The Communist Party of Great Britain and the ‘Irish Question’, 1949-1968

This is the text of a paper I gave last week at the 22nd Australasian Irish Studies Conference held at Flinders University. It is my first foray into a very contentious issue (see this discussion between Anthony Coughlan and Matt Treacy) so I would be grateful for any feedback, but please be kind!

From the Daily Worker, 11 February, 1933

From the Daily Worker, 11 February, 1933

Since the partition of Ireland at the end of the Anglo-Irish War in 1921, which occurred almost simultaneously with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Party has generally supported the reunification of Ireland and, since 1969, has supported the call for the removal of Britain’s military and political presence in Northern Ireland. This support for a free and united Ireland originally stemmed from the position of the Communist International in support of the national liberation struggles of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples across the globe, and from the Leninist assumption that revolutions in the colonial sphere would help spark revolutions in the West. Specifically for the British working class, Lenin argued in 1914 that ‘[t]he English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke.’[1]

The CPGB and Ireland in the inter-war period

The CPGB had a substantial Irish membership and had close links to the communist movement in Ireland. Although this was, at times, a strained relationship at times, with the Irish Communists often feeling that their sister party overshadowed them, and in the eyes of Moscow, had to often defer to the leadership of the CPGB. With the Irish Communists going through several different organisations in the inter-war period, the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) came into being in 1933, ‘Bolshevised’, but still wavering between advocating a broad anti-colonialist front against the British and a more united front against the British and ‘their Irish agents, Cosgrave [and] De Valera’.[2] The CPI and its previous incarnations had attempted to win over left-leaning Republicans from Soar Éire and the IRA (although dual membership had been banned until 1933), but the IRA was deeply divided over left-wing Republicanism as evidenced at its 1934 conference.[3] In response to this, the CPGB, in the journal Labour Monthly, criticised the ‘petty-bourgeois leadership’ of the IRA as ‘unwilling to conduct a fight’ against the De Valera government.[4] However as the 1930s progressed, the British party recognised the IRA as part of a broad anti-fascist Popular Front during the late 1930s, particularly as a number of former IRA men went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.[5]

Compared to its British counterpart, the CPI remained numerically very small during the Popular Front period and during the ‘imperialist war’ phase of the Second World War, resolved to dissolve itself, in line with dominant attitudes towards Irish neutrality in the country at the time. A remnant of the party still existed in the six counties as the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI), which existed until 1970, while the CPI was reconstituted as the Irish Workers League in the Irish Free State in 1948, becoming the Irish Workers Party in 1962 and finally merging back into the CPI (including the CPNI) in 1970.

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CPGB member C. Desmond Greaves helped to establish the Connolly Association (CA) in 1938, whose aim was to promote Irish Republicanism within the British labour movement. Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn have written that the Connolly Association provided ‘a vehicle for socialist republicanism under communist direction, but without any suggestion of rivalry with established communist party structures’.[6] Publishing the monthly newspaper, the Irish Democrat, the CA had a more symbiotic relationship with the republican movement in Ireland and the IRA, rather than King St, which gave lip service to them in the party press, but put much more emphasis on the trade unions. According to the Association’s 1955 constitution, the aims and objects of the CA were:

To organise Irish men and women resident in Britain for the defence of their interests, in united struggle with the British working class movement, and in particular –

(a) To win support for the struggle of the Irish people for a united independent Republic, and to fight for the removal of all obstacles placed in their way by British imperialism…[7]

Unlike the militarist road of the IRA, the CA promoted obtaining these aims and objects via the following tactics:

(a) Winning majority support for them in the organised working class and democratic movement in Britain.

(b) Working for the unity and strength of the Labour movement, especially the unity of British and Irish workers…

(f) Co-operating with other organisations in matters of common concern and affiliating to or accepting affiliation from appropriate bodies as may be decided.[8]

Although individual CA (and CPGB) members had links to the IRA, particularly through the Wolfe Tone Society,[9] the only two organisations that the CA affiliated with were two organisations that the CPGB had links to, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF).[10]

National Liberation or Peaceful Devolution?

In the era of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the CPGB believed that the Irish Free State would gain full independence similar to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (which did occur in 1949), but also accepted the idea that British rule in Northern Ireland was a form of neo-colonialism to be challenged by the Northern Irish population (especially the labour movement). In 1958, Greaves described the partition of Ireland as ‘a political arrangement designed to create and perpetuate precisely what has happened – to facilitate the expropriation of Irish capitalists by British financers, instead of by Irish workers’.[11] In the same year, John Hostettler suggested that Northern Ireland existed in the liminal space between a colony and part of the United Kingdom, with practices by the British having ‘the same pattern in the colonies’, but also ‘so near home’ that government and policing practices could be transferred to British sphere.[12]

The CPGB, as the Communist Party at the metropole of the largest empire at that time, were dedicated to anti-colonialism and fostering links with anti-colonial movements across the Empire. Unlike its support for the insurgent national liberation movements that emerged in the British colonies, such as in Malaya, Kenya and Nigeria, the CPGB chose to support the united Irish labour movement (including the Irish Workers League), rather than the more militarised republican movement embodied by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. In the post-war era, the CPGB leadership under Harry Pollitt resolved that armed insurrection, akin to what occurred in October 1917, was a foolish adventure for Western Communist Parties, and endorsed a parliamentary road to socialism, based on capturing the trade unions and building an alliance between Labour and the Communist Party. Despite the military presence of the British in Northern Ireland, the CPGB viewed the socio-political conditions of Ireland as similar to Britain and believed that focusing on developing the strength of the labour movement to gain political power, rather than armed rebellion, which was happening elsewhere in the British Empire. In 1947, the CPGB hosted a conference that brought Communist and Workers’ Parties from across the British Empire to London. At this conference, a representative from the IWL pronounced:

Our policy is aimed to bring about a strong united labour movement which, in alliance with the working farmers and progressive forces, will provide the country with a Government which can direct it along the path of advance to socialism.[13]

iwl

The Party called for the remaining British troops stationed in the North to be removed, but believed that this could done peacefully. In some instances, the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as more akin to the political landscape in Scotland or Wales, thus requiring a strategy of progressive devolution-cum-independence, rather than the strategy of insurgent national liberation needed in many other colonies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist Party advocated for devolution in Scotland and Wales, with their own parliaments, but keeping within the United Kingdom, but saw Northern Ireland as a superficial entity that needed to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. For example, in the 1958 version of The British Road to Socialism, the Party stated:

The withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland is necessary to end the enforced partition of Ireland, and leave the Irish people free to establish their united Republic.[14]

Speaking on the national question in Marxism Today in 1968, leading Welsh Party member Idris Cox wrote ‘Northern Ireland would have no part as such in a British federal system’ as envisaged by the CPGB at that time.[15] However Greaves, with his focus on Ireland, was one of the few in the late 1960s in favour of full self-determination for Scotland and Wales, as well as the break-up of the United Kingdom.[16]

Relationship with militant Republicans and NICRA

Supporting the push for civil rights for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, as well as an end to the ‘police state’ present in the North, the Party was sympathetic to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which included people from the Communist Party of Northern Ireland and the Wolfe Tone Society. After a series of civil rights marches were attacked by the police and Loyalist gangs in August 1968, Labour Monthly (edited by long-time CPGB figure R. Palme Dutt) published an account of these attacks by NICRA and CPNI member Betty Sinclair.[17]

The relationship with Sinn Fein and the IRA, despite some links between them, the Wolfe Tone Society and the Connolly Association, was much more fractious for most of the 1960s. In a bulletin published by the CPGB’s International Department in 1968, the Party wrote that Sinn Fein’s United Irishman newspaper ‘increasingly reflects the interests of petit-bourgeoisie and small independent capitalists’, but welcomed the leftwards turn that Sinn Fein had taken in the mid-1960s.[18] Even the Connolly Association asserted in July 1966 that it favoured ‘the political strength of the working class movement’ to the ‘power of the gun’ proposed by Seamus Costello,[19] at that time a leading figure in the IRA.

an-phoblacht-no-8-nov-dec-1966Despite taking a leftwards turn, some within the militant Republican movement were highly critical of the criticisms made by the Connolly Association, with the Cork based Irish Revolutionary Fighters, describing the Association’s position on the armed struggle as ‘reactionary politics’[20] and writing in 1966:

We would suggest that the protégés of the Connolly Association… return to the orbit of the British Communist Party, and keep their cotton-picking-fingers [sic] out of our business.[21]

It also had harsh words for the CPGB, doubting its revolutionary character and describing it as ‘nothing more than the “servant boy” of British imperial interests’.[22]

The outbreak of the conflict in 1968 and the arrival of British troops in Derry in 1969 changed the outlook of the British left towards what was happening in Northern Ireland and the wider ‘Irish Question’. The CPGB continued to call for mass movement to fight for civil rights in the north and against the British presence in the statelet, while some Trotskyist groups, such as the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, ‘critically’ supported the Provisional IRA after the split within the Irish Republican movement in 1969-70. Like many other social movements that the CPGB was involved in, the Party had been at the forefront of building solidarity between the British and Irish labour movements for the purpose of a reunited Ireland, but was slowly overtaken by more radical groups in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

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[1] V.I. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch08.htm (accessed 6 January, 2015).

[2] Letter of Anglo-American Secretariat to Ireland RE: elections (7 January, 1932), Comintern Archives, RGASPI 495/89/75/1. As cited in, David Convery, ‘Internationalism or Paternalism? Relations Between British and Irish Communists, 1920-1941’ (forthcoming).

[3] See: Richard English, ‘Socialism and Republican Schism in Ireland: The Emergence of the Republican Congress in 1934’, Irish Historical Studies, 27/105 (May 1990) pp. 48-65. As cited in Convery, ‘Internationalism or Paternalism?’

[4] Jim Shields, ‘The Republican Congress and Ireland’s Fight’, Labour Monthly (November 1934) p. 687.

[5] David Convery, ‘Revolutionary Internationalists: Irish Emigrants in the Spanish Civil War’, in Mícheál Ó hAodha & Máirtín Ó Catháin, New Perspectives on the Irish Abroad: The Silent People? (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books 2014) pp. 131-144.

[6] Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen & Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991 (London: Rivers Oram Press, 2007) p. 201.

[7] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association? Constitution and Explanation (Derby: Connolly Association, 1963) p. 1.

[8] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association?, p. 2.

[9] Kenneth Sheehy, ‘In the Shadow of Gunmen: The Wolfe Tone Society, 1963-1969’, unpublished paper, https://www.academia.edu/8441579/In_the_Shadow_of_Gunmen_The_Wolfe_Tone_Society_1963-1969 (accessed 30 November, 2016).

[10] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association?, p. 14.

The CPGB had close relationships with both the NCCL and the MCF, with some Party members holding leadership positions in both organisations. See: Christopher Moores, ‘From Civil Liberties to Human Rights? British Civil Liberties Activism and Universal Human Rights’, Contemporary European History, 21/2 (May 2012) pp. 179-181; Josiah Brownell, ‘The Taint of Communism: The Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1954-70’, Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2007, pp. 235-258.

[11] C. Desmond Greaves, ‘What of Northern Ireland?’, World News (12 July, 1958) p. 438.

[12] John Hostettler, ‘Northern Ireland’, Marxism Today (November 1958) p. 332.

[13] W. McCullough, ‘Ireland’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 60.

[14] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1958) p. 24.

[15] Idris Cox, ‘The National Problem in Britain’, Marxism Today (June 1968) p. 191.

[16] Desmond Greaves, ‘The National Problem in Britain’, Marxism Today (October 1968) p. 312.

[17] Betty Sinclair, ‘Aftermath of Derry’, Labour Monthly (December 1968) pp. 555-559.

[18] CPGB International Department, International Affairs Bulletin: Ireland, 3/1 (May/June 1968) p. 8.

[19] ‘Force or Agreement?’, Irish Democrat (July 1966) p. 3.

[20] Paddy Mac, ‘The Neo-Parnellites: Irish Democrat Flies True Colours’, An Phoblacht, 7 (September 1966) p. 11.

[21] ‘The Yahoos and An Phoblacht’, An Phoblacht, 8 (November/December 1966) p. 7.

[22] ‘Wolfe Tone Society Exposed’, An Phoblacht, 9 (January 1967) p. 8.

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One comment

  1. Interesting piece. This covers similar ground. The CPGB, the Connolly Association and Irish communism, 1945–1962
    Labor History Vol. 58 , Iss. 5, 2017
    Patrick Smylie

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