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Thomas Johnson, Sinn Fein & the Democratic ‘Programme’

 By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

18 January 2019

The Democratic Programme of the Irish Republic is something of an icon for Irish republicans and socialists alike, second only to the more pithy Proclamation of the Irish Republic presented in 1916 and quoted as an inspiration in the 1919 document.

For many, republicans and socialists alike, it is seen as a guiding star ignored by successive governments since the Articles of Agreement were passed by Dail Eireann. It is well to ask the question as to whether this is justified or whether it fails because of its flaws.

Firstly, the Democratic Programme is not a programme in the normal sense. A programme should give definite commitments to future policy initiatives. Connolly recognized this both at the beginning of his Irish career, in the ISRP and towards its end when he presented his terms for an alliance with the IRB. Thomas Johnson was to present a programme for the Irish Labour Party for it to fight its first twenty-six county general election in 1922. In comparison, the Dail’s Programme has only one definite commitment, the abandonment of the Poor Law. All the rest is vague aspiration.

Secondly, there was already a Democratic Programme for the Dail. The motions passed by Sinn Fein’s convention in October 1917 passed a set of policies to produce the independent democratic capitalist state that the reconstituted party planned. As Sinn Fein won the general election to become the only party in attendance of the first Dail its code of motions represented its far more definite policy than the aspirations passed at its opening meeting. Indeed the demands of this de facto programme have been executed with admirable determination by successive twenty-six county governments.

In fact, the Democratic Programme should be seen as a precursor of the far more conservative social clauses of the 1937 Constitution, a sort of mudguard of ideals to make an isolated bourgeois republic more acceptable to its citizens. However, this raises a new question: why did Sinn Fein find it necessary to have it all? The party had just won a general election without such a cover. If it wanted one, its members could refer to the vagaries of George Russell’s The National Being. Moreover there is reason to believe that a number of its deputies were unhappy with the Programme. After the Treaty, Kevin O’Higgins was challenged about its provisions, replying that he knew nothing about it, but it ‘sounded socialist’. Of course, in the general revolutionary atmosphere of 1919, he could have been less dismissive, but he was not known for his mood swings. Nor did most known manifestos of Sinn Fein candidates contain anything anticipating the motion passed on 21 January. Certainly, had there been any general attempt to work closer to its quite broad boundaries, there would have been disagreement in the ranks such as to imperill Irish republican unity.

The Democratic Programme was produced as a concession to Irish Labour. It was assumed that this was granted in return for Labour’s withdrawal from contesting the recent election outside Belfast. Even before this was debunked, the argument had obvious problems. Labour had withdrawn because its candidates would have to rely on republican votes and the republicans insisted that any Labour MPs should agree to permanent loyalty to Dail Eireann. Socio-economic issues did not enter the negotiations. Moreover it was only since the anti-conscription strike that Sinn Fein had given a modicum of serious thought to the political role of organized Labour.

It is known now, of course, that the Democratic Programme was drafted not as a gesture of gratitude or solidarity but as a move towards repairing a weakness in Sinn Fein’s position. Concentration on the military struggle tends to obscure the fact that for most of the year 1919, the hopes of Dail Eireann were centred not on the arms of the IRA but on international support channeled through the peace conferences. Although it had strong support in America and Australia and took an interest in the independent movements in the British Empire and in Poland, Sinn Fein was generally weak in international allies. On the other hand, Irish Labour was part, a loose part, of an international movement covering most developed countries. This movement was to hold a post war regroupment conference at Berne in Switzerland. (It was not known yet that the new Soviet Russian regime would boycott it). There Ireland’s delegates could present the case for recognizing its new republic. However, this case would have to be flavoured with something more socially impressive than the programme of October 1917. Sinn Fein offered Labour the opportunity to draft it. Labour agreed and gave the job to its leading theoretician, its treasurer, Thomas Johnson.

So the history of the first Dail’s Democratic Programme turns on the relationship between the perspectives of Irish Labour, or more accurately Thomas Johnson, and Sinn Fein.

Johnson could act for the Labour Party and TUC because no one else could. He was an efficient administrator and, with Connolly dead, the organized movement’s only theoretician. Although his latter talents were used to reverse Connolly’s practice, the two shared the same standpoint. Both were agreed that their movement had to expand. Both believed that Labour was most effective as a single unit of trade unions and party (though Connolly saw his Transport Union as pace setter). Neither believed in leadership from a politically defined party like most affiliates of the old Socialist International, and had no time at all for anything more tightly organized, like Bolshevism. Both had been associated with Labour’s left (Larkinite) wing before 1914. The outbreak of war brought to the surface the difference between them. Connolly identified with the strategy of the Defeatist minority of Socialists, to end the war at any cost even armed rebellion and the military humiliation of his rulers’ state. Johnson was part of a larger group of Pacifists relying on propaganda to persuade their rulers to enter negotiations. This ruled out supporting the British war effort, but it also excluded following Connolly’s example in acting consistently and forcefully in the struggle against imperialism. Instead organized Labour was to build its strength by expanding the numbers of its unions (nearly half its delegates to its 1916 Annual Meeting were from Dublin), and by literary propaganda.

This was acceptable even to those who considered themselves (and acted as, in many cases) consistent followers of Connolly. The Rising had hurt Labour, far more than the lockout. Everyone agreed that Labour would have to grow bigger and that the organized Protestant workers of Ulster would have to be won to it.  What was more, Johnson’s position was in the movement’s centre. Unlike most of the Larkinites, he was an unequivocal reformist. This enabled him to appeal to a strong group of opportunists and honest supporters of Home Rule (and the British war effort) whose numbers enabled them to challenge the old Larkinites on the Executive until the movement’s 1918 Waterford Meeting.

Johnson’s strategy was, then, one of reviving and continuing the Party and Congress pre-war policies. The right was agreeable and the left had nowhere else to go. There were two weaknesses. Firstly, it did not take into account that there was a revolutionary situation continuing in Ireland and that the resultant collapse of state power would give Labour a real prospect of establishing the Workers’ Republic. In this Johnson was not alone. Nobody expected the national struggle to do more for Labour than allow it to provide a viable opposition to the ruling bourgeoisie.

Nobody foresaw that the nationalists and republicans would fail to achieve full independence for the whole island. Then, in so far as can be ascertained, they expected that as Connolly had prophesied, the sheer weight of organized Labour would break the capitalist state’s shell. Nobody anticipated partition,
despite the kite flown in 1914.

Johnson’s scepticism went further. Like Connolly and his comrades on the Belfast Trades Council, he recognized some thing of the hostility of most Belfast Protestant workers to Irish matters. Connolly had tried to overcome this by placing his section of workers at the head of the national struggle. For him, this would allow the Workers’ Republic to be built in alliance with the farming co-operatives. Johnson saw this as impossible. He concluded that the weakness of his class made it impossible for it to take power at all until it had grown sufficiently through Irish industrial expansion, albeit with safeguards for its employees.

So it was logical for Johnson to accept the role of draughtsman of a programme that would make Sinn Fein’s capitalist growth perspective more worker-friendly, if not actually socialist.

In fact this draft is no more a programme than the final form of the document. A socialist might be expected to introduce a clause guaranteeing the eight hour day, the basic minimum demand of the affiliates of the Socialist International. Johnson did not do so. His most programmatic passages are those where he writes of education and the well being of children, the state organization of foreign trade and, less definitely, the possible nationalization of mineral deposits and the encouragement of trade unions and co-operative societies. More generally, the state is to assert its right to take over private property and, more particularly land and mineral deposits where they are being misused. It will organize and direct labour power into its most fruitful uses, particularly ‘the most capable sympathetic men and women’ for education. At the end is something that might have given Kevin O’Higgins a seizure, the promise to ‘aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation but gives no useful service in return.’

And how would he eliminate these people?  A real programme would require a shopping list of interests to be taken into state ownership. As it is, there is no mention even of nationalizing the railways, a longstanding and overdue demand of constitutional nationalists. Perhaps foreign trade might be nationalized, but temporarily to stop a big grievance of the recent war and after, food exports in time of shortage. Without more definite socialist measures, the state direction of labour power appears as only a regressive capitalist suggestion.

There were then good reasons for the Dail’s representatives to amend Johnson’s draft. Their two leading figures were Michael Collins and Sean T.O’Kelly, neither particularly conservative by Sinn Fein standards. Nonetheless, it was inevitable that their revisions would be in a generally rightward direction. They did well in removing the clauses providing for the direction of labour, though it is arguable that it was unnecessary to wipe out altogether the part encouraging the recruitment of capable sympathetic teachers (probably this was done from fear of a belt from a crozier). It was inevitable that the elimination of the parasites would go. Then there were two less defensible eliminations. The provisions by which the state could take over property if the owner was betraying his/her trust are removed and replaced by a quote from Padraig Pearse’ Sovereign People which may or, more probably may not mean the same thing. Finally, the Dail removes from the text its ‘purpose’ to encourage trade unions and co-operative societies, perhaps because of the addition that it might lead to workers’ control of industries. What is left is the promise to work with other nations to improve working conditions, a prefiguring of the International Labour Organisation. There was also a new clause restating Sinn Fein’s intention of ending the Poor Law. All in all, it was the Pearse quotation alone that betrayed the possibility that it might have been adapted from a work by a socialist.

Johnson was in the audience when it was passed by Dail Eireann. He wept on the occasion. Whether his tears were those of joy or of sadness is not reported.

Today there is much talk of a new Programme being drafted. Such a move seems unlikely given the present composition of the Oireachtas, dominated by the heirs of those who have found the old one too radical. In any case, drafting anything less radical would be pointless.

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