Tribe or Nation? A Critical Look at Background to the Current Irish Scene

February 5, 2010 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Explaining the complexities of the Irish situation to the progressive movement in Britain has been an ongoing problem over the past century. Why is it still with us as a problem? Why was it not resolved with the 1922 Treaty? Why was it not resolved with a constitutional Home Rule context early in the last century, in a process analogous to Norway’s independence from Sweden, or in a ‘Home Rule All Round’ process involving Scotland and Wales? Let me try to give a few brief windows into the situations as they developed, such as perhaps to help progressives in post-imperial Britain understand some of the pathologies of their imperial legacy.

The leading light in the Left in Ireland pre-1914 was James Connolly, who looked to the Marxist tradition as embodied in the 2nd International, and founded the Irish Labour Party in 1907, with a view to participating politically in the Home Rule parliament.

Home Rule however was opposed by right-wing Protestant Ascendancy forces in the North, who were supported by the Tories in Britain; they ran guns into Larne (from Germany in April 1914!) which they transported in cars to their landed estates, with a view to arming a Protestant militia against Home Rule. This was supported by the officers of the British garrison, who threatened to resign if they were asked to move against the ‘Ulster Volunteers’.

So, in effect, we had a Tory-Orange armed coup d’etat against the Liberal Government and the constitutional Home Rule process. This was the introduction of the gun into Irish 20th century politics, setting the stage for what followed. It put Partition on the agenda. Connolly of course opposed this process, and when the 1914 war came, and the 2nd International collapsed, he adopted a policy of opposition to the war, ultimately leading to the 1916 rising, his own execution, and the subsequent war of independence.

The 1918 election gave an overwhelming majority for independence of Ireland as a whole. The Unionist pocket in the north-east, being armed, was able to impose Partition, taking over 2/3 of Ulster, where by developing a religious-sectarian approach to politics, a nationalist minority (mostly but not totally Catholic) could be voted down in perpetuity. Protestant support for all-Ireland Home Rule had existed, in the Liberal tradition, but was terrorised into silence; many made their careers subsequently in the Free State, my father among them.

Politics in the 20s and 30s was dominated by the ‘civil war parties’, Fianna Fail founded by de Valera in 1926 by people who had opposed the Treaty in arms, and Fine Gael who had formed the first post-Treaty government in 1922. The Labour Party existed but was effectively sidelined, and lacked effective Connolly-inspired leadership legacy. Neutrality in the 1939-45 war led to isolation from European developments. Post-war Labour on occasion formed governments with Fine Gael, but progressive politics stagnated.

Armed anti-Partition activity in the 1950s absorbed the energy of idealistic youth fruitlessly. In the 1960s however a political approach via Civil Rights in the North developed, with some British Labour support, and it looked for a time as if left-republican politics might make cultural contact with progressive Protestant working-class groups. This process however was killed by armed right-wing provocation: the armed pogrom in August 1969 was implemented by the ‘B-Specials’ who were an armed Protestant militia supported by the Stormont State. This was the trigger for the re-emergence of the IRA as an armed force (the ‘Provisionals’), and the subsequent decades of mayhem, which ended only with the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of over a decade ago.

The ‘power-sharing’ system which emerged had since struggled to deliver government of a sort, in a system which has many flaws; the current talks between all the parties concerned are occupying the attentions of both Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, the Prime Minister and Taoiseach. The issue on which they are (at the time of writing) stalled would appear to be the ‘parades commission’ which is an attempt to regulate potentially provocative parades in areas where they are unwelcome.

So much for the background, in a much oversimplified condensed version. If it starts any trails of enquiry, they can perhaps be discussed by defining a topic in the LPR blog. I hope perhaps to comment again in more detail on current issues as they arise.

Roy Johnston had a hand in the attempt made in the 1960s to influence the IRA towards becoming a left-political rather than a military force. He is currently a Green Party supporter, interested in developing a left-green convergence, as a response to the climate change situation. His personal website is

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This post was written by Roy Johnston

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