SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 198 May 2016

Easter Rising: a contentious centenary

On 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, an estimated 1,300 Irish Volunteers (incorporating Cumann na mBan, a women’s republican organisation), 220 members of the Irish Citizen Army and a few dozen Hibernian Rifles seized control of the centre of Dublin. They declared an ‘Irish Republic’, erected barricades and waited for the inevitable assault from British forces.

The background to the rebellion was the centuries of national oppression suffered by the Irish people in the interests of British landlordism and capitalism. Moreover, in the years leading up to 1916, Ireland was convulsed by a dramatic upsurge of class struggle, including the 1913 Dublin lockout, and an intensification of the national question around the issue of home rule (limited self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom).

For a week the insurgents stood firm even though outnumbered twenty to one. They were quickly surrounded and shelled mercilessly. By the end of the week they were forced into an unconditional surrender. Sixty rebels, 120 British troops and 450 civilians lay dead and more than 2,500 were injured. Outside of Dublin the rising had a much more limited impact, with skirmishes in Galway, Enniscorthy in County Wexford, and in North County Dublin.

Despite its failure, the Easter Rising inspired anti-colonial and socialist activists all over the world, including Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who would lead a successful socialist revolution in Russia 18 months later. The rising and events in the years immediately before and after have, in many ways, shaped the history of Ireland down to the modern era. Today the political forces which emerged victorious after British withdrawal from the South of Ireland in 1922 have been at the forefront of contentious events to commemorate the Easter Rising’s 100th anniversary.

Dispute and argument was inevitable. The rising has been claimed as the founding event of the modern capitalist Irish state by the Irish bourgeoisie. They seek to don the mantle of 1916, consciously or otherwise disguising the fact that their predecessors stood on the other side at the time.

This year’s main official event on Easter Sunday, televised live by the state broadcaster, RTE, consisted of a staid parade by the Irish state’s armed forces past the General Post Office, the centre of the rising, with air-force jets flying overhead. This is deeply misleading as the Irish bourgeoisie of 1916 were firmly against the insurgents. The Irish landlords, capitalists and Catholic hierarchy were tied to the interests of British imperialism, and joined it in opposition to the interests of Irish workers and rural poor. Only later did this class adapt to events and impose its image on the new state.

The nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party, which called on Irish workers to fight and die for British imperialism in the trenches of the first world war in return for the vague promise of home rule, loudly condemned the armed uprising. Sections of the Irish bourgeoisie demanded retribution. An editorial in the Irish Independent on 10 May 1916, alongside a picture of the great socialist and leader of the Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, called for "the worst of the ringleaders [to] be singled out and dealt with as they deserve". The paper’s proprietor was William Martin Murphy, leader of the bosses who locked out Dublin’s working class in 1913. A badly wounded Connolly was executed two days later by a British firing squad.

Only as the British military’s executions of the rising’s leaders dragged on, provoking widespread anger and revulsion among the Irish working class, did the conservative nationalists and church leaders start to call for a halt to the arbitrary drumhead trials.

Despite the character of the official 2016 commemorations, tens of thousands lined the parade route, reflecting the admiration in which many working-class people hold the 1916 rebels, who had taken on the powerful British empire. These genuine sentiments are in stark contrast to the nauseating hypocrisy of the representatives of the Irish ruling class.

The military display was inspected by the acting Taoiseach (prime minister) and Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, church leaders, leaders of Fianna Fáil and the pro-austerity Labour Party, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, and assorted ‘dignitaries’. Kenny spoke piously about the 1916 proclamation’s promise of ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ for all. But the Irish ruling class is faced with a real problem: how does it convincingly lay claim to the inheritance of 1916 and reconcile this with the reality of austerity Ireland today? It has driven many into poverty or forced emigration, and caused an acute housing crisis. Women are still not allowed the right to control their own bodies.

Controversially, a ‘remembrance wall’ showing the names of all those who died during the Easter Rising – Irish and British, military and civilian – has been unveiled at Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. The representatives of the Irish ruling class want to have it both ways: assuming the heritage of 1916 while calling for ‘reconciliation’ between oppressor and oppressed, between all classes. This is so they can get on with their main business of allowing the bosses to make vast profits from the exploited working class.

Sinn Féin organised its own extensive series of commemorative events. The idea that a conscious minority have the right to take up arms on behalf of the ‘Irish Republic’ is a cornerstone of republican ideology. It is vital for Sinn Féin to make this point as it retrospectively seeks to justify the campaign of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) from the 1970s to the 1990s – supported by a minority of the minority Catholic population in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin also has a problem, however. If 1916 was justified, and the PIRA campaign was justified, too, why not the current campaigns of the various dissident republican groups? In the run-up to official centenary events, these tiny, unrepresentative and sectarian groups launched attacks as they sought to lay claim to this tradition, seriously injuring a prison officer in Belfast who later died in hospital. Indicative of how historical events are often viewed and acted upon in Northern Ireland, where sectarian divisions run deep, republican dissidents called for a ‘people’s march’ of commemoration through Belfast city centre on the weekend of 23-24 April, and loyalist groups promised counter-demonstrations.

Some representatives of the southern ruling class, such as ex-Taoiseach, John Bruton, condemn the rising, saying it should not have happened and, despite all the evidence, that it blocked the way towards a ‘constitutional’ road to independence. Indeed, at the time of the rising and since, those who seek to denigrate the rebels make much of the hopelessness of their military plans. They are derided as dreamers who were only interested in a so-called ‘blood sacrifice’.

Despite the rhetoric of Patrick Pearse and some other rebel leaders, they actually took up arms after a period of careful preparation. They knew the odds were against them but hoped that they could hold out for several weeks. At the time there was open speculation that elements within the British government were prepared to countenance a negotiated peace with Germany. Across Europe it was expected that the ‘rights of small nations’ would be on the negotiating table after the war. The rebels calculated that a rising was necessary to ensure a place at the table.

However, crucial factors, such as the countermanding order to the Irish Volunteers by Eoin McNeill (the nominal head of the force who reflected the conservatism of the Irish middle classes) on Easter Sunday and the British seizure of the German cargo ship, the Aud, which contained 20,000 rifles sent for the rebels, cut across the scale, duration and intensity of the fighting. Nonetheless, the odds were always massively against the rebels from the outset given that, crucially, there was little mood or support for such action among the population at large.

The official commemorations paid scant attention to James Connolly. At an event at Liberty Hall, HQ of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), Irish president Michael D Higgins temporarily rediscovered his left radical voice. He pointed out "the fundamental ideological difference that existed between the revolutionary vision of the members of the Irish Citizen Army and the economic and social conservatism of many within mainstream nationalism". Concerning the needs of the working class today, however, Higgins only spoke in vague terms: "We seek to respond to the situation of too many workers who, in Ireland today, earn a wage that guarantees neither a life free from poverty, nor access to decent housing, adequate childcare and health services".

The leader of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, talked about the "potential" to "eliminate poverty, end homelessness, develop a universally accessible health service free at the point of use and afford everyone a right to a decent job". But incredibly he counselled that this should not be achieved by an "overburdening degree of redistribution of wealth". This should not be a surprise given O’Connor’s disgraceful role, along with other union leaders, in signing up to the austerity packages of right-wing governments. These have punished union members and the wider working class for the economic crisis caused by the big banks, bond holders and bosses.

Most TV and radio coverage of the centenary, in Ireland and Britain, reflected the interests of the ruling classes and how they want 1916 to be viewed. RTE saw fit to allow ‘Sir’ Bob Geldof, good friend of the super-rich, two programmes to vent his spleen at the 1916 rebels. Geldof crudely deployed the Irish poet WB Yeats as a ‘democratic’ and ‘peaceful’ counterfoil to the rebel leaders, some of whom Yeats knew. Geldof quickly glossed over his hero’s sympathy for Mussolini and the Irish Blue-shirt fascists in the 1930s. On the BBC, Michael Portillo, a former minister in Thatcher’s government, excused British policy in Ireland and put the rising down to British imperialism’s benign neglect, preoccupied as it was with the first world war.

Some more balanced programmes were aired, such as BBC’s The Irish Rebellion, narrated by actor Liam Neeson. It provided historical perspective and highlighted the impact of the rising on other anti-colonial struggles. An Irish language TV drama-documentary about James Connolly drew out the motives for his participation in the rising, usefully quoting him. The programme pointed out that, as the bloody carnage of the world war dragged on, Connolly was driven by a burning desire to strike a blow against the capitalist and imperialist order in Europe and to stop military conscription being introduced in Ireland. Following setbacks like the outcome of the 1913 lockout, and in the absence at that stage of a mood for rebellion among broader sections of the working class, Connolly decided to throw in his lot with the forces of militant nationalism in the form of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and those Volunteers prepared to take action.

A broader analysis would show that Connolly was isolated in Ireland, with no direct links to other revolutionary socialist leaders who stood against the imperialist war slaughter, such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, and John Maclean in Scotland. Partly due to the 1917 Russian revolution, a period of revolution and counter-revolution opened up in Ireland from 1918 to 1923. In the absence of Connolly, however, the Labour leaders stood aside and allowed petit-bourgeois nationalists to dominate the national and social struggles. This eventually gave space for British imperialism to partition the island, leading to the "carnival of reaction" Connolly warned of: the creation of two impoverished, sectarian states.

Unlike the political representatives of these failed capitalist states, socialists choose to commemorate Easter 1916 in the most fitting way possible. That is, by learning the lessons of the rising and the tumultuous class and national struggles of that period, and by re-committing ourselves to realising James Connolly’s goal of socialism in Ireland, throughout these islands and internationally.

Michael Cleary and Niall Mulholland

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