Centenary of Irish ‘Free State’ – bloody counter revolution carried through

One of the first actions of the 1922 Irish 'Free State' regime was the execution of opposition republican figures, including Liam Mellows (statue above, Galway), a leading anti-Treatyite figure and an influential exponent of the ideas of workers’ leader, James Connolly

Today, 6 December, marks the formal centenary of the creation of the ‘Free State’ in Ireland, comprising 26 of the 32 counties on the island, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty. One of the first actions of the new right-wing, militarised bourgeois state was the killing of imprisoned opposition republican figures, including Liam Mellows. Mellows was a leading anti-Treatyite figure and an influential exponent of the ideas of the great Marxist and workers’ leader, James Connolly, who was executed by the British state after the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Irish Times, once a mouthpiece of Unionism in Ireland, comments on the centenary: “One of the first acts of the Free State government was to execute four republican prisoners in retaliation for the murder of pro-Treaty TD Sean Hales. Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey were summarily shot without even the pretence of a trial on the morning of December 8th, 1922. This shocking act caused the Labour leader Tom Johnson, who was also the leader of the opposition, to tell the government that it had almost “killed the State at its birth”.

The Civil War led to a substantial section of the population not recognising the State when it was established, though Fianna Fáil would eventually de facto recognise it by participating in the Dáil [Irish parliament] from 1927, albeit under duress…The other reason for the lack of euphoria was the reality of partition.” (IT, 06/12/22)

Below we carry excerpts of a speech by Séamus Smyth addressed to a packed workshop on partition in Ireland, which was part of the November 2022 ‘Socialism’ event in London (hosted by the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)). Séamus looks at the often neglected role of organised labour and the working class during the events of revolution and counter-revolution in Ireland from 1913 to 1922.


“In the last two years of the First World War, prior to partition taking place (which divided Ireland into two constitutional territories), we saw the beginnings of a revival of class struggle in Ireland, after several years of heavy defeats. The ITGWU union began to reorganise itself, building a national structure and organisation, and in 1918 went on a new offensive.

One example would be on April 20th, 1918, when a special Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party conference of 1,500 delegates was convened and decided to call for a one-day general strike against military conscription to the British army. Three days later, the one-day strike brought the greatest shutdown that had ever been seen in Ireland.

Although this strike didn’t see its full potential in the North, there was huge support for this strike amongst Protestant and Catholic workers.  We must remember that there was a huge anti-war sentiment in Europe at this time and across Ireland – it wasn’t just a southern Ireland factor.

Nationalist and Unionist historians would say it showed divisions amongst national and religious lines but that’s not the case. There was no strike in the North only because the trade union leaders hesitated and did not call the one-day walkout in Belfast and in other northern towns and cities. But still, the 10,000 who demonstrated at Belfast City Hall (which was 3% of the city’s population, at that time) showed the anti-conscription mood was present there and that they wanted the moderate and hesitant trade union leaders to wake up.

But that said, the strike showed the power of the working class and gave it confidence. It was a taste of what was yet to come.

We have seen this again and again in the North. It’s worth mentioning the unofficial action taken by the 60,000-strong Belfast engineering workers, linking the struggle alongside the Glasgow workers fighting for shorter hours and better pay.

The strike lasted from late January to late February 1919. Although the strikers were mostly Protestant, there were Catholics employed in the industry and they came out also. The strike committee likewise was mainly Protestant, but several Catholics were prominent within it.

The strike lasted a month and far-reaching class conclusions were being drawn.

Yet the proponents of Ulster Unionists would claim ‘separate development’ prior to partition and play down the significance of this strike, exaggerating sectarian differences, and always searching to understate the events of the workers’ movement. Right-wing nationalists echoed this approach of downplaying and undermining the role of the workers’ movement during these tumultuous years.

The national struggle for independence

The growing struggle of the workers’ movement in 1918 was paralleled by an escalation of the national struggle for independence. The limited independence or ‘Home Rule’ that was spearheaded by the nationalist leader, John Redmond, held no place during a fast change of mass consciousness and the more radical climate of the time. We see that the 1918 general election was swept by Sinn Fein, with its call for outright independence to be achieved through political struggle, not just by negotiation at Westminster.

The newly elected Sinn Fein members refused to take their seats at Westminster and set up their own Irish parliament in 1919.

Obviously, there were exceptions to the election results in the mainly Protestant and Unionist north-east of the country. Yet the workers’ movement was developing in tandem with the industrial and socialist offensives that were being seen, just like elsewhere in Ireland. But when it came to the national question, building and maintaining class unity was more difficult.

This was because Sinn Fein’s programme, despite some of its radical rhetoric borrowed from the workers’ movement, was put aside and would not be central to an ‘independent’ capitalist Ireland. Sinn Fein’s message to labour was that your separate demands must wait. Independence first and other social and economic changes only for discussion, later, were the clear message from the right wing of Sinn Fein to the workers’ movement. This was shown in practice when the local courts set up by Sinn Fein and backed physically by the IRA were used to end cattle drives (the taking of cattle from landlords and dividing the livestock amongst the tenants and labourers) and land seizures in the rural areas.

But just as a capitalist Home Rule held no attraction for Protestant workers, neither did a capitalist independent Ireland. Protestant workers could only have been won to a national struggle if this was part of a struggle for socialism and was fought not under the banner of Irish nationalism but that of internationalism.

Instead of striving to take the leadership of the national struggle, which they were well poised to do, the ITUC&LP leaders continually capitulated to Sinn Fein. For example, in mid-1918, the ITUC & LP decided to stand in the forthcoming general election. However, the ITUC & LP leadership made no preparations to stand, held no special selection meetings, and mounted no campaigns in local areas. Their lack of preparation and compromise with Sinn Fein was bound to provoke opposition.

But despite the leadership of both Sinn Fein and Labour pointing for the movement to go for a capitalist independent Ireland, within the movement itself there was an opposite tendency, strengthened in every struggle, which pulled in a different direction. In the south, the ranks of the labour movement and of Sinn Fein were beginning to go far beyond the programme of their middle-class leaders. They were embracing the idea, not just of a republic but of a workers’ republic or, as it was often put, of a ‘soviet republic’. The Protestant working class in the north were also unmistakably moving in the direction of socialism and of internationalism.

The movement saw that the actions of labour leaders, like that of William O’Brien, pointed to division, to the isolation of the advanced workers from the broad mass of the working class, especially in the north. But with the broadening and deepening of the class struggle, the policies and ideas of O’Brien and other reformist leaders were being challenged. From below, a socialist consciousness was being developed, and socialist goals were being advanced. North and south, Protestant and Catholic, the working class were advancing, at an accelerating pace, in the direction of unity around socialist ideas.

And you could see that up and down all of Ireland. To say that the fight for independence was solely nationalist is wrong.  Yes, you could argue that Sinn Fein leaders like Arthur Griffiths and Eamonn de Valera were looking for capitalist independence but the movement in many areas, at a rank-and-file level, was overtly turning to socialism.


At this time the outstanding union organiser, Peadar O’Donnell, from county Donegal, was leading huge struggles in parts of the north. He aided the bringing together of Protestant and Catholic mill workers in Caledon, in Co. Tyrone, where it was a 50-50 mix of religion during that strike.  One of the first ‘Soviet councils’ formed outside of the Soviet Union was in Ulster. Led by O’Donnell, the ‘soviet’ Monaghan Hospital workers occupied their workplace, creating an organising committee with the demands of workers’ control, aiming to spread it through the rest of Monaghan town. Not only did the Royal Irish Constabulary try to stop this occupation but so too did the local leadership of the IRA, which was backed by the Sinn Fein courts, as well.

But with that, the Monaghan Soviet, in essence, gave the green light to other areas in the country to declare not just strike committees and walkouts but also for workers to take over their workplaces. The Limerick Soviet in April 1919 was another key example.

Even though the Limerick soviet lasted for only two weeks, the mood of the rank and file forced the leadership to go further than their mandate to call for a general strike on May Day 1919. The ITUC & LP leadership issued this call in Ireland and were met with a massive display of workers taking action. Across the country, the shutdown was complete, in towns, large and small.

But again, in the north, much of Belfast didn’t take part. In some areas, the reason was simply that local union leaders did not call workers out. In Belfast, the ITUC & LP’s courtship with Sinn Fein meant that its authority was not automatically accepted in that city. Elsewhere, the ITGWU provided some form of leadership of the strike.

But that said, two days later, on May 3rd, 100,000 in Belfast took action. At Ormeau Park, in Belfast, a huge rally took place. The rally was so large that three platforms had been erected so that speakers could address the crowds simultaneously. The message from the platforms was of support for socialist ideas, acclaim for the Russian Revolution and for internationalism. Its main theme was the need for “undiluted, uncamouflaged representatives” of labour to stand in elections to challenge the other parties, both Sinn Fein and the Unionists.

At the same time, the proposal for partition was already well-advanced. The Government of Ireland Act, which implemented partition in Ireland, was going through its second readings in Westminster.

Regarding the national question, the workers’ movement, north and south, had already been pulled in different directions.

Just as the engineering strike in the north saw unionist ideas put to the side, to be replaced by socialist and internationalist ideas, so the 1920 strike showed the potential for the working class acting from below to go beyond the tail-ending by its leaders of Sinn Fein and its middle-class ideas and take the leadership of the national struggle. Although starting from different points, the working class throughout the country could have been united politically, as well as industrially, under a socialist platform.

The tendency for the movement in all parts of the country to dovetail politically was apparent right into 1920 and 1921. Although the national leadership of the ITUC&LP had embraced the middle-class ideas of Sinn Fein from 1918 onwards, socialists in the north refused to endorse this course, and instead went beyond the limitations of the Irish Labour Party.

Belfast Labour

We saw this when Belfast Labour candidates stood in 35 seats in the 1918 general election. Sinn Fein stood against them in every seat. But the Belfast labour candidates managed to prevent this from driving Protestant workers towards the unionists. The Belfast Labour Party manifesto opposed the politics of “Celt against Saxon, Catholic against Protestant”.

Thirty-five Labour or union-backed candidates stood in Belfast, with 22 of them in the name of the Belfast Labour Party.

And again, it shows that when the workers’ movement stood independently, as in these elections, the result was significant moves towards a movement, north and south, behind socialist policies and gains made.

But again and again, old divisions and the tragic alliance of the Labour leadership with Sinn Fein would bring forward continuous setbacks and ultimate defeats.

British capitalism, desperate to protect its rule in Ireland, partitioned Ireland to suit its own end.  From 1918-21, the social and national revolt in Ireland threatened to overspill in the direction of the socialist revolution. Had that happened, it would have triggered a revolution in Britain also.  We have to remember the ‘Great Unrest’ of 1911- 1914 in Britain, of widespread industrial struggles, was coming back to the fore. So the ruling class needed to do something to derail and defeat this developing movement of workers’ unity of Catholics and Protestants in the North, while, at the same time, hindering the process of independence.

The British government’s banning of the Dail (the Irish parliament that was dominated by Sinn Fein), the launch of a brutal British military campaign against the newly formed IRA, widespread military curfews, internment without trial, the policy of military reprisals, court martial for ‘treason’ and replaced coroner’s inquests with closed military courts of inquiry – these measures amounted to harsh martial law throughout Ireland.

The British government’s Restoration of Order Act attempted to slow down the movement of independence and the gains being made by the working class. However such repressive measures ultimately drove the working class more and more into the national struggle – as the 1920 strikes showed. An example was the rail workers in Ireland refusing to transport military personnel or supplies. British imperialist policy in Ireland was also bringing opposition in Britain. The British Labour Party eventually organised a mass campaign of some 500 well-attended rallies all over the country, demanding peace in Ireland.

The British army chiefs were not confident that they could hold the line by military means. The fact that they had to draft in irregulars, the notorious ‘Black and Tans’, and other axillary forces, to Ireland, was a sign that the army was becoming over-stretched.

In the north, the working class was not only with the rest of the working class in Ireland but was also a bridge to the industrial movements in Britain, as well.


The Home Rule Bill was technically coming into being and the government was required to come up with a decision on whether to scrap it or put it into operation. And rather than scrapping it, they modified it and put forward a new proposal for two parliaments in Ireland.

The purpose of this was to partition the country and divide the working class. At the same time, this allowed the British government to pursue its tactic of splitting Sinn Fein and the independence movement and to allow the British ruling class to divide Ireland. Ultimately, it was to weaken Sinn Fein and divide the working class, as a whole, at the same time.

While this was going through Westminster in 1920-21, Unionist leaders started a huge attack on the workers’ movement to break the unity between Catholic and Protestant workers.

Unionist leaders, like Edward Carson and James Craig, invited attacks on the trade unions and other organisations of the working class. Many workers were expelled from their workplaces in the North and over 7,000 workers were blacklisted. Some 2,000 of them were Protestants.  This was a huge turning point for the labour movement in the North, and in Ireland, as a whole. The tendency of united action by workers, Catholic and Protestant, north and south, was thrown into reverse.

In response, Sinn Fein organised a boycott of Belfast goods throughout the rest of Ireland, but this enforced the growing separation of Protestants in the north from the rest of the working class. This was especially so when, despite the initial opposition of Cathal O’Shannon and some on the left of the unions, the ITGWU gave its active support to the boycott.

And with trade union leaders expelled and blacklisted from northern factories, the gains won over the previous four years of the mass united action of workers were gone, and the idea of fighting back against the bosses or re-organise the unions was very difficult to promote in these extreme circumstances.

In comparison, in the south, the industrial movement continued. It did not decisively end until the defeat of a series of important strikes by dockers, farm labourers in County Waterford, and other well-organised sections of the working class in 1923. Tragically, the ruling class were successful in removing the biggest potential threat to their rule; the possibility of a united movement of the working class of Ireland.

Although the British ruling class didn’t achieve all its aims, the Government of Ireland Act put British capitalism in a better position in Ireland than it had seemed possible only a few months before. With a divided territory and a divided working class, it was easier to lean on one part of the country while dealing blows against the other.

It was in the best interests of the British ruling class to bolster the new northern state due to it being the most industrialised part of Ireland and with strategic military bases. At the same time, the British government allowed the Unionists to dominate the administration of the new Northern Ireland statelet through gerrymandering, which was necessary to take councils, such as Derry city council, out of Catholic/nationalist control. Institutional anti-Catholic discrimination was necessary to make Protestant workers feel that they would get better treatment and so encourage them to throw their lot in with their unionist employers rather than with Catholic workers.

The whole rotten, repressive system was necessary to keep workers divided, and to ensure that politics always equalled religion in the North. The Unionists’ historic ‘ill treatment’ of the Catholic minority was not an error but was their only way of guaranteeing themselves a permanent majority in the new Stormont parliament in Northern Ireland.

Sectarianism remains

But partition, while it created one solution for the British ruling class, it also created huge problems on a capitalist basis; the creation of not one but two sectarian, impoverished states. The northern state was, justifiably, unacceptable on a permanent basis to the Catholic working class but at the same time, the Southern state was also unacceptable to the Protestant working class.

Things have changed a great deal since 1922, north and south, but there still can be no capitalist solution to sectarian division. Only a return to the ideas of a mass united working class action can show a way out.”

For a further Marxist analysis of Ireland and the national question from the CWI archives:




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December 2022