The following speech was delivered by Chris Bailie at the Workers’ Party Easter Commemoration in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast.
We assemble here, as we do each year, to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising and to commemorate our many comrades whose sacrifices allowed us to build the Workers Party.
On Easter Monday 1916, the Proclamation, which we have heard today, was read from the steps of the General Post Office. This document, while not a socialist manifesto, contained many progressive demands. It also proclaimed the Irish Republic as a sovereign independent state.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Dáil Éireann and when the deputies met on 21st January 1919 a Declaration of Independence was read to the assembly. The Democratic Programme adopted by the Dáil declared the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be indefeasible. According to the Programme education, health, the physical and mental well-being of children were to be vigorously promoted. However, while the labour movement clearly had an influence on this social policy, it was excluded from the system to put it into effect. The paragraph which had been proposed by Thomas Johnson that “The Republic will aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation but gives no useful services in return …” was removed.
James Connolly had no time for nationalist abstractions. It was Connolly who wrote “Ireland without her people is nothing to me.” Connolly could not stand aside while the social, economic and political oppression of the working class was ignored, regardless of the flag that flew from the mast. For Connolly, genuine republicanism entailed a commitment to sovereign independence and the emancipation of labour. Connolly, had witnessed the betrayal of workers by social democracy across Europe, which, with few exceptions, had committed itself to taking sides in a bloody imperialist war. Connolly, in his support for insurrection, had stated clearly in the Irish Worker in August 1914: “Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.” By the end of the war in 1918, some 49,000 Irishmen had lost their lives.
In Northern Ireland, after partition, the Unionist Party held a monopoly of power until 1972. The southern state, initially the Irish Free State and later the Republic of Ireland, was governed variously by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, sometimes in coalition with other parties. In both states the ruling parties cemented cross-class alliances which served the function of suppressing class politics.
In Northern Ireland the labour movement was disrupted and obstructed by vying nationalist traditions. In the southern state nationalist rhetoric and the predominance of the requirement for national credentials led to conflicts between the interests of the working class and those in control. After the Civil War, the rights of the employers and the property owners were restored and despite the progressive sentiments contained in the Proclamation the agenda was set: Labour must wait.
There had, of course, been valiant efforts to chart a different path. In the late 20s and early 30s there was a move to the left in the leadership of the republican movement and the creation of the Republican Congress held out hope for a more progressive future. However, the creation of a “red scare”, the role of the Catholic bishops through their pastorals and press in inciting violent hostility against communism, socialism and radical republicanism, the failure of the Republican Congress, the success of Fianna Fáil, and the reversion to a traditionally nationalist leadership within the republican movement represented a major setback for the working class and class politics. The pattern was set for decades to come until the development and growth of the Workers Party reasserted the primacy of class politics.
In his Report, as General Secretary, to the 1987 Ard Fheis, our late comrade Sean Garland, wrote: “A decade ago we took the decision to add the title The Workers Party to our name. This was a reflection of the many changes that had taken place within our organisation over the previous decade and a firm recognition of the political ideology to which we subscribe, and a public and lasting demonstration of the class interests that the Party represents … as the vanguard party we must continually act as the vanguard … We must be with the people in every area of struggle … [a]gain and again the lesson of revolutionary struggle is that only a united disciplined class conscious party of the working class, organised on the principles of democratic centralism, can organise and lead the working class to victory.”
In the Republic and in Northern Ireland, the Workers Party held high the red banner of workers’ unity and class politics. Explicitly rejecting orange and green tribalism and all forms of nationalism, the Workers Party presented a different vision for workers. To that end, rejecting the narrow, sectarian, reactionary nationalism often masquerading as “republicanism”, the Workers Party confirmed its ideological orientation as a vanguard party, a Marxist-Leninist party, expressing its socialism and republicanism in its commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society, the abolition of capitalism and the building of a democratic, secular, socialist republic in which power is firmly in the hands of the working class.
In a lecture entitled “The Relevance of James Connolly in Ireland Today”, George Gilmore wrote: “… he [Connolly] believed, that working-class struggle for better conditions within the kind of society in which we live must, to achieve a worthwhile result, be pushed ahead to the overthrow of the social system that rests on the exploitation of the working classes, and to the organisation of society on a socialist basis instead …”
James Connolly and the revolutionaries of 1916 exposed the inadequacies of Redmondism in their time. But Redmondism, subservient to the dictates of foreign capital, is still alive and well and practised by some of those falsely claiming the mantle of 1916. We will continue to expose this hypocrisy.
The Irish state, as a member of the European Union, has endorsed the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It adheres to the EU’s common foreign and security policy which, it is proposed, shall eventually include a common defence policy. There are plans for a European army. In 1994 NATO launched the so-called “Partnership for Peace” (PfP), a US initiative lauded by NATO as undertaking “an important role [in the] enlargement of NATO”. Ireland, despite its constitutional commitment to neutrality, joined PfP.
The economic and social policies of the state are also dictated by the strictures of the capitalist European Union. This is not the sovereign independent state envisaged by Connolly. The Workers Party stands for working people and for socialism against exploitation, private and corporate greed, racism, sectarianism and the interests of big business. The Workers Party is committed to the primacy of a socialist, secular democratic society. We stand for the creation of sustainable well-paid jobs, fulfilling and dignified work in safe and healthy conditions. We reject low pay and precarious employment, the dismantling of workplace rights, the privatisation of public assets and restrictions on trade union freedom. We demand a real living wage. We believe that there is sufficient wealth and enough resources to tackle our most pressing issues yet the gap between the rich and the working class grows relentlessly wider. The problem is that the wealth of society and its resources are held in the hands of the few and are not used productively.
This year we continue to commemorate the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, including the important role of our party in the civil rights struggle and in the development and building of NICRA. In examining the roots of the civil rights campaign, it is important to acknowledge the existence of profound and deep social, economic and political injustices that permeated the then Northern Ireland state, and which defined specifically how that state would function in real terms both from its foundation right up to the civil rights period. NICRA achieved many democratic successes before being driven off the streets by state and terrorist violence. The Workers Party has organised seminars and participated in many events over the last twelve months celebrating that struggle while emphasising that the struggle for rights and civil liberties continues to the present day. We must also state clearly today our revulsion at the brutal murder of a young worker in Derry in recent days. The murder of 29 year old Lyra McKee was the tragic, but inevitable, outcome of recent violent activity and the ongoing attacks on the community by groups of politically bankrupt gangsters. These people claim to be republicans and defenders of the community. They are not. This murder was inexcusable. Those who carried out this attack, and those who support them, have no contribution of any value to make and have no place in this society. They are engaged in a senseless and savage campaign of terror against the community.
We offer our deepest sympathy to Lyra’s family, friends, and colleagues and we have sent a message of solidarity to her union, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). On Thursday, 2nd May, Northern Ireland goes to the polls in a local government election. The Workers Party is contesting that election in several constituencies on the basis of our socialist politics. Other parties want this election to be fought on the familiar battleground of a sectarian headcount. The issues of Brexit and a Border poll will be pressed into service to advance this agenda and to divert attention from the matters that fundamentally affect workers and their families, regardless of race or religion.
We know that a better future is possible and even though these are local government elections and we have a specific programme in these elections, the Workers Party will use every opportunity to demonstrate our vision for a new society – a society in which, as Connolly envisaged, working people have real power over their own destinies and where heir interests are paramount and supreme.
The Workers Party is committed to a socialist alternative, to the construction of a socialist society. Each small step will further our struggle. You can help us over the next two weeks, by assisting our election campaign, by helping our door-to-door leafleting, by providing financial support, by speaking to family and neighbours and to those in your community and places of work about the importance of a vote for the Workers Party in these elections and, of course, making sure that you vote for the Workers Party on election day.