Labour and Ireland: Workers unity - the real solution

The election of a Labour Government in Britain has raised enormous expectations, not least by workers in Northern Ireland who are looking for a way out of the impasse they have faced for nearly a century. Yet the Labour leadership remain tied to a "bi-partisan" approach that has solved nothing in the past, and looks set to present more of the same for the future. In a short series of articles, Cain O'Mahoney examines labour's role in Northern Ireland and the lessons that must be learnt.

One of the greatest tragedies of this century was the premature rising in Dublin in 1916. Heroic though the Easter Rebellion was, it lead to the execution of the giant of Irish socialism, James Connolly, and shattered the last remnants of the Irish Citizens Army, a potentially revolutionary force.

This beheading of the Irish labour movement came just two years before the momentous events of 1918-1920 which, with a correct workers leadership, could have changed the course of history in Ireland, Britain, and possibly the world.

James Connolly, a Scottish trade unionist blacklisted after standing as a Labour candidate in Edinburgh, was summoned to Ireland to work alongside Jim Larkin in bringing trade unionism to the lowest paid and most exploited section of the working class in the British Isles.

Larkin had already sent shockwaves through the ruling class with a successful struggle in 1907 in Belfast. Since the United Irishmen revolt of the 18th century, British Imperialism had used sectarianism to divide Northern Ireland workers, using the promise of "ascendancy" for the Protestants to buy their loyalty.

But the rise of trade unionism and socialist ideas was breaking this centuries' old grip. The grinding poverty of capitalism was driving Protestant and Catholic workers into each others' arms. As Connolly explained in his work 'Labour In Irish History': "... the presence of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, (and) earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social democracy."

The British ruling class had a taste of this in1907. Jim Larkin led a campaign to unionise the dockers and transport workers, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers throughout Belfast in the fight for union rights. The ruling class were shaken after their age old method of 'playing the Orange card' to divide the workers totally failed. The Unionist press had denounced Larkin as a "Catholic and a socialist" and attempted to whip up emotions around the July 12 th parades.

Larkin responded by organising a united labour movement demonstration on the eve of July 12th, cutting the ground from beneath the sectarians and stamping the trade unions' authority on the city. He even won the support of the Independent Orange Order - a working class, 'pro-labour' breakaway from the official Orange Order - who backed the demonstration. Indeed, scabs had been brought in to break the strike, from Liverpool; that these class traitors came from Britain and not the 'Catholic enemy' in the South was not lost on Protestant workers.

The bosses were further weakened when the clamour for trade union rights spread to the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast. The leader of the movement demanding trade union rights for the police was threatened with a charge of mutiny. The rank and file of the RUC responded with a mass meeting at the Musgrave Street Barracks threatening immediate strike action, and the authorities backed down.

As the bosses saw the trappings of state power begin to unravel and their sectarian grip on Protestant workers collapse, they were only saved by the leaders of the British TUC. They rushed over to the North and imposed a settlement on the dockers, and the movement subsided.

The height of Connolly and Larkin's influence came in 1913, and the momentous events of the Dublin Lockout. There had been several minor but successful strikes led by their union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Larkin then led the ITGNW in a campaign to organise the Dublin United Tramway Company, one of the major employers in the city refusing recognition.

Its owner, Murphy, one of the leading bosses in the city, called together the Southern employers in August and urged them to join him in a city-wide Lock Out. Over 400 employers responded to the attempt to smash the trade unions, and they were backed by the British state. The Police were unleashed to violently break up all mass meetings and pickets, the most infamous episode being Bloody Sundaywhich left hundreds of trade unionists badly injured. In all two pickets were killed by police, while a young girl was shot dead by an armed scab.

In the momentous battle over 100,000 trade unionists and their families backed Connolly and Larkin until they were literally starved back to work on Murphy's Brief six months later. The struggle was lost because of the failure, once again, of the British TUC leadership to give active support. They confined the British labour movement to fund raising activities only, quickly moving in to quell sympathy strikes that broke out in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, fearing a general strike spreading throughout the whole movement which in turn would have challenged their comfortable positions.

The defeat of the Southern Irish workers in the Dublin Lockout alongside the onslaught of the First World War left the Irish labour movement battered, bruised and demoralised. By 1916 membership and funds had dwindled to dangerously low levels. Larkin was dispatched to the United States to raise new funds for the impoverished Irish Transport and General Workers Union—he was subsequently imprisoned and held in Sing Sing prison until 1922, in the purge of the American labour movement that followed the Russian Revolution.

Connolly meanwhile became increasingly isolated as reaction set in following the defeat of 1913, while his anger grew at the great betrayal of the labour movement leaders throughout Europe as they passively fell in line behind their respective national states in readiness for the mass slaughter of the First World War.

Connolly was in the tradition of the 'Zimmerwald Conference' labour leaders—which included Lenin, Luxembourg and Liebknicht—that condemned the great betrayal of the European reformist leaders.

Connolly had raged against the British TUC: "Time was when the unanimous voice of that Congress declared that the working class had no enemy except the capitalist class—that of its own coming at the head of the list!"

The Easter Rising, from Connolly's standpoint, was a last desperate act after fears grew that widescale conscription would be introduced in Ireland; the Irish working class, already starved and exploited, were now to provide the mass cannon fodder for the killing fields of France.

Connolly took the small remaining cadre in the Irish Citizens Amy— formed in 1913 to defend picket lines from Police attack - into the ill-fated rebellion to fight alongside the Nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. The ill timed revolt received little support and was swiftly crushed by the British Army.

The failure of the rebellion was not only a disaster in that it prematurely removed a potential revolutionary leadership from the Irish working class for the decisive battles yet to come. It also played into the hands of labour's enemies in the North who would forever more link socialism to Irish bourgeois nationalism, and scare Protestant workers away from revolutionary ideas.

This of course was a total smear on the true ideas of James Connolly. All his writings and works pointed towards workers' unity and the need for the socialist transformation of society. Indeed, he had no illusions about the dangers of joining the Nationalists for an armed rebellion. A week before the uprising, he told his followers in the ICA: "The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well."

Connolly was reviled internationally for his actions by labour leaders, including Plekhanov. However, Lenin and Trotsky leapt to his defence. Lenin in particular made the point that although it was "...a misfortune that the Irish rose prematurely", he pointed out to other so-called 'revolutionaries' that " is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful revolutionary movements that the masses gain experiences, acquire knowledge, gather strength and get to know their real leaders..."

Trotsky developed this point in his essay 'Lessons of the Events in Dublin.' Highlighting the case of Sir Roger Casement, the former British Colonial Service official who attempted to smuggle in German rifles for the rebellion, he stated: "The experiment of an Irish Rebellion in which Casement represented, with undoubted personal courage, the outworn hopes and methods of the past, is over and done with. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already it has brought its class anger against militarism and imperialism into this rising, under an out-of-date flag."

Unfortunately the removal of Connolly, Larkin and the ICA cadre—who could have played a key role in the events of 1918-1920—meant the workers continued to take up the struggle under an 'out-of-date flag'.

The struggle for Irish independence was accompanied by spontaneous movements of the workers inspired by the Russian Revolution. There were widescale land seizures in County Clare. An effective Soviet was formed in Limerick, with workers even producing their own money - 'Labour Notes' - and imposing price controls. Members of the ITGWU took over the Knocklong Creamery under the slogan: "We make cream, not profits". In Leitrim, miners took control of the Argina coalfield.

In addition, the struggle for national liberation was taking an increasingly class based nature. With the exception of Belfast, throughout Ireland there was a General Strike against conscription in 1918. In 1920, there was a further three day General Strike against the imprisonment of Republican prisoners, while trade unionists in the docks and railways refused to handle ammunition and supplies for the occupying British Army.

But this was not matched by a labour leadership of the calibre of Connolly and Larkin. Instead the labour leadership allowed themselves to become an auxiliary of the nationalists based around Sinn Fein, which represented the rising bourgeois and petit-bourgeois who would supplant British imperialism in the new Free State.

The nationalist leader De Valera adopted left wing language to ensure the support of the workers, even declaring "If I were asked what statement of Irish policy was most in accord with my views as to what human beings should struggle for, I would stand side by side with James Connolly." These were empty phrases however. In the crucial 1918 general election De Valera demanded the Labour Party—formed in 1912 through the intervention of Connolly—stand aside to allow Sinn Fein a free run, under the slogan: "Labour must wait". The Labour leaders dutifully obliged, paving the way for the formation of a capitalist Free State that could never win support from the Protestant workers in the North.

Even so, the spontaneous actions by the workers during this period struck terror into the heart of British ruling class. Around the globe, capitalism had been shaken by the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary struggles in Germany and Central Europe. Now Britain in 1919 faced an uprising in Ireland and growing class conflicts on the British mainland too, from the Red Clydeside revolt in Scotland to the mutiny by British soldiers awaiting demobilisation in France. Had Connolly "kept his powder dry" for three or four years, and instigated an uprising along socialist lines during this explosive period, the impact can be imagined.

It was these fears that drove British imperialism to enact its partition of Ireland. There were of course immediate material considerations for the ruling class. They wanted to retain the profitable heavy industries of the North and maintain the Northern ports to protect Britain's western flank from its European rivals. But a prime motivation was that Partition would act as a brake on the growing revolutionary awareness of workers both North and South.

The Orange bosses and the British ruling class had thought that the events in the North in 1914—where Edward Carson and the Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force and threatened open revolt against Home Rule—had re-enforced sectarianism, destroying the gains made by the workers in 1907.

But the spectre of working class unity returned to haunt the ruling class in 1919. Belfast was not unaffected by the class movements emanating form the South and across Europe; and not least from Red Clydeside where the battle was on for the 44 hour week.

A virtual General Strike rapidly spread throughout Belfast, with Shipyard workers—led by a Catholic—fighting for a 44 hour week, and engineers fighting for better pay. The workers won a partial victory, with the working week being reduced to 47 hours in the shipyards, and pay in the maritime engineering plants being increased by five shillings.

The importance of the 1919 Belfast strike however, is that it awoke the political consciousness of many Protestant workers. From the industrial struggle they moved onto the political plane. Belfast Labour and the ILP fielded candidates for the 1920 municipal elections - many of them strike leaders from the 1919 dispute—winning 13 seats. This success was all the more significant as they defeated so-called 'Unionist Labour' candidates.

Following the events of 1907, the ruling class had always feared the Protestant workers developing their own independent political consciousness and therefore attempted to create a safe 'Labour' party for Protestant workers that would not threaten the Unionist order. 'Unionist Labour' was created in 1914—its class composition can be judged by its three founding members; Edward Carson, the Unionist leader and architect of Partition; JM Andrews, the boss of a large linen company; and William Grant, the sole trade union activist but who was also a prominent member of the Orange Order. Yet in the 1919 elections, Unionist Labour won less than half the seats won by the real, class based 'Belfast Labour'.

Faced with a potential social revolution in the South, and the rising voice of independent labour in the North, the bosses' class responded with a terrifying new assault. They instigated vicious pogroms in 1920, that paved the way for Partition. The Unionist press whipped up fears about Home Rule and called on Protestants to 'expel' not only Catholics but also "unreliable Protestants and Socialists" from the workplace.

The Belfast Protestant Association, an extreme right wing group, led the affray into the Shipyards and other major factories and mills, attacking Catholics and trade unionists. It is worth remembering that the pogroms did not emanate from inside the workplace, but were instigated from the outside. Fr. John Hassan, a Priest who chronicled the events, described the attacks: "Men armed with sledge hammers and other weapons swooped down on the Catholic workers in the shipyards ... The gates were smashed down with the sledges, the vests and shirts of those at work were torn open to see were the men wearing Catholic emblems, and then woe betide the man who was..."

By the end of this maelstrom, over 9,000 workers had been driven from their workplace, mainly Catholics but also over 2,000 Protestants, most of them trade union activists who attempted to defend their brothers.

The trade unions attempted to fight back, but the expulsions were compounded by an ill-thought out tactic by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. What had been needed was a thorough, well organised campaign of pickets, canvassing in working class areas and demonstrations to win back those workers momentarily caught up in the sectarian madness of the pogroms, building up to a clear strike call coupled to socialist demands for a Workers Republic that would create a new equal society for all, cutting across the fears stirred up over Home Rule.

Instead the ASE reacted by drawing up a blacklist of all companies that had allowed the pogroms to take place and called on ASE members to "not accept employment" from them. This confused call was a disaster. Only 600 members responded - they were promptly sacked, and the 2,000 ASE members who stayed in were expelled from the union. The trade unions had successfully been driven from the shipyards.

The aftermath of the 1920s pogrom was effectively the end of trade unionism in the North for the immediate period. Connolly had always warned that a Partition of Ireland would lead to a "Carnival of Reaction". This grim perspective was borne out.

The new Northern Ireland state became a seething cauldron of sectarianism, riots and pogroms. Wages were slashed in the shipyards and the marine engineering plants by up to 22 shillings a week. Joiners and carpenters lost 12 shillings a week, while the dockers had their meagre wages cut by three shillings. By 1925 the unemployment rate had shot up to 24 percent. This was the reward for the 'loyalty' of the Belfast workers.

Partition strengthened reaction on both sides of the new border however. Following the pogroms and Partition, alongside Labour's subservience to Sinn Fein in the South, there was a genuine attempt to re-establish a united labour movement in 1924, by the National Council of Labour Colleges. Although a project was established in Belfast, the plan failed because of opposition in Dublin. The NCLC's General Secretary JP Millar said the project was defeated by "strong nationalist feelings" in the South, adding that if Dublin had agreed, the plan would have "made a substantial contribution towards creating unity between trade unionists in the North and trade unionists in the South."