A hundred years ago, on December 6, 1921, the British colonialism and a section of Irish nationalist republicans signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Instead of full independence, Ireland was partitioned between the 26 Southern counties and the 6 Northern counties.
By Fabio Bosco and Martin Ralph
The Treaty was preceded by fierce anti-colonial resistance. In 1916 The Irish nationalist republicans carried out the Easter Rising led by Padraig Pearse and James Connolly. Pearse represented the revolutionary petit-bourgeoisie and Connolly represented the most advanced section of the Irish working class. In 1918, the Irish nationalist republican party Sinn Fein achieved a landslide victory in the Irish general election. The refusal by British authorities to accept freedom for Ireland led to the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence.
Facing this Irish uprising, the British authorities concluded that it was no-longer possible to continue to rule Ireland as before and raised a proposal that was meant to retain their major colonial interests and to divide and defeat Irish republicans.
Thus the Anglo-Irish Treaty created a self-governing dominion under the British empire over the 26 Southern counties, whilst retaining 6 northern counties so that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland was the largest part of the Irish territories with a majority unionist protestant population – which was a result of the 17th century Plantation of Ulster, an organised British colonization of the agricultural lands in the North.
The Treaty was followed by a one-year civil war. On the one side there was the the pro-treaty Irish provisional government based on the Irish bourgeoisie and the peasantry – both of them interested in keeping economic connections with Britain – and supported by the Roman Catholic church. On the other side the anti-treaty Irish nationalist republicans who refused dominion status and partition. After the British-backed pro-treaty forces defeated the opposition, the Irish Free State based on the 26 counties and with a dominion status was born.
The 1937 constitution changed the Irish Free State dominion status and in 1949 Ireland was declared a republic. Although this decision placed Ireland out of the British Commonwealth, it did not change Ireland’s semi-colonial status as its economy is dominated by British, European and American transnational corporations up to our days.
The Struggle in Northern Ireland
Partition, initially a temporary arrangement, established a protestant unionist devolved government with a successive unionist establishment (“protestant parliament and a protestant state”) which continued sectarian policies that discriminated against the Irish catholic nationalist population in all areas of their lives to maintain unionist control.
Inspired by international civil rights movement in the United States by African-Americans and the civil rights movement in South Africa, an Irish civil rights movement emerged in 1964 demanding the end to discrimination in employment and in the allocation of public housing; for fair elections; an end to the abuse powers of the Special Powers Act (1922) and reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) with the disbandment of the sectarian armed forces – the notoriouos B-Specials, who harassed, humiliated and attacked the Irish nationalist communities. The civil rights movement was met with strong sectarian violence carried out firstly by the RUC, the B-Specials and other unionist paramilitary forces and subsequently by British troops themselves giving rise to a war against Britain and its occupation of the north of Ireland, the so-called “Troubles”.
The Irish Republican Army connected to the Sinn Fein reemerged in this period first as a self-defense force, then as an autonomous guerrilla organization which underwent several splits. In general, the multiple IRA factions were petit bourgeois Irish nationalist organizations grounded on the republican goal of a United and Independent Ireland with some socialist tunes, and connections with other likewise guerrilla organizations such as the Basque ETA and the Colombian FARC on top of some PLO factions, some Arab regimes and the strong Irish community in the U.S.
On April 10, 1998, the Sinn Fein and the IRA (Provisional which was the strongest one) compromised and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed. The GFA was in reality a dual agreement: firstly between eight North Ireland parties (both the unionists parties, except the DUP, and Irish nationalist republicans ones) and secondly between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. The GFA established the recognition of partition by the Irish Republic and all the Republican parties and entitled exclusively the northern Ireland people, whose majority consists of unionist protestants, the right to reverse partition. The agreement obliged the Republic of Ireland to change its constitution to legitimize partition and the IRA to weapon decommissioning. At the same time, the Northern Ireland government and parliament were established – the Northern Ireland Assembly – and designed to be “balanced”, not to eliminate sectarianism but to manage its manifestations. Inevitably, sectarian attitudes have become more deeply embedded in northern Ireland’s mainstream political culture.
In the hands of the working class
The struggle for a United and Independent Ireland was abandoned by both the Irish bourgeoisie and the petit-bourgeois Sinn Fein/IRA.
Only the working class in the north and in the south have the economic and political interest to carry out this historical task.
In the north, workers need to struggle to end all sectarian discrimination which shall disappear with the re-unification of Ireland.
In the south, workers have to liberate their country from the transnationals and capitalism in order to have jobs for all, affordable housing, high quality public education and healthcare.
In order to achieve these demands it is necessary to unite workers’ struggles north and south of the border and build solidarity worldwide, first and foremost with the British working class.
The democratic struggle for Irish self-determination goes hand in hand with the struggle for a Socialist Ireland as, having defeated imperialism and their local allies, the working class will necessarily address property relations and work for a United and Socialist Ireland as part of a United Socialist States of Europe.
Marx and Engels against the Empire
Revolutionaries have stood in solidarity with the Irish people in their struggle for self-determination which means the right for the totality of the Irish people, north and south, to decide whether they want a united Ireland independent from colonial powers or not.
Karl Marx and Friederich Engels have at least 258 articles, letters or speeches with references to Ireland (I). They stood for Irish self-government and independence from England. They also understood that standing for Irish national emancipation was a requirement for the unity of the British working class to bring about social revolution at home.
“Ireland is the bulwark of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of that country is not only one of the main sources of their material wealth; it is their greatest moral strength. They, in fact, represent the domination over Ireland. Ireland is therefore the cardinal means by which the English aristocracy maintain their domination in England itself.”
“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.”
“This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
“It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”(II)
This position was fought and won in General Council of the First International to side with the Irish working people, even though the Irish question created a deep clash with some trade union leaders over the Irish struggle for freedom.
The leader of the opposition to this policy at the General Council was John Hales, a weavers’ leader, who was a member of the General Council from 1866-72, and its secretary from May 1881, to July 1882.
The General Council had on many occasions expressed sympathy with the Irish national liberation movement headed by the Irish Fenians. Although Marx was critical of their conspiracy tactics, he fought to convince the British working class to support freedom for Ireland. General Council members initiated and organised the campaign for amnesty for Fenian prisoners in 1869 and a protest meeting of nearly 100,000 workers was held in London in October.
The First International developed branches among Irish workers in 1871 and 1872. There were several branches in England. In Ireland, there were supporters or branches in Limerick, Tipperary, Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Police, employers and priests persecuted the members of the International. At a meeting of the General Council on April 9, 1872, McDonnell, the corresponding secretary for Ireland, reported on the ‘fearful state of terrorism’ against the International in Cork.
The General Council issued a statement against police terrorism in Ireland saying that the British government was attempting to nip in the bud the establishment of the First International because the national antagonism between the English and the Irish working men, in England, has hitherto been one of the main impediments in the way of every attempted movement for the emancipation of the working class and therefore, one of the mainstays of class domination in England as well as in Ireland.
Hale’s opposition to the Irish struggle came out openly a month later. On May 14, 1872 he moved a resolution against the formation of Irish branches in England in the way that other national groups were organised, declaring that this could only keep alive national antagonisms.
McDonnell commented that it seemed “very strange that the General Secretary should, at the moment when there were dangers and difficulties attending the work of propaganda in Ireland, come forward with a motion that would virtually destroy what had been done”.
Engels declared that Hale was asking a conquered people to forget its nationality. “The Irish sections, therefore, not only were justified, but even under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and pressing duty as Irishmen, was to establish their own national independence.”
Lenin and Trotsky on the same page
Lenin maintained Marx and Engels perspective on Ireland. He strongly supported the 1916 Irish Easter uprising as well the right of the oppressed nationalities for self-determination. In July 1920, he warmly welcomed Roddy Connolly, the son of Irish socialist leader James Connolly, in the second congress of the Komintern. In his 1914 book “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, Lenin points out:
“Marx questions a socialist belonging to an oppressor nation about his attitude to the oppressed nation and at once reveals a defect common to the socialists of the dominant nations (the English and the Russian): failure to understand their socialist duties towards the downtrodden nations, their echoing of the prejudices acquired from the bourgeoisie of the “dominant nation”.”
“The policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nations should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its immense practical importance. It serves as a warning against that “servile haste” with which the philistines of all countries, colours and languages hurry to label as “utopian” the idea of altering the frontiers of states that were established by the violence and privileges of the landlords and bourgeoisie of one nation.”
“If the Irish and English proletariat had not accepted Marx’s policy and had not made the secession of Ireland their slogan, this would have been the worst sort of opportunism, a neglect of their duties as democrats and socialists, and a concession to English reaction and the English bourgeoisie.”(III)
Trotsky also wrote about the Irish Easter uprising, in his 1916 article “On the Events in Dublin“ (IV) and about the right of the oppressed peoples for self-determination.
“Since my early days I have got, through Marx and Engels, the greatest sympathy and esteem for the heroic struggle of the Irish for their independence.” (V)
“National self-determination is the fundamental democratic formula for oppressed nations. Wherever class oppression is complicated by national subjection, democratic demands take first of all the form of demands for national equality of rights – for autonomy or for independence.” (VI)
Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky stand is of great importance up to our days. The names and situations change but Britain remains an oppressor nation against the unity of Ireland.
Unfortunately some left-wing organizations side with British colonialism when standing for the “right” of the protestant unionist community to keep Ireland divided which means in reality supporting the right of the oppressors against the right of the oppressed.
The International Workers League (Fourth International) keeps itself faithful to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky’s perspective in defense of the Irish self-determination against the British imperialism.
(V) Trotsky reply to Nora Connolly O’Brien, James Connoly’s daughter, on June 6, 1936