The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Irish Republican Movement, from Populist Radicalism to Bourgeois Respectability

Nov 2, 1994

If everything goes according to plan, the leadership of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, should begin official exploratory talks with the British and Irish governments before the end of this year.

What the exact agenda for these talks and the subsequent negotiations will be, remains to be seen. However the aims of the British and Irish states in this process have already been spelled out. They want to "normalize" the situation in Northern Ireland, that is, to end the chronic political instability and the growing economic cost to the British bourgeoisie. In fact, this has nothing to do with improving the situation for the working class of Northern Ireland, rather the opposite.

Belfast’s working class ghettos may already be destitute by British standards, although they are probably still marginally better off than many of Dublin’s council estates [housing for the poor and the working class]. Yet so far, the unraveling of the social fabric of Northern Ireland has remained partly concealed by the huge subsidies forked out by the British state. The 7 billion pounds budgeted for Northern Ireland in the current year—or 4,700 pounds per head—covers some, but not all of Britain’s military expenditures. It also covers the cost of running a comparably large state administrative machinery as well as all sorts of institutions set up by the state on which a large section of the middle classes thrive. But a large part of it is used to maintain a higher level of social expenditures compared to Britain, including housing, the Health Service, social benefits, etc.

When the phasing out of these subsidies begins, social expenditure and welfare provisions will be the first to be chopped. Tens of thousands of jobs which depended on British money will be threatened, in all areas of the public sector and in the so-called "security industry," mainly building contractors and security firms, with no prospect for other employment anywhere else. The main casualty will be the standard of living of the Northern Irish working class, with poverty likely to reach unprecedented levels rather than recede.

Nor will the aspirations of working people to shake off the bigoted grip of the Northern Irish bourgeoisie, both Protestant and Catholic, be satisfied. The representatives of this bourgeoisie, the politicians of the Labor Party and unionist parties, are already in place to be the leading figures in any future settlement. The fact that this settlement involves taking Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and changing its status will not alter the dominant position of the Northern rich. But it will give them a tighter control over society in the North, in a better situation to run it.

Not so long ago, the Republicans’ official credo was that there was a "war" going on in Northern Ireland. All other issues—social demands in particular—had to be subordinated to this "war" and to the aim of booting out the enemy. Today, less than two months after the IRA ceasefire, the Republican leaders are invited to join the negotiation process, not as victorious generals but as potential policemen, due to their presumed ability to control the Catholic ghettos. And not only are the Republican leaders willing to play this role, but they have been actively "promoting" themselves as the only ones who can play it.

Yesterday’s promoters of the "armed struggle" are therefore slipping into the pin-striped suits of tomorrow’s respectable politicians. At face value, this may seem a sharp turn in Republican policy, a dramatic break from the movement’s past. But is it? In fact, the social content of Republicanism has made its radicalism increasingly superficial over the years. Today, at long last, its radical skin has peeled off and underneath are the unsavory middle-class aspirations which were always the real core of Republicanism, from its very inception.

The Republican Movement’s Revolutionary Youth

The origins of the Republican movement go back a long way, to the launching of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) by Irish emigrants in the middle of the 1848 revolutionary wave in Paris.

The original founders of the IRB had been socialist-minded. But after moving to the United States, the movement took on a different emphasis, championing the interests of small Irish farmers against the large landowners. The organization’s name was changed to the Irish Republican Brotherhood—or Fenians as they were often called, from the name of 11th century Irish warriors. What remained of the ideas of its founders was the need to resort to revolutionary means against British domination.

Ironically, in view of the sectarian Catholic nationalism of the Republican movement over the past decades, the IRB had solid roots among Irish Protestants. It based itself on the tradition of Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen, a movement which had developed in the last decade of the 18th century mostly among Ulster’s urban Protestant middle-class. A strong admirer of the French revolution, Tone had raised the flag of bourgeois revolution and independence. He had proposed to "unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter." The United Irishmen had eventually called an uprising in 1798, but they had been mercilessly crushed by British troops.

By the late 1850s, the IRB took root in Ireland itself, winning within a few years a significant following there—and even some sympathy among British workers. In Marx’s owns words, written in 1867, "Fenianism is characterized by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement." The movement’s radicalism stemmed from this. But it was a radicalism similar to Blanqui’s in France or Garibaldi’s in Italy, for which a revolution was a well-organized conspiracy by a disciplined minority elite recruited mostly among the urban middle-class and fighting in the name of, and on behalf of the poor Irish tenant farmers—a radicalism tainted with disregard for the masses. Engels, who like Marx, was a vocal supporter of the Fenians against repression from the British state, pointed out bluntly in a letter to his friend: "The beastliness of the British must not make us forget that the leaders of this sect are mostly asses and partly exploiters and we cannot in any way make ourselves responsible for the stupidities which occur in every conspiracy. And they are certain to happen."

The IRB did wage a courageous struggle in the Irish countryside against the landlords and the tenancy system. But, in the end, they proved Engels right. In December 1867, a bomb attack against the Clerkenwell prison in London left four dead and 120 injured from neighboring houses, something which Marx described as "a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honor of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy."

The IRB and the Easter Rising

The turn of the 19th century saw a growing wave of politicization. It was centered around the issue of Home Rule, in other words, the restoration of the Irish Parliament disbanded by the 1801 Anglo-Irish Union. Since 1885, an overwhelming majority among the 103 MPs representing Ireland in the British Parliament were supporters of Home Rule. On the other hand, opposition to Home Rule had cemented a political block, known as Unionist, around the Protestant industrial bourgeoisie of the north-eastern province of Ulster. These Protestant industrialists, who feared being cut off from their main British market if Home Rule was introduced, encouraged and financed a deliberate scare campaign along religious lines.

Among the Home Rule supporters, the main grouping, led by Redmond, argued for patience and lawful action within the rules laid down by Westminster. But the repeated ducking of the issue by the British government inflamed impatience and anger, including among sections of the Irish bourgeoisie. This was expressed in 1905 by the setting up of Sinn Fein ("Ourselves Alone" in Gaelic) which, although a conservative party favoring a constitutional monarchy for Ireland, advocated a boycott of the British parliament and the setting up of an illegal Irish parliament in Dublin.

Radicalization was rife throughout Ireland. In the rapidly growing ranks of the working class, new organizations were emerging. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was a fast growing industrial union, which under Jim Larkin and James Connolly, led numerous large-scale strikes from the Belfast dockers’ strike in 1907 to the fight against the Dublin lock-out in 1913. Connolly’s Irish Citizens’ Army "the first Red army in Europe," in Lenin’s words, was a workers’ militia set up to defend unions during the Dublin lock-out. And, of course, the IRB was re-emerging, attracting to its ranks thousands of young Irishmen who wanted to fight.

By 1912, the situation was verging on civil war. The most reactionary wing of the Northern Unionists was arming a 100,000-strong Ulster Volunteer Force to resist any attempt to introduce Home Rule. The IRB was setting up the Irish Volunteers in response. The radicalization was such that all the existing currents soon joined the Irish Volunteers, including Redmond, the arch-constitutionalist politician.

With the start of World War I, however, came a decisive split. Leading a majority of the Irish Volunteers, Redmond pledged the support of Ireland to Britain’s war effort and his followers went to die in the battlefields of Europe. Among the minority opposing the war was Sinn Fein, which saw this as consistent with its boycott of all British institutions and the IRB which considered the war as a unique opportunity to sever all ties with Britain. As to the socialists around James Connolly and his small Irish Citizens’ Army, they considered, as Connolly explained, that the Irish working class could "set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled in the funeral pyre of the last warlord."

For Connolly, insurrection was on the agenda. His view reflected the mood among the organized radicals and politicized workers in Dublin. Sinn Fein pulled back, predictably. But the IRB leadership followed Connolly down this path, although a number of leading Republicans saw this mainly as a tactic aimed at keeping Connolly and his supporters under control. For about a year, the armed militias organized drills and recruited for the uprising, almost openly. When the crunch came, however, on Easter Sunday 1916, the IRB’s chief of staff, McNeill, issued a last minute cancellation order to the units under his command outside Dublin. All in all, only 1600 Volunteers responded to the call and despite courageous resistance, the fighting was over within a week. Thousands were killed or imprisoned during the bloody week and its aftermath and almost the entire leadership of the uprising was executed. The revolutionary phraseology of the IRB had shown its limitations but there was more of the same to come.

The Partition of Ireland and the Split in the Republican Movement

The mobilization which the Easter rising had failed to produce, was eventually triggered by the systematic and often blind repression launched throughout Ireland by the British.

This was reflected in the first election following the armistice, in 1918, when of the three parties standing, the Unionists got 26 seats, Redmond a mere 6, while Sinn Fein won 73 seats on a platform pledging to boycott Westminster and to set up an Irish parliament in Dublin. In fact, by that time, the old Sinn Fein leadership had been pushed aside and replaced by younger activists coming from the IRB ranks, like Eamon De Valera, the only commanding officer to survive the Easter rising thanks to his American passport. Having been banned by Britain for its opposition to the war and then accused of having masterminded the Easter rising, Sinn Fein had become the home of most Republican factions and won the credit owed to Connolly and his comrades.

On January 21, 1919, Sinn Fein’s MPs met at Mansion House in Dublin. They proclaimed a new Irish parliament under De Valera’s leadership, the independence of Ireland and a state of war between Ireland and Britain. The Irish Volunteers became the army of the new regime under the name of the Irish Republican Army the IRA was born and the war of independence had started.

Significantly, while the new regime was throwing the weight of its armed wing into a guerilla war against the British-controlled Irish Constabulary, no steps were taken to reinforce Belfast workers who were fighting a bitter strike against the Unionist bosses in the engineering, power production and textile industries. The break-up of the strike by the British army and the subsequent mass firings and mob lynching of former strikers, dressed up as anti-Catholic pogroms, attracted no interest whatsoever from the Dublin Sinn Feiners nor from the IRA leadership. Never mind the fact that effective help by the Republicans to the mostly Protestant strikers could have driven a wedge between them and the Unionist bigots. Most of Sinn Fein’s leaders had no sympathy for striking workers anyway and they were already more than worried by the wave of local general strikes that were developing from Limerick to Cork, Waterford, Munster, the coal mines in county Leitrim, etc., and by the many reports of land seizures by poor farmers up and down the country.

Meanwhile negotiations with the British government were taking place behind the scene. What was being discussed was the partition of Ireland. This was by no means a new idea. In 1916, Redmond’s party had already agreed to the possibility of Home Rule being granted to Ireland except the six counties of Ulster with a Protestant majority. Ironically, by signing the partition Treaty in December 1921, Sinn Fein’s leaders were agreeing to the very same concessions which they had so vocally opposed when this had been suggested by Redmond in 1916. And although the new "Free State" was formally independent, it remained a British dominion with the Royal Navy retaining total access to its deep sea ports.

The middle-class Republican leadership had therefore traded the dismembering of Ireland—allowing several hundred thousand to be taken hostage by Britain in Ulster and left in the hands of the pogromists—for recognition of the Dublin regime and of the aspiring Irish bourgeoisie, whose interests it represented.

This sell-out split the Republican movement from top to bottom. While it was narrowly accepted in the Dublin parliament, a majority of the IRA units were opposed to it. Even De Valera joined the anti-Treaty faction of Sinn Fein reckoning it would be the winning side. Within six months, the Dublin government took to the offensive. The split in the IRA became open, with 50,000 Volunteers joining the anti-Treaty side retaining the name IRA against the 12,000 making up the Free State’s regular army, heavily armed with British weapons. The civil war began.

From his prison cell in America, Jim Larkin, the founder of the ITGWU, was urging the IRA leadership to concentrate on winning over support from the poor masses by turning to a fight for a "Workers’ republic." Instead, when the government’s army moved in to suppress the strikes in Limerick and Cork, the IRA leadership looked the other way. Increasingly isolated and weakened by heavy repression, the IRA lost more and more ground. Finally, in April 1923, De Valera decided he had chosen the wrong horse. Putting himself forward as a peace-broker, he issued a call for a ceasefire, arguing that "Military victory must be granted to those who have destroyed the Republic. We must find other means to safeguard our national rights."

The civil war had claimed over 4,000 dead, with 11,000 Volunteers in jail. Connolly’s ironical prophesy, written back in 1899, had come true: "After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won’t touch socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you don’t pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic. Now, isn’t that worth fighting for?"

Four Decades of Isolation

At the end of the civil war, what had been the Republican movement was split in two. The pro-Treaty wing of Sinn Fein in government had formed a new party, incorporating a large section of Redmond’s former supporters. It was openly the party of the Irish bourgeoisie seeking to do business with Britain, and it had rid itself of all references to its Republican past.

On the anti-Treaty side, the IRA was disorganized but still by far the largest organization in the country. On the other hand, Sinn Fein’s refusal to sit in the Dublin parliament, in addition to being on the losing side of the civil war, weakened its support very quickly. This led De Valera to split and to set up a new party breaking from Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy. In 1926, Fianna Fail ("soldiers of destiny") was set up, taking with it a significant section of the IRA as well.

De Valera’s tactic came to fruition in 1932 when, thanks to the discontent generated by the impact of the world crisis, he secured a majority in the general election. Still riding his prestige as a hero of the Easter rising, De Valera was able to force considerable sacrifices on the population while introducing a sort of poor man’s New Deal. At the same time, he maintained his popularity by means of a number of more or less token nationalist gestures. But all the while, his regime was consolidating the reactionary fabric of the Irish state, particularly with the 1937 constitution, largely inspired by that of the Portuguese dictatorship. The IRA was banned and De Valera wrote into the constitution the "special position of the Catholic church in the state," giving it total control over education and many social and welfare matters. The Catholic Church became the main pillar of the regime.

In the meantime, deprived of its nationalist monopoly by De Valera, the IRA went from one split to another. Activists left to join the Labour Party and various broad socialist groupings. The imminent outbreak of World War II, however, was seen by the IRA leadership as a new opportunity to restart military operations. Emissaries were sent to Germany for supplies of weapons and, in January 1939, the IRA declared war on Britain. Within a few days, seven bomb attacks took place in British towns, the beginning of a seven-month bombing campaign in Britain. In Ireland, De Valera responded by declaring a state of emergency. Four hundred IRA activists were sent to a concentration camp in Curragh. Once again the IRA was defeated, leading to another major split-off—Clann na Poblachta (the republic’s clan), a party posing as a left competitor to Fianna Fail, without much success.

In 1946, the Republican movement reconstituted itself, taking its present form, with Sinn Fein as its public political face and the IRA as its military wing. From the early 50s, it began re-arming itself with raids against British barracks in Northern Ireland and in Britain. The political model which the IRA of that time looked toward was that of the Jewish Irgun and its terrorist fight against Britain in Palestine.

Eventually, in December 1956, a new military campaign was launched in the border region between the North and the South, with small armed columns breaking briefly into the North and returning to their base in the South after the first shooting incident. Token as they were, these gestures won significant, although mostly passive support among the Northern Catholics. But once again, the IRA exposed itself to wholesale repression without having the support needed to oppose it. In the South, the new Fianna Fail government reopened the Curragh concentration camp while in the North, the well-organized military apparatus of the British was able to reduce the 400 or so IRA activists to near paralysis. By 1962, the border campaign was called off after yet another failure.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Emergence of the "Provos"

As always, the IRA’s military setback triggered renewed questioning of the organization’s military orientation. An additional element in this was the growing influence in the IRA of some leading members who had joined the Republican movement coming from a Communist Party background. Again the question of political intervention on the Republic’s parliamentary scene was raised, as was the need to intervene in the unions and more generally in the struggles of the working class.

In the middle of these discussions, on March 24, 1968, the first big civil rights march was organized over discrimination against Catholics in housing allocation. By October, the movement spread to Derry, now adding the "one man, one vote" slogan to its banner, against gerrymandering by Unionist politicians. This led to fierce confrontations between the demonstrators and the police and set the North ablaze. There were demonstrations everywhere, while the loyalist paramilitary groups sprang to activity, attacking demonstrators and Catholic districts. The fighting mood was rising in the Republic too, with a wave of unofficial strikes and large demonstrations in support of the northern protesters. The mere size of the movement in the North, its open defiance against the ban on all demonstrations and its determination to hold its ground by fighting the police, threatened the fragile government of Northern Ireland.

In August 1969 the British Labour government responded by sending troops in. This only poured more oil onto the flames. The movement continued well into the early 70s. In August 1971, internment was introduced. Following the outraged reaction to the death of 13 unarmed demonstrators, shot by British soldiers in Derry on January 30, 1972, Britain was forced to end the status quo and to resume direct rule over the North.

Apart from its size, an important aspect of this movement was that it involved and politicized thousands of youth, not just students from both communities as in its early days, but mainly youth from the urban working class Catholic ghettos. Thousands were taking part in the numerous clubs, committees and organizations which sprang up all over the province. These were not just talking shops; in some areas of Derry and Belfast, these bodies organized the actual running and defence of their neighborhood.

Another remarkable feature of the movement was that although it was soon directly involved in a confrontation with the British state and raised the demand of Britain’s departure from Ireland, the Republicans played no part as such in starting it and very little part in its development. The IRA seem to have been taken unawares by the civil rights movement. While their members were often involved as individuals in the initial stages of the movement, the IRA as an organization had no visible intervention, let alone one addressing the aspirations of the protestors, at least not until late 1969. When they eventually stepped in, it was not to strengthen the movement but to use it as a springboard to increase the profile of their apparatus which was small in the Northern towns and to build it up.

It is significant that when, in late 1969, arguments broke out in the IRA leadership over its intervention in the civil rights movement, they were not about how to build the mass mobilization and to find objectives that would help it to turn its explosive potential into a coherent and conscious collective force. No, the arguments were about the failure of the IRA to defend militarily the Catholic ghettos against the Protestant paramilitaries. What probably upset most of those who raised this criticism was the fact that in some critical areas, particularly in Derry and West Belfast, local people had organized their own defense quite effectively. And when they approached IRA members for help, it was usually not to ask for their guidance, let alone their protection, but to demand guns from them.

It was, however, along different lines that a split occurred eventually at the IRA convention in December 1969. When two motions presented by the leadership were adopted, one for dropping the traditional abstentionist policy and the other proposing the setting up of a joint structure with the various communist organizations, the minority walked out of the convention.

The minority, the future "Provisional IRA", was based around the leadership of the Belfast brigade (which included Gerry Adams) and a few leading figures in the South. What brought its members together was certainly a determination to maintain the military tradition of the IRA but even more, their anti-communism. For instance, Sean McStiofain, the most senior figure in the splitting group explained in his memoirs: "We were opposed to the extreme socialism of the revisionists, because we were convinced that their aim was to set up a Marxist dictatorship which is not more acceptable than British imperialism or the capitalism of the Free State." As to the leaders of the Belfast brigade, they had issued an ultimatum to the IRA leadership in September which, among other things, demanded that "the political socialist programme of the IRA should be abandoned."

The majority, who were to be called the "Official IRA", had an outlook which was more or less that of nationalism, with a mixture of Stalinism and reformism. This included mostly the Southern organization of the IRA, which was probably not much better in most respects than the minority, as was shown by the way in which both sides settled differences in the next few months—at gun point. But at least the Officials’ conception of Republicanism included a reference to the role of the masses, particularly of the working class, a role which was totally dismissed by the Provisionals.

Significantly therefore, those who were branded as the most radical wing of the old IRA because of their use of military means, were in fact also its most reactionary elements, which says a great deal about the limits of their "radicalism". Significantly too, seventeen years after the split, at Sinn Fein’s 1986 convention, Gerry Adams, then Sinn Fein’s president, was to force out some of his former associates from 1969, by getting the convention to drop its abstentionist policy. For Gerry Adams and most of the Provos, abstentionism was not the matter of principle they made it out to be, let alone the expression of any "radicalism", but one of opportunity given the lack of influence of the Republicans at the time of the split.

Subsequently, the "officials" were to lay down their weapons and eventually form the Workers’ Party, a communist party lookalike, which has remained a relatively small reformist organization ever since, both in the South and in the North.

As for the Provisionals, they started displaying weapons in the North wherever a sectarian confrontation seemed likely. In most cases, their presence was more symbolic than effective. This left the Catholic ghettos open to tit-for-tat sectarian retaliation after their departure. But this was enough, in the political vacuum of the time, to impress upon many youth who wanted to fight back, the idea that the Republicans were the people to turn to.

No Genuine Radicalism without a Proletarian Outlook

The Provisionals came into being as staunch advocates of military action until Ireland is "free and united". Over the course of twenty-five years they have come to the point of laying down their arms and preparing for their own integration into the political system such as it is now, divided North and South, at best a tamed down version of partition.

Of course, they are able to do this only because of the control they have maintained, so far at least, over the Catholic ghettos in the North. The Provisionals owe this control to having developed as a parasitic extension of the mass movement of the late 60s. Because of the political vacuum, they were able to attract many of the best activists who were politicized by this movement. They won unquestionable support by appearing as the only force which was prepared to take on the British occupation of the North and the loyalist paramilitaries. But just as they were upset by the idea of Catholic youth organizing their own defence in the late 60s, the kind of support they have built is based on passivity, not on consciousness. The so-called "military discipline" they imposed on the Catholic ghettos, their resorting to actions such as the hunger strike campaign in the early 80s, their bombing campaigns in Ireland and Britain and more generally their deadly war games against the British army in the North, were meant to build that kind of passive support, and, in passing, to translate this support into votes.

Having achieved this, the Republicans can now use their "radical" image to bargain for recognition by the British bourgeoisie. But at the same time, they know that they will never be accepted into the fold of bourgeois society without giving full proof of their allegiance to capitalist interests. And they are ready for that, even if it means undermining their prestige. If Major is prepared to do business with the IRA today, it is precisely because he knows, after watching the Republicans for all these years, that they will never choose to endanger the system. The only thing Major still wants to see is just how far the Republicans are prepared to go to defend it.

The IRA may still today claim the inheritance of Connolly’s tradition. But Connolly’s radicalism went far beyond his role in leading the Easter rising. It was rooted in the belief that national oppression in Ireland would never be solved without getting rid of the social oppression of capital at the same time. In that, Connolly was never the nationalist hero

portrayed today by the Republicans. He had first and foremost chosen the camp of the proletariat and his outlook was international. Because of this choice and as a function of it, he was also fighting national oppression. His legacy has still to be put into practice in Ireland.