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'The Confines of Republicanism'

Liam O Ruairc • 17 June 2004

Mr O Murchu’s recent article on the Republican Congress should be welcomed as an interesting contribution to the discussion of the development of left republicanism during the 1930s. A recent collection of essays written by university scholars on various aspects of Irish Republicanism (Republicanism in Modern Ireland, edited by Fergal McGarry (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2003) ISBN 1 900621 940) contains a number of contributions very useful for understanding of this issue, in particular about the crucial role of the land question in Irish politics, and how Republicans seized or failed to exploit the agrarian issue. This was a decisive factor which prevented the growth of left republicanism in Ireland.

Terence Dooley's essay in the collection ('IRA Veterans and Land Divisions in Independent Ireland 1923-1948’) notes that the importance of the role of the land question in the Irish revolution 1917-1923 'has often been lost on historians of the period'. For the dominant historiography, there is little evidence of a social component in the Irish revolution and in its settlement, because a series of land reforms had defused the explosiveness of the land question. For Dooley, 'this is much too simplistic an analysis of a very complex issue.

There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence of a social component in the revolution and just as much evidence to suggest that the settlement of the land question from 1923 onwards was seen to be central to the restoration of law and order in Irish society. The potential for social upheaval had not been defused by the British land purchase acts from 1870 to 1909. The widely held misconception that the 1903 Wyndham Land Act effectively solved the land question in Ireland has blinded historians to the fact that the creation of a mass of peasant proprietors actually led to immeasurable long-term problems.

By 1922, an average of around 65 percent of all agricultural holdings in each county in Ireland came under the definition of 'uneconomic' as set out by the Land Commission, that is below £10 valuation or roughly twenty acres of 'reasonable' land. When one goes back to 1917 and adds to these uneconomic holders the 114 000 tenant farmers who between them occupied approximately 3 million acres and who had not yet benefited from the land purchase acts, one can see that there was a great deal of potential upheaval in rural Ireland.' It is thus not surprising that many of the major players in the Tan War (Dooley quotes Liam Deasy, Ernie O Malley, E. Childers, Tom Barry on this) and other contemporary commentators later emphasised that it was the lower strata of the farming class who offered the most support to the Republican struggle.

Recent studies of the socio-economic background of IRA members in rural areas have found that it was the small farmers, the landless and the labourers who offered most support to the IRA and that the large farmers held aloof. Peter Hart, for example noted that hostility towards the IRA in county Cork was strongest in the North and East where agricultural prosperity was most pronouned. 355 out of the 408 volunteers identified by historian Joost Augusteijn were 'uneconomic holders', who lived on farms valued £4 or less. Dooley concludes that 'while not intending to doubt the patriotic motives of these to join the IRA, there is the strong possibility that many were also motivated by considerations of improving their socio-economic situation.'

There was an opportunity for Republican Socialist leadership through the merging of land and national question. However, the absence of Republican Socialist leadership resulted in the potential of ‘agrarian bolshevism’ (as the Irish Times called it) being lost. Political leadership of the struggle remained in the hands of the national bourgeoisie, the consequence was that the outcome of the struggle went against the class interests of the workers and the small farmers. As the Tan War progressed, so did rural agitation. However, the problem for Sinn Fein was that localised agrarianism began to detract the efforts of the IRA. As a result of this, arbitration courts were set up to deal with land disputes, and on occasions the IRA was used to quell rural unrest.

After truce and treaty and the parting of the ways, the Republican IRA was predominantly supported by small farmers. 'As the Treaty did not promise any economic gains to the landless and the uneconomic holders, the anti-Treaty faction of the IRA was perhaps perceived as being more likely to provide this.' This was a strong opportunity for Republican Socialist leadership. And contrary to 1917-1921, a small core of Marxist cadres existed.

Roddy Connolly attended the third and fourth congress of the communist international (summer 1921 and end of 1922), and this led to the formation of the CPI. Numerically insignificant with less than two dozen members, it attempted to orientate the IRA in a socialist direction. With the outbreak of the Civil War, they fought with the Republican side.

In Mountjoy jail, a group including Peadar O Donnell of the Executive of the IRA, William Carpenter of the CPI and Liam Mellows held long discussions of republican policy and strategy and the need for a socially radical dimension, and the need to be broaden from a military to a military and social struggle. They argued that it was necessary to develop a programme to bring the workers and small farmers to the Republican side.

Roddy Connolly and Michael Borodin of the Komintern (later a famous adviser to Chinese communists) drafted a proposal (published in the Workers' Republic issues of 22 and 29 July and 12 August 1922) that included nationalisation, land division, debt cancellation, an eight hours working day, free housing and social services.

Liam Mellows combined the Connolly/Borodin proposals (smuggled in Mountjoy) with his own tentative ideas for a Republican policy. (It was captured an first published in the Irish Independent 21 September 1922) It is unfortunate that people like Mellows remained isolated figures. He proposed the only political strategy that would have made Republicans victorious. His enemies were aware how dangerous for them his proposals were.

In December 1922, Patrick Hogan, the Free State Minister of Agriculture, made this revealing comment:

'To produce chaos the Irregulars smashed up the transport of the country even though that was unpopular. A result which would be the same in kind though perhaps less in degree, would be produced by the wholesale seizure of land and it would have the advantage of being much more popular, in fact quite in the best tradition. The 'land for the people' is almost as respectable an objective as the 'Republic' and would make a much wider appeal.'

Hogan suggested that the Free state army be used to deal with land seizures. The absence of Republican Socialist leadership allowed the Treatyites to win the Civil War. Dooley notes that 'From the government's point of view, the lack of political coherency amongst agrarian agitators was fortunate. They formed no political party and remained largely politically impotent while the stronger farmers and the middle classes formed the political elite of the new state. This new elite showed little interest in specifically rewarding those small farmers, labourers and landless men who had joined the IRA, some in the hope of being rewarded with land.'

During the 1920s and 1930s, the land issue was seized by the native Irish capitalist class to gather electoral support. Fianna Fail gradually neutralised the fears of the Irish elite, while developing a programme designed to appeal to a constituency as broad as possible.

With the growth of the land annuities conflict in the 1920s, De Valera became convinced that a more radical approach to land division would consolidate support for Fianna Fail from the small farmers, labourers and clerks. However, due to its class nature, it was impossible for Fianna Fail to resolve the land issue in the interests of the workers and the small farmers.

As Dooley notes:

'One does not have to be a cynic to realise that it is one thing for politicians to promise land for everybody when they are out of office and quite another to deliver upon these promises when they take office. And so it was with Fianna Fail, as with Cumann na nGaedheal before them... While its commitment to land redistribution was clear in the early years of its administration, it became increasingly aware of the need to avoid antagonising the middling to large farmers who had been so adversely affected by the Economic War. Faced with conflicting demands, Fianna Fail did not deliver to the small farmer and labourer classes all that it had promised.'

The question to be asked is why were Republicans unable to seize the political initiative on the land question ? Another essay in the collection by Donal O Drisceoil ('The 'Irregular and Bolshie situation': Republicanism and Communism 1921-36') offers some answers.

'The growing strength of de Valera's party called the IRA's raison d'etre into question, while the leakage of volunteers into de Valera's party increased as it gathered momentum. O Donnell and his associates provided the IRA with a political project that differentiated it from Fianna Fail and fitted the radical temper of the times.'

These were the days of economic depression, increasing non payment of annuities, unemployed workers' agitation and industrial unrest. The likes of O Donnell and Ryan, who were on the left of Republicanism, convinced the IRA that it needed to complement the army by a socialist organisation and adopt a socialist programme to gain political initiative. Their aim was to put class struggle at the center of the Republican political dynamic and transform the IRA into a Connollyite Citizens Army. (For example, O Donnell began the land agitation in 1926. He called for the abolition of land annuities, which would have thrown up the question of title to land and opened up the vista of land nationalization, whereas Fianna Fail simply advocated retention of land annuities into Irish state coffers.)

So in 1931, they created Saor Eire 'to achieve an independent revolutionary leadership for the working class and working farmers towards the overthrow in Ireland of British imperialism and its ally, Irish capitalism'. The problem was that Saor Eire existed only on paper, it was not able to develop because it was banned after a couple of months. Also, a joint pastoral from Catholic bishops declared the organisation 'sinful and irreligious', a significant blow in a country were Catholicism was influential.

George Gilmore, then an IRA volunteer, wrote:

'The founding of Saor Eire as a political auxiliary to the IRA was a sterile advance of mere programme making; but it was a stretching downwards; it had not the strength of growth in a basis of agitational struggle and the IRA never quite arrived at the position of seeing itself as just the fighting force of a popular movement.'

Things complicated when Fianna Fail took power. Some Republicans believed that Fianna Fail’s aim was the Republic, instead of consoliditating the power of the Irish capitalist class. An ambiguity was that the IRA had not made clear the qualitative difference between the Republic it was fighting for and Fianna Fail's. The fundamental class issues at stake were not grasped and developed at a strategic level.

At the IRA convention of March 1934, a final effort was made by O Donnell to force the IRA into a radical political role. They failed, withdrew and called for the formation of the Republican Congress. The Republican Congress met in September 1934. But divisions occurred leading to a split which destroyed the movement. On one hand a section wanted to adopt the slogan 'For a Workers Republic' and argued that the Congress should be a stepping stone towards a political party. The others wanted to form a 'united front' pledged to the slogan 'For a Republic'. O Donnell argued that to adopt the 'Workers Republic' at this stage was premature, because it would leave Fianna Fail to claim monopoly on the realisation of 'the Republic'. While the former said that you could not get rid of British imperialism until you smash capitalism, the latter argued that 'you cannot smash Capitalism until you get rid of British Imperialism'. When a small majority voted for the aim of the Republic and the formation of a popular front, the rest resigned.

'The communists and their republican allies had decided yet again to work within the confines of republicanism, now dominated by an integrationist party with state power, and to offer as Richard Dunphy has argued, a challenge to that party's growing hegemony not at its weakest point (class) but its strongest (nation).’




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


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Index: Current Articles

17 June 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

A Day That Comes, Also Goes
Tom Luby

One of the Nine
Anthony McIntyre

IRPWA Delegation Targeted By British Army/RUC
Martin Mulholland

'The Confines of Republicanism'
Liam O Ruairc

I Was Only Following Orders
Fred A. Wilcox

Reagan's Legacy
Sean O Lubaigh

The Humanity in Us All
Dorothy Naor

13 June 2004

An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Irish Republican Army
Paul Fitzsimmons

Fred Wilcox

Something rotten at the core of US body politic
Mick Hall

Father Mc Manus Replies to Mrs. O'Loan, Urges Proof in Abundance
Father Sean Mc Manus

The Armed Peace
Anthony McIntyre

An Irish Wake for Ronnie Reagan
Radio Free Eireann

Gareth McConnell

Venezuela: terrorist snipers, their media allies and defence of democracy
Toni Solo


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