The cult of Irish Republicanism

The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA represent nothing but the pale ghosts of yesterday.

For over a hundred years now Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland since it came into existence in 1921, has been politically structured by what Sean O’ Casey called, in one of his memorable plays, The Shadow of the Gunman. The gunman, and more recently in deference to the times, his female equivalent, has been legal and illegal, protestant and catholic, brave and cowardly but at all times and in all guises, a dangerous irrelevancy as far as the working class is concerned.

Ruling classes everywhere mythologise the politics of their regime in order to conceal the fact that their wealth and opulent lifestyles are based on the poverty and degradation of their subject classes. In Ireland that process has been further mystified and obfuscated by years of colonisation and the deliberate action of Britain, the colonial master, of introducing religious sectarianism into Ireland’s toxic tribal mix at the beginning of the 17th century.

That evil, the curse of inter-religious conflict, was part of Elizabethan England’s strategy for a final solution to the problem of Gaelic resistance to English rule in Ireland which was most formidable in the province of Ulster. In 1603 the native Gaelic people were driven from their lands; their lands were confiscated by the Crown and gifted in large tracts to undertakers favoured by the English Court. In turn the beneficiaries of this act of imperial theft introduced tenants from Scotland and northern England and it was no accident that these were largely protestant.

The plantation of Ulster was simply part of the process whereby ruling classes further their interests and build empires. The incoming ‘planters’ were not the villains in the piece; rather were they innocent instruments of a power-hungry imperialism; poor peasant farmers following a promise of a better existence – in fact many would have been the descendants of earlier ‘Scotti’ emigrants who left Ireland in search of a better life in Scotland. History should have absorbed the conflicts created by the plantation of Ulster but, history is largely fashioned by economics, and a radical dichotomy in the land tenure between the province of Ulster, the area planted, and the rest of Ireland was to foster bitter new conflicts between opposing forms of nationalism, each concealed in a quasi-religious political doctrine; bitter, nauseous and wholly irrelevant to the interests of the working class on the island of Ireland.

Karl Marx might well have been thinking of Ireland when he said:

“Men make their own history but they do not do it as they please; they do not do it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

The land question
In pre-capitalist society the means of life was the land. It was the means of production and just as in capitalism now, where social class is determined by whether one is a working functionary within those means or an owner of those means, so in feudal Ireland where one stood in relation to the ownership and control of the land determined their social status.

Even for feudalism, Irish land law was brutally harsh with virtually no rights either in law or in custom attending the lot of the tenant. He was a tenant-at-will, the will of his landlord; without any security of tenure, ‘fairness’ of rent or right to any compensation for any improvement to his holding or his habitation. Indeed one visiting English agronomist is reputed to have said, not as an insult to Irish peasants but in criticism of their conditions of tenure where improvement carried the penalty of higher rent or even eviction, that it was an encouragement to the peasant to learn to live like a pig.

Because they were vital instruments in the strategy of conquest the Ulster planters could reject the absolute servitude of the native peasant in the country and, accordingly, their landlords had to grant them what later became known in Ireland as The Three F’s: Fixity of tenure, Fixity of rent and Freedom of sale of what was effectively their leaseholds. In Ulster this practice became known as ‘Ulster Custom’. It created circumstances in which a surplus over immediate need could be made and where leaseholds were sold and could be aggregated making smallholdings into farms and peasants into small farmers. It extended the use of money within the community thus establishing an essential element in the development of trade: a purchasing power.

Industrial revolution
By the time of the Industrial Revolution Ulster had its nascent capitalist class and it developed apace with the development of capitalism in Britain, a development enhanced by the general level of literacy, a burgeoning commercial trade and a not insignificant number of immigrant entrepreneurs. During the mid-19th century, referred to by the economist Hobsbawn as The Age of Capital, Ulster underwent rapid development in shipbuilding, heavy and light engineering, as well as textiles and rope-making. In fact Ulster industry became an integral part of British capitalism; dependant for energy and raw materials on Britain and its Empire and vitally beholden to the then-prevailing system of Empire Preference for its market.

Ironically, it was in this climate of bourgeois prosperity in Ulster that Republican ideas began to emerge and the idea of backing those ideas with the threat and the reality of armed force. The idea of republican violence did not come from the dispossessed or the rebellious catholics but from elements within the protestant middle-class who argued that the government – which they generally referred to as the Crown – was supporting discriminatory measures against Irish trade.

Typical of those articulating this opinion was the Belfast industrialist, J Alexander Hamilton who told an audience of his class peers in the Belfast Linen Hall on the 14th May 1784:

“It cannot be said that the government truly represents our interests in matters of trade or industry nor can we hold faith with the Crown to allow it that right. Our limping independence is on the sufferance of the Crown who again can be influenced by powerful English interests in trade and industry to restrict us and hamper the further development of our trade and industry… What they had the right to give they had the right to take and it is our sacred duty to remove from the crown that right and build our own constitutional structures, our own freedom and the absolute right to plan for the advancement of our own trade and commerce. It is a lesson that has been learnt in America and one that we in this country will have to learn even if it means the broadening of outlook in matters of political concern at home.”

That was the voice that spoke incipient republican rebellion, echoed by Henry Joy McCracken and the northern leaders of The United Irishmen. They were protestants, articulating the problems of Ulster capitalism and allying the rebellious interests of their class, with clarions of patriotism. Their republicanism came from the French Revolution and the American War of Independence via the pages of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man and encapsulated in the vision of Wolfe Tone.

Four years later in 1798 Irish Republicanism staged an abortive rebellion in the name of “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”. In Ulster the enemy was the forces of the Crown; in the rest of Ireland, apart from a failed incursion by French forces in the west of Ireland, the rebellion was largely restricted to the county of Wexford where the United Men were largely Catholics, their leader a catholic priest and their primary enemy protestants – inevitably their rack-renting landlords.

While capitalism was developing in Ulster in the rest of the country outbreaks of violence were common. The landlord and the Crown were the enemies of the downtrodden, brutally impoverished serf-like Irish peasant; it was a political struggle that was allied to patriotism only insofar as the Crown was identified with the landlord and the reality of agrarian poverty. The heady days of European revolution in the mid-19th century was reflected in Ireland more in the literature of protest than armed conflict. There was little violence; the patriots of the Young Ireland movement spoke the hurt and anger of a people in despair; people whose staple diet, the potato had for a second year turned to foul putrefaction in the fields; people burying their dead because they could not afford to live on the abundance of cereal crop and livestock that was being shipped out to foreign tables. Early victims of the brutal capitalist doctrine of Laissez-faire.

The Fenians
Within a decade the population of Ireland had been reduced by some two million to an estimated six million. The land was still haemorrhaging its people to England, Australia and, especially, to the United States where Irish conspiracy, rooted in the Clan na Gael was fostering the Fenian movement for republican insurrection in Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood was closer to the common people preaching a class gospel and angering the Church which caused Archbishop Moriarty, with questionable theological soundness, to speculate that Hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish them.

The vagaries of world capitalism was having a drastic effect on food prices which were falling rapidly and gravely effecting the income of the Irish peasantry more and more of whom were falling into rent arrears. Between 1872 and 1885 well over 200,000 tenants were evicted and at one protest meeting in response to mass eviction notices served by the landlord, a catholic priest called Geoffrey Burke who had inherited an estate from his brother, a speech by Tom Brennan, a prominent Fenian, demonstrates how far ahead in its thinking the Fenian movement, now in decay, was over the purely nationalist thinking of the Irish Parliamentary Party and its political heirs Sinn Fein. Brennan said:

“You may get a Federal Parliament, perhaps the Repeal of the Union, nay more, you may establish an Irish Republic, but as longed as tillers of the soil are forced to support a useless and indolent aristocracy, your Federal Parliament would be a bauble and your Irish Republic a fraud,” (quoted in The Land League Crisis, N D Palmer. Yale Historical Publications).

Fenian activity was poorly organised and badly coordinated but it left its martyrs to fester in the fecund soil of bitter discontent and, in the incarnation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood it was to light the fuse of Irish Rebellion in 1916 and the subsequent Anglo-Irish War out of which modern Ireland emerged. It is impossible in a short article to knit all the threads of festering revolt that were converging on a political denouement in Ireland: Michael Davitt’s courageous Land League and the attempts to unify the struggle against Landlordism with the struggle of an emerging proletariat played a vital role that ultimately found a measure of success in a series of Land Purchase Acts between 1885 and 1903. These Acts made interest-bearing loans of public money available to buy out their holdings. The landlords made token protest but in most cases were glad to salvage a final settlement from their ill-gotten plunder.

Fledgling bourgeoisie
The story of the part played by the terrible potato famine of 1845/50 in helping to create a southern, largely catholic, middle class, has still to be written but it was a factor among many others in the emerging of a politically-articulate, fledgling bourgeoisie. More importantly for the future of Ireland the political interest of that class was in direct conflict with those of its class brethren in Ulster. Charles Stewart Parnell the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party enunciated the political requirements of nascent southern capitalism in a major speech at Arklow on the 20th August 1885; in precise terms Parnell made clear the economic motive for an Irish government: to protect a weak Irish capitalism confronted by the competition of English capitalism.

Subsequently a more bellicose Sinn Fein said the same thing:

“If an Irish manufacturer cannot produce an article as cheaply as an English or other foreign capitalist, only because his foreign competitor has larger resources at his disposal, then it is the first duty of the Irish nation to accord protection to that manufacturer.”(Sinn Fein Policy, 1907 Edition)

That was the political policy which underpinned the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent IRA guerrilla struggle to ‘free’ Ireland. The IRA was an army of workers fighting for the clearly-defined interests of their bosses. Ironically, as we have shown earlier, the protection they wanted to achieve for southern capitalists would have been ruinous for northern capitalists. There was no basis for unity.

Since Partition
Since the partition of Ireland in 1921, Sinn Fein and the IRA have undergone many vicissitudes but, effectively, after partition and the defeat of the IRA in the ensuing civil war they had become a cult, a representative of “the dead generations”. In 1962, after an abortive ‘Border Campaign’ that had become its period of attrition a short time after it began in 1956, the IRA confessed its lack of support, accused northern nationalists of selling their heritage for a mess of potage – British ‘welfare’ capitalism – and established constitutional Republican Clubs to pursue social issues. The absurdly sectarian Unionist government – always conscious of the benefits of an IRA threat at election times – immediately banned the Clubs and left the framework for thirty-odd years of sectarian violence.

Does the resuscitated IRA that resurfaced in 1970 and after decades of struggle won a share in the political administration of the entity it set out to banish, disprove our contention that the concept of armed IRA struggle had become a futile cult following their political and military defeat by southern government forces in 1922?

The answer to that question is twofold. Firstly, their very presence in the current northern administration is not a victory; on the contrary, it is an acknowledged recognition of the failure of armed violence to unite a people. Secondly, the IRA of the 1950’s that accepted its political rejection by the people, like earlier incarnations of that organisation, was a purely political movement whereas that of the 1970’s was built around a catholic population under attack. The followers of the republican cult might well have wished it otherwise, but the muscle of the movement that emerged out of the early stages of the recent troubles was catholic and sectarian. Today the question is changed, changed dramatically, and mutations of the Provisionals, like the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA represent nothing but the pale ghosts of yesterday. They are a curse on the body politic and the only progressive act they can commit is to disappear.


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