Hesitant Comrades

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Given that Ireland was officially part of the UK until 1922 and that many British unions organised in Ireland, not to mention that large numbers of Irish workers lived in Britain, you might assume that the struggle for independence was a major issue for the British labour movement of the day. In fact, as this book brings out, it was an embarrassment for the leaders of both the Labour Party and the trade unions.

The Labour leadership at the time of the Easter Rising saw it as a treacherous stab in the back. On leaving government at the end of the war they became more critical of official policy. Arthur Henderson did move a motion of censure of the government over its brutal repression in Ireland, but Labour policy did not differ from the Liberals. It fully supported the treaty that partitioned Ireland in 1922.

The TUC manoeuvred to avoid doing anything to support Irish workers despite coming under considerable pressure to do so. In 1920 Congress voted to support self-determination for Ireland and for a general strike against British intervention in Ireland, but the leaders worked to ensure that these decisions remained a dead letter. Most shamefully, they did nothing to support 10,000 Catholics and left wingers opposed to sectarianism who were driven out of the Belfast shipyards by Orange gangs.

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) opposed the Easter Rising on pacifist grounds and its policy on Ireland was essentially the same as Labour’s. The revolutionary left groups were confused over how the Irish revolution fitted in with the struggle for socialism. With the formation of the Communist International (Comintern) and the affiliation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Leninist position on the right of nations to self-determination became accepted. British communists were, however, strongly criticised by the Comintern for their lack of activity in support of the struggle in Ireland.

The author looks beyond official statements at the attitudes of rank and file workers. ILP public meetings on Ireland were often massive, particularly as anger over British repression grew. After the threat of a general strike had forced the government to drop its plans to invade revolutionary Russia, there were widespread demands for similar action over Ireland.

The Irish Self-Determination League enjoyed significant working class support and was able to call sizeable solidarity demonstrations across the country. A chapter on the response to the role of the Loyalists shows that the Labour leadership focused on what they regarded as practical politics devoid of principle. The revolutionary left was clear that British capitalism encouraged Unionism for its own imperialist purposes. However, only the CPGB sought to build on James Connolly’s revolutionary socialist analysis and understood that partition did not solve the Irish question.

This fascinating book shows that Labour’s priority throughout was the defence of the “national interest”, that is, British imperialism. The trade union leaders’ attitude was the same, except they were more vulnerable to pressure from below. The failure of the left for most of this period to provide the ideological clarity and militant leadership that was so desperately needed was a tragedy for the workers in both Ireland and Britain that echoes down to the present day.