Back to article index
Back to Labour Values index 

Origins:  British Labour And Ireland

by Brendan Clifford

Article first published in the Irish Political Review, September 2015 


The British Labour Party And The Establishment Of The Irish Free State 1918-1924, by Ivan Gibbons, Senior Lecturer in Irish Studies at St. Mary's University, London, published by Palgrave Macmillan this year, confirms what anybody who has taken any interest in the matter probably assumes was the case:  that British Labour took care not to alienate British opinion during the British War on the Government that the Irish elected for themselves without British permission, and that, when British Labour became the Government in 1924, its stance on the outstanding Treaty issue of the Boundary Commission was no different from that of the Tory Government that preceded it.

All of this is said clearly enough, and it is useful to have it documented.  But there is much extraneous comment that is either misleading or plain wrong which is only to be expected in an English academic narrative on British/Irish affairs, whether written from a Left, Right, or Centre standpoint.

The scheme of the book is that:

"It examines the relationship between the British Labour Party and the emerging Irish nationalist forces from which was formed the first government of the Irish Free State.  It was a period when both parties were in a state of transition, metamorphosing from opposition and extra-parliamentary politics towards becoming the governments of their respective states and having to cope with the responsibilities and realities that invariably resulted from moving in such a direction…"  (p2).

This is a false parallel, both substantially and formally.  The Irish nationalist forces in question—usually described as "militant nationalist" or "extremist"—were not in transition towards becoming the Government of their "respective state".  They had no "respective state"—unless it was the state which they had established after winning an election on a programme of establishing it.  From January 1919 onwards Sinn Fein was the governing party in that state, and it faced up to the responsibilities and realities of government.  It was as far as could be from the character attributed to it by the Government of the British state—that of anarchist rebelliousness.

If one does not regard it as a responsible Government in its own state, where then was the state which it was in transition towards becoming the Government of?

The British Parliament had assumed the responsibility for governing Ireland 120 years earlier and in all that time it had established no semblance of an Irish state which a democratic party in Ireland could aspire to govern.

If there was to be an Irish state, it would have to be established by the Irish against British authority, because British authority had made clear that it would not tolerate the existence of an Irish state.

The Irish acted within the terms set by Britain.  They attempted to gain independence by means of a military insurrection in 1916, at a moment when electoral government was suspended by the UK Parliament. [fn]  Then, when electorally-based government was restored, they voted to establish an independent Irish government, and proceeded to establish this without Westminster or Whitehall authority.

An Irish State existed from January 1919 onwards.  The issue for Sinn Fein was not how to come to power in it, but how to prevent Britain from destroying it.


fn. I gather that in the E-Mail world, to which I do not have access, it has been denied that the Westminster Parliament suspended its electoral base when its mandate ran out in 1915.  The ground of the denial is that Parliaments were elected for seven years and were reduced to five years only after the 1910 Election.  I published something about this many years ago, where I pointed out that the five year term ran out in December 1915.  The fact that the Parliament decided to run on without an election late in 1915 was something I got from the Parliamentary Report.  I cannot recall where I published this, but it should be easy to confirm the fact by consulting Hansard.

As I recall, the reduction of Parliaments from seven yeas to five was part of the agreement under which the power of the Lords was drastically reduced after the 1910 Election.

I did not argue that Parliament became illegitimate when it decided to continue sitting after the five years were up.  Parliament is sovereign in the British state.  The British Constitution is no more than an understanding between the major parties that sit in Parliament.  The decision not to hold an Election until after the War was taken by agreement between the British parties, who were representative of British public opinion—of which they were in large part the creators. 

The Irish Party expressed agreement with the decision.  I believe I argued it did not stand in the same relationship to the matter as the British parties.  It was not an integral part of the political system of the state, being committed in principle and practice against taking part in the government of the state.  Its constituents were not committed to the Empire and war as the constituents of the British parties were.  And its Election Manifesto had given no hint that it would support war against Germany, even though John Dillon saw that there were plans afoot for such a war.  

The Irish Party effectively stood outside the British Constitution, and it eroded its legitimacy by following the British parties in these matters, as if it was part of the British Constitution, while still refusing to become part of it by joining the Government in running the War into which it was directing scores of thousands of men.  The British parties did not need an electoral mandate to act as they did.  The Irish Party did need an electoral mandate.  If it had resigned its seats and re-fought them, in what would have been an Irish Election, and had won, the subsequent course of events would undoubtedly have been different..

The seven year Parliaments were introduced by the Whigs around 1715, following their coup d'etat of 1714.  They used their majority in Parliament to increase its life retrospectively from three years to seven, in order to consolidate their position.  That's Parliamentary sovereignty.

PS:  I find that the Parliamentary decision to carry on without an Election is dealt with in my contribution to the book, Coolacrease (p189-193).  The Bill to do it got its Second Reading on 14th December 1915.  An MP who protested that the Bill was unconstitutional provoked the response  "We are told by the hon. Member that it is unconstitutional for Parliament to extend its own life.  I wonder what makes him say that."

The reduction of the life of Parliament from 7 years to 5 was part of the deal by which the Lords' veto was reduced to 3 years.  The draft Bill was published before the 1910 Election and was part of the Liberal Election programme.  As far as I know, nobody proposed that, since the Bill was not enacted until after the Election, the Septennial Act still applied.  Parliament was made functional by understandings, not by legalisms.  There was in fact no law by which it could be bound.