The Berne identity: An Irishman’s Diary on the socialist congress of 1919
Thomas Johnson and Cathal O’Shannon were the Irish representatives at a tense “International Labour and Socialist Conference” in Berne on February 12th, 1919
On February 12th, 1919, Thomas Johnson and Cathal O’Shannon were in Switzerland, and needed money. William O’Brien of the ITGWU sent £50 from Liberty Hall. He cabled Johnson at the grand Hotel Bellevue Palace.
Johnson and O’Shannon were in Berne as Irish representatives at a tense “International Labour and Socialist Conference”.
Ireland’s future was not central there, amid arguments about who was to blame for the recent Great War and whether to condemn the Russian revolution. Absent Bolsheviks regarded the congress with suspicion.
Johnston, an Englishman settled in Ireland, became a founding member and leader of the Irish Labour Party. O’Shannon, an Ulsterman and journalist, was a republican and socialist who wrote for Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin paper and James Larkin’s Irish Worker. Each helped James Connolly before 1916. In January 1919 Johnson drafted a democratic programme for the new Dáil.
Before leaving for Switzerland the pair met Michael Collins and other Sinn Féin leaders when asked to do so. In Berne they encountered British Labour delegates (including a future prime minister Ramsay MacDonald) who had favoured Home Rule. The conference adopted a position on national self-determination acceptable to the British and to fellow socialists cautious about its implications for other European states too.
Delegates also diplomatically defused a row over whether or not German socialists were partly responsible for the Great War that had ended just three months earlier. But the Russian revolution split them, with the British and Irish on different sides. Most delegates supported a hostile resolution affirming parliamentary democracy over the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Irish and French were in a minority that thought the world’s proletariat deserved better. The Russian Soviet Republic might be a viable template for action by exploited workers elsewhere. An international press, controlled by capitalists was putting pressure on leftist political parties by crying crocodile tears about the rights of people in Russia who had long suffered oppression without such friends.
Johnson and O’Shannon knew well how the British press misrepresented the Irish struggle for independence and reform. The Adler-Longuet resolution for which they voted at Berne did not support a dictatorship of the proletariat over parliamentary democracy, but demanded more facts before judging Russian comrades.
Johnson’s English nationality attracted negative notice in Ireland. In 1917 he had launched a paper (Irish Opinion: The Voice of Labour), for which both O’Shannon and Frank Gallagher (future Irish Press editor-in-chief) wrote. My grandfather Kevin Kenny was its advertising agent.
When it emerged that some capital for the paper came from England, Gallagher quit and Dev took a sideswipe at it.
O’Shannon assumed the editorship. He was eager to avoid such divisions that could set back socialism. Similarly, Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith long insisted that every objective was secondary to the advanced nationalist aim of parliamentary independence. This led Griffith to clash with Larkin.
But the radical O’Shannon was more sanguine. He told Johnson that Griffith was “narrow and stubborn”, yet “I can always get along with him even when we differ. Most of our people on both sides have a way of saying things that might be more effectively said in another way: there is a great deal in the way a thing is said.”
“The way a thing is said” might be the theme of a book on the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty debates, especially as regards oaths required of TDs, the boundary commission and partition.
Recognising the strength of Sinn Féin, and not wishing to split the independence movement, Labour had not run candidates in the 1918 general election and so was unrepresented in the first Dáil. But Johnson wept with joy as the Dáil adopted an amended version of his draft democratic programme for reform. O’Shannon held his arm.
In 1924 James Larkin attacked the pro-Treaty Johnson as a “hostile Englishman”, although Johnson had at least one Irish grandparent and Larkin himself was born in England and spoke with a strong Liverpool accent. In 1925 Johnson successfully sued Larkin for libel. O’Shannon did not sue when condemned as a contemptible “reformist” by self-styled communists who included Connolly’s son.
However, in Berne in 1919 Johnson and O’Shannon were still optimistic. Civil war and an Irish trades unions’ congress split lay in the future. The pair proudly brought to Berne reports and memorandums prepared in four languages (including Irish) explaining the struggle for Irish independence, albeit in rose-tinted terms that heavily played up the role of Irish labour.
Johnson and O’Shannon stayed in Switzerland throughout February, studying and lobbying. They would long continue to serve Ireland, inside and outside Dáil Éireann, after the Irish Free State was founded.