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Troubled Times

Peter Hadden

Troubled Times

Section One
The Creation of Two States

Chapter 5
Strategy of the Ruling Class


Old divisions plus the tragically false course pursued since 1918 by the trade union and Labour leaders helped clear the way for this defeat, but were not themselves the instrument which brought it about. That instrument was partition. Its architect was the capitalist class in Britain. The image of this class and its representatives sitting back and eyeing these events with a neutral eye is quite absurd. They acted, with more than a small degree of desperation, to preserve their interests in Ireland and elsewhere, to protect their system from overthrow.

The conclusion which Militant has reiterated many times, that the British ruling class partitioned Ireland to suit its own ends, is straight forward and entirely accurate. However, like any scientific formula, it represents the essence of the question and conceals behind it a complicated web of events, relationships and interests. Similarly when we argue that the British ruling class have pursued a strategy through the Troubles, and are now doing so with the ‘peace process’, we understand that different capitalist spokespersons have different views, and that there are various, sometimes conflicting, capitalist interests involved. Nonetheless, it is possible to detect a general trend.

The ruling class is a complex social organism. When we say it acts in a certain way we do not intend to conjure up an image of some kind of executive body meeting in a room to decide strategy. Within the present ruling class there are various layers and conflicting interests – financiers, industrial capitalists, top state functionaries, military chiefs, law lords and so on.

Rarely does this class take a single view. Even when there is an overwhelmingly predominant view there will be voices who will speak out against. In periods of revolutionary upheaval divisions which at other times are curtained off from public view tend to come into the open and become more pronounced.

The capitalist class does not rule directly but through governments – whether these are broadly democratic, military police dictatorships, or fascist regimes – over which it has to find ways of exerting its influence and ultimately its control. Consequently capitalist governments, responding to other pressures within society especially the pressure of the working class, can take measures which are temporarily at odds with the interests of the capitalists. Even when governments act faithfully at the behest of their capitalist masters the details of policy, the nuances of negotiation, have to be left to the politicians.

Just as politics is dynamic and ever changing, so the ruling class have no once and for all policy which they pursue. As world relations and class relations change so must their tactics and their strategy.

So when we state that British imperialism partitioned Ireland all of this complexity is understood as implicit in this statement. We do not mean that British capitalism at some point fixed on the idea that partition would be necessary and over years and decades worked towards this objective. We mean that in the concrete conditions which existed in 1919-1920, they seized on this drastic remedy as the only way they could see of protecting their interests.

To see how the policy of the ruling class developed it is necessary to go back to the beginnings of the Home Rule crisis. The first Home Rule bills were brought before parliament by the Liberal government of Gladstone in 1886 and again in 1893. At this time the landlord system was intact in Ireland. Behind the pressure of the Irish masses for self-government was their desire to have the power to scrap this system.

The policy of the Liberals, representing more the industrial wing of capital in Britain, was to introduce land reform to defuse the social agitation on this question and to offer limited Home Rule, really a form of devolution, to curtail the call for separation. The Tories, who opposed both bills and who led their defeat in the House of Lords, were influenced by the landowners and by the more aristocratic and backward-looking wing of the ruling class.

Yet the increasingly dominant power of manufacturing capital soon told, even on the Conservatives. It was a Conservative government which, apart from the on-going issue of annuities which continued to be paid to the old landowners, in 1903 finally resolved the land issue by passing legislation to buy out the landlords and allow the tenants to buy the land.

At this point, the threat of social agitation on the land issue having receded, the ruling class would have been prepared to allow limited measures of self-government – precisely to forestall any demand for independence. Yet only a few years later when the Third Home Rule bill came before parliament a fundamental schism opened up between the two major parties reflecting a division within the ruling class.

Two elections in 1910 produced minority Liberal governments which had to lean on other parties, including the Irish Parliamentary Party of Redmond, for a majority. Redmond made Home Rule the price of his support. On 11 April 1912 Liberal Prime Minister Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill.

The reaction from the Tories was swift and ferocious. Tory leader Bonar Law linked with Dublin Unionist Edward Carson, who had served in the previous Tory government and now sat on the opposition front bench, to organise to resist this bill.

Ulster provided the centre for this resistance. As the Ulster Unionist Council, with Carson as their figurehead, began to mobilise mass opposition, Bonar Law publicly voiced his approval. On 20 July he spoke to a large crowd at Blenheim Palace:

“I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, which I should not be ready to support and in which they will not be supported by an overwhelming majority of the British people.” [16]

In September Carson unveiled an Ulster Covenant with a pledge not to accept a Home Rule parliament. 237,368 Ulstermen signed this declaration. Women were made to sign a different but similar covenant and 234,046 did.

At the start of 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council launched an Ulster Volunteer Force to be made up of 100,000 of those who had signed the covenant.

Each of these steps and the others which were to follow have been well documented and are not in dispute. The real issue is why this unionist reaction was promoted and assisted by the British Tories and by considerable sections of the British ruling class.

Changed conditions

The answer lies in the changed conditions which existed both in Ireland and in Britain since the period of consensus after 1903. A new threat had developed in Ireland in the form of Larkinism. The British ruling class was at one with William Martin Murphy and other Irish employers in trying to destroy this, to them, particularly virulent form of new unionism. Those who rallied to the Tory-Unionist resistance feared that concessions given in the context of this social movement might only whet the appetite for further concessions, with, for them, unthinkable consequences in Ireland, and unwelcome effects outside Ireland.

At this time the British Empire covered one quarter of the continents and encompassed 425 million people, over 300 million of them living in India. The knock-on effects of events in Ireland on this restless mass of humanity was always a prime consideration. It was no accident that among the most prominent backers of Carson were those sections of the political and military establishment most closely associated with maintaining British rule of India, South Africa and other colonies and dominions. Historian Nicholas Mansergh in his book The Irish Question concludes:

“The appeal for readiness and, if need be, resistance, was directed to Ulster but it was not for Ulster. It was for the integrity of the Empire that Ulster was to fight.” [17]

Not just for the empire but for the most conservative and reactionary section of the Establishment in Britain. Between 1909-1914 Britain was embroiled in a social and constitutional crisis which split the ruling class, with one wing prepared to use extra-parliamentary means to try to preserve the status quo. To these people Ulster provided a stage on which they could act to bring the Liberal government into line.

Labour unrest

During this period there was a major strike wave in Britain which involved whole sections of the working class, an upsurge in struggle which has been accurately labelled by historians as the ‘Great Labour unrest’. Militancy was on the rise and pressure was being applied on the Liberal government to make substantial concessions. As events unfolded there was a growing fear among the ruling class that the Liberals were going too far and might be pushed much further.

In 1909 Liberal Chancellor Lloyd George introduced his so-called ‘people’s budget’, which was to finance the old age pension scheme, the government had enacted the previous year. It included provisions for a tax on wealth, including death duties and land taxes. These very rudimentary provisions for a welfare state, the changes which Redmond opposed being applied to Ireland, were dumped by the House of Lords using its constitutional veto. The Liberals replied with a proposal to abolish this veto.

The two elections of 1910 were fought in the throes of this constitutional crisis. Liberal victories cleared the way for a Parliament Bill introduced in April of that year, which proposed to limit the Lords veto. In future it would be able to hold up but not overrule legislation passed by the Commons. Further measures such as an elected second chamber were considered but not brought forward. All of this excited a furore of opposition from the more conservative wing of the ruling class. Nonetheless the government’s bill became law the following year, the Lord’s permanent veto was gone, and one consequence was that for the first time Home Rule became a practical possibility.

Asquith’s Home Rule Bill was being brought to parliament in April 1912, Bonar Law, along with no less than 70 Conservative MPs, came to Belfast to a huge opposition rally at Balmoral. Their concern was not just with Home Rule. It was to use the Unionists as a cudgel against the Liberals. Bonar Law reminded his Ulster audience that the opposition to Home Rule was linked to other questions:

“Once again you hold the pass, the pass for the empire ... the government have created by their Parliament Act a boom against you to split you off from the help of the British people. You will burst that boom. That help will come, and when the crisis is over men will say to you in words not unlike those used by Pitt – you have saved yourselves by your exertions, and you will save the empire by your example.” [18]

The workers movement was soon a target of this Unionist and Conservative reaction. The summer of 1912 saw some 3,000 Catholics and several hundred Protestant socialists and labour activists evicted from the shipyards, the Sirocco factory and other Belfast workplaces.

The following year, with the Home Rule Bill still being debated, Bonar Law issued a stern warning to the government that even if this legislation should get through parliament, there were “things stronger than parliamentary majorities.” [19]

A taste of what these words might mean was given early in 1914, when the Home Rule Bill was offered for its final reading. Churchill, then a prominent Liberal, ordered troops to the north and was met with a mutiny by army officers based at the Curragh in County Kildare. The government backed off and rescinded its order.

The Curragh mutiny had a shock effect. It brought it home to both wings of the establishment that the division between them risked the possibility of armed conflict. There was pressure from elements on both sides for a compromise.

The idea of partition had been considered for some time. It was implicit in the Unionist threat to set up an Ulster Provisional Government in the event of Home Rule even though this was not put forward because they favoured a separate state, but because they believed this threat would make the whole scheme inoperable.

Churchill had privately argued for a separate deal for Ulster. Even before the Curragh mutiny Liberal leaders had persuaded Redmond to accept the temporary exclusion of some of the Ulster counties. In March 1912 Asquith made this idea public when he spoke in parliament, offering exclusion for six years. At the time Carson and the Tories rejected the idea – a “sentence of death with a stay of execution of six years” [20] – was Carson’s retort.

Then came the Curragh mutiny and the fear of civil war. Attitudes began to change and all sides began to search in earnest for a compromise. Even Bonar Law spoke about the need for a settlement by consent. A Times editorial on 30 April summed up the change in attitude of some who had been on the anti-Home Rule side:

“We have constantly opposed the principle of Home Rule for Ireland and continue to do so. We should regard any form of settlement on the lines proposed, not with jubilation, but with sorrow. For us too it would spell defeat and not victory. Yet there are some defeats more honourable than victory and we place the preservation of the internal peace of these realms, and the salvation of the Empire from disaster, above the cause of a single parliament for the United Kingdom.” [21]

There was general pressure for talks to provide a solution. The Home Rule Bill went through the Commons in May but there was an understanding that there would be some amendment dealing with the position of Ulster. In July a conference was held involving government and opposition, unionists and nationalists, to discuss this issue. Both British parties wanted a compromise but they could not get Carson and Redmond to agree on the size of the excluded area, particularly the fate of Fermanagh and Tyrone.

It is probable that an agreement could eventually have been reached through further negotiation. Both Irish parties would have come under pressure from their erstwhile British allies to strike a deal.

Home Rule would have been applied to part of Ireland, with either four counties or six counties excluded. On the length of the exclusion some compromise could have been arrived at, perhaps neither permanent exclusion nor the six years ‘commuted death sentence’ but a mechanism for the situation to be reviewed within a certain time.

For the working class it would have been a disastrous outcome. Sectarian divisions would have been reinforced and the task of creating a party of labour which had just been accepted by the ITUC would have been made immense.

The Redmondites had set out with limited objectives and would have settled for limited results. The real interest of the Unionists had been in scuppering the whole question of Home Rule, not in partitioning the country. It would have been very much a second best option.

For the British ruling class who had closed ranks in securing a deal it would have been a result born of pragmatism. The division among them had led one section of them to go to the brink of civil war in Ireland. The compromise of partition seemed the best way to avoid a conflict which they had been instrumental in unleashing. When the issue arose again in 1919 and 1920 it was for very different reasons that the British ruling class once again came up with the answer of partition.

Unanswered questions

Would agreement have been reached? Could this have been sold to the UVF or the Irish Volunteers who were still busy mobilising? We cannot answer these questions with certainty. Outside events interfered to jolt the frame of history in another direction.

Days after the all-party conference broke down, Britain issued an ultimatum to Germany to pull its troops out of Belgium and war became inevitable. All parties to the Irish conflict agreed to suspend their differences and support the war effort. The Home Rule Bill became law but with it there was a commitment to further discussion on the outstanding areas of difference before it could be implemented.

Nothing ever came of this. True in the latter part of the war, from July 1917 until May 1918, an Irish Convention was summoned by Prime Minister Lloyd George but this was just a talking shop set up to keep the Irish occupied during the war and to encourage the United States to come into the fighting on the British side.

The deliberations of this Convention – on the shape of a new Home Rule government – were by then an irrelevance. Home Rule was no longer an acceptable basis for a settlement. Redmond died in March 1918, before the Convention reported, but his cause of limited self-government was already dead before him. His party was being displaced by Sinn Fein (who were not involved in the Convention) and Labour – which of these would be predominant was not yet decided. The call for Home Rule was replaced by the demand for outright independence.

British withdrawal?

Among the pro-unionist school of historians who paint a picture of the British ruling class as a neutral arbitrator between warring Irish factions, there are those who go further and say that the real interests of British capitalism, at this time and since, lay in complete withdrawal. This is a completely hollow idea which sits particularly uncomfortably alongside the stormy events of 1918 and after.

The 1918 general election resulted in the formation of a coalition government between a wing of the Liberals led by Lloyd George and the Conservatives led by Bonar Law. This was a government of crisis faced by social ferment and upheaval on every front. Its uppermost concern was to withstand and defeat the rising tide of revolution and to defend, untouched as far as possible, the status quo.

To the call for independence for Ireland this government answered with an emphatic and unequivocal ‘no’. There may have been divisions among the ruling class on Irish policy before the war, but now, in their determination to resist the clamour for a separate republic, there was unanimity.

There were two main reasons for this stance. Firstly there were the direct interests, strategic and economic, which British imperialism had in retaining overall control of this its oldest and strategically most vital colony. The country’s industrial base, heavily concentrated in the north east, functioned as a component of British capitalism. The powerful magnates who owned the shipyards, the factories and the mills were regarded and regarded themselves as part of the British capitalist class. Imperialism wished to hold onto this industrial prize.

Ireland’s strategic importance lay in its proximity to the ‘mother country’. Events in other colonies were somewhat blurred by distance. Canada was 3,000 miles away, South Africa 6,000, Australia 10,000, while Ireland lay on Britain’s doorstep.

During the war Britain had been able to draw on its resources and had relied heavily on the use of its ports. There was a consensus among the government, the military establishment and the capitalists themselves that in military terms Ireland ranked above the other colonies and dominions as essential for the defence strategy of Britain.

The second key factor determining the attitude of the British ruling class was their fear of the knock-on effects of independence. Before the war the Conservatives had baulked at Home Rule partly because they believed it would loosen the ties of the Empire. Independence, especially in the context of post-war unrest, made this a far more real concern, one now shared by both major parties and by the ruling class as a whole.

After the war the Empire was enlarged through the formation of British protectorates in Iraq and the Middle East. It is true that they withdrew from Afghanistan and from Persia but this was only under pressure from US and French imperialism and was part of the re-division of the post Ottoman world.

British policy in their new protectorate of Iraq showed clearly their attitude to the rights of subject peoples to independence. Despite an international agreement that the Kurds should have the right to a separate Kurdish state, the new British rulers refused this to Iraqi Kurds. In this case direct control of the oil-fields of Iraqi Kurdistan was a more important concern than the rights of the Kurds.

During the war India had been deceptively quiet. But as with Ireland this quickly changed when the war ended. In 1917 India had been offered a measure of self-government, something close to the dominion status of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, but to be implemented by what the British called ‘gradualness’, in other words at a snail’s pace.

Oppression in India

The masses of the Indian sub-continent sought independence and were not satisfied with this step. The attitude of the British ruling class to this demand was the same as to the similar demand for independence for Ireland – outright rejection and brutal coercion.

They introduced the Rowlatt Act in 1919. This instituted virtual martial law in much of India and provoked massive opposition. A one-day general strike and day of action, what the Indian people call a Hartal, was called for 6 April 1919. It led to a shut down, to protests and demonstrations and to some violence.

In one incident five Englishmen were killed in Amritsar and a missionary lady was attacked. The commander of the local British garrison General Dyer declared martial law. A week later 10,000 people protested against the martial law decree which among other things banned public meetings. They were surrounded by troops who opened fire with machine guns and massacred 379 people. The same General Dyer who ordered his troops to fire and who refused to allow doctors into the area to treat the wounded also ordered every Indian neighbour of the missionary who had been attacked, to crawl along on their bellies any time they moved up or down their street.

The fact that a large body of the English establishment went out of their way to support the actions of the troops in Amritsar, indicated clearly what the prevalent attitude was to the idea of withdrawal from, and independence for, colonies such as India, Egypt or Ireland. The House of Lords went so far as to pass a motion condoning General Dyer’s actions.

It was not just the effects in the colonies which the government and the ruling class feared. Their overriding concern through this whole period was with the prospect of socialist revolution – in Europe, in Ireland and at home.

Much of central Europe in particular emerged from the war in a state of revolutionary ferment. For the capitalists there was no doubt where the source of the contagion lay – in the fact of Bolshevik rule in Russia. The British capitalists favoured joining other powers in military action to aid White reaction in Russia. Within the British cabinet there were differences.

Lloyd George was hesitant about intervention but it was the views of pro-interventionists like Churchill, who spoke contemptuously of the “foul baboonery” [22] of Bolshevism, which prevailed. Saving Europe from Bolshevism was the number one concern of the time. Speaking at the postwar Paris Peace Conference, Lloyd George warned his fellow statesmen:

“Europe is in a revolutionary mood. The whole of the existing social, political and economic order is being called into question by the mass of people from one end of Europe to the other.” [23]

A secret report to the British cabinet in November 1918 described a

“very widespread feeling among the working class that Thrones have become anachronisms, and that the Soviet may still prove to be the best form of Government for a democracy.” [24]

Throughout 1919 the Foreign Office based itself in Paris. Lloyd George spent much of his time there. All this leaves little doubt as to what were the main concerns of the government during this, the period when its scheme for the partition of Ireland was being hatched.

A profound radicalisation was also taking place in Britain. It was reflected in the 1918 general election in which the Labour vote went up from the eight per cent won in 1910 to 22.2 per cent. Labour, with 59 seats, were now the main opposition.

Through 1919 and 1920 the government was besieged with strikes. There were protests and strikes among soldiers who as they de-commissioned found that ‘the land fit for heroes’ was nothing more than the same slums, the same dole queues and the same exploitation as before the “great sacrifice”.

There was a major confrontation with railway workers. Miners, disappointed that a special report, the Sankey Report, had not recommended nationalisation of the pits, demanded that the TUC call a general strike. Troops were deployed in Glasgow to help crush the 1919 engineering strike. Shortly after this strike ended a new menace emerged in the form of the Triple Alliance, an agreement by railworkers, miners and dockers to stand together in struggles.

A letter from Lord Milner, a prominent figure in the establishment, to the Field Marshal of the General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, showed the concern felt in such quarters about these strikes and about the government’s inability to halt them:

“We are in chaos in England as regards strikes, which under Lloyd George’s regime are being dealt with by every sort of men and every sort of department, each acting on a different principle from the others.” [25]

Threat of revolution

The social and national revolt in Ireland threatened to overspill in the direction of socialist revolution. Should that happen it would trigger revolution in Britain also. There were many twists and turns in the application of British policy between 1918 and the signing of the Treaty which gave recognition to the new 26 county state. But there was a single strategy. This was to derail and defeat the revolutionary movement of the working class, to disrupt the growing unity being displayed by workers, Catholic and Protestant and in the process to halt the independence movement.

The 1918 strike against conscription woke the British government to the dangerous situation beginning to unfold in Ireland. Their first response was to try to keep the labour movement in safe hands and at a safe distance from Sinn Fein.

100,000 Irish soldiers were demobilised after 1918. Advisers to the government recommended unemployment benefit and reconstruction grants be paid in order “to keep the soldiers out of Sinn Fein and Bolshevism”. [26] Years later little had been done, discontent remained among the war veterans, and many became important participants in the working class struggles.

While trying to wean the union leaders away from Sinn Fein the government was, at first, opposed to any concessions on the national issue. Given the general radicalisation they feared that even the mildest gesture on their part would merely whet the appetite for more. Lloyd George was at first convinced that even the limited degree of self government proposed in the 1914 Home Rule Bill might dangerously encourage those demanding independence and a republic. He wrote to Bonar Law in 1918 and expressed his view that:

“such an attempt could not succeed and it must be postponed until the condition of Ireland makes it possible.” [27]

The government’s remedy for the condition of Ireland was to ‘improve it’, General Dyer style, by coercion. The Dail set up by Sinn Fein was banned. To the military campaign launched by the newly formed IRA it replied with curfews, with internment and with a policy of military reprisals.

A Restoration of Order Act passed in August 1920 allowed court martial for treason and replaced coroner’s inquests with closed military courts of inquiry. It was martial law by another name. “If it is war they (the IRA) want, they cannot complain if we apply the rules of war” [28] was the justification put forward by Lloyd George.

While there was no serious let up in this policy at any time during the independence struggle, there was a growing recognition that on its own it would not do. In fact, it could be counter-productive. In Ireland it was bringing the working class more and more into the national struggle – as the 1920 strike over prisoners showed. It was also arousing opposition in Britain. There, the Labour Party eventually organised a mass campaign of some 500 well attended rallies all over the country, demanding peace in Ireland.

The army chiefs were not confident that they could hold the line by military means. The fact that they had to draft in irregulars, the notorious Black and Tans, was a sign that the army was becoming over-stretched. At the time of their deployment, Sir Henry Wilson expressed his worries about military over-commitment. “In no single theatre are we strong enough, not in Ireland, nor in England, nor on the Rhine.” His uncomforting conclusion was that, if there was industrial trouble in Britain, “we shall be boiled”. [29]

The significance of the 1919 Belfast engineering strike may be lost on some modern historians. It was understood by the British administration in Ireland at the time. The Viceroy of Ireland, Lord French, recommended that the government undertake a change of policy as a result of this strike. In a memorandum to the cabinet he commented:

“I did not however, consider that the time was ripe for a move in the direction of an immediate release of the prisoners until the strikes in the north occurred and a very dangerous crisis was at hand which might plunge the whole country in (sic) disaster. Bolshevik propaganda was undoubtedly at the root of those strikes, and it came to my knowledge that a close alliance exists between the Bolshevik element and the advanced Sinn Fein sections ... Moreover, I found out that this junction with the Bolsheviks was condemned in the strongest manner by the real Sinn Fein leaders such as John McNeill, De Valera and Griffiths (sic).” [30]

French had come to recognize that the greatest threat in Ireland came from a united working class movement which could draw towards it the most radical sections of Sinn Fein. The significance of the Belfast strike was not just that it united the working class of Ireland, but that it was part of the industrial movement in Britain also. The mainly Protestant workers of Belfast threatened not to be an instrument of division, but to provide a bridge directly linking the movement in Ireland with that of Britain.


16. A.T.Q. Stewart, The Ulster Crisis, Faber 1967, p. 57.

17. Nicholas Mansergh, The Irish Question, London 1967, p. 165.

18. Stewart, op. cit., p. 55.

19. A.G. Boyce, Englishmen and Irish Troubles, Johnathan Cape 1994, p. 30.

20. George Dangerfield, The Damnable Question, Quartet Books 1979, p. 82.

21. Boyce, op. cit., p. 31.

22. Rhodes James, The British Revolution, British Politics 1880-1939, Vol. 2, Hamish Hamilton 1977, p. 142.

23. Donny Gluckstein, The Western Soviets, Bookmark 1985, p. 10.

24. Ibid., p. 10.

25. Rhodes James, op. cit., p. 135.

26. E. O’Connor, Syndicalism in Modern Ireland, Cork University Press 1988, p. 71.

27. Boyce, p. 44.

28. Times, 20 November 1920.

29. Boyce, op. cit., p. 49.

30. O’Connor, op. cit., p. 71.

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Last updated: 6.1.2011