Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2

Martin McGuinness, personification of republicanism

On October 24 1990, a Derry man Patsy Gillespie was abducted by the IRA, tied to the driver’s seat of a van and told to drive the van packed with explosives to a British Army checkpoint on the border with Donegal.  While doing so his wife and children were held at gunpoint.  Two other such bombs were also delivered to targets on the border on the same day.  Using others to deliver bombs was a well-known IRA tactic and almost inevitably the driver got out at the target and warned of the bomb.

This time however the bomb was to be detonated by remote control or by the door of the van being opened, which Patsy Gallagher did as he struggled to free himself and get out of the van.  When it opened five British soldiers and Patsy Gallagher were killed; the largest part of him to be retrieved afterwards was part of his hand.  The use of a ‘human bomb’, as it was quickly called, caused widespread revulsion, including among nationalists.

Patsy Gallagher was killed because, according to the IRA, he was “a part of the British war machine”. He had been warned to leave his job because he worked at a British army base, as a cook.  He was, to use a more old-fashioned phase, a ‘collaborator.’

The deployment of three such attacks on the one day would had to have been sanctioned by the Northern Command of the IRA, whose Officer Commanding was Martin McGuinness.

Just under a decade later he was Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive, the administration devolved from Westminster.  His Sinn Fein colleague in the Executive was Bairbre de Brun, who was Minister of Health.  One of her more important acts was to launch a review of acute services in Northern Ireland: “I want to hear all the arguments and weigh up the options before taking any final decisions. To put me in a position to take the necessary decisions, I need measured, informed and objective advice on how acute services can best be developed to meet the needs of our people.”

To lead this review she appointed a well-known figure, Maurice Hayes.  He had been the most senior Catholic civil servant at Stormont, supplying weekly reports on politics in the Irish State to the Northern Ireland Executive in 1974; later becoming head of personnel for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and later Northern Ireland Ombudsman. He was Electoral Boundary Commissioner, a Senior Advisor to the Chair of the Constitutional Convention, a member of Lord Patten’s Commission to reform the police in the North of Ireland, and authored the report which led to the establishment of the office of Police Ombudsman.

In other words it could be said, if one wanted to, that when Sinn Fein got into office they asked the most senior ‘collaborator’ around to help them decide what they were going to do now they had got there.

Nothing epitomises the evolution of republican politics in the North of Ireland so much as the sequence of these two events.  In fact, it could be said that no two events define republican politics so much as the conjunction of these two events.  All the more important because they are now either forgotten, or, in the second case, were barely noticed at the time.

Of course, Martin McGuinness was later denounced for various actions by other republicans, including his condemnation of these republicans as traitors for shooting British troops; and for toasting the Queen in white tie and tails at Windsor Castle.  These were high-profile events but they were mainly symbolic.  The killing of Patsy Gallagher for being “a part of the British war machine” while hiring the biggest ‘castle Catholic’ when it entered office were not symbolic but very real.  These events tell us most of what we need to know about the politics of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

A working class cook had become a ‘legitimate target’ in a war which, when it ended, they could think of nothing better than to ask one of the most prominent Catholic establishment figures for advice on what they should do.  Militarist ‘anti-imperialism’ gave way to equally ineffective subordination as a parliamentary ‘opposition’ to British rule, an opposition that involved not being in opposition but being in government.  And with a party so right wing its antediluvian views resembles closely the most rabid base of Donald Trump.

Throughout their evolution, no matter what its twists and turns, the movement exhibited a complete lack of class politics.  The socialist opinions of some masked the right-wing politics of the movement as a whole.  As the old adage goes, opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

The movement has been a vivid demonstration of lessons not widely enough appreciated – that ‘anti-imperialism’ does not necessitate socialism and that a predominantly working class base does not equate to politics defined by class.  A socialist assessment of the political life of Martin McGuinness that does not register these facts is worthless.

This is important because the political assessment of someone’s life often becomes more important than that life’s impact when it was lived.  Gerry Adams claimed that “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him.”  But this of course is untrue.

Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA did go to war.  The necessity for armed defence against sectarian pogroms was usurped by the Provisional IRA into a conscious offensive war that promised victory ’72, ’73 etc. It was they who claimed that only the IRA and its armed struggle could bring victory, by which they meant a united Ireland; but their struggle degenerated as the British State inevitably crushed it by its superior power.   They failed so comprehensively they now pretend this war was about something other than declared at the time, all about equality and not ‘Brits Out’.  In all this Martin McGuinness played a leading role.

I remember being asked by the wife of a republican whether I thought Martin McGuinness was a British spy.  Not because I had any more knowledge of the secret war than she had, because I was pretty sure I had less, but because despite this she really didn’t have a clue, or rather the clues were useless.  She simply wanted another opinion of someone who might have thought about it from a different perspective from her own.  The important point is that it was a legitimate question and one that will probably never go away (see the posts here and here.)

Politically it doesn’t really matter, because informers are as much a part of the republican movement and its history as anything else.  Secret conspiracies are particularly vulnerable to much more powerful secret conspiracies to counter them, and the British state is not short on this resource.  The role any individual can play is limited in most circumstances and particularly so  in the oppressive circumstances in which McGuinness was politically active.

His legacy is one of a failed armed campaign and collapsed political arrangements at Stormont that he fought doggedly to promote.  But the grubby reality of the latter is as clear as the brutality of the former.  This includes broken Sinn Fein promises to oppose welfare cuts and support for austerity and sectarian patronage.

No amount of media spin, lamenting the botched implementation of a renewable energy scheme, or failure of the institutions to deliver effective government, can hide the fact that the scheme was not botched – it worked perfectly – and Stormont is still effective in containing politics within sectarian boundaries, even when it only functions as a prize still to be realised.

In the latter part of his political career Martin McGuinness must be judged on both his pursuit of such an unworthy goal and his failure to achieve its lasting implementation.  To rephrase slightly: pity the land that needs heroes and sad the land that needs one like this.

 

The politics of conspiracy – the case of Denis Donaldson

donaldsonI remember a number of years ago I was handing out leaflets at a Sinn Fein meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road in Belfast.  It was about the relatively new peace process and it would be fair to say that the leaflet was not celebratory of the new initiative.  I was outside the room, although inside the Mill complex, but since the Provos came to regard the whole of West Belfast as theirs it came as no great surprise that one of their number decided I was trespassing on their territory.  As the years have gone by, and if rumours are to be believed, this is less and less their territory and more and more their property.

I was collared (not very roughly) by a then prominent Sinn Fein councillor and pulled (not very strongly) over to another prominent Sinn Fein member, Denis Donaldson.  The councillor wanted to know from Donaldson was it not alright that I should be handing out leaflets critical of Sinn Fein but should be told to get lost.  Denis Donaldson was no more interested in me giving out leaflets than the man on the moon and couldn’t even give a full shrug of the shoulders in apparent indifference; he couldn’t either be bothered to grunt any disapproval or otherwise.

The councillor was a bit exposed so he mouthed some vague displeasure to no particular point and I meandered back to outside the door to give out the rest of the leaflets.  As a comrade of mine put it, the Provos were more tolerant of other opinions when they were less ‘political’, when they confined themselves overwhelmingly to shooting and bombing, than they were to become during the peace process.

The point of this reminiscence is that Denis Donaldson was obviously the go-to guy at the meeting who determined what (or who) was allowed, in other words from ‘the army’.  Denis Donaldson was later revealed as a long term agent of MI5 and is now dead.  He was shot after being exposed as a spy in a remote and ramshackle cottage in Donegal. The rather pathetic circumstances of his death were fitting to someone who, unlike other agents, appeared too demoralised even to run in an attempt to save himself.

Now he has become a headline again because an ex-British soldier has alleged he was shot by the Provisional IRA and not by a ‘dissident’ IRA, which had claimed responsibility.  The headlines have been made because the ex-soldier has now written a book about his activities in the north of Ireland and accuses Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams of having sanctioned the killing.  Adams, through his lawyer, has denied it.

One of Donaldson’s notable activities was his involvement along with two other men in an alleged Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont.  He was subsequently charged only for prosecutors to drop the charges “in the public interest.”  In such cases “the public interest” is anything but the public interest and is invariably in the state’s interest.

In the south of Ireland an inquest into his death has been delayed 20 times at the request of the Garda Síochána due to concern that a detailed journal found in Donaldson’s cottage contains information about the organisation of the republican movement and about his activity as informer and the activity of the state forces.  It’s doubtful either Sinn Fein or the British State want the contents revealed.

So we have an ex-soldier selling a book making one claim and Adams making the opposite claim.  The ex-soldier also claims that he was previously going to seek to join the IRA before then joining the British Army.  He regards himself as a republican and supports Sinn Fein today, indeed he claims he did so even when serving for the British Army in Ireland!  One can hardly think of anything more bizarre! Indeed it’s hard to think of anything less credible, except for Gerry Adams’ claim that he was never in the IRA.  So on purely a priori grounds of credibility the ex-Brit appears to come out on top.  Does it matter?

In so far as it impinges on Adams it simply reminds one of his lack of principle, unwilling and incapable of defending what was the primary dogma of republicanism – driving the British out of Ireland by armed force. After this was surrendered nothing remained sacred.  Following this betrayal there has no repentance of Gerry who has denied his movement more than three times.  Any further promises – to oppose austerity etc – are open to charges of relying on the same level of credulity necessary to accept his claims to non-membership of the IRA.

In so far as the headlines recall the murky intrigue of the ‘dirty war’ it reminds everyone who lived through it of just how dirty it was.  It was well enough known that loyalist murder survived upon the tolerance and sponsorship of the British state.  What has become clearer since the ‘end’ of the various armed ‘campaigns’ is the degree of this sponsorship.  But even more revelatory has been evidence of British penetration of the republican movement and the betrayal of genuine republican activists by agents of the British State inside the movement.

What all this history has demonstrated is that the conspiracy of the state cannot be overcome by any revolutionary conspiracy.  Irish republicanism is pathologically disposed to such conspiracy and has failed again and again.

As I near the end of reading a recent biography called ‘Karl Marx – a Nineteenth Century Life’, one consistent feature of Marx’s political activity recorded in the book was his opposition to conspiracy as the means of working class organisation.  The political activity that won Marx to socialism and which he in turn fought for again and again was the open organisation of the mass of workers, in struggle for their own objectives based on their own class interests.  It was Marx’s view that these interests are ultimately revolutionary and either the workers became conscious of them, became revolutionary, or they “were nothing.”  Freedom cannot be made behind the backs of workers.  A class cannot come to control society without being aware of its control.

A movement that perennially fails to recognise such basic truths signifies one of two things.  It is incapable of learning or its goals are essentially not about the freedom of the working class.  In both cases conspiracy becomes a favoured means of organisation since, like Gresham’s law, bad organisation drives out good.

Add to this a militaristic outlook and all the horrors of the dirty war are almost inevitable.  It is however not inevitable that sincere working class people end up in such demoralised circumstances that death is almost invited.

Remembering the Rising part 4 – revolution and counter-revolution?

NGI 1236

NGI 1236

In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State.  This is not the view of many on the Left:

“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . .  . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . .  and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’.  A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal.  That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)

There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here.  There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.

Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.

The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it.  The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms.  For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.

As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce.  It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.

Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation.  As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic.   In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”

By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.”    “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”

When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents.   In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic.  In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.

In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions.  Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target.  This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.

The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.

In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?

An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities.  What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations.  This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status.  It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro.  But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.

In opposition to such a view the historian Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a ‘veteran Irish political correspondent’ James Downey (very recently deceased) in 2012:

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution?  It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?

Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising?  But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?

Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.

In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.

He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution!  “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’  He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”

Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.”  Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”

This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement.  The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class.  As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.

The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”

The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.”   Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish.  Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.”  And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . .  As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers.  Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”

Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.”  In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.”  However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.”  (Ferriter)

And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.

But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.  But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this?  And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?

At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?

Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society.  What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?

But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership?  Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).

The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).

With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?

As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed  –  but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.

On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.

Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country.  Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation.  So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it.  But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much.  The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.

The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there.  Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.

Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle.  In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.

So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense?  The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.

Postscript:

I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?

I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply  as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.

So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind.  In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.

I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising.  I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it.  What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.

We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration.  I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!

Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.

Of course the other signatories would not have signed it.  It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.

And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?

What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.

Back to Part 3

Remembering the Rising part 3 – Who’s afraid of 1916?

easter 1There is a view of the world and its history that what matters most is not what it is or what it has been but how it is perceived and understood; first having recognised that the two are not the same.  There is a different view that the world may be misconceived and misunderstood but its true reality matters more and ‘will out’.  The misconceptions are themselves part of the real world and are themselves a reflection of it and often contain a grain or more of truth, while still being wrong.

We can thus learn and appreciate the Easter Rising in 1916 by looking at how it is variously understood.

In the January 15 copy of ‘The Irish News’ the Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness states:

“The Rising wasn’t simply a rebellion against British rule.  It was an insurrection against injustice, oppression and inequality.  It was a social as well as a political and national revolution.”

We have seen in the previous post that the Proclamation did not rail against imperial oppression and injustice but condemned British rule as illegitimate.  Its claims for equality were limited and were made in relation to the particular context of foreign fostered religious division.  The Proclamation does indeed talk of welfare and freedom and of the common good but it is the nation’s welfare and national freedom that is extoled and the common good is for the people to sacrifice themselves for. And even if these clear meanings are ignored there is no statement as to how any different sort of freedom, welfare or the common good can be defined and its promise made good.

The Proclamation is a nationalist declaration and did not and could not explain how it could deliver any promises that its readers may mistakenly or otherwise have read into it.  A century of national liberation struggles across the world against British and other colonial powers, often inspired by the Easter Rising, have failed to demonstrate how the most radical understandings of such promises, such as those stated by McGuinness,  can be made good by any sort of nationalism.

But perhaps McGuinness is claiming that the words of the Proclamation do not matter, it is the reality of the Rising that is important, although I doubt he would make such a claim.  So perhaps he is saying that there is more to the Rising than the Proclamation that the Proclamation did not announce.

So the Rising was indeed a political revolution and a national one in so far as its aims were concerned although, by deliberate design, not national in scope – there was to be no Rising in Ulster.   However it was not a social revolution; it certainly didn’t pretend to be a socialist revolution.  We know what one of them might look like because we saw one the year after in 1917. And it wasn’t a social revolution of the land question.  If anyone deserves credit for the revolution in the transfer of land ownership from largely alien landlords to native tenant farmers it is the British who must stand first in line.  It must be said that in this they were helped by the massive loss caused by the famine for which they should also stand first in line, and were subject to agrarian agitation to force them.

So even in three very short sentences that are easily passed over as received wisdom the understanding of Martin McGuinness is inaccurate, just as 100 years ago the British and many others were wrong to see the Easter Rising as a Sinn Fein rebellion.  Sinn Fein had nothing to do with it and the party was led by a man who was not in favour of a Republic.

Does it matter that McGuinness’s understanding is so wrong?  Such misconceptions have been legion. The embers of the Rising were still warm before it was widely condemned as a ‘German plot’, all the better to damn it as a disloyal stab in the back in the middle of a real war.  The fiftieth anniversary celebrations have been blamed by Unionists for sparking ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, absolving the demands of Ian Paisley that the Tricolour be removed from the Falls Road for the trouble that erupted there in 1966, and later unionist attempts to attack demonstrations for civil rights for the eruption of violence in 1968 and 1969.

So yes, getting history wrong does matter because it will not explain why the Troubles broke out in the North of Ireland and it doesn’t explain why the 1916 Rising failed to achieve a truly national revolution never mind a social revolution.  If we dispense with incorrect explanations of the world and its history we are much better placed to seek better ones and in doing so better able to understand what is happening today.

For many what has happened during the centenary celebrations today is an “Irish capitalist class .  . overcome with embarrassment and revulsion, forced to commemorate something they despise”, according to one left wing leaflet handed out at a meeting in Belfast a few weeks ago.

For another left wing author “the notion that Enda Kenny owes his position as Taoiseach to republican guerrillas who stormed the GPO is, to put it mildly, deeply unsettling.  The political elite is therefore  approaching the centenary commemorations of the rising with profoundly ambivalent feelings and not a little trepidation”.

Two other authors have written a short book, ‘Who’s afraid of the Easter Rising? 1919 – 2016’.  They note the opposition to the Rising from those who think Ireland could have won its independence without the violence unleashed in 1916 and who therefore condemn it for the example it set to later generations of violent republicans.  They also characterise the attitude of the Irish Government to the commemoration of the Rising as one of “bad faith.  They talk in doublespeak  and clichés. Their energy is not directed at genuinely exploring or celebrating the legacy of the Rising but rather in controlling it.” In this desire for control however they are hardly alone.

“This political class is embarrassed by 1916 but most are afraid to say so publically, hence they practice the politics of ambiguity and dishonest historical revisionism as a way of avoiding the truth and real debate.”

But if the Irish establishment has been variously “uncomfortable”, embarrassed”, “afraid” and “nervous” they hid it well during the commemoration and scored a significant success, all the more significant depending on how much they were exposed to the emotions attributed to them by some left wing authors.

Far from ambiguity they presented a coherent narrative – we commemorate those gallant men and women who gave us our freedom today, a freedom expressed by the existence and independence of the Irish State which put its back bone on display through the military parade of its armed forces.  This is the State to which we owe loyalty and we celebrate the foundational act of that state – the Easter 1916 Rising. No one among the broadest ranks of Irish nationalism seeks to attack the institutions of this State, not even ‘dissident’ republicanism centred the North.

Easter 3

The celebrations were therefore a celebration not only of the Rising but of the legitimacy of the State and its institutions.  The highlighting of descendants of the 1916 rebels and later revolutionary heroes in the parade of today’s Armed Forces on Easter Sunday and the reading out of the Proclamation by an officer of the Irish Army was a coherent message that there is only one legitimate Óglaigh na hÉireann.  Loyalty to the state is mandated by the sacrifice of the men and women of 1916 whose creation it is.

And is this not at least partly true?  And if it is not by any means the whole story are we not then into more ambiguous territory and far from a simple story of misappropriation of a risen people by an elite?  Or, recalling our first post on remembering 1916; were Cosgrave, Collins and de Valera etc. not part of this risen people or, recalling the second post, did the Proclamation not address itself to national freedom and not any wider set of promises?

It is not that the Irish establishment finds nothing in the history of the Rising that it finds objectionable.  Who does not?  But among the emotions listed above there has also been indifference in the past, in commemorating the Rising and, for example, in maintaining and giving access to the historical records upon which its story can more truthfully be told.  In 1971 Garrett Fitzgerald stated that “this country will look very odd indeed in international eyes if Britain continues to release information about Irish matters before we do – as has already happened.  We will have to stop being afraid of our own history.”  His view reversed the previous Fianna Fail view of the late 1960s that access to state papers could result in “injury . . . to national unity and harmony.”  Taoiseach Jack Lynch said that even if the British opened papers the Irish Government would not because it “might well stir domestic controversies that best lie buried.”

In any case attempts to emulate the rebellious attitude of 1916 will not depend on seeking to emulate the Volunteers of 1916 but will come from the nature of the oppression and exploitation faced today and more importantly by the goals and strategies that channel this rebelliousness.  This is what makes the release of historical state papers possible – the historical controversies they relate to are relevant but  will not of themselves stir struggle today and are not amenable to a simple repetition of rebellion – what for, by whom, with what objectives and for what alternative?

We are called upon to commemorate those who fought in 1916 and to remember the Proclamation of the Republic they fought for, but on what grounds are we called upon to remember?  Who is asking us to commemorate and do we celebrate the same thing if we do?  Does this now matter, for will there now be any future anniversary with such resonance?

Easter 2

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Remembering the Rising part 2 – the 1916 Proclamation

1916-ProclamationThe central reference point of the Easter Rising, of its commemoration and for understanding its meaning is the Proclamation read outside the GPO by Patrick Pearse.  Copies of the Proclamation and the national flag have been distributed to schools by the Irish Army and it was read out by an officer of the Army at the celebrations in Dublin on Easter Sunday.

Acres of newsprint over the years and in this centenary have been devoted to the relevance of the Proclamation to contemporary society, usually framed around the question of whether its promises have been realised and usually answered in the negative.  This is almost universally the case among liberal commentators and by many on the Left.

The purpose is to damn the failures of the existing Irish State by the imprimatur of its venerated foundational certificate, restated and ratified by the first independent Dail (parliament) established by the revolutionary movement in January 1919.  What is invited is the completion of an original process more or less universally honoured and exalted by nationalist Ireland.

Examples abound so let’s take a fairly typical illustration from last week’s Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ in a column entitled “Those who came after Rising have failed Ireland’.

It starts off “The Rising did not fail. It was failed by those who came after it. For 100 years, the Irish people including up to two million who emigrated) have watched as governments, political parties and armed groups paid homage to 1916, while abandoning the Rising’s social, economic and political principles. . . we can only marvel at the widening gap between the Proclamation’s ideals and the sad state of modern Ireland”

“The Rising aimed to achieve independence, social and economic equality and cultural maturity for the Irish nation.  Selected events exemplify how these aims were washed away.”  The author then recalls such events as the failure to create a welfare state, the strong role in society of a censorious Catholic Church, state repression and the evils of sectarianism associated with partition.

The following week the President of Ireland spoke at a commemorative event at the trade union headquarters at Liberty Hall on the Republic James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army fought for:

“Their vision of a people free from want, free from impoverishment and free from exploitation remains the wellspring of inspiration for us as we seek to respond to the situation of too many  workers who, in Ireland today, earn a wage that guarantees neither a life free from poverty, nor access to decent housing, adequate childcare and health services.”

“Land and private property, a restrictive religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability, affecting women in particular” followed the Rising while “their objective was to transform Ireland’s social, economic and cultural hierarchies.  But their radical ideas of redistribution were staunchly opposed by many nationalists . . .”

*                             *                             *

The Proclamation was written by the radical nationalist Patrick Pearse with additions by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh and approved by the seven signatories made up of advanced nationalists and James Connolly, all of whom were to be shot by firing squad after the Rising.  It proclaimed an Irish Republic that was eventually to be recognised by its foe Great Britain over 30 years later in 1949.

It is short, exhortary, was not the subject of long deliberation by its writers or by those who signed it and is today held in regard in almost inverse proportion to its detailed examination, except perhaps by today’s Irish schoolchildren, for whom it has become a subject of study and updating.

The Proclamation is well entitled for this is what it is: a declaration of an independent Irish State – a Republic.  It is not a manifesto, not a political programme to any extent and hardly a strategy.  It is a certificate of a birth already taken place so that unlike the American Declaration of Independence, there is no date of Ireland’s independence because Ireland is already an ancient nation that itself, through its Provisional Government, “strikes for her freedom.”  It is therefore a declaration of war, symbolised in the centenary celebrations by the biggest public demonstration by the armed forces of the Irish State in its history, while sanctified in the normal hypocritical fashion by a sermon from the forces’ chaplain.

The thunderbolt that was the 1916 Rising gained its impact partly because there had been no substantial national rebellion for over 100 years, and while the proclamation speaks of an “old tradition of nationhood”, it is the newness of the events that was most striking but which is now, not unnaturally, largely unnoticed.  This novelty translated, or rather did not readily translate, into the language of the Proclamation.  The word for Republic chosen in Irish – ‘poblacht’ – was not in any of its variants current in the Irish language before 1916 – there was no direct translation for the word Republic.

When Eamon de Valera travelled to London in 1919 to negotiate a truce with the British he handed Lloyd George a document in Irish, which had an English translation, headed ‘Saorstat Eireann’ and Lloyd George asked for a literal translation, saying that ‘Saorstat’ did not strike the ear as Irish.   Eamon de Valera replied ‘Free State’. ‘Yes’ retorted Lloyd George ‘but what is the Irish word for Republic?’  While the Irish pondered the reply with some discomfort Lloyd George talked to his colleagues in Welsh and when de Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State, Lloyd George remarked that ‘Must we not admit that the Celts never were Republicans and have no native word for such an idea’.

The beginning of the Proclamation is modelled on the similar proclamation of Robert Emmet in 1803, in that other failed rebellion.  It is the nation itself which appeals to God’s authority and its people to declare its freedom while the Proclamation appeals to both ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in pointing to an equality of gender but only to the Irish – there is no wider international appeal for recognition or solidarity, although it thanks it “gallant allies”, Germany, and its American diaspora.

The nation’s independence is required because British rule is illegitimate not because it is oppressive; Ireland was therefore not being disloyal to the Empire because it had never been loyal, there were no grounds for loyalty in the first place.

The national freedom of the Irish people has been asserted ‘six times in the last three hundred years . . . in arms’, referring to 1641, 1689, 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867, although only the last four can really be said to involve claims to national freedom and on the last two occasions rebellion was effectively aborted.

In this strike for freedom the Proclamation ends by placing its faith in God and demanding that the people be ready to sacrifice themselves so that the Irish nation prove itself worthy of its destiny.  The people must prove themselves to the nation.

The fourth paragraph of the Proclamation is in effect the nationalist response to the threat to the unity of this nation posed by Unionism, particularly that centred in the North-East of the country. ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ Just as the Irish Volunteers were a response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, just as the gunrunning at Larne was emulated by the gun running at Howth and the failure to acquire German guns at Easter 1916, so the Proclamation here is the nationalist reply to the Ulster Covenant that signalled Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule.

This opposition rested on the view that “Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire.”  The Unionists pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.”

The Proclamation stated that “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 of all 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 authors and signatories to the Proclamation had, and could not have had, any expectation that their appeal would have any material impact on Unionist opposition to Irish independence.  By 1916 the British had agreed partition with the Northern Unionists and the ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ signed in blood to oppose Home Rule for all of Ireland became a badge of honour for Unionism in six counties and a piece of hypocrisy for those Unionists in the rest of the island.  Soon the Northern unionists, or some of them, would not even be Irish.

In testament to the division created by partition and in unconscious repudiation of its centrality to the Proclamation’s signatories, the promise to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’ has come to be understood as a commitment to some sort of social and economic equality  or even a commitment to children as such; the latter a response to the independent  Irish State’s history of privileging defence of the Catholic Church despite its abominable physical and sexual abuse of children.

The Proclamation states that the principle on which independence is based is ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ which itself is based on Pearse’s ‘The Sovereign People’ in which he states that:

“The right and privilege to make laws or to administer laws does not reside in any class within the nation; it resides in the whole nation, that is, in the whole people, and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegated by the whole people.  The right to the control of the material resources of the nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and in the manner in which the whole people ordains.”  For Pearse this is based on the teachings of the founder of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone, who led the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen.

“To insist upon the sovereign control of the nation over all the property within the nation is not to disallow the right to private property.  It is for the nation to determine to what extent private property may be held by its members, and in what items of the nation’s material resources private property may be allowed.”

In the history of the Irish working class movement it is a Workers Republic that is the goal; power derives from the nature of the contending classes within society and all talk of the nation obscures the power of the capitalist class to determine the nature of society.  Private property, what the socialist tradition calls bourgeois property, is the basis of exploitation of the working class, and contrary to the implicit assumption of the President of Ireland, the Proclamation and the Rising made no claims to end exploitation and no claims to upset the hierarchies of class rule.

As a nationalist document the Proclamation upheld the view that the nation stands above classes, a view that always upholds private bourgeois property.  For socialists the material resources that are the content of property must be owned by that class which collectively through its cooperative labour creates and recreates these material resources. The Proclamation upheld the priority of the nation, where socialists uphold the priority of the working class to determine the nature of property relations.

Today, in fact since it was first written, the Proclamation has been interpreted for its meaning for the struggles of today.  This is as it should be.  What is not as it should be is to interpret the words of the Proclamation anachronistically and give of them a meaning that they did not have.  In trying thus to demonstrate the relevance of the Proclamation those doing so inadvertently subvert its true relevance.

When we remember those who fought in the Rising we should remember all who fought.  When we evoke the words of their Proclamation we should recall what those words meant to those who led down their lives fighting that they be given effect.

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Remembering the Rising part 1- the men of 1916

brendanrebels1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When British Army reinforcements arrived in Kingstown to put down the Easter Rising in 1916 many of the soldiers thought they had been sent to France and one Cockney soldier ‘wondered how everyone he met spoke such good English.’  On Wednesday morning, on day three of the Rising, hundreds of these soldiers marched into South Dublin along Northumberland Road where Eamon De Valera, who was commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, had anticipated this approach and had placed two outposts along the Road approaching Mount Street Bridge.

The Volunteers here waited until the advance detachment of the British had passed before opening fire: ‘those who came in our direction were completely wiped out’, said one Volunteer.  “Isn’t this a great day for Ireland” said Volunteer Paddy Doyle.  The engagement that followed at Mount Street Bridge accounted for almost half British Army casualties in the Rising and only sheer weight of numbers and superior firepower allowed the British forces to eventually push through.  Volunteer James Doyle, who had been knocked unconscious during the fighting, woke up to find that his outpost had been ripped apart by bullets and explosions and that his comrade Paddy Doyle was dead.

The 4th Battalion, ordered to take over the South Dublin Union -, the largest poorhouse in the country with three thousand inmates – included William Cosgrave who was quartermaster to Eamonn Ceannt, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Republic.  Cosgrave later took over command from Cathal Brugha after Brugha was so badly wounded by a grenade that he was not expected to survive.

Brugha “was a hard hater of everything British” and “knew nothing of fear and had little sympathy for anyone who did.”  When the Volunteers were forced to vacate their position in the nurse’s home  one asked Cosgrave if they would take Brugha with them even though Brugha, thinking he was done for, had told the volunteers to leave.  Cosgrave replied that “a soldier’s duty was to obey and pointed the way with a .45 revolver swinging on his finger.”  Nevertheless Brugha was later to say that he remembered Cosgrave’s “extreme kindness” when he was wounded and would not forget it.

Cosgrave had been at the inaugural meeting of the Volunteers at the Rotunda in Dublin and took part in the gun running at Howth. His brother also participated in the Rising and was shot dead by a British sniper during the fighting.  Though his garrison was complimented by one of the British commanders for having fought against great odds his court martial, lasting only ten to fifteen minutes, declared a sentence of “guilty, death by being shot.”  However, like many others receiving the same verdict he escaped the death penalty.

Commandant De Valera, who was responsible for the Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge and for the extent of the British losses inflicted there, also escaped execution by the British, the only commandant not to be shot by a British firing squad.

Cosgrave later became a leader of the pro-Treaty faction of the republican movement and became head of the Free State after the death of Michael Collins.  The split in the movement over the Treaty led to civil war, amongst the first casualties of which was Cathal Brugha.

In pursuit of this civil war Cosgrave introduced military courts, saying that “we are not going to treat rebels as prisoners of war.” This included the execution of four prominent members of the anti-Treaty movement in retaliation for the killing of a pro-Treaty TD, Cosgrave stating that “terror meets terror.”  One of the four was Rory O’Connor, who was wounded in the Rising, and another the radical republican Liam Mellows who in 1916 had led the biggest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in attacks in County Galway.

‘The Irish Times’ noted that this action “eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown” and even Catholic Archbishop Byrne expressed dismay.  Seventy more anti-Treaty republicans were executed in the next five months, including Erskine Childers who had been on board the Asgard when it landed guns in Howth.

As later head of the new Free State Government Cosgrave introduced a conservative policy of low taxation, balanced budgets and free trade, leading for example to a cut in the pension for the blind and a particularly unpopular cut in the old age pension of 10 per cent in 1924.  Social policy included heavy censorship of films and literature, including a Committee on Evil Literature, plus legislation to outlaw divorce and “the unnatural prevention of conception”.

In 1932 the Cosgrave led Cumann na nGaedheal party failed to convince the electorate that the Fianna Fail party was communist, beginning decades of domination of that party led by De Valera before the reins of Taoiseach passed to fellow 1916 veteran Sean Lemass in 1959.  His economic policy was less centred on agriculture and during the protectionist 1930s he was willing to promote national industrial development behind tariffs.  His new constitution of the Irish State in 1937 recognised the special position of the Catholic Church and the position of women in the home.

He kept the Irish State out of and officially neutral during the Second World War and also used hated Cumann na nGaedheal laws to drag members of the remaining IRA before military tribunals, introducing internment of republicans and letting prisoners die on hunger strike. He also, like the Free State forces during the civil war and indeed the British, carried out executions of IRA members by firing squad.  These included Patrick McGrath, another veteran of 1916.

While Liam Mellows had led the largest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in 1916 it was the Volunteers of the 5th Battalion led by Thomas Ashe in North Dublin and Meath that inflicted the most casualties.  These forces led by Ashe were joined by another smaller group of Volunteers led by Richard Mulcahy, a future chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army.

Mulcahy’s plans for Easter originally involved a three-day religious retreat and a holiday with his family and while he got away on the first the second had to wait.  Suffering from the same confusion of many volunteers who had seen the countermanding order against mobilisation by the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin Mac Neill, he went out uniformed ready to take part in the Rising if one was to take place.

After bumping into James Connolly, who didn’t confirm any plans to him, he later met Thomas MacDonagh, who told him to be ready to “strike at twelve”.  This involved destruction of cables at Howth railway junction and with two other Volunteers he set off to carry out his orders, only to find out that one of his comrades had left his gun at home!  Having got the errant revolutionary to go home and get his weapon the group came across two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who fortunately were so used to Volunteers marching about that they passed them by with hardly a glance.  The Volunteers then carried out their orders and cut the Howth communication cables.

Having met up with Ashe, Mulcahy was made second-in-command, together leading the attack on two RIC barracks at Swords and Donabate.  It was the attack on the barracks at Ashbourne however that was to be most dramatic and testified to the leadership qualities of Mulcahy.

Realising that the Rising had not gone to plan a number of the 5th Battalion Volunteers questioned the legitimacy of their actions and continuation of their attacks.  In response Mulcahy gave a lecture on their duty to their country and after calling a vote only a handful failed to take the step forward that indicated their willingness to continue the fight.

The next day the Battalion attacked the Ashbourne barracks, defended by only ten RIC men.  Just as the RIC inside were about to surrender a seventeen –strong column of cars containing at least fifty-four police appeared, threatening to reverse the outcome of the engagement and provoke a panicked rout.

Mulcahy prevented the panic and led the outnumbered Volunteers in holding their ground against the new RIC column, surrounding it and subjecting it to relentless fire from all angles – one volunteer Bernard McAllister recalled that “we had a clear view and decimated them with our fire. Some took cover under the cars but were visible to us there. . . our fellows were making bets as to who would shoot the most.”

Pressing home the advantage in an engagement that lasted over five hours the Volunteers led by Mulcahy pushed forward, resulting in fierce close-quarters fighting:

“John Crinigan of Swords looked through a gap in the ditch to locate any police, he was seen by D.I. Smith [Smyth] who fired at and shot him through the head with a revolver.  Vice-Commandant Frank Lawless who was immediately behind joined fire on the D.I. with a Howth Mauser rifle at a distance of about 6 yards and shot him through the head.”

Richard Mulcahy then led a bayonet charge against the RIC who surrendered by throwing their rifles out on the road.

The victory was possible for a number of reasons, including that Mulcahy was able to convince Ashe not to retreat when the RIC column stumbled on the original attack.  In many ways this action was significant because it prefigured republican military tactics during the later War of Independence in which Mulcahy was to play a major role.  One of Mulcahy’s colleagues was to remark that he was the only one to come out of 1916 with a military reputation.

In the history of the later struggle however Mulcahy was very much overshadowed by the figure of Michael Collins, Minister of Finance in the Republican Government, Adjutant-General of the War of Independence Volunteers and Director of Intelligence, often portrayed as the tragic hero of the war against the British, comparable to those who were to be executed at the end of the Rising.

Collins too had taken part in the 1916 rebellion and though not then the renowned figure he was to become it has been noted that he stood out in a number of atypical ways.  Before and during the Rising Volunteers showed remarkable piety and religious observance.  This was a reflection of the strength of Catholicism in Irish society at the time, a strength which captured many later popular perceptions of the Rising as enshrining a Catholic ethos, leading to portrayal of the Rising in quasi-religious terms.

There are many reports of the Volunteers praying, holding rosary beads along with their guns, attending confession and receiving Holy Communion before and during the Rising.  But this was not true everyone.  Near the end of the week’s fighting as the morale of some began to falter Collins rounded on a fellow Volunteer for neglecting to focus on fighting by saying “Are you fucking praying too?”

Collins and Mulcahy were to become leading figures in the guerrilla war against Britain and then in the pro-Treaty regime that arose from acceptance of the peace terms dictated by the British.   During the war Collins became the celebrated organiser of a special assassination unit called ‘The Squad’ formed to kill British agents and informers.  Although criticised for his apparently ruthless approach he cited the universal war-time practise of executing enemy spies who were, in his words, “hunting victims for execution.”

In 1920 a bounty of £10,000 (equivalent in 2010 to £300,000/€360,000) was offered for information leading to his capture or death.   One of his operatives in the Squad was Vinnie Byrne who had also ‘fought’ in the Rising as a fifteen year old, although he later admitted he never fired a shot and was released when the Rising was over after a stern lecture by a British officer.

Collins shared the leadership of the military campaign against the British with Mulcahy who also supported the Treaty, serving as Defence Minister in the new Free State Government from January 1922 until March 1924.  During the civil war that followed the signing of the Treaty Mulcahy earned notoriety through his order that anti-Treaty activists captured carrying arms were liable for execution and a total of 77 anti-Treaty prisoners suffered this fate.

Another of Collins’ associates in the War against the British was Joseph McGrath who had taken part in fierce fighting in Marrowbone Lane in 1916 under the command of Eamonn Ceantt.   He also supported the Treaty and as head of the Criminal Investigation Unit was responsible for abducting and killing Anti-Treaty republicans during the civil war.  A policy of repression was also used against the regime’s first striking workers in September 1922 when the Free State Government opposed the right of postal workers to withdraw their labour.  One of the workers’ pickets was shot, surviving only because the bullet deflected off her suspender buckle.

Collins had fought in the Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp at the GPO alongside Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.  Despite Pearse being commander-in-chief it was Connolly who was made Commandant-General of the Dublin Division, in effect leading the forces in the GPO, which was the headquarters of the Rising.  One Volunteer remembered that “his physical energy and strength were amazing.  He was always on the move”.  His principal weakness as a leader according to Oscar Traynor was his indifference to his own safety, which was characterised by other Volunteers as “remarkable coolness.”

William Whelan noted that when some of his number were shaken by crowds looting shops and began firing wildly “Connolly came out of the Post Office and marched up and down in front of it.  He said “Steady, we are going to have a good fight”.  He quelled the panic”.

Connolly was wounded twice, the second more seriously, ending his effective leadership of the Rising.  This also resulted in one of the most poignant episodes in the Rising – Connolly being carried on a stretcher to his execution as two members of the firing squad were ordered to aim at his head.  He died without any movement, the bullets shattering the back of his chair.

In his last meeting with his daughter Nora she recalled her Mother’s lament “But your beautiful life, James’.  “Hasn’t it been a full life?  Isn’t this a good end?” he said.  ‘Then they took us away.’

This full and beautiful life included founding the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; membership and organisation of socialist parties and the militant ‘Wobblies’ union in the United States; numerous Marxist writings on socialism, politics and Irish history and leadership of the Irish Citizens Army, which fought in the Rising.

In the centenary anniversary of the Rising we are called upon to remember those who fought.  Let us remember them all.

Forward to part 2