July 2014        

Lessons of the Republican Congress


Contrary to the common perception, history rarely repeats itself, and never in exactly the same fashion as before. Conditions and circumstances change constantly, and so therefore does the story. Nevertheless, certain episodes from the past provide valuable lessons, offering important ideas or crucial insights.
      Eighty years ago the brief but significant flourishing of a Republican Congress afforded us one such happening. Perhaps because of its brevity and an understandable but distracting emphasis on some of its more romantic moments, the efforts of hard-headed and pragmatic republicans and left-wing activists to build a radical, anti-imperialist working-class movement in Ireland have all too often been misunderstood and the reasons for the Congress’s failure misinterpreted.
      Southern Ireland of the early 1930s was a volatile and precarious state. During the previous two decades the country had experienced extensive trade union activity, divisive participation in a world war, Black and Tan outrages, and a bitter civil war. Many veterans of these campaigns were still energetic men and women in the prime of their lives, with recent experience of having witnessed and participated in the changing of history. Against this social backdrop, three important factors emerged to cause the organising of a Republican Congress.
      The Great Depression, precipitated by the Wall Street crash of 1929, had exacerbated the already dire plight of Ireland’s poor and less well off. To left-leaning republicans and communists of the time, this made the case for building a workers’ republic not just correct but an urgent requirement.
      Closely linked to economic depression was the threat of fascism then engulfing Europe and stretching its tentacles to Ireland through Eoin O’Duffy and his Blueshirts. As a former head of the Garda Síochána, and with contacts among the wealthiest in the country, O’Duffy and his supporters constituted a real threat to democracy and to working-class organisations.
      The most decisive factor, however, was the rise of Fianna Fáil as a political force content to co-exist with capitalism and, by extension, with British imperialism. For a few years after the Civil War the IRA had acted as a common meeting-ground for anti-imperialist activists. This began to change, though, with the founding and growth of Fianna Fail, particularly after it gained governmental power. Fearing de Valera’s influence over its members, the IRA leadership curtailed any form of social or economic agitation that might embarrass Fianna Fáil. By preventing IRA participation in economic struggle, the organisation effectually became, by default, fellow-travellers with the “Long Fellow’s” programme.
      In an attempt to prevent Fianna Fáil colonising the high ground of Irish politics and defining the narrative around republican principles, leading left-wing republicans and others involved in organised labour issued a call in April 1934 to form a Republican Congress. History tells us that the meeting convened in September 1934 to arrange the format of the Congress ended in a debilitating split. The slightly smaller faction walked out as a result of disagreements over organisational rather than policy matters.
      The weakened Congress that emerged limped along for another few years, but in spite of displaying potential it never gained sufficient momentum to become a significant political force. When many of its better-known and most energetic members went to defend the Spanish Republic, the movement petered out, and by the beginning of the Second World War it had ceased to operate.
      If the story of the Republican Congress were only of academic interest, or a source of inspiration for bringing a contingent from the Shankill Road in Belfast to a Wolfe Tone commemoration, then we might finish here and end with a salute to the past. That, however, is very much not the case; because while times have changed, important questions faced then are still relevant.
      The Republican Congress was confronted initially with two challenges. On the one hand it had to define the stage and nature of the struggle it faced, and thereafter it had identify appropriate organisational structures for dealing with those issues. These are universal tasks confronting political activists in any era and are certainly pertinent today.
      Defining the problem we now face is a critical step towards finding a solution; and pretending that Irish working people are not victims of imperialism (financial and colonial) is either naïve or duplicitous, or both.
      When, in 2010, the European Central Bank blocked Ireland from imposing losses on senior bondholders of its bust banks, so as to protect the wider European Union banking system, de Valera’s political creation, Fianna Fáil, capitulated. In doing so it reduced Dáil Éireann to the status of debt-collector for absentee bondholders.
      Furthermore, Michael Noonan’s boast last December that Ireland had regained its economic sovereignty was simply untrue. Noonan’s state will still be subject to two surveillance visits by the troika each year, along with regular inspection by the EU Commission to check on its finances. Dublin will also have to submit its annual budget to Brussels for scrutiny and approval.
      Therefore, any analysis that attempts to interpret these problems as merely those of mismanagement, as distinct from a fundamentally flawed system, is consigning the people to something worse than failure, because it will simply prolong this failed state and its calamitous practices.
      Significantly, recent election results show evidence of a growing realisation among working people of a need for deep-running change. No matter how one cares to interpret the large vote for Sinn Féin and independent candidates, the political landscape of Southern Ireland is no longer set in Civil War political permafrost. Fianna Fáil is a shadow of its former self, the Labour Party is in disarray, and Fine Gael is leaking members to its rival, the Reform Alliance.
      There is, nevertheless, no broadly based and coherent movement working for the type of radical transformation of society that is required; instead we have single-issue campaigns, radical independents, small left-wing groups, and the overwhelming presence of Sinn Féin. These groups draw the bulk of their support from working-class communities, and all meet a need in one fashion or other. Yet single-issue campaigns can be isolated, independents and small groups have limited impact at best, and Sinn Féin, if given the field, is vulnerable to making the mistake of believing that being in office is equal to the working class winning state power.
      It is obvious that there is a need for a confluence of radical forces dedicated to the creation of a new and better society. Yet it would be wrong to call mechanically for a republican congress and possibly risk dong more harm than good. Time has moved on, and the very title may no longer even be appropriate.
      A major lesson from 1934 is that good intentions are of little use in the absence of adequate preparation and consensus. A second lesson is that clarity on the nature of struggle is essential, and agreement on organisational structures is a prerequisite.
      George Gilmore, secretary to the Republican Congress, wrote towards the end of his life:
It was an attempt to gather together in action the forces necessary, in the situation that then existed, to create a movement capable of winning and maintaining the independence of Ireland as a republic. Like so many other efforts that have been made towards that end the Republican Congress was a failure. After a hopeful start it split in two and floundered, and still it may be that the theory upon which it was founded is worthy of some study by those among us who are still hopeful of achieving that objective.
      Eighty years have passed since the Republican Congress was launched, and undoubtedly commemorative events will be organised to mark the anniversary. Looking back with pride is good, but what is really necessary is that we take to heart the words of the veteran Gilmore and study the theory upon which it was founded and learn the lessons of its collapse.
[TMK]

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