Bell “Hesitant Comrades”, page 11
[11] Lenin “The Discussion on Self Determination summed up”, CW Vol 22, page 355 (Emphasis as in the original)
[12] Marx to Sigfrid Mayer and August Vogt 9 April 1870 CW Vol 43 page 474 (Emphasis as in the original)
[13] Marx ibid CW Vol 43 pages 474-5 (Emphasis as in the original)
[14] Connolly “Ireland, Karl Marx and William Walker” in “The Connolly-Walker Controversy” page 12
[15] Page 48
[16] Adams “The Politics of Irish Freedom” page 132

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