The Irish Self Determination League in Manchester

The Irish Self Determination league was a national organisation set up to rally support in Britain amongst the Irish population for the struggle for Irish independence between 1919 and 1921.

In December 1918 the nationalist party Sinn Fein won a majority of the seats in Ireland in the General Election (73 out of 105). They now implemented their policy of achieving separation from Britain by refusing to go to the Westminster parliament and on 21 January 1919 they met in Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. The British government refused to recognize and attempted to crush the new state with military force. The new government fought back with its own armed forces, the IRA.

In February 1919 Sinn Fein leaders Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill and others addressed a huge and enthusiastic meeting at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool. Following this a conference was held in Manchester at which it was resolved to form the Irish Self Determination League. This was launched on 19th October at a meeting at the Free Trade Hall advertised as starting at 2.30pm, though the hall was full long before that time. At short notice the Palladium Picture House was engaged to cope with the overflow but that in turn was soon filled to capacity and so an impromptu meeting was held in the narrow street between the Free Trade Hall and the Theatre Royal. The Manchester Guardian estimated that some seven thousand people in all had attended the three meetings.

Arthur Griffith MP, S O’Mahoney MP and Sean Milroy (director of Sinn Fein’s operations) received a standing ovation on entering the Free Trade Hall. Griffith said that alone among European nations which answered to the requirements of the principle of self-determination, Ireland was still enslaved. English publicists and politicians had said that the Irish question was insoluble. “The only question in Ireland was whether they could get the burglar out of the house.” England, they countered, could solve the Irish question in five minutes by withdrawing her armed forces and permitting the Irish people the same right which Russia permitted Poland, the right to govern herself. Griffith recounted a recent incident.

“On Thursday last in Dublin, Lord Birkenhead arrived to create a favourable atmosphere for the reconciling of the Irish people and on the night of his arrival we in the Sinn Fein headquarters were served with another notice bidding us to consider ourselves suppressed. They have been telling us for the last three years we have been suppressed. They are adjuring us or assuring us that we cannot be other than suppressed. We have come to take these orders for suppression with a certain thankfulness to have bureaucracy which, for all its malignity and stupidity, seems still to have a sense of humour. Imagine, then, the people who profess to be setting up a committee to reconcile the Irish people using the morning of the visit of the angel of peace Lord Birkenhead to announce to the world and to us that we are suppressed. Well, we refused to be suppressed and we went on with the business we had arranged for the day. Some hours after we had transacted our business 800 soldiers, with many tanks, a number of machine guns and Lewis guns and 200 Dublin policemen, armed with automatic revolvers, came and surrounded the Lord Mayor’s residence. They remained there seven hours when they learned that the Convention they had come to suppress had already met and carried out its business”.

Sean Milroy said that the Irish Republic existed and would continue to exist when Lord French, Mr Ian Macpherson, Lord Birkenhead and the ‘other Empire muddlers’ had passed into oblivion. “There is a new Ireland to-day”, he insisted, “an Ireland which would never be content again to hang on to the hopes of what English politicians would do for her”. The meeting then enthusiastically passed a resolution demanding for Ireland the complete rights of self-determination, the withdrawal of the army of occupation, the reinstatement of Irish newspapers and the release of all political prisoners.

The ISDL quickly gathered momentum and by February 1920 the organisation was able to sell out the Royal Albert Hall for a major meeting, at which the speakers included Art O’Brien, Charlotte Despard, Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill and P J Kelly (President of the ISDL). Kelly called for the release of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Thomas Kelly, who was being held in Wormwood Scrubs along with over sixty other prisoners who had been deported and jailed in England. In June there was march and rally in Trafalgar Square and a Tory MP protested to the Home Secretary in the Commons about the fact that the flag of the Irish Republic had been carried through the streets of London “under police protection”.

A year after its launch the ISDL had over 200 branches across Britain. It also had its own newspaper the Irish Exile, first published in March 1921 by the London district of ISDL but after November 1921 published by the Central Executive of the League. The last issue appeared in June 1922.

Manchester was a major centre, claiming 7,465 members out of a national membership of nearly 39,000. Among those active in Manchester was Hugh Lee, a councillor in Collyhurst elected as a Liberal in 1919. Lee was from Cavan and came to Manchester at the age of 14 to be apprenticed to his cousin in the grocery trade, later opening his own shop on Rochdale Road. His shift from supporting the Liberal Party to support for the ISDL indicates the rapid political transformation taking place in the Irish community in this period (Lee subsequently became a Councillor for Blackley in the 1930s and 40s, his single shop prospered and became a chain, and he was Lord Mayor between 1945-46).

The ISDL planned a weekend of events for 27th and 28th November 1920 in Manchester, including a national conference on Saturday at the Coal Exchange on Saturday, a march on Sunday morning from Bexley Square to St. Patrick’s church to commemorate the Manchester Martyrs, and a rally on Sunday afternoon at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue to which leading Sinn Fein figures such as Arthur Griffith had been invited.

The ISDL leadership held a meeting with the Chief Constable Sir Robert Peacock on the Friday, at which the police tried to get the meetings called off, but the Irish stood fast and insisted on their right to free speech. The following day the Home Secretary banned the conference, procession and rally from being held in Manchester, citing as an excuse the fear of grave disorder while simultaneously in Dublin police arrested Arthur Griffith and Eoin MacNeill. The Chief Constable sent copies of the order to George Clancy, chair of the Manchester District Committee of the ISDL.

The National Executive of the ISDL, chaired by P J Kelly from Liverpool, met in emergency session in Manchester and announced their intention to proceed with their plans. The Executive attacked the decision of the Home Secretary, stating that “This is evidently the forerunner of the arrest of the leaders in Great Britain.” (The leaders had good grounds to suspect the government might act against them, for in March 1920 Charles Diamond, the editor of the Catholic Herald, had been sent to prison for six months, convicted at the Old Bailey of inciting murder by writing an editorial entitled “Killing No Murder.)

The ISDL evaded the restrictions by moving the site of the conference from Manchester to Salford, where it was held in the Hibernian Hall, Chapel Street. Three hundred delegates attended, representing 234 branches. In his opening remarks P J Kelly said recent events would not deter them. “They have banned our conference and proclaimed our procession and meetings and arrested two of the leaders who were to have been present to address and advise us. These events do not disturb us. We simply go on, calmly, firmly and resolutely performing our allotted task in the glorious work of rebuilding the Irish nation”

He welcomed the recent Labour party policy of “self-determination” and hoped that they mean it. ISDL General Secretary Sean MacRaith reported that 200 new branches had been established in the last six months. A resolution to allow English Catholics to become members of the League as well as those of Irish birth and descent was rejected. The Sunday morning procession was called off by the organisers when it became clear that the police would not permit it to go ahead.

Permission to use public halls was regularly refused for ISDL meetings and the matter was raised on Manchester City Council by Councillor Hugh Lee. After a stormy debate the motion in favour of allowing the use of halls was carried 45 to 15. The Irish National Aid committee worked in conjunction with the ISDL sending large sums to the White Cross and Republican Prisoners Dependents Fund in Dublin. The civil war in Ireland which broke out in the wake of the Treaty quickly reduced the membership of the ISDL and by July 1922 it was practically defunct in Manchester. A remnant of the organization survived and eventually merged into the Connolly Association.

Article by Michael Herbert