Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


Revolution in Ireland

Conor Kostick
Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1917–1923
Pluto Press, London, 1996, pp. 239

ALL SERIOUS students of Irish history in the present century, all those British Socialists who wish to further the cause of the working class in our sister isle as well as over here, and all those wishing to understand the labour movement in Europe and its course over the last hundred years or so cannot afford to pass over this book. Packed with vital information available in many other separate publications, but never, as far as I know, assembled in quite such a masterly way in a work of less than 250 pages, it must surely deserve pride of place as the authoritative Socialist survey of this turbulent period in Ireland’s history.

This review cannot possibly do justice to the wealth of detail conveyed in the work. Instead I will try to trace some dominant themes concerning the achievement of Irish independence, the part played by the successors of Larkin and Connolly as leaders of Irish Labour, the partition of the country, and, in general, the policy and tactics necessary to advance the cause of labour in Ireland in those years.

The central thesis advanced by Kostick concerning the War of Independence begins from a consideration of the military balance of forces in 1921:

‘The usual argument given for the reason why, despite their determination to crush the rebellion, the British government were forced to the negotiating table is that they had been worn down by the War of Independence waged by the Irish Republican Army. However an examination of the figures challenges that assumption. According to both unionist and republican figures, approximately 18 policemen were killed by the IRA in 1919. In 1920 around 176 policemen were killed (251 wounded); additionally 54 soldiers were killed (118 wounded). Foster’s figures for the whole War of Independence are that 400 policemen and 160 soldiers were killed. This represents about one-fortieth of the police and well under one per cent of the troops in Ireland. If military considerations were the only ones, then the British were far from experiencing difficulties. The IRA numbered between 14,000 and 15,000 volunteers; however, due to shortage of equipment and ammunition only around 5,000 were active. Collins later said that “in the whole of Ireland there were not more than 3,000 fighting men”.’ (pp. 94–5)

Elsewhere in the book Kostick gives figures for the strength of the British Army and police: ‘By the end of 1921 the total number of police was 17,000. The number of troops jumped by a third in June of that year, to over 80,000, with the cabinet discussing the possibility for a “decisive and systematic conquest of the country”.’ (p. 92)

Clearly on the basis of these figures, other factors were at work pushing the British authorities towards some kind of negotiated settlement. Kostick argues that these were ‘the structures of a new Irish state and, far more importantly, the activities of the Irish working class’ (p. 98).

It became more and more difficult for the British to provide effective policing in rural areas, and the local courts began to be replaced de facto in many cases by republican ones. The rural poor began to seize land from the richer farmers, whilst the ITUC began organising agricultural workers. Against these threats wealthy farmers began to turn to the underground republican administration for help. But still more serious was the threat posed by the independent action of Irish workers (see Chapter 6, pp. 108–38).

Strikes and occupations mushroomed in the period 1918–23. Red flags appeared on numerous occasions, and occupations and other expressions of workers’ control occurred, called ‘soviets’ in obvious response to the momentous events of 1917 in Russia. In April 1919 Limerick City was declared to be under military control by the British authorities; Limerick’s workers, already angry at the treatment of republican prisoners in the area, answered with a general strike, and effectively ran the city for a fortnight. A year later, in April 1920, a number of republican prisoners in Mountjoy jail in Dublin went on hunger strike, and large crowds of people began gathering outside the prison. The ITUC, one of whose leaders, William O’Brien, had already been arrested and deported to England on trumped-up charges, issued a call for a general strike, which soon had the authorities reeling as locality after locality passed under the effective control of the strikers. The strike forced the release of republican prisoners in substantial numbers. Kostick argues:

‘The strike revealed that Irish workers had the power to defeat British rule. The two days of general strike, threatening to go on even further, did more to undermine British authority than months of armed struggle. Sinn Fein politicians were sidelined by the events, not wanting to be seen to oppose a popular strike against British injustice, but at the same time recognising that the working class’ independent activity was an implicit challenge for the leadership of the national movement.’ (pp. 127–8)

Finally, in May 1920 the railway workers decided to block the transport of military cargoes, including bodies of unarmed military in excess of 20 men, an action which lasted until almost the end of the year. Kostick argues – and his conclusions seem plausible given the parallel militancy of British workers up to April 1921 – that this working class resistance was an important factor in persuading the British government to abandon its plans for an all-out onslaught on the Irish rebels:

‘Looking back over the period ... it is clear that the British government were prepared to sanction an attempt at full military repression of Ireland. That they failed and started to look for a way out from the middle of 1920 was more a response to working class activity than any other force in Irish political life.’ (p. 137)

This working class activity was not only vitally important in bringing the Irish Free State into existence, but also revealed that Irish Labour, given the necessary leadership, could have made a bid for the establishment of a Workers’ Republic as desired by James Connolly. Unfortunately the Labour leaders who succeeded Connolly – William O’Brien, Thomas Johnson, Cathal O’Shannon and others – whilst paying lip-service to the goal of a Workers’ Republic, in practice lined up behind the apostles of national capital, aspiring to play the rôle of ‘loyal opposition’ after the manner of our own Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and similar individuals at the head of the Labour Party in Britain. The treacherous rôle of such people in a revolutionary situation is well documented by Kostick. Time after time, the leadership agreed to issue calls to action, only to seize on every excuse for calling it off as soon as ever they felt they had to and could do so. This was particularly evident in connection with the general strike in support of the republican prisoners in Mountjoy. In vain did Jim Larkin, stranded in America for the duration, urge independent action by the working class leaders, exclaiming: ‘I wish O’Brien and the others would declare themselves. Are they all turned Sinn Fein?’ (p. 148)

Such arguments, however, carried no weight with the Irish Labour leaders. As Kostick observes: ‘To have followed Larkin’s perspective would have been to endanger their own positions in a Socialist revolution. The Labour officials had found a home in their relationship with the nationalists.’ (p. 149) Their ‘neutrality’ over the 1921 Treaty (in fact it was an undercover pro-Treaty stance) deprived Irish workers of an effective political lead in the difficult situation following the split in Sinn Fein which led to the Civil War of 1922–23. According to Kostick, they even tried to block discussion of the question in trade union branches (p. 172). In April 1922 they issued a call for a general strike against ‘militarism’, which duly took place, but it failed to persuade the anti-Treaty republicans to concentrate on political rather than military opposition to the Treaty, and it did not really strengthen the workers either. The book contains abundant additional evidence of the inadequacies of the O’Brien-Johnson leadership, a leadership often denounced by Irish left wingers, yet not often so thoroughly and so convincingly.

Kostick brings out yet another pernicious effect of these misguided policies: their effect on the situation in the North where the Six County regime was attempting to consolidate itself. Here the damage started already in 1918 with the refusal of the Irish Labour Party to stand candidates in the election, the decisive election which resulted in the return of 73 Sinn Fein candidates, six for the Irish Parliamentary Party and 26 Unionists in a total of 105 Irish seats (p. 46; see Dorothy MacArdle, The Irish Republic, p. 247). The result can only have served to reinforce a laager mentality, a sense of dangerous isolation in Ireland as a whole, felt by large numbers of Protestant workers in Ulster. Yet other political influences were at work in the North, as is shown by the Belfast engineering strike of 1919, to which Kostick devotes a most valuable section of the book (Chapter 3, pp. 51–69). However, here again the post-Connolly leadership missed the bus:

‘The passivity of the Southern leadership was noticeable – they made no protest at the movement of troops to Belfast, nor at their use in breaking the strike. This failure to act, even in a modest way, must have contributed to the feeling that Northern workers and Southern workers had different interests.’ (p. 64)

This made things worse for Socialists in the North, where the recession of 1920–21 led to increasing unemployment and short-time working, events that provided the excuse for a savage blow against the labour movement in Belfast – the shipyard expulsions and the driving of Catholics from other workplaces which occurred in July 1920. According to a contemporary estimate, 12,000 people, a quarter of whom were Protestant trade unionists, lost their jobs (cited, p. 155). This, said the perpetrators, was the answer to unemployment; however, unemployment persisted and actually rose.

The leaders of Irish Labour failed to learn the lessons of such events. Kostick quotes Thomas Johnson in 1921 as saying that the workers of Ireland were willing to sacrifice their own aspirations for political power if that would further the national cause. His comment is apposite and devastating: ‘Partition was inevitable so long as the movement of the Southern workers confined itself to a nationalist agenda.’ (p. 151)

The book’s main virtue is the way it hints at the possibilities existing in the period whereby Irish Labour could have increased its influence by standing openly and fighting resolutely for a Workers’ Republic of all 32 Irish counties. This is illustrated by a statement issued by Galway Trades Council in April 1920, one of those statements of ringing defiance so characteristic of the Irish revolutionary tradition:

‘Well, the Workers’ Council is formed in Galway, and it’s here to stay. God speed the day when such Councils shall be established all over Erin and the world, control the natural resources of the country, the means of production and distribution, run them as the worker knows how to run them, for the good and welfare of the whole and not for the profits of a few bloated parasites. Up Galway!’ (cited, p. 122)

Such a policy would have involved a campaign in opposition to the 1921 Treaty and for a Workers’ Republic on both sides of the border, with no illusions in the anti-Treaty republican faction such as those exhibited by the fledgling Irish Communist Party, or participation in a futile armed struggle for a capitalist rather than a Socialist republic, as displayed in the Civil War. The call for a Workers’ Republic retains its relevance today, as Kostick notes in the conclusion to his absorbing study.

Chris Gray

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011