September 2014        

The Republican Congress eighty years on: A relevant or redundant concept?

Like any organisation, the Republican Congress was a product of its time and place; therefore we need to understand it on its own terms and in the historical conditions of the time.
     Ireland eighty years later is a different place from the Ireland of the 1920s and 30s. The world is different, and the balance of forces has shifted.
     We need to consider such factors as the deep economic crisis of the system at the time, which had a huge impact on Ireland. Unemployment in the South stood at more than a quarter of a million; there was mass emigration, widespread poverty, and evictions from farms and homes.
     In the Six Counties twenty thousand shipyard workers were out of work and the textile and other industries were in deep recession, while thousands of workers across the sectarian divide fought together in common struggle in the “outdoor relief” campaign of 1932.
     It was only thirteen years since the country was forcibly partitioned by imperialism. The fascist threat was growing throughout Europe, encouraged by the system itself, and here in Ireland we had the rise of the Blueshirts. The forces of the Irish ruling class, north and south, were weak and were dependent on the British for their own survival.
     The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the growth and development of the workers’ movement around the world also needs to be considered.
     The Communist Party was small and under constant attack from both state and clerical forces, while the Labour Party was still waiting like Godot, refusing to take a position on partition and terrified of events in Russia and their possible influence on its domination and control of the Irish Trade Union Congress and working people.
     In addition there was a defeated republican movement, struggling to find a role for itself, politically marginalised but not without influence. It had recently suffered another major split with the establishment of Fianna Fáil, which subsequently went into government, further fuelling the mistrust of politics within sections of the republican leadership.
     The IRA could not ignore the swirling social and economic struggles taking place all around them, north and south. Within this set of forces a section of the IRA decided that there was a need for greater involvement in social, economic and political struggle. They were influenced by events internationally, by the great economic and social crisis, and by the political ideas of a small Communist Party that struggled from the early 1920s to influence and encourage the IRA to adopt a social programme linked to the national struggle.
     Other leading elements of the IRA were reluctant to go down that road, holding to the policy of abstention, in the belief that such a policy could only lead to assimilation and acceptance of the Free State and the Six County government, preferring instead to keep their powder dry for the “real” struggle ahead.
     The idea of a Republican Congress had been developing for some time within sections of the IRA, coming to a head at the Army Convention of March 1934, with those in favour of establishing such a congress, or united front, winning the majority of delegates. But that vote was overturned by the Army Council, which resulted in the walking away of Peadar O’Donnell, the Gilmore brothers, Frank Ryan, and others.
     This group convened a meeting in Athlone in April 1934. It issued the “Athlone Manifesto” and agreed to hold a national gathering in September that year. The manifesto stated that its object was “so revolutionary that its achievement means the overthrow of all existing political and economic machinery which at present holds this country and our people in subjection. Therefore our call is: Workers and working farmers, unite! On to the Workers’ Republic!”
     In the next six months many public meetings were held and resolutions passed in support of the Republican Congress, both north and south, with branches established on the Shankill Road and in Ballymacarret in east Belfast.
     At the meeting in September in Rathmines, Dublin, were 180 delegates accredited from all over the country, including delegates from sixteen trade union sections and trades councils, including the Workers’ Union of Ireland, the Miners, Printers, Seamen, Woodworkers, Garment Workers, Plasterers, Women Workers’ Union, tram and busmen. The ITGWU in the North gave full support. There was the Republican Labour Party from Co. Kerry, the Socialist Party from Belfast, the Indian Defence League, and tenants’ organisations.
     It’s clear that the idea of a united front—the Republican Congress—had struck a chord among those who were suffering most from the deep crisis and also among those who wanted a different way forward.
     As we know from history, the meeting in Rathmines ended in a fatal fracture within the forces gathered there. There were two basic positions. Mick Price wanted to establish a new party and to fight for a “Workers’ Republic,” while Peadar O’Donnell wanted the Congress to remain as a united front and the slogan to be for “a Republic,” and Seán Murray argued that in order to move to a Workers’ Republic and eliminate capitalism we first needed to defeat imperialism and its allies.
     What lessons can we draw for today from the experience of the Republican Congress? More time should have been given to clarifying what the strategic goal was—what they were fighting for. There should have been greater political education on the central issues to allow differences to be discussed and debated in an open manner.
     They had the basics right in attempting to build unity among republicans, communists, socialists, and trade unionists, and to have an engagement with the Protestant section of the working class.
     Ireland today is a very different place. The working class, both rural and urban, north and south, is the biggest social class. Small farms and family farmers were a significant social class and political force in the 1930s but are no longer. The development of capitalist farming methods imposed by the European Union has seen them decimated. The dominant sections of the ruling class are not interested in Irish unity.
     The European Union is now the dominant imperialist influence over our people. The influence of American imperialism has grown, as the dominant form of economic development has been structured to provide a platform for American transnational corporations to trade into the EU.
     The constants, on the other hand, have been the continued partition of the country and the deep division among our people. Partition has left a deep scar and institutionalised divisions.
     Britain has shifted it strategic approach, building closer co-operation with the Irish state as its primary ally in Ireland.
     Today much of the left in the Republic could be described as influenced and shaped by partition. How do we win them to an anti-imperialist understanding of the importance of linking the social and the national struggles? The ICTU is an all-Ireland body but it is deeply impregnated with a partitionist mentality.
     The question of strategy and tactics was important then and is still important today.
• Where are we in the struggle for radical social change?
• Have we to end partition before we can move on to what type of society we want?
• What alliances should there be? Who should be in and who is not welcome?
• What is the role of elections and the political institutions at present established?
• Is an electoral strategy the same as a political strategy?
• How do we build the unity of our people and overcome the deep divisions that now exist?
     Now, as then, the struggle for unity is difficult but absolutely necessary. We have to go back to Connolly to build the politics and the forces for moving forward. We cannot separate the economic and social struggles from the national struggle.
     The national struggle is not just about partition but must include the imperialist domination and subservience to the European Union and the United States. We need to approach the struggle for social change and the national struggle as intrinsically inseparable.
     The difficulties experienced eighty years ago by those who attempted to build the Republican Congress are still relevant and bear down on us today. They can be overcome only through education and debate and joint struggles. The struggle is about our people and where we believe we need to go.

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