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International Socialism, September 1977


Steve Berry

The Green Flag


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Green Flag
by Robert Kee
3 vols paper, £1.95 each

IRISH Republicanism has long presented the British Left with many problems. Many socialists have simply dismissed it as middle-class nationalism and as such a diversion from the real struggle of uniting both Catholic and Protestant workers in a revolutionary workers party. Others on the left have sown the illusion that the Provisional IRA can actually build a socialist Ireland.

It is because of this confusion that there has long been a need for a book which explores the roots of Irish nationalism.

There is in Ireland today a living nationalist tradition which can be heard in the songs and seen in the graffiti of the Catholic ghettos of Belfast and Derry. This tradition has grown with every murder by the occupying British troops and with every uprising that has been mercilessly suppressed. It is a tradition which remembers the millions forced to emigrate because of the economic policies forced on Ireland by the British ruling class. It is a tradition reinforced by memories of the quarter million who died of starvation and disease while food was being shipped to England under armed guard, during the so-called famine of 1848. It is a tradition essentially based on historical fact – 800 years of murder and robbery in Ireland by the British ruling class.

Socialists need to examine Irish history for themselves, particularly because of the republicans’ habit of distorting their own role in the building of this tradition.

To listen to many republicans, you would believe that the last 200 years have seen an unbroken, continuous struggle against the British presence, with each emerging movement being linked politically and organisationally to its predecessors. In fact there were very few links between the radical United Irishmen of 1798 and the conservative and constitutional movement for emancipation in the 1820s led by O’Connell. There was even less connection with the Fenian movement of the 1860s, who believed that only armed force would sever the link with Britain.

Republicans also tend to forget what past heroes really stood for. Wolfe Tone is remembered as a Protestant who came over to the Catholic side, not as a revolutionary inspired by the French Revolution. He believed that only an independent Ireland could forward the desires of the Protestant middle class, by removing the economic constraints on its development. At that point in time, the interests of his class coincided with those of the Catholic peasantry in the struggle to remove the English landlords.

Similarly, many a republican speaker will invoke the name of James Connolly, the joint leader of the 1916 rebellion. But it is ignored that Connolly believed that the class question and the national question were inseparable – only the working class being capable of solving the national problem, and socialism being unattainable while workers remain divided.

However, when it comes to Irish history, the real experts on distortion are the British ruling class.

Robert Kee is a well known TV personality and political commentator. The Green Flag, his three volume history of Irish nationalism, is written from the viewpoint of an ’enlightened’ section of the British ruling class. He doesn’t object to the British presence in Ireland, or to the exploitation of Ireland’s resources by the rulers of Britain. Everything would be fine today if only Ireland had been granted limited home rule in the early years of this century, and the profits would be rolling across the Irish sea.

For Kee, history is the story of great men and occasionally great women – the masses have only occasional walk-on parts. O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond all have chapter after chapter devoted to them, while the numerous secret organisations thrown up by the peasantry hardly appear.

Throughout the book, Kee stresses the difference between the reasonable moderate constitutionalist who asked for no more than limited home rule, and the unreasonable men of violence, who demanded an independent Ireland. So, incredibly, both James Connolly and Jim Larkin are dismissed in just a few chapters.

The book is worth reading for the wealth of detailed information in it, but the need for a book which puts Irish nationalism in its historic perspective remains. It will not be written by Irish republicans or bourgeois historians. Anyone thinking of laying out £5.85 for the Green Flag would be well advised to spend 30 pence on James Connolly’s brief pamphlet, Labour in Irish History – the best history to date.

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