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The Irish Neutrality League and the Imperialist War 1914-18

Full text of Deputy Adams’ speech:

A chairde, 

Gabhaim buíochas le Chomhaontas na Síochána is Neodrachta as an cuireadh chun labhairt agus as eagrú an chruinniú seo. 

I want to commend the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, and Roger Cole in particular, for organising this public meeting and for asking me to speak. 

It is very fitting that in this Decade of Centenaries we should mark the centenary of the Irish Neutrality League. 

We have heard much this year about the Irish involvement in the First World War and will hear more in the coming years. But we have heard very little about the courageous men and women who stood up to the British Empire in Ireland and opposed the dragging of Ireland into an Imperialist War. 

We have to make clear that it is right that the Irish who died in that war should be remembered and their descendants have every right to commemorate them. 

But that should not blind anyone to the nature of the war itself. 

It was a war between imperialist powers, in which kings, emperors, capitalists and war-lords sent millions to their deaths. 

Ireland, as a subject nation, was plunged by England into a war with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey - states with which we had no quarrel and certainly no cause to go to war. On the contrary, the only power that had violated our rights as a nation was the Imperial power that dragged us into the conflict. 

All this was seen clearly by the men and women who gathered in this city in October 1914 to establish the Irish Neutrality League. They were trade unionists and socialists like James Connolly; they were feminists like Constance Markievicz; they were republicans like John MacBride and Eamonn Ceannt; they were Sinn Féiners like Arthur Griffith and Seán T. O’Kelly. 

They were the true democrats in the Ireland of 1914. They continued in the democratic tradition of Wolfe Tone who first articulated the case for Irish neutrality in 1790. They reflected the best in the progressive tradition of the struggle for independence when it made common cause with other subject nations whose right to self-determination was denied by imperialism. 

Irish involvement in the war was essentially a question of democratic rights. After John Redmond made his speech at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, calling in Irishmen to join the British Army, he was repudiated by the original executive committee of the Irish Volunteers. In their statement rejecting Redmond’s call they put the case clearly when they declared: 

“Ireland cannot, with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise than through the free action of a National Government of her own.” 

They repudiated “the claim of any man to offer up the blood and lives of the sons of Irishmen and Irishwomen to the services of the British Empire while no National Government which could speak and act for the people of Ireland is allowed to exist”. 

It is important to remember that both this statement from the Irish Volunteers and one of the first statements issued by the Irish Neutrality League also condemned the proposed partition of Ireland. Redmond had agreed to the principle of partition earlier that year. 

The Irish Volunteers rejected “any undertaking to consent to the legislative dismemberment of Ireland”and protested against “the attitude of the present Government who, under the pretence that ‘Ulster cannot be coerced’, avow themselves prepared to coerce the Nationalists of Ulster.”

This was in the context of Home Rule being “on the statute book” at Wesminster. You will recall that former Taoiseach John Bruton thinks this was so great an event that it made the 1916 Rising unnecessary. 

Roger Casement described Home Rule “on the statute book” as “a promissory note payable only after death”. James Connolly called it “a carefully staged pantomime to fool nationalist Ireland” and he said that, in return, Redmond’s party would send thousands of Irish men and boys to die. 

And in a phrase that still echoes today Connolly declared: “Yes, ruling by fooling is a great British art – with great Irish fools to practice on.” 

Isn’t it strange then that Mr. Bruton is so worried that honouring the men and women of Easter 1916 would retrospectively justify violence when he has nothing to say about the role of John Redmond and his party in sending tens of thousands of Irishmen to fight Germans and Austrians and Turks with whom Ireland had no quarrel? 

Was John Redmond not a man of violence? 

It is hugely important that we remember these events as a nation on our own terms. 

The Irish experience of the war up to 1916 was one of the factors that led to the Easter Rising. And after the Rising and the executions and repression that followed, many Irishmen who had fought in the British Army rejected that army for good. Some of them joined the IRA. 

The notion that Britain had fought "for the freedom of small nations" was exposed as hypocrisy when Britain refused to recognise the First Dáil Éireann.

Mr. Bruton does no service to the memory of the Irish dead of World War One by denigrating the men and women of Easter 1916.

I suspect that behind Mr. Bruton’s Redmondite crusade is a fear, not of violence, but of the Proclamation. You see, the Proclamation enshrines principles and commitments to equality and Irish sovereignty that still challenge the privileged in our society.

That is why the Proclamation should be at the centre of all our celebrations and commemorations of the great national and international event that was the 1916 Easter Rising.

I believe that key elements of the political establishment also fear that the principle of Irish neutrality and internationalism, articulated by the men and women who formed the Irish Neutrality League 100 years, will again become the main guiding light of Irish foreign policy. 

We have seen how successive Governments in this State have eroded Irish neutrality over the past three decades.

That is seen most starkly in their allowing the use of Shannon Airport as a military staging post for NATO forces. I commend PANA for your vigilance in this regard and for punching way above your weight in defending Irish neutrality.

We saw again during the summer the outpouring of Irish solidarity with the people of Gaza and condemnation - in marked contrast to the slíbhín attitude of the Government – of  the horrific assault on them by the Israeli government.

This solidarity is the real face of Irish foreign policy, not the forelock-tugging and cringe-making approach that we have seen from the current Irish Government.

We in Sinn Féin are fundamentally committed to positive Irish neutrality, non-membership of military alliances, independent foreign policy and an international order based on the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, under the auspices of a reformed and democratised UN.

We have repeatedly called for Irish neutrality to be enshrined in the Constitution and will continue to do so.

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Other Speakers:

» Mary Carlon, Sheehy Skeffington School of Human Rights and Social Justice
» Jack O'Connor, General President, SIPTU
» Michael O'Reilly, Dublin Council of Trade Unions
» Dr Margaret Ward, Feminist Historian
» Chair: Freda Hughes, Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign
» Roger Cole, Peace & Neutrality Alliance

 

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