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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

XX – Labour’s last shots

In the Dail and in minority reports of Dail committees, the Labour leaders protested that the disastrous state of the economy, shattered by years of war and centuries of neglect and capital drain, required very different solutions than those applied by the government. Tillage, not grass, and the production of grain, not cattle, were essential measures if people were to be fed and work provided that would keep the population on the land. This, they asserted, was the only way the otherwise unimpeded hemorrhage of emigration, which by the 1920s had drawn off from Ireland more than 40 per cent of those born there, might be stemmed.

National self-sufficiency, they argued, must be a priority objective of government. “In the utilisation of the national resources, including the land”, they insisted, “individual self-interest must be subordinated to the national welfare”; agriculture “must satisfy the needs of the people”.116 In the midst of the defeat of which it had been, by default, a principal architect, the Labour Party was, as ever, ready to fight rearguard actions with revolutionary words.

These were virtually the last shots fired in the great retreat from revolution, and the government had no need to fear the dissent, or even the anger of the Labour leaders, disinclined as these were to involve themselves in anything other than constitutional resistance to the counter-revolution now consummated.

Labour, “in the prevailing mood, was not prepared to seek more radical objectives. It had taken a long time to build up a Labour organisation, and Thomas Johnson was taking no risks”.117 In any case, the government party, as Dorothy Macardle points out in her classic work on the Irish Republic, enjoyed an unassailable majority in Parliament and “was in a position to enact any legislation it chose”.118

It was assisted, certainly, by the abstentionist policy of the elected representatives of anti-Treaty Sinn Fein. One may speculate about what might or might not have been achieved had these 34 representatives participated in the southern parliament, however much they dissented on its objectives and its origins. But the only anti-Treaty republican who chose to be present at the opening session of the Free State’s first parliament was forcefully ejected after having sought and been denied explanation of the significance of the oath that members of this nominally independent chamber were required to sign, confirming their allegiance to the English crown.

Whether questions of principle such as the signing of the offending oath, however, should ever have been allowed to take precedence over immediate, practical issues affecting the lives of the people is a debatable question. It is still uncertain today, if the Sinn Fein members had taken their seats, whether there was any possibility of reconstructing the old republican-labour alliance on which labour had reneged in 1917. Doubtful as it remained in 1917 until Labour’s ultimate denial, in 1922 and 1923 the same question raised even greater doubts.

Might Labour, once again, have rejected such a proposal? Or might not all anti-Treaty members of the parliament have been ejected, as Laurence Ginnell was? Was it even possible that all might have been arrested as representatives of “the party of disorder”? Could the course of counter-revolution have been reversed merely by shifting the struggle to the parliament chamber? Such questions are speculation, of course. The reality is that the opponents of the Treaty did abstain, and history, as a consequence, took the course that it did.

It is also likely that such distant bodies as parliaments, as they are at present constituted, cannot serve the interests of the “lowest strata of society”. Certainly, as things stood in Ireland in 1922, 1923 and the years immediately following, the government had no need to worry about protests in parliament and, still less, about any dangers that might stem from the discontented but distant poor.

Even in 1932, when de Valera, at the head of Fianna Fail, belatedly and cautiously tried to shift the balance of class power, allying himself temporarily with the Labour Party to do so, his was a populist move to consolidate support for the rising bourgeoisie who were his backers. The social measures he introduced on taking over power – with the support of the Labour Party, to which he needed to make concessions – very quickly gave way to something more akin to an authoritarian paternalism. In either event, the poor remained poor, distant and leaderless, submissive save for brief periods of crisis, which inevitably found them easily prone to division.

Kalecki has noted, with unsuspecting but particular pertinence to the situation prevailing in Ireland in the desolate years of the counterrevolution, that the poor, though they had no reason to be happy, did not “for the time being at least, constitutes a danger for the [prevailing] system. The poor peasantry and the rural proletariat are controlled by some form of local oligarchy comprised of the petty bourgeoisie (merchants and money-lenders), the richer peasants and smaller landlords” – speaking as often as not with the approval and authority of the church – and “the urban population, without stable employment, and even home workers and workers in small factories, are not too dangerous either, because they are permanently threatened by unemployment, an are difficult to organise.119

Next Section XXI Dependence and Collaborationism
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  1. See Meenan, loc.cit. pp.95, 96.
  2. Lynch. in Williams Irish Struggle. loc.cit. pp.50, 51.
  3. Macardle. loc.cit. p.896.
  4. Kalecki, M. (1967) Observations on Social and Economic Aspects of “Intermediate Regimes” in Essays on Developing Economies, by Kalecki, M. (1976) Sussex. Humanities Press. pp.34, 35.

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