James Connolly


Learning Their Lesson


The Harp, September, 1909.
From the collection: Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table, Cork Workers’ Club 1975.

Transcription & HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Our Socialist friends in the North of Ireland are learning their lesson. As readers of The Harp are aware, there is in Belfast and its neighbourhood a strong Socialist movement, born out of the advanced industrial conditions which prevail in that district. But, as was perhaps natural under the historical circumstances, that Socialist movement keeps itself apart from the life of the rest of Ireland. Its associations are with England, its chief speakers are imported from England, and its methods are distinctly those of the English Labour Party. Indeed, it is a part of the English movement known as the Independent Labour Party. As a result, it has never yet run a candidate as a Socialist Party distinctly and avowedly with a revolutionary purpose and aim, differing in this from the Socialist movement in Dublin, which has on four or five different occasions contested municipal elections as an avowedly Socialist Party separate and distinct from all others. The different tactics employed were characteristic of the religious thought dominant at either part of the country. Protestantism is essentially of the nature of a compromise between the spirit of authority and the spirit of free inquiry, and when a Protestant breaks with any tradition he does so in a halting and tentative manner, perpetually retreating to his starting-point, and as he disavows allegiance to one idol, hastens to create another. On the other hand, the Catholic is positive and dogmatic, and ever inclined, when he swings from his moorings at one point of the compass, to scorn all intermediate stages between that point and its opposite pole. Out of this curious anomaly arose the fact that even while the Belfast Socialists were proclaiming that the Irish Catholics were too much under the heel of priests to be Socialists, these same Irish Catholics in Dublin were proudly nailing to the mast those Socialist colours which their Northern brethren were furtively seeking to hide at every election. This was not the least puzzling and disconcerting feature of the situation. The Belfast Socialists are, as we have said, affiliated to the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain, and while they have had their faces set towards that country have at all times kept out of touch with the toilers of the rest of Ireland, never at any time making any effort to understand their point of view. This attitude of theirs has ever been destructive to the hopes of a real revolutionary labour movement in Ireland; indeed, the Northern men have never, apparently, understood that the Socialist movement is a revolutionary labour movement. Their standpoint and intellectual bias has ever been towards the Fabian opportunism of England, while the Irish Socialists of Catholic training have been most attracted by the Revolutionary Social-Democracy of the Continent of Europe. This problem does not arise out of any distinction of race; indeed, despite the prevalent opinion to the contrary, the Irish Protestants of the North are as purely Celtic as the Catholics of any part of Ireland. The parts of Scotland from whence their forefathers re-emigrated into Ireland were and are as Celtic in the make-up of their population as any part of Munster, and a deal more so than many parts of Leinster. But from whatever source it arises, this attitude of the Northerners has frustrated the hopes of those who longed for a Socialist Party in Ireland of national scope and reach. In a Socialist Party embracing all the toilers of Ireland, resting upon Irish conditions, and shaping itself to reflect Irish needs, the sturdy men of the Northern capital would be a force of incalculable value, but they have up to the present been singularly blind to realise their opportunity. They failed to see, what a moment’s reflection should have shown them, that they would be the backbone and dominating element in an Irish Socialist Party, whereas they can never be anything but the insignificant tail of a Socialist Party in England. And we say this without any feeling of hostility towards the Socialists of England. We are sure that the latter would have no objection to the Belfast branches throwing in their lot with the rest of Ireland in a distinct party, if the result of such action was to build up a Socialist Party in Ireland strong enough to contest the field with the Home Rulers. For the Labour Party of England is, after all, primarily a vote-gathering party. It recognizes that the Irish vote is a strong factor in English cities, and it seeks to conciliate the Home Rule Party as an essential towards having an Irish representative on its side when it appeals to that Irish vote during an election. It would just as soon, indeed much rather, have a representative of a strong Irish Socialist and Labour movement on its platform at such a time to appeal to the Irish workers in English cities. But such an Irish Labour representative is of no value to them if he comes as the Irish member of an English Party. Hence they court the assistance of the Home Rulers, despite the protests of Irish Socialists. Were the Belfast Socialists to withdraw in a body from the Independent Labour Party and throw in their lot with the organization of Irish Socialists recently formed in Dublin, their action would be of incalculable service not only to the cause of Socialism in Ireland, but also to the Socialists and Labour Party in England. It would help to save the latter from all the dangers of a Home Rule alliance by bringing into relief the reactionary attitude and policies of the Home Rulers as opposed to the Socialist movement of the Irish working class. We believe such a move would be welcomed by the most astute and farseeing of the Labour Party, since it would enable them to appeal to the Irish voters of Great Britain on their class interests as well as through their national bias. But even if it failed to arouse the sympathetic appreciation of English Labour leaders, the move ought to be taken. We have long ago given up all hopes of making Englishmen understand the Irish character. The English Socialists have failed utterly to fathom the character of the capitalist Home Rulers of Ireland. Their failure arises from their inability to understand the difference between ‘rebelly’ talk and serious revolutionary purpose. The Home Rulers are adepts at ‘rebelly’ talk, but of serious revolutionary purpose, even in a Nationalist sense, they are absolutely lacking. They easily succeed in fooling the so-called hard-headed English working man, but they never succeed in fooling the Socialists of Ireland. The latter know their men too well; they know in what an inferno of reaction they have succeeded in keeping the domestic affairs of Ireland, such as education and municipal housing and sanitation, and they see them ever in league with the most merciless exploiters of labour on the island.

Hence the Catholic masses regard the Catholic (?) Home Rule leaders with ill-concealed distrust, and if the Protestant working men would only throw off their senseless distrust of their Catholic fellows, realize that class interests are stronger in political warfare than religious bias, and so realizing, unite with their Catholic fellow-workers of the rest of Ireland on the basis of those class interests, they would find the latter not only willing, but madly anxious to receive them.

We have been moved to make these comments by reading in the Labour Leader, of London, England, two articles, or rather letters, upon the subject of the attitude of the Labour Party of England towards the Land Question in Ireland. The first was written by Mr. Walker, of Belfast, a Socialist member of the Belfast branch of the Independent Labour Party, and twice Labour candidate for a parliamentary seat in Belfast. Mr. Walker complains that the Labour Party is apparently influenced by the Home Rulers, and voted along with them on the recent Land Bill, which, he says, and truly, tends to make the farming class more conservative and anti-Socialistic. He cites the case of one constituency, in which the Protestant farmers who have hitherto been Liberal, for the first time voted Conservative at a recent election. He then goes on to say some very severe things about the Home Rule crowd in Parliament. The second letter was from an English labour leader, a Mr. Clynes, and he, of course, tells Mr. Walker that there was no use to talk in Parliament about Land Nationalisation, because a bill on such lines would not pass at present. He thus lays down the axiom that a parliamentary minority must not talk about a measure in Parliament unless it has an immediate chance to pass; quite a new conception of Parliamentary activity! He then goes on to chide Mr. Walker for saying hard things about the Home Rulers – those dear friends of Labour – and in general is serenely indifferent to the Belfast man’s protest. It is an old story. Some years ago, when editing the Workers’ Republic in Dublin, we also protested against the fulsome praise of Home Rule leaders by English Socialists at a time when these same capitalist gentry were bitterly antagonizing the Labour candidates of the Irish trade unions in the Local Government elections of 1899. We, under direction of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, drew up a statement of the case, containing specific citations of the anti-Labour record in Ireland of the Irish capitalist politicians, and we informed our English comrades that their senseless praise of the Home Rule Party in England was being used in Ireland against the Labour candidates who were opposing capitalist Home Rulers. But the leaders of the Independent Labour Party in England paid no attention to our protests, and went joyously on supplying ammunition to our enemies, although a paper so far away as Vorwaerts, of Berlin, Germany, the organ of the German Social Democratic Party, quoted our manifesto and expressly approved of our position.

Now it is the turn of the Belfast men! We hope that our Dublin comrades will send them a copy of that earlier manifesto, and that they will learn the lesson of both incidents and join where they belong – in a militant Irish movement of Labour.


Last updated on 30.7.2007