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Chapter Five

The nationalist forces and their discontents

The struggle for an Irish democracy is defined by the heroism of the Easter rebellion of 1916. However, behind the banner of revolution the period before and during the rising, including the 1913 lockout, involved extreme class struggle and widely divergent goals held by the different forces.

Connolly and ICA were a minority in the forces involved in the Easter Rising. The leading movement in the struggle was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), itself a minor and secret force of revolutionaries within the Irish Volunteers. The division between the two is well established. The IRB were a military faction within the capitalist Home Rule movement, its political wing being the Irish Parliamentary Party and its military organisation the Irish Volunteers. The volunteers were a defence formation established in response to the Unionist Ulster Volunteer Force. They were never intended to be a challenge to Britain and in fact the Irish Party leader, John Redmond, encouraged a majority of the volunteers to fight for Britain on the promise of a Home Rule bill afterwards.

It is common to run the republican currents together as the "men of no property" and lump them with the Connolly current.  However, the leadership and programme of the IRB were defined by revolutionary nationalism and it was essentially a petty-bourgeois movement.

Its class nature and politics, veering between workers and capitalists, defined much of the future history of revolutionary nationalism, leaving it open to division and unable to effectively counter the capitalist counter-offensive that led to civil war and partition.

Ireland's status as a colony rested on economic oppression. With the exception of the North East, economic development was suppressed by the British in support of its own industrial development. The development of manufacturing in the North as part of the imperial market was a base for unionism. That doesn't mean that there wasn't an Irish bourgeois, but they were largely characterised as "Gombeen”, based on the money lenders, publicans and land agents within a largely agricultural economy.

That meant that their interests were narrow and their fear of the workers and the landless labourers great. They wanted political power and greater autonomy, but the gradual drift towards a limited devolution largely met their needs.

The 1916 rising and the British reaction meant that events were constantly slipping out of their hands, a situation only resolved by the bloodbath of the civil war and eventual victory for bourgeois counterrevolution.

The engine of the revolution, in the absence of a sizable revolutionary worker’s current, was republicanism.  Economically it required a republic, free from Britain and able to fully develop an Irish economy. They were filled with fervour, immensely brave and determined, but with many inherent weaknesses.

The first weakness was lack of policy. Veering between capitalist and worker, there was a portmanteau of policies and programmes. Many were radical and progressive, but few were universally accepted. There was a wide reliance on legalism, calling vainly on the international community to extend the rights of small nations to the Irish.

The absence of policy meant that the structures of the incipient state, set up to nullify the official structures of British rule, did not provide a new social direction beyond the assertion of national sovereignty and self-determination.

Arising from this lack of policy was a blindness to the danger posed by the Irish capitalists.  A sign of this blindness was the rise of Sinn Fein, an obscure and quite right-wing group, to become the broad vehicle of nationalist sentiment, an issue that was to become critical before and during the civil war.

Also, there was a general sentiment of the triumph of the will. If class was not the mechanism for victory, then it was the individual members of the nation exerting maximum force.  As a result, the Irish Republican Army was never under the control of the Dáil and the guerrilla war was fought largely separately from any political mechanism.

Then as now militant republicans were convinced that one last push could have defeated the British. For their part, the British actions were focused fairly directly on splitting and demobilising mass insurrection. In this they were successful.

The treaty gave the Irish bourgeois the settlement the British were willing to offer and they were content. The division in the nationalist forces was immediate and it is almost certain that the republican forces had the support of the majority of the population. However, the pro-treaty forces had the British field guns and munitions.

It was not military superiority or the barbarism of the state torture and executions alone that led to the defeat of the republicans. They wrapped themselves in legalistic arguments.  They searched in vain for an effective military response. Where the "Staters" moved rapidly to the right, they failed to move left, with IRA courts ruling in favour of the landlords and the employers.

The victory of the Free State forces and the de facto acceptance of partition strengthened and crystallised reactionary forces on both sides of the new border.  In the North a state based on sectarian hatred and suppression, in the South a confessional state where the power of the church was enormously magnified.

A long winter of poverty, emigration and savage oppression of the poor, especially for women and children, set in.

<<<Chapter Four: The struggle for women’s rights

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