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The Legacy of the Connolly Association and the Partition of Nothern Ireland

Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.

The CA's namesake, James Connolly

The CA's namesake, James Connolly

The effect of the Irish diaspora in Britain on the issue of the partition of Ireland is topic that does not receive the attention it should. Therefore, this article will attempt to shed light on the Irish diaspora and the relationship between the British and Irish governments, and how these two parliaments attempted to manage the small area of Northern Ireland examined. The Connolly Association (CA) was a key organisation that represented Irish Republican ideals in Britain

The CA that was founded in 1938 was pivotal in engaging with and developing the strong Irish Republican cause abroad. The primary method of the CA in aiding the Irish cause overseas was through extensive lobbying campaigns. The CA was built upon an already strong foundation of Irish Republicanism through the League Against Imperialism (LAI). According to Ni Bheachain, the LAI, like James Connolly earlier, saw an opportunity to join its anti-colonial stance with socialism through connecting with the Irish diaspora. Early on the CA was greatly involved in the campaign for the release of Frank Ryan following his involvement in the Spanish civil war. The ability of the CA to be able to lobby both British and Irish politicians is a testament to how important the Irish voice was considered in British affairs during the period. Although many members were themselves, communists, the CA made sure to distance itself from any political stance so as to not alienate Irish Catholics in Ireland, where the Catholic church was vehemently anti-communist.

The association’s newspaper Irish Freedom, later renamed Irish Democrat, was crucial in the burgeoning of Irish Republican ideals outside of Ireland. Through the paper, the CA wished to build upon work done by An Phoblacht in the internationalisation of the Irish cause. One of the key aims of the Irish Democrat was to promote trade unionism among Catholics. This was quite successful, as, by the early 1960s, over 200,000 people from Northern Ireland were members of a trade union, many of which were centred in Britain. This was very important as many unions also had a large membership from the Republic, thereby creating a working-class nucleus that could allow both the diaspora and Nationalists in the Republic to bolster Nationalists in the North.

The tremendous following and support that the CA had managed to amass during the period made it a very potent force for Irish Republicanism. Their work was quite important, as although Catholic births in the North remained very high, this, in turn, was offset by even higher emigration rates. This subsequently strengthened the Irish diaspora, while ensuring that Catholics remained in a minority in the North, allowing a Protestant stronghold on government affairs to develop. According to Ruane and Todd, as the Northern Ireland state was rejected by Nationalists North and South, and ignored as much as possible by the British, Unionists then turned to discriminatory practices in order to maintain their state. Unionists believed Nationalist opposition to be inevitable regardless of their policies and so they set about trying to limit the growth and power of the Catholic population. This was why the CA was pivotal to the Irish cause, as the powerless minority of Catholics in the North, could be supported by the ever-growing Irish diaspora under the banner of the CA.

The problems of partition and the reach of the CA affected almost every facet of both British and Irish politics. According to Cohen and Flinn, the Irish diaspora had a long-term involvement in British communism and was heavily influential. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the CA and Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), though often competitive, were very interlinked, as the continued immigration of Irish people to Britain, bonded these organisations together. C.D. Greaves was a prominent member of the CA and a key figure in influencing the CPGB’s attitudes to Irish Republicanism. According to Patrick Smylie, the close ties of the CA and the CPGB allowed the CA the gain prominence over the Anti-Partition League in Republican circles in Britain. This allowed the crux of Irish Republicans in the late 1950s and early 1960s to move away from hard-line sectarianism to instead focus on more peaceful nationalism. CA then became crucial in the development of the Civil Rights movement in the North.

A protest march in London during the civil rights movement set up by the Connolly Association

A protest march in London during the civil rights movement set up by the Connolly Association

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In turn, the border campaign by the IRA and the subsequent fallout was pivotal in the growing influence of the CA. Over 19 people were killed and a great amount of property damage was done. During the campaign, there was much co-operation between governments both North and South to deter IRA activities. Both police forces shared information, severely limiting the effectiveness of the campaign. The aid provided by the Irish government showed Nationalists in both North and South that violence would not solve the problems of partition. A compromise was made between the slow-moving politics of the 1920s and 1930s and the violence of the 1940s and 50s towards a more unified effort to end the sectarian conflict in the North, headed by the CA.

During the push for civil rights in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Terence O’Neil was facing tremendous external pressure to improve the situation. The CA was continually lobbying the British parliament for change. According to James Loughlin, the pressures of the external London parliament was the consummate factor in O’Neil’s decision to adopt a policy of conciliationism with Catholics. This period saw a great expansion of the CA in Britain with many new organisations being set up across the country. The CA’s involvement with trade unionism and Labour would prove to be very fruitful for the Catholic cause in the North. Though still not party affiliated, there was a large contingent of Labour members also part of the CA. The CA, through columns in the Irish Democrat, pushed hard for Labour to champion the cause of Irish unity. The Irish Democrat warned that unless actions were taken by Stormont to heed Catholic demands ‘there is going to be an explosion’.

Towards the end of the 1960s, though the strength and support of Irish Catholics in the North by the CA remained solid, the civil rights movement was still facing great backlash. In 1968, Greaves was a key advocate for the Bill of Rights, which offered a compromise between those who wished to abolish Stormont and introduce direct rule and those who wanted no reform of any kind. While the CA’s efforts through mostly democratic means would ultimately break down and lead to large-scale violence in the following decades with the outbreak of the Troubles, their work did ensure that the Catholic voice was eventually too strong to ignore.

Ultimately, the partition of Ireland was incredibly influential in both British and Irish affairs, and the subsequent problems that emerged in the North cemented the importance of the Irish diaspora in championing the rights of its native brethren. Though partition caused a great deal of pain for Catholics both North, South, and abroad, the cohesive nature of the fight for recognition and equality through the civil rights movement was instrumental in showcasing the strength of Ireland’s emigrant population. The continued failure of violence to solve the problems of sectarianism in the North and the level of Catholic emigration, allowed the CA to take up the mantle for the nationalist cause. Though the Troubles would once again break down relations between Unionists and Nationalists, the legacy of change through peaceful democracy that the CA advocated would continue into the 1990s, as the Good Friday Agreement allowed the cooperation of volatile communities for the first time in many years.

The push for civil rights left an undeniable mark on Northern Ireland

The push for civil rights left an undeniable mark on Northern Ireland

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