Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement


23/04/2016 by socialistfight

By Geoffrey Bell (Pluto Press, Feb 2016, 273pp, £17) Review by Gerry Downing

Geoff Bell has done the whole British Labour and socialist movement and the Irish republican socialist and labour movement a great service by producing this meticulously researched and laboriously complied work. He examines in great detail the relationship between all sections of the British labour movement and Ireland and also examines the Irish labour movement and its relationship to the anti-imperialist struggle from 1916 to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921. And it is a sorry tale of gross class treachery to the cause of the British, Irish and International working class in the service of the British Empire with just a few exceptions; Sylvia Pankhurst of Workers’ Dreadnought fame in her communist phase and the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) when it responded to the sharp chidings of the Comintern and one leading member, T.A. Jackson, whose book Ireland Her Own is a classic defence of the revolution in Ireland with all the economic and social factors fully understood. Other individuals also deserve praise at least for their humanitarian opposition to Lloyd George’s reign of terror by the Black and Tans from early 1920 to July 1921. Alongside these must be placed vanguard sections of the British working class who demonstrated their potential to lead the whole class on occasions on the Irish question and Irish working class and revolutionary nationalists when a strong anti-imperialist leadership who followed the leadership of James Connolly and the revolutionary Comintern emerged. We will examine Bell’s own political outlook also.

The Labour Movement Leaders

But the majority of the Labour movement bureaucratic leaders, to a greater or lesser degree, defended the interests of the British Empire and its right to exploit Ireland taking into account the constraints placed upon them by their own base of support in the working class and its degree of radicalisation. The leaders of the British Labour party and the TUC always cited the political stance of the pro-Empire Irish Parliamentary party of John Redmond, John Dillon, William O’Brien, Timothy Healy and Joseph Devlin as representing the will of the Irish people and the reason they could not adopt more radical policies before 1916. Using this excuse the British labour leaders rejected any political relationship with the Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour party (ITUCLP) in its most radical phase under Connolly. But then when that party was reduced to 6 MPs and Sinn Féin won 73 seats in the December 1918 UK and Ireland general election it still stuck to Redmond until the radicalising British working class forced it to abandon the lost cause. But it was not to the 73 Sinn Féin MPs who had boycotted Westminster and set up its own Parliament, Dáil Éireann, they now turned but to the right-sliding pro-imperialist post Connolly renamed Irish Labour party and Trades Union Congress (ILPTUC) because that was now clearly more pro-imperialist than Sinn Féin [1] then in the midst of the ferocious Tan War of Independence, in which the ILPTUC took no stance, implicitly supporting the British-sponsored Free State side. In 1920 -21 Sinn Féin was in its most militant Republican mode, driven on by the increasing success of the IRA and massive popular support nationally and internationally for them.

The British Labour Party readily accepted the three conditions that the British wished to impose on Ireland when the Home Rule Bill was obviously unacceptable after the 1916 Uprising. These restrictions were “minority rights and military matters” i.e. that an independent Ireland should protect the rights of the Loyalists in Ulster and not have an independent army and navy or grant port facilities to a rival imperialist power to threaten Britain. The third was the rejection of the proclamation of a Republic and remaining in some way tied to the British Crown. Bell details how these conditions were modified and reinforced in resolutions and statements of labour movement conferences, congresses and leadership statements as the British working class itself radicalised, particularly in the years 1920-21.

What forces constituted the British labour movement in those years? First the British TUC, many of whose constituent trade unions organised in Ireland. Noteworthy here is the position of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, an Ireland-based general union formed in 1909 by Jim Larkin after he was expelled from the Liverpool based National Union of Dock Labourers. It had been the central fighting force in the great Dublin Lockout of 1913 and was a militant if syndicalist inspiration to the whole Irish labour movement, including the British-based unions.

All British TUC leaders were pro-Empire from the legendary rightist bigot J.H Thomas, the National Union of Railway Workers leader, MP and Labour party executive member (“a double-eyed traitor to his class” according to Jim Larkin, 24 references by Bell, almost all condemnatory) and Ben Tillett, the leftist leader of the Dockers Tanner strike of 1889 who delivered the traitor’s blow to the Dublin Lockout strike in 1913, denouncing Larkin for his attacks on the union leadership at the Special Congress of the TUC in December 1913, ostensibly called to support the strike, in fact it was packed with paid officials and its purpose was to ensure its defeat. Larkin’s denounced the British Labour leaders Ramsey McDonald and Phillip Snowdon as “serpents” who should not be allowed to “raise their foul heads and spit their poison any longer”:

“These men who wore tall hats and frock coats in London and bowler hats when among the boys were getting too big. They should be weary of a man whom the capitalists pat on the back. They should also be suspicious of men who dined and wined with those who caused the Dublin troubles.” [2]

This theme runs right through Bell’s book. He examines the Labour party, which only became a membership organisation in 1918, and its leading influences. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) leader and first Labour party leader, the pacifist Keir Hardie had upset Henderson and Snowden by his unequivocal support for Larkin and the Dublin Lockout (he also lent James Connolly £50 to re-launch the Workers Republic [originally launched by Connolly in 1898] in 1913) but following his death in 1915 subsequent leaders were condemnatory of 1916 and following. The other major influence in Labour was the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrix Webb and George Bernard Shaw, himself an Irishman. These were super-patriots of the British Empire and the leading ideological influence, although they lacked the organisational strength of the ILP. Their journal, The New Statesman, founded in 1913, is the best indication of the politics of this group. Bell tells us they referred to the 1916 Uprising as, ‘the miserable and abortive Sinn Féin Rebellion’ displaying their ignorance (Sinn Féin had nothing to do with the Rising, in fact they opposed it) and their chauvinism. They did oppose the execution of Roger Casement and conscription in Ireland but ‘Ireland can have Home Rule if she likes, but Ulster must be excluded’ with a call that such a solution be imposed ‘with or without Irish consent’ (p120).

The worst of the Labour party leaders were far worse. Forward reported that Arthur Henderson, then leader of the Labour party and a member of the British war cabinet, had cheered with the rest at the news of the executions of the first three leaders of the 1916 uprising. Though he later denied this and claimed he tried to save James Connolly there is no record whatsoever of any such efforts. Will Thorn, the Labour MP for West Ham, enquired of the Prime Minister when Roger Casement would be tried on 3rd May later in the very day that the first three executions were announced to the House of Commons to such cheering. He renewed his question 5 days later and was presumably satisfied when Casement was tried some 6 weeks later, found guilty, sentenced and executed on 3 August (pp. 14-15).

The Labour Leader complained bitterly of the inaction of the PLP on Ireland in May 1918. Lloyd George had signalled the beginning of the Black and Tan war of terror in September 1919. In January 1920 The Call paper of the British Socialist Party, railed against ‘the action, or rather inaction’ of the PLP on Ireland which ‘has been utterly deplorable’ and:

‘Not one brave word of protest has been spoken by any of them against the dragooning of the Irish people and the strangling of Irish liberties. Totally lacking in initiative, fatally overawed by the legislative atmosphere, and totally ignorant of Irish aspirations they might … have been dead and buried for all the effect they had.’ (pp. 64-5)

In October 1921 the Treaty negotiations got under way. The Truce was signed in July and was forced on Britain by the increasing success of the IRA in the field [3] and the increasing support for Ireland in Britain itself and internationally, particularly in America – Sinn Féin’s propaganda was very successful. But the ever-reliable Empire-loyalist J. H. Thomas spotted the danger and pitched in to support the Empire and disabuse the Irish negotiators of any hope of support from Labour. Fresh from a visit to Belfast Thomas put his cards on the table; ‘no greater mistake could be made than to assume that England are on the run’ and ‘the assumption that the English people or any political party in England can hold out any hope on the Irish Republic’ was ‘foreign to the facts’. The Daily Herald reported and forcibly condemned these remarks. When the right wing Tories moved a censure motion in the government for even entering negotiations on 21 October Labour opposed but Arthur Henderson assured Lloyd George of his conditions for a settlement; Irish majority support, protection for minorities (in practice protection for Ulster Loyalists’ right to discriminate against nationalists) and ‘we shall examine the proposal from the standpoint of the security of our country’. And he assured Lloyd George, who had promised that he would make Ireland a ‘hell for rebels to live in’ and had done just that, [4] ‘we are determined to assist the government all we can’ in its ‘honest attempt to examine the difficulties’. And J.R. Clynes, [5] wrapped it up for British Labour, ‘we have as great a regard for the British Empire as the rest of you’ (Our emphasis, pp. 71-72)

According to Charles Diamond: “J. R. CIynes was ‘one of the rottenest Labour oracles on the subject of Ireland … a man out to pose as a “statesman” and to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, all the time keeping an eye on a job, the future and a salary, the miserable dodger’”

But surely there were better and more leftist labour movement leaders than these?

The Call, which spoke for what was later the main founder organisation of the Communist Party in 1920, was cautious about ‘this latest phase of the war for liberation’ but ‘we have no hesitation, however, in fixing full responsibility for the antecedents of the affair on the shoulders of successive British governments.’ And two weeks later, ‘might we not have believed that when England is abroad fighting for smaller nations, she would exercise clemency for those beneath her rule, who, rightly or wrongly, feel the Irish nation should be as free as the Belgium people or the Serbs?’ Whilst there is some sympathy here we have to say this is evidence of wholesale imbibing of imperialist propaganda (the Great Imperialist warmongers were ‘fighting for smaller nations’ were they? – GD) with a modicum of liberal democratic sentiments there – but there is nothing revolutionary whatsoever in this (p12).

So we turn to Sylvia Pankhurst’s Woman’s Dreadnought (later Workers’ Dreadnought) another, though problematic, constituent of the CPGB to rescue the revolutionary credentials of the British left. And she has a good shot at it on 11 May: ‘Justice can make but one reply to the Irish Rebellion and that is the demand that Ireland should be allowed to govern itself’. Although she thought the Rebellion was ‘reckless’ but ‘their desperate venture was undoubtedly animated by high ideals’ and ‘we understand why rebellion breaks out in Ireland and we share the sorrow of those who are weeping today for the Rebels whom the government has shot’.

Patricia Lynch went to Dublin for Woman’s Dreadnought and interviewed British soldiers and working class Dubliners, mainly women. Her story, Scenes from the Rebellion appeared in the next, 18 May, edition. She understood that the Rising had changed everything: ‘I saw in Ireland the attitude towards the rebels taken by many, even those who condemn the rising, is one of esteem, admiration, and even love’. W.B Yeats and George Bernard Shaw (though he did not sympathise with it) understood that change immediately too (pp. 12-13). ‘A terrible beauty’ was indeed ‘born’ as Yates had hailed the Rising in his famous poem.

James Connolly’s closest comrades on the left in Britain was surely the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland and the Socialist, the paper that Connolly himself had founded in 1901 and passed on to George Yates to edit when he departed for America in September 1903. Bell focusses on a remark in the Socialist in June 1916, ‘leaving the merits or demerits of the revolt aside’ and points out that was exactly what it did. In September it promised that, ‘in another column we state our position regarding Ireland’ but that column never appeared. There was no obituary for Connolly on his execution in the paper he himself had founded. For three years it had no coverage of substance on Ireland when that obituary finally appeared. The reason is clear, Bell tells us, ‘taking a stand on the Rising would always have been difficult in Glasgow which had seen much inter-worker religious sectarian strife in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’. We reject Bell’s excuse, ‘Quite simply, for what it considered socialist reasons, it could not support it or Connolly’s involvement’ … so ‘it preferred to say nothing’. Sheer political cowardice and capitulation to pro-imperialist prejudices (NOT ‘inter-worker religious sectarian strife’ or ‘socialist reasons’) was the explanation (pp. 19-21).

And Bell ploughs through the attitude of the rest of the left on 1916, and there we see ‘such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct.’

Forward, the mass circulation paper of the Glasgow ILP for which Connolly had written many articles, was more forthcoming; Connolly’s participation was ‘mysterious and astounding’ according to its editor Tom Johnson and he spied treason, it was: ‘not only a futile insurrection but one in which the insurrectionists were apparently being used as pawns and tools by the German government’. And to make sure that Loyalist Scottish workers in Glasgow understood the ILP’s patriotism, it was ‘madness or badness’ and ‘the most reasonable explanation yet given is that the outbreak was part of a general scheme now on foot whereby Germany hopes to shatter British nerves and send us all to our beds’ (p15).

George Lansbury’s Herald took a pacifist line as did the Labour Leader of the ILP, deploring the violence and ‘fighting between men of the same nation’ (sic!) but, whilst observing that ‘extreme nationalists… have always claimed separation’ nonetheless, ‘that, we repeat, cannot prevent us from deploring that they have sought to gain separation by bloodshed.’ The ILP used their theoretical journal of August/September, Socialist Review, to spell it out:

‘In no degree do we approve of the Sinn Féin rebellion. We do not approve of armed rebellion at all, any more than any other form of militarism or war. Nor do we plead the rebels’ cause … nor complain against the government (and the rebels themselves do not complain [!!!]) for having opposed and supressed armed rebellion by force.’

But Socialist Review did allow Eva Gore Booth, the pacifist suffragette sister of Constance Markievicz, one of only two leaders of the Uprising to escape execution (de Valera was the other), to argue in the same edition that ‘desperation’ had ‘found an outlet in the rebellion (pp. 11-12).

The Unionist Irish Times, The Cork Examiner and The Irish Independent all condemned the Uprising and supported the executions, the latter, owned by the leader of the Dublin Lockout William Martin Murphy, became alarmed when a lull in the executions after 8 May left James Connolly still alive and campaigned vigorously for his execution. The leaders of all churches in Britain and Ireland likewise supported the executions.

We must point out that Bell is in error when he says ‘some European ones (Socialists) dismissed the Rising as a putsch, especially the Russian notables Plekhanov and Trotsky’ and Lenin made ‘what was to become the classic Marxist defence.’ In fact it was Karl Radek who used the term putsch to describe the Rising and it was against him that Lenin wrote the oft quoted polemic Bell uses. Bell, as a professional historian, really should have consulted the primary sources on this, readily available online, and not rely on the secondary source of Peter Berresford Ellis, whose stance on Trotsky he might have realised was suspect because of his Stalinist leanings. Trotsky’s position, though not the same as Lenin’s and wrong in aspects, was not that it was a putsch but that the national revolution was past and now the time had come for the socialist revolution. It was Trotsky who attacked Plekhanov for not supporting the Uprising. And Lenin’s position was taken before he had written the April Theses and so he was still supporting the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ for Russia, i.e. the old Bolshevik notion of a bourgeois revolution led by the working class, rejected by his April Theses. Trotsky was trying to apply his internationalist Permanent Revolution theory but it was mechanically done through lack of a proper understanding of the national question then. But no one thought that the April Theses and Permanent Revolution should be applied to Ireland then and now until Trotsky did in 1928. Which was closer to James Connolly’s position and the far better position of the revolutionary Comintern at its Second Congress in 1920 we do not have not space to answer here so we will leave to a later essay.

We will not follow through on the meticulous details that Bell provided in succeeding chapters except to highlight some issues. Bell follows the evolution of the British Socialist Party and the early CPGB in some detail. Radek’s advice to the British delegates at the Second Congress in July 1920 is of prime importance.

‘It is simple hypocrisy and swindling that these same people (The British Labour party who had just passed a resolution supporting the independence of India, Ireland and Egypt), who could not even rise to the level of characterising General Dwyer as a common murderer in Parliament on the occasion of the Amritsar bloodbath (in 1919 – GD), pretend to be the defenders of colonial independence. We greatly regret that our party comrades who are in the Labour Party did not tear the mask off these swindlers’ faces. The International will not judge the British comrades by the articles that they write in the Call and the Workers Dreadnought, but by the number of comrades who are thrown into gaol for agitating in the colonial countries. We would point out to the British comrades that it is their duty to help the Irish movement with all their strength, that it is their duty to agitate among the British troops, that it is their duty to use all their resources to block the policy that the British transport and railway unions are at present pursuing of permitting troop transports to be shipped to Ireland. It is very easy at the moment to speak out in Britain against intervention in Russia, since even the bourgeois left is against it. It is harder for the British comrades to take up the cause of Irish independence and of anti-militarist activity. We have a right to demand this difficult work of the British comrades.’ [6] (p. 114, quoted by Bell from ‘The International…’)

How did the British comrades match up to this demand? Not very well, according to Bell. He quotes from a resolution of the BSP conference of 1919:

‘This conference welcomes the many evidences of the Irish workers, rising above the artificial divisions made for them by priests and politicians, are realising the need for a common working class programme, and look forward to the time when Irish workers will take their rightful place in the international class struggle’ (p. 115)

The fact that they were in the forefront of the international class struggle right then and therefore merited the full support of the BSP had entirely escaped the attention of the patronising motion. And he cites a further article in The Call in January 1920 by Fred Willis:

‘But there is a far more important side of the question. However much we sympathise with a people rightly struggling to be free we are forced to recognise that nationalism, wherever it exists, is essentially reactionary. The ‘great war’, said Trotsky in a luminous phrase, ‘is a struggle between two great imperialist capitalisms.’ So in exactly the same manner, the struggle of Ireland from English domination is superimposed upon the struggle of classes in Ireland’

Comrade Willis was blissfully unaware that what he was displaying was his own ‘essentially reactionary’ British chauvinist nationalism is comparing Trotsky’s correct designation of WWI as an inter-imperialist war with Britain’s colonial oppression of Ireland. And he obviously had not the first clue about what the relationship between the class struggle and the struggle for the freedom of oppressed nations was and lacked the elementary revolutionary instinct to even approximate to that understanding.

But following the stern words from Karl Radek in July 1920 Bell can quote the brave words by the new CPGB in The Communist of 25 November 1920:

‘A nation is being murdered under out eyes… the National struggle and the class struggle are inseparable from one another … not only the Irish but the working class all over the world is looking to us… if we are found wanting, not all the enunciations of orthodox formulae… will save us from contemptuous dismissal as faithful, although talkative, servants of the British Imperial oligarchy’ (p. 114).

But they did little to escape the ‘contemptuous dismissal’ according to Bell, citing the lack of the word ‘Ireland’ in the index of James Klugmann’s first volume of the ‘official’ History of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the lack of discussion on Ireland in the founding conference of the CPGB in 31 July 1920, which did find time to discuss the massacre of Jewish communists by Poland, Romania and Hungary and the prohibition of alcohol (p. 116). Nor did the relaunch Conference in January 1921 fare any better apart from endorsing the resolutions adopted by the Comintern which did mention Ireland. Although individuals like T.A. Jackson, himself of Irish extraction, did all he could in articles and in a pamphlet and also in pointing out that; ‘an astonishing large number of members of the Communist Party are directly or indirectly pupils of James Connolly’ – a reference to the large numbers of SLP members who had joined. These, however, had horrendous problems with Ireland post 1916, as we have seen. And all this inactivity at the height of the Tan War when working class Britain itself was highly agitated about Ireland and supportive of her as we shall see below.

Councils of Action

This is from Bell’s account and uses mainly his words:

Local councils of action were set up by the Labour Party, the PLP and the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC in August 1920. This, fearing ‘that war is being engineered between Allied Powers and Soviet Russia on the issue of Poland’, warned ‘the whole industrial power of the workers will be used to defeat war’. The meeting summoned a national conference so that ‘a Council of Action be immediately constituted to take such steps as may be necessary to stop the threat of war. “The conference met on 13 August at which formation and aims of the conference were approved, as was the establishment of local councils of action. … However by the time the local councils of action were established the threat of war against the Soviet Union had subsided. That raised the question of what these councils and the national council would do now. What many at the local level wanted to do was take up the Irish issue. An early example was Hendon council of action, which in September called upon the national council to ‘extend the terms of reference to the unofficial war with Ireland’. “A blunt refusal from one of the three joint-secretaries followed. He cited ‘the fact that a Special Trades Union Congress was held in July last, when the policy of direct action to secure an Irish settlement was discussed and very heavily defeated’ in fact a very selective interoperation of the contradictory decisions of that Conference.

The Hendon resolution was the start of a deluge — so much so that after Birmingham council of action had circulated a model resolution calling a further national conference, ‘to consider the strengthening of the national council and the extension of their scope to stop the war with Ireland’, a joint secretary of the national council noted that ‘the majority of our councils’ endorse the Birmingham position.’ This opinion was never tested because there was no recall conference, but judging by the letters and resolutions sent to the national council proposing a recall conference on Ireland or a simple demand for British withdrawal with a ‘down tools’ policy to enforce such a withdrawal, these sentiments were widespread. In all, there were calls from 78 local organisations, as recorded in the Labour Party archives, demanding action on Ireland. In total, there were 350 local councils of actions, so obviously this list does not constitute a majority. Neither were all those who wrote to the national council local councils of actions; some were Labour Parties or trades councils, although it was usually through these that councils were established, so the personnel involved was probably not dissimilar. This in itself is important because it clarifies who exactly was involved in these local councils.

Belfast Confetti

The starkest example of Labour movement treachery is the events around the terrible pogrom against nationalist workers in Belfast in July 1920. On p. 85 et seq. Bell recounts the three important aspects of this,

‘First, the glimpse it provides into the political and religious sectarianism of the contemporary Belfast working class, second, how one British trade union strongly contested that sectarianism, even within its own membership. The insight it provides into the attitude of the TUC leadership towards this contest and this sectarianism.’

First let us say that this reviewer strongly objects to the use of the phrase ‘religious sectarianism of the contemporary Belfast working class’. The word ‘sectarian’ is always used to signify an equality of blame, ‘the Protestants and the Catholics will never get along, they are all just sectarian bigots’ is the implication. Emboldened by the inflammatory speech of Edward Carson at the 12 July rally a gang of semi-fascist bigots, the Belfast Protestant Association, attacked the organisations of the Belfast working class.

Using the murderous missiles known as Belfast confetti, metal disks, nuts, bolts, large rivets etc. from the shipyards they drove out 10,000 nationalist workers from the Belfast shipyards and 1,000 nationalist women from their workplaces. Joe McKelvey, later IRA commander in Belfast and strongest of the northern anti-Treaty Republicans, shot as a reprisal by the Free State on 8 December 1922, was one of those. Equal targets were the ‘Rotten Prods’ who were union shop stewards and officials who defended their organisations. 53 people were killed as a result. Well over 100 died in Belfast in 1921 and 1922 as a consequence of this attack.

This was a direct assault on the democratic trade union structures that were the legacy of Larkin and Connolly in Belfast. Several hundred members of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters, Cabinet Makers and Joiners, popularly known as the Carpenters Union, were amongst the expellees. Some Belfast members were outraged at this union from having passed a resolution which condemned the government for, ‘refusing to allow the form of government chosen by the Irish people’ and ‘the most effective way that protest can be made is for the organised workers to refuse to manufacture or transport munitions of war for Ireland or Poland’. Two Belfast branches objected (14 to 2 and 22-0) and a mass meeting of the Carpenters Union in a small shipyard requested that the executive should ‘leave politics aside’ lest it should ‘cause dissention in our ranks’.

William Barclay, a member of the Unionist Party’s Ulster Unionist Labour Association, had chaired that mass meeting and Bell quotes him as chairing a further meeting the following month that resolved, ‘That we, the Unionist and Protestant workers … will not work with disloyal workers … Also, that in all further applications for employment we respectfully suggest the first consideration be given to loyal ex-servicemen and Protestant Unionists’. This resolution was put into practice by Vigilance Committees who boasted that since the expulsions ‘they had gained a great victory and they had struck Sinn Féin and the red flag of socialism the worst blow (at least they understood the relationship between national liberation and the socialist revolution – GD) it had received in Belfast for 30 years (i.e. since the Randolph Churchill inspired 1886 riots – GD)’ and ‘since the Sinn Féiners were cleared out of the shipyards over five hundred loyalists … had been taken on’ (pp. 85-86). James Connolly’s carnival of reaction was in full swing on the back of the Government of Ireland Bill initiating partition now passing through the House of Commons agreed to by Irish Party leader John Redmond.

But the Carpenters Union fought back valiantly. In a meeting with Harland and Wolff bosses on 24 August they attempted to get the expelled members reinstated and to outlaw discrimination on religious or political grounds. The company would consider the proposals at a later date, they promised. The semi-fascist thugs continued with their expulsions. The union attempted to address a mass meeting of their membership in a private hall but the military authorities banned it. The TUC met in Portsmouth in September so help was at hand, they hoped. An emergence motion was moved by the redoubtable J. H Thomas. He deplored the fact that ‘men were being prevented from working because of their religious and political opinions’ although he understood this was because the perpetrators were moved by ‘the anxiety to uphold the union jack in Belfast’. The Parliamentary Committee of the TUC were instructed to ‘call together the executives of the various Trade Unions affected be the recent disturbances in Belfast with a view to taking a common line of action for the reinstatement of the Trade Unionists expelled from their work’.

On 12 September Harland and Wolff responded to the Carpenters Union, it made no reply to the very reasonable demands put forward by the union but proposed a further meeting with all the unions involved and the Vigilance Committee; the Loyalist thugs who were still driving out the nationalist workers had been given official recognition by the management, in effect. The union responded by calling a strike on 18 September.

Again here Bell shows his ambiguous attitude to all this, ‘in taking this action, the executive must have known the problems … it could be accused of a further lack of realism for attacking the management when it was a section of the workers themselves which had offended.’ But without the support of Carson, the British state and ruling class and Harland and Wolff these workers would never attempted their assault and they could have been defeated easily. The fighting union leadership set out to defeat the onslaught on it by taking the only course open to it. The Vigilance Committee toned down their prohibition against nationalists but, having achieved recognition from the bosses, including office space, they had won their cause and so could afford to feign reasonableness for the public.

Only 600 of the 2,000 union members responded to the strike call; correctly the union promptly expelled the 1,400 scabs. Only 4 branches of the union are recorded as opposing the expulsions. The Eltham branch called for the expulsions before it happened and the Carlisle branch passed a motion 58 to nil, ‘that we, in realising the difficult task of out E.C. had to face in tackling Belfast religious unrest among the members of our organisation, heartily congratulates them in the action they have taken and express our full confidence in their judgement.’ 45 branches passed similar resolutions. The British working class, at least those organised in that union, had not been found wanting in class solidarity with their victimised Belfast comrades, rejecting all ‘loyalty to Empire’ propaganda pleading of the mass media in those revolutionary years. But the principled leadership of the union was necessary to elicit that response (pp. 88-89).

Matters were otherwise with the TUC leaders. On 21 September the TUC appointed three union leaders to go to Belfast ‘with plenary powers’. These were J. Hill of the Boilermakers, A.A Purcell of the Furniture Trades and A. Pugh of the Iron and Steel Confederation. Remember those names. They did not make it to Belfast until 6 December as ‘it was not found convenient’ to treat the matter urgently. They had gone to ensure the reemployment of the expelled workers but ‘we came to the conclusion there was one problem that had to be overcome in view of the general situation’ which was not the reemployment of those forced from their workplace, but ‘the dispute which existed between the executive of the woodworkers (Carpenters Union) and their people in Belfast’ Pugh explained later. These absolute treacherous scoundrels had stabbed the victims in the back and begun championing the cause of their oppressors. Although the Belfast District Committee of the union and, of course, the two committees representing those expelled from their workplaces urged support for the union the delegation felt that the views of managements of the two shipyards, the Unionist Lord Mayor, the group representing the strike breakers and the Joint Vigilance Committee of the Shipyards, who organised the expulsions and exclusions, whom they met twice, were the ones whose opinion should prevail.

And so the report back to the TUC essentially blamed the victims for being Catholic and Nationalist ‘Sinn Féiners’ and did nothing to assist the Carpenters Union. The TUC gratefully accepted the report. ILP councillor James Baird delivered the bitter condemnatory address to the 1921 TUC Congress:

‘By the inactivity of the English Trade Union movement during the past year you have been supporting Sir Edward Carson and the Orangemen … We thought that the great English Trade Unions would come to our assistance. We looked with confidence to the action we hoped they would take, but the Joiners’ Union [Carpenters] and the Joiners’ Union alone took strong action. Had the other trade unions took similar action … had they then if the Belfast trade unionists continued to refuse to obey the union order, prevented goods and raw materials going to Belfast, and coal and steel and other things required for the industries, I fearlessly assert that one fortnight of that action would have settled entirely the troubles in the North of Ireland’ (pp. 92-93).

Other strikes against the Black and Tans

Bell tells that:

‘In late January 1921, 400 miners at Giffnock colliery near Glasgow staged a 24-hour strike ‘as a protest against the [British] terrorism in Ireland and to demand the withdrawal of all British forces used against the Irish people. This was reported in the inside pages and in a few words in both the Daily Herald and Forward, suggesting neither were enthusiastic about the walk-out it may well be that the strikers were by and large from the local Irish Catholic community and the socialist press was worried about what they feared would be the divisive implications of the action.’

Or maybe they just didn’t like these kind of political strikes and were really Empire loyalists. He recounts another strike in the Port of Liverpool:

Similarly but more ambitiously, the Liverpool branch of the ISDL in April I920 attempted to organise an unofficial dock strike in their port against the imprisonment of Irish political prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. One of organisers, Michael O’Leary was later to claim:

‘The dock labourers and the crews of the cross-Channel boats – B. & I., Cork, Limerick, Dundalk and Newry – came out to a man; several of the Transatlantic ships, if not actually tied up, had their personnel very much reduced. In the case of the coal heavers … the number employed was 5,024 and out of that number 5,016 came out on strike, completely crippling the movement of all ships in the Port of Liverpool. Our pickets (Volunteers) were at work at each dock, and the docks only looked a shadow of what they usually were.’

The Daily Herald was delighted, reporting in its issue of 30 April that ‘7,000 dockers are reported to be out, as well a number of coal heave. This and O’Leary’s claim were exaggerations. The Liverpool Echo reported that the National Dock Labourers, headed by James Sexton opposed the strike said that only 500 struck, while the newspaper reported that that ‘a striking feature of the stoppage is the amused aloofness the majority of dockers. On the other hand it did admit that dockers ‘who usually worked the shipping lines from England to Ireland did not turn up today.’ The leading historian of the Liverpool Irish, John Belcham, estimates that 2,000 dockers and 300 coal heavers struck. He also notes that Special Branch reports said the strike led to a ‘deteriorating relationship between the Irish and the [local] labour movement’, and ‘on May Day, which came two days after the strike began, and after – and after strike was called off, the Liverpool Trades Council refused to allow the ISDL strike organisers onto the official platform.

Why we should believe the Liverpool Echo and John Belcham and not the Daily Herald and Michael O’Leary Bell does not make clear to us.

Let us now turn to another industrial dispute in which the same pattern as in Belfast emerged; that of a principled union leadership with the strong rank and file support of their membership; the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) dispute over the murder of three train crew, two of whom were its members, by the Black and Tans in Mallow, Co. Cork on 31 January 1921, just over a year after the Kilmichael ambush in which the IRA had killed 18 Black and Tans from Mallow. [7] ASLEF immediately demanded an inquiry and, with obvious serious intent, threatened a national strike if it was not held (it was an obvious whitewash when it was held, of course). At this stage of the struggle direct industrial action against the British Army was seriously proposed in many unions with widespread support. The Daily Herald, Bell tells us, hoped it would be the start of more general action: ‘If ASLEF can protect its members by a strike threat, British Labour can save Ireland by the same weapon. Only the threat must not be a bluff. One society has shown the way. It is for Labour as a whole to follow.’ On 17 February G.D.H. Cole, writing in Labour Leader, correctly blamed the leadership, ‘the apathy of the working class movement is a disgrace’ and hoped that the ASLEF dispute would rectify the situation, ‘the locomotive engineers have shown what they can do – if they will’ (pp. 143-144)

And the ASLEF branches responded in favour of strike action as the Carpenters had; Kings Cross, Leamington, Southall and West Ham. Rugby wanted an enquiry but not strike action. But J. H Thomas rode to the rescue of the Empire as usual, the NUR, whose members were also attacked in Mallow, passed a motion on 11 February referring the matter to the ‘Parliamentary arena’, i.e. the right wing Labour traitors had the ball in their court, The Times reported with relief. So the Executive of the Labour party called for an enquiry on 15 February and so did the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC on the 16th but no mention was made of a strike; both wings of the Labour movement had disowned ASLEF’s strike call. Will Thorn (Casement’s hound), James Sexton and J.R Clynes opposed the strike, the latter opining that, ‘bad as the situation is in Ireland, public opinion is not prepared for a settlement of Irish troubles by means of a strike’. He thereby implicitly acknowledged that a settlement by mass strike action was possible and this was a live issue amongst British workers and, because this would be a defeat for the British Empire, he would do everything in his power to prevent it. So the labour movement leaders moved with great speed to isolate ASLEF who were forced to withdraw the strike threat on 17 February.

Special TUC and Labour Party conferences in 1920

The Special Party Congress of the TUC in July 1920 was called to discuss direct action by the trade unions against the British military in Ireland. In May 400 NUR members in Dublin refused to unload what they thought were munitions for the British Army. NUR leader J. H. Thomas was on the ball in defence of the Empire as usual. He instructed his men to return to work in order ‘to give the labour movement the opportunity of acting on their behalf’. Outrageously Bell opines that, ‘Thomas’s return to characteristic caution was understandable’ because ‘the railway workers action did have far reaching implications for the British and Irish trade union movement’.

By the time the Parliamentary Committee met on 16 June NUR members in Dublin had been sacked for ‘blacking’ British munitions. Thomas told the meeting, he was ‘being pressed by other trade unions to assist its Irish members’ (which obviously he was very reluctant to do). The Parliamentary Committee called a Special congress ‘to discuss the application of direct action to Ireland. Just one month before Labour Party had passed a motion in favour unqualified self-determination for Ireland, against the wishes of the leadership. J. H. Thomas, of course, spoken against at the party conference. But now his union, the NUR, moved the major resolution at the TUC’s Special Congress. The TUC leadership panicked because a strong motion from the Miners Union was tabled at the Conference so the TUC leadership elicited what was in effect a wrecking motion from the NUR. Both motions passed but the ambiguity between the two allowed Thomas and his ilk to play on that and pretend that only the NUR motion was important.

The miners’ motion declared:

That this Congress protests against the British military domination of Ireland, and demands the withdrawal of all British troops from the country, and demands the cessation of the production of munitions of war destined to be used against Ireland and Russia, and in case the government refuses these demands, we recommend a general down-tools policy, and call upon the Trade Unions here represented to carry out this policy, each according to its own policy, by taking a ballot of its members or otherwise.

The railwaymen’s motion said, ‘the present position in Ireland does not warrant any section of workers being allowed to fight alone a battle for freedom.’ In other words, the NUR was not going to take direct action by itself. It did not suggest an alternative course of action for either British or Irish trade unionists, but called for a truce in Ireland and for the government to open negotiations with the Irish on the basis of ‘full dominion powers in all Irish affairs, and adequate protection for the interests of minorities’. As to what action the TUC should take to promote this, ‘It is unwise to commit ourselves to anything at this stage.’

When Tomas led a deputation from the Parliamentary Committee to the Prime Minister he was able to report that the decisions of the Special Congress represented ‘a declaration in favour of Dominion Home Rule, with a recognition of the Ulster problem provision being made for protection for the interests of minorities.’  This was a lie and a distortion but there was no one to hold him to account.

Bell concludes that:

Thomas could also be criticised for declining to press the resolution on direct action passed by the Special Congress. However, in this he was not alone. The resolution had called for unions to organise ballots in order to carry out this action. There is no record of any of affiliated unions doing so. This unanimity suggests it would be wrong to see the reason for the unwillingness of the TUC to act on Ireland residing in the figure of J. H. Thomas or the Parliamentary Committee in general.

No, on the contrary it would be absolutely correct ‘to see the reason for the unwillingness of the TUC to act on Ireland residing in the figure of J. H. Thomas or the Parliamentary Committee in general’ because they were the leadership when there was a clear wish for action and, led by Thomas, they sabotaged it. It was a heinous act of class treachery.

Just a month before, in June 1920 the Labour party Conference resolved on ‘British military withdrawal’ from Ireland and ‘absolute and free self-determination’. An amendment which sought to reinsert the phrase ‘exclusively Irish affairs’ (Ireland subject to Britain and therefore NOT ‘absolute and free self-determination’ was strongly debated. Manny Shinwell (ILP) and Ben Tillet (dockers, Larkin’s backstabber) spoke for the radical version and the old rightist scoundrel, the former National Union of Railwaymen leader and NEC member J. H. Thomas, spoke for the amendment and the interests of the Empire, as always. The amendment was lost by 1,191, 000 votes to 945,000. This was the high point of the British Labour Party’s radicalism on Ireland. The leaders immediately set about subverting and reversing this decision which they succeeded in the Special Conference of December called to discuss unemployment and Ireland, but basically to overturn the June Congress resolution.

On 29 December 1920 a special party conference was held to debate two issues: unemployment and Ireland. On Ireland, the conference had before it a report from the Labour Party Commission, which had just returned from Ireland and, as seen, was strongly critical of British government policy, having also supported the withdrawal of British armed forces. More significantly, the main resolution, based on the report, before the conference called for:

‘An immediate election, by proportional representation, of an entirely open constitutional assembly, charged to work out, at the earliest possible moment, without limitation or fetters, whatever constitution for Ireland the Irish people desire, subject to only two conditions that it affords protection to minorities, and that the constitution: should prevent Ireland from becoming a military or naval menace to Great Britain.’

This resolution had been drafted by the NEC, who decided in advance that no amendment to it would be allowed. Labour Leader was subsequently criticise the conference for being an ‘almost entirely a platform affair’, but with no counter position permitted the resolution was overwhelming carried. So confronted with a Congress decision that went against their wishes, they called a special conference with only their motion allowed and all rights of amendment abolished to serve the cause of the Empire. Similarly with the 1921 Conference ten local Labour party motions were ignored and the Special Conference was the only one allowed. And we all think Blair was the worst and most undemocratic Labour leader!

At the 1921 conference Jack Jones MP did complain that the NEC motion was ‘mild’, ‘pious’ and ‘should be stronger’, with no alternative permitted it was carried unanimously.” Once again, however, it is an open question what the result would have been if a full debate had been allowed, says Bell apologetically.  (pp. 53-54).

The Irish in Britain after 1916: The Catholic Herald

We recall that the weekly Catholic Herald, owned and edited by Charles Diamond from 1888 until 1934, a nationalist from Derry, had condemned the 1916 Uprising and supported the execution of the leaders (on 6 and 13 May). He had been elected as an Anti-Parnellite MP for North Monaghan in 1892 and so lined up with the joint British Tory Catholic Church witch hunt of Parnell. But he was a Labour Party member unsuccessfully contesting Peckham in the 1918 and Rotherhithe in the 1922 general elections for them. On 8 January 1920 he was arrested and charged with publication of an article in the Catholic Herald that allegedly encouraged assassination in Ireland. [8] Bell reports:

However To examine why such critics believed Labour did not ‘get a move on’ it is again useful to look at the Irish critics own explanation. For the Catholic Herald the 1920 Labour Party conference at Scarborough revealed the answer. This was when the conference, against the wishes of the party leadership, adopted the full self-determination position. Charles Diamond’s editorial on 3 July 1920 ran:

‘Whatever may be the cowering and shiverings of some Labour leaders … the great bulk of the Labour movement in England is sound on the Irish question. At Scarborough it has shown the courage, sincerity and depth of its sentiment by an unequivocal recognition of Irish determination … The rank and file of Labour clearly recognises it knows what self-determination means, and they are prepared to see its application made unreservedly in Ireland. They lead their ‘leaders’. The Labour leaders distort and trim and whittle down in regards to Ireland … Such Labour leaders are either devoid of principle or they stifle it.’

These comments insist that the leadership’s Irish policies did not reflect those of the rank and file and the views of the working class. Catholic Herald’s view, in January 1920, was that not just on Ireland but on India and Egypt as well, ‘The vast majority of the workers are sound on these questions’, and that ‘If they had honourable and fearless leaders, they would have made their power felt on these matters long ago. On occasions the newspaper even identified the leaders in question. (On 10 January 1920) J. H. Thomas was denounced as a ‘fervid imperialist’ over Ireland while J. R. CIynes was ‘one of the rottenest Labour oracles on the subject of Ireland … a man out to pose as a “statesman” and to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, all the time keeping an eye on a job, the future and a salary, the miserable dodger’ (pp. 218-219).

There could be no surer indication of the political changes in his readership and the wider population than Diamond’s volte-face on Ireland. Few made so accurate and perceptive a critique of Labour at that time. The Irish Independent, having secured the execution of James Connolly in 1916, made a similar, though not as radical, about turn in Ireland about this time.

The Irish Self Determination League

We quote this section from Bell’s book extensively because it speaks for itself:

Nevertheless, while it can be debated how near British workers did come to ‘rejecting the system’, or how substantial ‘the greatest revolutionary opportunity’ was, there was a militancy in this period which had not been seen since the Chartists. Moreover, it is apparent that it was not simply economic struggle that was involved. The Leeds Convention, the Jolly George and the Council of Action confirm the aspirations of the more militant in the labour movement reached beyond bread-and-butter issues. The growth of the Labour Party and its articulation, however vague, of socialist ideas similarly suggest a growth in political consciousness. Militancy may have been on the ebb by 1921 when unemployment was rising and this, as David Howell has suggested, may have undermined the possibilities of an alliance between Irish cause and the British left,” but it would be too mechanical to insist there had to be an exact conjuncture both in time and place between the two struggles for one to assist the other. Whatever the intricacies of such propositions, it surely remains the case that as the Irish issue was reaching a climax from 1917 to 1921, those engaged in the struggle there for self-determination would rarely have had a more receptive audience when appealing for assistance and solidarity from the British Labour movement.

The potential of British working class opposition to the government’s Irish policy was influenced not just by its own internal political dynamic and what was occurring in Ireland but also by wider public perceptions. General criticism of the government’s Irish policy, or aspects of it, could be expected to strengthen the labour movement’s self-confidence in expressing and acting on its own opposition. We have already seen there such criticism within the socialist press and the Labour Party, and there is doubt there was a more general criticism. Here, for example, G K. Chesterton, forever to be associated in popular culture with the Father Brown short stories, but a writer, commentator, philosopher, poet and theologian of a much a much more varied and substantial body of work:

The essential point to realise about our policy in Ireland is that we have crossed a definitive line. It is a frontier and frontier is a fact, not an opinion. It is, among other things the boundary between Christendom and the barbarians … The Prussians adopted the destructive method in Belgium and the English have now adopted it in Ireland … It is (as) if the governing class were to walk about naked or drink bumpers of blood. The Irish rebel feels as if he were in a cell with a homicidal maniac.

A contrasting source, if not opinion, is Irish Exile, the newspaper of the England-based Irish Self-determination League (ISDL):

‘We find Ireland drenched with blood, her towns and villages devastate: by fire; her factories and creameries bombed and razed to the ground and her harvest burned; her national journals supressed; her manhood tortured, shot, hanged, or rounded up by a brutal soldiery into con- centration camps; her old men, her women and children shot like pheasants; her churches, convents and monasteries desecrated; her priesthood killed, outraged and thrown into prisons. We find in short, every offence in the catalogue of crime committed against the Irish people.’

The Peace With Ireland Council’s public activities of the Council centred on producing leaflets, and organising and sending speakers to public meetings. There were nearly 200 such meetings and as many as 30 pamphlets were produced. As well as G. K. Chesterton, other famous writers included Robert Lynd and J. L. Hammond. The high point of the activity was the winter of 1920—1 921 when there were large in such centres as Oxford, Birmingham, and Cambridge. An estimated four thousand people attended a public meeting in Manchester and an Albert Hall rally whose speakers included Lord Asquith, (Tory MP) Cavendish-Bentinck and the Bishop of Peterborough. ‘We had 8,000 writes Berkeley, ‘I spent half-an-hour counting them.’ Boyce has concluded that that the Council was perhaps ‘the most effective & certainly the most committed pressure group to protest against the reprisals’.

There were others who protested. For example, on 2 July 1921 the Women’s Freedom League organised a 10,000 strong demonstration protesting against the government’s Irish policy, addressed by the veteran campaigner Charlotte Despot.

The impetus for the ISDL came from a different direction than that of the Council. In April I921 its own newspaper, Irish Exile, described its origins and activities:

At the express instructions of President de Valera a new organisation was set up to keep exiles in close intercourse with their people in the motherland … The ISDL was founded at Manchester on March 30th 1919 … Two simple objects were set before members: (1) To secure the application of the principles of self-determination to Ireland and (2) to secure the release of all Irish political prisoners …The League is open to all people of Irish birth or descent. All of its meetings are open to the public … The League’s activities consist of branch meetings, public meetings … and ceilidhe to raise funds … The League gives practical support to the study and use of the Irish language, history and literature … issues pamphlet and leaflets … collects money for the Irish White Cross fund.

By 1 November 1919 there were 54 branches, the following November this had risen to 214 and by November 1921 the peak of 294 had been reached. According to the ISDL constitution there was a minimum of I5 members in each branch, and the total membership grew from 7,300 in February 1920,“ 10,000 by April 1920, 26,000 by November 1920“ and 38,726 by March 1921. By March 1922, following the ending of the War of Independence, splits in the ISDL over the Treaty and, said the general secretary, ‘the great amount of unemployment’ with its effects on subscriptions, the League’s membership had declined to 20,405.

However, it was the ISDL that was the ‘dominant organisation in the Irish community and which could mobilise large numbers. There was a 15,000 strong demonstration in Manchester in November 1919 and a ‘packed rally’ at the Albert Hall in February 1920 saw 10,000 attending, with another 40,000 ‘applying for admission’, resulting in in a separate overflow meeting’. A tour by the Republican minded Catholic cleric Dr Mannix in November and December 1920, organised by the ISDL, attracted among others 4,000 in Rochdale, 3,000 in Blackburn, 1000 in Wigan and 4,000 in Bolton.  When organising support for Irish hunger-strikers in Wormwood Scrubs prison in April 1920 the ISDL, on the same night, brought 10,000 onto the streets of London and 10,000 in Manchester, with other demonstrations in towns such as Bolton and Bradford and on Tyneside. Right up to the signing of the Treaty, the ISDL remained capable of large mobilisations with 10,000 packing the Albert Hall to greet the Irish treaty negotiators in November 1921.

As already suggested, the ISDL was closely monitored by the police. It was also subject to frequent raids and arrests. In the course of 1921 the general secretary, acting general secretary, treasurer, chief clerk, several full-time organisers, and several minor officials were arrested and deported to Ireland without charge or trial, where some were interned. Despite such difficulties it continued to function, and to address itself the Irish community in England and Wales. Its second conference held in Manchester in November 1920, amplified its objectives to securing recognition of the Irish Republic.

That the ISDL was able to mobilise large number of the Irish in Britain, despite the difficulties with the police, surely has some relevance in weighting up the possibilities of labour movement mobilisations on Irish issues, especially as it was in the Irish working class in Britain that the ISDL had its roots. The Catholic Herald complained in February ‘the more respectable’ of the Irish in Britain ‘have not been particularly courageous’, and that where ‘patriotism’ or ‘lovers of liberty’ existed was ‘in the ranks of the common people’. Basil Thomson that those at a 700 strong ISDL meeting in March I920 in Birmingham ‘were chiefly of the poorer classes.’

For its part, the ISDL, as already suggested, was not prepared to enter a British political party. Its constitution declared ‘no District Committee shall at any time take any action in regard to or any part in British politics’ and attempts by Diamond to get this changes with an endorsement of Labour candidates who supported Irish self-determination failed. Nevertheless, the ISDL at times did orientate and took part in labour movement activities. For example it participated in a May Day demonstration in London in 1921 which ended Park where the ISDL set up two platforms ‘right in the heart of the  … Labour demonstration’, and which attracted ‘mostly Irish, but was a fair sprinkling of British trade unionists’. The following month at a Hyde Park, the principle speaker was a by-election Labour Party candidate.


Do we blame the leadership of the class or the class itself?

But we have done enough of exposing the appalling treachery and inadequacies of leadership of the British working class and of the Irish working class too, though we will leave the detailed study of the latter to a later essay. Now we must turn to examining how Bell deals with the question posed in the title of his work, Hesitant Comrades. Who were these hesitant comrades, whom must we essentially blame for the failure to support the struggle in Ireland in her hour of need, the leadership of the British working class or the class itself? As Marxists we will always blame the leadership but Bell reaches the opposite conclusion in the final passages of his work.

Having weighed this question back and forth with numerous examples on the one hand and on the other in his conclusions in his last passage of his final chapter he describes ‘one last echo’. It is the funeral of Terence MacSwiney, IRA hunger striker in Brixton, Lord Mayor of Cork and elected MP in October 1920. Labour party leaders Arthur Henderson, J.R. Clynes, J. H. Thomas, Clement Atlee and Labour Lord Mayors of London boroughs attended the mass (in Southwark Cathedral). And the Daily Herald reported:

‘The vast throng of marcher, Irish residents in England, first women of Cumann na mBan, of all classes but one spirit… after them were members, hundreds after hundreds, of Irish Self-Determination League. Each of the 27 London Boroughs had their banners… Thousands of ordinary men and women, most of them very poor …and the English crowd that poured out of the sordid streets of South London were quite too… and nowhere a sneer or a laugh; for these were the Commons of England and not the House of Commons.’

And here Bell reached his incorrect conclusion; ‘the ‘Commons of England’ were willing to take to the streets to express sympathy and to show respect, they were ‘moved’ he says. But what more could anyone expect them to do at a funeral procession? Start a riot? ‘Nevertheless’ he says, ‘the Daily Herald reporting was correct. They were more sightseers than active allies (presumably because they did not join the march, wasn’t the Daily Herald simply praising the solidarity of the ordinary poor English workers? – GD). They were hesitant comrades (out emphasis)’.

There are innumerable instances given in his book that prove the opposite of this. Has he forgotten Karl Radek’s stricture above, ‘We greatly regret that our party comrades who are in the Labour Party did not tear the mask off these swindlers’ faces’, from just before he begins his own extract on p. 114)? And could he not apply that to the Labour politicians above who could attend the funeral mass all the better to defend the interests of the British Empire in her hour of need? Is it not proof of enormous and growing support in the British working class for Ireland? Why else would they attend, certainly not because they had any genuine support for the IRA. But let us now get onto the task of explaining and listing the numerous examples that prove the opposite from Bell’s own work.

Workers Dreadnought in October 1920,

‘And British Labour refuses to act. To offset criticism they ask: is public sympathy behind us, can organised labour stand the consequences of a general strike? Well, even Liberal public opinion is in sympathy with Irish freedom … The issue could be localised – the dockers, the seamen, the transport workers and the railwaymen could prevent the perpetration of this great capitalist crime … A scheme of local action, properly worked out, to prevent all munitions and all military officers and men being transported from England to Ireland can and should be put into operation immediately’.

But Bell is off again at his, ‘on the one hand, on the other’.

The proposition presented here is important, centering as it does on whether the ranks of the working class movement would have respond to calls for action over Ireland from their leadership. The form of action proposed on this occasion is well spelt out and perhaps it is significant that even Workers Dreadnought did not have the optimism to propose an all-out general strike, but the particulars are not what are relevant. The general proposition is what matters most, and it has been made many times and in many different circumstances. The question is whether the leaders of the working class do lead, or whether they reflect or whether they hold back their membership. Often, the more left the historian or commentator, the more inclined they are to see the leaders as a restraining influence. That was not always the case in respect to (the) British working class and Ireland during the latter’s national revolution. Then, even the British communists could blame the workers. Examples of this were quoted in the preceding chapter. There are others. Referring to Ireland, the ‘silence of Englishmen’ was condemned by the Call on 3 June I920; the timidity of ‘the workers of England’ was attacked by the Communist on 5 August 1920; the same source detected ‘cowardice’ and ‘shame’ from ‘we common Englishman of the working class’ on 28 October I920; and complained on 25 November 1920 that while Irish workers are suffering … the British workers do nothing’.

One would have thought the Bell would have enough nous to recognise a reflection of the bog-standard excuses of the cynical bureaucrat in those words, those who forever complain that the workers are apathetic and will never fight for their own rights so what can officials do on their own but compromise? And then when the workers do rise up to fight a great panic grips the soul of the bureaucrat and the cry immediately is ‘stop them, stop them, get them back in their boxes’ and he or she moves heaven and earth and employs every dirty trick and false promise to ensure that they make no advance from their militancy lest ‘getting little they will ask for more’ and upset his or her cosy relationship with the bosses. Though these aspiring revolutionists would not admit to this that is the source of all blaming the working class, and they had not broken for that method of leadership as yet and embraced the alternative method of revolutionary Marxism. The revolutionary Comintern tried to educate the new leadership that became the CPGB in 1920 but bureaucracy overtook that too by 1924 and thereafter only bureaucratic methods were employed, the window of opportunity was closed again by Stalinism this time.

Bell concluded the chapter, Voices From Below with his usual ambiguity:

‘To generalise from this remark, the labour leadership was, throughout the period, not averse to encouraging such a sense of helplessness and usually its rank and file reacted to it with compliance or complacency. Such conclusions need to be registered; but so does one that points between mid-1920 and mid-1921, and suggests that at that time many in the rank and file of the labour movement were politically in advance their leaders on Ireland. Perhaps then, to return to that old controversy stated earlier whether labour’s leaders led, reflected or restrained their members, as far as Ireland was concerned, from 1916 to I921, the considered judgement might be all three.’

Whenever I read statements like this which in fact excuse the treachery of leaders by blaming the members I recall the documentary From Tsar to Lenin in which Max Eastman recounts the course of the Russian Revolution when the influence of Kerensky was beginning to wane after July 1917 because the whole working class were becoming disillusioned in him because of the terrible death toll in the war. But instead of lapsing into despair at the lack of direction from their leadership up to then an alternative was posed; ‘but the masses were rallying to a new and more powerful leader, Lenin’ drolled Eastman in his America twang which was so inspiring in the narrative. If no ‘new and more powerful leadership’ emerges when the working class are ready to fight they MUST fall back into despair and disillusion. They cannot possibly lead themselves as every Marxist understands. There was none apparent in Britain in the crucial period correctly identified by Bell above, from mid-1920 to mid-1921, as we have seen from our analysis of the best of them, provided by Bell himself.

If the sympathy of the British working class was so strong from mid-1920 to mid-1921 why did it die then? On 15 April 1921 the Empire loyalist Thomas delivered another blow at British and international working class. Remember the account from early 1919 that has been provided by Robert Smillie, of the meeting with Lloyd George aas recounted in his book In Place of Fear: Lloyd George told them:

“Gentlemen you have fashioned in the Triple Alliance of unions represented by you a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy.The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has already occurred in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances if you carry out your threatened strike you will defeat us. But if you do so, have you weighed up the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state that is stronger than the state itself, it must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered and if you have are you ready?'”

Smillie commented: “From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were beaten.”

The owners of the newly re-privatised mine proposed massive wage cuts and the miners’ executive, rejecting their own general secretary, right winger Smillie, who wanted to compromise, called for a strike of the Triple Alliance, miners, railway workers and transport workers, that had been in existence since 1915. They called the strike, the government declared a state of emergency and moved troops for confrontation and the leaders of the Triple Alliance called off the strike.That date goes down in history as Black Friday. So it was that Thomas and the right wing Labour traitors now moved on the deal with the next, and perhaps greater problem for the British ruling class, Ireland.

Of course with the Truce in July and the Treaty in December 1921 it was clear that the Sinn Féin leaders themselves were willing to compromise on Britain’s terms. They had no political desire for an outright victory over imperialism nor was the political alternative offered by Éamonn de Valera’s in Document No 2 during the Treaty debates substantially different from that compromise. And the majority of those who really sought victory over British imperialism and fought on for it in the Civil War after the Treaty had no vision to what it would need politically. Those few who did, left republicans like Liam Mellows and Joe McKelvie became increasing sympathetic towards the revolutionary message of the tiny Communist Party of Ireland, led by James Connolly’s son Roddy  and Sean McLaughlin.  But Mellows and McKelvie were shot with Rory O’Connor and Richard Barrett on 8 December 1922, prisoners of war summarily executed without trial in a reprisal shooting, of course a war crime. They surely picked the most politically advanced and therefore dangerous prisoners to secure their relationship with the Empire. They was no longer an inspiring fight against British imperialism to inspire the British working class to fight themselves against that same enemy. There was no ‘new and more powerful leadership’ for them to rally to; the new CPGB was too small and too politically confused to provide that.

Appendix 1: Left wing publications and their publishers in the early decades of the 20th century (extracted from Wikipedia and other sources)

The Workers Republic, newspaper founded by James Connolly in 1898, ceased publication in 1903 when he immigrated to America. He returned to Ireland in 1910 and resumed publication in 1913 with a £50 loan from Kier Hardy. Some accused Hardy of assisting in the 1916 Uprising because of this, the same charged levied against the Scottish SLP who printed a banned copy of the paper for Connolly and transported it back to Dublin.

The New Statesman, founded in 1913 as the journal of the Fabian Society, prominent leaders were Sidney and Beatrix Webb and George Bernard Shaw. The main theoretical influence on the Labour party in these years. It is still published with a (barely) “left-of-centre political position” with little relationship to its syndicalist and socialist origins, which were never great in the first place.

The Socialist. Founded by James Connolly in 1901 it became the monthly organ of the Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party from its founding conference in 1903. The SLP emerged from a split in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led by Henry Hyndman. George Yates, an engineering worker, had strongly criticised the party leadership of the SDF for supporting the entry of conservative socialist Alexandre Millerand into the bourgeois French cabinet at the 1900 Congress of the Second International. This was a correct opposition to a right-winger who abandoned the French Socialist party later and became successively Prime Minister and President of France in the mid-1920s. The party began with a membership of only about 80 individuals in 4 branches, all in Scotland — two in Edinburgh, one in Glasgow, and one in Falkirk. Yates edited the paper after James Connolly’s departure for America in September 1903.

Labour Leader, weekly newspaper of the Independent Labour Party. The origins of the paper lay in The Miner, a monthly paper founded by Keir Hardie in 1887. Hardie continued to publish and edit the Labour Leader until 1904, when he sold it to the ILP, amid some controversy on the appropriate recompense due to him. The ILP appointed John Bruce Glasier to replace Hardie as editor in January 1905. Glasier was able to take sales from 13,000 at the start of his editorship to 43,000 in 1908, but attracted criticism from some ILP members for consistently endorsing all the actions of the party’s leadership. In 1912 the editorship passed to Fenner Brockway, who imposed a policy of strident pacifism, opposing the First World War with front-page headlines such as “The War Must Be Stopped” and “Down With The War”. In 1915 the paper’s offices were raided by the police and Brockway was charged with publishing seditious material. Brockway won the case, but commented, “if we weren’t dangerous to the government we were failing in our duty!” However, his work in the No-Conscription Fellowship led to his repeated imprisonment and by 1916 he felt unable to continue as editor. Katherine Glasier took over the editorship. In 1917 the government prohibited the export of the Labour Leader from the UK. By 1918 Glasier had increased circulation to 62,000, but she became increasingly at odds with the prominent columnist Philip Snowden. His opposition to the October Revolution was vocally resisted by Glasier, and in the ensuing dispute sales fell away. The stress of the dispute may have contributed to her nervous breakdown. It finally collapsed with the ILP in 1986.

Socialist Review, theoretical journal of the ILP

Workers’ Dreadnought, a newspaper published by Sylvia Pankhurst. It first appeared on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1914, as Women’s Dreadnought, with a circulation of 30,000. Sylvia Pankhurst had been expelled from the Suffragette movement by her mother and sister. In 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. She reluctantly followed Lenin’s advice to join the CPGB in 1920 but her ultra-leftism persisted and she was expelled in 1921 because Workers Dreadnought continued to oppose the line of affiliation to the Labour party. [9] She continued publishing the newspaper until 1924. Its base of support was mainly in South Wales.

The Call, weekly newspaper of the anti-war section of the British Socialist Party. At the December 1913 conference the increasingly pro-war Henry Hyndman was ousted from leadership and split after final defeat in the 1916 conference. The Call became the party newspaper until the formation of the CPGB in 1920 when it was replaced by The Communist.

The Communist – publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1920 until replaced by The Workers’ Weekly early in 1923, the Daily Workers from 1930 and the Morning Star in 1966.

Forward, mass circulation weekly paper of the Glasgow section of the Independent Labour Party.

Daily Herald (weekly during WWI), launched in 1912 it was the most popular left wing newspaper, edited by future Labour party leader George Lansbury from 1914-22. It was relaunched as The Sun in 1964. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bought it in 1969.

Appendix 2: Abbreviations

ASLEF: Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen

BSP: British Socialist Parry

CPGB: Communist Party of Great Britain

ILP: Independent Labour Party

ILPTUC: Irish Labour and Trades Union Congress [which Succeeded the ITUCLP]

IRA: Irish Republican Army

ISDL: Irish Self-determination League

ITGWU: Irish Transport and General Workers Union

ITUCLP: Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party

LRC: Labour Representation Committee

MP: Member of Parliament

NAC: National Administrative Council, ILP

NEC: National Executive Committee, Labour Party

NUR: National Union of Railwaymen

PLP: Parliamentary Labour Party

SLP: Socialist Labour Party

TUC: Trades Union Congress

UVF: Ulster Volunteer Force

WSF: Workers’ Suffrage Federation (from 1918, the Workers’

Socialist Federation)


[1] ‘The ITUCLP, which Connolly had done so much to establish, decided, in the words of the presidential address at its conference of August 1916 that, ‘this is not the place to enter into a discussion of the right or wrong, wisdom or folly, of the revolt.’ (p. 16).

[2] Labour leader Arthur Henderson had gone to Dublin to meet employers’ leader William Martin Murphy and to subvert Larkin in late 2013. This surely assisted to prejudice the TUC Special Conference against him.

[3] Tom Barry’s devastating victory at Crossbarry on 19 March 1921 where 104 IRA fighters defeated 1,200 British army and 120 RIC was but part of the development of increasing professional guerrilla forces with 90% popular support who were by then outfighting and humiliating Britain’s Black and Tans throughout Ireland. The next stage, as we saw in Vietnam in 1975, was to progress from guerrilla warfare to more conventional war inflicting outright military defeat on the British forces and this was now beginning to be posed. See The Leninist Trotskyist Tendency’s In Defense of Marxism, Number 4 (May 1996), Guerrilla warfare and working class struggle, drafted by Gerry Downing, for a full exposition of these ideas: https://socialistfight.com/2016/04/21/guerrilla-warfare-and-working-class-struggle/

[4] Bell quotes Dorothy Macardle, ‘the number of unarmed persons killed by Crown Forces in Ireland during the 12 months of 1920 reached two hundred and three; these included six women and twelve children under 17 years of age. Sixty-nine persons were deliberately killed in the street; the rest were victim of indiscriminate fire’ (p. 29).

[5] Arthur Henderson was Labour party leader from 1914 to 1917, he was followed by William Admson until 1921 and then by J.R. Clynes. Ralph Miliband described the latter pair as ‘extreme moderates and mediocre parliamentarians too boot’ (p. 64). These three were preceded by Ramsey McDonald, deposed because of his opposition to WWI, and succeeded by him also as head of the first minority Labour government in 1924.

[6] Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International, July 25, a slightly longer extract than Bell uses. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch04.htm

[7] Mallow Shootings – 31 Jan 1921: “On the night of 31st January, 1921 at about 10.20 p.m. the RIC County Inspector, Captain William H. King was shot at near Mallow railway station, his wife, Alice Mary Kin, was shot dead. In the hours that followed 3 civilians died … about 100 rail workers were on duty at the station and arrested many of the workers. A little later a party of Black and Tans, under a head constable, opened fire on the engine driver and fireman of a goods train which had just arrived from Thurles. In the waiting-room attached to the locomotive department a number of railway men were preparing for work when the place was raided by the police. All the men were ordered out on to the road outside the station, with their hands over their heads. They were then told to run for their lives. They were then fired upon and most were wounded while three were shot dead. They were, Bennett, a seventeen year old, Patrick Devitt, a father of eight children and Daniel Mullane, a twenty-three year old fireman who, having escaped himself went back to assist a wounded driver, Harry Martin. Mullane received three bullet wounds through the hips and died early on the following morning” Of course the British inquiry lied and whitewashed their own as is their custom.  http://theauxiliaries.com/INCIDENTS/mallow-1921-jan/mallow-shooting.html

[8] Charles Diamond, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Diamond

[9] It is a real tragedy that neither Sylvia Pankhurst nor John McLean understood Lenin’s 1920 Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder aimed at Left Communists like Karl Korsch, Anton Pannekoek, Paul Mattick, Herman Gorter, David Wijnkoop, Otto Rühle, Willie Gallacher, Amadeo Bordiga, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst whose instincts were revolutionary but, under the illusion that revolutions were purely objective and not dialectical processes, saw no need to relate to the mass of the working class and poor peasantry via its emerging revolutionary vanguard and winning the latter to the party of the revolution. It is significant that Lenin’s subtitle to the pamphlet, A Popular Essay in Marxian Strategy and Tactics was not used during his lifetime, surely because no one really understood its significance.

2 thoughts on “Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement

  1. […] [8] See Hesitant Comrades, the Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, by Geoff Bell Review by Gerry Downing, https://socialistfight.com/2016/04/23/hesitant-comrades-the-irish-revolution-and-the-british-labour-… […]


  2. […] [3] See Hesitant Comrades, the Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, by Geoff Bell Review by Gerry Downing, https://socialistfight.com/2016/04/23/hesitant-comrades-the-irish-revolution-and-the-british-labour-… […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

%d bloggers like this: