Ireland: revolution and betrayal, 1916 to today

Philip Ferguson

The Spark December 2006-January 2007

This year has marked the 25th anniversary of the Irish hunger strikes of 1981 and the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1916. In both cases, the revolutionaries were defeated, but the revolutionary movement went on afterwards to become bigger and stronger and pose a huge threat to continued British rule and imperialist domination in Ireland. Unfortunately, the promise of both those periods ended in betrayal, defeat and political confusion. At the heart of both the sell-outs was the strategy of ‘pan-nationalism’.

The road to the 1916 Rising

In 1916, several thousand young Irish men and women raised the banner of revolt in Ireland, most particularly in Dublin. The revolt was the result of several processes. One was the growth of the Dublin working class, which began to get organised on a serious scale from 1908 onwards, particularly through the radical Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by James Larkin and James Connolly. Another was the revitalisation of republicanism that began in the first few years of the 1900s, with the influx of a new generation of activists who rebuilt the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Another was the growth of organising by women. Although most of the suffrage forces in Ireland were politically reactionary, there was an advanced Irish nationalist section around the Irish Women’s Franchise League and the republican women’s group, Inghinidhe na hEireann had an important impact.

These three trends – the radical wings of the labour, republican and women’s movements -increasingly merged from about 1909-10 onwards. The Great Dublin Lockout of 1913-14 played a particularly important role. The most politically advanced republicans supported the workers during the dispute, while the bourgeois nationalist founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, sided with the employers as did the Irish Nationalist Party. The lockout also saw the formation of an armed workers’ militia at the end of 1913, the Irish Citizen Army, founded by Jack White, Sean O’Casey, Countess Markievicz and Larkin. The Russian revolutionary leader Lenin described the ICA as the first workers’ militia in Europe.

The two major political issue which brought together the forces that created the Rising were the Home Rule Crisis and WW1. At the time, all of Ireland was part of the ‘United Kingdom’, having been in effect formally annexed in 1801. Thus the people of the whole island elected MPs to the British parliament at Westminster. The Liberals had become dependent on the votes of the Irish Nationalist Party in order to form a government and the trade-off was that a Home Rule bill be passed for Ireland.

The Conservative and Unionist Party, an important component of which was the upper class of landowners throughout Ireland and big industrialists around Belfast opposed Home Rule and organised a mass campaign against it, even threatening an armed conservative revolt. In Ireland, the Ulster Volunteer Force was organised in 1913 to oppose Home Rule. Nationalist Ireland organised the Irish Volunteers in order to support Home Rule. The Irish Volunteers leadership was largely controlled by the IRB.

The Liberals decided to placate the Tories by excluding the north-east of Ireland from Home Rule and the Nationalist Party agreed to go along with this. The more radical republicans along with the leaders of the left-wing of the labour movement such as Larkin and Connolly strongly opposed the exclusion of Ulster.

The Home Rule crisis was unresolved when the first great imperialist world war, WW1, broke out in August 1914. The Nationalist Party decided to support Britain in the war, even though Home Rule was put on the back burner and Ulster was to be excluded.

James Larkin went to the United States in 1914 and was subsequently stuck there until 1923. Connolly took over the leadership of the ITGWU and the Irish Citizen Army. From that moment on, he and his chief lieutenants, Countess Markievicz and Michael Mallon, set out to ensure that a rebellion in Ireland would take place during the war. Connolly thought Ireland had missed an opportunity for revolt while Britain was enmeshed in the Boer War and he was determined not to let WW1 pass by the same way. Connolly’s view, however, was not simply one of nationalist revolt. Instead he, Mallon and Markievicz pursued a very clear and deliberate strategy of attempting to unite all the most progressive forces in Ireland around their own revolutionary labour-based force, centred on the ICA. It was this strategy which pulled the progressive republicans within the IRB and Irish Volunteers into an alliance with the Connolly forces and made the 1916 rebellion possible.


The IRBers, who lacked Connolly’s clear revolutionary politics, had never broken with more timid forces in the Irish Volunteers, however. They had allowed Professor Eoin MacNeill to remain as head of the Volunteers and, having agreed to go along with the Rising, he panicked at the last minute and cancelled the Volunteers’ manoeuvres that were to be used to launch the rebellion. As a result most of the members of the Volunteers did not turn out for the rebellion. The ICA and a minority of the Volunteers were forced to go out into a fairly hopeless situation. As Countess Markievicz wrote later, any hope of success was “destroyed by the pen of a weakling.” The rebellion was defeated, as the vast firepower of the British rained down on the rebel posts in Dublin. The main leaders were executed by British firing squad. One Dublin commander, Eamonn de Valera, survived due to having an American parent. Markievicz, originally sentenced to execution, survived because the British decided it wouldn’t look good to execute a woman.

In the past the defeat of a rebellion meant it took another generation before the fires of revolt broke out again. This time, however, things were different. The republicans were able to begin reorganising almost straight away and members flocked into the movement in 1917. The republicans took over Sinn Fein and made it a republican organisation and built up a reorganised Irish Volunteers movement. In the November 1918 general election Sinn Fein annihilated the Nationalist Party, winning 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the Westminster parliament, despite most of their candidates being in prison or on the run, massive state censorship of the election material and continual harassment of their election workers. Among the 73 victorious Sinn Fein candidates was Markievicz, the first woman elected to the British parliament, although she was in a British prison at the time.

War for independence, class revolt

On the basis of their massive electoral mandate, Sinn Fein set up an Irish parliament (Dail Eireann) in Dublin in January 1919, declared an independent Irish republic, adopted a programme of radical social and economic change and set up a government with De Valera as president and Markievicz as minister of labour (she was also president of Cumann na mBan, the women’s wing of the IRA). The Volunteers had now become the army of the Irish Republic – the IRA. The British declared Dail Eireann an illegal assembly and drove it underground and banned most of the republican organisations. The war for independence was now on.

During this war, from 1919-1921, the IRA fought the British army to a standstill. Workers went on two highly political general strikes against British policy in Ireland and in support of the republican cause. Workplaces occupations and land seizures began taking place and in Limerick city a soviet was declared. Women got involved in politics on an unprecedented scale, being involved in the war and in the underground republican political apparatus. The war for independence unleashed struggles by workers and small farmers for control of factories and the breaking up of large ranches. The revolt for Irish independence became a revolt of the exploited classes against their oppressors as well.


In 1921, however, a deal was struck by a small group of representatives of Dail Eireann and the British government to end the war. This involved a large measure of independence, but only for 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland. The new 26-county Free State was to remain part of the British Empire (or “Commonwealth”), have a British-appointed governor-general and the members of its parliament were to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. The north-eastern 6 counties were to form a new statelet, Northern Ireland, which would remain part of the United Kingdom.

The more conservative elements of the independence movement, and the Irish national bourgeoisie, took fright at the upsurge in class struggle and the mass involvement of women in radical politics. They desired to put the uppity workers and women back in their boxes, re-establish law and order and social stability. They backed the Treaty and the new Free State, which quickly became a thoroughly conservative and repressive backwater. Laissez-faire capitalism ruled, wages were cut, unions came under attack and women were driven out of political life and back into domesticity. Even divorce was banned.

A majority of all the republican organisations – Sinn Fein, the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Eireann (the youth wing) – overwhelmingly rejected the treaty. In Cumann na mBan the vote was 93 percent against. However, a small majority – 64 to 57 – within Dail Eireann voted for it. The anti-Treaty republicans, instead of immediately going on the offensive against the neo-colonial Treatyites, dithered and attempted to do deals with them to reunite the movement. While the anti-Treaty forces dithered, the pro-Treaty forces prepared – they got armed by the British and moved swiftly to set up the apparatus of the new state, including a new army and police force. Then they moved decisively against the anti-Treaty forces and, within a year, crushed them.

Civil war

During the civil war, the post-Connolly leadership of the labour movement took a position of neutrality, albeit neutral on the side of the Free State. By the time Larkin returned to Ireland in 1923 to denounce the Free State, it was all over. Larkin also found that timid reformists had taken the leadership of the labour movement and he was forced out of the ITGWU which he had founded.

The civil war saw, if anything, even more class conflict than the war for independence. While the leadership of the labour movement accepted the new capitalist state, workers across Ireland were engaging in factory seizures, running up red flags and declaring soviets and poor farmers were taking over the land of the big landowners. The anti-Treaty republicans, however, never attempted to harness this class war on the part of the workers to the political struggle against the Treaty. The only hope for victory for both the workers and the cause of complete Irish independence was a movement which combined the Irish national struggle for liberation with the class struggle of the workers and poor farmers for their emancipation.

While after 1916, the republican leaders had followed a policy of pan-nationalism, trying to unite everyone on the basis of being Irish, and the result was the betrayal embodied in the Treaty, the anti-Treaty republicans failed to break with pan-nationalism. Although many of them admired Connolly, they failed to understand his strategy let alone attempt to renew it.

The absence of a revolutionary workers party meant that the misleaders of the labour movement could tag along behind the pan-nationalist republicans and sell out workers’ class interests and the pan-nationalist republicans could do a deal with Britain which sold out Irish independence.

The lessons of the period from 1909-10 to 1923 were especially vital, because the 1921 betrayal meant that, sooner or later, the unresolved national and class questions were going to burst forth again. Indeed, the failures of republicanism over the following decades were rooted in its inability to learn these lessons.

The ‘Troubles’

Each decade after the Treaty saw some significant conflict between the republicans and the Free State and/or the republicans and the British. Each resulted in republican defeat, but was followed by reorganisation. The latest of the struggles is the one that began in the late 1960s, often referred to as ‘The Troubles’, and which has recently been brought to an ignominious conclusion by the Adams-McGuiness leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

This struggle was centred mainly in the 6-county statelet (“Northern Ireland”). When the British established this statelet through the 1921 Treaty its role was to ensure that Britain controlled the most industrially-developed part of Ireland and exercised neo-colonial control over 26-county state which supplied Britain which would remain industrially under-developed and supply Britain with cheap agricultural products. Britain was supported by a majority of the population within this arbitrarily defined area, including a majority of the workers, by an apartheid-like system of discrimination. This system preserved white-collar jobs and the most skilled and best paid industrial jobs for workers who supported the union with Britain (unionists and loyalists, who tended to be Protestant) at the expense of workers from the nationalist section of the population (who tended to be Catholic). Protestant workers were united with Protestant employers against Catholic workers.

A whole range of forms of discrimination – in jobs, housing and voting rights – was used to ensure high levels of Catholic and nationalist emigration. This way those who supported the union with Britain would be a permanent majority in the northern state and exercise a veto over Irish reunification.

In the 1960s, a civil rights movement emerged in the northern state, challenging these forms of discrimination. The state reacted with violence, attacking the peaceful marches and the police, who acted as a virtual militia for the unionist section of the population, invaded nationalist areas. Unionist mobs followed them, and nationalists were burned out of their homes and streets. The British army was sent into the statelet in August 1969 and soon proved to be there to help prop up the apartheid-like system. A new IRA, the “Provos”, emerged to defend the nationalist ghettoes and young people flocked to join. When the British introduced internment without trial in 1971, even more young nationalist joined the Provos and the Provos began taking the war to the Brits.

Armed struggle and politicisation

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, armed struggle was pursued by the Provos as the main strategy to defeat the Brits and force them out, paving the way for the reunification of Ireland and the re-establishment of the Republic declared in the 1916 Rising and existing, albeit underground, in the 1919-21 period. Armed struggle, however, is only feasible if it flows out of mass political struggle. This was the case originally – the Provos arose of the mass struggle of the late 60s and early 70s. However, the Provos lacked an overall strategy for developing mass struggle and using armed actions as a cutting edge.

Nevertheless the imprisonment of large numbers of Provos led to the establishment of Marxist study groups in the jails and an evolution leftwards of much of the movement over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s. There was a realisation that if the British were able to isolate the republicans around the armed struggle, the whole struggle was finished. The Brits threw all they could against the Provos – internment without trial, juryless courts, shoot-to-kill and assassination, supergrasses and show trials. They also helped build up the moderate nationalist SDLP, the Provos’ main political rival in the nationalist areas.

The British had succeeded in confining the republicans to their hardcore base by 1980, but then came the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. The 1981 hunger strikes, in which seven IRA and three Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners fasted to death, led to a massive growth of sympathy for the republican movement and hostility to the British government. Bobby Sands, the first prisoner to die, was actually elected to the British parliament. In elections to the Dublin parliament in 1981 several hunger strikers were also elected. The mass movement was renewed and the British were put on the back foot. It took about five or six years for the British to get in control of the situation again, once more driving back the republicans to their core base and drawing the Dublin government and the SDLP into closer forms of collaboration.

The shift rightwards

In the course of the 1970s and early 1980s the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein was also changed. Northern leaders such as Gerry Adams (Belfast) and Martin McGuinness (Derry) emerged as the key leaders. Both served as chief of staff of the IRA in the late 70s and early 80s, but were more publicly known as leaders of Sinn Fein. At the end of the 1980s Adams and those around him began to evolve politically rightwards. Unable to make the leap from revolutionary nationalism (republicanism) to revolutionary socialism they began the slide towards constitutional or bourgeois nationalism, the fate that has repeatedly befallen republican leaderships since 1916.

The shift rightwards was facilitated by a set of circumstances outside the Provos. One was the failure of the British left to build a mass solidarity movement demanding the withdrawal of British forces. While having big political critiques of the Provos throughout the struggle, most of the British left lacked both the politics and the spine to prioritise building solidarity with the Irish struggle. Most of the British Marxists failed to understand Marx’s argument that until British workers learned to support Irish freedom from Britain they’d never advance very far in challenging British capital at home.

Another important factor was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the Provos tended to regard the Soviet Union as “state capitalist”, its collapse seemed to many Provos to show that there were no viable alternatives to actually existing capitalism. Many national liberation movements, around this time, were moving rightwards under the impact of the end of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, and this exerted further pressure on the Provos. A particularly reactionary role was played by leaders of the ANC who, by 1994, were governing South Africa and developing neo-liberal economic policies there. Leaders of the ANC were taken to Ireland by the Adams cabal and toured around Sinn Fein branches extolling the virtues of abandoning the armed struggle and moving into “mainstream” politics.

Another factor was the ending of important big arms shipments from Libya after the capture of the Eksund in 1987 and the discovery of significant IRA arms bunkers afterwards. It is also clear that British intelligence had significantly infiltrated the IRA and some of these bunkers were given away by informants.


The Adams-McGuinness leadership also had to isolate others in the leadership of both the IRA and Sinn Fein, while ensuring that no significant splits took place which might result in a powerful new movement being formed. From the late 80s Adams engaged in secret diplomacy with the Brits and with the Dublin government. This diplomacy was not just secret form the public but also from the members (and even much of the leadership) of the IRA and Sinn Fein. In place of the 1980s strategy of building a mass anti-imperialist movement came the strategy of the “pan-nationalist alliance”, first put forward by SF general-secretary Tom Hartley, whose role was partly to fly kites for Adams and test the wind. This was counterposed to a Connolly-type perspective put forward by several other members of the leadership.

The Adams cabal, however, had long been adept operators and they began a whispering campaign that the Connollyites wanted the armed struggle called off – even though it was Adams who was engaging in the secret diplomacy one of whose main objectives was ending the war for national liberation. The triumph over the Connolly perspective within Sinn Fein was matched by machinations by Adams and his cronies atop the IRA. By continuously lying and giving militant speeches within the IRA, the Adams cabal maintained their hold over the revolutionary army and isolated their far less politically-sophisticated opponents, forcing them out. By 1998, the Adams group had total control of the Army Council (the top IRA leadership body) and were able to set in motion a process of disarmament of the IRA and the end of the armed struggle.

The IRA has now ceased to exist as an armed revolutionary organisation, and will probably soon cease to exist altogether. Sinn Fein, now by far the dominant partner in the SF-IRA arrangement, has been converted into a mainstream liberal nationalist party. Many militants have dropped out while a large number of new members have been signed up, many of them middle class careerists who see personal opportunities for themselves in politics through the now highly respectable Sinn Fein.

From armalites to Armani

In March 2007 a new government is set to be established in “Northern Ireland”, with arch-bigot Ian Paisley as its leader and Martin McGuinness (longtime IRA and SF leader) as his deputy. SF is expected to do very well in the 2007 elections in the South and may well end up in coalition with Fianna Fail, an earlier example of the shift of republicans to mainstream, corrupt nationalist politics (FF was formed by Eamonn De Valera in 1926 and many anti-Treaty IRA republicans joined it; it has held power in the south for most of the time since 1932).

The IRA and SF now accept the legitimacy of both the states in Ireland and have accepted the unionist veto over Irish unity. They have accepted partition and are helping operate it. In the brief period in which the northern government existed several years ago, the two SF cabinet ministers – McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun – helped run capitalism, including making cuts in health and education.

The leadership, meanwhile, has done very well for itself. Leading members around Adams now have villas in Spain and elsewhere, dress in sharp suits and are media personalities. Sinn Fein is possibly the wealthiest party in Ireland now, receiving huge funding from wealthy new establishment friends in the USA who enjoy the frisson of rubbing shoulders with Adams at $1,000-a-plate events.

Prospects for renewal

The leadership’s betrayal of the vision of the hunger strikers, who wanted a free Ireland, and the betrayal of the last four decades of struggle has done what the British could never do: bring the struggle for national liberation to an end. Since the Provos have been by far the dominant force among republicans, and never suffered a major split, the betrayal means there is no significant movement to carry on the struggle.

There are, however, a number of socialist republicans, spread around several small groups and projects. The need now is for these comrades to work together to develop a Connolly-type perspective for today – a perspective which unites the class struggle and the struggle for Irish national freedom – and which builds a revolutionary movement around that perspective. o

Philip Ferguson was a Sinn Fein activist in Ireland from 1986 to 1994, including spending several years as a full-time SF organiser.

One Response to Ireland: revolution and betrayal, 1916 to today

  1. Cameron says:

    This is a great article Phil. I didn’t really know a heck of a lot about the Irish struggle before reading it (other than from watching the Harrison Ford films Patriot Games and the Devil’s Own).

    I printed it out and even highlighted key parts.

    Would be great to see more articles in the Spark, like this, that provide overviews of well known but little understood current/historical events and movements.

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