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Communists and the Irish Civil War

The historian and author Charlie McGuire outlines the role played by communists in the Irish Civil War

This article originally appeared in Scottish Socialist Voice. Charlie McGuire is a history researcher at the University of Teeside, Middlesbrough. His book Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland was published by Cork University Press in 2008.

The Irish civil war of 1922–23 is one of the most neglected events in Irish history. In contrast to the Tan war of 1919–21, a celebrated event about which a great deal has been written, very little attention has been paid to a conflict that not only exacted a heavier toll in terms of casualties, but was also more significant in shaping subsequent political divisions within the southern state itself.
     Ken Loach's acclaimed film The Wind That Shakes the Barley is perhaps the first film to look in any detail at the nature of the divides that existed within the Irish independence movement, and the manner in which these worsened after the signing of the December 1921 Treaty.
     Leaving aside the predictable hostility from the armchair imperialists of the English Tory press, most serious critical comment concerning the film has been positive and has recognised the importance of opening up a debate on this important period in modern Irish history. It is as a contribution in this direction that this article on the experience of communists in the Irish civil war is intended.
     The Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) was formed in October 1921. Its president was Roddy Connolly, the son of James, and himself a 15-year old boy soldier during the Easter rising. Other notable figures included fellow-1916 veterans, Sean McLoughlin and Paddy Stephenson, and Glaswegian socialist exile, George Pollock.
     The political situation into which the new party was born was that of an uneasy peace between the IRA and the British state. Following a two-year war, a truce had been agreed and negotiations were under way. Indeed, it had been the prospect of more relaxed political conditions that had persuaded the communists to come out into the open and set up their new party. Previously, Irish communists had been operating underground, with some joining the IRA and attempting to spread socialist ideas from within the organisation.
     The CPI was sceptical of the negotiations that were taking place. In the aftermath of the Treaty, which copper-fastened the partition of Ireland, and installed a pro-imperialist government into power in the new semi-colonial twenty-six county Free State, it became the first political party to oppose it. Roddy Connolly argued that in return for a share in the spoils of the British Empire and the exploitation of Irish workers, the Sinn Féin leaders, and the upper section of the Irish bourgeoisie that was now backing them, had both destroyed the independence movement and strengthened British imperialism.
      From December 1921 onwards, the CPI argued that civil war was inevitable and that the anti-treaty majority within the IRA should prepare for it. This did not happen, however. Instead, rejecting a class analysis of the Treaty, the anti-treaty IRA leaders plumped for a strategy based on diplomatic manoeuvring, designed to restore unity with their Free State counterparts. It was an approach that disempowered and ultimately paralysed the IRA rank-and-file. When civil war finally broke out, on 28 June, the Free Staters quickly crushed the IRA in Dublin, forcing hundreds of republicans to flee south to Munster, large parts of which were controlled for the time being by the anti-treatyites.
     Many CPI members fought alongside the IRA in Dublin. After the fall of the republican garrisons, Connolly and Pollock travelled to London. There, they met Mikhail Borodin, an executive member of the Communist International. Borodin had been dispatched by Moscow to assist the CPI. Together, the three drew up a socialist programme, containing such demands as the nationalisation of industry, land re-distribution, the abolition of all rents and the arming of the workers.
     Aware of the explosion of labour militancy in parts of Munster, where several soviets had been established by striking workers, the plan was to encourage the IRA leadership to set up a provisional government in Cork, and, by using the socialist programme to win support from workers and small farmers, turn the tide of war against the Free State government.
     Connolly, accompanied by Seán McLoughlin, duly travelled to Cork and presented the IRA leader, Liam Lynch, with the socialist programme. Reinforcing the communist position, McLoughlin wrote an accompanying article in the CPI journal in which he stated:
Victory lies with the side that can attract to itself the masses, the workers of the towns and cities and the landless peasants. Republicans here is your chance. With the workers behind you, the Free State lapses into the black hell from whence it came.
     But whilst Lynch was sympathetic in principle to the programme, he appeared more concerned with organising a purely military campaign to defeat the Free State. As a result, the programme was not implemented.
     This, however, was not the end of the CPI-IRA collaboration. McLoughlin left Connolly in Tipperary, and took command of an IRA flying column that operated mainly in east Limerick. There, he used his influence to spread socialist ideas within the local republican movement. Séamus McGowan was another leading communist who joined the IRA and amongst the dozen or so jailed by the Free State. Connolly meanwhile travelled to Berlin, then Moscow, in order to put together an arms deal for the IRA. This was unsuccessful, but was further evidence of the degree to which the communists were willing to go in support of the IRA campaign.
     The input of the CPI did have an effect on the IRA. Liam Mellows, the imprisoned IRA leader, wrote from his cell that the IRA should set up a provisional government in Cork and implement the socialist programme advocated by the CPI. He also expressed his interest in joining the CPI. So too did his fellow-imprisoned IRA officer Joe McKelvey. Peadar O'Donnell, a member of the IRA GHQ, had gone a step further and actually joined the CPI by this stage.
     Unfortunately, however, those within the IRA leadership on the outside did not push the struggle leftwards or mobilise the workers against the Free State. This left the republican campaign isolated. By mid-August, Cork, and every other Munster town, had fallen to the Free State. By October, the Free State felt confident enough to begin a policy of executing republican prisoners. Mellows and McKelvey were amongst the first of seventy-seven who would eventually be shot by Free State firing squads. By the spring of 1923 it was all over. The neo-colonial Free State, backed by Churchill and Lloyd George, had triumphed.
     The Irish Civil War was a deeply significant conflict. It exposed starkly the class divides in the Irish independence movement and, as a result of the input of the CPI, led to a section of the IRA moving towards socialism as a means of toppling the Free State. For socialists and anti-imperialists today, it remains a conflict worthy of close study. This is because it showed clearly that any compromise with imperialism only strengthens it, and that any anti-imperialist strategy that divorces itself from the struggles of the working class will either end up angling for such a compromise, or be powerless to prevent it.

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