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100 years of Sinn Fein - Part 3

Joe Craig

7th May 2005

The revolutionary wave that had swept over much of Europe after the Russian revolution, including Ireland, had ebbed by the mid 1920s although important struggles were still to take place. In 1926 the British General Strike shook the home of the Empire and between 1925 and 1927 the Chinese revolution erupted in the world’s most populous country. However they ended in defeat, only serving to reinforce the tide of reaction.

The capitalist class had been shaken and scared by the revolution but it had also learnt important lessons. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the Tsarist autocracy, governments made concessions to the working class. They sought to avoid the political isolation that had ultimately destroyed the Tsarist regime and to build additional pillars of support for the system. They enlisted crucial props in the mass social democratic parties and trade union movements which were to serve them well during the upheavals that repeatedly punctuated the century to come.

The contradictions of the capitalist system in this period were expressed not just within the imperialist metropolises but in the revolts of their colonies. New means of applying imperialist control were to emerge. In this respect Ireland very much paved the way, pointing to the future in the manner in which imperialism dealt with demands for national freedom. Having defeated the armed revolt, and the radical social forces that had simultaneously erupted, British imperialism reconstituted effective control of the country through a reactionary sectarian regime in the North and a reactionary confessional Statelet in the South. Instead of direct imperialist control over the whole country the Southern part was ruled by the most conservative elements of the national movement, gaining support from those who had never wanted independence in the first place. A neo-colonial regime every bit as socially reactionary guaranteed imperialism’s interests.

The overtly reactionary character of this neo-colonial settlement left no room for doubt among workers that their democratic aspirations had suffered defeat. The objective of the routed republican anti-Treaty forces was to prepare the necessary force to engage in a ‘second round’ against this ‘Free State.’

This perspective was one for the IRA and Sinn Fein was largely irrelevant to it. The movement had already declared itself to be a national one above mere party political disputes and its guerrilla war against the British and bitter civil war had further narrowed its strategic horizons. Now the Free State betrayal was seen by some as confirmation of the corrupting nature of politics even though the great betrayal had been led by its foremost military commander, as later ones were also to be.


But if republicans wished to dismiss politics, political developments were to perform a more efficient manoeuvre in the other direction. Over the ensuing years endless hours of drilling, training and secret meetings appeared to be going nowhere and the elusive ‘second round’ looked no nearer. Sinn Fein was a vehicle to express republican opposition to the Free State settlement and popular resentment against the reactionary policies generated by it but it was never going to be an alternative government, at least while it continued a policy of abstaining from taking seats in the Southern parliament. Both wings of the movement seemed to offer no perspective for success.

Abstentionism expressed opposition to the Free State settlement and commitment to something radically different. It also expressed the ingrained suspicion of politics. To the extent that both views were justified the policy could be defended as legitimate. Today’s fashion is very much to ridicule the policy, although it is maintained in Sinn Fein’s approach to Westminster, but the problem with the policy was not the healthy instincts which generated it but in the attempt to simply avoid the problem. All politics in capitalist societies is corrupting and is configured to displace and erode revolutionary alternatives.

The weakness of the republican response was that it saw corruption in the foreign inspired element of the political machinery of the state, two partitioned parliaments, rather than from the capitalist nature of the state. The problem is not posed by parliamentary activity alone. All political activity, in elections, trade unions, communities and campaigns is subject to pressure to seek reform of the system rather than its overthrow. Militarism is no guarantee of revolutionary purity and it has its own particular ways of corrupting revolutionary organisations through conspiratorial requirements undermining democratic functioning.

The difficulties of overcoming such pressures continue to be faced by Marxists today and while experience has given them theoretical lessons on how to fight the corrupting nature of capitalism which other movements do not possess their vindication can only be provided by successful socialist revolution. Since the latter can only be the result of the problem having already been successfully overcome the solution is one which is arrived at through practical struggle, through a commitment to a genuinely revolutionary programme and rank and file participation and control of organisation.

The republicans’ failure was therefore ultimately due to the lack of substance of their revolutionary politics. The less significant the difference between the goal and what already exists the more easily the promised opportunities of the reforming potential of the existing system can tempt an opposition to see its future though the mechanisms provided by that system. No fundamental class opposition existed between the anti-treaty and Free State forces in the 1920s. The civil war was largely fought over symbols, not the substantial issue of partition, and certainly not on continued imperialist economic control hidden by a new flag that Connolly had warned about.

In March 1925 Sinn Fein won only two out of nine by-elections which were held on the same day. When de Valera failed by two votes at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in 1926 to overturn the abstention policy, which he believed frustrated the party’s attempt to win support, he left and set up Fianna Fail (FF). The remaining Sinn Fein organisation debated whether it should contest elections at all but this problem was solved for them when the assassination of Free State minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins allowed the government to introduce a bill requiring all candidates to declare they would take up their seats before they were nominated. FF took most of SF’s members and voters and reduced them to such a rump that it becomes impossible to tell the story of republicanism in the remainder of the decade or the 1930s through a narrative based on the Sinn Fein party.

The party was reduced both in numbers and in its attachment to reality through regarding its remaining Second Dail members as the legitimate government of Ireland, despite that assembly ratifying the Treaty and therefore partition. Once again it is easy to ridicule such pretensions but they played a rational role of sorts in defending republican politics. Devoid of any coherent class analysis and programme; bereft of much IRA support, which lent itself mostly to FF including campaigning for it in elections, it clung to a democratic solution to national oppression – when it could not demonstrate convincingly how it could be implemented – by treating their goal in the mystical terms which their strategy had reduced it to.

Fianna Fail

In the February 1932 election Fianna Fail became the largest party but fell five seats short of a majority. Lemass thanked the IRA for their support in an election that was fought under the slogan ‘On to the Republic.’ In January of the next year FF got their majority and won 49.7 per cent of the vote. Fianna Fail released IRA prisoners, suspended the detested Public Safety Act, abolished the oath of allegiance to the British monarch and reduced the office of governor general to something of a joke. The new government also cracked down on the fascist Blueshirt movement with which the IRA had been in physical conflict.

The new government withheld the land annuities which Irish tenant farmers had paid over to the British to gain ownership of their farms, prompting a tax by the British on Irish exports of livestock and livestock products which in turn led to imposition of duties on British coal imports. This became known as the economic war, the social counterpart to the political assault on the trappings of Irish incorporation into the Empire.

Of course none of this meant fundamental social or economic change, and even the political changes were still extremely limited. The nationalism of Fianna Fail and de Valera was only possible because it did not conflict with international economic developments and a retreat from the internationalising tendencies of world capitalism that had developed apace before the world war and which had been put into reverse by the war. But for many rank and file republicans Dev was achieving far more far more quickly than the pointless preparations of the IRA for a second round against the Free State. In a very real way FF was destroying the traditional republican movement in a way all the repression of the British and Free State forces could only have dreamed of.

Left wing republican Peadar O’Donnell explained the effect of Fianna Fail in government on the surviving movement: ‘Surprisingly, the left wing of both Sinn Fein and the IRA, and some ‘fine republicans,’ went with Dev and the entire reorganisation of the IRA was again necessary… Indeed, by 1938 almost the entire 1922 IRA had gone over to Dev. Those left with Sinn Fein… formed in 1926, a really right-wing group of cranks. Other leaders who remained with the IRA had very grave doubts about remaining. Even men like Andy Cooney, MacBride and other leaders contemplated private careers or politics.’ Many in the remaining, still sizeable, IRA organisation supported Fianna Fail, including as it did some of the previously ‘hardest of the hard’ military men like Lemass and Aiken.

Petty bourgeois

Some in the republican movement instinctively realised the sterile character of a perspective of preparation for renewed armed struggle and sought a political vehicle to advance their cause. Like generations before and after, the failures of militarism led to political experiments that proved to lead only to betrayal and failure and a return to militarism. Breaking out of this cycle required breaking out of republican politics itself and was actually attempted in the thirties, although for the majority of the movement this was not the case.

Tellingly the IRA did not look to revitalising Sinn Fein as its political vehicle. It created a new organisation in 1929, Comhairle na Poblachta, and in 1931 the left wing Saor Eire, but the latter never gained the full support of the army many of whose members, as we have said, continued to support Fianna Fail. In 1936 it set up Cumann Poblachta na hEireann but all these mainstream republican attempts at some sort of political alternative to Fianna Fail failed. The failures were not accidental but signalled that republicans had no political alternative.

How do we explain this? At root we do so by understanding republicanism’s class nature. Fianna Fail was a bourgeois nationalist movement that was never going to, and never capable of, attacking imperialism at its roots. Both the republican movement and Fianna Fail were committed to the capitalist system and FF were not prepared to countenance any strategy of mobilising Ireland’s workers that would raise the possibility of a struggle threatening not just foreign control of resources but native capitalist control as well. FF had no irreconcilable class differences with imperialism or with northern unionism. Nationalism for it was not primarily an ideology of opposition to imperialism but an ideology welding Irish workers to Irish bosses. While superficial thinkers argue the overwhelming power of nationalism it is the class power of those mobilised that is decisive. The nationalism of the republican movement without any definite class content collapsed in the face of a nationalism that acted as a vehicle for the interests of a section of the Irish capitalist class.

The disputes between Fianna Fail and the British were real but of an entirely secondary order of importance and significance. FF could not remove British control of the Southern economy and could not therefore threaten indirect British political control. When the secondary issues played themselves out the nature of Fianna Fail was revealed – within a decade of taking power republicans were jailed, executed and left to die on hunger strike by Fianna Fail in every bit as ruthless a way as the British previously.

Why then had republicans been led to support them, prove incapable of resisting them or building an alternative to them, or preventing many of their members deserting to them? A working class organisation, that is an organisation with a working class programme committed at some level to the working class taking power, would have realised that the economic war was being fought on the backs of the working class. The republican movement however was not and never has been a working class movement. It was and remains a petty bourgeois movement that has ideas and practices too radical for the majority of the capitalist class but which is not prepared to overthrow the capitalist economic system and does not see in the working class the basis of a new state and new economic system. Republicans could not build and alternative because their class nature meant they had none.

Of course they were committed, as they are now, to ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ but these are presented and thought of as free standing absolute values, truths or objectives that stand above society. For Marxists morality and the values fought for by political movements do not stand above or outside society, for how else could we measure their content or their achievement? How could we know we have freedom or equality unless we know how it might actually arise and be reflected in society? Values such as these arise from a society arranged by a class structure and wracked by class struggle, a struggle sometimes hidden and sometimes out in the open, as Marx put it. That is sometimes the workers are fighting back and getting somewhere, and sometimes they are just getting hammered. The content of these values is thus similarly structured and determined by class. If they are thought of as ends in themselves they become abstract with no purchase on reality, and thus in the hands of politicians easily discarded.

The nationalism of the republican movement was challenged and superseded by the nationalism of the Irish capitalist class once the latter had its own state to advance its interests. These interests included defending its economic privileges and wealth from the demands of Irish workers. Calling the republican movement petty bourgeois is not simply assigning a label, as many republicans and even some socialists think, it is a category of analysis which has explanatory power. In other words class analysis helps explain why certain forces, in this case republicanism, behaved in the way they did and continue to do so.

The in-between nature of the petty bourgeoisie could be seen in the various responses within republicanism to what the Fianna Fail government was doing, none of them ultimately effective. Some in the IRA thought FF would be forced to go further in their anti-British actions than they wanted, or that they would somehow remember their roots. The response of the overall movement was to abandon republican opposition by abandoning any thought of a ‘second round,’ which was now unthinkable. This was later codified in 1954 in IRA general army order number 8 which stated that volunteers were strictly forbidden from taking any military action against 26 county forces. For an organisation that regarded armed struggle as the litmus test of revolutionary credentials, as the test of seriousness, this was an amazing volte face. It signalled the biggest break in continuity in the 100 years of republicanism presently being celebrated.

It could be objected that by moving from armed opposition to British rule to seeking a place in the partitioned government of the British State the current republican movement has earned this distinction but this ignores one important fact. Without a revolutionary approach to Irish capitalism, to its State, and to the parties that defend them, the republican programme of ending direct British rule of any part of the country has been doomed to failure. Irish capitalism is a junior ally of imperialism and in some ways a more effective opponent of revolutionary republicanism than the British or unionists.

Republicanism from the thirties was reduced to a movement that wanted to unite a nation, an act requiring a revolution, but with no revolutionary programme for the majority of the country. This could only lead to defeat. Certainly the manner of registering defeat is important and in adopting the plans of its imperialist enemy the current movement has adopted just about the worst form available, but defeat was in any case inevitable if the weakness in republican politics exposed by the creation of Fianna Fail was not overcome.

A way out?

The political challenges posed by Fianna Fail did not fail to produce much consternation and debate inside the republican movement as the various political initiatives of the IRA demonstrate. The most important of these was the setting up of the Republican Congress following the split at the IRA convention on March 17 1934, which was called to decide on the question of setting up a political party. When this was rejected by only one vote those in favour walked out.

They reassembled in April at Athlone and issued a manifesto which declared at the start that ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way.’ One of its leaders declared that ‘The hope for success of the Republican Congress movement in 1934 depended upon the labour movement overcoming that weakness’ (their abandonment of the struggle for the Republic).

The resulting organisation did not survive long and it would take us too far from our subject to commence a detailed historical analysis of the failure. Some of the issues of revolutionary strategy were to arise again and be debated in the movement thirty years later and will be discussed at that point in the movement’s history. The most famous exploit of the Congress movement was to bring down from Belfast 500 members of the Connolly Club to the annual Bodenstown Wolfe Tone commemoration on 18 June 1934. According to the ‘Irish Independent’ “composed largely of Protestants and Presbyterians drawn in the main from the… Orange districts of Belfast” it was attacked by right wing IRA members who objected to the “communist banners” on display.

While this is now of purely historical interest the editorial in the 23 June edition of the ‘Republican Congress’ newspaper is of far more than just historical significance. It stated: ‘Sectarianism dies out slowly when the fight against it is one of words. Sectarianism burns out quickly where there is team work in common struggle. Those who see in Partition just a reflex of sectarian strife see no way forward except foolish talk about toleration, charity, real religion, etc. Those who see in Partition the link between Irish capitalism and Imperialist finance, see in the common struggle for the Workers’ Republic the solution of Partition, and in the destruction of exploitation, the withering away of sectarian strife.’

This stands today not just as a condemnation of liberals who cast non-sectarianism in terms of religious tolerance or republicans who promise Protestants civil and religious liberty in a united Ireland. It is a ringing condemnation of the majority of today’s socialists who see partition as resulting from sectarian division rather than imperialist policy and see the end of sectarianism in bread and butter demands that amount to no more than an attempt at compulsory charity from the British State while running a million miles from the task of pursuing an end to sectarianism through wielding the axe to the root, partition, capitalism and imperialist domination. The nature of sectarian division was understood as political and so was the nature of the solution.

No way out

The failure of the mainstream republican movement to maintain a revolutionary threat to the Free State regime when presided over by Fianna Fail did not save it from the repression of the latter. Just as today the Irish State cannot tolerate an illegal armed force no matter what IRA army orders say, so in the thirties the IRA clashed with the Irish State. In 1935 this arose from IRA support for an industrial dispute involving Dublin tram and bus workers who were clashing with the Free State Army. Fianna Fail clamped down and in 1936 the IRA was banned.

With its political initiatives having failed, and clinging to the seeming purity of armed struggle when it was now out of the question in the Free State, the IRA could either turn its attention to the North or to Britain. With the victory of Sean Russell it decided on a campaign in Britain, declaring war on Britain at the beginning of 1939. It was just as Peadar O’Donnell had predicted at the time of the Republican Congress: ‘If you get rid of us you know, you will soon follow. We have a social policy and theory for keeping the military men and the terrorists in check. You have not.’ An armed campaign in Britain, devoid of any local support and therefore of any popular legitimacy, could only be of a terrorist nature. Tom Barry and many of the famous names left the IRA.

At the beginning, as in later campaigns the illusions in Fianna Fail remained but as Britain demanded action Fianna Fail cracked down hard, introducing military courts, internment and finally executions. This repression nearly finished the IRA: from an organisation of perhaps 30,000 in 1932-33 it had nearly disappeared a decade later.

But what of Sinn Fein during all this? If the IRA had been smashed, Sinn Fein suffered an even more ignominious fate. In 1938 the seven surviving members of the Second Dail formally transferred ‘authority’ to the IRA. They never thought it necessary to tell Sinn Fein. It was thus this body, as the ‘legitimate’ government of Ireland, that declared war on Britain in 1939.



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