9 June 2021

Ireland (Part I)

Originally published as a supplement in The Leninist No.13 October 1984. Available on our archive here


IN THE 1840s and 1850s Marx and Engels considered that Ireland would be liberated through the triumph of proletarian revolution in Britain itself. But later, in the 1860s, they came to the conclusion that if anything it would be the other way round, that the victory of the national movement in Ireland would be the spark that would ignite the class struggle in Britain. With the “loss of Ireland”, Wrote Marx, “the class war in England, till now somnolent and chronic, will assume acute forms” (Marx and Engels Ireland and the Irish Question p404).

Thus for Marx a central component for revolution in Britain became the necessity of breaking the chain that bound the working class to the policy of the bourgeoisie over Ireland; in fact, for the workers in Britain he declared “the national emancipation of Ireland is no question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition for their own social emancipation.” (Ibid p408.)

Lenin praised the position Marx and Engels developed on Ireland as a model of proletarian internationalism and relevant for all communists:

“The Policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nations should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its practical importance…

“If the Irish and English proletariat had not accepted Marx’s policy and had not made the succession of Ireland their slogan, this would have been the worst sort of opportunism, a neglect of their duties as democrats and socialists, and a concession to English reaction and the English bourgeoisie.” (V. I. Lenin, CW, Vol 20 p442).

This was the position advanced by the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain; it maintained a distinct line separate from the bourgeoisie and its servants in the leadership of the Labour Party. What is more, it came out in full support of the cause of Irish republicanism. This is made abundantly clear in a Party pamphlet published in 1921, The Irish Crisis by William Paul:

“The Communist Party of Great Britain hails the dauntless fight of the Irish Republicans in their successful struggle against the British Government. Unlike the Labour Party, which does not desire to harass the Government during the present negotiations, we definitely declare that we will gladly yield all the demands made by the Irish Republicans. In lending every assistance to Ireland, it is not only necessary for us to attack the Government, but also warn our Irish friends that the political and trade union leaders of the British Labour Movement are as dangerous to them as ever a Lloyd George or a Hamar Greenwood. The cowardly ineptitude of the Labour Party in the House of Commons so far as Ireland is concerned is at once humiliating and treacherous. The barefaced betrayers of Ireland and her workers by the British trade union leaders is on a level par with that of the Labour party. We assure our Irish friends that these elements are being exposed by the Communists.” (p.12)

It is neither the purpose of nor do we have room in this study to examine the path traversed by our Party since 1921; suffice to say the CPGB steadily degenerated under the leadership of opportunists, a process programmatically capped and enshrined in the adoption by our Party of the British Road to Socialism in 1951. Despite this, on Ireland the 1951 BRS and the next three subsequent editions maintained the vestiges, the remnants of a principled position. Thus the 1968 fourth version of the BRS was able to state that:

“The enforced partition of Ireland should be ended and British troops withdrawn from Northern Ireland, leaving the Irish people free to realise their united republic.” (p37)

The fact that the leadership around John Gollan maintained this position on Ireland in 1968 had not a jot to do with his ‘anti-revisionism’, a block-headed epithet some have subsequently bestowed on him, far from it. No, Gollan and his myopic crew called for a united Ireland and troops out simply because the somnolent state of the national struggle in Ireland lulled them into a state of drowsiness on the question. The proof that their position on Ireland was nothing more than a carryover from the Leninist past of our Party; the proof of Gollan’s contempt for even his own particular version of the BRS came almost before the ink was dry. For, less than a year after the fourth version of the BRS came off the press, the national struggle rudely imposed reality on the sleepy revisionists. While thousands marched for civil rights, while B Special and loyalist thugs launched anti-Catholic pogroms, and the nationalist population demanded that ‘old rusty guns’ (the IRA) defend the Catholic areas, our revisionists’ faces first turned red with embarrassment and then purple with rage because the Irish had had the temerity to overturn their ever so cleverly concocted programme. Indeed, for the Gollan opportunists themselves it stood exposed because of its very lack of opportunism, something they swiftly rectified in practice. But for this opportunist practice to be united with the Party programme nine years passed, nine years in which not a day passed when the leadership and the Morning Star did not violate their own programme.

In 1969 the opportunists quickly buried their programmatic pronouncements on Ireland and substituted comfortable opportunism. In a joint call by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Irish Workers’ Party, and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland the demand was made for a “democratic solution” to the problems in the Six Counties. But this “democratic solution” did not include the withdrawal of troops, let alone a united Ireland; instead of these democratic demands the plea was made to the Labourite Prime Minister Harold Wilson for him to ensure that ‘progressive’ reforms were carried out – using the daft logic (admittedly nothing strange in this from the opportunists) that as Britain had caused the problem it “must therefore take action to solve it without delay.” (CPGB leaflet August 3, 1969). Resistance to state and Paisleyite terror; the use of Molotov cocktails, bombs and bullets; the building of barricades; the establishment of ‘no go areas’ by the Catholic masses were for our opportunists not to be welcomed but to be bemoaned. For them the Irish had crossed the Rubicon, or to use a more apt analogy had gone beyond the pale.

The current, fifth version (1978) of the BRS at least corrected the ‘aberrations’ of all previous editions, ditched their calls for the unconditional withdrawal of troops, their declaration for the abolition of the Six Counties statelet, and the end of the enforced division of Ireland. In place of these basic democratic demands the opportunists have cobbled together a utopian shopping list of reformist demands on the British state, calling for the British government to overcome sectarianism, for the British government to enact economic measures which will revive the Six Counties’ flagging industries, for the British state, fairy godmother-like, to create the conditions for a united Ireland, something reliant on of all things the consent of loyalism! But let the new BRS speak for itself. This is what it now has to say on Ireland:

“Britain”, it suggests, “should ensure a democratic solution in Northern Ireland, based on the implementation of a Bill of Rights and the end of all repressive measures, the withdrawal of troops to barracks, and financial and other measures to begin to tackle the appalling problems of poverty and unemployment. These steps would create conditions in which sectarian strife could be ended and British troops withdrawn completely. The British government should recognise the right of the majority of the people of Ireland to rule the whole of their country, and should co-operate with their representatives in bringing this about by consent.” (p43).

Here we have unexpiated, unadultered proof of our Party leadership’s advocacy of a ‘positive colonial policy’ á la Eduard Bernstein, who recommended to the German working class the “civilising work” of the Kaiser’s imperial armed forces in the colonies. Our own opportunists recommend to the oppressed the progressive role moribund British imperialism can play in Ireland, insisting, as if dealing with a small child, that as it caused the ‘mess’ in Ireland it must clear it up. Of course this is nothing but transparent sophistry, for using such ‘logic’ our comrades would end up demanding that as the Nationalist Party regime in South Africa caused the ‘mess’ of apartheid it must pass ‘progressive’ legislation to overcome racism; that United States’ imperialism should have been forced to unite Vietnam – they were after all responsible for maintaining the ‘mess’ of division. Our opportunists stand exposed: for when it is a matter of abstract principle the opportunists are quite prepared to mouth anything, but as soon as it comes to putting that principle into practice then it is a different matter. How else are we to explain the somersault performed in 1969 and the abandonment by the Gollan leadership of its own programmatic position on Ireland?

For Leninism imperialism is the domination of production by finance capital, a definite stage in the development of capitalism: its last. But for the BRS imperialism has become a policy which can, if there is sufficient will, be broken from as one would break from the habit of smoking tobacco. This fallacy underpins the opportunists’ attitude towards Ireland. We can see this from the last comprehensive pamphlet on Ireland published by the leadership (in 1975!) Northern Ireland: a programme for action by Irene Brennan (remember her?):

“The present sufferings of the people of the Six Counties,” said Irene Brennan, “are a direct result of the policies adopted by successive British governments … both Labour and Tory governments have been pursuing repressive, reactionary, so-called ‘bipartisan’ policies… if the Labour government continues to operate these Tory policies there is a grave danger that there will be a conflagration of sectarian violence that will engulf the whole of Northern Ireland… The British government faces a crucial choice – either to continue its present disastrous course, or to break finally with the policies of imperialism… there must be a decisive change in British government policy … What is needed is a completely new policy (pp4-5, our emphases).

But if this isn’t stretching our orthodox communist patience beyond breaking point the opportunists maintain that British monopolies are striving with might and main to unite Ireland. What stops them, or so we are to believe, are the Unionist capitalists and the reactionary ideology of Orangeism.

“The interests of the Unionists and those of monopoly capitalism are now no longer identical. The latter wishes to dispense with the border in order to lay the whole of Ireland open to economic exploitation on a more massive scale.” (Ibid, p10)

This egregious view of the progressive role of British imperialism is not confined to comrade Brennan, who is now considered to be on the quirky fringe of the Party with her calls for us to drop our anti-religious “prejudices”. No, the same point has been made by a whole range of different opportunist shades, from comrade Jimmy Stewart of the CPI: “for British monopoly capitalism the economic and political division of the island of Ireland was becoming a redundant solution” (Marxism Today August 1975 p235) to our very own General secretary Gordon McLennan, for whom British imperialism is seeking the “political reunification” of Ireland (Britain and the Irish Crisis p19).

Because of this these comrades consider that the armed struggle of the oppressed led by the Provisional IRA and the INLA is not merely delaying the realisation of a united Ireland but is in itself a major stumbling block to progress. It is at the feet of the national liberation forces that the opportunists lay the blame for deepening sectarianism; they are also held responsible for the violence of the forces of oppression and the absence of meaningful solidarity from the labour movement in Britain:

“The Provisionals’ campaign of violence further provided an excuse to reaction in Northern Ireland to build up its extreme right-wing armed bodies… Progressive opinion in Britain itself was alienated, so making it much more difficult to establish a much needed solidarity movement with the anti-Unionists.” (Irene Brennan Northern Ireland: a programme for action p17).

Again, these views are not the deranged ravings of some political hasbeen, but represent the essence of the opportunists’ views of the armed struggle in the Six Counties. Comrade Bert Ward, the secretary of the CPGB’s National Advisory on Ireland, although he objects to being “called opportunist by the self-styled Leninists in Britain,” comes out in his full opportunist colours by declaring that the armed struggle of the IRA “welds” the “Protestant workers” to “their Unionist masters.” (Ireland December 1983). This excuse for a communist actually has the temerity to blame the IRA for fascist violence in Britain, and moronically declares the use of arms in the Six Counties “not necessary” because, believe it or not, “Sinn Féin have a bookshop In Dublin and Belfast. They publish a weekly newspaper … which is publically on sale.” Comrade Ward’s method of determining the correctness of taking up arms is based on the fact that repression is more severe in South Africa than the wonderfully democratic Six Counties. Using this weird logic our cretinous opportunist maintains that only when it is would it be legitimate to take up arms, and even then comrade Ward still has “moral” doubts about it because “the only people who believe it is morally correct to kill and maim people are those who believe in retributive justice”; apparently socialists do “not fall into this category”. (Ireland February 1984). That such whacky yellow pacifism is published by an official Party publication only shows the depths that degeneration has gone to in the CPGB; that the dunderhead comrade Ward is secretary of the National Advisory on Ireland says even more.

For genuine communists armed struggle is a tactical question not a matter of abstract “morality”; it is certainly not based on some comparative scoreboard of repression in South Africa, or even on the lack of democracy. The Bolsheviks took up arms against Kerensky’s petty bourgeois socialist government not because it was going to introduce apartheid or some other such appalling measure, but in essence because Lenin thought they could win the day for proletarian socialism. Our morality is born of the class struggle and is determined by the interests of the working class. It is the same considerations that have underpinned all communist moves towards armed struggle and insurrection; the fact that our people have been maimed and killed in the class struggle is of course unfortunate. As to the class enemy and its hirelings: we will not lose any sleep.

But in the Six Counties we are not weighing up the question of whether or not communists should launch an armed struggle. We are faced by an armed struggle of the oppressed, not against the Protestants, as the Tories, Fleet Street, and a range of opportunists from Militant to comrade Ward imply, but an armed struggle against the British state and its local agents. It is an armed struggle that is in progress; yes, it is led by petty bourgeois nationalists – modern day Fenians; yes, they make tactical blunders; yes, they show all the prejudices and instability of petty bourgeois revolutionaries; but the main campaigning question for communists in Britain, the oppressor country, is not the advisability of this or that action, let alone the legitimacy of armed struggle. No, we should be supporting in words and deeds the liberation movement against our own imperialism. In fact we must give unconditional support. Anything else only plays into the hands of reaction in Britain and is the most revolting opportunism, which far from advancing the struggle in Britain fosters national chauvinism in the working class.

It is ironic that while the CPGB leadership made its central campaigning demand for the Six Counties the end to violence, called for the republican forces to lay down their arms, and castigated the Provisionals for being elitist and having no mass base, other communist parties hailed the IRA as freedom fighters and indeed when Bobby Sands died his martyr’s death, in contrast to the CPGB’s complete lack of campaigning for the hunger strikes, other parties (for example the communist parties in France and the United States) participated in and even led mass demonstrations denouncing British imperialism and supporting the demands of the republican prisoners.

The acid test of proletarian internationalism is of course not the denunciation of some other imperialist country, but your own. So the fact that in the face of a world chorus attacking the British presence in Ireland, the fact that even the Straight Leftists have chosen to hide behind the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) and join hands with liberals in calling for Britain to declare some future intention of withdrawal is a vivid illustration of the extent social chauvinism has penetrated the ranks of our CPGB.

Does our position of unconditional support mean that it is incorrect to criticise the national liberation movement in Ireland? No, far from it. But criticism of a national liberation movement is only legitimate from the firm ground of unconditional support; in other words, we must criticise only while completely opposing ‘our’ imperialism and defending Sinn Féin, the IRSP, the IRA, and the INLA against attacks from British imperialism, and cultivating a fraternal attitude towards the Irish masses from the working class in Britain. As to the nature of criticism, this should not be based on this or that action but should flow from our understanding of the petty bourgeois nature of the present liberation movement and the necessity for working class leadership in the national struggle.

Our commitment to proletarian internationalism demands that we recognise the inherent limitations of Sinn Féin; to pretend that limitations do not exist, to project Sinn Féin as some sort of fully developed revolutionary socialist organisation is not only simpleminded but throws dust into the eyes of the working class in Britain and Ireland and thereby holds back the working class from the necessity of gaining political independence from all other classes.

But while our criticisms of Sinn Féin are primarily determined by its class nature this is not the case with the Communist Party of Ireland, which we criticise for overt opportunism. In a mirror image of those who give Sinn Féin uncritical support, there are those in our Communist Party, for example the Straight Leftists, who demand that our comrades in the CPI be given the same treatment. Of course, these centrists are almost as violently hostile to the liberation movement in Ireland as that unsavoury creep, comrade Bert Ward. “They know the conditions best,” the gabble of centrists declare. And therefore it is proclaimed unprincipled, nay uncommunist, to criticise a fraternal party. This naturally does not apply to parties like the Albanian, the Spanish, or the Italian. But one should not expect consistency from centrists. Because through their clumsy transformation of proletarian internationalism into its opposite – diplomatic internationalism – they are excused from thinking. It is this which lies behind their unwillingness to criticise the CPI, let alone contemplate what the tasks of communists in Ireland should be and what they should not be.

This is not the case with Leninists, who consider it their communist duty to state their differences openly. So if we think a fraternal party is making important mistakes, or especially when we think a party is in the grip of opportunism, we will voice our concern in the hope that this will play a part in helping to overcome problems. The struggle against opportunism cannot and must not be confined to national boundaries; to suggest such a thing is only to objectively play into the hands of the bourgeoisie. We make no apology for our open criticism and our open debate and discussion. We believe our position is fully in line with the theory and practice of Lenin. For instance, when faced with communists from Britain who declared that communists know the conditions best in their own country and therefore there should be no outside ‘interference’ about their attitude toward the Labour Party; Lenin replied that

“The old International… used the method of referring such questions for decision to the individual parties in the countries concerned. We may not be fully familiar with the conditions in one country or another, but in this case we are dealing with the principles underlying a Communist Party’s tactics. This is very important and in the name of the Third International, we must clearly state the communist point of view.” (V. I. Lenin, CW, Vol 31 p257, our emphases.)

For us the dissolution of the Comintern did not lessen the need for proletarian internationalism and its importance to the class struggle – far from it. It is because of this that we feel obliged to advance our views on Ireland even if this includes criticism of our comrades in Ireland.

1. A Brief Background

Since the triumph of capitalism in England, Ireland has been systematically sucked dry, not as in the past by marauding armies but by the incalculably more devastating forces of the market mechanism. Subjected to a forced marriage in 1801, Ireland has been drained of both people and wealth, sacrificed on the altar of profit. For example it has been estimated that in the eighteenth century the great Anglo-Irish families which owned three-quarters of all agricultural land secured revenues equivalent in 1980 money terms to that obtained from North Sea oil and gas today.

The plunder of its first colony was a major source of primitive capital accumulation; it was to Ireland that Britain owed much of its early industrial and commercial boom. While British capitalists and landlords prospered the Irish peasantry were crushed into poverty, and the country reduced to being underdeveloped, purely agrarian, and semi-barbarous. The Act of the Union of 1801 was a sequel to the suppression of the Irish rising of 1798; the subsequent military occupation and brutal coercion ‘persuaded’ the Irish Parliament to ‘consent’ to the Union. This robbed Ireland of the limited authority which had been gained under the pressure of the American War of Independence of 1775-83 and the French Revolution of 1789-94. Union meant the abolition of the Irish Parliament and the lifting of protective tariffs. This resulted in the snuffing out of Ireland’s budding industrial revolution, and as a consequence the populace had, in Marx’s words, to choose “between the occupation of land, at any rent, or starvation” (Marx and Engels Ireland and the Irish Question p142). After the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 the Irish peasantry found itself victim of mass eviction, as the aristocratic English landlords callously sought the extinction of the peasant farmers and their replacement by more profitable large scale cattle ranching.

The Great Famine that gripped Ireland from 1845 to 1850 exacerbated the already dire poverty suffered by the peasantry: it also epitomised the nature of the Union. For a while millions died or were forced to emigrate over the Atlantic, vast amounts of food were shipped the other way over the St George’s Channel.

Famine and mass eviction drained the country of its people: between 1845 and 1851 one and a half million either died of starvation or emigrated, the population being reduced from eight million to six and a half million. But this was only the most dramatic reduction of Ireland’s population: it was only in the 1970s when the drying up of employment and emigration possibilities in the United States and Britain ended the haemorrhaging.

The colonisation of Ireland and its subsequent plundering provoked energetic and often desperate resistance. The Middle Ages saw the clans fight the Anglo-Norman incursion; the 16th and 17th centuries, the period of final conquest, saw two general insurrections, 1641-52 and 1689-91. And at the end of the eighteenth century the American War of Independence and the French Revolution inspired Irish patriots into a rising against rule from London. This 1789 rising was a genuinely revolutionary struggle for national independence, a popular uprising which sought to emancipate the Catholic peasantry, while at the same time striving to overcome the discord between them and the Protestants. 1848 witnessed the Young Ireland attempt at insurrection; in their wake were the Fenians who in 1867 also attempted an insurrection, and following their defeat came the Home Rule agitation and the Land League of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Throughout most of the eighteenth century the national liberation movement in Ireland was led in the main by disaffected elements of the aristocracy and urban bourgeoisie. The emergence of the United Irishmen at the end of the century marked their decline and the broadening of the struggle so that it was

“no longer to remove disabilities from the Catholic upper and middle class, but to emancipate the Irish peasant, for the vast part Catholic. The question became social as to its matter, assumed French political principles, as to its form, remained national” (Marx and Engels Ireland and the Irish Question p175).

But it was only with the dawning of the twentieth century that the working class decisively stepped onto the stage, not only as an important element in Irish society, but as potentially the most determined and consistent champion of national freedom. Britain’s perfection of the strategy of divide and rule had successfully set Protestant worker against Catholic worker, thus considerably sapping the strength of the working class in Ireland; despite this, in Dublin under the leadership of the likes of Connolly and Larkin working class militancy reached revolutionary heights. In 1913 a General Strike gripped Dublin; starvation, betrayal by the TUC bureaucracy in Britain, and naked state terror eventually forced the workers to capitulate, but despite this savage defeat the Dublin proletariat maintained its militancy. With the outbreak of world war in August 1914, Irish socialists, along with the Bolsheviks, the inter-imperialist conflict and called for the turning of the imperialist war into a war for liberation. Outside Liberty Hall, the HQ of the Irish T&GWU, Connolly had hung a banner which summed up the approach of the proletarian vanguard: “We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.”

Connolly understood the necessity of linking the workers’ struggle to that of national liberation, something concretised when the Irish Citizens Army (a workers’ militia formed during the great General Strike of 1913) joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers in staging the Easter Rising. Unfortunately, despite the extremely favourable conditions for working towards a widespread insurrection, the leaders of the Easter Rising including Connolly provided no central role for the broad working masses. It turned out to be an essentially military affair which was quickly isolated by the British forces and, despite heroic resistance, easily crushed. The failure of the Easter Rising decapitated the working class movement, depriving it of its most experienced and, what is more, revolutionary leaders.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising the leadership of the workers’ movement shifted to the right and opted out of the national struggle. As a result, hegemony over the struggle passed to the previously stunted bourgeois nationalist Sinn Féin. At the time of the Easter Rising Sinn Féin was practically confined to one central branch in Dublin. Some idea of the respected strengths of Sinn Féin and the workers’ movement can be gained from a comparison of the circulation of their papers. Sinn Féin’s had a weekly average of only 2,000 while Connolly’s The Irish Worker averaged between 20,000 and 30,000, and during periods of intense struggle circulation had soared to almost 95,000. Sinn Féin took no direct part in the Easter Rising, although some of the Irish Volunteers did have joint membership. Despite this, Arthur Griffith the leader of Sinn Féin refused to support the uprising as he refused to support the 1913 General Strike. Fortunately for Sinn Féin the leaders of the workers’ movement in Ireland shied away from the task of building a mass vanguard workers’ party which would take the lead in the struggle for national independence; instead they actually assisted Sinn Féin in winning by-elections and handed over national leadership to Sinn Féin, concentrating their main efforts on building the Irish T&GWU. In the December 1918 General Election there were not even any candidates from the workers’ movement; this abstention in favour of Sinn Féin was claimed to be for the ‘national interest’. Sinn Féin as a result scored a sweeping electoral victory, winning 73 out of a total of 105 Irish seats.

In January 1919 thirty of the newly elected Sinn Féin MPs (many others were in prison) met in Dublin and issued a declaration of independence, constituting themselves as an Irish Parliament – the Dáil Éireann. It demanded the withdrawal of British troops and in defiance of the British state it set up its own courts, appointed ministers, levied taxes, and gave the Irish Republican Army (previously the Irish Volunteers) the role of being the Dáil’s police force. In fact Sinn Féin’s overall aim was to create an independent state machine. But Sinn Féin, because it was a bourgeois nationalist party, wanted to establish an Irish government under which the Irish bourgeoisie could exploit Ireland. Because of this the Dáil opposed agrarian revolution, and stood with the landowners against land occupations by the poor peasants, using the IRA to maintain existing property relations.

1.1. Ireland Dissected

In the nineteenth century Ireland was almost entirely an agricultural country; the development of industry was confined mainly to the northeast, where because of British encouragement capitalist relations were fostered. As a result, by the end of the century in Belfast and its environs shipbuilding, engineering, and textiles had grown into large scale industries on the basis of exploiting the vast markets of the British Empire. This confined development of industry went hand in hand with the division in the working class between the Protestants, who gave their loyalty to the authorities in return for employment and other privileges, and the Catholics, who were either relegated to the bottom of the labour market or forced to emigrate.

As a result of the uneven development of industry, its basis on sales to the British Empire, and the privileged position of the protestant working class, the demand for Irish independence was fiercely opposed in the area where capitalism had developed highest. In 1913 when Home Rule looked like becoming a real possibility Protestants enthusiastically took up arms under Carson in order to prevent it.

The distorted class relations meant that the struggle for national independence found itself greatly weakened. Britain could rely on the Belfast capitalists and the Protestant working class against the stunted nationalist bourgeoisie, which found support from the petty bourgeois masses and the relatively small working class in the south. The nationalist bourgeoisie lacked the ‘muscle’, the determination, and the courage to achieve more than a formal independence from Britain.

By 1921 it had become vital for Britain to re-establish a stable bourgeois regime in Ireland. The Black and Tan War which had gripped Ireland since early 1920 threatened to push the country towards total social upheaval – the agrarian revolution which constantly threatened to erupt, and the experience of the general strike in 1913 and insurrection in 1916 could, under conditions of war, be moulded into a new and much more pernicious danger to imperialism than the one presented by Sinn Féin. As a result, the British created a parliament in Stormont to administer a new statelet in six of Ulster’s nine counties (to include the other three would have created too even a division between Catholics and Protestants), and in December 1921 after several months of negotiations the British government signed a treaty with de Valera, representing the Dáil, which created the Irish Free State in the remaining twenty-six counties.

Opposition to the treaty split Sinn Féin and developed into a civil war underlying which was the land hunger of the small farmers and the petty bourgeois masses which, having been driven into action against Britain by the 1919-21 agricultural depression (caused by Britain being able to obtain food on the world market following the war), were determined to gain full independence and through it land. The civil war lasted fifteen months, but with the help of Britain the Free State forces succeeded in crushing resistance and establishing a dictatorship of the capitalist class in close alliance with and dependant on British imperialism. Thus the bourgeoisie treacherously abandoned the struggle for national independence.

Connolly had declared that under partition:

“the betrayal of national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.” (The Irish Worker March 14 1914).

And indeed Connolly’s words proved prophetic. In the Six Counties anti-Catholic pogroms broke out, and to add official fuel to the sectarian fire the British state introduced the Special Powers Act in 1922 which gave the Stormont regime sweeping, draconian powers including internment. The British state also formed local paramilitary organs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the notorious B Specials. But as well as the overtly repressive measures, other measures were enacted to ensure the continued domination of the Six Counties by Britain and its Unionist satraps. Elections took place on the basis of monstrous gerrymandering, the result of which was that many areas with a Catholic majority suffered uninterrupted Unionist control of local councils. Because of this it was possible to command considerable patronage in the form of jobs, housing, and other privileges, something that helped ensure the loyalty of the Protestant working class to the link with Britain.

In the Twenty-Six Counties equally repressive legislation was passed in order to suppress opposition to the division of Ireland. Even when de Valera, elected into government in 1932 on a reformist bourgeois nationalist programme, attempted to loosen the Prometheus-like chains that bound the ‘Free State’ to the British economy, the end result was only a lowering of the living standards of the masses (national income per head dropped from 61% of the British figure in 1931 to 49% In 1939), and its status as a neo-colony confirmed. In an attempt to make the country a ‘self-contained unit’ and to force the British government to compromise on its determination to keep Ireland in a state of total dependence, de Valera introduced protectionism. Westminster’s intransigence, six years of trade war, and the general state of the world economy throughout the 1930s left Ireland badly battered and still utterly reliant on Britain. In 1932, 96% of exports from Ireland went to Britain, and at no time up to 1938 did that percentage fall below ninety.

So the dissection of Ireland did not break the mould established in the nineteenth century. Ireland was preserved as a source of cheap food, military recruits, and workers, and as an important outlet for British manufactured goods. What is more, the treaty did not disrupt the links between British capital and Ireland’s main centre of industry, in Ulster. The dissection ensured that Britain maintained its domination of Ireland as a whole; the divisions between Protestant and Catholic workers fostered in the nineteenth century were reinforced and frozen; and in the Twenty-Six Counties the previously militant working class was swept behind de Valera’s Fianna Fáil programme of self-sufficient development.

2. Imperialism and Ireland

Although in 1921 the Six Counties contained the bulk of Ireland’s industry and 42% of its workers, its industrialisation was dependant on the world market and to an extent unusual at the time. Its main industries, textiles, engineering, and shipbuilding, which accounted for 50% of the workforce, boomed during the war years of 1914-18, but with the end of hostilities orders slumped. Not only that, but the effects of general crisis and the resultant fierce competition from more efficient rivals led to production and employment plummeting.

Table One – Unemployed as a percentage of insured workers in the Six Counties
1921 18
1926 25
1927-29 15
1932 27
1938 28.3

(FSL Lyons Ireland Since the Famine p710)

The Belfast shipyards vividly illustrate the devastation: the workforce declined from 20,000 in 1924 to a mere 2,000 in 1933.

The bleak picture of stagnation came to a momentary end in the years of the Second World War. Shipbuilding, engineering and textiles again boomed, along with newer industries such as aircraft, as Britain’s war machine consumed all that they could turn out. Workers’ incomes rose from three fifths of the average British level in 1939 to three quarters during the war. But as in 1918 the end of the war orders saw industry in the Six Counties slip into a lethargic state and wage rates relative to Britain fall.

The Second World War saw Britain emerge victorious, as it had in the First, against Germany’s attempt to redivide the world economy. But this time Britain’s ‘Johnny came lately’ ally, the United States, did not frustratedly return to ‘splendid isolation’. No, this time the United States demanded and could not be refused its pound of flesh. In the face of European devastation and weakness the United States demanded the dismantling of the old empires which had in the twentieth century come to be the greatest block to the development and operation of the world economy’s most dynamic capitals. What Germany had attempted in 1914 and 1939 with blood and iron the United States successfully achieved in the aftermath of the Second World War. Within a decade or so of 1945 the mighty empires were either dismantled or were in the process of being dismantled.[1] The fetters they placed on the world economy were broken and the entire capitalist world was re-divided and opened to the penetration of United States capital. The removal of the barriers to accumulation, especially the barrier presented by the British Empire, which covered 13.3 million square miles and had a population of 500 million (or just under ¼ of the earth’s population), meant that the world economy enjoyed an unprecedented boom which lasted over twenty years spanning the 1950s and 1960s.

The great boom initially had its greatest impact on the advanced capitalist countries themselves, but as the tendency for the rate of profit to decline inevitably began to take effect, finance capital strove to open up new areas to exploitation through the export of capital. Thus it was at the tail end of the boom, under the lash of the declining rate of profit and the need to increase the mass of profit that countries like Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan experienced a rapid growth of industry. Such countries yielded higher rates of profit than the metropolitan centres because of their relatively backward development and the availability of a plentiful supply of cheap labour which if it became too restive would be put down by the cooperative local state.

So although the Twenty-Six Counties’ economic performance had been as lacklustre as the Six Counties’, the drive by the imperial powers to stave off the decline of their profit rates saw the county transformed from stagnation to the “fastest growing economy in Europe during the 1970s” (Financial Times March 6 1981). Compared with the EEC which had an average growth rate of only 1.9% in its industrial production between 1970 and 1981, the Twenty-Six Counties experienced an average growth rate of 4.3%

Table Two: Twenty-Six Counties Average Growth per annum
1926-38 1.2%
1939-47 0.0%
1947-53 1.8%
1953-63 2.0%

(FSL Lyons Ireland Since the Famine p624)

This growth was primarily based on the arrival of more than 800 foreign firms since 1975, which invested IR£2.5 billion at 1981 historic prices. As a result, areas which “once exported only people or animals on the hoof are now sending out electronic, consumer and health care goods for the world market” (Financial Times April 16 1982). Investment in the Twenty-Six Counties was primarily based on the so-called ‘new industries’: high tech, capital intensive industry. In 1966 these ‘new industries’ accounted for only 11% of gross output and 9% of the workforce, but by 1976 the respective figures were 52% and 42%; and in 1983 new technology made up to 38% of the country’s total exports – computer equipment and chemicals alone sharing up to 28%. The rate of return on these investments was extremely healthy: between 1977 and 1980 the average return on United States’ investment in the Twenty-Six Counties was 33.7%, twice the European average. In 1983 total profits for foreign companies was estimated to be IR£1.2 billion and after a government statistical investigation estimates of the amount of profit they repatriated was upped by IR£500 million, to IR£1 billion.

The industrialisation of the Twenty-Six Counties was sparked off mainly because of its potential as a springboard from which the transnational companies, the imperialist monopolies can export to the great markets of Britain and the EEC (see Table Three). Because of this, exports have grown massively and now account for around 58% of the Twenty-Six Counties’ GDP, compared with Italy’s 19%, Federal Germany’s 25%, and Frances 20%.

Table Three: Twenty Six Counties Pattern of Trade in 1979 (percentage of total)
Country Imports Exports
EEC 72 77.0
UK 50 46.4
Federal Germany 7 9.0
France 5 8.0
United States 9 5.0

(Financial Times March 6 1981)

But in order to sustain this industrialisation and new foreign investment, the Twenty-Six Counties government was forced to offer transnational companies what the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) called “The Tax deal of the century”, which meant no tax on the export of profits until 1990, and then only a maximum of 10% on all profits to the end of the century. Other incentives included direct subsidies in the form of grants of as much as 50% of fixed assets, and interest free loans. Consequently public spending has grown rapidly – far outstripping the growth of GDP. Its percentage of GDP rose from 33% in 1960 to 58% in 1975, and 66% in 1983. Only countries such as Sweden and Denmark have similar levels, but they have far higher per capita incomes. Comparing the figures for other countries when they had the same per capita income as the Twenty-Six Counties has now (approximately IR£2,180), Britain was spending 34% on public expenditure, Sweden 30%, and the United States 25%.

Table Four: Government Spending in selected countries in the years they had the equivalent of current Twenty-Six Counties’ income
Country Year Total government spending as a percentage of GDP
Britain 1963 34
United States 1950 25
Sweden 1956 30
Japan 1969 19
Federal Germany 1960 32
Netherlands 1962 34

(Financial Times November 10 1983)

Such government spending is dictated by the needs of the imperialist monopolies, and in the Twenty-Six Counties has only been possible through massive deficit financing resulting in the accumulation of a total government debt by 1983 of IR£11.5 billion, some IR£5 billion of which is foreign debt – mostly in dollars and Deutsche marks – representing a per capita foreign debt of IR£1,500, making the Twenty-Six counties’ per capita debt one of the highest in the world, far higher than Poland or even Mexico. The Twenty-Six Counties is in fact up to its neck in debt to imperialism in the form of the banks. The scale and nature of government borrowing has helped to push up the yearly balance of payments deficit to over 10% of GNP in the early 1980s; repayment difficulties must develop if current trends continue unchecked.[2]

The ever expanding government debt to the imperialist banks represents the steady expansion of credit which means commodities can be consumed before they are paid for (one of the most important methods capitalism uses to counteract the tendency for the rate of profit to decline), this allows capital accumulation to continue. Because of this, money supply (M3) soared: 14.1% in 1980 and 18.0% in 1981; and inflation became the highest in the EEC: 18.2% in 1980, and 20% in 1981; along with interest rates in 1981 of between 19% and 22% “well above those of competitors” (Financial Times April 16 1982).

While the Twenty-Six Counties is a Western European country, and a member of the EEC, it cannot be considered an advanced capitalist country because it is exploited and dependent on imperialism. Despite this it is not simply a backward country; in fact it must be classified as a medium developed capitalist country, for in comparison with the backward countries it has developed a fairly high level of industrialisation, capitalist relations have permeated society, and domestic monopoly capitalist relations have emerged.

In 1930 75% of exports from the Twenty-Six Counties were live animals and only 6% were manufactured goods. This picture had dramatically changed by 1981, mainly because of foreign investment when 60% of exports were manufactured (80% of which are accounted for by foreign firms – which also export most of their profits). Alongside the growth of investments by the imperialist monopolies, in collaboration with them domestic monopolies have appeared and as the result of the concentration and centralisation of capital, there has even been the development of Irish transnationals.

[3] The brewing industry is dominated by the internationally known Guinness group; glass is dominated by the almost equally well known name of Waterford; milling is divided by the British Rank Hovis and the Irish Odlums Group; cement is a virtual duopoly controlled by Readymix and Cement Roadstone, which earns nearly a third of its profits overseas and has acquired holdings in the United states, Britain, and the Netherlands. The company has also invested IR£30 million in a joint venture with Hepworth Ceramic to produce sea water magnesia for the refractory industry worldwide. Housebuilding is dominated by the Abbey Group and McInere Properties, biscuits by Jacobs, and tobacco by two transnationals, the United States’ Gallaghers and Britain’s Players, along with the Irish PJ Carroll & Son. The Jefferson Smurfit group monopolises the paper and packaging industry, and also operates internationally, United States’ operations accounting for 46% of the group’s sales and 60% of its assets: this group hopes to secure its position as a transnational and provide venture capital for Irish industry by establishing an Ireland based bank in partnership with the major French banking group Paribas.

The full extent of the concentration of industry in the Twenty-Six Counties can been seen by the fact that in 1975 the top eight industrial companies on the Irish Stock Exchange accounted for 64% of all quoted industrial profits. Agriculture is equally monopolised: the top five coops accounted for 76% of all agribusiness profits. What is more, industrial capital has merged with banking capital to form finance capital. By 1976 four banks, the Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish, the Midland, and National Westminster accounted for 88.03% of all lending on the Irish money market, and the big Irish two between them now have 60% of market share in financing industry. The development of finance capital can be seen in the fact that seven of the top eight industrial companies in the Irish Times Industrial Index have a debt/equity ratio which averages 95%; agriculture showed the same pattern with the cooperatives deeply in debt to the big banks. The power of the banks is also illustrated by the number of directorships held by the leading bankers, the 32 directors of the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Bank holding between them 260 industrial and commercial directorships in all the top ten industrial companies.

The formation of finance capital, whatever the general economic of a particular country, brings with it the striving to expand outwards. As we have shown, Irish capitalism has already manifested this striving to a certain extent, but finance capital in medium developed capitalist countries such as Ireland is in all respects, in both capital and technology, very weak compared with the giant transnationals, the imperialist monopolies. These giants have sales far exceeding the Twenty-Six Counties’ entire GNP of around £7 billion. Exxon for example, the world’s largest transnational monopoly, has annual sales worth £66.7 billion, the Anglo-Dutch Shell £54.8 billion, and Mitsubishi £40.2 billion (The Times December 2 1983). While it is true that the decline of the colonial empires enabled small advanced capitalist countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, and Denmark, to join the imperialist exploitation of the world, in general for medium developed countries this door is closed. Of course certain of these countries, for example because of vast size, rich resources, abundant reserves of oil, or substantial populations, could join the imperialist club, could make the transition to becoming imperialist; but for the greater number this is impossible, nothing more than a pipe dream. Thus Ireland, because of its small population and size, lack of natural resources, and low level of native accumulation, has no hope of becoming imperialist. Its native capital can only operate in cooperation with imperialism. It thus participates as a partner in the exploitation of its own country by imperialism; the local monopolies are therefore collaborating monopolies.

So modern Irish capital has in the main developed in the shadow of imperialism, its state serving the interests of both the native and the imperialist monopolies. Not only that but to a large degree Irish capital has merged with imperialism, for foreign monopolies operate extensively from the Twenty-Six Counties, dominate its trade, and own sizable chunks of ‘native’ industry. For example Continental Can Inc, the United States’ conglomerate, owns 22% of the Jefferson Smurfit group; the United States’ Agrico Chemical Ltd controls Ireland’s second largest industrial concern, Fitzwilton, which dominates the fertilizer industry; and another United States’ giant, Rothman Carreras, owns half the Irish tobacco company, PJ Carroll & Son. What is more, in the high tech field large numbers of small Irish companies have sprung up for the sole purpose of acting as a servant to the imperialist monopolies and supplying their needs. Thus we can say that the Irish monopolies and budding transnationals have in fact merged with imperialism, forming a single mechanism which exploits the country under the hegemony of imperialism. Irish capitalism therefore acts as an appendage of imperialism.

Although the Twenty-Six Counties is undoubtedly dominated by imperialism, United States’ imperialism has now supplanted Britain as the leading investor. Of the 641 overseas companies operating there in 1978, 35.5% were from the United States, 26.9% from Britain, 15.4% from Federal Germany, and 5.0% from the Netherlands, the rest coming from Japan and a wide variety of Western European counties. (Ireland Socialist Review No 6 Winter 1979/80). This fact has led a number of elements in the workers’ movement to speculate about the ending of the specific oppression of Ireland by British imperialism and its replacement by imperialist oppression in general or United States’ imperialist oppression in particular.[4] It is of course true that in terms of investment British imperialism no longer maintains its former position, and its share of exports has declined from 81% in 1956 to around 40% in 1981 (3.41% of Britain’s imports). Despite this, Britain is still by far the Twenty-Six Counties’ leading trading partner, it is still the centre of gravity for its economy: in terms of imports and exports the rest of the EEC combined only accounts for around 30% of its trade (see Table Three), and indeed although a member of the European Monetary system (EMS), 80% of trade is conducted in Sterling and dollars to which its currency is effectively linked. (For Britain itself the Twenty-Six Counties is its fifth most important market with exports valued at more than £2.6 billion). So while there is a political commitment to the EMS, Sterling’s rate looms just as large in the Twenty-Six Counties’ government calculations as does the EMS (Financial Times July 2 1984).

So it is vitally important to see Britain’s decline in relative terms. Yes, it has declined, but this has been from a position of total dominance: Britain still remains the sun which the Twenty-Six Counties orbits. Although its economic mix has shifted from agriculture to industry, the Twenty-Six Counties has not established an independent economy. It remains almost totally export orientated; the fact that the EEC accounts for an increasing share of its trade is in no small measure the direct result of Britain itself Joining on January 1 1973 – a move the Twenty-Six Counties made simultaneously and automatically. So, far from the Twenty-Six Counties being expansionist in regard to the north or some such nonsense, the Dublin government acts as a collaborator of imperialism, its industries are peripheral, its neutrality is pragmatic, and its growth totally dependent.

But to view the role British imperialism in Ireland on through the prism of the Twenty-Six Counties would be a fundamental mistake, for Britain dominates the whole of Ireland through not only its economic importance but by its division of the country. Because of the existence of the border, the fact that the Six Counties is an integral part of the United Kingdom as well as the Twenty-Six Counties’ economic and political dependence on it, Britain remains the main enemy, the main imperialist oppressor.

Jack Conrad


  1. We in no way belittle the heroic role played by the Soviet Army in defeating Nazi Germany and promoting national liberation. But it must be noted that while the Soviet Union fought a revolutionary war (resulting in the successful emergence of socialism in many countries in Eastern Europe) the Western allies were fighting an imperialist war to prevent re-division of the world market by Germany. Although the United States subsequently sought to encircle the world socialist system, it only fought against the emergence of ‘independent’ states from the womb of empire when they looked like taking a too radical course. The majority of the ex-colonial countries in fact only exchanged the chains of empire for the chains of neo-colonialism, which given the dynamic of United States capital meant domination by the United States.
  2. With the rise of the dollar and its impact on interest rates in 1984 the IMF specifically pointed to the Twenty-Six Counties massive debt (£2,000 per head by 1984) as a major area of concern.
  3. Source for most of the following factual information on industry in the Twenty-Six Counties is from The Irish Industrial Revolution published by Repsol in 1978, and from the Financial Times survey on Ireland on April 16 1982.
  4. The most notable exponent of this view is the Workers’ Party (WP) which has also completely abandoned its republicanism in an attempt to constitute itself as a respectable social democratic party. It brands the national liberation movement as ‘fascist’ and actively collaborates with British imperialism’s propaganda war against Sinn Féin. As a result the party has been reduced to nothing more than a rump in the Six Counties. The Workers’ Party advocates that the working class in both parts of Ireland should side with the transnationals, which “we have identified” as “objectively progressive”. For the WP the transnationals, if allowed to, would undermine Orange capitalism, destroy sectarianism, and thus create the material conditions for working class and national unity. “The sectarian slaughter (of the Provisionals – JC) blocked these developments and allowed the revival of the dying northern capitalist class as well as giving a lease of life to the southern capitalist class by distracting working class attention from the class struggle to a mythical national question.” (The Irish Industrial Revolution pp156-7)

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