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Keywords:

  • the Labour Party;
  • Irish Free State;
  • Ramsay MacDonald;
  • deportees;
  • civil liberties;
  • ‘Red Clydesiders’;
  • Indemnity Bill;
  • Patrick Hastings;
  • republican;
  • parliamentary

After the 1918 general election the Labour Party became the official opposition party at Westminster. In response to the growing Irish republican campaign to establish an independent Irish state the Labour Party had to re-assess its relationship with Irish nationalism. The Labour Party was now acutely conscious that it was on the verge of forming a government and was concerned to be seen by the British electorate as a responsible, moderate and patriotic government-in-waiting. Although it had traditionally supported Irish demands for home rule and was vehemently opposed to the partition of Ireland, the Labour Party became increasingly wary of any closer relationship with extreme Irish nationalism which it believed would only damage its rapidly improving electoral prospects. Therefore the Labour Party supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 even though it underpinned the partition of Ireland and sought to distance itself from any association with Irish republicanism as the new Irish Free State drifted into civil war. In early 1923 the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) alighted upon the new issue of the arrest and deportation without trial, to the Irish Free State, of Irish republicans living in Britain who were obviously British citizens. The attraction of this campaign for the Labour Party was that it enabled the party to portray itself as the defender of Irish people living in Britain without having to take sides in the Irish civil war. In addition the Labour Party was able to present itself as the protector of civil liberties in Britain against the excesses of an overweening and authoritarian Conservative government. One of the main reasons the issue was progressed so energetically on the floor of the House by the new PLP was because it now contained many Independent Labour Party (ILP) ‘Red Clydesiders’ who themselves had been interned without trial during the First World War.

Through brilliant and astute use of parliamentary tactics Bonar Law's Conservative government was forced into an embarrassing climb-down which required the cobbling together of an Indemnity Bill which gave tory ministers retrospective legal protection for having exceeded their authority. By any standard, it was a major achievement by a novice opposition party. It enhanced the party's reputation and its growing sophistication in the use of parliamentary tactics benefited it electorally at the next election which led to the first Labour government.