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Two Strategies: Connolly’s (1916) & Sinn Fein’s (2016) 

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

Talk given at Birmingham Trades Council, 7 April 2016

James Connolly is presented as the ideological inspiration of the majority of the politically committed in the twenty-six county Republic of Ireland.  Of that state’s four main parties, only Fine Gael would deny him this role, tracing its roots to a compost of John Redmond and Michael Collins. Its rivals, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and Labour, each describe itself as the keeper of Connolly’s flame. Which of them is justified in this, or can any of them be awarded the title?

Of the three, Fianna Fail must be eliminated immediately. Despite its founder, de Valera, declaring Connolly to be the greatest of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, his party was a very conscious builder of a capitalist society, albeit one camouflaged by a greater degree of social legislation than its opponents.

Labour might seem to have a better claim. In principle, it is socialist and it was founded in 1912 as the result of Connolly’s own resolution. However, it existed until his death only as the political expression of the Irish Trade Union Congress, while, only months later, it began to take the path it has pursued until today, inspired by the pacifist reformist social democrat, Thomas Johnson. Its debt to Connolly is purely organisational.

There remains Sinn Fein. It is certainly the nearest of the three. It would claim to be a revolutionary body and it has a programme including socialist, or at least anti-capitalist demands. It is therefore useful to examine how far it does follow Connolly’s strategy, how far it has improved on it and how far it falls short, bearing in mind the differences in circumstances that have been created over the last century.

Certainly, on one point, Sinn Fein have filled the major gap in Connolly’s final strategy. They are a politically defined party. Connolly began as a leading participant in such bodies, but his negative experiences led him to abandon such structures for the organisational forms of industrial syndicalism. The result was that his left no conscious organised group of revolutionary socialists to oppose Johnson’s reformism and struggle to take the lead in the national struggle from the bourgeois republicans. Sinn Fein can claim that it is providing the conscious socialist leadership needed to fulfil the political aims of Irish republicanism. What is questionable is whether its strategy is equal to the task.

For a start, Connolly was an internationalist socialist. His role in the leadership of the Rising was inspired in part by the Socialist International’s 1907 Congress resolution on war, which directed ‘the working classes and their parliamentary intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.’ Quite apart from the fact that he had always advocated an independent Irish republic, Connolly saw that the demand for one was a crucial part of the war’s economic crisis and one to be exploited for the rousing of the masses. Today, Sinn Fein does not have a world war to give it an opportunity, and it is supportive of struggles against oppressive regimes over the world. What it does not seem to have is any idea of how to incorporate them into a strategy of socialist revolution. The idea of Ireland setting ‘the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral power of the last warlord’ is lacking and, accordingly, so is any suggestion of an international body to advance these ends, such as, ironically, was possessed by Connolly.

Again, in preparing for insurrection, Connolly recognised the weakness of an aggressive military offensive in the early months of the world war. He saw the solution as being one in which the occupation forces should strike the first blow and provoke popular resistance.  Accordingly, he preached sedition in his capacity as Acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, had Mallin drill the Irish Citizen Army and even stage a mock attack on Dublin Castle and then organised a major dock strike up until ten days before the Rising. When this last was betrayed, he had the Irish flag raised above Liberty Hall. In the seventies, by comparison, Sinn Fein supported the IRA uncritically in turning the defence of the ghettoes into an aggressive armed struggle limited to the six county province, with the mass of the Irish people being urged to support it unconditionally, which they did only after British atrocities (Bloody Sunday, the Hunger Strikes). The armed struggle was based on a military minority of a religious minority of a territorial minority of the Irish people. Sinn Fein began to enjoy sustained growth in the Republic as the military campaigned was liquidated.

Connolly’s Syndicalism had its positive as well as its negative sides. In particular, it provided him with a rough blueprint for the Workers’ Republic that he saw thrusting aside the political state, royalist or republican. With this in mind, he insisted on becoming Acting General Secretary of the Transport Union and tried to bring it to play consistently a leading role in the independence struggle. He failed but Sinn Fein does not seem to try to act to mobilise the organised workers. With the IRA disarmed, it has turned to the parliamentary struggle, for Connolly ‘the shadow’ of the real thing. It would be wrong, for now, to write off Sinn Fein as reformist, nonetheless, it behaves as if it is taking the same road as previous generations of former physical force politicians going back to the New Departure.

Finally, there is Partition. Connolly made quite clear that there should be no shooting in the north during the Rising, but he said, too, that once that struggle had been won, ‘we will deal with Ulster’.  Not only did Sinn Fein defend an armed struggle concentrated in Ulster, with the working people of the twenty-six counties allowed only a spasmodic supporting role, but its present perspective is overall the same as its old reformist opponents of Official Sinn Fein/Workers’ Party. That is membership of two partitionist parliaments as the means of negotiating unity, ignoring the role of the occupying United Kingdom state, save as the scapegoat for the austerity measures it has to impose as part of the Northern Irish Executive. 

No doubt, Sinn Fein can defend itself, can declare that it is rendering Connolly more profound, that the one hundred years that have passed have rendered his wartime strategy obsolete. Against this, it could be argued that the present situation could make that strategy more likely to succeed than it was. In any case, regardless of Sinn Fein, two questions must be asked. The first is whether Ireland can be united as a specifically bourgeois state. The second is whether a united Irish Workers’ Republic can, let alone should survive without beginning or, at least participating in a chain reaction leading to the establishment of such bodies throughout the world.           

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