The British Labour Party and Imperialism in Ireland

In the most recent British Labour Party manifesto, lauded as a “revelation” by reformists of all stripes, one of the less commented on aspects is the provisions for defense. Labour pledges that they will “maintain our commitment to NATO and our close relationship with our European Partners”, that they support renewing their “nuclear deterrent”, that they are committed to spend “ at least 2% of GDP on defence” to make sure that that British “armed forces are versatile and capable of fulfilling the full range of roles and obligations”. 

To this day there are still thousands of British troops stationed in Occupied Ireland and directed under the name “Operation Helvetic”, no doubt included by Labour as a vital “role and obligation” of Britain’s armed forces. There are reportedly 700 MI5 agents in Belfast alone. The PSNI/RUC remains a sectarian and heavily armed force which spreads terror in Nationalist communities,. There are Republican prisoners across the 6 Counties who are interned without trial or imprisoned on false charges. The British government, under the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, has recently instituted draconian “anti-terror” laws which make it an offense to merely view “terrorist” propaganda, and put absurd restrictions on those who have been convicted of terror offences, with absolutely minimal opposition from the Labour opposition. 

If these issues were not severe enough, at every turn Labour in its current form has been pushing for the expansion of the military and police state apparatus which enforces occupation and the new draconian laws. Corbyn has called for increasing the number of border guards and police in Britain, in the number of tens of thousands. 

To Irish Republicans this cannot signal anything other than that British Labour Party, even with its supposedly “socialist” leadership, will be continuing its long record of exploitation, support for occupation, opportunism and militarism where Ireland is concerned were Labour to win the election this week. Far from Corbyn representing a fundamental break with regards to Ireland, he stands in a long tradition of British Labour politicians denying or subverting Irish freedom, particularly in those times when struggle in Ireland was at its height.


Prominent members of the Labour movement and liberal reformers in Britain have long been afflicted with at best antipathy to the Irish struggle, and at worst outright colonial cheerleading. Examples of these attitudes can be found littered throughout the history of British Labour, and have often been condemned by true anti-imperialists and socialists. Marx and Engels railed against those opportunist labour leaders who refused to support the Irish right to resist national oppression, such as during a conference on the question of the captured Fenians soon to be known as the Manchester Martyrs, and the betrayal of British Liberals like Gladstone:

“delegates rose to support the demand for amnesty, with only three exceptions,…. Odgers, Applegarth and Mottershead, representatives of those English trade union leaders who believe in the sacred might of capitalism, who work, not for the emancipation of the workers, but for their “co-operation” with capitalism…Applegarth hemmed and hawed. He was then supposed to be a “militant.” It would not do for him to oppose the motion; the workers would execrate him. On the other hand, if he supported it his bourgeois friends in Parliament would drop him. So he tried to give the appearance of doing neither. Odgers said it was impolitic to “demand” from the Government and then launched into a long psalm of praise for the great man Gladstone, for his Church Bill and for his promised Land Bill, for his good-heartedness to every people on earth, except the Irish, of course. Mottershead was a type of politician who seeks to live somehow or other, never mind who pays…. “I regret that Englishmen applauded the statements of Dr. Marx.” “Ireland cannot be independent.” “If we relinquished our hold it would only be asking the French to step in,”.

Reflecting on this, Ralph Fox, a leading British Communist in the 1930s said the following:

“Marx’s denunciation of Gladstone could be perfectly applied to the Labour Party today, particularly to its “left” section, the Independent Labour Party, which also in opposition promises freedom to India, to Ireland, to all oppressed peoples in the Empire, but in office can only carry out the policy of terror and repression which the “Labour” Minister, Thomas, is attempting to use against Ireland to-day, and which the “Independent Labour” Minister, Wedgwood Benn, used against India in the last Government.”

The promise of a lighter hand, of a kinder face on imperialism and plunder never seems to materialise. For these labour leaders there was the opportunity to become part of the empire’s elite and share in colonial plunder, and they would sell out both British workers and Irish aspirations to realise those ambitions.


When the Easter Rising took place and was brutally crushed by British troops, reportedly the majority of Westminster applauded at the news, including the Labour Party MPs. Only one Labour Party Member of Parliament in Westminster was to speak on the subject in the immediate aftermath Will Thorne, MP for West Ham, who generally approved of the executions of the Republican leaders:

‘Can the Prime Minister state when the man, Sir Roger Casement, is going to be tried? He was the forerunner of this movement”

Another Labour representative, J.H Thomas, was to say:

“there was no Labour leader in this country who did not deplore the recent rebellion in Ireland””

At this same time the leaders of the Labour party had sent millions of working class British men to the killing fields of Northern France for industrial slaughter. Arthur Henderson, first Labour party politician in government, had joined the Government cabinet during the war to aid in its prosecution. Thomas had previously done his part to stab Irish workers in the back when he advised the workers in his trade union not to take solidarity actions to support workers in Dublin during the Great Lockout of 1913 led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly.  

In Labour Party materials of the time familiar strains of apathy and condemnation could be seen, as well as much of the wider British socialist press. Just as Connolly had feared, they had forgotten he was an Irishman. Worse, they denounced Irishness as a whole. The Independent Labour Party, a supposed Left wing of the broader Labour Party of the time was to say in Socialist Review, it’s theoretical journal: 

“In no degree do we approve of the Sinn Féin rebellion. We do not approve of armed rebellion at all, any more than any other form of militarism or war. Nor do we plead the rebels’ cause … Nor complain against the government (and the rebels themselves do not complain) for having opposed and suppressed armed Rebellion by force.”

Calls of pacifism have long been used as a weapon by more “left” Labour party affiliates against Irish republicans, while the cries against British colonial forces have tended to be aimed at the specific brutalities and excesses rather than the broader motivations or class forces at work.

When Labour MP James O’Grady visited Russia in 1917 shortly before the Bolshevik revolution, members of the Moscow and Petrograd soviets asked “You say you are fighting a war of liberation, but what about Ireland?”. It is worth pointing out that it was not only the Labour party and its affiliates who were sharply criticised by the Bolsheviks for neglecting the Irish struggle. Leading Bolsheviks lambasted the British Communist party at a 1920 Comintern meeting, even though the British Communist party had a better record on Ireland than the Labour Party, with Karl Radek saying:

“We would point out to the British comrades that it is their duty to help the Irish movement with all their strength, that it is their duty to agitate among the British troops, that it is their duty to use all their resources to block the policy that the British transport and railway unions are at present pursuing of permitting troop transports to be shipped to Ireland. It is very easy at the moment to speak out in Britain against intervention in Russia, since even the bourgeois left is against it. It is harder for the British comrades to take up the cause of Irish independence and of anti-militarist activity”

The Bolsheviks believed that the Irish struggle should have been the priority of the Communist Party in Britain, not Russia. Today British communists certainly are not fulfilling the duty they owe to their Irish comrades.

Upon the 1918 Irish General election, in which Sinn Fein was to soundly defeat the Nationalist Party and democratically establish the All Ireland Republic that had been proclaimed in 1916, Philip Snowden of the British Labour Party was to say that Ireland had ‘taken a turn for the worse’”. JP Clynes, soon to be Leader of the Labour Party, waxed nostalgic about the fall of the Nationalist Party and Home Rule legislation at the time, lamenting that:

“the party which treats this country and this House with contempt, and refuses to come near it, has received the support of the great majority of the Irish people.”

As the Tan War developed there was growing sympathy for Republicans in the Labour Party, but this sympathy was often undermined by the leadership of the Labour Party. At the 1920 British Labour Party Conference, a resolution was passed upholding the right of Irish people to free and absolute self-determination. However, by the end of that same year it had been overturned, with provisions that the Irish must “protect the rights of minorities” (in this case meaning Unionists and pro-British elements), and to promise to build no military or naval forces which could threaten those of Britain’s. With this reference to protections, the Labour Party laid the groundwork for their later support and reinforcing of partition in Ireland. 

At the next conference in 1921, Irish Labour and others proposed a general strike on the Irish question, with little support. Instead another meaningless resolution was passed denouncing violence in Ireland, not even specifically that of British forces. Much of this was the result of the National Executive Committee’s direct interference in preventing amendments or debate. The NEC opposed conscription in Ireland in 1918 primarily on the grounds that it would damage the war effort. This was a private memorandum however, and generally Labour leadership at the time had little interest in Ireland at a time when the Tan War was raging in earnest. Soon after a manifesto was released stating that they would support Irish independence – as long as Ireland remained in the commonwealth.

When the “Anglo-Irish Treaty” of surrender was being negotiated, Labour parliamentarians made it clear that they would support the Tory government, with Henderson assuring Lloyd George that “We shall examine the proposal from the standpoint of the security of our country”, and that “ ‘with regards to Ireland, [we] are determined to assist the government all we can”. This treaty and its acceptance would form the foundation for the birth of the Free State and the ensuing counter-revolution against the Irish Republic.

Consistently during this period the Labour Party vacillated on the issue of Ireland, rarely ever engaged in real material support, and promoted the most milquetoast constitutional groups in Ireland, while generally placing the security of the British Empire as paramount. Support for Home Rule was merely a way to pacify the Irish population while maintaining the Empire’s hold, a solution which was soon to be rejected by the Irish people. This was when Labour representatives were not engaging in openly colonialist apologia. In criticizing the specific brutalities of British military terror in Ireland but not the centuries long colonial relationship that undergirded that terror, British Labour and similar groups were treating the symptoms but not the disease.  Their track record on the newly formed sectarian state in the Occupied 6 Counties of Ulster was to be far more damaging however. 


Britain elected the Labour Party to government under Clement Attlee. As a reward for their “patriotic” co-operation with the British government during the Second World War, the Labour government from 1945 to 1951 was broadly sympathetic and supportive of the Unionist establishment in the Northern 6 County State. This was the same Unionist establishment which had taken control by sectarian terror, and maintained itself by the total subjugation of the Irish catholic community. The British Labour Party had done its part to ensure Loyalist ascendancy.

A good example of Labour’s support was the passing of the Ireland Act of 1949, a response to the Irish Free State leaving the Commonwealth, which “reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom”. This was endorsed by Attlee and Unionist Basil Brooke. In the words of the Labour government: 

“It has become a matter of strategic importance to this country (i.e. Britain) that “the North” (of Ireland) should continue to form a part of His Majesty’s Dominions. So far as it can be foreseen, it will never be to Great Britain’s advantage that Northern Ireland should form a territory outside His Majesty’s jurisdiction. Indeed, it would seem unlikely that Great Britain would ever be able to agree to this even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it”

It’s worth noting that this comes at the beginning of the post-war “welfare state” in Britain, a time that much of the modern British Labour left desire to return to. A welfare state in significant part funded and made possible by British imperialist domination of her colonies and foreign markets. Even at its most “progressive”, the Labour Party historically has upheld the partition and occupation of Ireland. The British Labour Party equivalent in Occupied Ireland, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, voted to affirm its support for Partition by 2000 votes to 700 in 1949. Even the much vaunted welfare reforms of Labour in this period were used by the Unionist establishment to keep its stranglehold over the protestant working class, as Unionist politicians took credit for the reforms despite often opposing the policies. 

By the Early 60s, economic stagnation in the North, as well as the beginnings of civil rights agenda and further economic integration with Britain meant greater interest from Labour and the Tories in what occurred in the occupied territory. There were efforts from the grassroots of the British Labour party to try to push the party in a more pro-Irish direction, however these were rarely ever seriously considered by the Party leadership. A London branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union sent a letter to the British Labour bureaucracy in the late 50s protesting the detention of “terrorist” suspects without trial in Ireland under the Special Powers Act, but was dismissed on the grounds that such policies were not “Labour Party responsibility”.

Just as Corbyn now talks of postponing the question of Irish unity when asked, with noncommittal phrases about “respecting the wishes of Dublin and Belfast” and following the Good Friday Agreement, any query regarding the Labour Party’s continued support for British imperialist domination in Ireland would receive the following generic reply:

“When the question of partition is raised we invariably take the line that this is a question to be decided by the ballot box, and that neither the British government nor any British political party has any right to interfere in any way with such donations”

The NILP also frequently called for repressive measures to be directed against the IRA in the late 50s and early 60s during the Border Campaign, denouncing nationalist terror. The everyday terror of the B Specials and other fascist paramilitary forces being beneath notice. The NILP also frequently criticised the Unionists on their unwillingness to allow Westminster to rule the Occupied 6 directly.

In 1964, Terrence O’Neill then the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, met with Wilson in person, who assured him they would be treated just as well as they had been under previous Labour governments. By contrast attempts by Nationalist politicians to meet with Wilson at that same time were rebuffed. Nonetheless many Unionists feared a Socialist backlash from a Labour government in 1964, believing that they were naturally inclined to support the Nationalists. Despite Wilson’s supposed sympathies with the Irish, they needn’t have worried.


The struggle in the North from the late 60s onwards was undoubtedly the most disgraceful period of the British Labour Party’s relationship with Ireland. When the sectarian terror, pogroms and attacks on civil rights protesters carried out by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Apprentice Boys, B Specials and others grew intolerable for the Nationalist community, the north exploded with Nationalist revolt. In response to the unrest it was the administration of Harold Wilson which sent in British soldiers to maintain order across the 6 Counties in 1969. Some believe that this was to protect the Nationalist community from the roving Loyalist fascist gangs. Of courseit was nothing of the sort, and soon the British Army in Ireland was engaged in an all-out war against the Nationalist community. The litany of crimes committed by the British Army in the Six Counties are well known. It is undeniable that the British Labour party is responsible for the thousands dead and imprisoned as a result of their decision.

It was this same Labour government that was to introduce the anti-Irish Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1974. These were a draconian set of laws introduced by Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, not only targeting active Republicans but their associates and families, and led to widespread discrimination, searches and attacks on Irish civilians, particular those of Irish descent living in Britain. There was little opposition in Westminster.  This only served to alienate those of Irish descent from their communities, fostering division both within the British working class and between the masses in Britain and in Ireland.

In 1976, another Labour government withdrew special category status, which accepted that Irish Republican prisoners were prisoners of war and accorded certain privileges as a result, and created the torture blocks of Long Kesh. This was the process of “Criminalisation”. In 1977, the same government announced the expansion of the RUC, UDR and SAS in particular being let off the leash for brutal assassination. The policy of “Ulsterisation” allowed deeper collusion between Loyalists and British forces. Overall the Labour government oversaw much of the most brutal phase of the war, and they were ruthless in prosecuting it. The majority of the “Labour Left” in this time were no allies of the Irish people either. Labour MP Stan Newens referred to the Republican movement as ‘fascists’. 

The use of torture by British terrorists in Ireland, often directed against those who were interned without jury or trial, was also supported by Labour. Merlyn Rees was well aware, and informed Labour PM Callaghan in 1977 that “It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971-1972 was taken by ministers.” A case taken to the European Court of Human Rights regarding ruled that torture certainly had taken place. and then subsequently was appealed by the Labour government of the time looking to defend the tortures committed by occupation forces, and the verdict of torture was subsequently overturned.

Nor were things to improve by any real measure when Labour was out of office. Tony Benn was to offer no support for the Hunger Strikers in 1981, even when pressed on the matter. In fact, it took 8 weeks for a response from any member of the “Labour Left” to speak up about the Hunger Strike, and when a voice was raised it was to call for a “humanitarian” response, as it would be so unfortunate if the strike were to

”strengthen the hand of all those who favour force rather than democratic political campaigning.” 

The behaviour of the entirety of Labour at this time was nothing short of disgraceful. Don Concannon, a Labour Shadow Minister travelled to the H Blocks to inform Bobby Sands there would be no support for political status from Labour. Why indeed would there be, when it was Labour that had removed it to begin with?

Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock in 1985 supported the Anglo-Irish Agreement, an agreement designed to copper-fasten partition and end Republican resistance much as the Agreement in 1998 would succeed in doing. He had the backing of the vast majority of the British Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn would speak in opposition to the Treaty in 1985, to his credit, but was to support the Treaty of Surrender in 1998 which was similar in many respects. 

Neil Kinnock said in his 1985 Speech relating to the Agreement:

“Northern Ireland has its own special and enviable case. It is that violence cannot be excused by poverty, idleness or unemployment, but it clearly cannot be said to be unconnected with those evils.”

Labour’s own role in fostering that violence through the illegal occupation of Ireland left uncommented on.

In 1988, Labour joined in the House of Commons celebrations at the murder of the Gibraltar Three by the SAS while unarmed. George Robertson, then Labour Foreign Affairs Spokesman, opined: ‘I don’t think anybody can afford to be squeamish.’ This is far from the only time that Labour Party representatives would celebrate assassinations by British terrorists of Irish revolutionaries in this time period.

Ultimately it was Labour’s arch-imperialist Tony Blair who took a leading role in pushing through the Good Friday Agreement which marked the beginning of a decline for the revolutionary Republican movement and struggle in Ireland. Reflecting on the peace process in 2002 in Belfast, Blair made it clear that 

“the purpose of the British security response, often harsh, was to eliminate the violence as was our duty to do.”

The Treaty had been far more successful than any kind of military force. Corbyn himself played a role in facilitating thissurrender and its acceptance among the broader Irish population. In the words of socialist republican Liam Mellows in 1922, equally applicable to the century that followed:

“The British Government has always sought, during the last century of this struggle in Ireland, to get the consent of the Irish people for whatever it wants to impose upon them.”


Now that resistance and class struggle in the Occupied Six Counties has been pacified to a great degree, it is easier to extend limp-wristed solidarity to the “Irish struggle”, as long as it is confined entirely to the grooves set by British imperialism and the Good Friday Agreement it has sponsored. You can see this everywhere in those that support “Irish Unity” in the form of a British approved border poll and little else. The average British person seemingly can spend their entire lives without learning the slightest bit about the terrible reality of sectarianism that continue to be a fact of life in Belfast, Derry and the rest of the 6 County statelet. 

Just as Social Democracy aims to funnel working class struggle into acceptable channels for the bourgeoisie to control. and to defend capitalism as a whole, Corbyn’s attitude to Ireland is one of pacification. Despite the amusing accusations of IRA membership, he has largely played a role in terms of pacifying resistance to British imperialism and occupation in Ireland, encouraging the revisionist Gerry Adams leadership of the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein to stand down and accept surrender and purely constitutional methods. Corbyn denounced attacks committed by the IRA with great frequency, a point many of his supporters are quick to raise in his defense. 

Now Sinn Fein operates as an integral part of the state in the 6 Counties, serving to administer British imperialism and capitalism in alliance with the native Catholic bourgeoisie. In the words of Brendan Hughes, speaking in 2000: “Sinn Fein people have now become part of the occupation forces in the north of Ireland.”

Even to those who still incorrectly cling to the hope of a Border Poll to solve Ireland’s, Corbyn offers little. He has stated on numerous occasions that he does not foresee a border poll in the near future. He eschews the naked colonialist rhetoric of the Tories and many of his Labour Party forerunners for a more insidious approach, one that can appeal to Irish constitutional nationalists, soft Unionists and British reformists alike. Even given that the mask can occasionally slip, as Corbyn this week used the release of a confidential report on Johnson’s Brexit deal as an opportunity to attack the possibility of a border at the Irish Sea, lamenting that this would leave the Occupied Six counties “symbolically separated from the Union” and would damage and disrupt Britain’s trade interests. While offering platitudes and vague assurances of border poll in the distant future, and to stick to the terms of the GFA, the British Labour Party is reinforcing and pledging support for the armed forces of occupation. The Labour Left dangles the carrot to better hide the stick.  

This is similar to how the British Labour Party in past years would occasionally make reference to consensus, or support the most moderate factions of the Irish struggle where possible, while still upholding and enforcing brutal occupation. The British Labour Party, both in office and out, has never truly never defended the inalienable right of Ireland to self-determination, whether that be with its support for military intervention, partition, the unionist veto and any other number of other mechanisms to maintain British control over Ireland. What is worse is that the attitudes fostered by these imperialist policies have often been reflected in the perspectives of the British working class. 

There is undoubtedly a section of the British working class that benefits from imperial plunder, the labour aristocracy that Lenin identified exists in Imperialist countries. Such individuals would certainly make up an important section of the pro-imperialist trade union movement in Britain, but by no means the majority. There is a persistent pattern that emerges of elements of the trade union and working class movement in Britain attempting to show solidarity with the Irish national liberation struggle, only for that attempt to be derailed by Labour leadership and bureaucracy.

All true socialists and anti-imperialists in England and Britain at large should be working to combat the anti-Irish and chauvinist sentiments among the masses and in their organisations. There should be systematic and unflinching exposure of the crimes of British imperialism in Ireland, past and present. And not only in Ireland but the world over. Even now there are hundreds of Republican prisoners languishing in Irish Free State and British prisons, often on thin evidence or interned on no evidence whatsoever, and these prisoners should be supported. The right of the oppressed to resist their oppression is just as inalienable as the right to self-determination. Yet solidarity and education are not enough, for the best kind of solidarity would be a revolutionary socialist mass movement dedicated to the overthrow of the British state.

Perhaps most troubling of all in recent years has been the tendency of Irish “socialists” to look at the imperialist Labour Party of Britain with admiration, or even as a major inspiration. Such a position can only be seen as a consequence of the weakening of Republican and anti-imperialist consciousness, and it must be combatted wherever possible. The Irish people in the Occupied 6 Counties have been fed a lie, a lie that they should be invested in the goings on of a foreign imperialist parliament that oppresses them. 

The British Labour Party remains what it has been practically since its inception, an imperialist, British chauvinist party. Even were we to take the “socialism” of Corbyn, McDonnell etc at face value, there is no parliamentary path to socialism, and a Labour left government will make little difference to the victims of British imperialism. We call on British workers to reject the false promises, opportunism and revolutionary dead-end that not only the Labour Party and Social Democratic ideas represent, but Westminster and other arms of the state as a whole. Perhaps through that struggle they will come to see that nothing less than a total and immediate British withdrawal from Ireland is acceptable. 

Only rejecting the imperialist Labour Party, the British electoral system and working to smash the British imperialist state they reinforce will represent real progress. The revolutionary struggle in Ireland against imperialist domination is an objective threat to the same state which keeps the British workers subjugated. In the words of the Fenian Proclamation of 1867:

“As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms.” 

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