As the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising approaches, Counterfire is running a new 3-part series by Chris Bambery on the struggle for Irish independence
The centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 was always going to stir controversy, both in Ireland and in Britain. For the Irish government it is difficult to reconcile the fact that the state over which they preside owes its creation to an armed rebellion against British rule by people who would today be labelled terrorists.
One former Irish premier, John Bruton, believes the events should be remembered, not glorified. “If we hadn’t had the rebellion, we probably would have proceeded – maybe not quite as quickly – to full independence by constitutional methods,” he claimed.
“Home Rule was enacted two years before the Rising in Dublin and was already on the statute book and was going to come into effect anyway. So there was probably, in my view, no need at all for the killing that took place between 1916 and 1923.” (Irish Independent, 17 January 2016)
Bruton’s claim that Ireland would have peacefully passed from a colony to full independence does not really fit with the facts, and in particular that the failure to deliver Home Rule (devolution) by constitutional means created a radicalisation which brought people like Padraig Pearse, declared President of the Irish Republic by the rebels in Easter Week 1916, from believing the British government would honour its pledge to introduce Home Rule to planning an armed rebellion to secure Irish independence.
It also ducks the lengths the right wing in British politics, backed up by the King and the military command, went to resist any diminution of British control over Ireland. They rightly saw it as affecting Britain’s Empire, particularly its control of India. In the event, the Easter Rising and the independence war of 1919-1921 it spawned were a real body blow to imperial rule, which impacted greatly on India, Egypt and other British possessions. The British ruling class of today wants to draw a veil over the real history of Empire and, in particular, how independence from it was won, not granted.
Ireland was formally part of the United Kingdom but it was ruled from Dublin by a Governor General and a First Secretary. The security forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary was armed, unlike its counterpart in Britain, and concerned not with fighting crime but with repressing unrest on the land and with suppressing republicans. Ireland was more like India than Scotland or Wales.
What Bruton’s version of history misses out too is that from 1912 until 1923 Ireland was convulsed by a revolutionary crisis, and that the British ruling class feared they would be drawn into a civil war over the Irish issue in the summer of 1914, an issue seemingly resolved by Britain’s entry into the First World War in August 1914 and the rallying of the British elite around King and country. By then the gun was part and parcel of Irish politics and the killing had started, initiated by British troops on the streets of Dublin.
The description of events in Ireland in those years as 'revolutionary' is not one which you’ll hear from official platforms marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. The fact that James Connolly was a revolutionary socialist who saw it as blow against war and imperialism is an inconvenience, which will also be passed over.
This revolutionary crisis was initiated by the forces of reaction, and alliance between the Tory Party in Britain and the Unionist industrialists of Belfast. Together they threatened armed rebellion to block any devolution of power to an Irish parliament in Dublin.
A few weeks before the First World War began in the summer of 1914 they mass purchased German rifles and imported them to arm the Unionist militia they had created to fight any weakening of the Union with Britain. When the government in London ordered the British army in Ireland to respond senior officers refused, staging an effective mutiny. In contrast when Irish nationalists imported a far smaller number of rifles British troops in Dublin opened fire in crowds in Dublin celebrating their arrival, killing three unarmed and innocent civilians. The British 'inquiry' of exonerated the soldiers involved.
The issue of Ireland’s relationship with Britain consumed politics on both sides of the Irish Sea, starting in 1912 when a Liberal Government reliant on the votes of Irish Nationalist MPs for its parliamentary majority introduced an Irish Home Rule Bill (creating a parliament in Dublin more similar in today’s terms to the Welsh Assembly than the Scottish Parliament).
Twice before the Liberals had tried to pass similar measures, in 1886 and 1893, on both occasions because they needed Irish Nationalist support. On both occasions the legislation was vetoed by the Tory controlled House of Lords. On both occasions the Liberal Party spilt with a section of it fearing any concessions in Ireland would have a knock on effect across the Empire. What was different in 1912 was that the House of Lords veto had been lifted after it had tried to block the 1909 Liberal Government’s budget. This time opponents of Home Rule could not rely on Tory peers that would have to look beyond the Palace of Westminster.
Ireland was essentially an agricultural producer for Britain and an exporter of people, many ending up in British factories. Industry was absent except in one corner of the island. In Belfast and its surrounds heavy engineering and shipbuilding had sprung up dependent on British investment, British coal and British domestic and imperial markets. The majority of the population in the North East where Protestant. Faced with a rising tide of Irish nationalism the British and the employers of Belfast had used sectarianism to drive a wedge between Protestants and Catholics, the majority of the Irish population. Crude divide and rule, pioneered in Ireland and exported by Britain to India, Yemen, Cyprus and many other places.
The industrialists of the North created the Unionist Party, allied to the Tories in Britain, and co-opted a once disrespectable organisation the Orange Order as the means of mobilising popular support. Sectarian rioting became a feature of Belfast life with the Catholic minority generally on the receiving end. Discrimination was rife with Catholics barred from work in the engineering plants and shipyards.
In 1912 the Unionists reacted to Home Rule with venom. Quickly they organised monster rallies and then went further raising a militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), pledged to meet the passing of Home Rule with Civil War. The Tories rushed to back them with their leader, Bonar Law, telling a rally at Blenheim Palace, that “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them.”
Added to this cocktail of unrest, Ireland had also become home to one of the most radical trade union movements in Europe. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) was led by the radical firebrand James Larkin, with the revolutionary socialist, James Connolly, second in charge. By 1913 Dublin’s working class was organised into the ITGWU. The employers responded by launching a lock out of union members. After six months of mass picketing, police baton charges and denunciations of the workers by the media, politicians and priests the workers were driven back. But the Lock Out contributed to the more general radicalisation sweeping Ireland.
By 1914 Ireland seemed on the verge of civil war and the British ruling class were hopelessly split with no solution to a growing crisis in sight. To counter the UVF the Irish Volunteers had been formed, ready to fight for Home Rule. The outbreak of the First World War seemed to resolve everything.
The leader of the Irish Nationalists at Westminster, John Redmond had a popular mandate, his party held 84 out of 105 Irish constituencies. The Liberals relied on him for their majority but in the summer of 1914 he rallied to the flag and Britain’s war effort. It marked the beginning of the end for him and his party. First, Redmond agreed that the Home Rule Bill which finally passed into law would not be acted upon until the end of the war. Secondly, he agreed to the exclusion of the North East of Ireland, supposedly on a temporary basis.
Redmond then went further and urged Irish men to enlist in the British Army and to fight Germany. He pledged the Irish Volunteers to serve the crown and the Union Jack. A minority broke away determined to oppose British rule and the war.
At first Redmond’s gamble seemed to have paid off. Recruitment levels in Ireland in the first year of war were comparable with those in Britain but then they fell away markedly. Losses were mounting and the British Army would not let Irish brigades have any independent identify unlike the UVF who formed a separate Ulster Division.
John Bruton champions Redmond’s approach today but by 1915 the party he led was in terminal decline, faith in Britain’s pledge to enact Home Rule was fading, and opposition to Ireland’s involvement in the war was growing.
The Easter Rising could not have occurred without this shift. Ireland was entering the rapids of revolution.
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.
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- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win