Irish Class Relations 1920s-1960

  • The great blunder of the 1930s Republican Congress … An analysis of the state of Ireland on the eve of applying to join the EEC

[This important article by Desmond Greaves was carried in the January 1960 “Irish Democrat” under the title “21 Years”, as that issue marked twenty-one years since the Connolly Association’s monthly paper was established.  The next year, 1961, saw the population of the Republic of Ireland fall to its lowest ever level – 2.8 million people. In that year also the politicians representing the class which Greaves calls Ireland’s “national-bourgeoisie” responded to the crisis situation which the final two sections of the article describes by applying to join the EEC, later the European Union – thereby subsuming their class interests henceforth into those of their British and continental counterparts. This insightful analysis of the class relations that led to this situation remains relevant to Ireland today. Greaves’s judgement on what he terms the “great blunder” of the 1934 Republican Congress, which led to the split in Ireland’s republican forces in that decade, with major long-term consequences, is pertinent to any realistic analysis of twentieth-century Irish history.] 

Politically speaking, the years 1939-1960 have seen in the Twenty-Six Counties the unshaken supremacy of that class known as the “national bourgeoisie” – that is to say, of those private enterprise interests whose sources of wealth are mainly rooted in Irish soil.

What this means in practise, who might conceivably challenge them, and on what basis, we may consider later. Let us ask first, how did they manage to maintain themselves so successfully? For the Irish State is the most stable in Western Europe, the only one with an independent foreign policy and, despite imperfections we all know of, has a higher degree of formal political democracy than any other state in this part of the world. It is not something to apologise for, that is certain.

This extraordinary stability has been favoured by world conditions, the absence of any severe worldwide trade depression ­– with its especially catastrophic effect on agricultural exporters – being the main one. Prices have shown a stability contrasting sharply with the fluctuation of the previous two decades. The long Indian summer of British imperialism, dragging on like a vintage September, has provided an influx of tourists whose contribution has become a most important item in the inward balance of payments, and a place for the Irish unemployed to go to. 

Under these conditions the ruling class of the Twenty-Six Counties has been able to come to a “modus vivendi” with British imperialism very different from the unconcealed antagonism of the ‘thirties, and to expand Irish national capital without making serious inroads on imperial interests, while allowing them indeed a certain, though not unlimited, expansion. They have played a complex game with considerable skill.

The Compromise

The compromise of the last twenty-one years is not the compromise of 1921. From 1916 to 1921 the Irish national movement was revolutionary. It was powered by the discontent of have-not classes, workers, working farmers and intellectuals. The big bourgeoisie had grown up under the umbrella of British expansion and stood for “Home Rule”, a reform which would have certified them as well-paid agents in the exploitation of Ireland.

The revolution of 1916-21 shattered the political organisation of this class and it has never recovered it to this day. Instead, it has expressed itself through a split in the national bourgeois party which replaced it, namely the old Sinn Fein. It was able to do so because economically it remained strong. When in 1919-20 Sinn Fein began to relax measures against landlords, ranchers and non-national businessmen – who were prepared to express support for national independence once it seemed to be getting on top – the workers and working farmers grew disillusioned. That is why they failed to respond in 1922. The Treaty expressed essentially “Home Rule” interests – the interests of the British-linked Irish capitalists – but dressed them in the trappings of the Republic.

But the land annuities, the oath of allegiance, the Governor-General, the bases at Berehaven and Lough Swilly, to say nothing of partition, reminded constantly that Ireland was not free. The historic importance of Liam Mellows is that he was prepared to appeal to and set in motion once more the workers and working farmers. Whether this was possible at the time need not concern us – that was his greatness, that he thought of doing it. But not till De Valera entered the Dail with a programme of removing the worst features of and transforming the 1921 compromise, did the national bourgeoisie have a policy whose dangers they did not fear, and a party they could support. 

 Class Power

That there was a real shift in class power and not merely an apparent one in 1932 is shown by one simple circumstance. The scattered remnants of the old Redmondite party linked with the Cumann na nGael under O’Duffy, with a programme of restoring the treaty position by force. These were the blueshirts. They were prepared to suspend the constitution and introduce Fascism rather than let De Valera carry out the national-bourgeois desire to change the treaty position.

What was De Valera doing? He was abolishing the oath of allegiance, retaining the land annuities, and releasing from prison the leaders of the Republican middle class who had a big proportion of the workers and working farmers behind them. British imperialism struck as hard and as foolishly as ever. The trade war began. Confronted with enemies at home and abroad, and depending for his support on allies who would replace him if he drew back, De Valera was compelled to set in motion once again, and increasingly for a spell of some three years, those basic forces of the Irish revolution which the preceding regime had tried to repress. The national-bourgeoisie was thus in deadly peril. It had helped to call up forces it might not be able to control.

Yet by 1939 it was seated safely and soundly in the saddle, never even to suffer a serious wobble. How was it done?

The Great Blunder

 The correct tactic for those who wanted to rid Ireland completely of British imperialism at this time must surely have been to give Fianna Fail the kind of support that made it impossible for them to draw back. The national-bourgeoisie who were behind them would of course accept it up to a point, but beyond that point they would try to disembarrass themselves of their allies and try to rule independently. Indeed for a time they ruled with the support of Labour, but threw them aside at the first opportunity.

Wisdom for anti-imperialists lay not in breaking with the national-bourgeois party but in forcing it to submit to the alliance, refusing to allow it to break up the alliance when it had achieved its own immediate objectives. This was possible because a capitalist party can never consist exclusively of capitalists, and through its policy on land annuities Fianna Fail had won the small and medium farmers and depended on keeping their support.

Why was this not done? It was not necessarily that nobody thought of it. It may be that conditions just did not work out right. Opportunities may have been missed. Wrong advice may have been heeded. The right people may not have been there. That’s an old story. We can say what we like about the past and it can’t reply. But of the relevant factors some can be disentangled.

The long experience of revolution, civil war, counter-revolution and oppression had kept the republican leaders out of politics for many years. Those of them, such as Mellows and Childers, who grasped the decisiveness of politics at the close of the civil war had been ruthlessly executed. The generation of republican leaders which now came to the fore had an exclusively military experience and outlook. The upsurge of 1932, coming in the midst of a world economic crisis, threw politics at them. They could not escape.

But politics is something where experience counts terribly. There is so much to be learned. If the Republican demand could have in some way been wedded to the working class movement, then the national front would have been secure and De Valera dare not split it. Slowly the republican leaders turned their faces towards political action, towards cooperation with other parties. One after another confessed this need. Meanwhile Labour was breaking out from the narrow confines of trade union routine and making far-reaching demands. Nineteen-thirty-four could have been Ireland’s year of destiny.

What happened? The most advanced elements grew impatient. They accused the anti- political republicans of wanting an accommodation with Fianna Fail – which was not necessarily an error if they did – and established a new organisation in which Labour and Republican supporters both combined. This was the ill-starred Republican Congress, the most terrible mistake of 20th-century Ireland. 

It was wrong on so many counts that it needs to be insisted that in the conditions of those days – turbulent quick-changing days, nothing like the present, and moreover days before people we now understand perfectly well had revealed their true nature –  very fine honest intelligent people believed that it was a good thing. It split the Republican movement from top to bottom.

The resentment which was created led to the appalling scenes at Bodenstown in 1936. Labour lost faith in the Republican alliance and drifted swiftly down the path of opportunism. And many of the best elements of Irish Republicanism lost their lives nobly and gloriously, but fighting for a republic in Spain.

It was this general situation which gave De Valera his opportunity to make the national bourgeoisie the sole ruler of Ireland. Some Republicans were mollified with pensions. Not of course that they were not entitled to pensions; but many refused them. Others were put back in gaol. The Republican organisation was penetrated and broken up from within.

The movement of the nineteen-thirties linked with the democratic movement of all Europe. In those days at Tone’s grave at Bodenstown representatives of many nations would come to pay their respects to the father of Republicanism in the first country to give it a national liberating form. This grand movement lay in ruins within a few years.


The national bourgeoisie were further helped to secure themselves by the gathering war crisis. Mr Chamberlain gave back the Irish ports so as to help De Valera in his efforts to destroy republicanism – not from love of Ireland as some have imagined. At the outbreak of war, when, after some hesitancy De Valera declared for and ably maintained the policy of neutrality, he and his class represented what seemed to the interests of the whole Irish nation.

Another factor favourable to the stabilisation of the Fianna Fail compromise was the situation in the Six Counties. Up to the late nineteen-thirties it was taken for granted that any genuine socialist came out openly against partition. It is a pity it cannot be taken for granted today. The change took place during the war, when there were obvious difficulties in the way of coordinating policies for the two parts of a country when one of them was at war and the other was neutral.

The Fianna Fail compromise was that while the national bourgeoisie was to be supreme within the Twenty-Six Counties it would tolerate the Six Counties on a provisional basis, awaiting an opportunity to recover it safely, and meanwhile pro-imperialist groupings might operate safely so long as they behaved themselves and did nothing outrageous enough to recreate the mass upsurge of the previous decade.

It was paid a very peculiar compliment. It was given its logical completion by the Mac Bride- Costello Coalition which withdrew the Twenty-Six Counties from the Commonwealth politically, in order to conceal the purpose of bringing it nearer militarily and economically. And here also De Valera’s policy worked – in Costello’s hands – and his own didn’t.

The Result

How has the national bourgeoisie used its power? This question certainly needs answering before we can ask what next.

It was from 1939 onwards that the special stabilising factors in the world position came into play, and that must be remembered, since the Labour and Republican movements would have recovered within a year or two in their absence. Labour did indeed make a spectacular recovery for 1944 onwards, which was sacrificed in the incredible folly of the 1948 coalition.

The nineteen-thirties contain the political lessons. But the ‘forties and ‘fifties above all teach economic lessons. To learn them it is necessary to see what has happened in Ireland since 1939.

Leaving aside the stagnant Six Counties where the main picture is the gradual encroachment of British financial capital replacing independent firms with branches, industries for the local market by imperial industries, separate shops by chain stores, without materially altering the economic strength of the place, in the Twenty-Six Counties there has been a development of industry very spectacular considering the difficulties.

These difficulties may be summarised as follows: to develop new industry rapidly you must have industry to start with. Partition cut off the most industrialised part of Ireland and doomed it to chronic stagnation. Means of production had therefore to be purchased outside the state through cattle exports. Cattle exports meant preserving the ranches. Preserving the ranches meant diminishing agricultural output for the most productive purposes, and grass instead of tillage reduced employment while also demanding feeding- stuff imports, again to be paid for in cattle.

What has happened in these two decades is that Irish capitalism has developed as it could be expected to develop under the government of the native capitalist class. It has developed under difficulties imposed by British imperialism. But it has been largely successful in getting these difficulties carried by other classes.

Its most rectangular successes have been in sugar, turf and electricity. Ireland is self-sufficient in sugar and was adequately supplied throughout the war. The Republic is an exporter of electricity to the Six Counties. Bord na Mona has transformed the fuel situation. These three industries are state-owned, like transport. The significance of this is that the British-linked capitalists have been left free to invest abroad – as part of the modus vivendi – and the only way to raise the necessary capital has been through state loans and taxation. Thus the burden of creating these enterprises that serve the capitalist class has been borne by the workers and working farmers, who do, of course derive some benefit from them.

Its failures, if so they may be termed, have also derived from the development of capitalism. It is widely known that the population of the Twenty-Six Counties has fallen throughout the past twenty-one years. It is also known that while the human population is the lowest on record, the cattle population is the highest.

Depopulation is not by any means incompatible with capitalist progress. It is important to know who has left the country. And unfortunately it is only too clear, as the figures show. Between 1951 and 1956 Co. Leitrim lost 10.1 per cent of its population, Co. Waterford 2.5 per cent, but Co. Meath gained 0.6 per cent. Towns with less than 1,500 inhabitants lost their population, while towns with over 1,500 inhabitants grew in size.

The high emigration was from the districts populated by working farmers, both from the farms themselves and, because of the smaller population to be fed, clothed and served, from the small market towns which catered for the farms. The emigrants averaged some 50,000 a year. Obviously if they had not emigrated there would be a social explosion. They were just the classes which had formed the rank and file of the republican movement. They emigrated because the prices obtained for young cattle were not sufficient to provide the things that must be brought to breed them, without recourse to absolutely intolerable labour.

Basically, this very condition arises from imperialism in its economic aspect. Industrial goods, feeding stuffs and fertilisers are sold at monopoly prices, while small farmers are so numerous that they face virtually infinite competition. The way to protect them is for the State to set up its own fertiliser and foodstuff industries and to organise co-operation beginning with marketing. These measures, however, step beyond the existing national- bourgeois compromise. It becomes necessary to bring in other classes to press them on.

Figures show the magnitude of the problem. In 1938 there were 186,281 holdings of between one and fifty acres; in 1955 there were only 169,835. The number of holdings between 50 and 200 acres had risen from 132,880 to 137,280, that is by 4,400. In 1933 there were 45,888 shops in the Republic; in 1955 there were only 37,628. But Irish agriculture is not stagnating. It is developing. Mechanisation of the bigger farms goes parallel with the squeezing out of the smaller ones. The number of horses fell from 459,176 in 1941 to 276,400 and the Belgians are still eating them. The number of tractors has risen from 295 in 1933 to 27,887 in 1956.

What then is the essence of Ireland’s problem as illustrated in the full and excellent figures published in the Republic? It is this. Industries is developing. Agriculture is showing a technical advance, which reduces the number employed on the land. But the growth of industry is not rapid enough to absorb those who are disemployed from the land. And the conditions of production for the smaller farmers are driving off the land people who should not really be leaving it.

The situation in the Republic seems to be that there is only one thing worse than capitalist development, and that is not having enough capital development. And why is there not enough? Because the leading section of the capitalist class, the national bourgeoisie, fears to make a rapid onslaught on imperialism in Ireland on its own and is unwilling to share its responsibilities with classes which might have less respect for property than itself. While it is in two minds and keeps an uneasy peace, the population declines and its own internal market diminishes.

What Now?

 It is clear that a situation like this cannot go on forever. The logical end-point of the process is the extinction of the working farmer and the re-establishment of large landed property worked now not by tenants but by employees. Certainly this prospect, distant as it may be, of a completely capitalist agrarian system will be cold comfort for imperialist or national bourgeois – the sense of private property and its sacredness will disappear from the countryside.

But, of course, already the national-bourgeoisie are compelled to try and meet the problem, if only from the point of view of the market. This is the significance of the great efforts to bring in foreign capital, where its only obvious service to Ireland is to give employment. But this does not help the agrarian problem, where indeed the present system has no solution.

If the population falls, produce goods for export is the cry. But this involves the question of entry into outside markets, which again raises the question of foreign entry into Irish markets, with the prospect that for every export industry successfully established, a native one falls by the wayside. This is exactly the plight of the Six Counties, and an Anglo-Irish free trade area is simply to place the Republic economically where the Six Counties is today.

Added to this comes the efforts of the “attracted” industries to increase their share in the Irish economy. Anybody who has followed the Petrol Commission can see how the big oil companies are at war with each other and simultaneously are subjecting to themselves the small garage proprietors. They may next declare war on turf-fuel as they have declared war on coal in Britain. This Fianna Fail compromise is therefore not for all the time, and the sudden emergence of so much contradictory and mostly speculative “new thinking” shows that even in the height of a trade boom it is running into crisis.

This does not mean that a sensible man will at once declare Fianna Fail the enemy. On the contrary, it is even more clear than ever that British imperialism in its economic aspect is the enemy of Irish prosperity, but it cannot be defeated in this aspect unless an alliance of the progressive forces of the Irish people is pulled together to fight and defeat it in its political aspect. The real “re-thinking” that is required is upon how to create such a national front or alliance and what its programme should be. That, as stated in our editorial, can only be done finally by people resident in Ireland. But the Irish in Britain and the British Labour movement are in this too, and on the side that fights imperialist policy here in Britain.