The IRA, soldiers of imperialism

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The article that we are republishing here first appeared in World Revolution 21 in 1978. In the first paragraph it establishes the framework in which ‘national liberation’ struggles should be seen.

The 'small nations' like Ireland, which wanted to grab something for themselves, would have to try and exploit for their own interests the conflict between the big imperialist powers.”

This reality was identified by revolutionaries at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising. Trotsky (Nashe Slovo 4 July 1916) pointed out the military importance of Ireland in relation to British imperialism: "an ‘independent’ Ireland could exist only as an outpost of an imperialist state hostile to Britain”.

This lack of ‘independence’ is acknowledged in the Proclamation read out at the beginning of the Easter Rising when it declared that the Irish nationalists were “supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe”. This is a reference to funds received from supporters in the US and arms supplies from Germany. The ‘national’ struggle needed imperialist backers.

For more on the background to the 1916 events see “The national question 100 years after the Dublin Easter Rising” in this issue.

The 1978 article traces the development of the national situation and specifically the role of the IRA up to the early 1970s. If, after the passage of nearly 40 years, we can see that some of the formulations have not stood the test of time, the overall framework is still valid. And these formulations still pose important questions.

For example, the text talks about “the downfall of Unionism”. While it is true that the Unionist-dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland was abolished in the early 1970s, the pro-British Unionists have continued as a force to this day. But the dominance of their position has changed, especially after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

The text says that “the IRA will not disappear”. On the face of it, with the IRA’s declaration of an end to its armed campaign in 2005 and its statement that it would only pursue its goals by political means, this appears to be contradicted by events. However, the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, is now a leading part in Northern Ireland’s Executive, sharing power with Unionists as a fundamental pillar of the capitalist state’s political apparatus. That the article also mistakenly identifies Stalinist republicanism as a force for the future only demonstrates that the outcome of conflicts within the bourgeoisie can not be calculated in every detail. We can also add that the “armed wing” of Republicanism has not disappeared, even if it has taken the form of dissident breakaways from the IRA.

One other problematic aspect of the analysis (that is not limited to Ireland) can be seen in the idea that the difficulties of the Irish economy are due to “the fact that the world market is already divided among the great capitalist powers, and above all because the capitalist system itself prevents a global development of the productive forces.” The division of the world market between different national capitals is not fixed. Over the past 20 years, for example, we have seen a decline in the relative position of the Japanese economy and advances for Chinese capitalism. This is not to say that the decade of growth of the Celtic Tiger could have been sustained, but that, in the competition between capitals, the possibility of individual advances and retreats is not excluded. In addition there is in the quoted passage the implicit idea that there are no possibilities left for the expansion for capitalism. This is something that has marked other texts during the history of the ICC.

Above all, however, the article strikes exactly the right note when it finishes with the assertion that only the class war can confront the attacks of capitalism and its mobilisations for imperialist war.

The Easter Rising of 1916

The Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, typically petty bourgeois in its hopelessness--its heroism a product of pure desperation--opened a new period of social and political crisis in Ireland. Through the ruthlessness with which the British bourgeoisie crushed the Easter Rising, through the relatively disinterested and even hostile attitude of the Irish workers (their ears still ringing with the defeat of their strike wave in 1913) towards the goals of the ruling classes in Ireland, history had shown the Irish bourgeoisie that the era of the possibility of the bourgeois revolution in Ireland was at an end. The reality of the Great War was the violent re-division of the globe among the powerful but crisis-ridden imperialist powers. The 'small nations' like Ireland, which wanted to grab something for themselves, would have to try and exploit for their own interests the conflict between the big imperialist powers. Thus, after 1916, Sinn Fein’s1 policy revolved around the fight to gain admission to the post-war peace conference of the big powers, in the hope of gaining American backing for Irish independence against Britain. Similarly, the so-called Irish ‘Labour Movement' sent delegates to the wretched conference of Social Democratic reconciliation in Berne,2 in order to win the support of Europe's most eloquent butchers for the Irish cause.

Had Britain lost the war it might have been a different story. As it was, the Irish Nationalists were unable to persuade anyone. Their most radical factions had either stayed out of the war, or had attempted to enlist the support of German imperialism. Now they found themselves empty-handed.

Developments in the world during and immediately after the war had shaken the economy in Ireland. The massive concentration and centralisation of capital under the direction of the state in wartime Britain and Europe, and the grave economic crisis which followed the war and the dismantling of the war economy, threatened to ruin and eliminate the small manufacturing bourgeoisie in the South of Ireland. It was the desperate struggle for survival of such worn-out strata, faced as they were with the convulsions of a world capitalism itself in its death throes, which gave birth to that remarkable imperialist abortion - the Irish Free State. In this atmosphere, the bourgeoisie in the South was able to mobilise the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie for a guerilla war against the British forces. This became known as the War of Independence (1919–1921).

During this period, the Nationalists fashioned the nucleus of a separate state. It was modeled on the most modern lines: equipped with a parliament, a police force, courts, prisons, and--of course--an army. The Irish Republican Army was based on the Volunteer Brigades of 1916, but was well-disciplined and firmly wedded to the framework of the new state, itself a bulwark of capitalist order. The IRA entered the world with the blood of the proletariat dripping from its hands. In the South and the South-West, it didn't hesitate to move against striking workers (see 'James Connolly and Irish Nationalism' , WR 173). In the cities, its brutal terrorisation of the civilian population during the 'War of Independence" matched that dished out by the British Black and Tans.


Tottering on the brink of defeat, the Nationalists were forced to sign a treaty with Britain in 1921. This granted Ireland nominal independence. However, the country was to be partitioned: the industrial counties of the North-East received their own regional parliament and retained special connections with Britain.

The acceptance of the Treaty threatened to provoke an army coup. This didn't happen but it did lead to a split in the government and in the army in the South, with the Republican extremists wanting to hold out for a better deal from Britain.4 And although attempts were made to re-unite the IRA in order to launch an attack against Northern Ireland, in the face of the obvious impossibility of such a campaign, the Free State slid into a bourgeois faction fight still more savage than the War of Independence . This conflict ended with the victory of the pro-Treaty (British-backed) forces in the South.

These events show us not only the absolutely anti-proletarian character of 'Irish Independence and Unity’ in the present epoch, but its objective impossibility as well. Before 1916, the Ulster Unionists and the Southern Irish Nationalists were engaged in rival arms build-ups and the constitution of paramilitary armies. In the North, Craig--the Unionist leader--had generously sent the Ulster workers to the imperialist slaughter in order to show his love of King and Country. But the Unionists were prepared, even if it came to a show of arms, to resist any attempt by London to subordinate their interests in any way to the control of the Southern Irish bourgeoisie. Ulster's industry lived from, and produced for, the British and world market. It had no interest in supporting the stagnant Irish agricultural economy, or in becoming the victim of Southern protectionist policies.

The economic development of Ireland

In Ireland, only Ulster participated in the British industrial revolution. Politically and economically in control of the whole island, only the British bourgeoisie would have been capable of industrialising the South of Ireland. But within the United Kingdom, Ireland assumed the role of cheap supplier of agricultural products and labour power. If the Irish Republic finds itself in exactly the same situation today, then this is the result--not of '700 years of betrayals'--but of the fact that the world market is already divided among the great capitalist powers, and above all because the capitalist system itself prevents a global development of the productive forces. This, then, is no mere Irish question: we find ourselves in a beggar's world of hunger and misery, careering towards nuclear self-destruction if the resolution of the present crisis of capitalism is left up to the bourgeoisie.

The hostility of the North and South

The desperate hostility of the North and South in Ireland reflected the antagonistic imperialist aims of the Ulster and Southern bourgeoisies. In the face of a contracting world market, these aims could not be reconciled. But their conflict had a 'positive' aspect for capitalism in Ireland. The lords of the Belfast sweatshops, and the Republican Army of Dublin's men of property, ensured that the workers got caught in the cross-fire between them. In the industrial centres of the North, the Protestant and Catholic ghettos were made to compete against each other for whatever miserable jobs, wages and housing were going. Mobilised or intimidated behind the Orange and the Green, the class solidarity of the workers was answered with the tyranny of pogroms. In Belfast, the proletarian strike wave of 1919 was soon followed by bloody orgies, sparked off by the IRA's killing of Protestant workers, and taken up by Carson’s Ulster Volunteers. Over sixty died in this wave of barbarism. In the 1930s, the Republican and Unionist gangs would react with the same suspicion and hostility to the united struggle of the unemployed workers in Belfast.

Southern Ireland under de Valera

Through the Civil War, the pro-Treaty wing of the IRA established itself as the official army of the state in the South. Soon afterwards, de Valera and his supporters moved away from the extreme IRA and founded a political party, Fianna Fail, to represent the radical Republicans in parliament. In the face of the world economic collapse of 1929, de Valera came to power in the 1932 elections armed with a makeshift protectionist and state capitalist programme. His election victory owed much to the support given him by the IRA. However, although the Republicans took radical measures to shore up the national capital in Southern Ireland, they were unable to stimulate industrial growth. Their ‘Economic War’ with Britain led only to chaos in the vital, export-oriented agricultural sector. But despite the fiasco this policy represented, we can see how the Republicans established themselves during this period as the natural rulers of Irish capitalism. In the 1930s, de Valera was able to employ the full force of the state--plus the IRA.--in beating down the essentially pro-British Fascists of O'Duffy's Blueshirts. This was the time when the rebel IRA men flocked into the ranks of the official security forces of the state and the secret police to fight the fascist menace. And when the Blueshirts led farmers in withholding annuity payments to the government in an attempt to make de Valera call off the ‘Economic War’ with Britain, it was the Republican gunmen who confiscated these farmers' cattle and auctioned them off.

The ‘Economic War’ was a desperate response to the folding of the world market following the Great Crash. It neither did, nor could have posed, any threat to Britain's control economically over Ireland. And this is true despite the nostalgia of the Irish leftists today for this period. Between 1926 and 1938, the economic rate of growth in Southern Ireland was about 1% per annum. In the war years it would be nil. Out of necessity, the policy had to be abandoned before the outbreak of World War II. Indeed, London was quite prepared to make concessions in the immediate pre-war period. Chamberlain, when requested, evacuated the naval bases in Ireland. Later, Churchill would offer unification of Ireland to the Southern bourgeoisie in return for more open support from the 'neutral' Republic during the war. The idea of placing Ulster's war industries within the cocoon of Irish neutrality seemed tempting to the Southern bourgeoisie. But as ever, the intransigence of the Ulster Unionists--who were profiting from the British war economy--barred the way to this solution.

The legacy of 1916

‘Hatred of Britain' may have been the force animating the ‘men of 16’. But for the IRA, and for de Valera 's Republicanism, this legacy was used more as propaganda for their regime and as a recruiting weapon to win them support. Their aim, after all, was never to smash British imperialism, which (quite apart from being impossible in this epoch) would have amounted to slaying the hen which lays the golden eggs as far as they were concerned. The real world historical goal of the bourgeois forces behind the so-called Irish Revolution was either to cajole or force the British government into giving the Ulster Unionist bosses the kick in the teeth they had coming. And Britain was the only one around strong enough to do this.5 The Republicans reckoned that if they could bring together the industrial North with the agricultural South, they'd have tractors to plough their fields. They could then hope to feather their own nests while ‘invading' the British market. The plan was to reconcile Southern Irish and British imperialist interests at Ulster's expense. This grand expansionist strategy of the Republicans was referred to as 'the unification of Ireland’.

The outbreak of World War II seemed to change this situation. It presented to the Republicans the possibility of really toppling the Unionists themselves, and chasing the Brits out of Ireland by hanging on to the coat-tails of German imperialism. The 1939 bombing campaign in England (which involved the murder of British workers) was followed by hair-brained schemes of action worked out between the IRA anti-fascists and the Nazi government in Germany.6 However, the German bourgeoisie never seriously contemplated an Irish campaign, so the IRA succeeded only in bringing new waves of Fianna Fail repression upon itself. In moving against an unwanted political friend, the democratic Dublin government never hesitated to use concentration camps and open murder in its clampdowns against the IRA during the 1930s and 1940s. Just as today, the democratic government in Ireland organises systematic terror in defence of bourgeois ‘freedoms and civil liberties’ even while it breaks into floods of tears for the victims of the smaller-scale terror campaigns of the IRA.

The pulverisation of the IRA

By the 1960s, the IRA was militarily pulverised in the North and in the South. It had lost all its support among the ‘Catholic’ workers, who had been an important source of its cannon-fodder before. It then settled down to the formulation of a radical state capitalist programme to win back support and, as a result, began to lean towards the Russian imperialist bloc. The stunted Southern Irish economy, so as to benefit from the post-war boom, had had to lift its protectionist barriers. But with the close of the period of reconstruction after 1965, the Irish Republic found itself increasingly dependent on its more powerful neighbours. If its economy was to avoid collapse in the face of the world economic crisis, the Southern economy had to become more closely integrated into the Western bloc as a whole. Shortly thereafter, Ireland entered the EEC.

The IRA, would-be saviours of the nation. responded to the crisis- and to the alarming combativity of the working class in the South – by turning to Stalinism. But this smooth leftward swing was rudely interrupted by the events in Northern Ireland after 1969. The Ulster industrial caste, losers in the economic fight for survival, had become a real obstacle to Britain's political and economic management of the crisis. The bourgeoisie was aware it had to shift the Unionist rubbish heap. But when they tried to touch it, they found it crawling with angry rats. At this stage, with the Unionists resisting all reforms, the Dublin government intervened, first through its support for the civil rights movement in the North, and secondly by offering to support the Northern IRA in a new campaign. But this support was conditionally given. The Northern IRA had to agree to split from the Southern Irish IRA leadership.

These measures soon led to a split in the IRA. The Provisionals, straight-nationalist murder gangs, were based in the Ulster ghettos and the 'non-sectarian' Stalinists of the Southern Command comprised the Officials. As a result of its clever manoeuvre, the Dublin government hoped to achieve two things:

  1. preparations of the military shove needed to topple the Unionists, the main barrier to ‘Irish Unification’.

  2. the weakening of its Stalinist opponents in the IRA in the South.

Without going into the course of recent events in Ulster it is clear that the anti-proletarian part played by the IRA in this bloody holocaust marks a continuation of its bourgeois traditions. It has played its part, to be sure, in the downfall of Unionism. At the same time it has itself received a severe beating. Despite the IRA's continuing wild bombings and shootings, tomorrow and the future will see the British and the Irish security forces--the masters of the streets and the concentration camps, the armed anti-terrorists--as the main forces attempting to butcher the revolutionary movement of the proletariat on these islands. But however battered it may be, the IRA will not disappear. It remains the living symbol of a frustrated Irish imperialism. And particularly in its Stalinist form, it will have an important role to play in the coming fight against the workers.

Divided and demoralised by over fifty years of counter-revolution, the Ulster proletariat found itself driven into the ghettos in 1969, looking for security where none was to be found. Now it must emerge to meet the relentless attacks of capitalism as the economic crisis deepens. And gigantic as this task will be, there is no other way out. As militants of the working class, we denounce the cynical lies of the Irish and British bourgeoisie about reconciliations and a democratic 'settlement". And we call on the proletariat--North and South--to take up the class war.

Krespel, December 1978

1 Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone): Irish Republican political party. Founded in 1902 by Arthur Griffith, it came under the leadership of de Valera in 1917. After the ‘War of Independence' in 1919–21, a split occurred in 1922, Griffith and Michael Collins accepting the Partition and the establishment of the Irish Free State; de Valera in opposition to them formed another party, Fianna Fail.

2 Berne Conference of 1920 grouped all the 'Socialist' Parties, like the Independent Labour Party in Britain that had split with the IInd International when it capitulated to the war effort, but which refused to join the Communist International. The Communist International denounced this move as an attempt to resurrect the IInd International in spirit if not in name.

3 James Connolly and Irish nationalism, reprinted in World Revolution 373.

4 In order to get this better deal, de Valera acting for the extremists had even suggested that Britain should declare a 'Monroe Doctrine' regarding Ireland, i.e. that Britain should guarantee that the people of Ireland alone had the right to decide their own destiny.

5 There were basically two political tendencies involved here, represented by Fianna Fail hoping to manoeuvre, and the IRA hoping to force, the British bourgeoisie into handing over Ulster.

6 At one stage – in 1942 – the IRA demanded "That as a prelude to any co-operation between Oglaigh noh-Eireann and the German Government, the German Government explicitly declare its intention of recognising the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic (i.e. the IRA) as the Government of Ireland in all post-war negotiations affecting Ireland".


Historic events: 




Irish nationalism