Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Irish Liberation Struggle: some issues arising

Josh S.

2016 is the100th anniversary of the Irish Easter rebellion.

It is timely to explore some of the lessons and implications of the Irish revolt and subsequent liberation struggle and independence negotiations

The Irish independence movement always lacked a clear political framework or direction. Despite the ruthless, callous, extreme economic exploitation of Ireland for centuries by British imperialism and its local partners, the struggle focused on political independence, and religious and cultural freedom, with little or no demand for economic redistribution of land and wealth, and the transfer of political power to the people at large.

A revolutionary ideological framework is essential

The lack of a clear revolutionary ideological framework allowed the leadership of the movement and its array of organisations to comprise a hodgepodge of people of widely differing class interests, ideologies, and abilities. There were insufficient reference points or framework to guide and critique the leaders.

Debates, disagreements and struggles among the leaders were often conducted on the basis of personal interests and reputations; some strove for unity at any cost when confrontation against opportunism was required, while others conducted petty disputes, vendettas and power grabs.

This lack of a framework and of an explicit policy of ideological struggle and principled criticism and self-criticism in the movement overall, and its leadership in particular, came to a head during the peace negotiations in 1921.

De Valera, the recognised political leader and president of the self-proclaimed independent government of Ireland, refused to attend the negotiations in London, knowing that difficult compromises would be required. He claimed that he “needed to keep the Head of State and the symbol (of the republic i.e. himself) untouched” and “not compromised by any arrangements which it might be necessary for the plenipotentiaries (i.e. the negotiators) to make”.  Instead, he insisted that Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith go to London, with some others who would provide him with a channel of constant information. He tried both to limit the negotiating team's scope for negotiation, and, at the same time, wash his hands of any dirty details.

When the negotiators returned with the agreement, he complained that it had not been submitted to him personally before signing. He condemned it publicly and led the campaign against it, despite clear overwhelming support for the treaty from the population, leading to civil war.

De Valera's crass left opportunism through the whole process, claiming leadership but ducking the hard decisions required in negotiations, trying to control the process but ducking responsibility, was not challenged on an ideological or even ethical basis. He was allowed to get away with such behaviour because of his personal power and reputation.  Similarly, several years  earlier,  he unilaterally decided to go to America for 18 months during the political and military struggle, but still proclaimed his position as the leader of the republican movement.

At one point, the nominal Minister of Defence in the self-proclaimed Irish provisional government, Cathal Brugha, (nominal because he did virtually nothing in that role but was allowed to continue to hold the position), in response to the murderous British actions in Ireland, ordered a campaign of terror in Great Britain, involving the assassination of British Cabinet ministers and machine gun attacks on cinema queues. His order was countermanded by the Chief of Staff of the IRA. These territorial disputes and political/personal struggles and enmities continued unaddressed and unresolved. There was no culture of, or structure for, ideological struggle to address such issues and thus drive the organisation(s) forward.

Leadership and accountability

The lesson is that revolutionary organisations require an understanding of the need for inner-party democracy that enables the membership to supervise the leadership and hold it accountable, and also for a culture, both formal and real, of scrutiny and positive criticism, holding leaders to the highest standards.

There was often a lack of discipline and self-discipline, even among the Irish military organisations. Many survived often on luck. Michael Collins himself, the most wanted man by the British, and a brilliant strategist and military leader, usually displayed great care and attention to detail, but at other times, moved around in a rather cavalier fashion. He was once caught in a car in a British roadblock with his three main spies inside the British security apparatus, and only escaped through luck.  He was killed in the end after refusing to accept advice about his own security.

In the Irish struggle, the political and military organisations and leaderships were not well-coordinated, and often out of sync. Collins' strategy of neutralising the British ruling apparatus by destroying its intelligence agents and networks, (removing its eyes and ears so that it blundered around blindly), as well as conducting a guerrilla campaign against the British military, was very successful. He led the development of a guerrilla strategy that superseded the explicitly romantic Irish tradition of “an uprising every generation”; these had always been courageous but desperate attacks, or defences of fixed positions, against a vastly stronger opponent, and doomed to failure.

However, the guerrilla strategy was not part of an overall political strategy that defined and pursued an economic and political program that would rally the Irish people, and create a set of policies and a structure to displace and replace the British structures. The military campaign paralysed and destroyed the British military presence in several counties, but there was no replacement revolutionary structure.

Negotiations and their lessons

The experience of the peace negotiations in 1921 provides some salutary lessons.

The movement needed to be fully committed to the conduct of negotiations. Instead it allowed DeValera and others to pretend to lead them from afar while distancing themselves from the realities and difficult decisions.

The movement needed a clear set of objectives and agreed strategies before entering negotiations. Only on that basis could decisions be made and the possibilities and outcomes evaluated.

Leaders must have the courage to make tough decisions, including compromises when necessary. Close relations with the membership and the population need to be maintained, so that the movement's capacity and extant and potential strength can be accurately gauged. The Irish negotiating team was too isolated in London, away from the rank-and-file.

The negotiating team was not a united team.  Some members were excluded from many meetings; too many one-on-one meetings were held with the likes of the wily, duplicitous, vastly experienced British Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

There must be explicit, formal channels of communication with the other side and back to the revolutionary organisation. All the negotiating team has to be fully involved and informed, especially when dealing with a vastly more experienced, devious and powerful opponent such as British imperialism.

The Irish were correct in insisting that Arthur Griffith be released from jail if he were to participate in the negotiations. Leaders in jail should never be part of a negotiating team because they are in such a position of weakness and isolation from the organisation and masses. (See John Pilger “Freedom Next time” pp 290-298, for an account of how the South African government duchessed and manipulated the jailed Nelson Mandela in the negotiations to end apartheid. The Indonesian government moved Xanana Gusmao to a villa so that he could participate in the negotiations for a referendum in East Timor – he advocated disarmament and a ceasefire.)

Revolutionary organisations and their negotiating teams need always to be prepared for the failure or breakdown of negotiations As the Irish negotiations dragged on, Collins and at least some of his team were worn down. As happens frequently in trade union campaigns and negotiations, the objective can be diluted to just “getting an agreement” rather than the requirement of a good agreement. Collins said “... it would be a discredit to us all if  after coming together in conference we did not manage to agree”.

Again, clear objectives, established beforehand, are required.

The British constantly prepared for the failure of the negotiations. Collins knew that they were collecting intelligence about identities and locations of the Irish freedom fighters during the ceasefire so that they could smash the IRA if the war resumed. Revolutionary organisations should never agree to disarm, and should maintain their clandestine organisations, even while ceasefires and negotiations are occurring.

James Connolly made every effort in this complex and fluid situation to bring the republican movement closer to a socialist objective.  Connolly advocated a Marxist perspective but did not really move beyond a syndicalist understanding of the state and revolution. The British imperialists reserved a special hatred for Connolly, and in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, took this mortally wounded comrade to his execution ground on a stretcher, and shot him strapped to a chair as his injuries prevented him from standing.

Like all experiences, the long, brave struggle of the Irish people for independence is deserving of great respect, and also of careful candid analysis for lessons that can be learned to enrich the knowledge of the whole revolutionary movement.

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