France-Algeria, Two Centuries of History

What Algeria Owes to Ireland’s Struggle for Independence

The war launched by the NLF against colonial France has often been seen as a revolution unlike any other. But militants for independence have drawn inspiration from many other histories, including that of the Anglo-Irish conflict, in which they find an instrument of revolutionary legitimation, and also of propaganda destined to win the favour of the young Irish republic.

The war launched by the NLF against colonial France has often been seen as a revolution unlike any other. But militants for independence have drawn inspiration from many other histories, including that of the Anglo-Irish conflict, in which they find an instrument of revolutionary legitimation, and of propaganda destined to win the favour of the young Irish republic.

“What Joyce, Faulkner and I have in common is that they were Irish, and I am Algerian”,1 Kateb Yacine asserted in the mid-1980s. A leading antagonist of colonial ideology, there is no doubt that he had in mind the revolutionary and challenging spirit that the two peoples share. Another quote from the author of Nedjma reinforces the theme: he recounts that he had an Irish woman neighbour with whom he daily exchanged “smiles imbued with a lively anti-imperialist complicity”.2 Such analogies of closeness were far from unprecedented: Ireland was a “compulsory point of reference” for Algerian nationalism, including when it was still in its infancy.

A rhetorical instrument

Perhaps it is just historical coincidence, but the conception of Algerian nationalism coincided with the signature of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended a two-year-long war of independence. That treaty gave birth to the free Irish state and confirmed the island’s partition, with its northern part remaining in the British embrace. The ups and downs of the Anglo-Irish conflict did not go unnoticed in France and Algeria. In direct line of descent from the “native lovers” of the 19th century such as Leroy-Beaulieu, Ikdam, the journal of Emir Khaled the grandson of the Emir Abdel Kader, uses the example of Ireland to direct a menacing message to France on the likely consequences of it continuing its discriminatory policies towards the “natives”.

You drive the natives to desperation, you exasperate them, and when it becomes clear that with you there is nothing to gain … they will no longer tell you ‘Give us a place with you’, but rather, ‘What are you doing here? Go home!’ Don’t persist in your oppression. Look what it has done in Ireland!3

If the Emir Khaled oscillated between expressions of loyalty to France and proto-nationalist speeches, Ahmed Tewfik El Madani, the son of Algerian refugees established in Tunisia, showed himself less ambivalent. In 1923 he published a 20-page article on Ireland in the magazine Al Fajr. The main thrust of this article is the idea that Ireland had to shed its blood to achieve independence. On that basis, El Madani establishes a rule: the oppressed must understand that freedom cannot be deliberately conferred by the colonising power, nor can it come about through some kind of philanthropic or charitable action by the latter. It can only be attained at the price of heavy sacrifices. Thus, the author calls on all the oppressed peoples to salute the victory of Ireland, and to realise that no obstacle thrown up by the colonial authority can indefinitely halt the irresistible march towards liberty of a people capable of sacrifice and resilience. So, Ireland is raised as an example to infuse anti-colonial nationalists with a feeling of confidence and optimism about their chances of seeing their struggle succeed.

Although the text prepared by El Madani was unprecedented and pioneering in the Maghrebi context, it seems unlikely that he alone drove the proliferation of comparisons between Algeria and Ireland, which began to crop up in independentist discourse from the 1920s. A number of factors indicate that Algerian nationalists acquainted themselves with Irish history through different access points, given their mastery of French and their closeness to French communist circles. Even before the outbreak of the October revolution, Lenin himself listed Algeria and Ireland among the oppressed nations which he would be happy to see a revolt against the French and English colonial powers. By the same token, the French Communist Party (PCF) played a role in the political formation of Messali Hadj, who in 1927 became Secretary of the North African Star (L’Étoile nord-africaine), the first organisation to demand Algerian independence. Messali Hadj immersed himself in Irish revolutionary history, so much so that he made a rhetorical instrument out of it to legitimise his own struggle on the international level, conflating the situation in his country with that of Ireland before 1921. That is what he did for example in June 1933, when he described in his speech how “… on the pretext of civilising an already ’civilised’ people, France is carrying out a work of destruction with regard to the Muslims”.4 Evoking Ireland was not haphazard, because there is nothing like a European nation to try to open the eyes of an audience which may sometimes be taken by colonial ideology on the absurd myth according to which subject peoples are inherently devoid of civilisation.

Drawing lessons from the Irish “debacle”

In the 1940s, a new generation of Algerian independence seekers emerged. Many of them were initially Messali’s sidekicks but became his most inveterate enemies. They discovered Ireland either through reading and their exchanges with their elders, or through the intervention of engaged teachers such as François Châtelet and André Nouschi.

In the magazine Awal, Nouschi recounts an anecdote which happened when he was teaching in the Émile-Felix Gautier Lycée in Algiers. Addressing the Irish question in class, he steered the discussion in such a way that one of the pupils interjected: “But sir, that’s Algeria today!” “You’ve totally got it!”5 the history professor replied, gratified. As for Sadek Hadjerès, he would dig up his schoolboy memories at the colonial school, where the teachings allowed him to become infatuated with, among others, the history of Ireland and its long struggle for independence, which commanded his admiration as much as it did that of his classmates from the native population. So, it was no surprise that Ireland was discussed at the PPA-MTLD Congress (the Algerian People’s Party of Messali Hadj and the Movement for the Victory of Democratic Freedoms, set up a year earlier) in Belcourt in 1947, as recounted in his memoirs by Hocine Ait Ahmed, militant independence activist and future founder of the FFS (Socialist Forces Front):

Eamon De Valera, Sinn Féin [Irish independence party founded in 1905], and the practice of filibustering6 were all cited as examples. Although a fierce proponent of pursuing armed struggle, had not De Valera nonetheless decided to take part in the electoral battles in the framework of Home Rule, a reform which, moreover, he condemned with absolute intransigence? This reference made it possible, for the moment, to cast our five unhappy deputies in a “revolutionary role”.7

The main lesson that Ait Ahmed drew from the Anglo-Irish conflict was that it was possible to link armed struggle and parliamentary obstruction. Thus, the PPA-MTLD in no way compromised its own revolutionary principles by sending some deputies to the National Assembly, since some Irish would have already done the same, without betraying their ideals at all. Appointed head of the Special Organisation (OS), the military body created under the Congress, Ait Ahmed produced the famous Zeddine Report in 1948, in which he laid out the strategic and tactical problems facing the launching of the Algerian revolution. In it he deemed the Irish armed Easter Rising of 1916, a military operation launched without popular support, a “debacle” replete with lessons for the Algerian revolutionaries. Ait Hocine urges them to distance themselves from their Irish predecessors and not to repeat their mistakes by yielding to the temptation of blind terrorism and spontaneous action, driven by frustration or the desire for vengeance. According to Ait Ahmed, only a strong popular base combined with competent military management could produce convincing results.

On 1 November 1954, the NLF declared war on France. Prominent among the architects of the Algerian revolution were Abane Ramdane and Larbi Ben M’hidi, who according to comrades in arms shared a passion for Irish history. Cut down in the very flower of their youth, as far as we know neither left behind any documentation to show how Ireland inspired their struggle. Based on what evidence we have, it is not unreasonable to think that their familiarity with the Irish precedent may have had a bearing on their unitary approach and the structuring of the NLF after the Congress of Soummam. Like Sinn Féin during the Irish war of independence, the NLF set up its own institutions, giving birth to the National Council of the Algerian Revolution (CNRA) and the Coordination and Execution Committee (CCE), later renamed the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA). They were respectively the legislative and executive wings of the NLF.

Thus, Ireland provided both a model, in terms of resistance to imperialism, and a counter-model, when it came to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which unleashed a civil war even bloodier than the war with the British forces.

According to Redha Malek, spokesman for the Algerian delegation to Evian in March 1962, the GPRA negotiators had in mind the fool’s deal concluded by the Irish in 1921 and strived not to fall knowingly into the pit which tipped the Irish over the precipice into civil war. In the same vein were the words of Benyoucef Benkhedda, president of the GPRA at the time. He said the Algerian representatives were concerned first and foremost about “territorial integrity … because among the great misfortunes that can strike a nation is to see its territory partitioned. Ireland, whose long struggle for independence is at times reminiscent of our own resistance, had its north-eastern part amputated. The 1921 negotiations restored its sovereignty but were unable to prevent the loss of Ulster. The result was a civil war which plunged the newly liberated country back into mourning.”8

A tool for diplomatic propaganda

This anti-imperialist logic would also provide a compass on the diplomatic level. In the NLF’s discourse, the nations making up the western bloc at the UN were divided into two distinct categories: nations which have colonised various territories around the world, and those which have been subjected to the latters’ imperialist projects. The campaign of persuasion relating to the rectitude of the NLF’s armed struggle was above all directed towards the second category, including Ireland. In order to nudge these countries into the camp favouring Algeria’s independence, comparisons were drawn between their histories and the Algerian situation. For example, the delegate of Syria, a country offering unqualified support to the Algerian independence seekers, in an address to the UN’s First Committee in February 1957, declared: “125 years ago… France invaded Algeria, thus creating a problem similar to that made by the states which at another time divided Poland or dominated Ireland.”9

The propensity of some Irish to see the Algerian war of independence through the prism of their own history creates a sort of two-way traffic in these comparisons, exchanged in the framework of an anti-imperialist dialogue between representatives of the two countries. The Irish delegate Frederick Boland himself delved into his country’s history in order to advocate the holding of negotiations between the belligerents in the War of Independence. His intervention, also in February 1957, at the UN’s Political Committee bore witness to Ireland’s disparate sensitivities: he rejected the argument that the UN had no mandate to discuss the Algerian question, reaffirmed his country’s admiration for France, defended nationalist ideology (in Algeria and elsewhere), condemned violence committed both by France and by the NLF, and finally flagged up the danger of communist expansion if Algeria became independent. But the head of the NLF delegation, M’hamed Yazid, an admirer of the insurgents of the 1916 Easter Uprising, hit it off with Boland and met with him shortly afterwards. Boland made it clear to him that an Irish solution to the Algerian problem would imply concessions on both sides. The NLF leaders were not inclined to compromise, and Boland admitted later that he regarded them as extremists whose belligerence was hindering the emergence of an agreement with France. But it was Frank Aiken, Ireland’s new Foreign Minister, who became the first western diplomat to defend publicly, at the UN General Assembly in September 1957, the right of the Algerian people to self-determination.

This cosmetic support did not at all translate into concrete actions: Ireland’s votes on the Algerian issue fluctuated according to its economic and geopolitical interests. The Irish government did not recognise the GPRA until independence. The Irish ministry of Justice blocked the establishment of an NLF office on Irish territory. That did not prevent the latter from continuing to make its case there, notably through Afro-Asian students and Irish personalities such as the MP Noel Browne. That propaganda was evident, for example, in the comparisons made between the NLF and the IRA in letters to the editors of the main newspapers, whose pages sometimes became a battlefield for ideological conflict, given the campaign of counterpropaganda launched by the French embassy in Dublin. Mohamed Kellou, the GPRA’s representative in the UK, even went to Dublin in March 1961, telling a journalist who met him at the airport that he was sure he would receive expressions of sympathy from the Irish, given the similarity between the Algerians’ struggle for independence and that of the Irish several decades earlier. It goes without saying that if one reviews the various versions of his trip, the account of El Moudjahid depicting the event as an outright success must be qualified, notably in light of the criticisms levelled at the NLF at the meeting held by Kellou at Trinity College.

Put briefly, Ireland’s past, arousing expectations that were sometimes disappointed, led it to have a view of colonial conflicts different from that of its European neighbours. But its geography could not allow it to go as far in its support for the NLF as the countries of the Afro-Asian bloc.

Photo: From left to right: Youcef Zighoud, Abane Ramdane, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, Krim Belkacem and Amar Ouamrane at the Soumamm congress, August 1956.


➞ Christophe Gillissen, “Les relations franco-irlandaises et la question algérienne aux Nations unies”, in Sylvie Mikowski, Histoire et mémoire en France et en Irlande, Reims, Epure, 2011, pp. 261–287.
➞ Sadek Hadjerès, Culture, indépendance, et révolution en Algérie : 1880-1980, Paris, Temps Actuels, 1981.
➞ Mohamed Harbi and Gilbert Meynier, Le FLN: Documents et Histoire 1954-1962, Fayard, 2004, p. 841.
➞ Dónal Hassett, “The Example of Valiant Little Ireland,” in Patrick Mannion & Fearghal McGarry, The Irish Revolution: A Global History, New York University Press, 2022.

1Yacine Kateb and Hafid Gafaiti, “Kateb Yacine, un homme, une œuvre, un pays : entretien avec Kateb Yacine”, Voix multiples, 1986, p. 39.

2Yacine Kateb and Gilles Carpentier, Le poète comme un boxeur : entretiens, 1958-1989, Éditions du Seuil, 1994, p. 124.

3A. D. de Beaumont, “Gare la casse !!”, L’Ikdam, 4 November 1921, p. 1-2.

4Quoted in Benjamin Stora, Nationalistes algériens et révolutionnaires français au temps du Front populaire, L’Harmattan, 1987, p. 32.

5André Nouschi, “Un intellectuel dans la guerre d’Algérie”, Awal, No. 30, December 2004, p. 38.

6Filibustering is a tactic used to delay the passage of a law for as long as possible by exploiting parliamentary procedural regulations.

7Hocine Ait Ahmed, Mémoire d’un Combattant : l’esprit d’indépendance 1942-1952, Paris, Éditions Sylvie Messinger, 1983, p. 93.

8Benyoucef Benkhedda, Les accords d’Évian : la fin de la guerre d’Algérie, Alger, Office des publications universitaires, 1998, p. 37.

9AMEA, NUOI series, Volume 552, Georges Picot, “Au sujet de l’affaire algérienne devant la première Commission (séances du 4 février 1957)”, No. 587, New York, 4 February 1957, p. 1.