The failure of the Irish war of independence to achieve a unified Irish republic is often attributed to the divisions between Catholic Nationalists in the South and Protestant Unionists in the North.
But this division was neither inevitable nor insurmountable. There were diverging class interests among both Catholics and Protestants.
In 1919, as the war of independence got under way, the British army was suppressing a strike for a 44-hour week involving more than 40,000 mainly Protestant workers in Belfast.
In the South, Sinn Fein, which emerged after 1916 as the dominant political party representing the Republican movement, had condemned the mainly Catholic workers who had fought against the bitter 1913 Dublin Lockout.
James Connolly, who was executed in 1916, was one of the few socialist leaders who had understood the potential for working class struggle to break the hold of both the conservative Nationalism in the South and reactionary Unionism in the North.
Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) grew rapidly to more than 100,000 members in the years leading up to the war of independence.
The ITGWU was based on syndicalism – it played down the importance of politics, but on the other hand it created a fantastic tradition of militant rank and file confidence.
After Connolly’s death, the Republican leadership was dominated by militarists such as Michael Collins or conservative Catholics like Eamon de Valera. They united to tell workers that “labour must wait” – postponing all social questions until after independence.
Tragically, the trade union movement – now dominated by bureaucrats rather than socialist visionaries – and its newly formed Labour Party accepted this argument.
When thousands of Irish workers staged a general strike against the introduction of conscription in April 1918 it was not based on an appeal to follow the example of Russian workers, who had made a revolution that pulled Russia out of the First World War.
It was called in support of a Nationalist pledge supported by the Catholic church. Almost no Protestant workers in the North took part.
It did not have to be this way. In the Belfast area workers enthusiastically took part in strikes and voted Labour. The class struggle of Protestant workers in industrialised areas of the North continually threatened to undermine the hold of Unionism.
The radical demands of the rural poor in the South were also a continual headache for the Nationalists.
In 1920, at the height of the war of liberation, land occupations became widespread. Sinn Fein proved its worth to the Irish rich by setting up land courts that upheld the rights of landlords and ruthlessly enforced evictions.
Some 40,000 of the rural labourers involved in the seizures were members of the ITGWU. But once again labour leaders put “national unity” ahead of class issues and prevented these struggles connecting to the many strikes by industrial workers.
The instinct of Irish workers was not to wait on de Valera or Collins. But, while individuals sympathetic with the Russian Revolution could gain a hearing among workers, there was no independent revolutionary party fighting for a socialist republic.
Sinn Fein dominated the political terrain. In the North, Sinn Fein restricted itself to Catholic areas working in tandem with the church hierarchy. There was no clear voice saying sectarian divisions were a product of British rule.
Unionist pogroms were whipped up to divide the movement.
In 1921, a section of the Nationalist “family” decided to cut a bad deal with the British government, accepting partition.
Most poor and the working class people in the South opposed the shoddy compromise.
But they were led by Republicans such as de Valera, not revolutionary socialists who might have waged the civil war in overtly class terms.
The war of independence mobilised tens of thousands, raising expectations that at times went far beyond what middle class Nationalists envisaged.
However, the radical potential of the Irish working class never materialised as an independent political force that could appeal to Protestant workers, oppose partition and go beyond the limits of Nationalist leaders in the South.