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Ireland’s problem with British Labour
Hesitant Comrades: the Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, by Geoffrey Bell, Pluto Press, 2016.

reviewed by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght 

5 August 2016

Geoffrey Bell's new book is a very useful addition to the literature that has been produced during this centennial year. It describes in detail the various stances taken by the organizations of the British left between the Rising and the Treaty. In doing so, it exposes a movement in as much confusion at that time as it would show itself to be five or more decades later. Essentially descriptive rather than analytical, it allows its subjects to expose themselves for the reader to judge them without pressure.

The findings are much as might be expected, and in line with what they would be a century later. There is the generally cautious approach followed by the leaderships of the Labour Party and TUC, who seemed often to be more worried by Ireland having control of its own military defence than by the British oppression. This is contrasted with the varying approaches of the left wing groups of the time, from the Fabian Society to the Workers' Socialist Federation. This is particularly interesting not least in its finding that the Fabians. or, at least, Clifford Sharp who edited the New Statesman  'took Ireland…………more seriously than most' (P.124). Also revealing is the chapter on the Irish support movements outside the organized left, which provides data that justifies the view that had the mass organizations pursued a more active policy, it could have benefitted both them and Ireland. Two other chapters describe labour movement positions on 'Socialism and Nationalism' and, more specifically, 'Ulster'. Both depict a political tower of Babel, with only the Communists, William Paul and T.A,Jackson, and Sylvia Pankhurst approaching a perspective devoid of British chauvinism.

There are some defects. The scale of the work is limited too tightly in time and area. In the first instance, it would have been useful to know how the minor labour organizations broke with the rather clear directives given by Marx. More particularly, the silence of the Socialist Labour Party on the Rising, described by Bell on pages 18 to 21 may have been aided by the fact that James Connolly's departure from its American associate had led to his being seen as a traitor by its international current.

At the other end, it would have been useful to have had a chapter on the movement's attitude to Ireland after the treaty, particularly before the Civil War (when T.A.Jackson whom Bell praises for his realism saw proletarian revolution on the immediate horizon) but also to British Communist attitudes to that war and, if possible to the first British Labour Government, the last to try to moderate the effect of partition for forty-four years. Geographically, it should have been noted that, in 1916, the Irish TUC and Labour Party secretary, Thomas Johnson helped British Labour off the hook by not calling for clemency for the Risings trade union leaders. Moreover, in 1920, British Labour's abandonment of support for the Irish Republic was made easier by its Irish opposite number passing a resolution calling for a constituent assembly in complete disregard of Dail Eireann.

Nor is the book too well edited. James Henry Thomas is called John Henry Thomas and his birthdate is given as 1847, rather than (as it was) 1874. While such mistakes are good enough for such a person, they are still bad history. Connolly's polemic with Walker is dated as being 'a couple of years after' the Irish TUC declared its political independence of the British movement in 1912 (P.159); in fact, though some skirmishing continued, the bulk of the dispute occurred in 1911. Above all, Bell should know as well as anyone that it was not Trotsky but Radek who termed the Rising a 'putsch".

These are relatively small blemishes on a very useful work. Anyone seeking to understand Anglo-Irish relations within these islands' labour movements should read it. Such a reader is likely to conclude that little has changed.  

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