Was the War of Independence necessary?

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—Padraig Yeates (HI. 27.1, Jan./Feb. 2019, Platform)is to be congratulated on his discovery of Irish Labour’s proposals for mass resistance to conscription in Ireland. Not least of its benefits is the opportunity it provides to question the narrative agreed by traditionalists and revisionists alike as to the Irish national struggle between 1919 and 1921.

In particular, two questions have to be addressed. Could a strategy of planned mass interventions have overcome the need for armed struggle, and why was there no attempt to build on the plans for mass intervention against conscription to advance the Irish cause after 1918?

As far as the first question is concerned, the answer has to be no. The two examples that tend to be given to support the idea of a peaceful achievement of Irish independence—Arthur Griffith’s model of Deak’s abstentionism in 1860s Hungary and Gandhi’s campaign in India—were in contexts significantly different to that of Ireland. The Hungarians had to struggle against an empire weakened by two successive wars, rather than, like the Irish, the greatest empire in the world, which had triumphed in the greatest war known heretofore. The Indians’ agitation was limited in its aims as well as in its strategy, which contributed to the fact that it ended in their country’s partition and massacres far greater than the death-toll of the whole of Ireland’s post-1916 troubles, even allowing for the vast difference in the size and population of the two countries. The chances of avoiding armed confrontation in Ireland were infinitesimal, all the more in that Griffith’s ideas of peaceful non-cooperation with the colonial state were compromised by Sinn Féin’s alliance with the Irish Volunteers.  

Thomas Johnson recognised this. Defending the Labour Party and TUC’s refusal to expand the Limerick Soviet, he stated:

‘A general strike could have been legitimately called in Ireland on twelve occasions within the last two years. But it was not a question of justification. It was a question of strategy. Were they to take the enemy’s time or were they to take their own? They knew that if the railwaymen came out the soldiers would have taken on the railways next day. They knew that would have meant armed revolt. Did they as trades unionists suggest that it was for their Executive to say such action should be taken at a particular time, knowing, assured as they were, that it would have resulted in armed revolt in Ireland? I believe it was quite probable that it would be by the action of the Labour movement in Ireland that insurrection would some day be developed. There might be occasion to decide on a “down tools” policy, which would have the effect of calling out the armed forces of the crown, but Limerick was not the occasion.’

Probably accurately, he dismissed the possibility of a workers’ revolution spreading to the more bureaucratised labour movement in Britain.

This begs the questions as to why Johnson and his colleagues had prepared plans for mass resistance, and why, having drafted them, they refused to implement them subsequently. By April 1919, circumstances were better for them in a number of ways. Trade union membership was larger. Though fighting had ended in the world war, the British Army was stuck in Europe awaiting restlessly the signing of the peace treaties. Few in its ranks would have been willing to serve in a new war in Ireland, though a brutal minority would be found later to staff the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans.

The answer to both questions would seem to lie in the reason given by Johnson for withdrawing his party’s candidates in the general election of November 1918. His excuse was that

‘… circumstances have decided that the election now upon us is to be the “peace election” not the “war election”. The grand inquest about to be opened has for a jury the nations of the world. The verdict will be given according to the weight of evidence adduced, and that will depend upon the degree of unanimity marked at the polls on the demand for self-determination.’

As Johnson knew well, Labour could have maintained that degree of unanimity and contested the election in coalition with Sinn Féin. This possibility had been aborted when it refused to promise to remain in the prospective Dáil unconditionally. Perhaps he did not suspect that the policy that he had persuaded his party and congress to adopt of avoiding too close identification with the call for a republic had weakened it politically so that Sinn Féin felt it could stand firm on the point. Accepting the merging of Labour’s industrial and political arms in an industrial unity that would burst the shell of the capitalist state, he had to maintain its political unity, including republicans, constitutional nationalists and, if possible, unionists.

In opposing conscription, Johnson had reason to believe that organised labour could win the support of the vast majority of his class. Though, in Belfast, the UVF had broken up his major meeting on the issue, he could expect that the cause could neutralise hostility among unionist workers. He knew, too, that the call for self-determination would be divisive and ignored that it helped to fuel opposition to conscription. From 1918, Labour’s campaigns of mass resistance would be restricted to issues of obvious British oppression, and then only after demands from the movement’s rank-and-file.

The said rank-and-file tended to agree with this strategy. Such genuine left-wingers as Walter Carpenter, later to be the first general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, and Seán Dowling, an inspirer of the Limerick Soviet, defended Johnson’s line consistently through 1919. For them, the phenomenal growth of organised labour (in particular that of the ITGWU) meant that the occasion for it to take power was assured. Doubts were beginning to appear, however. In May 1919 a Revolutionary Socialist Party was founded in Belfast, only to be aborted by police action. Later that year, Carpenter and the left took over the propagandist Socialist Party of Ireland and tried to turn it to Communism, only to be displaced after his defeat as a Socialist Party candidate in the Dublin municipal elections of January 1920. Syndicalism remained a principle of the large mainstream of Irish labour.

Two points need clarifying. Concentrating the self-determination cause into armed struggle did not make it unpopular until the truce of July 1921. Only after this did IRA units begin to break strikes on a large scale. The anti-militarism strike in April 1922 was inspired by frustration with the growing dispute between two wings of a capitalist army. In the Anglo-Irish War there had been no movement of ‘Peace People’.

Given the balance of forces as between Britain and Ireland, an armed struggle was probably inevitable if the latter were to break free. Nonetheless, Padraig Yeates is correct to conclude that had military struggle arisen out of mass passive resistance it would have left Ireland, at least, ‘with a more broadly based democracy and a more benign historical legacy than the one we ultimately inherited’.—Yours etc.,



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