Issue 203 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: The price of partition

A review of Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1917 to 1923 by Conor Kostick (Pluto Press £12.99) and of the film Michael Collins

Chris Bambery

Leaving the cinema after watching Michael Collins you could be forgiven for thinking that the only ones who took part in the fight against British rule in Ireland were Collins and his immediate guerilla network.

Whatever Collins's military genius, it is clear that a sea change occurred in Britain's relationship to Ireland before the First World War and after it. In 1913 and 1914 the Tories, backed by the king and the military chiefs of staff, were prepared to consider civil war in order to block Irish home rule. By 1921 what was essentially a Tory government, though headed by the maverick Liberal Lloyd George, was ready to sit down and negotiate Irish independence with the leadership of the IRA.

The truth is that from 1918 Britain faced massive popular discontent in which the IRA flourished. By 1920 there was a duel power situation throughout much of Ireland as British courts, policing and administration ceased to operate. The Easter Rising had been restricted to just 1,500 fighters with little popular support. By 1918 the released Republican leaders were riding a wave of popular support as they resisted British attempts to introduce conscription in order to plug the gaps on the Western Front.

Even in Ireland few know much about the extent of the mobilisation in these years. There has been an officially sanctioned campaign aimed at today's IRA which seeks to attack nationalist resistance and to whitewash British rule. Other accounts usually focus simply on the individual personalities of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera while accounts sympathetic to Republicanism focus solely on the IRA's military campaign.

Conor Kostick's Revolution in Ireland provides a useful antidote to all this.

For the first time in one book there is a full account of the strikes, factory occupations and land seizures which shook Irish society. In particular Conor examines the general strike in Limerick against the British army's occupation of the city in 1919, the general strike in support of Republican hunger strikers in the following year and the rail workers' refusal to convey British troops and armaments.

Ireland was the first of Britain's colonial possessions to break British control and in so doing was a source of inspiration for anti-colonial fighters in countries like India and Egypt. When Michael Collins and other Republican leaders entered Downing Street to negotiate Irish independence it marked the irreversible decline of the British Empire.

At the end of the First World War Ireland remained, outside the Belfast area, industrially under-developed. Yet its relatively small working class would punch well above its weight. Few people today recall that on May Day 1919 100,000 workers marched with red flags through Belfast. That followed a strike for shorter hours which exceeded in scale and duration the better known one on Red Clydeside which took place at the same time. In Dublin 10,000 workers rallied to greet the 1917 October Revolution.

Yet it was the failure of Irish socialists to harness the potential displayed which allowed the Republicans a clear field, and in the north east of Ireland, the Unionists to unleash sectarian violence. That failure flowed from the syndicalism of the great Irish revolutionary, James Connolly, executed for his leadership role in the 1916 rising. Connolly left behind a trade union movement which could quickly grow in size, but one whose political development was stunted.

But the danger is that Conor's book can present a view of the War of Independence every much as one sided as Michael Collins. As early as page two Conor argues, `The main blows to the British administration were the result of the actions of the Irish working class.' Later he adds:

`The middle class had proved itself incapable of imposing an Irish Republic over the strategy of the British government. The force that really rocked the British authorities is the barely recognised one of the working class. It was through their efforts that British rule in Ireland suffered its most serious defeats.'

Both these assertions are open to challenge.

Irish workers showed the potential to make a revolution but they did not make a revolution. Rather the ideas which were dominant were nationalist. It is true that Irish workers used the label `soviet' as did the strike committee which ran Limerick in 1919. But this was set up by the trades council from union branch delegates and was in reality far removed from a soviet in the sense used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The vast majority of strikes covered were, however militant, economic.

Similarly Republicanism is portrayed in Conor's book as essentially middle class and conservative. The leadership was. But even then elements of it could be pulled in other directions by the force of working class struggle. That after all was what happened in 1913 at the time of the Dublin lockout. A generation of some of the staunchest Republican fighters of these years would begin in the 1930s to move far to the left (Mick Price, Peadar O' Donnell, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan spring to mind). Even de Valera, within four years of the civil war ending, had to trot out radical rhetoric as he built popular support for his new party, Fianna Fail. In search of creating genuine national support, nationalism is capable of looking both right and left. That is something that socialists have often found disarming.

Lenin, writing in defence of the Easter Rising, pointed out that revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe were inconceivable without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices. The Irish War of Independence took place at the same time as a full scale war in Turkey against Britain's proxy, Greece, fullscale rebellion in the new British colony of Iraq (where Churchill used the RAF to bomb the population into submission because of a lack of British troops) and rising nationalist resistance in Egypt and India. In Ireland as in these countries nationalism was capable of capturing and mobilising large sections of the working class.

There is a danger of socialists going back in history and mechanically applying a set of correct arguments for today to another time and place in history. The military struggle of the IRA between 1919 and 1921 is downplayed and then compared to the inability of the IRA today to achieve military victory. But there is no comparison between the two. By the beginning of 1921 whole tracts of south western Ireland were effectively out of British control allowing the IRA to begin military operations on a different scale to anything witnessed in the last 30 years of the current armed struggle.

A more effective argument against the IRA's current military campaign is that it is essentially one of `armed propaganda' rather than one capable of paralysing British rule in such a way.

At the close of the book Conor argues that an end to partition requires the involvement of a significant section of the Protestant community, the Protestant working class. In today's Ireland this is 100 percent true. But he then argues that in 1918-21 it was only possible for the Republican struggle to undermine British authority in those counties of Ireland with a Catholic majority.

This is not only wrong but it lets Michael Collins off a historical hook. In 1921 not only could the Republicans have continued the struggle curtailed by the treaty until Britain was removed from Ireland completely, but also the partition of the island and the foundations of the new Northern Ireland state (which qualitatively increased the level of sectarian division) were far from copper-fastened. Conor himself shows that Unionism's support in the North was brittle. In addition the new Unionist government was far from confident about dealing with Republican insurgency or about Britain's commitment to maintaining its state. What saved them, as they admitted, was the civil war between Collins's new government and the IRA.

More importantly Britain was no longer in a position to continue a fullscale struggle in Ireland. Lloyd George's threat of immediate and terrible war if the treaty was not signed was a bluff. British imperialism was stretched to near breaking point in policing its newly expanded empire.

The Republican leadership failed to carry out the national liberation of Ireland when that opportunity was in its grasp. Conor shows the class reasons which underlay that decision. The Irish bourgeoisie let slip the chance to create a united Ireland. Partition was a huge defeat for the Irish working class but it has also been a blight on the way that Irish society, North and South, has developed. The price should be apparent to all.

Saints and sinners

The film Michael Collins opens with scenes at Dublin's main post office as the Easter Rising of 1916 ­ the attempt to overthrow British colonial rule and set up an Irish republic ­ is finally defeated.

The leaders of that rebellion were brutally shot by the British. Many more were imprisoned, yet out of this repression national sentiment against Britain only grew, bursting out into much wider opposition which became the War of Independence two years later.

Jordan's film tells the story of this war through the life of its most famous figure, Michael Collins. His story is one of individual bravery and audacity against a background of huge social upheaval. The British had lost any authority to rule in most of Ireland and the instruments of its rule were in many parts at the point of collapse.

The film's portrayal of the brutality of the British forces is one of its strongest points. We see the torture of IRA supporters, the gunning down of members of the crowd on Bloody Sunday in the sports stadium in Croke park, and the shooting of local people by the hated Black and Tans.

It is this in particular which has led leader writers on the Daily Telegraph to apoplexy. It has denounced the film for historical inaccuracies (one of its main complaints is that the Croke Park massacre was carried out by machine guns but in the film is shown as coming from an armoured car). But it is a matter of record that many such atrocities against civilians were carried out by the Black and tans and the Auxiliaries in their effort to shore up british rule and crush the national movement by force.

However, Jordan's film ­ while extremely good at many levels ­ is unsatisfactory in others. There is no real clear explanation why the republicans split following Collins's signing of the treaty with the British in 1921. The other dominant figure of Irish politics at the time, Éamon de Valera, who opposed the treaty, is portrayed as cold, remote and fanatical. Why then is he able to command the support of so many people? He is condemned by Collins for going to America to try to meet the US president. But surely that is the logic of the nationalist politics which both espoused.

Also missing from Jordan's film is any hint that underpinning the IRA was a mass movement of opposition to British rule. This is very much history from above. Which brings me to the final criticism. Jordan has made some very fine and unusual films but Michael Collins is highly conventional. Its structure is not so different from the Hollywood biopics of the 1940s and 50s. Liam Neeson plays Collins well, but he is the shining hero to de Valera's (Alan Rickman) dark villain.

The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs argued that the best historical novels were those which had famous figures in history at their margins, not at the centre. It was only then that the feelings, ideas and social attitudes of ordinary people could really be expressed. Perhaps the same problem applies to this film, which is why ­ although it is entertaining and informative ­ its characters remain in a single dimension.

Nonetheless it is to be welcomed both as an interesting if flawed film in its own right, and as a catalyst for discussion about the politics of ireland ­ North and South ­ today.

Lindsey German

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