The recent proposal to fly the Irish Flag from council buildings to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising proved controversial with some, posing the question: what has this got to do with Scotland? In fact, whether it was the number of prominent Scots who took part in the rebellion, the links between Irish Republican organisations and Scottish radical movements or the impact of the Irish Republic upon Scotland, it has everything to do with us.
A century ago at Easter, a decision was taken by Irish Republican forces to stage an uprising against British rule in Dublin and other key centres. It was felt as Britain was embroiled in the First World War (WW1), this would be an opportune time to strike. The decision was more political than military. With 20,000 British troops permanently based in Ireland, the chance of military victory was always going to be slim.
However, by striking such an audacious blow it was felt that this would start a general rising, bringing ultimate success. Those involved in the rising proved smaller in numbers than planned and after several days of intense fighting were crushed by overwhelmingly superior forces. Sixteen of the key leaders were brutally executed. Although it proved a military failure, the rising’s political ramifications were profound. In November 1918, Sinn Fein won a landslide election victory securing 26 out of 32 seats on a platform of support for the rising and the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that day.
Britain refused to recognise the result and intensified its brutal occupation before being finally forced to concede limited independence by a widespread and popular campaign of military resistance by Republican forces. This led to the creation of the Free State after a brief and tragic civil war.
The role played by Scots was significant – the obvious example being James Connolly. While this is the 100th anniversary of the rising, we should also recognise it is the 100th anniversary of Connolly’s death. Some of the others involved in the fighting came from Scotland. In fact, a Glasgow Battalion of Connolly’s Citizens Army contributed volunteers. Many of the supplies to the Republican forces were smuggled to Ireland from Scotland and with around 20% of Scotland’s population coming from direct Irish descent events were followed closely here.
While Scots played a key role in the rebellion, in the years that followed Irish republicans would come to play a major role in the development of the socialist movement in Scotland as it emerged after WW1. Many had fled into exile to escape British reprisals and the repression which followed from Free State forces, and many ended up in Scotland. An example was the formation of the Communist Party in Scotland as part of the CPGB in 1921. A glance at the names of the leadership elected at its first Scottish Congress would leave one in no doubt about the Irish connection.
A century on, how is the centenary being marked in Scotland? Compared to the 50th anniversary in 1966, when it either wasn’t marked or was greeted with carefully orchestrated hostility, the answer is remarkably well. A host of events have been organised looking at the Scottish connection and the impact of the Rising in Scotland. In Glasgow and the West, much will centre on the contributions of Irish Republicans who fought in the Rising including some of the women volunteers who are often neglected from official accounts. In Edinburgh, the focus will be on Connolly with a campaign to name a street after one of the great figures of the socialist movement in both Scotland and Ireland.
The anniversary also comes at an important time in Scottish politics. Without a doubt independence has become the central issue of Scottish politics around which all other issues revolve. A century ago, most on the British left did not support the rising because it was nationalist in nature. In Scotland, left opinion was more evenly divided with those such as John McLean supporting it for the same reasons they supported Scottish independence. It would mean the breakup of the imperialist British state and represent a key staging post on the road to socialism. Today, the overwhelming majority of the Scottish left supports independence and embraces the anniversary of the rising with great interest and enthusiasm.
Bill Bonnar is the National Secretary of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)