Revisiting Ireland's uprising

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Kieran Allen's book 1916 examines the legacy of the Easter Rising. He spoke to Socialist Review about revolutionary Irish politics then and now.

Let’s start with the recent Irish elections. It was marvellous to see an increase in the number of socialists in the Dail [parliament]. Also the two main right wing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, saw their combined vote drop, continuing a 30-year trend.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have dominated Irish politics since the Civil War of 1922-23. They used to get about 85 percent of the votes of the Irish people and they are now down to about 50 percent.

Secondly, the Labour Party is rather peculiar because its voting base is now from the upper professional groups rather than manual workers and it has a record of propping up right wing parties. As a result it has gone into a crisis and is no bigger in reality than Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA/PBP).

The election tells us that there is tremendous volatility and flux occurring among Irish workers. The Fianna Fail party recovered slightly with a swing of about 6 percent, mainly because it adopted a false left wing rhetoric, even putting up slogans such as “Abolish the water charges: Vote Fianna Fail”.

The Irish election confirms a pattern seen in Portugal, Greece and Spain (along with Ireland known as the PIGS countries) whereby people have voted against the parties of austerity and, unlike parts of northern Europe, the main trajectory is to the left. There is no far-right organisation in Ireland that has made an attempt to capture the anger. In fact the only right wing organisation, a libertarian party called Renua, got no members of parliament. Generally speaking the election confirms the rise of the left in Irish society.

Gino Kenny, one of the AAA/PBP candidates elected, said, “The movement against the water charges has put me in the Dail.” What do you think is going to happen next with the movement?

First of all let’s describe what that movement is. It’s a movement of huge numbers coming onto the streets, about 100,000 in one national demonstration and, at its high point, about 200,000 marching in some 70 towns across Ireland. Secondly, it is predominantly a boycott movement. Despite the fact that parliament passed a law to make it legal to collect the charges, about half the population are refusing to pay and that’s the main driving impetus behind the campaign.

It’s important to see Gino Kenny’s election as an outcome of the movement. Essentially, in all the working class housing estates of Clondalkin and Lucan, both in the same Dublin constituency, you had street meetings involving between 50 and 100 people who collectively decided to boycott. So we are talking about a high level of community organisation.

Within the water charges movement there are really three components: the left unions Unite, Mandate (a shop workers’ union) and the Communication Workers Union; the second component is community organisations and the third component is political parties — PBP, the AAA, Sinn Fein and left independents.

Obviously there are debates in the movement. In the run up to the election we thought there should be more emphasis put on the street demonstrations, while some in the movement did not call for a boycott. Actually the way to drive the movement forward is not to wait passively while there are manoeuvres going on in parliament but to step up the boycott and to bring thousands of people back onto the streets. We have to put the pressure on parties like Fianna Fail, which by the way was the party that introduced water charges, to stick to their promises.

Let’s move on to the centenary of 1916 and your new book. You use the word “revolutionary” in the subtitle. Usually when we discuss the events of 1916 we use words like “rebellion” or “uprising”. Why “revolution”?

Well, 1916 was an insurrection. In other words, it was an attempt to defeat the state forces by an armed uprising. Lenin said that 1916 was “premature”. You could say it was in the sense that it did not have the majority support that it might have had a few months later when Britain tried to impose conscription. But you might also say that the 1916 insurrection was part of a process.

In Russia the revolutionary process starts in February 1917 with mass strikes and the overthrow of the Tsar and culminates in the October insurrection. In Ireland it’s backwards. The Irish start with an insurrection with a minority, but nevertheless a sizeable minority, and then there is a process of revolution. That process starts with the election of a majority of Sinn Fein deputies to the parliament which in turn is not recognised by Britain. Then you have a struggle lasting from 1918 to 1922 combining armed action (around 100,000 people joined the newly-formed Irish Republican Army) with a mass popular boycott of the official state, particularly the security forces, to create what we might call “liberated zones”.

There is significant workers’ involvement in pushing back the British forces. The high points include a general strike to win political status for republican and socialist prisoners, a six-month refusal by train drivers to transport munitions or Black and Tans [special constables] to fight against the republican forces, and in Limerick the creation of an actual soviet run by the local trades council.

So you have this huge revolutionary process which then spills over into social agitation. Workers are setting up what they call soviets — in reality it is more like mass occupations, seizures of land and mass unionisation. We shouldn’t view 1916 in isolation but as the trigger of a process which I would call a revolution.

The standard way Irish history has been taught is to describe that latter period as a “War of Independence” and therefore you get films such as Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins with two great figures: Collins the brave romantic soldier and Éamon de Valera the snivelling, sneaky character who trips him up. But that approach ignores the level of mass involvement in struggle.

Another important aspect of the book is exploding some of the myths of 1916. Every political organisation in Ireland wants to wear the mantle of 1916 and in order to do so innocuously they have to sanitise it.

The main myth about 1916 is that it was a “blood sacrifice”. In other words, those who instigated the uprising had a deliberate strategy of giving up their own lives, possibly linked to Christian notions of redemption, in order to awaken the passive mass of the people. This is a typical Nationalist story and in post-independence Irish society it fitted in with an image of the rising not being carried out by ordinary decent working class fighters, but somehow saintly martyrs. Ironically this story also suited the revisionist historians who began to emerge in the 1980s because they wanted to present the leaders of 1916 as fanatics who can have nothing to do with a modern Irish society. Lastly, for the Republican movement in its dark periods of isolation the idea that a small armed group by itself could awaken the majority helped sustain the Provisional IRA campaign.

But this interpretation is wrong. Indeed, James Connolly, one of the leaders of the rising, dismissed the talk of “blood sacrifice” as being the voice of a “blithering idiot”.

I believe that the 1916 uprising was a modest but serious attempt that the leaders initially saw having a chance of winning. It involved 1,300 men and women, which I think would be on the same scale as the uprising of the FMLN national liberation army in El Salvador in the 1980s or the Zapatista uprising in the Chiapas, Mexico, in the 1990s. It had a significant level of popular support.

The initial plans for the rising involved importing tens of thousands of weapons from Germany, landing those weapons in the western seaboard, and then bringing together the armed volunteers from the countryside with those who had seized the centre of Dublin to catch the British forces in a pincer movement. The British forces were severely depleted because of the demands of the First World War. But once the plans were discovered, once the German guns failed to arrive, the leaders of the rising were faced with a choice — they could either go ahead or they could face the tender mercies of British justice. What do you think was going to happen to them when the British authorities found they were planning a rising in the middle of a war? They would be facing execution anyway. So I believe they went ahead because they saw themselves as striking a blow for independence in the context of a major crisis of imperialism with the threat of conscription hanging over them.

You mention Connolly. What was the significance of having a revolutionary socialist at the heart of the rising?

Well, first of all it’s important to say that this fact was denied to the Irish people for many decades. Connolly was presented as if he were a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Catholic social movement. I was never taught in school that Connolly was a Marxist.

Connolly was a revolutionary in the Second International who was motivated by two main issues. The first was the collapse of the Second International. Connolly had believed, like Luxemburg and Lenin, that when the war broke out socialists across Europe should unite in calling a strike against war, but also go further and try to foment a revolution against the system that had led to war.

So that was one of his motivations in 1916. He talked about how a blow struck in Ireland at the heart of the British Empire would reverberate across the continent. Connolly’s problem was that he didn’t have the forces to carry out a revolution. The working class had been defeated in the Dublin Lockout of 1913; his own party, the Independent Labour Party, was all over the place in terms of its attitude to the war. Connolly, for the best of motives, kept pushing for an insurrection without his own forces and so did so on Republican terms. But compare that to George Lansbury or Keir Hardy in Britain — they were also against the war, but did not break from a pacifist notion that somehow the war would be ended by negotiations between the main powers.

The second issue motivating Connolly was that he thought that the war would discredit Redmondism. Redmond was the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, a constitutionalist nationalist party at Westminster which depended on the Liberals to legislate for a measure of Home Rule. This was a kind of imperialist Irish nationalism which wanted Ireland to be part of the empire while having its own Gaelicised culture.
Connolly believed it was time to act. So we can debate and discuss whether it was premature or not, and many generations of left wingers have spent their time doing that, but Connolly was a revolutionary who was determined to act in a situation of tremendous disorientation for socialists. For me, that’s something to be admired.

At the end of the Civil War when the Anti-Treaty forces [those opposed to the partition of Ireland] were defeated, the counter-revolution seemed to be established very quickly. How do you account for that?

Independence had been won partly because the British Empire had been weakened by troubles at home. We should also never forget uprisings in places like Amritsar and Egypt. Partial independence had been achieved, but nevertheless simultaneously a counter-revolution took place in 1922.

By that I mean three things. First of all, the British elite, in order to consolidate their position, moved very quickly to partition Ireland. They stoked up pogroms and created the Ulster Volunteer Force to win a base in Ireland. The Republican forces were not able to handle that so, for example, when there was a massive strike of Protestant and Catholic workers in Belfast in 1919 the Republican forces had nothing to say to it.

Secondly there was a counter-revolution in the sense that the anti-treaty forces were only defeated on the basis of British support for the other side. The level of arms supplied by Churchill to the pro-treaty Collins and his Free State army is astounding. The army grew from 8,000 to 50,000.

Thirdly, it was also a counter-revolution in the sense that through the process of negotiation the Irish professional class — what I call the Clongowes Wood boys after the famous Catholic private school — came to dominate. There were more Clongowes Wood boys in the cabinet in 1924 than there were people who had fought in 1916.

With that came an enormous social change. Land seizures were clamped down on; workers who went on strike were shot at. As the leader of the counter-revolution Kevin O’Higgins put it, they had to uproot the destructive protest character of the Irish people.
Alongside that went the first steps in creating a Catholic fundamentalist state as a form of compensation for what people had lost in the revolution.

That took the form of closing off all loopholes for divorce, removing women from juries, setting up mothers’ and babies’ homes for unmarried mothers, setting up a committee on evil literature — a renewal of Catholic fundamentalism while the very leaders who imposed it were having affairs outside marriage and were living according to an entirely different morality.

Recently, partly as a result of the child abuse scandal but also as a result of agitation from below around women’s rights and same-sex marriage, the influence of the church has declined considerably. How do you see that having evolved?

The Irish Catholic church had a similar position to the Polish Catholic church. It was not like the church in France or Spain — it was not so identified with the landed aristocracy because that aristocracy was predominantly British. The church was oppressed in the 19th century by the British state through the penal laws and that mirrored the oppression of the Irish people, so there was an identification with the church. The 1916 rising itself did not have church approval, but there was a general sympathy for the Catholic church.

After the counter-revolution we move on to the period of de Valera and really Irish society is run by two men — de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. They set out to achieve a Catholic state for a Catholic people. They split the labour movement on that basis in the 1940s.

One of the great things about capitalism is that it does produce its own contradictions. In the 1980s with the arrival of multinational capital, vast numbers of Irish women joined the workforce and found that the experience of their lives did not conform to the teachings of the church.

People took contraception. People refused to stay locked into unhappy marriages. All of this undermined the church. On top of this the peculiar focus of Irish Catholicism on sexuality produced an immense problem for them, which exploded in the early 1990s with the child abuse scandals. Here we had a church lecturing the population on sexuality while at the same time covering up vicious systems of child abuse. Why is it that the most conservative country in Europe in the 1940s, 50s and 60s becomes the first country in the world to win same-sex marriage by popular vote? It can only be because of the immense disgust with the church.

Today the church is running a crusade against abortion, but I can say, having gone through an election and having to take phone calls from people denouncing you because you stand up for a woman’s right to choose, it is nothing compared to what people suffered in the 1980s. The church is no longer part of the equation and the party it backed, Renua, did not win a seat.

And the left in particular in the election said they were going to challenge the 8th amendment. We said that within three months we would introduce legislation to call for a referendum on overturning the article in the constitution that equates the life of a woman with that of a few days old embryo.

A lot of people will be confused about the role of Sinn Fein on both sides of the border. There has undoubtedly been a transition from militant Republicanism to constitutional Nationalism but it seems to be facing in two directions: in the South it is portraying itself as an anti-austerity party of the left, whereas in the North it is implementing austerity measures. How does it retain credibility?

Republicanism is a very powerful political philosophy in Ireland, but although it has the hopes of the most militant workers embodied in it, in almost every generation Republicans eventually make their peace with the state. I can’t think of any Irish government that has not had in its cabinet a former member of the IRA army council. In this generation it’s Martin McGuinness.

So when people talk about the struggle continuing let’s just remember that McGuinness (now I assume a leader of the IRA) is in cabinet working with a police force implementing a neoliberal policy in the North that has seen 20,000 jobs cut from the public sector. And he’s pressed for the cutting of corporation tax from 18 percent to 12.5 percent.

In the South, Sinn Fein adopt a different strategy. They are situating themselves among manual workers on the basis of anti-austerity rhetoric, advancing Keynesian policies and holding out the prospect of going into government. These contradictions at the moment are not obvious to people because the details of what happens in the North are not easily available in the media. But at some point the contradictions will emerge.

What are the prospects for socialists in Ireland?

The prospects for socialists are very, very good. It you have six TDs (three from AAA and three from PBP) in the Dail that becomes a focus for workers’ anger and organisation at local constituency level. In the immediate term we should try to build very rapidly in those areas where we have gained.

The main struggle at the moment is centred on manual working class communities who have been at the forefront of the water charges campaign. The trade union movement is locked into social partnership and this has particularly affected white collar workers, who have not been drawn into struggle as much as manual workers.

One of the challenges for the left is to consolidate its base and to broaden the agenda so we are fighting over wages and conditions, challenging the precarious nature of work that is now emerging and the low pay facing many workers. We need to build roots in the unions and one element of that will be challenging the grip the Labour Party still has over Ireland’s main unions. We need to build proper unions based on grassroots strength and grassroots organisation.

1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition by Kieran Allen is published by Pluto at £12.99