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THE Connolly Association was established 80 years ago in 1938 although its origins extend further.
On a grey January day in 1935 a small group of Irishmen, London-based members of the Republican Congress, an Irish republican political organisation founded in 1934 when socialist republicans left the Anti-Treaty IRA, entered a basement flat in Kilburn for what was to be the first editorial meeting of Irish Front, an occasional bulletin which aimed “to give Irish exiles significant news of the situation at home”.
An initial meeting to discuss a new political organisation, not just a newspaper, to campaign in Britain for an independent and united Ireland was held on July 10 1938, and the Irish Front newspaper reported that a “discussion on the situation in Ireland and the tasks confronting the exiles was full and vigorous … the terrible state of the people of Ireland, both North and South, in Eire and under the Craigavon dictatorship, suffering from unemployment, poverty, bad housing, exploitation, could be bettered by the establishment of a free and independent Ireland embodying the principles of the great leaders of 1916, Connolly and Pearse. Ireland must not become a catspaw of the British Imperialists in their war-mongering and pro-fascist plans…In this struggle the Irish exile can play their part by supporting the struggle for Irish freedom on the principles of Connolly.”
A committee was elected to draw up plans for the launch of a new organisation, and an inaugural conference was held on September 4 1938 at the Engineers’ Hall, Doughty Street.
Roddy Connolly, son of James Connolly, took the presidency.
Greaves notes that “the membership consisted partly of former Republicans, wounded soldiers of previous political contests… But there were others of Labour background who were appreciating the importance of the national question for the first time.”
The return of the International Brigaders brought fresh forces to the Association. These included Alec Digges, Ewart Milne, Sean Mulgrew, Jim Prendergast, Bob Doyle, Sean Dowling and Pat MacLoughlin.
Prendergast was employed as an organiser at a few shillings a week. With Ewart Milne he ran the first major campaign undertaken by the Association – the Frank Ryan Release Campaign, in support of the Republican Congress leader and International Brigade commander.
The campaign, involving extensive lobbying of British and Irish politicians, trade unions and the Labour Party, exemplified the methods to be used by the organisation throughout the years.
The establishment of branches soon followed, initially in Liverpool, Birmingham and London, and then in Manchester, Glasgow, Coatbridge, Portsmouth, Northampton, Oxford and Cambridge.
The CA’s paper Irish Freedom, was first published in January 1939, being renamed the Irish Democrat in 1945. The banner headline on the front page of this first edition called for readers to “Fight for Irish Unity” while an article on the same page urged the Irish in Britain to join their appropriate trade union.
The following month the front page featured an appeal from Irish playwright and first secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, Sean O’Casey which stated “Your policy is the only possible policy for Irishmen living in England”.
The 1945 general election gave the organisation hope that the new Labour government would carry out its long-held policy of Irish self-determination.
However, by 1949 the Attlee government had passed the Ireland Act, which preserved the unionist position in the six counties. The CA had always maintained a non-party political stance, and still does, whilst recognising that the best hope for Irish self-determination lay with the election of a Labour government at Westminster.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the CA first proposed the idea of establishing a civil rights movement to expose unionism in the six counties and the first marches that took place on the issue of civil rights actually took place in Britain, organised by the Connolly Association.
Through regular contact, the CA influenced those Belfast trade unionists who went on to establish the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
The civil rights approach involved the building of a movement for basic civil liberties and democracy in the six counties with the aim of winning over a section of the unionist population and removing any rational/material basis for unionism.
By 1968 the civil rights campaign in the six counties was at the height of its activities with demands for a bill of rights, which Desmond Greaves drafted in parliamentary form, increasing in Britain also.
The regime at Stormont was unwilling to meet the democratic demands of the movement and in September 1968 the Irish Democrat warned: “Unless something is done soon to end the injustices which exist in British-occupied Ireland there is going to be an explosion there”.
With the civil rights demands ignored, the explosion took place.
The Irish Democrat recorded numerous meetings, pickets, petitions and resolutions being put to various organisation as the crisis unfolded. The campaign for a bill of rights became the main focus of Association’s work at this time in order to maintain pressure on the British government to work to resolve the situation. This work intensified following the introduction of British troops onto the streets.
Within hours of the horrendous events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, the CA brought out a special bulletin on the incident and distributed it widely.
At CA meetings throughout Britain members called for the resignation of the Home Secretary and for a full and independent inquiry. Decades later the CA would be continuing to support the bereaved families of that massacre, along with other victims of the conflict, when they had to travel to England for investigations, inquiries, or simply to make their voices heard.
The CA opposed calls for the abolition of Stormont and found itself somewhat isolated in warning of the dangers of ending Stormont and giving all powers to London.
The Association saw this as yet another example of imperial control taking away even a small amount of local decision making and the CA believed that the reform of Stormont was preferable to direct rule. This principle is equally applicable today.
Direct Rule was imposed in 1972 and the CA looked to a bill of rights to be included in any new devolutionary arrangements and set out the need for the British government to declare its intention to withdraw.
The imposition of internment led the CA to call for a committee to co-ordinate opposition to it, the Emergency Provisions Act (EPA) and actions by British military forces. The Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 led to the collapse of Sunningdale.
The CA condemned it as “a challenge to democracy… by some of the most reactionary forces in these islands,” published the pamphlet, Fourteen Days of Fascist Terror, and organised a speaking tour of Belfast trade unionists.
Following an upsurge of bombings in England in the mid-1970s, the Irish community were subjected to the draconian powers of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The CA criticised the bombing campaign as counterproductive, at the same time calling for the Irish community to oppose reactionary measures used against it.
The CA also supported the campaigns to free the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.
Following the defeat of the Labour government in 1979, the Labour Party reassessed its Irish policy, which for a decade had reflected the views of Britain’s military and Civil Service establishment.
In 1981 Labour adopted a policy of Irish unity by consent, following intensive lobbying by the CA, which was an important advance and one which the CA felt it had contributed significantly.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 sought to isolate republicans and nationalists from the political process and the Connolly Association described the agreement was “the most squalid and contemptible piece of hypocrisy since Lloyd George swindled Michael Collins”.
In the following years the CA organised a major conference on Irish unity sponsored by national trade unions – the first such conference that enjoyed such sponsorship and initiated the trade union network on Ireland, which brought together many trade unionists from throughout Britain to look at ways of building support for Irish unity within the trade union movement.
The CA is supportive of the political process arising from the Good Friday Agreement, and in many ways the Connolly Association’s civil rights campaigning and demands prefigured some aspects of the Agreement.
The CA worked to build support for the Agreement and a constitutional way forward within the labour movement and continues to argue for Britain to meet its obligations under the GFA and subsequent Agreements, and has worked to advance progress being made on dealing with the past.
However, like many left-leaning organisation, the years of the mid 1990s proved to be difficult times.
Despite the challenges the Connolly Association remains active to this day and enjoys the support of over one-million trade unionists in Britain through the affiliation of branch and regional organisations as well as national trade unions.
A non-sectarian left-republican outlook, which incorporates progressive interpretation of the national question, continues to induce it to campaign without fear or favour for peace, justice and democracy in Ireland, and remains central to the Association’s appeal. The changes within the Labour Party have brought fresh hope.
Throughout our existence we have endeavoured to keep alive and disseminate a knowledge of James Connolly and what he stood for.
Perhaps in years to come this will be assessed as our greatest achievement.
The Association's work must be continued. This is the message of the Connolly Sesquicentennial year. The tide is now flowing with us.
Imperialism staggers from one crisis to another. The Unionists will never recover their former position. Too many people are now aware of their shady deals.
The Connolly Association has done much in the past. But it can make a greater contribution in the future .
The struggle for an independent and united Ireland continues. Will you join with us in this work?
Michael Carty is general secretary of the Connolly Association.
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