Labour and Ireland: Irish Labour's missed opportunities

The partition of Ireland, following the Government Of Ireland Act in 1920, gave strength to the reactionary 'theory' that has always been perpetuated by pro-Unionist elements amongst the Northern labour movement that workers' interests were better served by maintaining the link with British capitalism.

Its architect was William Walker, a carpentry trade union activist, who stood as a Labour candidate at the turn of the century. Having rejected revolutionary socialism, he could only envisage a 'united Ireland' that tied Northern workers to an impoverished, divided capitalist state, and therefore argued that workers had more to gain by forcing reforms from the wealthier British capitalism. Indeed, this is the logical conclusion of reformism in the Northern Ireland context.

Ever since, the pro-Unionist elements have argued that there were 'two traditions' in Ireland; the ideas of the giant of Irish socialism, James Connolly—that is revolutionary socialism—was 'for the Catholics' while the Walker Tradition was in the best interests of the Protestant worker.

But capitalism in Northern Ireland is incapable of providing decent jobs, homes and wages for all. At the same time it uses sectarianism to keep the working class divided, fearful that a united labour force would use its industrial muscle to force reforms which would cut into the bosses' profits and develop socialist demands that would challenge the very existence of capitalism. The danger for the working class is that if it capitulates to these capitalist inspired divisions, it merely reinforces sectarianism as the workers retreat into their respective sectarian camps to defend their own meagre interests. Indeed, if socialists fail to tackle the national question, and do not raise the demand for a Socialist United Ireland and a Socialist Federation of the British Isles within a Socialist Federation of Europe, they become mere apologists for either pro-imperialists Unionism or petit-bourgious Southern nationalism and reinforce the sectarian wedge between Catholic and Protestant workers. This conundrum would dog the NILP throughout its existence—and for that matter still plagues the British Labour Party to this day.

The fate of Walker gives a graphic illustration of this. In 1906 he came within a few hundred votes of winning a North Belfast by-election. The Unionists who had his ear subsequently argued that if only he had been more resolute in his Unionism, he could win those extra Protestant votes needed to tip the balance. He stood for the same seat in the 1907 General Election—this time the extreme loyalist Belfast Protestant Association demanded he answer a series of questions to demonstrate his 'Loyalty'. This he did, making remarks offensive to Catholics—in response to this heightening of sectarian tensions, the workers returned to an inevitable sectarian head count and Walker was heavily defeated.

Ironically, in the same year Jim Larkin demonstrated how workers unity could be achieved through the class based demands he raised in the 1907 Belfast strike wave, where Protestant and catholic workers fought side by side for trade union recognition and better conditions. Walker on the other hand betrayed this opportunity to transfer workers' industrial solidarity onto the political plane. His inability to understand the processes taking place alongside his lack of faith in the prospect of workers' unity soon put him on the slippery slope to reaction.


Thus by 1912 he had deserted the labour movement and accepted a government position under Lloyd George. This has proved to be the well-trodden path taken by subsequent pro-Unionist labour leaders, until the final disintegration of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1970s.

It was a route taken by Walker's successor, Henry Midgley. Despite dominating the NILP with his Unionist views between the two world wars, his frustration at the growing impotency of the NILP—precisely because of the pro-Unionist policies on which it stood—led him to split from the NILP to form the 'Commonwealth Labour Party' in 1944. When this project failed, he later became a Stormont cabinet minister and a staunch supporter of the Orange Order.

Tied to this Unionist straitjacket, the reformist leaders of the NILP failed to adopt policies that could break it out of the sectarian cul-de-sac, that could have rekindled the spirit of working class unity.

One such opportunity was the movement against unemployment and poverty in 1932. By the 1930s, Northern Ireland workers faced intolerable conditions. Unemployment rose to 28%—Harland & Wolff, which had employed 20,000 in the 1920s was now down to a workforce of only 2,000. This was the reward for the 'loyalty' of the Protestant workers who had backed the Orange bosses drive for Partition.

Spontaneous protests broke out against 'Out of Door Relief,' slave labour schemes introduced supposedly to alleviate the hardship of unemployment. This was a degrading penalty of the Poor Law provision - for a painfully low supplement of , for example, 12 shillings a week for a married couple with one child, the unemployed were forced to complete two and a half days 'task work' as penance. 2,000 unemployed sent to work on the roads went on strike; they were joined by students from schools across the religious divide, and by Protestant and Catholic tenants who held a rent strike.

As the Orange bosses unleashed the police to baton the workers, rioting broke out in both the Catholic Falls Road, and the Protestant Shankhlll, which sent shockwaves through the Orange establishment.

The pressure put on the NILP gave a glimpse of what might have been achieved if they had taken a root and branch reappraisal of the policies and put forward a socialist programme. Albeit a token gesture to appease the rank and file, the NILP fought the 1933 Stormont elections on a 'workers unity' ticket, and doubled their representation from one seat to two.

This 'half way house' stance in the long term however proved to be the worst of both worlds. Still tied to Unionism, the enthusiasm for the NILP waned and the movement sparked by the events of 1932 was left directionless. At the same time the nominal advance by the NILP had provoked the Orange bosses into a frenzy. The following year they instigated actions that provoked a return to sectarianism—after the events of 1932, all demonstrations and public marches were prohibited, but the ban was lifted in time for the 1933 July 12th marching season which resulted in widespread rioting, many deaths and the British Army being called onto the streets to 'restore order'. The sectarian wedge returned.

The heightened political consciousness of Protestant workers who were looking for a lead during this period can be measured by the fact that even the staunchly nationalist IRA managed to form a cell on the Protestant Shankill Road by 1934! Had the leaders of the NILP put forward clear class based policies linked to socialist demands, the grip of loyalism could have been broken.

But the failure of the 1932 movement concretised the split in the Irish labour movement, consolidating the base of both Unionists and nationalist elements within the labour movement on both sides of the border.


In the North, the NILP nailed its colours to the Unionist mast, and began a downward spiral towards irrelevance in the eyes of Northern Ireland workers that would not be reversed until a brief period in the 1960s. Its failure to outline the socialist alternative meant that workers were left with the two stark choices presented by capitalism: 'more of the same' with the continuation of the Union, or unification with De Valera's impoverished Free State. Despite the appalling deprivation workers faced in the Northern Ireland statelet, Protestant workers looked on the South with horror.

For years it had been wracked by a bitter civil war. Now it was dominated by a reactionary Catholic 'theocracy' that stood guard over De Valera's backward, impoverished and isolationist state. Unification on a capitalist basis offered absolutely nothing to Protestant workers, indeed the perceived 'reverse discrimination' would only leave them worse off. In addition, De Valera was increasingly ambivalent towards the rising fascist threat in Europe, while pro-Nazi elements had taken control of the IRA. The Orange bosses in the North played on the workers' instinctive hatred of the fascists, in particular accusing the South of being the "open back door" to Britain should war break out with Nazi Germany.

Rather than raise a class based alternative, explaining how they could alleviate poverty for all and unite the country on a socialist basis, the NILP leaders lay prostrate before this Unionist mantra. The 1939 NILP conference confirmed that they supported Northern Ireland staying within the British Commonwealth. Far from winning them more votes, workers just saw them as "little Sir Echoes" to the Unionists, and voted for the real thing—in 1940 all NILP candidates were heavily defeated.

There was a swing to the NILP in the 1945 General Election. But this was not because of their pandering to Unionism (which had still not been overt enough for Midgley!), but because of their association with the progressive policies of the British Labour Party, and reflected the huge swing to the left in society; even the Northern Ireland Communist Party picked up support.

This lesson however was lost on the NILP 'unionists'. In February 1949 the Stormont Government called an election which they made into a 'border referendum'. The NILP once again clamoured to demonstrate its Unionism - and did not win one seat.

Rather than draw the conclusion that the British Labour Party won huge support in 1945 because of its policies of widescale nationalisation of the service industries, transport and coal alongside its sweeping welfare reforms, the February 1949 conference of the NILP instead reaffirmed its fervour to "maintain unbroken the connection between Great Britain and Northern Ireland", arguing that it had not been "unequivocal enough" in its support for the Union with Britain.

This pandering to the agenda set by the Unionists was a further disaster. While throughout the rest of Britain Labour stormed ahead, the NILP in the 1949 May council elections were once again annihilated. Their representation shrunk from eight seats to only one.

Their pro-Unionism had two damaging effects. Firstly, it merely reinforced the illusions of Protestant workers in the Unionist Party. As the author of 'The Rise of Irish Trade Unions (I 729-1970)', Andrew Boyd, recorded: "The Walker-Midgley philosophy has dominated the NILP since 1949. It has turned that unfortunate organisation into something little better than a shadow of the Ulster Unionists."

Secondly it drove a final sectarian wedge into the Northern Ireland labour movement. As a consequence of the 1949 conference, the NILP split in two, with pro-Nationalist elements forming 'Eire Labour'. Ironically—while the NILP was decimated—Eire Labour returned seven councillors but only, not surprisingly, from Catholic areas. It immediately became perceived as a 'nationalist party', while the NILP was confirmed as an Orange party.

Partition did not just reinforce reaction in the North however. A similar process was taking place in the South. The nationalists had always mistakenly urged trade unionists to split away from the 'British' trade union movement. In 1907 - when Larkin was successfully uniting Protestants and Catholic workers in Belfast—Sinn Fein urged the trade unions to split away from the Irish TUC, a sectarian move which fortunately failed. Connolly had raged against such a move, arguing in his pamphlet 'Yellow Unions in Ireland' that such a nationalist split off would be "... the first to betray the cause of labour."

But Partition and the subsequent reaction strengthened their hand, and by 1939 Sinn Fein eventually succeeded in persuading 18 trade unions to split from the ITUC and form the Advisory Council of Irish Trade Unions.

This was formalised in 1944 with the formation of the Congress of Irish Unions—the Irish working class was equally split, with the CIU representing 190,000 workers, and the ITUC representing 211,000. Similar to 1907, the Nationalists pushed through these demands at a time when the British labour movement was moving sharply to the left, with widescale unofficial strikes in the wartime industries and pressurising the British Labour Party to adopt a radical programme, which propelled it into power a year later.

This move left the ITUC severely weakened in the North. While Sinn Fein denounced the ITUC as a "tool of the British", the Stormont government took advantage of the Nationalist instigated split and refused to recognise what was left of the ITUC.

They had always wanted an 'Ulster TUC', an emasculated trade union version of the tame NILP. While they beat their chest in defence of 'Union with Britain', they wanted 'union' with the powerful British ruling class only and not with a labour movement which was successfully forcing concessions and reforms. They felt a 'loyal' trade union organisation cut off from British and Southern Irish workers could be kept safely in their pocket.


Stormont received backing from its allies in the NILP leadership, who argued the split in the movement was now an 'accomplished fact' and that the only way forward was for a 'federal' solution for trade unionists. The NILP leader David Bleakly—steeped in the 'Walker/Midgley tradition'— proclaimed in 1954: "It seems reasonable to suggest that the only solution that is likely to endure is one that recognises the essential realities of the situation ... a federal solution may be the most suitable."

Calls for such 'federal solutions' in various forms have been raised ever since by sections and individuals in the labour movement over the years who have become exasperated by sectarianism. It has never been—and never will be—a solution to the 'Troubles.' Workers' solidarity knows no boundaries—those who attempt to confine it to national borders merely reinforce acceptance of the limitations of the capitalist nation state and assist the bosses in setting worker against worker as the capitalist class play off one 'national interest' against another. in the context of Northern Ireland, to split the movement along North/South, Catholic/Protestant lines does not provide a detour around sectarianism—it merely reinforces it.

An 'Ulster TUC' would have created a Northern version of the 'yellow unions' feared by Connolly. Indeed, the experience in the South of those trade unions which split away from the ITUC was not that it gave them new found strength; rather that, severely weakened, they were trampled over as the Southern bosses stampeded towards the creation of a new capitalist nation state. Just as the Orange bosses after Partition 'rewarded' the Protestant workers with mass unemployment, wage cuts and repression, so the Green bosses of the South repaid the Southern trade unions with disempowerment, cutbacks and low wages.

Fortunately the working class in both the North and South understood these lessons and rejected such calls for federalism. They pursued their instinctive desire for unity against the bosses class, of whatever colour, and pressurised their leaders for re-amalgamation.

Against all the odds, the CIU and the ITUC merged in 1959, to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which included a Northern Ireland Committee, uniting all workers, whether in Southern Irish or British based trade unions.

Despite decades of sectarianism, despite Partition, despite virulent opposition from Stormont, Southern nationalists and despite the pressures of their own so-called 'leaders', unity won through. Stormont still refused for five years to recognise the ICTU but eventually had to accept the inevitable.

As the Belfast Telegraph (24 July 1964) commented: "The desire for unity and solidarity among trade unionists throughout Ireland remained strong regardless of political differences ... this fact enabled the Northern Ireland Committee (of the ICTU) to enjoy wide support even without official recognition, while proposals for a separate Ulster TUC or a Northern Ireland Committee of the British TUC have attracted little interest."

Events from 1907 through to the formation of the ICTU in the 1950s illustrates that sectarianism is not the 'natural state of consciousness' of Irish workers, but rather is a barrier imposed by the intervention of British imperialism bolstered by the reactionary nationalism of the Southern Irish capitalist class; the instinctive aspiration for Irish workers, both North and South, is for unity against the class enemy. Unfortunately this class consciousness was never matched by political leadership. It was a failure that the workers would pay for dearly in the explosive events of 1969.