‘Reds under the bed’: official attitudes to communism in Northern Ireland

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 20

Poster calling for a mass meeting by International Class War Prisoners Aid, 1926. (PRONI)

Poster calling for a mass meeting by International Class War Prisoners Aid, 1926. (PRONI)

The early decades of the twentieth century were ones of social, political and geographical upheaval. This created a restless society, with many political organisations forming across the political spectrum. During these decades the law of sedition was used in prosecutions more frequently than today. Generally sedition was considered to occur when a person/member of an organisation stored or distributed ‘anti-state’ literature or spoke out against the state (subversion of the state laws or incitement against the state). In Northern Ireland, communist organisations and activities were monitored and reported on by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the Ministry of Home Affairs. For example, file HA/32/1/490 contains RUC reports of Belfast meetings of the Irish Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the Independent Labour Party and International Class War Prisoners Aid (1926–30). Within HA/32/1/490 is a poster of International Class War Prisoners Aid calling for a mass meeting to release political prisoners imprisoned, for example, under the law of sedition (left). Also held within HA/32/1/490 is the RUC report (5 March 1927) of the Independent Labour Party’s meeting of the previous day. With reference to the cuts in the government’s ‘unemployment funds’, it reports on page two that
‘He referred to the ruling class of the present day as a gang of money sharps, and warned them that, just as an omelette could not be made without breaking eggs, so socialism could not come about without hardship and discomfort to some of the wealthier people of the country’.
This statement did not, however, attract any attention from the RUC or the Ministry of Home Affairs.Other speakers were not so fortunate. File HA/32/1/598 (1933) contains documents regarding the prosecution of A. Griffin, who at a meeting of the Belfast branch of the Communist Party of Ireland on 24 September 1933 stated that he wished that ‘. . . we were in a position here in Ireland where our party could call upon the mass of workers with a great degree of confidence for the mass armed insurrection against capitalism’. A. Griffin was prosecuted under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922 for ‘using language calculated to create discontent’ (Ministry of Home Affairs correspondence, 4 October 1933) and received three months’ imprisonment with hard labour.HA/32/1/565 (1940) contains documents on the prosecution of V. Morahan, who during meetings of the Communist Party of Ireland made anti-war statements that were considered to be ‘sailing very close to the wind’ (correspondence between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the RUC, 18 June 1940):
‘. . . we seek a way out of this war, a way out of this war which will bring us to the end of the system which was responsible for bringing it about. A way out of this war, on the road to Socialism, the only road which the working class in all countries will eventually go to maintain their rights and liberties which Fascism means to take away’(RUC report, p. 5, 27 May 1940).

Front page of the Irish Workers’ Voice, 7 January 1933. (PRONI)

Front page of the Irish Workers’ Voice, 7 January 1933. (PRONI)

Although it was considered that V. Morahan could be prosecuted under the defence regulations of the time, he was imprisoned for eighteen months under the law of sedition for holding and distributing ‘anti-state’ literature.File HA/32/1/544 contains RUC reports of meetings of the Workers’ Defence League and the Irish National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Belfast between 1929 and 1934. The file also contains a small collection of the Irish Workers’ Voice newspaper (1933–4) which discuss the events of the time, for example the Irish General Election in 1933 (above).Files HA/32/1/545 to HA/32/1/555 contain RUC reports of meetings of the Irish National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (which was later succeeded by the Unemployed Workers’ League), the Irish Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the Communist Party of Ireland and the Friends of Soviet Russia organisation between the years 1930 and 1938. Contained within these files are many fascinating and unique details about the organisations and their objectives and how these were handled by the authorities.In HA/32/1/545 (1930) the meeting of the Irish Workers’ Revolutionary Party held on 25 September 1930 was chaired by A. Griffin, who was subsequently imprisoned in 1933 (see above). In HA/32/1/550 (1934) the meeting of the Communist Party of Ireland held on 18 February 1934 discussed the fascist situation in Austria and Ireland. The Austrian civil war had ended two days previously, with right-wing political interests prevailing.  On page three of the RUC report we read: ‘And so we have seen to-day in Ireland, not in Austria or Germany, but actually in Ireland to-day, this imposition, or this attempt of imposition of fascism upon the working class and poor peasants of Ireland’. Contained within this report is a leaflet of the Ulster Fascists (left) that was used as an example of the rise of fascism in Ireland.HA/32/1/561 contains RUC reports on meetings of the Unemployed Workers’ League (which replaced the defunct Irish National Unemployed Workers’ Movement) from 1938 to 1940, and HA/32/1/562 contains RUC reports on meetings of the short-lived North Belfast Socialist Party (1938). A final example is HA/32/1/515, which contains RUC reports on communist activities in Northern Ireland (1927–48) and includes The Communist International, ‘official organ of the Executive Committee of the Communist International’.

Leaflet of the Ulster Fascists, 1934. (PRONI)

Leaflet of the Ulster Fascists, 1934. (PRONI)

The Spanish Civil War

Following the coup in 1936 that ignited the Spanish Civil War, communist organisations in Northern Ireland began to discuss the situation at their meetings and to support the left-wing republican government in different ways. HA/32/1/558 (1936) contains RUC reports of the Spanish Medical Aid Relief Committee meetings (under the auspices of the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland). According to the RUC report of the meeting held on 4 October 1936 (which was attended by c. 200 people), it was ‘considered that the best way in which we could support the Spanish workers was to organise a medical outfit or a medical unit to serve behind the lines in the Spanish Civil War’.A medical outfit/unit had previously been discussed by the Relief Committee. In the RUC report of the 20 September 1936 meeting it was detailed that
‘The Scottish–Irish unit is made up of 18 Scotchmen and two Irishmen. The two Irishmen who left with the unit on Thursday are members of the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland. They gave up their jobs and volunteered to go to Spain to assist all those who have been wounded in the fighting there [as] they knew that the struggle in Spain was not the struggle of the Spanish workers but was the struggle of the working classes the world over.’
HA/32/1/559 contains RUC reports of the Arms for Spain Committee meetings (under the auspices of the Socialist Party and Left Book Club). At the meeting on 8 June 1938 (again attended by c. 200 people) it was reported that ‘The purpose of this meeting is to demand that the Republican government of Spain is allowed to buy arms’. The subsequent meeting on 25 July 1938 was reported to have been attended by c. 500 people, highlighting a potential increase in support for the Republican government of Spain.Finally, HA/32/1/560 (1937–40) contains RUC reports of the Northern Ireland Socialist Party meetings, where, for example, in September 1937 attendances of 700–800 people per meeting were recorded. Throughout the file the RUC reports contain information on Spanish Civil War issues and, later, World War II.

World War II

During World War II, monitoring and reporting of the communist organisations in Northern Ireland became of greater importance owing to the threat to internal security. Files HA/32/1/556 (1938–40) and HA/32/1/557 (1940–1) contain RUC reports on the Communist Party of Ireland and the Connolly Commemoration Committee that include details such as numbers attending, funds raised and the war-related topics discussed.  In file HA/32/1/556, for example, the RUC report of the Communist Party of Ireland meeting (21 December 1939), referring to UK foreign policy, reports that ‘Every possible encouragement was given to Fascist Germany to rise to her present position. In 1935 the Anglo-German naval treaty was responsible for allowing Hitler to build up naval armaments to such a pitch that today we are seeing the fruits of that particular agreement.’Towards the end of the war, in 1944, Belfast celebrated ‘Red Army Day’ (MPS/2/3/453), along with other cities in the United Kingdom. This celebration included a march-past of the forces (fighting and civil) through the centre of Belfast and past City Hall. It was attended by USSR representatives and members of the civil defence and national fire services. This was within the wartime context where the Soviet Army had recently won a series of victories on the Eastern Front and was rapidly advancing westward.

Front cover of Unity, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, November 1967. (PRONI)

Front cover of Unity, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, November 1967. (PRONI)

The Cold War

The European post-war period was different, however, being dominated by the Cold War. As in previous decades, the communist organisations were monitored and reported on by the RUC. For example, HA/32/1/938 (1950–61) contains information on members of the Communist Party and reports on British–Soviet Friendship Society visits to the USSR and Northern Ireland. This includes a pamphlet entitled Northern Ireland Teachers and Education in Russia (c. 1955). The PRONI also holds a file (HA/32/1/599A) on the Friends of the Soviet Union for the years 1933–64. Both files are partially opened and are available to view in the PRONI.The PRONI holds copies of the newspaper Unity from between 1962 and 1983 (N/26/1/1-22). The newspaper was published weekly by the Communist Party of Ireland and contains articles on the social and political events of the time, for example the 50th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution (above), although in file HA/32/1/922 (1948) a letter dated 2 July 1948 from the Ministry of Home Affairs to the RUC notes that the last issue of Unity had been published in December 1946 and that ‘the executive members of the Communist Party are finding great difficulty in raising sufficient funds to re-publish’.All the files discussed above, unless specifically stated otherwise, are currently open and accessible to the public and may be viewed in the PRONI. Finally, I would like to thank the PRONI’s Deputy Keeper of the Records for permission to publish the above excerpts.  HI

Alan W. Robertson is an archivist at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

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