Reflecting on the Republican Congress … 80 years on

Republican Congress 80th anniversary

Dr Brian Hanley delivered the following address to the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum in the Ireland Institute on Thursday 13 Novemberet 2014



Firstly I would like to thank the Peadar O’Donnell socialist republican forum for the invitation to speak here tonight. When addressing this topic there are two things a historian could do. One would be to eulogize the Republican Congress and that would be both an easy option and also an appealing one, given the many admirable things about Congress. The other would be to deconstruct Congress and its ideas and essentially come to the conclusion that it was not very significant in real terms. That is what some academic critics of Congress have done and it too would be relatively easy. I was reminded recently of the very funny, but very cynical, Brendán Ó hEithir’s assertion that they story of the Republican Congress shows how the Irish left can turn a footnote of history into a chapter. After all, the organisation split after five months, leaving two rival Irish Citizen Army’s denouncing each other, a substantial section of Congress activists joining the Labour party and others simply dropping out of political activity. Congress was effectively defunct by mid-1936 after just a year and a half.[1]

But I don’t want to do either of those things. I believe Congress deserves respect and attention because of the seriousness of those involved and the breath of its agitation despite its short existence. When you read the Republican Congress paper, (and it was an excellent paper)[2], you see reports about the organization of tenant leagues in Dublin’s north and south inner-city, and in newer areas such as Cabra; activists preventing evictions by slum landlords, agitation among small farmers in Achill, articles publicizing the conditions of Irish migrant labour to Scotland; support for miners in Castlecomer and involvement in strikes at the Somax shirt factory in Dublin and the De Selby quarries in Bray. And of course Congress activists put opposing the Blueshirts and fascism as a central part of their political activity. This also involved international solidarity with the victims of fascism. This was not always easy or popular in 1930’s Ireland. When Italy invaded Abyssinia for example, many Irish nationalists sided with Italy, for various reasons. Congress responded by explaining the reasons ‘why Ireland must support Abyssinia’ and explaining why despite ‘much confused thinking’ by some republicans, largely because ‘because British imperialism opposes Italy’ in fact the struggle by Abyssinia against Mussolini was the ‘spearhead of anti-Imperialist struggle today.’ Of course this solidarity, and on the part of several Congress members, physical defence and indeed giving their lives, was again apparent in 1936 when the Spanish Republic was attacked. Again a very unpopular cause in the Ireland of the day. Similarly in July 1935, when in response to anti-Catholic violence in Belfast, there was a wave of anti-Protestant attacks in the Free State, Congress denounced what it called the ‘pogroms (that) had crossed the border’ and demanded that the ‘victimisation of Protestant workers (and) cowardly attacks on Protestant property’ should be ‘immediately stopped and the ringleaders brought to book.’ And very relevant today I think, when we are barraged with pro-war nostalgia about 1914-18, was the organization of the alternative Armistice Day commemorations in November 1934 and 1935. Under slogans such as  ‘Honour the Dead by Fighting for the Living’ ‘We want war- on the slums’ and ‘Freedom for this small nation’, war veterans, republicans and socialists presented an alternative to the British Legion’s commemorations and the increasingly sterile IRA disruption of them. Frank Ryan, a veteran of the IRA’s campaigns to disrupt Poppy Day, described November 1934 as the ‘proudest of all Armistice Days for me.’ Worth noting as we face more glorification of World War One over the next few years.

It is also important to remember that Congress worked in a period of intense anti-communist hysteria and clerical hostility. Congress activist Frank Edwards lost his job because of this. Violence and intimidation were also common. From the Animal Gangs in 1934 to attacks on the left at the Easter 1936 parade in Dublin, followed by the wrecking of the Congress offices by mobs, Congress activists faced direct threats to their personal safety. And last but not least; the most iconic image of Congress is the photograph of the Shankill Road contingent at Bodenstown in 1934. The numbers of Belfast Protestants who attended are occasionally exaggerated and the incidents at Bodenstown misunderstood or misrepresented, but it was still significant that Congress could attract support from Protestant socialists, which of course also reflected radicalization after the Outdoor Relief riots of 1932 and realignments within Belfast labour politics.

It would also be wrong not to mention the record of individuals such as Peadar  O’Donnell, George Gilmore (and indeed his brothers Harry and Charlie), Frank Ryan, Mick Price, Roddy and Nora Connolly, Cora Hughes, Kit Conway, Charlie Donnelly and many more. They were outstanding activists. And Congress had potential. The vote on whether or not to commit the IRA to the Congress appeal was very close at 1934 convention. A significant number of IRA officers, including O/C’s in Offaly, Westmeath, Galway, Mayo and senior figures in Cumann na mBan, Sighle Humphries and Eithne Coyle, along with 16 trade councils or union branches, the Kerry-based Republican Labour party, the Northern Ireland Socialist Party (formerly the Northern section of the Independent Labour Party) and the Irish Citizen Army, (which gained a new lease of life with Congress) endorsed the initial Athlone manifesto. Though only in existence for a couple of months Congress candidates contested local elections in June 1934, with two elected, in North Westmeath and Dundalk. It is always worth looking at what your enemies in the State think. In September 1934 a Garda Chief Superintendent reported (just after Congress split as it happens) that ‘it is thought that the orthodox IRA will never be a serious menace to the Government as at present constituted. It is thought that the Republican Congress Group, under Peadar O’Donnell, which endeavours to get control of the Labour organisations in the country for the purpose of creating general social disorder and internal chaos will be a much greater menace. The more this organisation’s efforts are thwarted by the existence of the orthodox IRA the better. If the latter ceased to exist there would be much more recruitment to the Congress ranks with the inevitable social consequences.’[3]

Now I think the initial surge of activity by Congress reflects the optimism of the time- despite setbacks and huge threats (fascism in Europe obviously)- it was still possible to believe in a socialist future and have confidence that the left would win out. But we live in 2014 not 1934, and the left should not either aim or pretend to be a re-enactment society. There have been substantial changes in how people view socialism, in how they view class and in class structure itself. I believe we need to examine the assumptions that underlay much of the thinking of Congress and its inheritors. These are not sacred texts- this is not religion. The iconic appeal of Congress is still apparent and again I want to emphasize that I respect people who give their time and commitment to political activity- both historically and today. A critique is not an argument for doing nothing. It is also obvious that many of the most natural rebels in Irish society, particularly those from the working class, are still drawn to republicanism, in its various forms, rather than the far-left. The right certainly know this. When John Drennan of the Sunday Independent talks about Sinn Féin voters having a diet of ‘chips, Dutch Gold and batter-burgers’ there is no doubt what he means or about the class contempt that informs his views.

But I want to talk a bit about a recent article which referred to Congress. In the SIPTU newspaper Liberty this September, Jim McVeigh of Sinn Féin (and SIPTU) argued that ‘it would be fair to say since James Connolly’s untimely death and the emergence of the counter-revolution following the Treaty, the two great movements on this island, the national democratic and the Labour movement have parted company. Despite one brief attempt to unite them in the Republican Congress in the 30s, they have remained alienated from one another ever since…it’s time for a new Republican Congress and a new radical programme.’ Now the article is part of a process of re-positioning between Sinn Féin and SIPTU, in the event of a Labour meltdown but nevertheless that McVeigh used Congress as an example is significant. It is also of course not historically accurate.

Congress was a split from the IRA and denounced as such; it’s activists were accused of inciting ‘mutiny and indiscipline’ within the republican movement, the IRA claimed that Congress would ‘enter the Free State parliament (and) inevitably…follow the road which has been travelled by other constitutional parties…’ Peadar O’Donnell and Mick Price were court-martialed and dismissed with ignominy etc. Pressure was brought to bear on many of the signatories of the Congress appeal to recant and several ex-IRA officers did so, as did Sighle Humphries and Ethne Coyle of Cumann na mBan. There was undisguised glee in the IRA over the Congress split, with An Phoblacht suggesting that Congress activists could ‘retire and devote themselves to the organisation of peasant congressess in Lithuania or the answering of conundrums such as: when is a workers republic not a workers republic?” Congress in turn accused the IRA of taking the ‘same attitude as the Irish Hierarchy and the (Irish) Independent towards the revolutionary workers within their ranks.’ Frank Ryan described ‘the leadership of the Belfast units (as) among the most reactionary factors in the IRA’ and so on. There were threats and clashes over control of arms and as well as the famous incidents at Bodenstown in 1934 and less well-known but perhaps more bloody fighting at the 1935 Wolfe Tone commemoration. When the left contingents were attacked at the Easter 1936 commemoration in Dublin, the IRA stewards do not seem to have been interested in defending them.

And the Congress split left deep scars with many republicans blaming it for disrupting and weakening the movement. In 1966 for example Sinn Féin president Tomas Mac Giolla was loath to identify with the legacy of the Congress, claiming that it had ‘became identified with communist movements abroad but no one can say today that we in Sinn Féin are identified with any communist parties either at home or abroad.’[4] (This was despite George Gilmore’s 1966 pamphlet on labour and the republic being a very influential document in debates within republicanism at the time). IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding would conclude in contrast that the lesson of Congress was the need to keep the republican movement united and to avoid a split, arguing that if O’Donnell and his allies had done that they would have eventually prevailed.[5] Indeed in September 1980 Gerry Adams would claim that ‘the most successful radicalization of the Republican movement since the Republican Congress’ was taking place within the Provisionals but that ‘it didn’t cause a split.’[6]

But back to McVeigh: despite an impressive number of individual trade unionists, including William McMullen the vice-president of the ITUC and Barney Conway of the Workers Union of Ireland, the mainstream labour movement was not involved as a body in Congress. Neither Labour’s leader William Norton, nor William O’Brien of the ITGWU, or even Jim Larkin of the WUI were in any involved with the Republican Congress. They were no more sympathetic to it than the IRA was, seeing it as either a potential rival or a front for Labour’s enemies, the Communists. The ITGWU’s Cathal O’Shannon described it as ‘a varnish for communism’ for instance. (though a significant group from Congress including Mick Price and Roddy Connolly would join the Labour party in 1936). But it was certainly not an alliance between the labour movement and the republican movement.

Could Congress have won over the majority of the IRA? In 1931 the IRA had actually adopted, on paper, a very radical political programme in Saor Éire. The organization had moved left under the impact of the Great Depression and the arguments of those like O’Donnell. As Chief of Staff Moss Twomey explained in 1931 ‘the stoppage of emigration is adding to the feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction: young people want to know how they are to exist unless something is done to fundamentally alter conditions.’ He also asserted in An Phoblacht that year that ‘If it is communism to undo the conquest…to destroy landlordism…to end robbery and exploitation by a privileged minority, then Tone, Emmet, Mitchel, Lalor, Connolly, Pearse and Mellows were communists and the Irish Republican Army is a communist organization.’ Similarly at the 1933 IRA convention Twomey argued that ‘it is a very dangerous doctrine to preach that we are soldiers only. We are revolutionaries…the question is asked even by our men “is this communism” I do not know whether it is or not. I don’t care- all that concerns me is that it should be able to stand up to criticism and be for the general good.’

However by 1933 it DID matter whether this was ‘communism…or not’- the intense clerical backlash against Saor Éire had a deep impact on the IRA. The 1933 convention voted to ban on communists being IRA volunteers and it took place in a period which saw Jim Gralton deported (and the local IRA split over his activities) while mobs attacked the headquarters of the Communst party in Dublin. The arguments at the 1933 IRA convention dealt with many of these issues and prefigured the split of 1934 (these minutes are in the Moss Twomey papers in UCD)[7]. To give you a sense of what was said. J. J. Murray from Armagh argued that the IRA had ‘no right to take life in a labour dispute. I personally could not agree to it.’ Tadgh Lynch from Cork asked if the IRA should ‘decide on the killing in active service…whether one man has a shilling more or less than another man…is it wise for us to inflict our opinions on those who differ from us socially?’ In Lynch’s view the IRA was not out to ‘free the country for the capitalist or the worker…we are out for the freedom of all.’ He argued that there were many examples of ‘monied people who are as nationally minded as any other part of the community.’ The deep divide over communism was obvious, as one officer put it ‘the Catholic Church tells me when it speaks it is infallible. I take that. It condemns communism. These people want to clear all religion out of the way.’ Other delegates described ‘Communism (as) purely materialistic.’ But there was also substantial support for the IRA’s left, with O’Donnell, Gilmore and Ryan all arguing for a revival of Saor Éire. O’Donnell claimed that his ‘first allegiance has always been to the Irish Working Class movement’ and argued that because republicans were not taking the lead in social struggles, ‘it is men outside the IRA such as Sean Murray …who are collecting this unrest.’ But O’Donnell also constantly referenced the influence of Liam Mellows as the originator of much of these ideas. He argued that ‘Mellows was a great mind. He took the “Workers Republic” as his guiding line and that is supposed to be a communist paper. He shows that attitude of the Clergy towards every advanced Irish Nationalist Movement.’ What was the response? Well Tom Barry countered that ‘Mellows was not infallible in these important matters. It was simply his opinion. We in 1922 would not accept his suggestions.’ I want to look some more at O’Donnell’s argument, because I think his constant referencing of Mellows was based more on his ideas than those of Mellows, and his use of Mellows was to try to use the blessing of a republican martyr to O’Donnell’s own politics. His referencing of the Civil War, which of course was inevitable for an anti-Treaty republican, meant he ignored or misrepresented the role of the wider labour movement between 1919-23. (Though of course O’Donnell himself had been an active trade unionist during 1919).

There is no doubt Mellows was a courageous and sincere anti-imperialist. As he told the Dáil during the Treaty debates ‘The British Empire represents to me nothing but the concentrated tyranny of ages…the thing that has crushed this country; yet we are told that we are going into it now with our heads up. We are going into the British Empire to participate in the Empire’s shame…the crucifixion of India and the degradation of Egypt. Is that what the Irish people fought for freedom for?’ But he also argued that ‘we would rather have this country poor and indigent, we would rather have the people of Ireland eking out a poor existence on the soil as long as they possessed their souls, their minds, their honour.’

It was while in Mountjoy, that Mellows, O’Donnell, Seamus Breslin, Walter Carpenter and Bill Gannon and others discussed the way forward and there that Mellows perhaps developed more coherent left-wing ideas. Famously writing in August 1922 Mellows expressed the desire that republicans should make a determined effort to reach out to the ranks of organized workers. Famously he argued that ‘we should certainly keep Irish Labour for the Republic: it will possibly be the biggest factor on our side. Anything that will prevent Irish Labour becoming Imperialist and “respectable” will help the Republic.’[8] In these ‘Notes from Mountjoy’ Mellows referenced the Communist Party’s newspaper the Workers Republic of 29 July 1922 and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil as starting points for a new programme. I’d suggest that O’Donnell was as much responsible for encouraging these ideas as Mellows. But there is a little irony in the dismissal of ‘official Labour’ for ‘deserting the people’ for the ‘fleshpots of Empire.’ Because the Democratic Programme was written by Thomas Johnson and Cathal O’Shannon, and their version was more radical than the one subsequently watered down and accepted by the First Dáil. Many republicans today reference the Democratic Programme as a very significant document, but few of them have any respect for its authors. Johnson and O’Shannon had also put forward case for Irish self-determination at Berne in March 1919. But O’Donnell despised Johnson and his view of the trade unions was skewed entirely by the Civil War. Indeed sometimes reading O’Donnell you get the impression that Johnson was responsible for the execution of Mellows and the ’77.’ (Indeed O’Donnell recounted a story that his wife-to-be Lile had threatened Johnson with a revolver that if O’Donnell was executed, he would be shot in response. Which begs the question as to why Johnson should be blamed for the Free State’s reprisals policy).

I think we need to look again at the relationship between the working class, organised labour and republicanism in this period. During the War of Independence itself Sinn Féin were highly complimentary in their public utterances about Labour. De Valera at the April 1919 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis claimed that ‘when we wanted the help of Labour against conscription, Labour gave it to us. When we wanted the help of Labour in Berne, Labour gave it to us, and got Ireland recognised as a distinct nation. When we wanted Labour to stand down at the election and not divide us, but that we should stand foursquare against the enemy, Labour fell in with us. I say Labour deserves well of the Irish people, the Labour man deserves the best the country can give.’

In August 1921, during the Truce, de Valera addressed the Irish Labour party and TUC conference and told them that ‘it is not necessary for me to say- you know it so well…that were it not for the solidarity of Labour behind the national cause…the Irish cause would not be where it is today…we who are in a position to gauge the advance of the Irish cause…know what your support has been to us and what your refusal to put forward even your own interests has meant for the cause of Ireland in the past two years.’ Not really a case of Labour being told to ‘wait’ but Labour being happy to wait.

But the Treaty changed matters obviously. During the Truce it was William O’Brien and Tom Johnson who introduced Willie Gallacher and Arthur McManus of the British Communist party to Cathal Brugha and other republicans. Initially the small Irish Communist Party thought the Anti-Treaty IRA would win a military confrontation. They were criticized by Mikhail Borodin of the Comintern who argued that ‘it is my firm opionion that they (Free State) will crush the Republicans…it is really laughable to fight the Free State on a sentimental plea. They want a Republic. What the hell do they want a Republic for? ...there are two military sections fighting-one is very strong and the other is very weak. One say Ireland should be fighting for prosperity. The other one is absolutely void of interest in any (such) matters.’ Borodin urged the CPI to produce a social programme, aimed at republicans, if only for propaganda. A version of this appeared in the Workers Republic of 29 July 1922. Which is what Mellows quoted in his Notes[9]

But the CPI’s overall view was significant because they began to suggest that large numbers of workers were not moved by the Republic versus Free State argument.

Most republican accounts tend to suggest organised Labour was enthusiastically pro-Treaty. The general strike against militarism of April 1922 is often depicted as a Pro-Treaty imitative.[10] But the strike clearly had mass support and included sectors ‘not covered by the General Strikes of 1918, 1919 and 1920.’[11] The rhetoric of the strike leaders was explicitly critical of both pro and anti-Treaty sides, complaining that ‘since the Truce we have seen grow up in the ranks of the IRA…a spirit of militarism in sheer imitation of the militarism of the British, French, German, American and other armies.’ Both pro and anti-Treaty forces were accused of actions ‘which we who are not at all opposed to the use of arms, never have been and never shall be, can only describe as sheerest militarism. These acts, on both sides, are a direct copying of the worst methods of British imperialism and its army of occupation in Ireland…we are witnesses of the arrogance of “regulars”, who use the revolver as their only weapon of argument and their only authority. They are modelling themselves upon, and taking their example from, the ordinary militarist armies of other countries, the coercive armed forces of the State…perhaps the incidents on the other side (Anti-Treaty) are more numerous and perhaps they are more truly due to lack of central control. That makes them no less and no more heinous (and) as foolish as anything the armed militarists of England have ever committed.’[12] (Both Pro and Anti-Treaty IRA’s suppressed land agitation and strikes during 1922). In fact the success of the general strike suggests widespread working class dissatisfaction with both sides, as does the Labour vote in June 1922. 17 out of 18 Labour candidates were elected, five of them topping the poll. Two seats were won in Waterford/East Tipperary, two seats in Wexford, two seats in Kildare and two seats East Cork. Labour candidates took 50% of vote in Laois/Offaly, where Paddy Gaffney, a former organizer for the Irish Volunteers in Offaly and later involved with Congress, was elected as TD.[13] Much of the support reflected recent strikes among farm workers with union organizers elected in Waterford and Tipperary.[14] You will struggle to find any analysis of this in republican accounts of the period, but the fact is thousands of workers voted neither pro nor anti-Treaty. And Labour outpolled Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin in many areas.

The Communist Party, despite its strong opposition to the Treaty (and support for IRA resistance to it) was ‘glad to note the sweeping victories of the Labour Party.’ Optimistically the Communists thought this showed ‘how easy it would be for a Revolutionary Labour Party to sweep the field clean of all adversaries and establish a Workers’ Republic. It matters not for the moment that the successful candidates are all of the usual type of Labour-Betrayers and fakirs. They were elected because the workers believed in all their hypocritical declarations about the Workers’ Republic and about James Connolly.’[15] The Workers Republic also suggested though that ‘a big percentage of the Irish are apathetic to the struggle; this is particularly true of the landless peasants and the workers in the cities and big towns.’[16] Republicans have largely ignored this, tending to assume that because the ‘stake-in-country people’ supported the Treaty (and they certainly did), that the poor automatically opposed it.

Certainly when we describe the events of 1922-23 as a counter-revolution it is worth remembering that the majority of the anti-Treaty leadership and middle-ranks actually came to power in 1932. Did their behaviour then suggest that they were dramatically different in terms of social policy from their enemies in 1922? As we are in the middle of this decade of centenaries it is also important to consider the class composition of the revolutionary movement itself. According to Michael Laffan’s study of Sinn Féin, 65% of the members of the First Dáil and 58% of the Second Dáil’s TDs came from the commercial and professional classes. This was a huge over representation of that class in comparison to its numbers in wider society. Farmers were actually underrepresented among TDs, while unskilled urban and rural labourers were not represented at all.[17] However the Sinn Féin party was perhaps more middle class than the Volunteers, whose makeup was much more diverse. But while there certainly were unskilled workers involved in the IRA, in proportion to their numbers in society they seem to have been underrepresented, particularly among the officer class. The IRA officer corps tended to be ‘upwardly mobile members of the skilled working class, white-collar workers and lower professions.’[18] At one level I think people know this, but it also seems counter-intuitive because we are so used to republicans overwhelmingly being men and women of ‘no property.’ That was not always the case, especially not during the 1916-21 period. Rory O’Connor went to Clongowes, Kevin Barry to Belvedere and UCD, where Todd Andrews, Ernie O’Malley and a host of others studied; Sighle Humphries was privately educated in France and we could go on….the Countess, Maud Gonne, Joseph Mary Plunkett… (this is not to suggest these people were reactionary in their views but note the preponderance of the middle-class among their ranks). I would not make the presumption that the poorest people in Irish society (in 1916-23) were naturally republican, or that the IRA was made up of the poor. Though this does become more the case later on, as does identification with republicanism among working class people. But the idea of a social revolution betrayed is obviously very central to Congress and other left republicans.

Conditions today are very different from 1934. I would agree that class is still the central division in society. But while most Congress activists would have believed that some form of socialism was being built in the Soviet Union and that might emerge triumphant, that view is no longer credible. Many could believe in 1934 that large numbers of northern Protestant workers were breaking from Unionism; today there is little sense of that. In 1934 there was a broad consensus in the Free State on the independence struggle; there is none now on the armed struggle that was waged in the North between 1970-1997. In 1990 Tommy McKearney, interviewed by Hot Press while still in prison, perceptively I think, argued that ‘a united Ireland is still little more than pub talk down South…most people in the Republic wouldn’t lose an hours sleep for a united Ireland let alone die for it. Surely that’s an indictment of the IRA’s inability to win any kind of national support for their cause?[19] Just how important is the ‘National Question’ to class politics? How important is partition to everyday politics in southern Ireland? O’Donnell argued that a real republic could only be achieved through a struggle that uprooted capitalism. Is this still relevant? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think we should discuss them.

Brian Hanley … 13 November 2014


[1] For various accounts see Conor Foley, Legion of the Rearguard: The IRA and the Modern Irish State, Richard English, Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State 1925-1937 and my own The IRA, 1926-1936.

[2] In Dublin there are sets of Republican Congress in the National Library of Ireland and the Gilbert Library, Pearse Street.

[3] Garda report, 29 September 1934, in Jus8/2008/117/740 National Archives of Ireland. There is also a biased, but very detailed report on Congress by Peter Berry of the Department of Justice in the Sean MacEntee Papers in University College Dublin Archives, P67/527.

[4] United Irishman, January 1966.

[5] See for example his review of Bowyer Bell’s history of the IRA in This Week, 17 December 1970 (ironically following the Official/Provisional split).

[6] Magill, September 1980.

[7] Notes of 1933 General Army Convention, Moss Twomey Papers, P69/187 (90-117).

[8] C. Desmond Greaves, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, (London, 1971) p. 364-65.

[9] There is a much more detailed analysis of these contacts in Emmett O’Connor’s Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919-1943.

[10] Charlie McGuire, Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland, (Cork, 2008) p. 51.

[11] The Voice of Labour, 29 April 1922.

[12] The Voice of Labour, 15 April 1922.

[13] McGuire, op.cit. p. 55

[14] O’Connor, Labour History op.cit. pp. 125-126.

[15] The Workers’ Republic, 24 June 1922.

[16] The Workers’ Republic, 29 July 1922.

[17] Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn Féin party 1916-1923 (Oxford, 1999) p. 192.

[18] Pádraig Yeates, A City in Turmoil, Dublin 1919-21 (Dublin, 2012) p. 229.

[19] Hot Press, 31 May 1990.

Lessons from the Republican Congress ... 80 years later

To build the Peadar O'Donnell Socialist Republican Forum

Tommy McKearney delivered this address in the Irish Institute, Dublin on Thursday 13th November 2014 to an audience commemorating the 80th anniversary of the launch of the Republican Congress.  


Two governing coalitions on this island and both failing to deliver for those they preside over in two failed, partitioned states. Both of these failed political entities guided and managed by those adhering to the inadequate and failed ideologies of neo-liberal capitalism and right-of-centre social democracy. That dismal picture is Ireland, north and south as we approach the centenary of the 1916 rising. Yet, in spite of the plain to be seen popular disenchantment in the South and evident despair in the North we have yet to build a political movement capable of offering a clear and viable alternative to the prevailing and pervasive inertia and decline. Because if the Republican Congress failed to deliver in 1934, 80 years later we have not even reached the starting line.

It was once said of the Bourbons that following their 1815 restoration, coming as it did in the aftermath of the political cataclysm that was Jacobin inspired republican revolution and Napoleonic Empire building, that they, the Bourbons had forgotten nothing and learned nothing as a result of the overthrow of the Ancien Régime.

It would be a gross exaggeration to compare the Republic of Ireland’s recent economic crisis with those world-shaking events in France of the late 18th and early 19th century but with one exception. The southern Irish ruling class of today appears, just like the restored Bourbons, to have learnt nothing from the 2010 crisis nor have they forgotten anything in terms of how they used to govern and rule and still wish to do so.

Following the upheaval brought about by the 2010 crisis, little has improved. No beneficial structural changes have been made to the economy. A property boom/bubble is gathering pace in Dublin while there is a shortage of housing and rents are increasing unsustainably. The bonus culture is as well implanted now as it was been in the past and wealthy tax dodgers, both individual and corporate, are as comfortably cosseted  as at any time in our history.

On the other hand, workers’ ncome has fallen, emigration has devastated whole communities, the social welfare net has been degraded over and over again and the Dail has become a transmission vehicle for decisions made by big Capital in Germany and Washington.

And if the southern Irish state is flagging as an effective administrative political entity, the northern six county state is verging on farce.  Not only does the Stormont Executive disagree on a budget, and disagree on the nature of education, and disagree on what happened in the past and how it might be addressed; they don’t even agree on the name for the place or how to courteously address the Assembly’s chair. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that they do not share a vision for its future. Given the debilitating and sterile nature of politics in the northern state, it is clear that its local political administration is unable to offer anything other than a barren, negative programme resulting is sectarian stagnation. Peace of the sort there may be but progress is in short supply.

The governing economic philosophy on both sides of the border resonates to a quip made by John Maynard Keynes in a past decade when he said:

‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back’.

In light of the above, then remember Enda Kenny proudly proclaiming his ambition to make Ireland the best little country for business in the world and in the process, bind Ireland to the draconian Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. His social democratic coalition partners offered no resistance to these proposals and are clearly bereft of any concrete concept of how to overcome the economic trough into which Ireland has fallen.

North of the border, the best that the two-party power-sharing arrangement can offered by way of an economic plan is to lower corporation tax in an attempt to compete with business incentives offered by the southern state. The Northern Assembly is planning to implement, therefore, the granting of financial concessions to foreign multi-nationals at the cost of an equivalent diminution of the London  Exchequer’s block grant. A trade-off that in practice means cutting social welfare in order to reward corporate shareholders. 

At the heart of the problems north and south is a slavish adherence by the establishment in both states to reactionary or failed ideologies. Whether knowingly or not, the prevailing plan or blueprint to which both jurisdictions are working is a blending of free-market neo-liberalism barely tempered by a dysfunctional, right of centre social democracy ---- with the former dictating the pace. Simultaneously, both the Republic and Northern Ireland are embedded within a world order governed by an overarching imperialism which in effect is the higher stage of its underpinning economic infrastructure; capitalism.

Ninety-two years after the foundation of the southern state, its governing coalition is striving to introduce a water tax, which it has been ordered to do so by foreign financiers acting through, among others, the offices of the European Central Bank. An agency that, as its President Mario Draghi  (Pay: €378,240) told us recently, is not answerable to any national parliaments but only to the European commission.  In a wider sense, the entire southern Irish economy is now regulated by the European Union’s neo-liberal agenda, which not only dictates the extent of the state’s budget deficit but also reaches into other areas once the preserve of national parliaments. Areas such as public services where there is ongoing encroachment of marketisation and sophisticated and devious practices geared to diminish labour rights and protections to name just a few.

Ninety-four years after the foundation of the northern state, there is rancorous animosity within its institutions, uncertainty about their permanency and no real idea of how to develop its economy. In response to the Scottish referendum, central government in London is developing a new strategy for peripheral regions of the United Kingdom. Germane to this review will be the fact that the northern six counties are not seen as either economically or strategically vital to the interests of a British state all too aware that changing demographics will ultimately put the six county state’s existence in question

Set against this pessimistic analysis is the fact that the contours of Ireland’s political landscape are changing and resistance to the status quo is growing.

The three-party structure that dominated the southern state since the mid 1920s is no longer as secure as it once was. Opinion polls and more significantly, election results, are showing that the thundering blow, which rocked Fianna Fail in 2011 has spread across the party political landscape. Local government and European elections indicated a profound change in outlook. It is now evident that Sinn Fein and a range of left leaning candidates have created a significant challenge to the old triumvirate of, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour. In fact the latter two parties are being pushed further to the margins while the former is struggling to hold on to its ultra-conservative base.

Fine Gael, challenged by a heritage linking it to Michael Collins, has now retreated into Redmondism. Fianna Fail, frightened by the republicanism it once espoused, has adopted 26-County Free Statism, while the Labour Party, fleeing frantically from the ghosts of Connolly and Larkin has imploded. Southern Irish society is not falling apart but the southern state has conceded its sovereignty to others and as such fails to meet the basic criteria required for a republic – that of a self-governing citizenry, something that has not gone unnoticed across the water by one of Margaret Thatcher’s old ministers; 

'Countries with weak economies in the eurozone have clearly sacrificed the authority to govern themselves. National governments slash public spending and create unemployment because the German chancellor must satisfy the German voter that she is being prudent and tough.’ … Michael Portillo[1]

Equally important in this challenge to the Republic’s Ancien Régime is the emergence of resistance on the streets. Opposition to the household charge introduced a new generation to protest while the current anti-water-tax campaign has revealed a potential Mt. Vesuvius parked beside Enda and Joan’s pretty blue and pink Pompeii.

While the changing reality of political life in the South is clearly discernable, there are some small signals that north of the border all is not cast in concrete.  Not only are there trade union organised campaigns supporting the Welfare State but a sliver of evidence emerged of late that the DUP is concerned about left wing ideas gaining purchase among it s working class supporters. Last week the DUP MLA Nelson McCausland, who chairs the Stormont Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure revealed in his weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph [2] the extent of the ‘conspiracy’ that plunged his beloved province into three decades of violence. In short it was the communists – Irish, British, and Russian. As the British actor Michael Caine used to say        ‘ …not many people know that’ and least of all I imagine; those Irish, British and Russian communists. Joking aside, these stories usually emerge from within right-wing unionism when the cause of labour is raising its head among the Protestant working class.

To return to the observation made at the beginning. In spite of developing conditions, we are awaiting the emergence of a broad anti-imperialist front capable of bring clarity of analysis, unity of purpose and a focus of action to the current situation. To address this question a number of points have to be made.   

The difficulty facing Ireland north and south requires a solution encompassing an answer to both the democratic deficit engendered by imperialism and the economic problems caused by capitalism.  The answer can only be found within a socialist republican analysis and a socialist republican response. A true peoples’ republican democracy founded on the principles of democratic ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

However, that assessment is only the first step in developing a coherent programme and a dynamic political movement. The theory has to be unpacked and refined and discussed and owned by the greatest number of people possible, so that it becomes a guide for action and not the preserve of a select few theoritician. We need a theory that explores, analyses and defined imperialism in all its manifestations in the present 21st century. A theory that assists in the development of a viable and effective social and economic alternative to that currently inflicting so much damage pn the people of this country. Finally it has to a theory capable of drawing together all the forces capable of achieving this objective.

Too often in the past the goal of drawing these forces together has been spoiled by a rush to coalesce. Too many promising initiatives have fallen because there has been superficial agreement on areas that all too soon cause a parting of the ways. We, as working people, can ill afford more demoralising divisions. Progress has to be built on the solid ground of a clear understanding of what unites us and an honest admission of where we disagree followed by mature and lasting agreement on the issues we cooperate and work on.

For this reason, the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum has been established to offer a structure through which; the theoretical issues can be explored and discussed; through which the revealed theory can be applied to current topics, and thus equipped, the people of Ireland can build a movement capable of realising the objective – an independent sovereign republic maintaining its citizens’ wellbeing through a communally organised and socialist republic. 

We in the Forum claim no position of privilege in this process. We are not dictating a programme. We merely state that the project has to be enlightened by the exploration of three key areas of political reality:


·      The impact of class

·      The reality of imperialism

·      The role of the state

With that understanding in place and every capable shoulder to the wheel, we can ensure that the vision becomes a reality and ensure that working peoples’ republic did not die in 1916 in the stone-breakers yard in Kilmainham jail.


Tommy McKearney …13 Nov 2014

[1] Britain has the best of both worlds on the fringes of Europe. Michael Portillo … Financial Times, November 7, 2014


[2] The perfect storm that saw Ulster explode in a wave of bloody violence. Nelson McCausland … Belfast Telegraph, 06 November 201

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com