Thomas Bell

The Situation in Ireland

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 12, February 1930, No. 2
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

ENGELS once remarked in a letter that all the petty-bourgeois leaders of the peasant masses in Ireland were unanimous in declaring that the “Holy Island” was quite different from any other country inasmuch as the “carnal class-struggle” did not apply to Ireland. Unfortunately, even to-day, this conception of Ireland is quite widespread in Britain.

When Ireland is mentioned, eyebrows are raised and shoulders shrugged, or one meets a gushing, sentimental eulogy of the “Irish fighting spirit,” or of the “seven-century-old struggle against England”; at best one meets with non-critical praise for Jim Connolly, the Dublin uprising of 1916, and the struggle against British imperialism of 1918-1923. What is lacking is a serious estimation of the class forces in Ireland, of the actual condition of the proletariat and working-farmers, and of the role that the “Irish Free State” and the “Northern (Ulster) Government” play within the British Empire, and in relation to the growing antagonisms between the imperialist powers (especially Britain and U.S.A.) leading directly, to imperialist war.

Because of the indifference of the British proletariat to the brutal crushing of the Irish masses by the British ruling class, the Irish proletariat and working-farmers were driven into the arms of the Irish. Nationalist bourgeoisie, and, later on, of the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie. Owing to this indifference of the British proletariat, whole generations of Irish proletarians and working farmers have spent all their energy in the service of the Irish nationalist bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes, to the detriment of the proletarian class struggle in Ireland.

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Ireland assumes special significance in this period of preparation for imperialist war which is characterised by the irreconcilable antagonism. between Britain and the United States, and the preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union. The military significance of Ireland for England needs no emphasis. The possibility of a repetition of the 1916 uprising is not neglected by the British imperialists. Because of the possibility of Ireland being used as a hostile war base and its importance as a source of food supplies, Ireland must play a large part in the war plans of Britain. This was the basis of the creation of the Six Counties area, and the retention of the British naval bases under the 1921 Treaty. That U.S. imperialism is quite aware of this is shown by the visit of Kellogg to Ireland in the summer of last year and his refusal to visit London. This event was part of the U.S. policy of encouraging the disintegration tendencies of the national bourgeoisies of the British dominions.

British imperialism has a firm ally in the Irish bourgeoisie, but the leading party of the Irish bourgeoisie (Cumann na nGaedhael) is willing to flirt with U.S. imperialism in order to squeeze concessions from Britain and loans with which to overcome its unfavourable economic position. Fianna Fail’s American orientation has its basis in De Valera’s desire to maintain a semblance of opposition to Britain and thus preserve his followers among the petty-bourgeoisie, the farmers, and the proletariat. Sinn Fein (and sections of the Irish Republican Army), because of their bourgeois-nationalist ideology, indirectly support U.S. imperialism on the grounds that “England’s enemy is Ireland’s friend”—thus repeating in another guise their pro-German position in the last war.

The Irish Free State set up as a result of the Treaty of 1921 is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, ruling the country in direct alliance with British imperialism. The establishment of the Free State marked the end of Sinn Fein as the party of the revolutionary national liberation movement against British imperialism. The split of Sinn Fein in 1921 was over the terms of the Treaty and not on the question of the continuation of the revolutionary-national struggle against Britain. This is shown by the fact that the counter-proposals of De Valera at that time only differed in phraseology and not in political content from the Treaty of Lloyd George and Griffiths.

However, the opponents to the Treaty represented a section of Sinn Fein composed of petty-bourgeois elements, workers, farmers and agricultural labourers who were opposed to the abandonment of the struggle without the establishment of an Irish Republic. This element, rather than the De Valera leadership, was responsible for the uprising against the Treaty which was crushed after more than a year of civil war.

Since that time the Free State has consolidated itself, through a coalition of the Cumann na nGaedhael, the Farmers’ Party, the Unionists, and the Independents, into a typical bourgeois government, representing the interests of the financiers, industrial capitalists and big farmers. Such legislation as the Coercion Laws, Censorship Laws, the consolidation of the educational system in the hands of the Catholic clergy, are characteristic of the policy of the government.

Since 1922 that section of Sinn Fein led by De Valera which opposed the Treaty has turned into a mere constitutional opposition party on the basis of the Free State, and is preparing to become the ruling party on the basis of the Treaty which it pretended to oppose. The second split of Sinn Fein in 1927, through the formation of the Fianna Fail, rid De Valera of the more intransigent nationalist elements, and cleared the way for the entrance into the Dail and the decision to take the oath of loyalty to the British crown which was hypocritically termed “an empty formula” in order to smooth the way to the capitulation to the acceptance of the Free State. This step was taken not to continue the revolutionary nationalist struggle against British imperialism, but to liquidate the last remnants of that struggle.

In the 1927 election campaign, De Valera made it clear that Fianna Fail was opposed to the struggle against British imperialism when he declared that Fianna Fail would be prepared to form a government on the basis of the Free State, avoided the question of land distribution, opposed any repudiation of debts, and disguised its stand for the continuation of the payment of the Land Annuities by vaguely speaking of paying them into a central fund in Dublin. To emphasise the constitutionality of his programme he stated that “A future Republican Government could not ignore all the acts of its predecessors,” i.e., a policy of continuation of the government on the basis of the Free State constitution. Since 1927 many capitalist elements have joined Fianna Fail. This development of Fianna Fail has completed the process of its abandonment of the national revolutionary struggle against British imperialism, and turned it into a “loyal opposition” on the basis of the Free State.

Undoubtedly, Fianna Fail still enjoys popular support among the petty-bourgeoisie of the city and country and among the city and rural workers, because they do not understand that Fianna Fail has abandoned the struggle against British imperialism and has become a party of the Irish bourgeoisie basing itself upon the acceptance of the Free State, ignoring the needs of the masses, and the real problems of independence from Britain, the land question, the unity of the country, &c. In order to retain this support, De Valera still continues to make gestures of opposition to British imperialism (for instance, his recent arrest in Belfast will strengthen the belief that he is fighting British imperialism), and flirts with America in order to be able to squeeze concessions from Britain, secure loans from the U.S.A., and generally keep alive the pretence of fighting British imperialism. The coming to power of Fianna Fail as the ruling party in the Free State will expose it, to its followers as a counter-revolutionary party of the Irish bourgeoisie.

The remnant of the old Sinn Fein, under the leadership of Mary MacSwinney, has been reduced to an impotent group, which becomes more and more removed from reality as the Free State consolidates itself, and seeks refuge in calling together an “Irish Parliament” which adopts a “constitution” for Ireland. By this play-acting Sinn Fein attempts to hide the fact that it has ceased to be the party of the Irish masses struggling against British imperialism.

In the I.R.A. are concentrated those revolutionary nationalists who still have the idea of freeing Ireland by military action. It contains proletarian elements, agricultural labourers and petty-bourgeois elements, and its confused ideology is the expression of its heterogeneous composition. Because of its close relation with the workers and poor farmers and its opposition to the desertion of the bulk of the nationalist movement to an alliance with British imperialism, there has developed inside the I.R.A. a group which sees that the only force that can carry the revolution forward is the proletariat and poor farmers. At the same time, there are groups dominated by a bourgeois viewpoint who only visualise the continuation of the struggle as one for the realisation of the programme of Sinn Fein, i.e., national freedom from Britain.

The Irish Labour Party, hitherto based upon the trade unions, has been consistently a tool of British imperialism, maintaining “neutrality” during the years of the armed struggle against Britain, aiding Lloyd George to force the acceptance of the 1921 Treaty; and, since the establishment of the Free State Parliament, has played the rôle of a loyal opposition, carrying on intrigues with every party in order to become part of the government at any cost. It has repeatedly, through Johnson, leader of the party, made public declarations which implied a willingness to abandon its programme and join with any party, if this will bring to the petty-bourgeois gang who lead it a few ministerial posts, and has assured the Irish bourgeoisie of its readiness to join in crushing any organisation which attempts to overthrow the Free State. The Labour Party is an organic part of the counterrevolutionary parties which compose the Free State Parliament.

The economic situation in the Free State is unfavourable, and is characterised by an unfavourable trade balance, a decline in industry and in agriculture, and an annual budget deficit. To meet this situation, the Government has a policy of protective tariffs, subsidies to industrial enterprises, the attraction of foreign industrial enterprises by means of subsidies, internal and foreign loans, the electrification of the country by means of the Shannon electrification scheme, and attacks on the living standards of the labouring masses of workers and poor farmers. In the Six Counties area the same unfavourable economic situation prevails: only the financial support of the British Government enables it to maintain an independent existence. In Belfast the linen industry is in a state of crisis, while the shipbuilding industry has been in a depressed state since the end of the war, and the boundary established by the 1922 Treaty is an obstacle to the development of the Belfast distributive industries which supplied a large part of the country before the boundary was established. In both the north and the south the proletariat is suffering from unemployment and wage cuts, while the poor farmers’ lot is becoming steadily worse.

Not only is the Free State Government opposed to the confiscation of the large estates; on the contrary it demands that the farmers shall continue the payment of the Land Annuities. The Government Land Purchase and Credit Scheme works in the interests of large farmers, and the land distributed by the Land Commissions does not go to the poor and landless, but to increase the holdings of the larger farmers. The terrible economic conditions of the labouring masses in the country results in an emigration of over 30,000 persons a year. The larger farmers are organised into the Farmers’ Union, and the farmers’ co-operatives are capitalist organisations operated by them. The poor farmers and agricultural labourers are almost totally unorganised. In the villages the mass of misery is increasing, the struggle of the poor against the rich farmers grows steadily, while none of the parties in the Dail have a policy which holds out any hope for the poor farmers. The effects of the Shannon electrification scheme on the poor farmers will be to worsen their position. The only effective solution of the problem lies in the confiscation of the land for the benefit of those who toil on it. In order to develop the struggle of the poor farmers, and connect it with the struggle of the proletariat, it is necessary to organise leagues of small farmers directed against the bourgeois parties who still find support among the toiling masses of the countryside. At the same time the organisation of the agricultural workers into an industrial union is a burning necessity which confronts the whole Irish proletariat.

The Free State Government has taken the lead in the attack on the wages, hours and conditions of the industrial workers, through the establishment of minimum wages, and through the lowering of wages and lengthening of hours in State enterprises such as road-building and on the Shannon scheme. Rationalisation of industry and transport has resulted in increased exploitation, and unemployment. The decline of industry and agriculture, together with the process of rationalisation, has created an army of unemployed proletarians to the number of over a hundred thousand for the whole of Ireland.

The trade unions are rapidly losing members. Since 1920 the membership has declined by 30 per cent., and at present numbers about 170,000. Fully 60 per cent. of the industrial workers and 90 per cent. of the agricultural workers are unorganised. The trade unions are split up according to craft and trade, and not sufficient steps are being taken to bring about unity on an industrial basis. The leaders of the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party are typical reformists, performing loyally all the strike-breaking tasks that the capitalists demand from them. About 30,000 workers are organised in branches of British unions. The difference between the bureaucrats who lead the Irish trade unions and those of the British trade unions in Ireland is hard to find. In Ireland, as in England, the unions are dominated by a typical reformist bureaucracy. The Workers’ Union of Ireland, composed of unskilled workers of various industries in the Dublin district, has a policy of class struggle, and is opposed to the dominant trade union bureaucracy ruling the other unions. However, there is no organised Trade Union Left Wing Movement carrying on the struggle against the reformists.

The essence of the present situation in Ireland is, briefly, as follows: the Irish bourgeoisie, supported by large sections of the petty-bourgeoisie of the city and country, is ruling the country through the Free State in alliance with British imperialism, by means of Cumann na nGaedhael, Farmers’ Party, and National Party. The Labour Party and Fianna Fail play the rôle of “loyal opposition,” but are firm supporters of the present Free State. The Sinn Fein Party is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle against British imperialism, because it is essentially a party of bourgeois nationalism, while the I.R.A. has no programme capable of rallying the toiling masses. Only the proletariat, supported by the poor farmers, led by its own party, the Communist Party, and fighting for a Workers’ and Farmers’ Republic, can carry forward the struggle against British imperialism for the independence of Ireland and the unity of the country and for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.