Nov. 2012, revised slightly January 2014
(also available in translation into Spanish)
The question of how a nation defeats a stronger colonial or imperialist power which has invaded it is one that has occupied the minds of many revolutionaries – principally those of democratic patriots (in Ireland, read “Republicans”) and socialists. The history of the World shows some victories in this kind of struggle, such as that of the Vietnamese against the USA. It shows however many partial victories too, in which the colonial power was forced to withdraw but where the new rulers of the country gave up the independence within their grasp and became clients of the former colonial power or of a new imperialistic one. The history of both the struggles for socialism and for national liberation, separate but linked in a number of ways, have provided us with many examples from which to draw general lessons which should be applicable to struggles of a similar nature in the past, present and future.
The Vietnamese nearly had the French colonialists beaten when they were invaded by the Japanese who, as they lost the Second World War, handed half of it back to the French, who then had to relinquish it to the USA, who emerged from the War as the main imperialist superpower.
The Vietnamese, in a country smaller than the size of the US State of Virginia, then took up the fight against the USA and fought them for twenty years, endured terrific damage and ultimately beat them. The USA had the best-armed force in the world, with the most powerful economy and constantly developing technology, with a huge population from which to draw soldiers and with a huge war budget. Yet the Vietnamese beat them.
Of course they were fighting for their homeland, of course they were courageous, clever and adaptable. But those qualities alone might not have been enough. They had some other favourable factors. They had already liberated half their country – “North Vietnam” — and the USA could not invade that country without risking China and even the USSR coming into direct confrontation with them. That part of their country remained for many years a safe rearguard area for the Vietnamese guerilla fighters of the Viet Cong and for the regular fighters of the North Vietnamese Army, from which they could be supplied with arms and other items.
The Vietnamese also had the support of the Laotian regime and of strong anti-imperialist forces in Cambodia, which provided alternative supply and escape routes for Vietnamese fighters.
In international alliance, the Vietnamese had the People’s Republic of China, which supplied them arms and equipment. In international politics, the whole of the world’s anti-imperialist forces supported them, isolating the USA politically. That fact, allied to the mortality rate of US soldiers, along with the rising radicalisation of youth, created a powerful anti-imperialist-war movement inside the USA itself which also played a part in undermining the morale of US military personnel in Vietnam.
The terrain of Vietnam is mountainous with valleys and plains, covered with jungle and bamboo groves or with elephant grass higher than a man. It hid guerrillas and regular army units very well.
And crucially, perhaps, the US monopoly capitalists could afford to lose “South Vietnam” – it wasn’t integral to their territory or on their border or even in their “backyard” (as they tend to think of Latin America). Losing it cost them face, a big deal for the world’s superpower, and morale at home. Their ruling class was determined not to lose and they fought very hard to win but as their political and personnel casualties mounted so high, another section wanted to cut it loose. That’s the political reason for “Watergate” and the impeachment of President Nixon.
Ireland is no longer forested and is much more urbanised than is Vietnam; it has no friendly liberated zone (the 26 Counties or “Republic” state is hostile to any anti-imperialist movement within the country), nor does it have neighbouring states willing to assist it or at least to turn a blind eye to its territory being used in assistance. It does not now have a good supplier of weaponry (which it only really had briefly in the Libya of the late Ghadaffi). In addition, not only is Ireland in Britain’s “back yard” but it seems as though the island itself is considered as integral to the “United Kingdom”, which is the base of the British monopoly capitalists.
But there have been and are other factors which an Irish anti-imperialist movement can use to its advantage which will be examined here in the context of the anti-imperialist struggles within the country during the last century.
It would be worthwhile first to take a look at a brief summary of the history of Ireland’s struggles against colonialism and imperialism but in case the reader should already be familiar with this history, it is included as an Appendix.
What were the options of the Irish national liberation forces at various points during the last century?
It is always easier to pass judgement on the actors and actions of the past – hindsight has 20/20 vision, as the cliché says – but it is necessary to do so nevertheless, in order to allow lessons of the past to inform our actions in the present and in the future. It is the options that were available to the revolutionary forces and the choices made in the Insurrection of 1916, and the guerrilla wars of 1919 and 1971 that are being examined here, along with their consequences.
The options of the Republican movement at three historical junctures will be examined:
the 1916 Rising
the guerilla War of Independence 1919-1921
the 30 Years’ War 1971-1998
The 1916 Easter Rising
In 1914 the first great imperialist World War had begun and by 1915 the scale of the slaughter was huge. Revolutionary socialists (as opposed to the social-democratic parties who had opted to support their own national bourgeoisies) wanted insurrection in order to stop the slaughter and also as an opportunity for socialist revolution– among these were James Connolly and the Irish Socialist Republican Party, who placed on top of their trade union building a large banner reading: NEITHER KING NOR KAISER! It was also one year after the Irish Transport & General Workers’ union, a recent breakaway from a British-based trade union, had survived an eight-month struggle in which the Dublin employers tried to break it. In the course of that struggle, the union had founded its own militia – the Citizen Army—to defend themselves from the attacks of the police and the organisation continued to exist after the lockout was over.
Revolutionary national democrats, i.e. Republicans, also saw the opportunity to fight for freedom while the colonialist-imperialist occupier was fighting other imperialist powers. They also thought that those countries which had won their independence or at least strongly demonstrated their wish for national independence would have their right to self-determination recognised by the victorious Powers after the war.
Constitutional nationalists, on the other hand, for the most part scrambled to show their loyalty to their colonial masters and, in the case of Ireland, recruited their fellow countrymen to join the slaughter on the battle-fields.
In Ireland, the secret revolutionary society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the open organisations of the Irish Volunteers (the leadership of which they controlled after splitting with the National Volunteers, many of which joined the British Army) along with the Republican women’s and youth organisations of Cumann na mBan and na Fianna Éireann, joined forces with the trade union and socialist Citizen Army (“the first Red Army in Europe”, allegedly according to Lenin) in an insurrection against British rule. It chiefly took place in Dublin in 1916 and lasted a week. After the insurrectionists surrendered to vastly superior British forces, most were sent to concentration camps, along with many others who had been swept up and interned without trial and most of the leaders were shot by firing squads.
Planning for the Rising
There were a number of elements in the plan for the uprising which are important to consider. The insurrection had been planned in secret not only from the authorities but also from some of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers including its commandant. It was intended to be a country-wide uprising. It was intended to be supplied with large amounts of arms from Imperial Germany, then at war with the British Empire.
The first part of the plan to fail was the failure, due to a change in unloading destination, to meet the German ship and bring the guns ashore and the ship’s subsequent discovery by the British, resulting in the capture of the crew (after they had scuttled the ship) and of Roger Casement, the Irish Volunteers agent who had travelled with them. The second part to go astray was the internal secrecy and when the commandant of the Irish Volunteers learned of the planned rising, along with the failure to land the guns, he canceled the order for the parades and exercises scheduled for Easter Sunday – the code description for the insurrectionary mobilisation. The Rising went ahead on Easter Monday instead, but with only about a thousand men and women mobilised in Dublin, much smaller forces in Meath, Galway and in Wexford and with no communication between the various local forces except by courier, a process taking days.
In Dublin the forces were stretched thin and failed to take some arguably important buildings, including the fortified Dublin Castle, seat of the colonial control of Ireland since the Norman invasion (which also had two of the top British officials in Ireland inside), and Trinity College, which supplied some of the canon used by the British to level buildings and from the roof of which British Army snipers were able to harass the insurgents, killing some of them (apparently taking this large building had not been part of the original plan).
The original plan for the uprising has been examined by a number of authorities – including some from a military background – and debated backwards and forwards. However, a mobilisation which can be cancelled or severely hampered by one person and that person not being part of the plan but who must be expected to learn of it is a monumental weakness. If such an arrangement is to be contemplated, one must at least put in a ‘Plan B’ in case that person attempts to disrupt the mobilisation, a plan which would include lines of speedy communication between the various units it is intended to mobilise.
Arguably another weakness in the plan was that the river Liffey had not been blocked (e.g. by sinking ships in it), which allowed a British gunboat to travel upriver and shell the city. It is said that James Connolly, commandant of the Citizen Army, had thought that the British would not destroy capitalist property. This was not ultimately a crucial factor as the British used other canons to bombard Dublin — but it could have been.
There appears to have been no plans laid for destruction of bridges or railway lines, perhaps because these were intended in the original plan for the mobilisation and communications of the insurgents.
Could it have succeeded?
But even had the plan contained these elements and the full mobilisation had gone ahead, how likely is it that the Rising would have succeeded? Ireland is an island but the British had naval superiority, allowing them to land troops anywhere they wished. It is true they were engaged in a war with other imperial powers and that they had committed most of their armed forces to that struggle. But was it likely that they would be prepared to sacrifice a possession so close to their heartland, a part of their United Kingdom indeed, and also so close to them on their western flank? Would they not sooner risk a possession further afield?
The likelihood is that, in the event of a successful uprising across most of the land, the British would have responded by landing forces at various parts of the country and, after fierce fighting no doubt, taken any insurgent-held cities. They would have been successful because they had superior training, numbers, armaments, air and naval power (of which the insurgents had none) and because they would have been fighting a largely conventional war in which those elements would be crucial. Subsequently they would have moved from those cities to defeat the detachments still active in the surrounding countryside. They would have been assisted in these operations by those units of their armed forces and police stationed in the country but which had not been captured by the insurgents, and by the Loyalist militia (which was substantial) in some of the northern counties. British control of the seas would have prevented any substantial help arriving for the Irish insurgents from abroad.
The cost to the British would have been substantial: in advantage taken by their enemies in time of war, in political consequences and perhaps in morale among their own troops. But who can doubt that they would have risked all that? Even if they were only to take the Irish cities and hold the loyal northern counties until after the War, they could then deal with the remaining insurgents at greater leisure.
What actually occurred, as we know, was that the Rising was put down in a week, martial law was declared, leaders executed and countrywide raids, arrests and internment without trial followed.
The War of Independence 1919-1921 and retreat from stated objectives
Three years later, the nationalist revolutionaries returned to the armed struggle, this time without a workers’ militia or an effective socialist leadership as allies, and began a political struggle which was combined a little later with a rural guerilla war which soon spread into some urban areas (particularly the cities of Dublin and Cork). The political struggle mobilised thousands and also resulted in the majority of those elected in Ireland during the General Election (in the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was part) being of their party.
The struggle in Ireland and the British response to it was generating much interest and critical comment around the world and even in political and intellectual and artistic circles within Britain itself. In addition, many nationalist and socialist revolutionaries around the world were drawing inspiration from that fierce anti-colonial struggle so near to England, within the United Kingdom itself.
The dismantling by the nationalist forces, by threats and by armed action, of much of the control network of the colonial police force, which consequently dismantled much of their counter-insurgency intelligence service, led the British to set up two new special armed police forces to counter the Irish insurgency. Both these forces gained a very bad reputation not only among the nationalists but also among many British loyalists. The special paramilitary police forces resorted more and more to torture, murder and arson but nevertheless, in some areas of Ireland such as Dublin, Kerry and Cork, they had to be reinforced by British soldiers as they were largely not able to deal effectively with the insurgents, who were growing more resolute, experienced and confident with each passing week.
However, two years after the beginning of the guerilla war, a majority of the Irish political leadership of the nationalist revolutionary movement settled for the partition of their country with Irish independence for one part of it within the British Commonwealth.
Much discussion has taken part around the events that led to this development. We are told that British Prime Minister Lloyd George blackmailed the negotiating delegation with threats of “immediate and terrible war” if they did not agree to the terms. The delegation were forced to answer without being allowed to consult their comrades at home. Some say that the President of the nationalist political party, De Valera, sent an allegedly inexperienced politically Michael Collins to the negotiations, knowing that he would end up accepting a bad deal from which De Valera could then distance himself. Michael Collins, in charge of supplying the guerrillas with arms, stated afterwards that he had only a few rounds of ammunition left to supply each fighter and that the IRA, the guerrilla army, could not fight the war Lloyd George threatened. He also said that the deal would be a stepping stone towards the full independence of a united Ireland in the near future. None of those reasons appear convincing to me.
How could the leadership of a movement at the height of their successes cave in like that? Of course, the British were threatening a worse war, but they had made threats before and the Irish had met them without fear. If the IRA were truly in a difficult situation with regard to ammunition (and I’m not sure that there is any evidence for that apart from Collins’ own statement), that would be a valid reason for a reduction in their military operations, not for accepting a deal far short of what they had fought for. The IRA was, after all, a volunteer guerrilla army, much of it of a part-time nature. It could be withdrawn from offensive operations and most of the fighters could melt back into the population or, if necessary, go “on the run”.
If the military supply situation of the Irish nationalists was indeed dire in the face of the superior arms and military experience of Britain, was that the only factor to be taken into account? An army needs more than arms and experience in order to wage war – there are other factors which affect its ability and effectiveness.
The precariousness of the British situation
In 1919, at the end of the War, the British, although on the victorious side, were in a precarious position. During the war itself there had been a serious mutiny in the army (during which NCOs and officers had been killed by privates) and as the soldiers were demobbed into civilian life and into their old social conditions there was widespread dissatisfaction. Industrial strikes had been forbidden during the War (although some had taken place nonetheless) and a virtual strike movement was now under way.
In 1918 and again in 1919, police went on strike in Britain. Also during 1919, the railway workers went on strike and so did others in a wave that had been building up since the previous year. In 1918 strikes had already cost 6 million working days. This increased to nearly 35 million in 1919, with a daily average of 100,000 workers on strike. Glasgow in 1921 saw a strike with a picket of 60,000 and pitched battles with the police. The local unit of the British Army was detained in barracks by its officers and units from further away were sent in with machine guns, a howitzer and tanks.
James Wolfe in his work Mutiny in United States and British Armed forces in the Twentieth Century (http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=8271&pc=9) includes the following chapter headings:
4.2 The Army Mutinies of January/February 1919
4.3 The Val de Lievre Mutiny
4.4 Three Royal Air Force Mutinies January 1919
4.5 Mutiny in the Royal Marines – Russia,
February to June 1919
4.6 Naval Mutinies of 1919
4.7 Demobilization Riots 1918/1919
4.8 The Kinmel Park Camp Riots 1919
4.9 No “Land Fit For Heroes” – the Ex-servicemen’s Riot in Luton
4 4.10 Ongoing Unrest – Mid-1919 to Year’s End
The British Government feared their police force would be insufficient against the British workers and was concerned about the reliability of their army if used in this way. There had already been demonstrations, riots and mutinies in the armed forces about delays in demobilisation (and also in being used against the Russian Bolshevik Revolution).
Elsewhere in the British Empire things were unstable too. The Arabs were outraged at Britain’s reneging on their promise to give them their freedom in exchange for fighting the Turks and rebellions were breaking out which would continue over the next few years. The British were also facing unrest in Palestine as they began to settle Jewish immigrants who were buying up Arab land there. An uprising took place in Mesopotamia (Iraq) against the British in 1918 and again in 1919. The Third Afghan War took place in 1919; Ghandi and his followers began their campaign of civil disobedience in 1920 while in 1921 the Malabar region of India rose up in armed revolt against British rule. Secret communiques (but now accessible) between such as Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and the Chief of Staff of the British armed forces reveal concerns about the reliability of their soldiers in the future against insurrections and industrial action in Britain and even whether, as servicemen demanded demobilisation, they would have enough soldiers left for the tasks facing them throughout the Empire.
The Irish nationalist revolutionaries in 1921were in a very strong position to continue their struggle until they had won independence and quite possibly even to be the catalyst for socialist revolution in Britain and the death of the British Empire. But they backed down and gave the Empire the breathing space it needed to deal with the various hotspots of rebellion elsewhere and to prepare for the showdown with British militant trade unionists that came with the General Strike of 1926. Instead, the Treatyites turned their guns on their erstwhile comrades in the vicious Civil War that broke out in 1922. The new state executed IRA prisoners (often without recourse to a trial) and repression continued even after it had defeated the IRA in the Civil War.
If the revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were not aware of all the problems confronting the British Empire, they were certainly aware of many of them. The 1920 hunger strike and death of McSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, had caught international attention and Indian nationalists had made contact with the McSwiney family. The presence of large Irish working class communities in Britain, from London to GlaSgow, provided ample opportunity for keeping abreast of industrial disputes, even if the Irish nationalists did not care to open links with British militant trade unionists. Sylvia Pankhurst, member of the famous English suffragette family and a revolutionary communist, had letters published in The Irish Worker, newspaper of the IT&GWU. The presence of large numbers of Irish still in the British Army was another source of ready information.
The revolutionary Irish nationalist leaders were mostly of petite bourgeois background and had no programme of the expropriation of the large landowners and industrialists. They did not seek to represent the interests of the Irish workers—indeed at times sections of them demonstrated a hostility to workers, preventing landless Irish rural poor seizing large estates and dividing them among themselves. Historically the petite bourgeoisie has shown itself incapable of sustaining a revolution in its own class interests and in Ireland it was inevitable that the Irish nationalists would come to follow the interests of the Irish national bourgeoisie. The Irish socialists were too few and weak to offer another pole of attraction to the petite bourgeoisie. The Irish national bourgeoisie had not been a revolutionary class since their defeat in 1798 and were not to be so now. Originally, along with the Catholic Church with which they shared many interests in common, they had declined to support the revolutionary nationalists but decided to join with them when they saw an opportunity to improve their position and also what appeared to be an imminent defeat of the British.
In the face of the evident possibilities it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the section of revolutionary Irish nationalists who opted for the deal offered by Lloyd George did so because they preferred it to the alternatives. They preferred to settle for a slice rather than fight for the whole cake. And the Irish bourgeoisie would do well out of the deal, even if the majority of the population did not. The words of James Connolly that the working class were “the incorruptible heirs” of Ireland’s fight had a corollary – that the Irish bourgeoisie would always compromise the struggle. It is also possible that the alternative the nationalists feared was not so much “immediate and terrible war” but rather a possible Irish social revolution in which they would lose their privileges.
Another serious challenge to the Empire from Irish nationalist revolutionaries would not take place until nearly fifty years later, and it would be largely confined to the colony of the Six Counties.
The thirty years war in the Six Counties
The IRA did not have much success in a number of short campaigns during the 2nd World War or during the 1950s. Sinn Féin, its political party, suffered a major split during the 1930s and the new organisation Fianna Fáil, which adopted a constitutional path, soon became one of the two main bourgeois parties of the new state. This party was in government during the Second World War and felt that its position of neutrality would be undermined by IRA activity against the British. It carried out raids on its former comrades, interned hundreds in inhumane conditions, subjected them to beatings and even killed a few, as well as carrying out state executions.
Sinn Féin reformed itself in the 1960s, revoked its ban on communism and appeared to be developing a socialist outlook; it also concerned itself with social questions within the Irish state and agitated on the question of housing. In addition it carried out campaigns of civil disobedience and trespass around the issue of private ownership by foreign landlords of Irish housing, land and rivers.
In the Six Counties the party contributed to the organisation of the civil rights protest movement but the latter soon outgrew it. After the police there had rampaged through their area and shot a member of the community dead (ironically, a British Army soldier, home on leave), the Catholic communities of Derry and the Falls Road erected barricades to keep the police out and in Derry successfully defended them against repeated attack by the paramilitary police, by their part-time reserves and by rampaging Loyalist mobs.
Now, when they felt that they needed the weapons, the northern Republicans found that their leadership in Dublin had disposed of them (allegedly sold to a Welsh armed group) and that all that was available to defend their areas was a tiny handful of weapons and only one of them an automatic. This soon led to a split in both the political party and the IRA and the new organisations proclaimed themselves Provisional Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA. The original organisation then added the word “Official” to their party and to their armed group. The breakaways quickly became known as the Provisionals (or “Provos” or “Provies”). Later the Officials became known as “the Stickies” (due to an unfortunate innovation of theirs in producing their Easter Lillies — paper representation of the flower to commemorate the Easter Rising — with gum on the reverse).
The Provisionals had no time for socialism. Many of them felt that socialist ideology was what had led to their being left without sufficient weapons when their areas were under attack. They reiterated the traditional soldiers’ complaint against “too much politics”. Also, they had in their leadership not a few of quite conservative Catholic ideology. On the international front, of which they had little, Fred Burns O’Brien, a US-based Irish Republican but a Zionist, for a time had a column in the Provos’ newpaper An Phoblacht, in which from time to time he extolled the example of the Zionists. A letter of protest from one reader that the natural allies of the Irish were the Palestinians and not the Zionists was not published and O’Brien continued to write in An Phoblacht for some time afterwards.
The Provos took on the British Army when it was sent in to prop up the statelet against the people’s uprising which the colonial police force seemed unable to quell. They were soon fighting primarily the soldiers of the British Army, the armed colonial police and the undercover death squads of both units. In addition, and to a much lesser extent, they were fighting the Loyalist paramilitaries, who mostly concentrated their attacks on random Catholics.
New leadership of the Provisionals
Gradually a new leadership began to form within the ranks of the Provisionals. The old one had become somewhat discredited – Mac Stiofáin for getting caught with incriminating papers, then starting a hunger strike to the death which he later abandoned. Ó Brádaigh’s leadership lost some credibility for their loudly proclaiming that 1972 and then 1974 would be Bliain an Bhua, the Year of Victory (which of course neither was). Also his leadership had held the ceasefire and truce of 1975, from which no advantage to the Provos could be seen, as the British reneged on the truce and brought in even more repressive measures; also the possible propaganda benefits were not prepared for and naturally did not materialise. “Moss” Twomey, Chief of Staff of the IRA and one of the original leaders of the Provisionals, had not supported the truce but was removed from his position due to his 1977 arrest by the Gardaí in the 26 Counties.
The new leadership, of which Gerry Adams is widely believed to have been the principal actor, with a group around him took effective control of the IRA and of Sinn Féin and the party’s annual delegate meeting in 1986 witnessed a walkout by Ó Brádaigh and most of his supporters (which did not include Twomey) who then went on to form Republican Sinn Féin (often since linked to the Continuity IRA).
The Provisional IRA (and for awhile, INLA, another split from the Official IRA) fought on in a hard war against a modern imperialist army and armed police force with their sophisticated surveillance systems and their Loyalist paramilitaries, managed by British police and army intelligence agencies. Armed Republicans inflicted heavy casualties on the colonial forces and themselves took many casualties. Hundreds of them went to prison for long terms of imprisonment and the prisons became area of hard struggle too. The area of operations of the Republican groups was almost exclusively confined to the Six Counties. Provisional Sinn Féin organised and ran campaigns throughout the Twenty-Six Counties but mostly focused on garnering support for the fight in the Six.
PSF did not do any serious work among the trade union movement and when one of their Ard-Choiste (National Executive) members, Phil Flynn, was a senior union official, he took part in reaching social partnership agreements with the Irish government that were to eliminate the trade union movement as any element of real resistance to the plans of Irish capitalists from then onwards to the present day.
In seeking alliances within Ireland, it was to the “Republican” margin of the bourgeois Fianna Fáil party that PSF, both before and after the split, made their major overtures.
PSF took no part in the struggle for the legalisation of condoms and the anti-conception pill. When the constitutional referendum on abortion was held, PSF were opposed and in the referendum on divorce, they equivocated. When the referendum on the nationality status of immigrants’ children born in Ireland was held, they pronounced themselves in favour of full citizenship but failed to campaign on the issue, restricting themselves instead to their local government election campaign. In other words, in four major areas of civil rights, they either took the wrong side or failed to mobilise. It was notable that on these occasions, PSF stood to the right of the social-democratic Irish Labour Party.
PSF also failed to organise around the issue of unemployment and of its resulting emigration, a huge drain of young people which affected most social classes in Ireland. In fact, the only one of the social issues in which they acted with any resolution was in the campaign against drug dealing. However, even there, their moralistic outlook treated all drugs as the same, with the exception of alcohol of course, which they sold in their clubs and which they illegally “taxed” in their areas, and of tobacco, which, in the form of cigarettes, they smuggled across the Border. Their solution to the drug problem was to intimidate drug merchants and to drive them out of the areas where campaigns were active. However, rumours persist that they actually “taxed” drug merchants in many other areas as one of their sources of revenue.
It was not to be expected that the majority of people in the Twenty-Six Counties, deprived of any leadership on any of the economic and most of the social issues that affected them, could be mobilised exclusively on the issues affecting a small part of the Irish population under another administration. Popular support for the Provisionals began to wane in the Twenty-Six Counties, aided by a hostile bourgeoisie, their media and political establishment, while in the Six Counties, war-weariness began to set in.
It was the struggle of the Republican political prisoners, largely male, inside the jails and their supporters outside, initially largely organised by their female relatives, which breathed new life into the Republican movement, particularly in the Six Counties. First the “blanket protest”, then the “no-wash” and finally the “dirty protest” led to the hunger-strike of 1980. This was followed shortly by another hunger-strike in 1981 culminating in the death of ten Republican prisoners, seven of Provisional IRA and three INLA.
The struggle of the prisoners and the campaigning of their supporters galvanised the nationalist community in the Six Counties and re-animated the Provisional movement. It also led to a successful Republican electoral intervention on both sides of the border, with a parliamentary representative elected in both administrations.
From then onwards a reformist electoral trajectory is perceivable among the Provisionals, linked to a guerilla war that is designed to pressure the British and to be used to improve the Provisionals’ bargaining position. In 1998 the Provisionals signed the Good Friday Agreement which then won majority support by a large margin in a Twenty-Six Counties referendum and a slim majority in Six-County elections. Subsequently Provisional Sinn Féin became the dominant political party in the nationalist community and electorally second force overall in the Six Counties.
The electoral strategy led to the organisation’s first notable split, from which arose in 1986 Republican Sinn Féin, which has often been linked to the Continuity IRA which appeared on the scene soon afterwards. In 1997 another split took place from which was formed the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, usually linked to the Real IRA. The 32 CSM itself later split and the heirs of that split are to be found in the Republican Network for Unity. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 1n 1998, a number of people who left SF and the Provisional IRA went on to form the organisation éirigí (“rise up”). All of these are opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, as are a few smaller groups.
In the 2011 general election in the Twenty-Six Counties, the ruling Fianna Fáil party was hugely reduced, due to a litany of financial-political scandals combined with the capitalist financial crisis, in which the government paid the speculators of the Anglo-Irish bank with public money. Their junior coalition partners, the Green Party, were totally wiped out. The victors were the next major bourgeois party, Fine Gael, in coalition with the social-democratic Labour Party. These essentially continued the policies of their predecessors. Sinn Féin won 14 seats, along with 14 Independents (mostly left-wing) and four from two Trotskyist groups.
The response of Sinn Féin to the financial crisis has been to call for inward-investment and job-creation while saying that “there is a better, fairer way” of managing the economy. They have opposed cuts in the Twenty-Six Counties (while implementing them in the Six) but did not support the campaign to refuse to register for, or to pay the Household Tax (a new tax). This was the biggest campaign of civil disobedience in the history of the state and was successful; however the tax was replaced by another, the Property Tax, with the Revenue Department responsible for collecting payment.
In their ways of organising, the electoral emphasis, their slogans and their response to a militant civil disobedience campaign, the behaviour of Sinn Féin in the Twenty-Six Counties is totally in line with that of a bourgeois, social-democratic party, with the distinction that unlike most social-democratic parties it has no history or strength in the trade union movement. Their strategy would seem to be to build up their electoral performance in order to go into coalition government with one of the other bourgeois political parties at some point in the future.
The trajectory of the Provisionals from beginning to the present can then by summed up as armed anti-imperialist resistance in the colony, the smallest part of the country, attempts to win the southern nationalist bourgeois party (or sections of it) on to their side, electoral reformism with military pressure until negotiations, then total electoral reformism on both sides of the Border with participation in colonialist and capitalist government in the colony.
The possible revolutionary alternative
There was a possible and viable alternative. In the Twenty-Six Counties, that would have meant mobilising the mass of people on the social and economic issues confronting them: unemployment, emigration, housing shortage, lack of development, erosion of the Irish-speaking areas. It would have meant confronting the ruling capitalists, their political parties and the state on their comprador and neo-colonial policies, scandals, tax breaks, give-away of natural resources and production bases. For that, the resistance movement could have built bases among communities, students and crucially, workers, organising in and across the trade union movement, taking on the social-democratic trade union leaders on their own ground and fighting their ideology and practice of “social partnership” with the bourgeoisie.
It would also have meant organising and leading people in defence of civil and social rights – contraception, divorce, abortion, gay rights, citizenship rights for immigrants. Of course, the first four of those issues would have meant open conflict with the Catholic Church.
Then the Church itself would have needed to be attacked and exposed on the massive practice and history of abuse.
In the Six Counties, the nationalist communal resistance could have been built into large popular movement struggles, on the model of the support for the “Blanket Men” and the hunger-strikers. Such bases could have mobilised around issues of sectarian policing and repression, British army repression, housing, unemployment, education and even in the trade union movement. As the Catholic community in the Six Counties suffered hugely and disproportionately from unemployment, and as the Protestant community had the lion’s share of jobs, the trade union movement would have been the most difficult area in which to progress but nevertheless there were possibilities there.
Such campaigns required possibly a scaling down and certainly an attendant re-direction of military actions by the resistance movement. The electoral campaigns still could have taken place but with the objective only of supporting these popular struggles and to representing them in the institutions, not to colloborate with the institutions or to become part of them.
There were possibilities, options, for viable resistance and preparation for revolution in both parts of the country. But not for the Irish Republican movement, with its dominant ideology. It required a revolutionary socialist ideology based on the organising of the working class as the motor and leading power of a revolutionary movement. No major part of Irish Republicanism has ever come close to following that path and the indications are that it never will.
A small nation with a total population of far less than that of London is going to need help to take on an imperial power of Britain’s size and armed strength. Irish Republicans have always recognised this and in 1798 looked to revolutionary France, in the 1800s to the USA, to imperial Germany in the very early part of the 20th Century and again to the USA later.
With one exception, these were legitimate temporary alliances, although Republican France’s armada was prevented by gales from landing in Bantry in 1796 and the force that landed in Mayo in 1798 came too late and was too small to make a decisive difference. Also one landing of German arms failed in 1916 and they were in no position to help in 1919.
In the USA
The exception was the USA, which from 1866 onwards at least was clearly not going to help the Irish against England and the British Empire. The conclusive evidence of that was the occasion of the Fenian invasion of Canada that year, when a detachment of Irish veterans of the American Civil War crossed into Canada (then a British colony) with an even larger force waiting in reserve just across the river in US territory. At that time the US had a sharp contradiction with England because of the latter’s support for the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the USA closed the border with Canada, leaving the Fenian advance party cut off from their main force; they also arrested a number of the Fenians.
Until 1898, US policy had been concentrated on “internal imperialism”, the defeat of the indigenous tribes and the settling of large tracts of their lands by white people, who were then to be drawn into the hegemony of the United States. The US-Mexico War of 1846, arising from the US’s annexation of Texas, could be cited as an imperialist war but the territory contained a large population of US Americans and the US could have considered it part of its natural territory. But in 1898, the USA went to war with Spain and invaded and annexed Puerto Rico, invading also Cuba and the Philippines.
Once the USA itself became an imperial power on the world stage, it was interested in displacing and replacing the dominant British and French power and influence with its own, firstly on the American continent and outlying lands, then in Asia and in the Middle East (later in Africa). But it was not interested in the complete elimination of either the British and the French imperialists and was happy to rule the world with them as minor partners. As for depriving them of colonies, that would be only when the US could control them instead. For the Provisionals to believe that they could sway the US from its imperial interests, no matter how powerful their Irish-American lobby, was incredibly naive.
As the war the Provisionals were waging against Britain in the 1970s showed no sign of ending soon, they began to develop fraternal relations with some other liberation organisations around the world such as the Basque liberation movement, Al Fatah and the ANC. The relationship with Al Fatah was not likely to be developed to a high level, especially not during the first two decades of the Irish war – because the Provisionals did not want to lose the support of their bourgeois Irish American lobby and were counting on help from the White House.
After Al Fatah’s performance in the Oslo negotiations, the Palestinian ‘peace process’, the organisation began to lose the support of the majority of Palestinians, and was replaced in the occupied territories by Hamas.
The South African process seemed to yield some good results with black majority rule but how hollow that victory was has been revealed over the years and even to the naive, especially with the recent massacre of striking miners by South African police sent by the ANC government.
The Basque liberation movement is currently in a ‘peace’ process of its own which shows many signs of going in the same direction as the Irish process and others which have achieved or sought to achieve temporary stability for imperialism.
Inside Britain was another possible area for the Irish to cultivate allies. Provisional Sinn Féin had closed all its branches there during the 1970s but kept relations open with some groups such as the Troops Out Movement and formed its own support group, the Wolfe Tone Society, active in London only.
Thereafter, the Provisionals veered between seeking an alliance with the Irish community, with the British anti-imperialist Left and with the Left wing of the social-democratic Labour Party. With the Time To Go initiative of the 1980s, it was hoped to bind all these together but the alliance fragmented due to the manipulative and unprincipled behaviour of the interested section of the Left of the Labour Party, headed by Clare Short MP and John Mc Donnell (now also an MP). Time To Go ended up with only a handful of Labour Party left bureaucrats, supported by the trostkyist SWP and the Communist Party of Great Britain and, due in part to the latter, the small Connolly Association from the Irish community.
But they lost the support first of the Stop Strip Searches Campaign, next of the Irish in Britain Representation Group and finally of the Troops Out Movement. The Provisionals stayed out of the fight but in effect endorsed the Time To Go campaign in Britain. One big London demonstration was convened in which organisations not usually seen on the Irish solidarity scene participated but little more was seen of the campaign.
Subsequently the Provisionals founded the broad campaign Saoirse to build solidarity with Irish Republican prisoners but folded the British section up when it began to grow in size, activity and out of its control. They replaced it later with Fuascailt, a smaller campaign which they soon wound up also, asking all its members to join their Wolfe Tone Society.
The Troops Out Movement began to get closer to the Provisionals again in the Committee for British Withdrawal (originally a broad planning committee for the commemoration of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry) and the whole Irish solidarity scene in Britain became smaller and smaller, mostly under the Provisionals’ control, with smaller Republican groups and some independent activists and groups not unduly influenced by the Provisonals.
Annual commemorations of the Hunger Strikers in Britain had become problematic once the Provos made it clear (without ever putting it in writing) that they would not send a speaker to any commmemoration to which an IRSP speaker was also to be invited. Since three of the ten martyrs had IRSP allegiance, this placed commemoration committees in a difficult position. They either had to collude in the exclusion and censorship being carried out by the Provisionals, or stand against it and receive no speakers from the main Republican organisation of that time.
During most of these decades, the Provisionals (and to a lesser degree INLA and later the Real IRA, with on one occasion the OIRA) also ran bombing campaigns in England. A number of IRA explosions, some through error and some apparently deliberately, killed civilians. One of these explosions in 1974, with apparently a failed warning, killed and maimed a large number of civilians in Birmingham. This gave the British state the excuse and climate to rush through the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act which facilitated wide-scale repression of the Irish community. That, combined with the framing of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and Judith Ward, along with a British media campaign, created in the Irish community an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. That in turn led to a huge drop in Irish solidarity activity until the Hunger Strikes of 1981 galvanized the Irish community and some British Left into action again.
The IRA’s intention with the bombing campaign seemed to be to wear down the British establishment’s support for the war and to terrorise the British public into pressurising their government to withdraw from Ireland. It seemed pretty clear however by the mid-1970s if not even earlier that the British state was prepared to invest a considerable amount of financial, military, political and judicial capital into fighting its war in Ireland. Clearly remaining in occupation and control of the Six Counties had an importance for the British ruling class above and beyond that which the Republicans understood (and this lack of understanding seemingly continues across the Irish Republican spectrum right up to the present day).
The British public had already demonstrated in published results of opinion polls its wish to see the British troops withdrawn from Ireland. The bombing campaign did nothing to add to that and only helped create a climate of public opinion that tolerated abuses of Irish people’s civil rights and their repression in Britain, along with a de facto toleration of repression, including state assassinations, in the Six Counties.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act specifically targeted the Irish community because it was the community with the biggest stake in opposing what was happening in the Six Counties and which had access to the facts with which to inform their British friends, workmates etc.
Despite lack of success in their apparent objectives and despite also their counter-productive effects, IRA bombing campaigns in Britain continued sporadically right up until 1996. Two years later the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of any possibility of the Provisionals exploding any further bombs although other ‘dissident’ Republican groups may return to these in the future.
Again, there were revolutionary alternatives.
If the Provisionals had given their work of building alliances some consistent impetus and concentrated it on mobilising work, especially in liaison with broad movements without attempting to control them, the picture in England could have been very different.
The Irish community solidarity sector should have been allowed to diverge into various groupings and political loyalties but encouraged to form a broad Irish solidarity front for British withdrawal with the same kind of broad support for Republican prisoners. The Irish community constituted an average of 10% of the population of British cities and was an enormous potential source of direct solidarity and also of information through their social and trade union links which could bypass and undermine British media propaganda and censorship.
At the same time, the resistance in Ireland should have forged links with the British working class — their exploiters were the oppressors of the Irish. Those links should have prioritised grassroots and revolutionary groups rather than social-democratic bureaucrats and again, much of this could have been done through the Irish diaspora (which was overwhelmingly working class in nature).
Alliances could also have been built with the Asian, Afro-Caribbean, African etc. diasporas in Britain, communities subject to racism and racist attacks in Britain and whose homelands were being exploited by British imperialism.
None of this would have been easy but would have, in the long run, been a much more productive and progressive series of alliances and would have meant the broadening of the Irish solidarity base rather than its contraction.
However, the Provos, as often the case with Irish Republicanism, preferred to oscillate between military actions like bombing on the one hand and reformist overtures on the other. Those who boasted of the extent of their commitment to the war against British imperialism by pointing to their military campaign and martyrs, marginalising the efforts of solidarity activists, finally ended up in joint administration of the British colony alongiside Unionists and colluding with the British colonial police force. Along the way, they surrendered the political prisoner status for which so many had fought and ten prisoners had died.
A military struggle in a small part of the island was never going to defeat British imperialism. What was also needed was a social and political mass struggle across the whole or at least most parts of Ireland, so that it could not be confined to one part or one section of the Irish people and so eventually contained. What were needed in addition were revolutionary alliances internationally, not alliances that would restrict and undermine the demands of the Irish revolution.
In addition, alliances with revolutionary forces across Britain were also needed and, in particular, a symbiotic relationship of the revolutionary struggle in each country feeding into the other without dependence by either. If at the moment when Britain has already sent or seriously considers sending armed forces of repression to Ireland, their British ruling class is simultaneously faced with revolutionary upsurges at home and abroad, that will certainly restrict their ability to deploy troops while at the same triggering collapse of morale and probably mutinies in their own armed forces.
It is possible to defeat British imperialism but not with the methods and politics of Irish Republicanism. What is needed is a revolutionary workers’ socialist movement, mobilising Irish working people wherever possible on the issues directly affecting them, practising revolutionary internationalist solidarity and making progressive temporary anti-imperialist and permanent revolutionary class alliances.
Unfortunately no such movement or even party exists in Ireland at this moment. Should we not build one?
Diarmuid Breatnach, Deire-Fómhair 2012 (revised slightly Eanáir 1914).
APPENDIX – Brief overview of the history of colonisation of Ireland and of resistance
Norman invasion and colonisation
In the 12th Century Ireland was partially conquered and part-colonised by Normans who had invaded and colonised England and Wales a hundred years earlier. The Norman rulers of England had reached an accommodation with the previous Saxon rulers (themselves originally also invaders and colonisers of parts of Celtic Britain) and became known as “the English” (the Gaels referred to them in the same way as to their predecessors, as “Sacsannaigh”, i.e. “Saxons” and, in modern Irish, still do: “Sasannaigh”).
Contradictions developed between these English and the original Norman colonisers of Ireland, those to whom the English referred as “Old English” (or, at times, “degenerate English”) and whom the Irish came to call “Gall-Ghael” (“Foreign Irish”).
The original Norman colonisers had, except in and near the fortified town of Dublin, intermarried with the native Irish, learned to speak Irish and adopted many of their customs, and developed mixed allegiances. The exporting to Ireland of the Reformation of the Christian church in England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in the mid-15th to mid-16th Centuries, along with the wars of Parliament against their kings – Charles I in the mid-17th Century and later that century, headed by William III against James II — turned the Irish of Norman descent into irrevocable alliance with the native Gaels and subsequently they merged with them.
Plantations, further colonisation
Successive plantations (mass colonisations) left many parts of Ireland occupied by communities of a different ethnic background, of another religious persuasion to that of the natives, speaking a different language and occupying the best lands, from which the native Irish had been driven. However, the colonists were still in a minority and eventually also had to come to some kind of terms with the natives. At the same time, a colonial bourgeoisie was arising (as it did in what was to become the United States of America) which saw its interests in many ways as distinct from those of England and, for some of them such as Presbyterians, even from the Anglican Church (the English state church) established in Ireland. These contradictions matured and merged with republican and anti-monarchical ideology and, encouraged by the rebellion of the American colonists (many of them of Ulster Presbyterian stock) and by the French Revolution, a section of this new Irish bourgeoisie (of British origin) joined with the native Irish towards the end of the 18th Century and came out in open rebellion against British rule.
The Republican uprisings of 1798 (three major ones in one year in the north-east, south-east and west of Ireland) were unsuccessful but most of those who remained in Ireland were henceforth to see themselves as essentially one people, the Irish, mostly but not all of the Catholic faith. The notable exception was in parts of Ulster, where in the aftermath of the defeat of the rising there in ’98, the Orange Order had gained social control and later ideological sway over the majority of the large Presbyterian community there. The political allegiance of the majority of the Presbyterians from then to the present day remained towards the British Monarch and state. As its colonists in Ireland they strove to keep Ireland for the British Crown and themselves in ascendancy and, in the early part of the 20th Century, when they could no longer do that, to keep the corner of Ireland where they had the greatest concentration safe for Britain and for themselves, subjugating the native Irish within their domain to sectarian oppression and discrimination in employment, housing, administration, policing and law.
However, earlier than that, back in the middle and late 19th Century, the Irish (now a mixture of Gael with Norman and English settler stock), under the “Young Irelanders”, had begun to prepare for Republican rebellion once again. But the calamity of the Great Hunger at the middle of the century intervened. Starvation, hunger, disease and mass emigration put off large-scale rebellion. Another large scale rebellion was averted a score of years later as the Fenians’ careful preparations were brought to nought by a pre-emptive strike of the British military and police.
As the end of the 19th Century approached, the Irish were again asserting an independent nationhood, through parliamentary reformist means, agrarian agitation (and later through industrial struggles too) and preparations for armed insurrection. While the states of Europe and further afield were locked in the First imperialist World War in the early 20th Century, the Irish rose in short and unsuccessful rebellion which however was followed by an intense guerilla war in various parts of Ireland.
The 1921 Treaty and the 1998 Anglo-Ireland Agreement
In 1921 the British negotiated an agreement which left them in occupation of six out of Ireland’s 32 Counties and caused a Civil War in 1922 between the fledgling Irish state and the majority of the previous insurgents, in which the latter were defeated. The new Irish state was managed by the political and bureaucratic representatives of the native bourgeoisie who remained basically under the economic and financial influence of the former colonial power, which maintained also its Six Counties colony under the local administration of the Presbyterian and Anglican bourgeoisie with social control of Loyalists by the Orange Order and control of the Catholic minority by police and military. The organ for social control in the 26 Counties was the Catholic Church, conservative and pro-capitalist.
No great change occurred until the late 1960s when agitation began for civil rights in the Six Counties, opposing discrimination against the Catholic minority (for the most part, descendants of the native Irish and Norman-Irish). As the campaign of protest and civil disobedience was met with the full violence of the statelet, later backed by troops from Britain, the Catholic minority continued communal resistance while a part of it engaged in a fierce urban and rural guerilla war. This lasted nearly thirty years, until a deal was struck (the Good Friday Agreement 1998) and most of the guerilla forces stood down.
Now, little over ten years later, the Republican organisation which led the fight against the British occupation of Ireland has become incorporated into the local administration of the British colony of the Six Counties and is seeking to become part of the political management of its neo-colony in the rest of Ireland. Sinn Féin has Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, that is the local administration of the British colonial statelet. The NIE implements cuts in services for the people in the Six Counties, as part of the capitalists passing their financial crisis on to the working class, also holding down wages. It manages the local police force which annually forces provocative Loyalist marches through Catholic areas against the opposition of the local people and carries out communal and individual harassment in areas of resistance.