In the final part of our series, Chris Bambery argues that the Easter Rising relaunched the struggle for independence in Ireland and inspired national liberation movements globally
In November 1918 as the First World War ended, the British Empire grew still further as more countries were painted pink on the map of the globe. Yet the reality was that the expansion of imperial rule to countries like Iraq and Palestine came as the British ruling class came to understand that their economic and military power was slipping away, and they faced a growing challenge to colonial rule, above all in Ireland.
In the two years that followed the 1916 Easter Rising, the republicans - grouped now in Sinn Fein - garnered mass support as the British government threatened to extend conscription to Ireland. That threat was met by further mass mobilisation.
1918 started with three German offensives on the Western Front, which at one stage led the British commander to consider evacuating the British army across the English Channel. The British were short of men and the government announced plans to introduce conscription to Ireland. That had the effect of creating a tidal wide of opposition.
The Irish Trade Union Congress called a special congress and delegates voted for a general strike against conscription. The resolution proposing this declared that the strike ‘will be a signal to the workers of all countries at war to rise against their oppressors and bring the war to an end.’ Outside of the Belfast area the strike was solid.
In late 1918, Sinn Fein swept the board in the general election that followed the armistice, which ended fighting on the Western Front. Rather than traipse off to Westminster, they met in Ireland to create an Irish parliament, Dail Eireann, and to re-affirm the Declaration of Indpendence and the creation of an Irish Republic issued by Pearse and Co. in April 1916. On the same day the Dail met the Irish Republican Army (as the Irish Volunteers were now known), the latter began its guerrilla war against British occupation.
Armed struggle was accompanied by mass strikes and protests against growing British repression.
1919 began with a general strike across the Belfast area in support of a 44-hour working week. The majority of the strikers were Protestant and the militancy of the strikers rocked the Unionist establishment in the city. Unfortunately, control of the strike remained in the hands of local trade union officials, who buckled as the strike was attacked in the media and by politicians. They failed to maintain the strike momentum, by calling out transport workers for instance, and in the end called off the battle. On 1 May 1919, 100,000 workers marched in the city.
In April 1919 the working class of Limerick took control of the city for two weeks. After the IRA shot dead a policeman, the British authorities declared martial law in the city. Anyone wanting to move in or out, or within the city needed a special permit. In response the Trades Council called a general strike and 14,000 workers answered the call. The strike committee declared itself a Soviet.
Eventually the Soviet ordered a return to work after the national trade union leaders refused their appeals for solidarity action. They did win the withdrawal of the military permit system, although now the permits were supposed to be issued by employers.
In April 1920, some 100 trade unionists, republicans and socialists were held in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail without having been charged. They began a hunger strike for their release and by the end of the first week of the protest 40,000 people gathered outside the jail, facing British troops and armoured cars. The trade unions called a general strike, which spread like wild fire, with local workers councils taking control in many towns. Sinn Fein grew nervous as the crowds grew outside Mountjoy Jail and intervened to disperse the protesters. Eventually, though, the British authorities caved in a realised the hunger strikers.
A month later dockers in Dublin refused to unload two ships carrying British war material. The boycott spread, with railway workers refusing to transport any military cargo or armed troops. The boycott was slated until December 1920, despite military intimidation and frequent sackings. Eventually the rail workers were ground down and forced to call it off.
It would be wrong to counterpose such mass action to the military struggle of the IRA. Two areas, Dublin City and the South West, shook the resolve of the British. In Dublin, IRA units kept up constant attacks on British forces and the British administration, which seriously affected the morale of the British administration. In the South West, IRA flying columns like that of Tom Barry in West Cork inflicted defeats on British forces. Barry’s ambush at Kilmichael saw an entire British column of 18 men wiped out. Later at Crossbarry, the IRA fought their way out after being encircled by 1,200 British soldiers.
The British in the South West responded by sending in extra troops and using aircraft to locate and destroy the IRA. In that they failed.
By the beginning of 1921, the military argued that 100,000 troops were needed to crush the republicans but the British government refused because it could not produce such numbers and was realising it could not win. In July 1921, the IRA had over 100,000 members, though only a few thousand had access to modern weapons.
The British political strategy now centred on rushing through partition and creating a loyal state in Northern Ireland while also putting out feelers for negotiations.
In July 1921 it agreed a truce with Dail Eireann and the IRA and negotiations began over a Treaty to resolve the Irish Question. The British quickly identified a section of the republicans who disliked the revolutionary mood of the country, wanted to protect private property and the standing of the Catholic Church and who shared none of the social vision of Padraig Pearse, let alone James Connolly.
These leaders agreed to the creation of an Irish Free State as a dominion of the British Empire on similar lines to Canada or Australia, and accepted partition, the creation of a six county state in the North of Ireland within which the Unionists had majority support.
One of the leaders of the 1916 rising, James Connolly, had warned partition would lead to a “carnival of reaction.” He was 100 percent correct. In what became Northern Ireland, there was bloody, sectarian pogrom, as Unionist militias, hastily recruited as special police constables, terrorised the nationalist population. To the south, the new government in Dublin waged civil war on their republican opponents who opposed the 1921 treaty with Britain. The new government treated its opponents more brutally than the British had during the armed struggle for independence waged from 1919 until the Treaty.
The leaders of the two states brutally broke the revolutionary wave that had swept Ireland repeatedly since 1912. They created two conservative run states which were very much a mirror image of each other.
And there lies the problem that the elite in Ireland, north and south, have always had with Easter 1916. The Republic Pearse declared outside the GPO was far more radical than anything that has existed in Ireland since the 1921 Treaty, far more radical than the current Assembly in Belfast and the parliament in Dublin. Secondly, the events of 1916 and the Irish revolution still acted to inspire those prepared to challenge the two states existing on the island of Ireland. That of course includes republicans committed to armed struggle but the spirit of Connolly is apparent whenever Irish workers rise up, and his legacy retains its cutting edge despite repeated attempts to co-opt it.
On a wider stage, rebellion in Ireland acted as an inspiration for assorted forces of liberation, whether the Bolsheviks in Russia who sent a stash of the former Czarina’s jewels to help fund the IRA, to revolutionary nationalists in Bengal who took up armed struggle in the 1920s and 1930s to break British rule in India. Indeed the Easter Rising was one of the key staging posts in the huge wave of national liberation struggles that marked the 20th century.
Ireland’s struggle for independence is something all rebels should cherish, by watching Ken Loach’s film The Wind That Shook the Barley or by reading the memoirs of republican fighters like Ernie O’Malley and Tom Barry.
This Spring we should commemorate a talented and inspiring revolutionary generation, and help keep the flame of freedom they lit burning against the warmongers, imperialists and profiteers they fought and we still face today.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.