The past, present and future of Irish republicanism

Submitted by Anon on 17 July, 2004 - 10:44

By Thomas Carolan

"Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique... in the possession of what is known as a physical force party - a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agreed upon no single principle, except the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain...
"The latter-day high-falutin hillside man exalts into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon, and in his gatherings prohibits all discussion of those principles which formed the main strength of his prototypes elsewhere and made the successful use of that weapon possible.
"Â…Every revolutionary movement in Ireland has drawn the bulk of its adherents from the ranks of disappointed followers of defeated constitutional movementsÂ…
"Their conception of what constitutes freedom was in no sense changed or revolutionised: they still believed in the political form of freedom which had been their ideal in their constitutional daysÂ…"

With the words above, James Connolly in 1899 drew a remarkably accurate political portrait of "physical force republicanism".
He based his analysis of the nature of such politics on the experience of the 19th century, but the proof that he got it right is that he accurately summarised in advance the entire history of physical force republicanism in the 20th century.
In the 20th century the pattern unfolded, again and again, but in reverse: wave after wave of physical force revolutionaries became constitutionalists. But it is unmistakeably the pattern Connolly outlined.
In the 19th century - and again after the 1916 Rising - disappointed constitutional politicians became revolutionaries, so in the 20th century disappointed, or half-victorious revolutionaries, became constitutional conservative politicians. In both cases, the fact that they had bourgeois and not socialist ideas was decisive.
It is when the gun-worshiping revolutionary republicans come down from "the hills" and participate in constitutional politics that their real political physiognomy, their political heart and soul, is revealed for what it is - bourgeois through and through.
Again and again, the pattern has been repeated.
The list of physical force republican parties which proved "abject conservatives" when they laid down the gun and turned to politics encompasses most of the political parties in 20th century Catholic Ireland. Just to list them shows the strength of Connolly's thesis.
Michael Collins's party, now Fine Gael; the De Valera civil war (1922-23) Republicans, now Fianna Fail; Sean MacBride's Clann Na Phoblacht - the physical force republicans of the 30s who went into Parliamentary politics in the late 40s and early 50s; the 50s and 60s physical force Republicans who became in the 1970s and 80s "Sinn Fein, the Workers Party", and then the "Workers Party" all followed the same pattern, from revolutionism, defined by adherence to physical force on principle, to domestication in bourgeois politics. The Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein, after more than 20 years of war against Britain and the Northern Ireland Protestant-Unionists, began to repeat the pattern in the 1990s; and it is still evolving.

The first Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein, began in 1905 advocating the reorganisation of the then United Kingdom into an Anglo-Hibernian "dual monarchy", modelled on the reorganisation of the Austrian Empire after 1867 into Austro-Hungary, linked by having the same monarch.
In 1917 Sinn Fein was reorganised into a "Republican" party. The new Sinn Fein incorporated the republicans who had made the 1916 Easter Rising, and the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. This secret society was the famous "Fenian" organisation, founded in 1858, which had played the main part in organising the 1916 Rising. The senior surviving commander in the Rising, Eamonn De Valera, became Sinn Fein president.
The second Sinn Fein proclaimed its goal to be an Irish Republic. It won 73% of the Westminster seats, for 48% of the vote, in the UK general election at the end of 1918.
As they had pledged themselves to do, the Sinn Fein deputies followed the tactics used by Hungarian nationalists in the 1860s, and seceded from the Westminster Parliament. In January 1919 they set up an Irish parliament in Dublin, Dail Eireann.
Dail Eireann proclaimed its allegiance to the Republic proclaimed by the insurgents in 1916.
A skirmishing war with the British forces and with the British army in Ireland developed slowly over 1919. By 1920 it had turned into a full war of national liberation in parts of the south and west of Ireland. A truce ended fighting in July 1921, and negotiations followed between the British state and the Irish Republic.

In the course of the negotiations, the contradictions within Sinn Fein played a fatal role. The British offered 26 Counties of Ireland "Dominion Status" on the Canadian or South African model. They told the Irish negotiators that the alternative for the Irish was immediate all-out war like the one Britain had waged in South Africa at the turn of the century, when Britain had put a large part of the Boer population into concentration camps. Those camps were not designed to be places of mass murder like the Nazi camps, but places of imprisonment, "concentrating" the population to stop them helping the Boer guerrilla fighters. But dysentery and other diseases did indeed make them death camps.
To the British a Republic was anathema. They saw their monarchy as the lynchpin of their Empire, which consisted of "Dominions" like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which essentially were independent states; Crown Colonies, for example in Africa; and India, where some start on home government was being made.
Within a decade things would change - the loosening-up of the Empire/Commonwealth would find its codification in the Statute of Westminster, 1931 - but in 1921 the formal allegiance of the states of the British Empire to the monarchy was not something the British felt they could do without.
Offering dominion status, the British offered the old dual-monarchy advocate, Arthur Griffith, who was an honest man, what he had aspired to and spent his life fighting for. To Michael Collins, the head of the secret organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, they seemed to be offering what he summed up as "freedom to achieve freedom".
The Irish plenipotentiaries exceeded their mandate, signed the Treaty Britain offered, and came back to Ireland to win support for it.
After a long debate in Dail Eireann they won a majority of seven votes for acceptance of the Treaty. De Valera resigned as President and Arthur Griffith took his place.
When Sinn Fein split, the forces of property, the "stake in the country" people, the bourgeoisie and the "professional classes", many of them recent Unionists, rallied to the Collins-Griffith section of Sinn Fein, as did the Bishops and the Catholic Church. This was the new "Ascendancy" in Free State Ireland - a sizeable proportion of which had made up the old Unionist Ascendancy.
The republican secret society, the IRB - the most "Republican" of the Republicans - backed Griffith and Collins, and went into straight-forward bourgeois politics as the hidden spinal column around which the new Irish bourgeois state formed itself. The IRB organised a campaign behind its characteristic wall of secrecy to win support for the policy of its leading council and its "Head Centre" (President), Michael Collins.
In power the IRB set up a conservative bourgeois state. Collins and Griffith were both soon dead. A leading government minister Kevin O'Higgins summed up the ethos of their faction when he defined his ideal of a functioning social order as one in which the writ of the bailiff could safely run.
On the diktat of the British government, Collins and Griffith started a civil war to disarm those who refused to abandon their oath to the Republic, some of whom had seized public buildings in Dublin. In a war that drifted on for a full year, they established their control of the country. In parts of the south they had to organise sea-board landings to conquer the Republican areas.
Their measures to "pacify" the country included the shooting of 77 captured Republican prisoners of war and the internment of many thousands of Republicans.
Despite using such measures in 1922-23 and in the immediate aftermath of the war, they set up and maintained a functioning bourgeois-democratic parliamentary system in Ireland, modelled on the British.
It was a system strong enough to allow, early in 1932, the peaceful accession to power, after they had won a majority in Dail Eireann, of those who less than a decade earlier had led the other side in the civil war.
In fact the Free State, as a member of the Commonwealth, did much to widen the freedom of the Dominions, so much so that a decade later they, including the Irish Free State, were, to all intents and purposes, recognised as fully independent states, (in the Statute of Westminster, 1931).

In 1936, the De Valera government took the opportunity given by the abdication of King Edward VIII to slough off allegiance to the British Crown except as "head of the Commonwealth" - the formula which De Valera had proposed in 1921 as an alternative to the Treaty - and thereafter could rightly claim that the Free State was a republic within the Commonwealth. It was the ultimate justification of Collins.
Who were the Republicans who fought a civil war against the "IRB regime" of the Free State?
The Republicans were redefined in distinction to the IRB by opposition to the Treaty and to the oath to the King. De Valera's alternative to the Treaty proposed that Ireland should be a republic "externally associated" with the British Empire and recognising the British monarch only as head of the international association, not King of Ireland. That implied war with the British.
The Irish split, and the IRB turned themselves into fighters in Ireland for the policy Britain had coupled with a diktat and a threat of "immediate and terrible war".
The anti-Treaty republicans were not a single clearly-defined political whole, but a loose assembly of a number of strands, united by the negative position of opposition to the Treaty and "the Crown".

The surprising thing about the positions they took in the Treaty debates is how small a part the partition of December 1921 played in it. Both sides took it as a fact that little could be done immediately about partition; both sides took it as given that coercion of the Protestant North was neither a practical nor a political possibility.
"Northern Ireland" had ironically enough now been granted "Home Rule" of the sort the pre-1916 nationalists had demanded for the whole of Ireland. The Unionist leaders in the Six Counties did not want that. But the balance of Protestant-Unionist/ Catholic-nationalist forces in the Six Counties entity gave Home Rule in the "narrow ground" of the Six Counties a radically different practical meaning from Home Rule in Ireland as a whole. The Six Counties - one in three of whose population was Catholic - were, their leaders said, a "Protestant state for a Protestant people".
In opposition to the Treaty the running was made by the IRA, which contained a majority of those who had fought the War of Independence (1919-21). After Sinn Fein split - January 1922 - they acted under Chief of Staff Rory O'Connor as an independent entity, with its own leadership, the Army Council.

Faced with the majority for the Treaty in parliament and then in the country, the leaders of the IRA were pushed by the logic of the situation into talk and attitudes that implied minority rule - rule by the militarist republican elect, who embodied the spirit of republican separatism.
"Legitimate" power derived from adherence to a certain political outlook.
The chicanery of Collins and Griffith and the uncertainty of the political De Valera republicans had combined to deprive the election of 1922 of moral authority. (The two sides of Sinn Fein, Free Staters and republicans, made a politically nonsensical pact to re-elected the existing Dail. Collins broke the pact on the eve of the election, appealing for votes for the Treaty side of the Dail). From that a strange Republican political theology grew up.
The Second Dail was the legitimate power, whereas the Dublin or Belfast "partitionist parliaments" had no "legitimate" power.
The IRA militarists in 1922 drifted towards theories of military rule as against rule by elected representatives and the institutions that embodied representative bourgeois democracy.

They had more than a little about them of the attitude of the Cromwellian republican elite when confronted by the English Parliament in the 1640s - only, unlike England's oligarchical parliament, based on a very narrow franchise for the rich, Dail Eireann, whatever about the peculiarities of the "pact" election of 1922, had been elected by universal suffrage.
The leaders of the new IRA took to themselves the old ethos of the IRB, which saw itself as embodying the future Irish Republic. Except that they now claimed the right to rule and would contest it with the actual Irish government.
The IRA would convince themselves 17 years later that the legitimate government of the 32 Counties was a few surviving deputies from the Second Dail, those - and only those - who supported the IRA.
These could pass that legitimate Republican authority on to the IRA Army Council, which then could see itself as the rightful government of Ireland, with the right and the power to declare war on England - which it duly did, early in 1939, backing it up with bombs in English cities which killed a few passers-by - and the right to form international alliances against England, and it did that too, allying with Nazi Germany for war against England.
This absurd political theology was a central feature of the Republican outlook until the mid 1980s split in the Provisional IRA/ Sinn Fein; and it is still a force in the heads of the splinter-group republicans of the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA - the heroes of the Omagh bombing of July 1998.
But just as the "stake in the country" people rallied around the Free State segment of Sinn Fein and the new Irish state, so also the have-nots, the young people with millenarian hopes and dreams for a complete "Republican" transformation of Ireland, rallied around the Republican "irregulars".
"Raw young lads" were a sizeable part of the 77 prisoners of war summarily shot by Free State government decree (more than three times the number "executed" by the British in the War of Independence). They formed a sizeable part of the thousands imprisoned by the civil war Free State regime.

Sinn Fein TODAY

By Jane Ryan

Sinn Fein did very well in the European elections. They won two Irish seats, one in the Six Counties from the SDLP, whose now-retired leader, John Hulme, had held it for 25 years, and one in the 26 Counties.
They now have five TDs in the Dail, four MPs in the Westminster Parliament, 24 members in the now defunct power-sharing Northern Irish Assembly and over 200 councillors. Sinn Fein/IRA is a growing political force on both sides of the Irish border.
In political terms what sort of force is it?
Sinn Fein's weekly An Phoblacht significantly carried a picture of a young woman wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Michael Collins and the words: "You've read the book, seen the film. Now join the party." An Phoblacht some years ago gave unqualified praise to Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, which as history was a travesty, misrepresenting such Republican heroes as Cathal Brugha.
Michael Collins was the man who at the diktat of the British government started the 1922-23 civil war - in which he died - against the uncompromising Republicans. He insisted that his section of the split Republican movement had "won the freedom to win freedom" and could from then on build from the "Dominion status" they had won for the 26 Counties towards full independence.
For many decades Collins was "Judas Iscariot" to Republicans of the sort Gerry Adams and his friends were when they launched their war in Northern Ireland 33 years ago. Not any more. They know perfectly well which "Republican" tradition it is in which they now stand.
They believe that the Good Friday Agreement gave them the "freedom to win freedom" - a united Ireland - gradually and, perhaps, peacefully. They expect that the growth of the Six Counties Catholic population will, and reasonably soon, create a majority for a United Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement commits Britain to a United Ireland when a bare majority in the Six Counties want it.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein functions as an all-Ireland party, creating a network of links across the border, building up electoral and other support.
Sinn Fein, with its militant, disciplined membership, and a core of activists who function under IRA military discipline, is a mildly radical bourgeois - non-socialist, despite some lip-service to socialism- force in Irish politics.
The Sinn Fein/IRA organisation is now very rich; its leaders have learned how to play the bourgeois political game, and they do it brilliantly - far, far better than their Unionist enemies.
They may be right that, just as Collins really had won the "freedom to win freedom" - his surviving colleagues and later, his civil war opponent, Eamonn De Valera, used to establish an independent 26 County Irish state - IRA/SF is now on the road to a United Ireland and that it can eventually be achieved with British backing against the opposition to the Six County Protestant-Unionists.
They may also be wrong. The Unionists, reduced to a minority in the Six Counties, may do what the Unionists did when they found themselves in the minority in a prospective united Ireland - rebel.
Many previous "Sinn Feins" and "IRAs" have gone down the road from militarism to constitutional politics on which Adams and his comrades now travel.
The present Sinn Fein/IRA are distinct from all the previous Sinn Feins and IRAs. They are, despite their expansion in the south, mainly based on the Six County Catholic population; and they function as a nakedly sectarian party in the Six Counties.
Their paper incessantly agitates against the misdeeds of Unionists across Northern Ireland.
One of their stocks-in-trade is denunciation of the "sectarianism" of the Unionists - which translates "on the ground" in Northern Ireland into justification and exoneration of their own one-community Catholic-sectarian politics.
In contrast to that, An Phoblacht's Comments on Catholic sectarianism in the Six Counties are as rare as hen's teeth - not entirely unknown, but very, very rare.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein/IRA, in spite of being what they are, Irish nationalists first and last, strongly opposed the racists who won a four-to-one majority in the recent referendum to remove the automatic right of citizenship from some babies born in Ireland - those of recent immigrants. They openly branded the motives of most of those voting 'yes' as racist hostility to black Irish people.
They have called the vote a disgrace to the Irish nation.
The leaders of Sinn Fein/IRA are by no means contemptible people, nor in politics are they downright reactionaries. The point however is that they are not socialists.
They are evolving along the well worn tracks on which their predecessor physical-force revolutionary republicans travelled into bourgeois politics and became just common-or-garden bourgeois politicians.
The Adams Sinn Fein/IRA split in 1969-70 from the "Workers Party", "Official" Sinn Fein/IRA in defence of traditional physical force Republicans. (They also objected to their Stalinist connections.) In the last 20 years the Provisional Sinn Fein/IRA has moved entirely on to the ground of those from whom they split.
Many leftists in Britain backed Sinn Fein/IRA as an allegedly revolutionary socialist, organisation. Some of them spun delirious fantasies that Adams and his comrades embodied a drive for "permanent revolution" that would lead to the overthrow of capitalism in Ireland.
As far as we know, none of those who took that view have drawn any conclusions from the evolution of Sinn Fein/IRA in the last decade; many of them do not seen even to have registered it.
Sinn Fein still has widespread support on the British left. What James Connolly already in 1899 understood about the mix of "physical force" revolutionism and conventional bourgeois politics that constitutes Irish Republicans - all that is still beyond the ken of the British "revolutionary" left.
For that reason we begin here a summary of the modern history of Irish Republicanism.

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