Irish Republicans part 6: Republicanism and the left

Submitted by Anon on 22 October, 2004 - 11:11

By Thomas Carolan

In our survey of the history of Irish Republicanism we have reached the point beyond which the story is that of the emergence of the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein in the last month of the 1960s and the first month of the 1970s — of the Catholic revolt in Northern Ireland which preceded that emergence and gave the Provisional IRA a mass base of support and sustenance for a war that would last 23 years (1971-94) and end with something like a deferred victory for the Provisional IRA.

No physical-force Republican formation had had such a base since the years of the Civil War, or, at the latest, since De Valera took most of the forces of post-Civil-War Republicanism into constitutional Free State politics in 1926. It would, though, be a different sort of base.

The story as we have explored it has been told with one of its major strands, one of the “central characters” in the drama, missing. The story of “left wing” Republicanism, and of the interaction of the working class left and Republicanism, must now be told.

It is in itself a major part of the story. But more than that. Without it, the story of the emergence of the Provisional IRA would not make sense. For Provisional Sinn Fein/ IRA originated as a reaction to a Stalinist takeover of the IRA.

The history of left Republicanism is important on two levels. First it is impossible without it to understand why the archaic form of revolutionary politics that is Republican militarism has survived in Ireland while its European equivalents — the insurrectionary Blanquist secret societies — disappeared over a century ago. Irish social conditions do not explain it. Different forms of politics have emerged from similar social conditions elsewhere.

Central to the continued existence of Republicanism has been the failure of the communist left to create forms of revolutionary politics in Ireland like those in the rest of Europe. That failure has provided the framework and background within which the archaic Republican form of physical-force revolutionary politics has survived.

For example, if the Communist Party which became a powerful force in industrial Northern Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, and later held on to some of the influence won then, had been a real Marxist party and not the Stalinist sub-reformist abomination that it was, then there would have been no political and social space for an IRA.

The Marxist organisation would have built on the existing trade-union-level working-class unity to create a cross-community revolutionary party. That party would, over the years, have systematically agitated on all the grievances of the workers of both communities. It would have educated sizeable sections, at least, of both communities in a socialist, internationalist outlook.

The advanced working-class movement of both Protestants and Catholics would have continually exposed, denounced, and campaigned against all the practices, political and social, which for 50 years made Northern Ireland's Catholics second-class citizens, discriminated against in jobs, social housing, and civil and political rights.

It would have openly campaigned against a partition that made no democratic sense — but in a democratic and internationalist spirit, and not in one that mimicked middle-class Catholic Irish nationalism. In that spirit it would have educated Catholic workers to understand the concerns of Protestant workers and their honest fear of “Rome Rule”; and to despise and oppose the social role of the Catholic clergy in the North as well as the South. (It was the Catholic Church in the North which, insisting on separate Catholic schools, determined that education in the North would be along rigidly sectarian lines).

It would have educated the Protestant workers against the obscenity of ranting Orange-sectarian bigots claiming as theirs the tradition of liberty and freedom from clerical oppression. It would have taught them a sympathetic understanding of the nationalist outlook which centuries of oppression had ingrained in Irish Catholics.

It would have educated both communities to approach the question of minority and majority relationships on the island, and the relationship in the Six Counties of the Protestants (the Irish-island minority, but local majority) and the artificially created Northern Catholic minority, in a radically democratic, Leninist, spirit.

It would have been guided in this by the approach outlined in a 1913 resolution of the Bolshevik Central Committee:

“In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making, and strife, it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government... the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the right of a national minority.

“This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local self-government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.”

Such a party would have been able to influence and recruit from the workers in the cities and towns of mainly agricultural southern Ireland. A working-class movement so constituted would have been able to influence the very poor working farmers of the west of Ireland.

It would have educated the working class of Ireland, North and South, in a positive socialist outlook counterposed to the ruling classes North and South, and enthused workers to fight for socialism. It would have had fraternal links and organisational ties with a similar movement in Britain, as in their times the United Irishmen and the Fenians had.

Such an Irish Marxist movement would have exerted great influence of workers in the Irish diaspora around the world and through them drawn courage and confidence from the workers' movement around the world. In short it would have worked to achieve the situation James Connolly described here, referring back to the United Irishmen and forward to a future we have yet to win:

“The North and South will again clasp hands, again it will be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social democracy.”

A respectworthy beginning had been made by the Stalinist-Communist movement in the early 1930s, when that movement was an ultra-left caricature of what a communist movement should be and not yet, as it would be from the mid-1930s, its right-wing inversion and negation. Such deservedly famous (though isolated) incidents as the unity which Protestant and Catholic workers forged in a common fight over “outdoor relief” (social security payments to the unemployed) in 1932 were due to the work and the political influence of the Communist-Stalinists. Barricades were build in the Shankill and the Falls Road, strongholds respectively of Protestants and Catholics, and, in order to confuse the police, some militants from the Protestant Shankill defended the barricades in the Falls and militants from the Falls defended the Shankill barricades.

But that was the swan-song of the Stalinist ultra-left caricature of communism, before those calling themselves “communist” turned, on Moscow’s orders, sharply to the right and away from independent working-class politics.

It was not only by bringing about the gaping absence of an authentic communist movement that Stalinism functioned to allow an archaic form of revolutionary politics to continue to exist. Stalinism played a much more direct role in Republicanism and Republican politics from the late 1920s onwards.

In its decay and political decrepitude, Irish Stalinism came to disguise itself, for most purposes, most of the time, and in most of Ireland, as a species of Republicanism — populist Republicanism. What it did in Northern Ireland during World War Two — turning Unionist to the extent of acting as police touts against the small group of Belfast Trotskyists — was the great exception; but that is what it was, an exception.

Layers of Stalinists operated within Republican movements in order to turn them to their own uses. They did that in the 1930s, with the left Republicans of the Republican Congress, and again in the 1960s, when Stalinists won effective control of the IRA, albeit a very much depleted IRA. Some of the Republican-Stalinists had been recruited from those who had “invaded” the North in the 1950s.

It is one of the great paradoxes of modern history that while “anti-communism” ruled and raged through Catholic Ireland, making it difficult and often simply impossible for any species of Marxism, or ostensible Marxism, even to get a hearing, Stalinist “communism” became, nevertheless, in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, a powerful force in Irish politics.

After the Provisionals split from them, the Stalinist Republicans, or ex-Republicans, organised in the Workers' Party — which, it was revealed after the USSR collapsed in 1991 — received Moscow money. They became a small force in Dail Eireann, a sort of new Clann na Poblachta.

Stalinists “working in” the Republican movement, and Republicans prevailed upon to embrace a general Stalinist political outlook, or much of it, became and remained sincere Irish nationalists.

Eamonn De Valera had to his political advantage, in the mid 1920s, loosely allied with the Comintern forces around Jim Larkin. He knew what he was saying when in the late 1950s he responded to a question in the Dail about the influence which “godless communists” were said to be exerting on young Irish immigrants in Britain through “the Connolly Club”. He asked those who were making a fuss: how do you know that these people — those who ran the Communist Party Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association — don’t sincerely want to do something for Ireland?

Indeed they did. The Connolly Association’s paper, the Irish Democrat*, in the 1950s and 60s, purveyed politics among Irish immigrants in Britain that were scarcely distinguishable from Fianna Failism.

* It is still published, these days a mirror of the IRA./Sinn Fein, but with quirks of its own. Its columnist Peter Berresford Ellis, an expert on kitsch Celticism and “the six Celtic nations” (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall) used the Irish Democrat to complain that the Dublin government does not do enough for the “Celtic aristocracy” — the present-day descendants of the old Gaelic chieftains, some of whom still claim their titles.

Why old Ireland was “right wing”

What are the origins of left-wing politics in Ireland? You might say that Catholic Ireland was “organically” right wing until late in the 18th century, when under the influence of the American and then the French Revolution the United Irishmen emerged.

Even then it was among Protestant descendants of conquerors and colonists that the left-wing movement emerged. Before that, too, if there was any sort of plebeian “leftism” or “radicalism” in Ireland, it was among the Protestants, not the Catholics.

The first real Republicans arrived in Ireland in helmets and steel breastplates, swords in hand — Oliver Cromwell's conquering army in 1649, after they had cut off King Charles's head, to hold it up before an amazed and awestruck crowd in Whitehall.

Their side in the English civil war of the 1640s, that of Parliament against the King, had had sympathisers and collaborating armies in Ireland, where a parallel civil war had been fought at the same time. They came as would-be conquerors, and they prevailed.

In English, Scottish, and world history they were revolutionary and radically progressive. They preached and won the rights of the people - some of them - and of Parliament over the “divine right of kings” and aristocrats and bishops to rule and decree what people would believe. They preached and practised religious freedom and religious tolerance - for all but the Catholic church, which they saw as Americans in the 1950s would see the international “Communist” movement — as a vast organised conspiracy aiming to win power with which they would then suppress all others. But most of the Irish were Catholics.

As some of the liberating anti-slavery Unionist armies of Lincoln, after their profoundly progressive victory in the US Civil War — the victory of wage-labour over chattel-slavery — went and became butchers and exterminators of “Indians”, so with Cromwell’s armies in Ireland.

The English Parliament had raised large sums of speculators’ money to finance its war with the King on the basis of selling land in Ireland. The Cromwellians came to seize that land — and the people. Some of the most advanced leftists in that army, the Levellers, refused to go to Ireland.

Most of the Irish people were what the revolutionary English soldiers saw as the worst enemies — Catholics. Some English Royalists were still in arms in Ireland. The Cromwellian Republicans swept through the country with fire and sword.

The great Protestant and, eventually, liberal-Unionist historian, W E H Lecky, tells us that the Cromwellian soldiers had a “wise saying” to justify slaughtering Irish Catholic children — “Nits will make lice”.

Discussion of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland usually centres on his massacres after he took Drogheda and Wexford in September 1649. Defence of Cromwell plausibly centres on what was common at the time when garrisons which had refused to surrender “on terms” fell, and on the fact that the garrison in Drogheda was mainly English Royalists. The real horror wreaked by these Republicans was the widespread casual slaughter of “lice” and of “nits”, and the decision of the Cromwellian Parliament in London to clear almost the whole of the country of its entire population.

The entire Catholic population of Ireland was to be driven to Clare — a sizeable part of which is bare rock — and Connaught in the west. That was the Cromwellians’ decision. In practice they found it impossible to do without the Irish “lower orders”, the hewers of wood and hauliers of water, the cultivating tenants on the land, the Irish common people.

It is a curiosity of English writings about Ireland from the 16th century to well into the 19th, including the racialistically anti-Irish historian James Anthony Froude, that they speak well of the Irish working people and sometimes present themselves as the champions of those working people against the Irish upper-class wastrels and the mercenary “swordsmen”, the violent men.

They desired to supplant those classes and exploit the “industrious” common Irish.

The decision to send all the Irish “to hell or to Connaught” in practice led only to the clearing-out of the land-owning classes and their banishment to the West, leaving the working people for the new owners to appropriate along with the land.

As in the experience of American pioneers in the wilderness, who took Indian women, so with many of the Cromwellian soldiers who settled in Ireland. Thus they too bred “nits”. The mothers made Catholics out of the children.

Anything “left” or radical that remained after the restoration of a King in England, Charles II in 1660, took a religious form. The memory of the first Republican conquest of Ireland passed into the bitter memory of Catholic Ireland. Karl Marx said that the 19th century Irish suspicion of the English “people’s parties” had its roots back then.

Marx also believed that the strengthening of the English landlord class by their gaining possession of confiscated Irish land had dealt a death-blow to the Republic in England and Scotland, and prepared the restoration of the monarchy.

Among some of the Irish Protestants, the memory of Cromwell survived as glorious days in which they were delivered from captivity. Orangemen on their annual parade on 12 July, when they commemorate the victory of another conqueror of Catholics, William of Orange, still carry banners identifying themselves as “Cromwell’s Ironsides”.

In the other great event in the establishment and consolidation of the liberal British state, the “Glorious Revolution” against an attempt by the Catholic James II to make himself an absolute monarch, Catholic Ireland was again on the side of the political “right”. Not enough people in England and Scotland backed King James — the ally and pensionary of the absolutist French King, Louis IV — to allow James to fight. This time there was no civil war in England. It was a peaceful revolution.

But James found wide support in Ireland, and it was there that the wars of Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” were fought between the armies of two great European coalitions.

Afterwards, while England had a constitutional government that was the envy of such European critics of absolutism as Voltaire, and the ideal that most of the enlightened bourgeois of Europe wanted to attain in their own countries, Irish Catholics were for 100 years condemned to live in a system of helotry that bore a remarkable similarity to the apartheid system that ruled in South Africa for more than four decades in the second half of the 20th century.

In Ireland during that period, “opposition” politics was Jacobite politics — desire for the restoration of the Catholic Stuart monarchy.

There were agrarian secret societies, Catholic and Protestant (which sometimes fought each other). That was the stirrings of a potential left. But that was all it was — a potential.

There were some stirrings of town plebeians. Elements of class differentiation in the towns of the Protestant North can be seen even during the William-James wars. The Protestants would tell and retell the story of how when Lundy, the Governor of what they called Londonderry (the Catholics called it Derry), proposed to surrender the walled city and garrison to the Catholic King James, the “Apprentice Boys” defied him, shouting “No Surrender”, and closed the gates of the city against King James’s army. They triggered a long siege, against which the heroic Protestants of the city held out, from which they would would be triumphantly delivered.

Who were the Apprentice Boys? They were “boys” not in the modern sense, but in the sense in which until the 1960s it was used for black adults in the USA, where people would talk of a “servant boy” of 60, and one of those servants, referring to his failure to get or inherit a piece of land of his own, would tell an investigating sociologist: “Sure, you might be a boy until you were 70”.

The word “boy” denoted status. The Apprentice Boys of Londonderry, whose determination saved the City for Protestantism and King William, were the equivalent of modern proletarians, called “boys” to distinguish them from the master craftsmen, owning workshops.

In episodes like that one can seek and find traces of an Irish left. The point is that for most of the Irish this “left” represented what the Cromwellian left represented — harsh hostility and oppression. The victory of Protestantism and the forces of English and Scottish liberty over absolutism signified helotry for most of the Irish.

Both in the 1640s, and in the events of the 1680s and early 1690s, events in Ireland were part of a clash between the Europe-wide forces of Protestantism and Catholicism. It was in the broader picture a clash between the comparative liberty of the British and the Dutch, on one side, backed by, for example, Protestant exiles from France, and Catholicism and Absolutism on the other. The savage discrimination to which Irish Catholics were subjected all through the 18th century, through what James Connolly named Ireland's “Via Dolorosa”, the way of sorrows, had its parallel in the laws of the French absolutist and Catholic monarch Louis XIV against the then very numerous French Protestants after he revoked the tolerance-proclaiming Edict of Nantes in 1685. The bulk of French Protestants either emigrated or let themselves be forcibly converted.

What most of the people of Ireland were, Catholics, defined them as the opposite of the left, or of the distant ancestors of the left, through long ages. It was a function of Ireland's singular history. That would not begin to change before the latter end of the 18th century, with the emergence of the United Irishmen*. The Irish left that emerged then would be a left which, like Catholicism, never before the 21st century ceased to be entwined with the “national question”.

How Ireland was crippled by its “Wars of the Roses”

Unlike most of Western Europe, Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, but it benefited from the Roman world by trade and by piratical raiding into it. The caste of learned men, usually called Druids, destroyed by Roman conquest in Gaul and in Britain, survived in Ireland. It survived even the coming of Christianity, with its own special caste of learned men functioning in largely illiterate societies, the clergy. They learned to write down their lore in the Gaelic language and in the Latin alphabet. Existing as a caste side by side with the Catholic clergy, they created a vernacular literature that is the oldest in Europe after Greece and Rome.

Within this lay intelligentsia there were many specialities. Someone called Hickey, for example, is a descendant of a clan of hereditary physicians. It survived for centuries after the Norman invasion of the 12th century, and into the 17th and 18th centuries. It kept alive in the Gaelic aristocracy the memories and ideals of Bronze Age aristocrats.

Christianity in Ireland came to be unlike anywhere else in Europe in the shallowness of its impact on society. (It has, in this respect, been compared to Christianity in Ethiopia). Wherever Christianity was firmly established, marriage was a sacrament, a binding act under God that could be undone only by a special act of the bishops. In Ireland it was not. Polygamy and polyandry were widespread in Ireland into the 16th and 17th centuries.

There were no Irish towns until Viking invaders founded places like Dublin (in the 9th century) and Limerick, though there were settlements around monasteries that had some of the characteristics and functions of towns. It was an island of many small states warring with each other. A united Ireland never developed. Invaders came, were absorbed, and formed their own small states which then played a part in the general picture of competition and wars.

The English Wars of the Roses in the mid 15th century - a war of succession between two clans of royals, each claiming the throne, occupying it, and then losing it — are well known, if only from Shakespeare's cycle of plays depicting them. They lasted about a quarter of a century. They caused chaos and wiped out the old aristocracy.

Ireland's history was an endless prosecution of such wars, and their multiplication over many different small states and semi-states, for many centuries.

Ethnic-sectarian middle-class Catholic-Irish history depicts a Gaelic resurgence in the late 13th and 14th centuries after the widespread Norman conquest in the 12th. In fact what happened was a process that wiped out progress and the possibility of progress, and ensured that the people of the island were easy prey to the new breed of English conquerors in the 16th century.

Those English conquerors saw Ireland as, for England, the equivalent of South America for the Spanish — a retarded place, ripe for wholesale robbery and plunder to enrich new English conquistadores. They created a literature explicitly advocating this view.

The Norman conquerors in the 12th and 13th centuries took over the Viking settlements and towns and expanded them. They also founded new towns, Galway and Athenry for example. They took in Gaelic people on condition that they lived by the standards and norms of the towns, while passing fierce prohibitions against the “wild Irish” of the countryside.

There is a dispute among scholars as to whether their term for Irishman was synonymous with their term for one who was unfree, a bondsman or a slave.

There was a sizeable movement of English peasant settlers into Ireland — part, it has been argued, of what was a widespread movement of peasants seeking better land throughout Europe.

What the towns and the English peasant settlements connected with them represented in Ireland was the rudiments of what became bourgeois civilisation. As in Europe, the towns strove to make themselves independent from feudalistic landlords and their exactions. The English peasant settlers struggled to get the best conditions they could from their Norman-English overlords, and these “pioneering” peasants could get better terms than their fellows in England.

The towns contained guilds and a rudimentary class struggle. They embodied what such towns embodied everywhere in Europe - islands of progress and civilisation. The growing power of the Gaelic chieftains in the 13th and 14th century meant that they could exact special payments, “black-rent”, from the towns. In social terms they represented a sort of harassing, “feudalistic”, regressive pressure against the growth of towns and commerce. So in their own way did the English feudal landlords.

There surely were struggles resembling class struggles between tenants and overlords in Gaelic Ireland. Nothing is know of them. The Gaelic intelligentsia did not deign to notice such things or recognise the lower orders. The writer Sean O'Faolain, who knew the Gaelic literature that has survived, reported that the “common people” had no place in it at all except as buffoons, servants, and footsoldiers on its fringes.

The class struggles we do know of were those of the townss and of the initially numerous settler peasants against their feudal overlords. The crushing exactions of their own landlords eventually ruined the peasants of the east of Ireland, and those landlords, alongside the black-rent-demanding Gaelic chieftains of the surrounding areas, drove many of the peasants out of Ireland and cramped the development of the towns.

The plebeians of the cities played a recorded role in the early 14th century, inflicting some of the most decisive defeats on the Scottish invaders led by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert who had defeated the English in Scotland, and their northern Irish allies, who laid waste much of the country.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, the English great lords in Ireland had adapted from the Irish chiefs such practices as quartering their soldiers on the peasants, who also had to feed the soldiers. They ruined the peasants. Thus was the growth of bourgeois society in Ireland stifled and snuffed out.

And that determined the condition Ireland was in when the new breed of bourgeoisifying English and Scottish adventurers descended on it in the late 16th century and after. The conquerors used against the natives of Ireland the same methods used by the colonists in America: they were often the same people, Sir Walter Raleigh for example, and indeed they pioneered those methods in Ireland.

Feudalism was not formally abolished in Ireland until 1605 — and then the English ruler Mountjoy issued the edict abolishing it as a weapon against the remaining feudalistic Irish chiefs, such as Hugh O'Neill, who had after his defeat by the English at the end of the 17th century made himself the owner of most of Ulster, at the expense of Irish clans such as the Maguires.

It is only broadly that one can discern in all this even the prehistoric elements of a left. What emerged was an Irish identity based on Catholicism.

At the time of the Bruce invasion, the Irish chiefs in Ulster wrote to the Pope outlining their grievances in something like Irish vs. English terms. (The Pope excommunicated them). But it was in the 16th century that the Irish began to build up what would become centuries later a modern national identity on the basis of Catholicism as against the Protestant heresy of the rulers of England and their supporters in Ireland.

The whole of Europe was divided by the Reformation, and a series of wars of religions began that would not end until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The identity of the English, arguably the first of the modern-style nation states, was shaped in part — had the finishing touches put to it — by the Reformation and Protestantism. Irish national identity was formed in opposition to it.

The Papacy had encouraged and supported the Norman invasion of 1169 and after. The Irish bishops had “agitated” for it for decades. For centuries, the Church fervently supported English rule in Ireland in Papal decrees and judgements, and excommunicated Irish rebels against the King.

Now the Church cultivated the Irish as the faithful Catholic people. Over decades the identify of the Gaelic Irish, whose peculiarities — such things as non-sacramental marriage and the sexual freedom that survived in Ireland — had been a scandal to Christians for centuries, was fused with Catholicism.

The Irish were robbed, despoiled, and subjected to would-be genocidal wars in Queen Elizabeth’s time and again in the 17th century, as Catholics — adherents of the Catholicism that embodied everything that was “right wing” in Europe for centuries. Except perhaps in the sense that any and all resistance to tyranny and exploitation is “left wing”, Ireland was “right wing”. The explicit left was for Ireland an alien force.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.