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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

II – Revolutionaries and “revolutionaries”

In the Irish revolution – as in all revolutions – there were those who, though part of it and even figuring prominently in its leadership, wished earnestly for a return to normality. The still recent memory of Parnell’s 1881 private negotiation of a compromise end to the Land War might have served as a warning in 1921 to the many in the independence movement who still believed that their revolutionary leadership was uniformly revolutionary – but it did not.

The national and the social struggles, long regarded as alternative and mutually exclusive pathways to national liberation, had merged from 1913 onwards, so that in the resurgence that followed the 1916 uprising a single organisation absorbed the diverse social elements that made up the revolutionary movement.

Unable to express themselves through a traditional national party, the revolutionaries annexed Arthur Griffith’s mainly cultural Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone) movement, moulding it to a new political purpose, with a new constitution and an expanded leadership.11 In the words of George Gilmore, one of the republican movement’s leading protagonists and keenest analyst, Sinn Fein became a base for “the mobilisation of all those advanced nationalist forces seeking an effective organisational form.”12

Within this “new” Sinn Fein the struggle between the rival leaderships of James Connolly, the labour leader, and Griffith, the spokesman of capitalism, continued. For a while, prisoners taken by the English following the 1916 Easter Rising and released in the course of 1917 “strengthened the elements within [Sinn Fein] that were hostile to Griffith and favoured a republican stand”13, but the final outcome of the leadership struggle in Griffith’s favour was undoubtedly assisted by the defection from the national struggle of Connolly’s labour successors after his execution.

The Citizen Army still provided a working-class militia in Dublin, but outside Dublin a very large number of republican workers, many of them trade union militants, were enrolled in the much more broadly-based Irish Volunteers. Within this movement, the same contrasting forces contended for leadership as within Sinn Fein, though they remained united for the moment by the demands of the independence struggle in which working class, middle class and even sections of the small capitalist class shared an immediate common objective.

Few in that period of crisis thought very much about which of these classes should or would dominate the new Ireland for which they had formed their present alliance – but those counter-revolutionaries who did, did so with consummate skill and much patience. By the time the truce put an end to hostilities, Griffith, a disciple of Parnell and an ardent monarchist, and his conservative allies, had taken “their places in the government of a republic in which they did not believe”.14

Among these allies was Eoin MacNeill – whose countermand orders in 1916 had doomed the Easter Rising, which he considered dominated by men of explicit revolutionary intent, to military failure.

When a Labour delegation spoke to Dail Eireann in January 1922 of the conditions of the poor and the unemployed, they were told that in the interests of national unity, “Labour must wait!” Labour leaders, after the execution of Connolly, were moderate men “with little stomach for direct action”15, and they decided to wait.

Confronted by an independence struggle conducted by an alliance of discordant social elements within which several classes were maneuvering for control, they shelved their political program and withdrew their social demands, just as they had done in the crucial general elections of November 1918, which saw an overwhelming Sinn Fein victory and the proclamation of Dail Eireann. They did so, they said, in the interests of a national unity whose internal and growing contradictions they preferred not to see.

“Labour waited,” says George Gilmore, “and that was the great failure of our generation.” He added that he did not think it “too much to say that it was the determining factor in causing the collapse of the independence movement”. 16

The labour leaders’ desire to preserve national unity can hardly be either slighted or doubted, nor can the sincerity of their concern for the serious conditions of the working class of town and country. But their anxiety not to offend the pro-British fanaticism of their mainly protestant members in the northeast, which had more than once caused them to curb their association with the national struggle, once more prevailed. At best, their stance suggested a lamentable degree of self-deception, at worst hypocrisy.

Next Section: III – Labour leaders desert the national struggle
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  1. Greaves, C.D. (1971) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution. London, Lawrence and Wishart. p.102.
  2. Gilmore, George. (1966) Labour and the Republican Movement. Dublin, Repsol. p.11.
  3. idem.
  4. idem.
  5. O'Connor, E. (1980) Agrarian Unrest and the Labour Movement in County Wateiford 1917-1923. p.51. Saothar 6, 40-58.
  6. Gilmore, G. loc.cit. p.12.

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