Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Irish Question and the British Left

In 1916, James Connolly was executed by British forces, as a ringleader of the Easter Uprising.  Along with the other leaders he was shot at Kilmainham Gaol.  He was so injured from the fighting he had to be propped up against a chair as he faced the firing squad.
It should not be surprising that a trade union leader being executed in such a way should lead to strong feelings among the British labour movement as well as the Irish, especially in the context that most on the left supported Irish Home Rule on the same grounds that they supported Indian Home Rule and national self-determination around the Empire more generally.  This should not be mistaken for support for armed insurrection, although of course there were those who supported it in Ireland, Russia and elsewhere.  Even confirmed pacifists like George Lansbury’s sympathies were uncompromisingly on the side of the Irish republicans. This was in no way hypocritical. At a time when British gunboats were in the Liffey firing into central Dublin, and rebels were being lined up and shot, only the truly na├»ve could have considered that choosing sides in such a conflict was about choosing between violence and peace.
And of course those that thought the only route to peace was Irish independence considered themselves vindicated by the dreadful violence of the following decade.  One did not have to be supportive of the IRA’s guerrilla tactics to be horrified by and uncompromisingly opposed to the Black and Tans firing into sports crowds and burning down whole neighbourhoods.  A British left that did not condemn such things would not be worthy of the name. People who wanted a British government to pursue a path of peace and social justice concluded that such a path necessarily meant getting out of Ireland.

Years later, following partition, the focus of the Irish Question switched to the north.  In the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland, the catholic minority found themselves marginalised in a way that was unthinkable in the rest of the UK by the 1960s.  Voting in local government elections was restricted to ratepayers which disenfranchised many Catholics and gave some protestants multiple votes.  Council house allocation was biased against Catholics, and resources were allocated in a sectarian way too.  British governments had attempted to circumvent this inequality, ensuring that the new Welfare State and other reforms could bypass the sectarian Northern Irish government, but there was no denying the grossly sectarian and unequal reality of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Again many on the British left reacted as one would expect they would to UK citizens being denied basic civil rights and therefore were broadly supportive of the civil rights protests of the 1960s.  As such they supported the rights of the protesters against their suppression by Ulster police.  By the time of the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, violence was back in Northern Irish politics, in the form of paramilitary organisations in both communities as well as the heavy-handed RUC policing.  While Labour governments tried to bring in reforms to protect the Catholic minority, loyalist violence increased with Catholic homes burned down in the rioting and violence.  When the British army were originally deployed it was in no small part to protect the Catholic minority from loyalist gangs. 

So the support for Irish self-determination common on the British left was not out of some odd anti-patriotic, anti-British sentiment, nor perverse support for violence and terrorism.  It was born of a socialist analysis of this difficult and violent context.  It is in this context that people should understand the Labour Committee on Ireland.  Yes, people like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott were deeply involved.  So was Peter Hain, who was appointed by Tony Blair to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005.  I do not recall similar hysteria from the conservative media at the time of that appointment.  Politics in Northern Ireland has moved on and the focus should have shifted from issues of sovereignty and sect to issues of public services, liberty and ending poverty, regardless of religion or community.  We should not sweep this history under the carpet, but we must avoid simplification and cartoon when discussing such a delicate part of our shared recent history.