In 1910, the year that James Connolly returned to Ireland from the US, the British Liberal government introduced a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.
Unionist bosses mounted fierce resistance under the leadership of Tory lawyer and landowner Edward Carson.
Carson wanted to secure British profits in Ireland. He knew that Irish labour could be defeated if workers could be persuaded to look to their religion and not their class.
Bosses in the Home Rule Party opposed British rule but rejected republicanism and the notion of armed struggle. Sinn Fein, a more radical bourgeois nationalism led by Arthur Griffin, sought a complete break with Britain.
But in 1913 Ireland split across class lines. The employing class united to join with the British state to try and break the militant Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). Dublin was the key battleground.
The Dublin employers had a powerful federation of 400 firms, led by William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin Tram Company and member of the Home Rule Party. In August Murphy locked out his workers with this ultimatum – resign from the ITGWU or stay sacked.
Sinn Fein leader Griffith sided with the employers.
As the other bosses followed suit, workers fought back. In response to starvation and police brutality they formed a workers’ defence force – the Irish Citizens Army.
Connolly and ITGWU leader James Larkin campaigned among British trade unions for food and money to feed strikers’ families and for sympathy strikes.
Food arrived in boatloads and massive sums of money were raised.
But when thousands of English railway workers struck in support of the strikers, they were ordered back to work by their union leaders. In December the British TUC withdrew all official support. The workers were defeated.
The lock-out proved that a “Free Ireland” run by the likes of Murphy and Griffith would offer working people nothing.
Mass strikes had shaken the ruling class. But the years up to 1914 saw a series of defeats for workers. In 1914 Connolly had to confront the spectre of partition, the outbreak of war and the collapse of the Second International of world socialist parties.
Throughout these terrifying times Connolly remained a revolutionary socialist. Alongside Russian revolutionary Lenin and a tiny handful of individuals he defended internationalism.
But he was isolated. The ITGWU was split over the war and in Belfast Connolly could not get members of his own Socialist Party to openly protest against the war.
In this desperate situation he looked to strike a blow against imperialism and inspire European opposition to the slaughter.
In 1916 he made an alliance with a group of Republicans who opposed partition and the war.
Connolly pushed for a rising against British rule. He hoped it would open the way for an Irish Workers’ Republic and ignite a European revolution.
On Easter Monday 1,000 Republicans along with a few hundred socialists and trade unionists took over the key buildings in central Dublin. The conspiratorial methods used meant small numbers took part in the rising.
For six days they fought the might of the British Army. Central Dublin was bombarded by heavy artillery and 1,500 people were killed.
The rebels were forced to surrender to prevent the further slaughter.
But Britain’s rulers were worried that it might inspire rebellion in other parts of their empire and they resorted to terror. The execution of Connolly and the other leaders fuelled a growing animosity to British rule.
For all its weaknesses the 1916 rebellion was the first blow against an imperial power – far more significant than all the gestures from anti-war pacifists like Labour leader Keir Hardie.
Connolly grasped that to fight war you had to fight against your own ruling class.
In his defence of the Easter Rising, Lenin wrote, “Their misfortune was to have risen prematurely, when the revolt of the European working class has not yet matured.”
Connolly didn’t break from syndicalism or from some aspects of the Second International, and failed to build any kind of socialist organisation that could carry on his fight for a workers’ republic after his execution.
But he was one of the finest socialists of his generation. His contribution to the socialist movement is considerable and his anti imperialism is an inspiration today.
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