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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The 1934 Republican Congress: Broad Front or Narrow Retreat?

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 11 May 2004

Must republicans be socialists? In 1934, about 10,000 agreed when they left the IRA under the direction of Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, George Gilmore, and Michael Price, to name a few prominent leaders. They formed the Republican Congress, an alliance of those who linked political separatism to radical socialism. Attempting to overcome the IRA’s predilection for military fighting rather than policy making, the RC sought to unite rural smallholders, urban industrial workers, and republican activists.

The IRA, which had subsumed Sinn Féin and resisted a leftist split (under O’Donnell’s co-direction) in Saor Eire around the turn of the decade, still controlled the majority of (as many as) 30,000 , but the radical and military movements of the 30s continued to decline as DeValera’s Fianna Fáil increased, taking control of the 26 Counties in 1932. Most Irish remained skeptical that republicanism could be better achieved either by the IRA’s physical-force or the RC’s popular front. Examining the reasons why the RC believed it could sway the Irish people better than the IRA or Fianna Fáil remains crucial to our understanding of the possibilities and the limits of such an approach, seven decades later. The difficulties the RC faced and the optimism it preached bear scrutiny.

The problem with the Saor Eire experiment—a leftist vanguard—lay in its militancy; if IRA policy needed a leftward challenge, why try to rewrite 1919’s Democratic Programme? If republicans sought radicalism, it lay in their own legacy. Not with the IRA. George Gilmore captures this in The Irish Republican Congress (Cork Workers’ Club, rev. ed. 1978). The gun lurked “without the revolutionary tradition that preceded it.” The military lacked direction: “a spear-point waiting for its shaft and for an arm to guide it.” (23) The IRA leaders could not provide this guidance. Their politics remained vague, their volunteers suffered under a gag order preventing them from voicing dissent.

So, in 1934, the RC withdrew from the IRA, with Price envisaging “an expression of mass Republican feeling” dissatisfied with a too cautious FF and a too conservative IRA. (35) The confidence the RC radiated at first seemed contagious. The Congress demanded a return of land to smallholders; better housing; wage increases; improved conditions for rural and urban workers; clerical separation from state policy. Familiar goals. A movement was envisioned that would transcend sectarianism and achieve class unity.

Nearly hagiographical in the retellings have been two arguably isolated incidents. The 1932 Belfast Outdoor Relief riots in which Catholics and Protestants temporarily resisted rent increases had tempted IRA grassroots participation, although their Dublin superiors and trade unionists both may have wished to thwart the demonstrators’ common formation. (Raymond J. Quinn, A Rebel Voice: A History of Belfast Republicanism, 1925-1972, Belfast: The Belfast Cultural and Local History Group, 1999, pg. 16) Also, featured as the cover picture of Gilmore’s account, a Shankill road contingent attended Bodenstown to march alongside its typical demographic. To what degree did these “cross-community initiatives” (to employ a later term) rouse the practical advance of the RC? Unfortunately, none at all. The RC, its diminished size retarding its struggle to induct the majority of their fellow republicans, let alone those enticed by Fianna Fáil as it lay stepping-stones across calmer ideological waters towards a pacified Republic, failed to build momentum for a more dynamic leap across the ford.

A familiar tendency to bicker over ideology halted any actual gains the RC could have delivered to a largely war-weary, clerically-cowed, and politically complacent Irish constituency. The trade unions weren’t eager for a more threatening mobilisation. The Labour Party likewise demurred. Anti-fascism, however admirable, failed to galvanize coalitions. Many leftist proponents of the RC and like-minded campaigns blame their failure upon a public too lazy, too ignorant, or too distracted to have its consciousness sufficiently heightened, purified, and verified as true rather than false. While this response may assuage those who deify such attempts, it keeps failing to move its masses or sway its skeptics. Republicanism constantly faces this challenge as it persists into its third century. How can its goals be defined, let alone attained? Too often, the difficulty of defining the goals results in the stalling of the movement right after it begins to warm up.

For the RC, this failure to reach ignition happened on the starting pad. A political party or a united front? Price argued that a definition preceded action. Richard English distinguishes at the 1933 IRA Convention faction “communalist rhetoricians” from their opponents, “class-struggling activists.” (Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State, 1925-1937. Oxford UP, 1994) This dichotomy endured; activists O’Donnell and Gilmore were continuing the same argument they had made to the IRA unsuccessfully the previous year. Now, among those who had left the IRA to back the RC at its Rathmines convention, its own 1934 Congress faced—as all republicans seem to, noted by Brendan Behan as the first item on their agenda—a split.

The RC had started that spring, and by 29-30 September it may have already ended for all practical purposes. The tragedy was not that the members fundamentally differed on the goal of a socialist, 32-County republic following the 1919 Democratic Programme. Unlike others draped in the republican mantle, the RC determined to forward the idealistic demands of rebels. Not Pearse but Connolly inspired them. The attendance of Nora Connolly (O’Brien) ensured this symbolic and actual continuity. O’Donnell led those favouring action first, and resolutions later. The majority, however, under Price, insisted that the RC form, through Labour, militancy combined with a working-class, anti-imperialist, anti-partitionist platform. The minority, under O’Donnell, backed a united front of workers, small farmers vs. “Imperialist and native exploiters.” (Gilmore, 45-51) Implacably, the two sides, as O’Donnell recalled, debated a “slogan of action.”

The Majority Resolution called for a “Workers Republic”; O’Donnell feared this played into FF’s hand, allowing “the Republican Party” under Dev to claim that FF wanted an inclusive Republic while the RC sought one only for the proletariat and smallholders. Also, the Majority Resolution urged a “Worker’s Republican Party”; the minority again wished to appeal to those of all parties, or none. The Majority won a pyrrhic victory. Radical supporters have attempted to interpret this debate in terms of Marxian stagism; the later Official-Provisional division in 1969-70 and the subsequent fate of Sinn Féin—The Worker’s Party and the Democratic Left conveys the continuing socialist and republican relevance, and marginalisation, of such concerted contentiousness.

Conor Foley finds irony in the fact that the united front minority depended upon the Irish Communists (CPI) to give it enough votes so the RC would not be seen as communist. (Legion of the Rearguard: The IRA and the Modern Irish State. London: Pluto, 1992, pg. 144) Henry Patterson recognises that the RC could hardly insist that its anti-imperialist campaign promised more than FF, who had successfully convinced the majority of 26-County voters of its anti-British credentials. Bridging party lines cuts deep.

The RC, historians today concur, was fatally detached from reality. Northern Protestants would not join an anti-Crown effort, even if renamed a “Workers Republic” rather than an “Irish” domain. Socialists summoned a commodified force of urban and rural toilers which failed to reify itself. The masses preferred Dev, presumably victimized by their false consciousness. Even Seán Russell’s IRA, obtuse as it was, gained more attention from the Irish and British governments by their senseless Coventry bombing. As Patterson summarises, O’Donnell and his allies might despise the IRA’s intransigence, but the leftists who had agitated for a united front “would continue to judge all issues by their relationship to an objective they happily shared with the most conservative and militaristic elements of the IRA.” (The Politics of Illusion: A Political History of the IRA. London: Serif, 1997, pg. 75) Advocating socialism loosened Irish radicals’ insularities; allegiance to republicanism kept the RC tethered.

For few among the Irish majority in whose name the RC sought to fight joined its ranks. Certainly unrelenting anti-communist propaganda--despite the rise of fascism, the Blueshirts, Fine Gael, and the Spanish Civil War--tainted the left for many Irish. The Church possessed tremendous influence in opposing revolution; the failure of the RC to lure their proletarian brethren in the Six Counties undermined their class-based message. Gilmore diagnoses the failure of the RC to “break the illusion that Fianna Fáil was leading the Free State on to the Republic.” (63) Complacency remained its enemy. Richard English criticises the myopic platitudes that trapped the RC into an uncompromising faith in the symbiosis of anti-capitalism and republican separatism. This assumption, he challenges, depended too much on a 1916-vintage mystique that played into Gaelicism on one hand and communism on the other: a difficult pitch to the non-sectarian, 32-county audience the RC assumed was waiting. By April 1936, Ryan conceded, the RC was “moribund.” (quoted in English, 255) The split at Rathmines drained away what energy a unified front could have offered to the promotion of an anti-capitalist republican alternative. Too few cared, north or south of the border. While his diagnosis may chill the true believer in the purity of an unwavering cause, English asserts that such fervent isolation prevented the RC from building its broad front.

Investigation into Connolly’s theories cannot occur within this article’s limits. In brief, English alleges that the RC fetishised the dogma (itself disregarding Connolly’s own inconsistencies that his devotion to his doctrine produced throughout his own lifetime) of his central thesis. “The Irish masses were held to be both socially radical and also instinctively separatist,” these two threads interweaving. (270) The RC, according to English--who has investigated it far more thoroughly than any other preceding scholar or participant--sealed its doom. The hardline separatists still ruled the IRA—leading it to its demise after Coventry confined many at the Curragh. The Irish left failed to convince even the republican faithful. The RC remained a footnote, albeit boldfaced by many who promoted Marxian and class-based formulations marrying radicalism with republicanism.

Piously, the secular RC reprimanded those who debated theory rather than took to the streets: “faith without good works is dead,” chided the RC in a 9 June 1934 article. (quoted in English, 210) The IRA, it thundered, “shirk the day-to-day struggles of the working class. They bitterly oppose the unleashing of the people which the Republican Congress will bring about.” English assembles the psychological rewards of socialist republicanism. Its zealotry, he concludes, combines simplicity, stubbornness, smugness, crudity, and evangelism. Its cult, politically simple in its adherence to crude Connolly gospel, justifies by its devotion a refusal to compromise with other republicans—who can never be admitted if they do not also profess socialism with its concomitant commitment to class struggle, wealth redistribution, and centralised control of resources and labour. This millenarian message—the revolution was imminent—comforted them while they wandered in the wilderness, for decades out of power while Dev paraded, false messiah.

The promised land of the Republic—like the river Bann perhaps as its Jordan yet uncrossed—beckoned from afar. Incorruptible, as others in the movement took shelter in Second Dáil and the IRA as the government of the Republic schemes, so the RC assured those gathered that the conversion of the loyalist, shoneen, and gombeen remained near. Like missionaries, the RC sought solace in an international calling on behalf of the downtrodden, that it would never ally with fascists or dictators (although when these were enemies of the Crown, as WWII would soon prove, such assignations would lure Frank Ryan from the anti-fascist Spanish to the heart of Nazi Berlin; meanwhile Ryan Russell would remain allies even as their ideas diverged). Finally, all those who had labored for a Republic but who had failed to embrace the tenets of the RC were expelled—Collins, Pearse, DeValera, Dorothy Macardle, Liam Lynch. Gilmore, in 1978, admits that the RC, while ahead of its time, still inspired him with his memory of the Shankill faction battling the IRA guard shoving the RC from laying wreaths on Wolfe Tone’s grave. He also acknowledged that he doubted that the cry of “Come on Shankill” would ever repeat at Sallins. (v) A return to Redmondite nationalism, an embrace of Brussels and Wall Street, he contemplated, seemed far more likely in our Irish future.

The relevance and the lessons of the RC I leave to others to determine. True to The Blanket, I have offered my own dissenting view. If we today wish to learn from the legacy of the RC, I contend that its members would wish us to be not only admiring of its efforts, but cognizant of its failures to achieve its ambitious goals. While its rhetoric may be inspiring, its achievements fall far too short. We must ask why, and not blame others before we hearken sharply to our own rote litanies. Critics of the RC, like English, and promoters, like Gilmore, recite cautionary tales. Too often, marchers to Bodenstown, we commemorate icons without dusting off the grime, to heed whatever admonition waits on their gravestones, or what warning endures in their eyes confronting us with a wary gaze.


 

 

 

 

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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

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Index: Current Articles



13 May 2004

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

The 1934 Republican Congress: Broad Front or Narrow Retreat?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

 

Better an Honest Socialist than a Lying Republican
Dolours Price

 

The Angrytown News presents: SinnAid
A Community Response

Jimmy Sands

 

No Minimum Wage Here
Anthony McIntyre

 

Further Serious Abuses of Republican POWS
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA

 

Free Tibet?
Liam O Ruairc

 

Thoughts on the November Elections
Chrissie McGlinchey

 

The Letters page has been updated.

 

10 May 2004

 

War Crimes
Anthony McIntyre

 

Address given by IRSP Ard Comhairle Terry Harkin to Fringe Meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party
Terry Harkin

 

A Guiding Light Falls on Ramallah
Sam Bahour

 

An Occupation That Creates Children Willing To Die
Leah Tsemel

 

Dave Hann,
co-author "No Retreat"
Connolly Books

AFA Ireland

 

 

 

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