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K. Johnstone

Report to Trotsky Regarding the Prospects in Ireland


Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Republic Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



1 Ampton Street, WC1

13 December 1935

cc: IS

Dear Com[rade] T[rotsky],


Last week, Com[rade CLR] James had the opportunity of speaking in Dublin, where he met Mrs Connolly O’Brien, daughter of the Irish Revolutionary, James Connolly who was executed in 1916 by the English. He succeeded in having Mrs O’Brien speak to the MG when she was here this week, on the Irish movement, and at the same time, Com[rade] Robertson pressed her to establish regular connections with our movement. She is on the General Council of the Irish Citizen’s Army, a military working class organisation founded by Connolly at the time of the 1913-14 Transport Strike in Dublin. This army has continued to exist, functioning in strikes and in organising work among the Irish workers and poor farmers. Its basis is the struggle for Political and Economic Freedom in Ireland, that is, the linking up of the republican national movement with the struggle for socialism.

I had the opportunity yesterday of a long talk with Mrs O’Brien on the ICA and the Irish movement generally. During the talk, I broached the question of International affiliation, as on many questions the ICA approximates our position. Com[rade] O’Brien stated that they felt the need badly at times of a connection internationally, for instance now when they are the only Irish working class party to oppose Sanctions and the League. We arranged that she should write for the New Leader, and in that way help build a tie between the ILP and the ICA, but when I mentioned that our affiliations extended to the Trotskyist movement, she was very interested.

She said that she was not sure, but that it had been said that you once met her father, James Connolly, possibly in America. In any event, she wondered whether you would mind her writing to you on problems of the Irish movement. I was not above the thought of using this as a means of getting closer to the Irish movement, and told her that you would very likely welcome such correspondence and give whatever aid in the way of advice that you could. I trust that I have not acted indiscreetly about this, and I shall review what facts I have about the ICA to give you an idea of whom she represents.

The ICA is frankly a military working class organisation of between 600 and 800 members, 200 of which are in Dublin. Every member is a member of a trade union; that is a condition of membership. The basis of membership in the ICA is the acceptance of the joint struggle for political and economic freedom; against British Imperialism and against Capitalism, whether it be British or the Local Capitalism of de Valera. Every member accepts the doctrine of physical force. Every member must be prepared to carry arms when necessary, and all are skilled in the use of arms. Women have equal status and responsibility, even to the bearing of arms. The selection of the ICA had been a rigid one, numbers are discouraged for the sake of quality; with the result (according to her) that the ICA is made up of tested revolutionaries who have occupied a leading role in the working class struggles over the last twenty years and more. Members of the ICA tend to become the key men in Trade Union and other working class organisations.

The Army has a yearly convention at which are elected the Central Council. Each unit elects its unit officers; but the political leader of each unit is appointed by the Political officer who is in turn responsible to the Central Council. This, she stated, is because they cannot rely on personal popularity, which would play a part in the election of the Pol. leader by the unit.

Last June, the ICA decided to enter the Labour Party, which since 1926 has been losing ground to the Republican Party steadily. At that time it had accepted the treaty of the British, which amounted to a betrayal of the fight for National freedom. As a consequence, its reputation suffered, and its representation in the Dáil fell from 26 to 7 in the intervening period. Latterly, with steadily worsening conditions in Ireland, people have become discontented with de Valera, and the Labour Party has endeavoured to capitalise on this by going back to its old position of National freedom, as well as the struggle for economic betterment. In tendency, it is much similar to the British LP. It came out against sanctions, but when the Br. LP supported sanctions, it falls in line with the latter. Earlier in its history if had been formally connected with the Br. LP, but feelings in Ireland had led to a formal termination of that connection. Fraternal delegates are exchanged at conventions, and in ideals the leaderships correspond. It is into this party that the ICA has entered as individual members. They have advocated a forward struggle in the party, strikes instead of class collaboration, and an outright preparation of the open struggle for Socialism. Their policy, due to the left sentiment among the workers, and the reputation of the ICA representatives, has met with sympathy and support. Further, the workers and lower middle class elements are renewing their interest in the LP, partly because the ICA has seen fit to go into it, and partly because the LP seems to be responding to the sharpening situation.

The ICA has representatives on the central council of the Trade Union Congress which is the only ALL-IRISH organisation in Ireland. As you know, the Border between Ulster and the South usually is the line dividing all Ireland. Even the LP has a different programme for Ulster than its programme for the rest of the counties. (A situation that the ICA is fighting). But the TU Congress is a genuine all-Irish body. Here also the ICA fights for a left policy and receives support for its line. An interesting strength-test took place recently, with the application of the ICA to a place in the Connolly Commemoration Parade on May 12. This parade is supposed to be open only to organisations affiliated to the TU Congress. But the ICA does not affiliate as an organisation. However, when the vote took place in the TU Congress, they had a 57 majority in a voting of approximately 110 delegates.

Besides its work in the TUs and working class organisations, the ICA has had signal success with the poor farmers. A year ago, a unit of the ICA attended an auction sale of land. They picked out a choice bit of around 100 acres, made their offer, and stated simply that if it was not accepted there would be no further auctioning. As they had the sympathy of the other poor farmers and the arms to enforce their threat, their offer was accepted. They farmed the 100 acres co-operatively and after paying union wages to themselves, they marketed the produce direct, clearing 400 pounds by abolishing the middle man profit. This has led to the popularity of their scheme, its adoption by the LP (who of course claimed credit for the whole thing, since they were in the LP) and enquiries and invitations from other poor farmers all over the farming area. Here again, the ICA prestige is high, because the members of it are men who know their business, know farming and farming problems.

I hope the above has given you some information about the ICA, and some basis of determining our attitude towards them. It may be that my report errs in small detail, but I believe the substance to be correct. The ICA is preparing a struggle inside the LP to take place in Feb, on a fight for a revolutionary programme. Com[rade] O’Brien has promised to send me a report of the outcome. If you have not, before then, been in touch with her, I shall forward it to you. Com[rade] Robertson has given her the address of Com[rade] Isaacs, and asked her to utilise our American press, which she reads.

With Comradely Greetings to Com. Natalia, yourself and the others,


Ken[?] Johnstone


PS The ICA has only a monthly bulletin with a circulation of around x00 [illegible], obviously not circulating outside their own ranks. Their fraction inside the LP does not seem to function in an organised way, and no real attempt to get their propaganda across seems to have been attempted. I would say that they lean over backwards in their endeavours to be inconspicuous. They have no illusions about the CP and debàcle of the CI has had a bad effect on their international perspective. Their relations to the Irish Republican Army are not formal, but not unfriendly. Comrade O’Brien would seem to be the most internationally minded of them, and I would think that she is still somewhat naive, I am inclined to the belief, as is Com[rade] Robertson, that the organisation emphasised the military side of its character to the cost of its ideological side. However, to us, the ICA seems closer than any other organisation in Ireland.

PPS I asked her about Tom O’Flaherty. She told me she knew him, met him often, but that he is politically inactive tho sympathetic.



Her address is:

Mrs Connolly O’Brien
36 Belgrave Street


Comments of Workers’ Republic Website

Would that this were an accurate assessment of the ICA at that time! Either Nora Connolly O’Brien did a very good job of talking it up, with Johnstone knowing very little of the current situation in Ireland; or Johnstone heard what he wanted to hear. It is interesting that the PS seems a little more sober in its summing-up.

James Connolly and Trotsky never met and it’s unlikely that they even knew of each other’s existence.

See the interview with CLR James for more comments regarding the position of Nora Connolly O’Brien at this time.

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