The Irish Neutrality League
and the Imperialist War
Published by PANA
Reviewer: Michael Halpenny
In the present commemoration-fest around the First World War you could be forgiven for thinking that no one ever asked the question at the time – “Why should we be involved in this imperialist conflict?”
Yet to their undying credit some, a minority admittedly, including our own union did, and decided to march to a different drumbeat – that of opposition to the war.
This recent publication by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) tells their story.
Some in Europe opposed the war because of their strongly-held Christian values: some because they were pacifists. Others, many of them from the left were not pacifists, and viewed the war as a contest between competing imperial powers in which they and workers generally should play no part.
In Dublin, the banner over Liberty Hall in that autumn of 1914 said it all: “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser, But Ireland”
In England socialists such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury (grandfather of actor Angela) and the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned against the war, while thousands of “conscientious objectors were later jailed or forced into uniform at the front. (Though not a pacifist, one of those was war resister and Irish trade unionist, John Swift senior).
In Germany one pacifist, Otto Umfrid, described their endeavours as akin to “fixing a truck rolling into a precipice with a thread of silk”. Other Germans, such as socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, were jailed for treason.
Ireland saw the coming together of a broad but disparate group of socialists, trade unionists, pacifists, feminists, republicans and nationalists under the banner of the short-lived Irish Neutrality League (INL). Its initial meeting, chaired by James Connolly, resolved to respond to John Redmond’s recruitment drive for the British Army and the tsunami of jingoism and war hysteria.
As the editor Roger Cole of Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) notes “… its core ideology was to unite all of those opposed to the imperial war and to promote Irish independence and neutrality”.
Writer, Francis Devine, gives an extensive history of the INL, and notes that in a circular of October 5, 1914, the League warned that efforts were being made by the British government and employers to force young male workers into the army – what they termed “commercial conscription”.
Historian, Margaret Ward deals with the contribution of Countess Markievicz to the INL’s activities. Aidan Lloyd with that of pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington’s while Jack O’Connor points to the relevance of the League’s core principles today as Europe’s ruling elites flex their muscles on both the economic and military fronts.
He argues: “We must hold firm to our union’s traditional policy of support for Irish neutrality and non-alignment…”
This publication shines a light on a little discussed and unfashionable aspect of our history, that of neutrality, but one which in the words of Francis Devine “should not be obscured”, not least because it is certain where Connolly would stand on those same issues today.
This review is posted courtesy of Liberty Magazine and PANA and with acknowledgement to the reviewer Michael Halpenny.