International Workingmen’s Association 1869
Record of Speech by Karl Marx

On the Policy of the British Government with respect to the Irish Prisoners

Source: MECW Volume 21, p. 407;
First published: in full in Marx and Engels, Works, 2nd Russian Edition, 1960.

At the General Council meeting on November 9, 1869 Marx proposed the discussion of the following questions: the attitude of the British Government towards the Irish prisoners and the position of the English working class in the Irish question.

On November 16 Marx opened the discussion and moved a resolution on this question. Stormy debates followed, particularly on November 23, when Mottershead, an Englishman, opposed Marx’s resolution and tried to justify Gladstone’s colonial policy in Ireland; Mottershead was supported by Odger, another English member of the General Council. Two other speeches (on November 23 and 30) were made by Marx in reply to them. Marx described in detail the discussion on November 23 in his letter to Engels on November 26.

In the Minute Book of the General Council Marx’s speeches on November 16, 23 and 30 are recorded by Eccarius.

The report of the General Council meeting of November 16 was published in Reynolds’s Newspaper, November 21 and The National Reformer, November 28, 1869; the report of the November 23 meeting — in Reynolds’s Newspaper, November 28 and The National Reformer, December 5, 1869. However, these reports were brief and inaccurate. The full text of Marx’s three speeches was first published in English in The General Council of the First International. 1868-1870, Moscow, 1966.

In German a brief account of Marx’s first speech (November 16) was published in Der Volksstaat, No. 21, December 11, and in French in L'Égalité, December 18, 1869.

When preparing his speeches Marx made wide use of material from the Irish press, in particular in The Irishman. Their contents have much in common with Marx’s later articles on the subject written for L'Internationale, and with the articles of Jenny Marx, his daughter, for La Marseillaise.

From the Minutes of the General Council Meeting of November 16. 1869

Cit. Marx then opened the debate on the attitude of the British Government on the Irish question. He said political amnesty proceeds from two sources: 1. When a government is strong enough by force of arms and public opinion, when the enemy accepts the defeat, as was the case in America, [471] then amnesty is given. 2. When misgovernment is the cause of quarrel and the opposition gains its point, as was the case in Austria and Hungary.[472] Such ought to have been the case in Ireland.

Both Disraeli and Gladstone have said that the government ought to do for Ireland what in other countries a revolution would do. Bright asserted repeatedly that Ireland would always be rife for revolution unless a radical change was made. During the election Gladstone justified the Fenian insurrection and said that every other nation would have revolted under similar circumstances. When taunted in the House he equivocated his fiery declarations against the “policy of conquest [473] implied that “Ireland ought to be ruled according to Irish ideas”. To put an end to the “policy of conquest” he ought to have begun like America and Austria by an amnesty as soon as he became minister. He did nothing. Then the amnesty movement in Ireland by the municipalities. When a deputation was about to start with a petition containing 200,000 signatures for the release of the prisoners he anticipated it by releasing some to prevent the appearance of giving way to Irish pressure. The petition came, it was not got up by Fenians, but he gave no answer. Then it was mooted in the House that the prisoners were infamously treated.

In this at least the English Government is impartial; it treats Irish and English alike; there is no country in Europe where political prisoners are treated like in England and Russia. Bruce was obliged to admit the fact. Moore wanted an inquiry; it was refused. Then commenced the popular amnesty movement at Limerick. A meeting was held at which 30,000 people were present and a memorial for the unconditional release was adopted. Meetings were held in all the towns in the North. Then the great meeting was announced in Dublin where 200,000 people attended. It was announced weeks beforehand for the 10th October. The trade societies wanted to go in procession. On the 8th proclamations were issued prohibiting the procession to go through certain streets. Isaac Butt interpreted it as a prohibition of the procession. They went to Fortescue to ask but he was not at home, his Secretary Burke did not know. A letter was left to be replied to: he equivocated. The government wanted a collision. The procession was abandoned and it was found afterwards that the soldiers had been supplied with 40 rounds of shot for the occasion.

After that Gladstone answered the Limerick memorial of August in a roundabout way. [474] He says the proceedings varied much. There were loyal people and others who used bad language demanding as a right what could only be an act of clemency.

It is an act of presumption on the part of a paid public servant to teach a public meeting how to speak.

The next objection is that the prisoners have not abandoned their designs which were cut short by their imprisonment.

How does Gladstone know what their designs were and that they still entertain them? Has he tortured them into a confession? He wants them to renounce their principles, to degrade them morally. Napoleon did [not] ask people to renounce their republican principles before he gave an amnesty and Prussia attached no such conditions.

Then he says the conspiracy still exists in England and America.

If it did, Scotland Yard should soon be down upon it. It is only “disaffection of 700 years’ standing”.[475]. The Irish have declared they would receive unconditional freedom as an act of conciliation.

Gladstone cannot quell the Fenian conspiracy in America his conduct promotes it, one paper calls him the Head Centre. [476] He finds fault with the press. He has not the courage to prosecute the press; he wants to make the prisoners responsible. Does he want to keep them as hostages for the good behaviour of the people outside? He says “it has been our desire to carry leniency to the utmost point”. This then is the utmost point.

When Mountjoy was crowded with untried prisoners, Dr. M'Donnell wrote letter after letter to Joseph Murray about their treatment. Lord Mayo said afterwards that Murray had suppressed them. M'Donnell then wrote to the inspector of prisons, to a higher official. He was afterwards dismissed and Murray was promoted.

He then says: we have advised the minor offenders to be released; the principal leaders and organisers we could not set free.

This is a positive lie. There were two Americans amongst them who had 15 years each. It was fear for America that made him set them free. Carey was sentenced in 1865 to 5 years, he is in the lunatic asylum, his family wanted him home, he could not upset the government.

He further says: to rise in revolt against the public order has ever been a crime in this country. Only in this country. Jefferson Davis’s revolt was right because it was not against the English, the government.[477] He continues, the administration can have no interest except the punishment of crimes.

The administration are the servants of the oppressors of Ireland. He wants the Irish to fall on their knees because an enlightened sovereign and Parliament have done a great act of justice. They were the criminals before the Irish people. But the Irish was the only question upon which Gladstone and Bright could become ministers and catch the dissenters[478] and give the Irish place-hunters an excuse of selling themselves. The church was only the badge of conquest. The badge is removed, but the servitude remains. He states that the government is resolved to continue to remove any grievance, but that they are determined to give security to life and property and maintain the integrity of the empire.

Life and property are endangered by the English aristocracy. Canada makes her own laws [479] without impairing the integrity of the empire, but the Irish know nothing of their own affairs, they must leave them to Parliament, the same power that has landed them where they are. It is the greatest stupidity to think that the prisoners out of prison could be more dangerous than insulting a whole nation. The old English leaven of the conqueror comes out in the statement: we will grant but you must ask.

In his letter to Isaac Butt he says:

“You remind me that I once pleaded for foreigners. Can the two cases correspond? The Fenians were tried according to lawful custom and found guilty by a jury of their countrymen. The prisoners of Naples were arrested and not tried and when they were tried they were tried by exceptional tribunals and sentenced by judges who depended upon the government for bread.”

If a poacher is tried by a jury of country squires he is tried by his countrymen. It is notorious that the Irish juries are made up of purveyors to the castle whose bread depends upon their verdict. Oppression is always a lawful custom. In England the judges can be independent, in Ireland they cannot. Their promotion depends upon how they serve the government. Sullivan the prosecutor has been made master of the rolls.

To the Ancient Order of Foresters in Dublin he answered that he was not aware that he had given a pledge that Ireland was to be governed according to Irish ideas. [480] And after all this he comes to Guild-Hall and complains that he is inadequate for the task.

The upshot is that all the tenant right meetings are broken up; they want the prisoners [released]. They have broken with the clerical party. They now demand that Ireland is to govern herself. Moore and Butt have declared for it. They have resolved to liberate O'Donovan Rossa by electing him a member of Parliament. [481]

471 Marx means an extensive amnesty granted by President Lincoln in 1863 and President Johnson in 1865 to persons who had fought in the US Civil War on the side of the South.

472 The amnesty was granted to the participants in the Hungarian national liberation movement following the re-organisation of the Austrian Empire into Austria-Hungary in 1867. This amnesty was the result of Austria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 and the growth of national contradictions within the multinational Austrian state.

473 Gladstone’s Liberal government came to office in December 1868, promising to solve the Irish question. During the election campaign, the Liberals had compared the Tory’s policy in Ireland to the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066.

474 A reference to Gladstone’s negative reply to the petitions for an amnesty for Irish prisoners adopted at mass meetings in Ireland, including the one in Limerick on August 1, 1869. Gladstone endeavoured to justify his refusal in his letters to O’Shea and Butt, which were published in The Times on October 23 and 27, 1869. Marx criticised the motives given by Gladstone in these letters.

475 This expression was current in the Irish workers’ press of the time and meant England’s 700-years oppression of Ireland (see The Irishman, September 25 and November 13, 1869).

476 An article in the New-York Irish People, a newspaper of Irish emigrants published in the USA, said that Gladstone’s refusal to grant an amnesty to the participants in the Fenian movement, was only furthering the movement (this remark was quoted by The Irishman in its issue of November 13, 1869). The likening of Gladstone to the Head Centre of the plot is tinged with irony, since this was the title of the leader of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, the secret Fenian organisation.

477 In a speech on October 7 1862, Gladstone had greeted President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy of the Southern States of America and justified the rebellion of the slave-owners.

478 The Dissenters were Presbyterians, descendants of Scottish colonists who had moved to Northern Ireland and members of various Protestant sects at variance with the official Anglican Church.

Before the elections, Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party, made many promises to settle the Irish question in the hope of winning votes among the new categories of voters. Even before the election campaign got under way, he proposed the separation of the Anglican Church from the state in Ireland, thereby depriving it of state support and subsidies. He expected that this would win him popularity with the Irish Catholic voters. After winning the elections and assuming office at the end of 1868, Gladstone passed a bill through Parliament in March 1869 which placed the Anglican Church in Ireland on an equal footing with the Catholic Church. Gladstone and the Liberals hoped that their policy of moderate reform would weaken the revolutionary movement in Ireland.

479 In 1840, a single Parliament was set up in England’s Canadian possessions. The 1867 Act transformed them into the self-governing Canadian Confederation and granted it Dominion status.

480 On October 30, 1869, The Irishman carried a report which said that in his letter to the Dublin branch of the Ancient Order of Foresters (a Friendly Society founded in England as early as 1745 as a society of royal foresters which adopted its name in 1834 and which campaigned for an amnesty on behalf of the Irish prisoners), Gladstone had neglected his pre-election promises to improve Ireland’s position.

481 O'Donovan Rossa was a prominent Fenian, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1865, but nominated as a candidate for Parliament in Tipperary. On November 25, 189, Rossa was elected as an M.P., but was not allowed to take up his seat in Parliament.