On a wet night in February 1912, Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, addressed a cheering crowd of more than seven thousand nationalists gathered in the old Celtic Park football ground in Belfast. He was there to promote the third Government of Ireland Bill (often called the Home Rule Bill) to an audience that included a delighted John Redmond.
What many among the enthusiastic crowd appeared to miss was an ominous message from Churchill about the limitations of what was being offered.
Though this particular act of Parliament was eventually to fall into abeyance because of the outbreak of the Great War, its essential contents were resurrected and implemented within a decade. The Government of Ireland Act (1920) was to form the basis for the Anglo-Irish Treaty and partition. Ireland was to get as much autonomy as suited Britain’s imperial project.
Interesting, you might say, but only of real significance to historians and pedantic republicans. Well, not exactly: because it is worth reflecting for a moment and exploring its contemporary relevance.
“Home rule” or dominion status was a carefully crafted policy designed and implemented by the British ruling class to maintain control over its empire. Recognising that it didn’t have the manpower to coerce such a vast area, it decided to grant limited autonomy to certain colonies where there was a white colonial ruling class, as in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
In this sense, South Africa provides an unusually interesting example. Once a bloody battle zone, under Jan Smuts it had been transformed from a British nemesis, wreaking havoc on Crown forces during the Boer War, into a trusted ally. By 1920 Smuts was even advising the Cabinet in London on how to deal with the Irish conflict.
So, how does this fit the present? Well, just like a century ago, Ireland is now facing significant change. External powers are again striving to ensure that the country remains within the wider imperialist orbit. Now, however, there are two power centres working to this end, rather than just one, as in the past.
One of those power centres is obviously the European Union, where some decades back the Irish bourgeoisie led the Republic into what was then the European Common Market.
This arrangement did not come without conditions. Ireland would have to abide by a governing consensus set down by the European establishment. Today this means absolute subservience to neo-liberal financial and fiscal regulations, dictated by Brussels, and to participation in EU-approved foreign policy activities, including certain military commitments that will undoubtedly increase over time.
Evidence of the Republic’s adherence to EU strictures is not difficult to find. The Maastricht Treaty (1993) dictates fiscal policy, while the Lisbon Treaty (2009) centralised the EU and greatly diluted the Irish electorate’s power.
Taken together, these two treaties have transferred a substantial degree of sovereignty from Ireland to the European Union.
Nevertheless, the EU is not alone in maintaining careful surveillance over Ireland. As ever, the British ruling class has a continuing interest in its near neighbour. With Brexit, for example, Dublin has the potential to become at least partially an alternative financial centre within the EU. This will be exacerbated by the fact that the ending of partition and the subsequent creation of a unitary Irish state is a distinct possibility in the relatively near future.
Indeed such a scenario is now part of mainstream discourse. It goes without saying, therefore, that the British establishment is determined to shape future developments in this, its first colony, and thereby maintain its influence here.
To do so, Britain’s rulers will seek to manipulate the outcome through a mixture of propaganda and practical, albeit discreet, intervention. In this they will have the assistance of that section of Irish society that benefits from the present economic and political system and is still eager to maintain its privileged position. And, as in previous centuries, the Irish bourgeoisie will invariably seek assistance from foreign oligarchies to achieve their ends.
It is necessary to recognise this for what it is and, just as important, what it is not. It would be a mistake to interpret it through the lens of old-style nationalism. This manoeuvring is not motivated by crude English jingoism: it is driven by a determination to ensure the permanence of an economic and political system in Ireland that favours Britain’s powerful ruling elite and their class allies on this side of the Irish Sea. We are now witnessing what might be described as the early stages of what in practice would emerge as a type of fifth “Home Rule Bill.”
In fact the process appears to be already under way, as the Irish public are being gradually prepared to accept a closer alignment with Britain and its institutions.
Take, for a start, an event two years ago when equal status was afforded to Britain’s 1916 casualties with those of the republican insurgents on a monument in Glasnevin Cemetery built by the Irish Government. Look then at the unseemly fawning on the British royal family, which goes far beyond normal diplomatic protocol, with even Sinn Féin politicians joining in the carnival.
Nor does it stop there. Last month we were treated to the odd spectacle of a senior member of the Irish judiciary stepping outside his brief to advocate re-entering that relic of the British Empire, the Commonwealth.
Most significant of all, perhaps, this month we have the appointment of a man with publicly acknowledged connections to the British secret service to the sensitive position of commissioner of the Garda Síochána.
There may be an innocent explanation for all this, but forgive me for saying that what walks, talks and quacks like a duck usually is indeed a duck.
A progressive response to this situation should neither be to resort to sterile anti-British hysteria or, alternatively, to try counteracting the threat described above by endorsing greater alignment with the equally predatory European Union. What is at stake is not churlish national pride but the ability of the overwhelming majority of the people, that is, the working class, to exercise a meaningful degree of control over the conditions in which they live.
The answer lies, of course, in the building of a sovereign, democratic workers’ republic. Before the fourth Government of Ireland Bill, James Connolly raised the banner “Neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland.” With the possibility of a fifth “Home Rule Bill” in the offing, we could do worse than remind ourselves of that inspirational slogan and declare for socialism in a new and, finally, truly independent Irish state.