The working class and the national struggle, 1916-1921


by Philip Ferguson; this is thesis chapter 8

In this chapter I will be examining the role played by the working class and labour movement between 1916-21, in the light of the radicalism of this period and the threat of Bolshevism perceived by the Irish establishment.  These labour struggles posed challenges both to the old order and to the new nationalist leadership. Whether of an economic character (eg, wage struggles) or a specific political character (as in the case of the general strikes against conscription and for the release of political prisoners), they challenged British rule since it was this rule which organised the relationship of the classes in Ireland.  Given that, as Milotte has noted, “In Ireland after the Easter Rising there was a political vacuum: no national movement and no national leadership had yet emerged to replace the declining and increasingly irrelevant Irish party”,[1] I will argue that such struggles presented opportunities for the working class to take political leadership of the struggle for Irish independence and give that struggle a proletarian political character, ie give it a political programme and leadership in which the interests of the working class were dominant.

At the same time, urban workers were not the only disadvantaged class. Given the nature of Ireland as a largely rural/agrarian society, the land question remained a potent source of class conflict.  With the war inhibiting the mass emigration of previous decades, there was a growth of the landless rural population and those holding uneconomic units. Since the large landowners were supporters of British rule, struggles over land, like struggles over wages and conditions on the part of the working class, inevitably meshed with the national struggle for independence.

Thus the nature of class and national conflict in Ireland posed possibilities of a two-fold revolution: for the national freedom of the country and the social emancipation of workers, rural poor and women.[2]  Struggles by workers and the rural poor, because they constantly threatened to go beyond the existing capitalist framework of society, posed a challenge not only to the British authorities and the old elite order (represented by the Irish Times), but also to the new nationalist/republican leadership and the trade union leadership.  These leaderships, in their various ways, therefore sought to restrict the development of working class and agrarian militancy while also trying to use the threat from below to wring concessions from the British.  I will show that in the struggle between these forces, it was the disadvantaged urban and rural classes whose struggles were constantly frustrated and it was these classes which eventually lost out (a theme which will be developed further in the chapter on the Free State).

The labour movement

Regardless of the less than revolutionary outlook of Griffith, de Valera and a section of the other Sinn Fein leaders, the challenge to British rule opened up space for the working class to renew its own struggle on both economic and political fronts.  The Labour Party, which before the Rising had been a far larger force than Sinn Fein and had constituted the main opposition to the IPP in local government in nationalist Ireland, was clearly well-placed to advance on the political front.  And, on the economic front, as O’Connor notes, “The ascent of Sinn Fein also politicised wage militancy.  In breaking the hegemony of conservative nationalism, separatists subverted the social consensus, creating the scope for native echoes of international radicalism to flourish.”[3]  Moreover, while workers’ position had worsened following the defeat of the 1913-14 labour struggle in Dublin and also during 1914-16, a labour shortage in the middle of the war provided the possibility for making substantial advances in wages and living conditions.  This became reflected in the fact that after 1916, and until 1920, wages rose faster than prices.[4]

Although organised labour had suffered in the wake of the Rising, Liberty Hall being largely destroyed by British shells and a number of major labour figures and organisers, such as O’Brien, being arrested, the labour movement was placed in a strong position to become the chief opposition to British rule and the IPP. Labour’s most well-known leader, Connolly, had, unlike SF’s leader Griffith, been an architect of the rebellion.  Moreover the political strategy developed by Connolly and his colleagues, such as Markievicz and Mallin, before the Rising had drawn all the most radical elements in society around militant labour.  Additionally, despite the repression, the labour movement had suffered the least in the months following the Rising and, in August 1916, was able to hold its first full national conference since the outbreak of war.  This gathering, held in Sligo, showed that organised labour constituted a much more formidable force than the fragments of republicanism/non-constitutional nationalism at the time.

However, instead of taking up the leadership role in national politics through challenging the wave of British repression and making itself the organising centre of opposition to British rule, the conference rejected such a strategy.  Connolly’s whole political perspective was essentially dumped.  The conference also “in effect reversed the NEC decision of 1914 which condemned the war as imperialist.”[5]  Delegates rose as a mark of respect for all those who had recently lost their lives, whether fighting for British imperialism in the trenches of Europe or for Irish freedom in the heart of Dublin.  The conference never even took a position on the Rising.  The reason for this is generally attributed to the labour leaders’ unwillingness to alienate the Unionist working class in the north-east.[6]  Yet it did adopt a resolution against partition, “protest(ing) most strongly against the setting up of any barrier which would sunder and divide the people of this country, believing such action not only undemocratic, but suicidal and disastrous to the working class movement. . .”[7]  But the most important feature of the gathering was that it pulled back from any claim to leadership of the national liberation struggle.  As Clarkson argued a decade later, “official Labour shrank back from the bold position that James Connolly had prepared for it.”[8]

This raises the question of just why such a timid perspective dominated the Irish labour movement before and after 1916 – especially since the movement was in favour of the separation of Ireland from Britain.  Moreover why did this perspective continue to win out in the context of massive social conflict during the war for independence?  After all, as Mitchell notes, “By concentrating on social and economic issues, while avoiding the national question, the trade union movement was held together during very difficult times, but this policy severely handicapped Irish Labour in its quest for political power.”[9]  In the view of ITGWU organiser and IRA leader Peadar O’Donnell it meant “losing the whole of Ireland for the sake of Belfast.”[10]

Mitchell points out that after Connolly’s death and the imprisonment of many of the Dublin labour leaders, the leadership of the labour movement nationally passed into the hands of D.R. Campbell and Thomas Johnson, who were both based in Belfast.  Johnson was British and his background was in economistic British socialism.  He was “a moderate, careful, hardworking man”,[11] while Campbell was a Belfast trade union leader who had been sympathetic to “Larkinism” and supported separate political and trade union organisation for Ireland.  Both were sympathetic to the political separation of Ireland from Britain, but neither had the broader political vision of Connolly who had understood that the national question was not an issue of emotion or abstract sentiment but politically crucial to Irish working class advance. The colonial status of Ireland shaped class relations, the British state guaranteed the maintenance of capitalism in Ireland and determined the form which that capitalism would take. Thus while Mitchell is right that the labour leaders underestimated the impact of nationalism on workers, this does not go nearly far enough.

While Connolly’s perspective had never been the most influential one in the Irish labour movement, even in his lifetime, the clarity of Connolly and his co-thinkers and, I would argue, the correspondence of their ideas to the actual necessities of the struggle for Irish freedom, allowed them to exert an influence far beyond their numbers.  (As I have already argued, in contrast to most other accounts, the 1916 rebellion took place at the behest and under the influence of the Connolly-led militant labour group far more than anyone else.)  Yet this political current itself remained tiny.  It did not develop as a revolutionary political party but essentially took the form of a workers’ army, the ICA.

Although Connolly had also maintained a small socialist party, this “was treated as being of secondary importance”.[12]  In the crucial four to five years after 1916, when the future of Ireland was essentially being decided, the Irish labour movement “had very little theoretical guidance or practical example upon which to base its organisational schema.”[13]  Influential leaders, such as O’Brien, may well have, as Anderson claims, “still carried painful memories of Connolly’s unsuccessful attempt to turn the ISRP into a disciplined vanguard party and resisted a course which had already been tried and found wanting.  Knowledge of and acceptance of the Leninist concept of the party came relatively slowly to Ireland and was largely limited to very young left-wing activists of whom Connolly’s son Roddy – himself an Easter Rising veteran – was a leading light.”[14]

The lack of a revolutionary party, which could develop the political programme of the workers and provide continuity after the death of its main leader and his chief lieutenant (Connolly and Mallin), meant the political tendency itself disintegrated.  The remaining activists, the most prominent of whom was Markievicz, had neither a party nor trade union nor other significant means through which revolutionary ideas uniting national, class and women’s struggles could be expressed.  Instead the economistic ideas which arise out of day-to-day trade union experience dominated the labour movement without coming under any sustained and organised challenge.  And, as the Russian Marxist Lenin had explained over a decade before the Easter Rising, “the spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism. . . and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”[15] since “bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology; because it is more fully developed and because it possesses immeasurably more opportunities for being spread.”[16]

This was true even with the most militant forms of industrial unionism, such as the revolutionary syndicalism developed by Connolly and Larkin, and continued in rhetoric if not practice by the ITUCLP leaders after 1916.  Industrial and other struggles over wages and conditions, no matter how militantly they may be fought out, remain battles about the terms under which exploitation exists and will continue to take place rather than challenging the existence of wage labour and the capitalist system itself.  Connolly did see each battle as serving to temper, train and raise the class consciousness and self-confidence of workers for a final push against capitalism.  But during his period in the United States (1903-10), during which time he was a leading organiser in the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, he came to accept not only the syndicalist stress on the self-organisation of workers, but also its view of the spontaneous emergence of revolutionary class consciousness out of practical struggle.  Moreover, syndicalists held that workers’ power could be built up within the shell of the existing capitalist system just as the power of the capitalists had originally been built up within the shell of the old feudal order.[17]  The problem with this was that, as Hal Draper has noted, “The proletariat cannot emulate this pattern, because it differs basically from previous ruling classes in that it is not a property-owning class; in fact it develops as a class insofar as the producers are separated from ownership of means of production.”[18]  Indeed, as early as 1847, Engels had pointed out that “the political rule of the proletariat is the first presupposition of all communist measures.”[19]  In other words, whereas the capitalists already owned the means of production (and therefore were the dominant economic class) before they took political power, the workers had first to take political power before they could gain collective ownership of the means of production.  The taking of state power would require far more than militant industrial struggle.  A revolutionary political party would be needed both to take a socialist consciousness into the working class and to generalise the experiences of diverse sections of workers.  It was only through the carrying out of these two tasks that an assault on the entire social system could be generated.

In terms of social transformation, therefore, syndicalism meant a separation of the political from the economic in precisely the way for which Lenin had criticised the “Economists” in Russia.  Lenin had argued that the role of the workers could not be reduced to purely economic issues in which they acted as a class in itself, but that the workers had to act as a class for itself, which required taking up all cases of oppression – including national and gender oppression and even persecution of religious sects and pornographers – and becoming the leadership of the mass of the people.[20]

There were certainly opportunities aplenty for the development of revolutionary working class politics during the years immediately after the Easter rebellion.  Industrial militancy even re-emerged quite quickly in the months following the Rising.  In September 1916 widespread and unofficial action by rail workers broke out, helping prompt the British government to take over Ireland’s thirty-two railway companies at the end of the year and grant a seven shillings a week bonus.  Irish membership of the National Union of Railwaymen expanded rapidly, from 5000 to 17,000, while a powerful rank and file movement emerged in the union as well.[21]

While the nationalist bourgeoisie had suffered through not gaining war contracts, Irish workers and small farmers were more seriously disadvantaged.  The 1916 harvest was 1.399 starch tons per acre, down from 1.479 the year before.  Potato production fell by almost a third.[22]  Nevertheless food exports were rising, and profiteering growing.  The Irish Trade Union Congress special conference in Derry on December 16, 1916 noted that while wages had increased 10 percent, food prices had risen by 80 percent.  In some areas, workers began trying to halt the export of food.

At the same time, state intervention in agriculture, geared to ensuring the production of food at levels sufficient to maintain the war effort, forced farmers to increase tillage which, unlike pasture, was labour-intensive.  Along with the shortage of workers brought about by enlistment, the position of agricultural labourers was strengthened.  The ITGWU was able to recruit substantially in rural areas, and by 1920 had 60,000 members engaged in agriculture.  O’Connor has noted the importance of this expansion into rural areas, saying it put organised labour at “the very heart of the Irish condition”.[23]  When a crisis in the supply of food in 1917-18 created fertile ground for profiteering, workers responded with both industrial action and the establishment of their own co-operatives.  O’Connor notes that “though limited in scale, and mostly of brief duration, (these) were of demonstrative importance for the inchoate anti-capitalist sentiment welling up in popular consciousness.”[24]  The growth of industrial action during 1917 led the Irish Independent meanwhile to fear another 1913.[25]

By the time of its 1917 conference in Derry, the ITUCLP represented 100,000 organised workers.  This gathering agreed to press for recognition in the international labour movement of the Irish Labour Party as a separate party from its British equivalent.  Although this could be seen as a nod towards a separatist position, the congress still saw as Greaves notes, “the role of the Labour movement in the struggle for national independence (as) that of a supporter not an initiator.”[26]  The lack of political leadership was also reflected in December 1917 when the labour movement gained a periodical for the first time since the closure of labour and republican papers during 1914 and 1915.  The paper, Irish Opinion – edited by L.P. Byrne, under the pseudonym Andrew E. Malone) and politically controlled by Johnson – contained a good deal of left-wing rhetoric and identified with the Russian revolution, but never put forward a political line in Ireland commensurate with that followed by the Bolsheviks.[27]

In early 1918 a series of seizures of estates began in the west of Ireland, centred on Sligo, Galway, Mayo, Clare and Roscommon.  Raids of landlords’ houses for arms also took place.  As well as the unviability of small holdings and discontent by the landless being a cause of rural discontent, farming families also opposed conscription since their sons’ labour was essential to their existence.  While some republicans were involved in these rural disputes, Irish Volunteer headquarters sent out an order on March 2 making clear that involvement by Volunteers was as individuals only and that arms raids were officially forbidden.[28]

During 1918 the struggle between the forces of national freedom and the British state intensified.  On April 9, 1918 the British government empowered itself to impose conscription in Ireland by Order in Council whenever it chose.  The Lord Mayor of Dublin summoned an anti-conscription conference, which took place on April 18.  The bishops declared against conscription and the ITUCLP declared a one-day general strike for April 24.  This was the first-ever such shutdown in Ireland and it is notable that it took place not over a wage or other industrial issue but over a political issue involving a test between the British state’s right to rule and impose laws in Ireland on the one hand and the rights of the mass of the Irish people to decide things for themselves.  The general strike was a tremendous success, shutting down most of Ireland outside the Unionist-dominated area around Belfast.  It indicated the recovery of the labour movement after 1913 and the original wave of war enthusiasm.  Most importantly, it showed that the organised labour movement had the power to bring the country to a halt and the potential to become the most powerful – indeed, the leading – force in the anti-imperialist struggle.  That year’s ITUCLP congress, held in Waterford, registered significant growth for organised labour as well – it had expanded to around 250,000.

By 1919, out of 700,000 adult wage-earners, nearly 300,000 were organised in trade unions.  Two-thirds of these were affiliated to the official labour confederation.  In the wake of the deepening British repression leading up to the November 1918 elections, the national executive of the ITUCLP issued a manifesto in favour of Irish national self-determination and socialism.  At a special congress in November 1918, the Labour Party part of its name was put at the front, the ITUCLP now becoming the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC).  This gathering, under pressure from growing working class action in Ireland and the impact of the Russian revolution, passed resolutions on the ownership of the means of production.  Given the timid nature of the official leadership it appears than this was done more to appease the rank-and-file and militants than out of any desire to see the red flag raised in Ireland.  The leadership certainly took no steps to take the lead of the mass movement against autocratic British rule as the Bolsheviks had taken the lead of the mass movement against autocratic Tsarist rule in Russia.

The 1918 elections provided an opportunity for organised labour to develop its strength on the political front.  Given that both Labour and Sinn Fein stood for national self-determination and that the republican party contained a sizeable section of people sympathetic to the class interests which the ILPTUC organised, there was a basis for a united front between the two with the potential of sweeping Ireland.  Yet, while even sections of the Irish bourgeoisie had realised the futility of Irish attendance at Westminster (and the IPP itself having withdrawn), Irish Labour hesitated on the issue.  Although the national executive decided that any Irish Labour MPs elected in November would not attend Westminster the very next section of their manifesto declared that this policy could change if circumstances altered.  There was no idea that the organised strength of the working class forces could be a factor in deciding circumstances; instead the circumstances, shaped entirely by others, would simply bear down on a passive labour movement which would then respond in a tactical way.  When Sinn Fein criticised this equivocation and declared it would therefore fight Labour, Labour simply withdrew from the electoral competition, effectively throwing its weight behind Sinn Fein but without gaining anything in return.[29]  Labour’s withdrawal was presented by Johnson as a sign of its patriotism and desire not to see the forces of self-determination divided.  Labour, he declared, “was the only party prepared to sacrifice party in the interests of the nation.”[30]  He also felt that “the workers of Ireland. . . would willingly sacrifice for a brief period their aspirations towards political power if thereby the fortunes of the nation can be enhanced.”[31]  Sinn Fein, not surprisingly, welcomed the decision and spoke of the “natural bonds” which united SF and Labour.[32]

Mitchell has pointed out one of the peculiarities of the Labour position, asking why, given that Labour supported self-determination, which the IPP did not, did they withdraw rather than come to an arrangement with SF based on abstention, especially since likely Labour candidates such as O’Brien were opposed to taking seats at Westminster anyway?  Mitchell claims, “most workers had already decided to support Sinn Fein as the vehicle party to attain Irish nationhood” and therefore Labour “was forced out of the election by negligible support.”[33]  Yet the grounds for this assumption are, at best, unclear.  In the end, most workers did vote for Sinn Fein – partly for nationalist reasons and partly because SF was seen as sympathetic to the interests of labour – but this vote came after two-and-a-half years of failure on the part of organised labour to take up the leadership position in the national struggle which Connolly’s group had created for them.

After the election, in his book on the ICA, Sean O’Casey declared that while Ireland’s ultimate destiny lay with Labour, its present lay in the hands of Sinn Fein “whose activities are spread over the land, and Labour comes halting very much behind.”  A key factor in this, in O’Casey’s view was that “the Irish Labour leaders are all painfully ignorant of their country’s history, language and literature. . .”  This gave Sinn Fein a tremendous advantage over Labour.  While he saw persecution as deepening Labour’s “sympathy with our Irish origin” the Labour leadership had still some way to go in realising “that they must become Irish if they expect to win the confidence and support of the Irish working class.”[34]

But the problem was not really that Labour was less Irish than Sinn Fein – after all, who could be more Irish than the proletarian and largely impoverished mass base of organised labour – but which party provided political leadership, in particular on the primary political question of the time – the national question.  Sinn Fein did not achieve its leadership through its own valiant struggle – indeed it had conducted very little in the way of struggle – or through being the most Irish party; it became the “vehicle party” for pursuance of the national question due to the vacuum of leadership following the Rising.  Labour’s default in the 1918 elections was thus the culmination of two-and-a-half years of political default.  Moreover, as Mitchell notes, given that almost two-thirds of the 1918 electors in Ireland were first-time voters and that the importance of the election in Irish history (ie the first election on the independence issue) meant that these voters formed long-standing and even life-long and generational political allegiances, this default had the “most serious consequences both for the party and for the labour movement.”[35]

Growth of trade unions

The growth of trade unionism in the 1916-21 period was evident not just in the major urban centres, but also the smaller towns.  Trades councils, for instance, were now established in Ballina, Ballinasloe, Carlow, Castlebar, Clonmel, Ennis, Fermoy and Tuam.  County-wide trades councils were set up in Laois and Offaly.  Craft unions were disappearing and the percentage of Irish workers in British-based unions also declined – in 1916, 19 of the ITUCLP affiliates were British-based; by 1921 they made up only 13 of the 41 affiliates, constituting less than 25 percent of total membership.[36]  There were also a series of trade union amalgamations, although the nature of the leadership tended to ensure these led to increased bureaucratism rather than increased effectiveness as weapons of workers’ struggle.

The growth, bureaucratisation and moderation of the ITGWU played a particularly important role in inhibiting potential labour leadership of the national struggle because this was the largest union and the one in which revolutionary ideas had first emerged – indeed revolutionary syndicalist ideas had been crucial to its birth.[37]  At the time of the Rising, it had only 5000 members and was still in the doldrums from the exhaustive struggle in Dublin of 1913-14.  By the end of 1918, however, it had increased to 67,827 members and climbed to 100,000 during 1919.  Additionally, there were casual labourers who could only pay dues for a few months of the year.  In 1920 its income was over  100,000, it had assets of over  66,000 and its reserve fund reached  55,538.[38]  While for Connolly (and Larkin) the most important aspect of a trade union was its fighting spirit – and if it lost this it was useless[39] – his successors saw their main task as preserving and building up the formal structure and finances of the unions.  As Clarkson has noted, the chief stress was on “piling up of membership and of ‘balance in hand’. . .”[40]  Given the events of 1913-14, when the ITGWU had almost been destroyed, O’Brien and the other Transport Union leaders’ stance is perhaps understandable.  But while such a policy may have been wise in a period of reaction, it was hardly the sort of forward policy made possible in a period of revolutionary ferment.

The change in the outlook of the organised labour movement has also been seen as a result of a change in the actual composition of organised labour, especially the ITGWU.  “By the end of 1919,” notes Milotte, “the transport workers, who had previously formed the backbone of the union and who knew something of the message and methods of Connolly and Larkin, were outnumbered by six to one.”[41]  The biggest number of new recruits were “agricultural labourers among whom proletarian class consciousness was almost non-existent”,[42] and sections of them may well have had “proprietorial yearnings”, as Milotte suggests.[43]  The growth of the ITGWU, in O’Connor’s view however, was linked to a coherent syndicalist approach:  “Guided by Connolly’s Socialism Made Easy, (the ITGWU – PF) set out to become the OBU, the single, all-powerful voice of labour which would realise the workers’ republic through winning control ‘at the point of production’.”[44]  On July 1, 1918, for instance, Liberty hall issued The Lines of Progress, advocating one single union albeit divided into various industrial sections.  While syndicalist ideas, in O’Connor’s view, were strong throughout the labour movement, “it was the ITGWU that matched aspirations with a visionary professionalism, building up an organised staff of twenty-one by 1920.  Liberty Hall also revived pre-war ideas on alternative morality. . . direct(ing) members to conceive of the union ‘as a social centre, round which they can build every activity of their existence, and which, wisely used, can be made to remedy all their grievances.’”[45]

Yet  O’Connor may be reading too much into these actions.  The ITGWU leaders may have invoked the letter of certain works of Connolly, but they had no intention of copying the spirit of Connolly’s writings, let alone his life’s example.  While it is true, as he notes, that few ITGWU officials were tested bureaucrats and mainly emerged from the rank-and-file struggle – in fact this was true of O’Brien himself – this is because the ITGWU was a completely new union.  While, as O’Connor also notes, the transport union’s post-1916 growth was too rapid for the ranks to be tightly controlled by Liberty Hall, the top leadership were preoccupied, as Clarkson and others have shown, with building and consolidating a powerful trade union apparatus rather than creating a source of dual power which would topple capitalism.  Indeed the political weakness of their perspective was evident not only in their failure to lead on the national question, but also in their perspectives on the economic front.  O’Connor says that the ITGWU encouraged “revolutionary action” in 1918-19, but when the boom gave way to the slump in 1920 and then the Treaty, this went off the agenda.  But we might ask, what sort of leadership can only advocate and/or organise “revolutionary action” in a boom, the very time at which the capitalists can grant concessions.  It is a rather unconvincing sort of revolutionism which is dependent on the employers having healthy balance sheets.

While O’Connor is undoubtedly right in his comments about the militancy of many union officials, the ITGWU rapidly became transformed into a mainstream trade union rather than an organisation of class struggle, a training ground for the transformation of society, as Connolly and Larkin had seen it.  This pattern was repeated across the whole labour movement where huge power came to be wielded by a small core of people with essentially moderate views, such as William O’Brien and Thomas Johnson.  As O’Connor notes, Johnson was “a conciliator, who liked to present himself as the honest servant of the movement, but invariably beavered away quietly to moderate radical impulses” while O’Brien, despite “an almost filial devotion to Connolly” was, above all, “a manager”.[46]  These men wielded immense power; as Milotte notes, O’Brien’s positions included secretary of Dublin Trades Council, vice-chair and then general-secretary of the ITUCLP (later ILPTUC), and from 1919 on treasurer and acting general-secretary of the ITGWU (Larkin, in prison in the US, was still officially general secretary) and also secretary of the Socialist Party of Ireland.  While there was an opposition to him in the labour movement – led by Delia Larkin and P.T. Daly – they “fought their battle in personal rather than political terms.”[47]  Revolutionary syndicalism and socialism were being replaced by the moderation and institutionalisation of the organised labour movement.

At the same time, the developing labour bureaucracy could not help but be pressed by, and to some extent reflect, the upsurge from below and international developments such as the Russian Revolution.  The ILPTUC sent delegates to the international labour and socialist conference in Berne in February 1919, signing the Adler-Longue minority resolution giving support to the dictatorship of the proletariat as opposed to reform through parliamentary democracy.  It also pressed claims for Irish independence at several international labour gatherings.  But, as Milotte notes, the Irish labour leaders had no intention of joining the Third International and their support for proletarian revolution in another country remained at the level of rhetoric.[48]

Intensification of class and national struggle

On April 20, 1918 an All-Ireland Labour convention took place in the Mansion House, attended by 1500 delegates.  As noted earlier, it called a 24-hour general strike against conscription and in June the British dropped plans to extend conscription to Ireland.  The general strike had shown the immense power of the labour movement to bring the country to a halt and thereby paralyse British rule.  The potential power of the labour movement during the independence struggle has been noted by Mitchell:

When one compares the enormous power of the British in Ireland with the meagre resources of Sinn Fein, the support provided by the labour movement emerges as a crucial factor in the survival of the insurgents and in the partial achievement of their objectives.  The labour movement. . . did things that Sinn Fein alone could not do.  Labour could, and did, launch crippling railway strikes which prevented the movement of British armed troops and munitions.  It organized strikes to hinder road transportation, disrupt civil authority and force the release of imprisoned rebels. . .  Labour became Sinn Fein’s ally in the local government elections, which resulted in the commitment of most local bodies to Dail Eireann and independence. . .  In short, the steady and whole-hearted support of the labour movement was indispensable to the national movement in the struggle with Britain.[49]

Yet the labour leaders themselves remained paralysed on the political front.  They were content to tag along behind Sinn Fein, leaving the initiative – and all the political decision-making – in the hands of a leadership which, at best, was divided on class issues.  Far from clarifying whose interests the Dail and the Sinn Fein leaders represented, the labour movement allowed the republican leaders to obscure class questions beneath rhetoric about the national interest and a purely formal commitment to fair treatment for everyone.

The working class itself, however, had other ideas and consistently challenged the status quo. Across the country workers’ militancy reached new levels, while the interconnections between British rule and capitalism meant that struggles by workers around economic issues took on a political character and struggles around political issues took on an economic aspect.  With Sinn Fein being denounced in November 1918 by the Dean of Cashel, for having “socialistic” aims which would lead to revolution[50] and the ITUCLP conference earlier that month declaring in support of the Bolshevik-led October Revolution in Russia, elite opinion declared just after the establishment of the Dail that “Irish Bolshevism matures its plans for plunder and anarchy.”[51]  Of particular concern was the development of labour unrest around the issue of a shorter work week.[52]  At this stage there were 40,000 shipyard workers in Ireland on strike for a 44-hour week and, by the end of January, about 120,000 workers were affected.[53]

The ferment even reached into the Unionist section of the working class in the north-east.  In Belfast a near general strike took place, involving shipyard workers, engineers, transport, building, municipal furniture trade, and sections of linen workers, electricians and general labourers.  The trades council was in virtual control of the city, but the labour leaders eventually settled for a 47-hour week.[54]  O’Connor notes that the Belfast struggle alarmed Dublin Castle who feared such “Bolshevism” and the prospect of Sinn Fein winning over Protestant workers.  In fact, the administration sent in troops on February 15, helping push the Belfast labour leaders into a settlement.  While the Belfast events were certainly dramatic, O’Connor notes that the strike committee was not particularly radical[55] and Ulster was generally much more quiescent than the rest of Ireland.  Craft unionism resisted skill displacement or dilution and war contracts kept northern workers loyal to British unions, allowing the amalgamated (British/Irish) trade unions to “camouflage sectarianism with a veneer of British secular ideology.”[56]  More important in my view, however, than their loyalty to British-based unions was their loyalty to their own employers: the multi-class Protestant alliance, directed against Catholic/nationalist workers in a limited labour market and against Irish independence, effectively prevented Protestant workers from engaging in the sort of militancy unleashed in the south.  Protestant workers could always be whipped back into line by their employers invoking the spectre that such militancy might destabilise the established order and open the way for republicanism and an independent Ireland.  Indeed, as Milotte notes, “the militancy was soon dissipated in a flood of sectarian violence as the Unionist rulers endeavoured to break nationalist resistance to partition through pogroms.”[57]

In the south, however, the militancy continued.  Limerick building workers, Dundalk dockers and Donegal road workers all went on strike in early 1919.  In Monaghan, workers led by ITGWU organiser and leading IRA figure Peadar O’Donnell took over the county asylum demanding a 40-hour work-week.  In March, Boyle in County Roscommon saw a general strike for a wage rise, time and a half for overtime and earlier shop closing.[58]  The growth of labour militancy reached such a point that W.B. Yeats, speaking to the College Historical Society in Dublin, warned that Ireland was threatened with a “dictatorship of Labour”.[59]  The Irish Times deplored “this universal strike mania” among whose victims it believed were “the helpless middle class.”[60]  The Daily News feared that Fenians were in control of Irish politics and Bolsheviks were running the labour movement.[61]  The British trade union leaders were horrified by the Belfast militancy and the London executive of the engineers’ union dissolved the Belfast district committee.  The republicans in Dail Eireann meanwhile lost an opportunity to build links with Protestant workers.  Instead of coming out in support of them against their Unionist employers, the Dail remained silent.

Apparently unconcerned by the plight of the “helpless” middle class, workers continued taking industrial action.  Belfast, Mullingar, even hunt meets in Meath and elsewhere, were affected by class conflict in early February.  Dairy and rail workers also resorted to industrial action.  On February 8, the ITUCLP conference demanded a 150 percent wage increase – in effect, a 20 percent increase in real wages over pre-war levels, a national minimum adult wage of 50 shillings a week, and a 44-hour work-week.[62]

The widespread development of left-wing ideas and their impact within the national independence movement, evident in elite concerns about the direction of Sinn Fein, can be seen in the Democratic Programme passed, along with the Declaration of Independence and Message to the Free Nations of the World, at the very first session of Dail Eireann in January 1919.[63]  The Programme was a statement of socio-economic principles and aims to guide the new republic, drawn up mainly by Johnson, probably assisted by O’Brien and O’Shannon.  It incorporated Pearse’s view that “sovereignty extends not only to all the men and women of the Nation, but to all its natural possessions; the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and wealth-producing processes within the Nation.”[64]  The draft of the document also committed the republican government to encourage trade union and co-operative society organisation “with a view to the control and administration of the industries by the workers engaged in the industries.”  It also committed the new state to “aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth of the workers. . .”[65]

The draft was opposed by P.S. O’Hegarty and a section of republican TDs.[66]  Although watered down – Pearse’s 1915 views being too radical for those who claimed to follow him in 1919, as Mitchell notes[67] – it was nevertheless a radical social document formally committing the new government to sweeping structural change in the interests of the vast majority of Irish people.  But it may also be true, as Piaras Beaslai (a TD at the time) claimed in 1926, “It is doubtful whether the majority of members (of the Dail – PF) would have voted for it without amendment had there been any immediate prospect of putting it into force.”[68]  Certainly when, in April 1919, Dublin Lord Mayor and TD Tom Kelly asked about social policy he was told that the first task was to remove Britain,[69] there apparently being no connection between the two in the eyes of many of those who were supposedly committed to implement adopted policy such as the Democratic Programme.[70]

The left-wing aspects of Irish republican political development can also be seen at local level.  In early March, at a public lecture in Dun Laoghaire (then called Kingstown) Town Hall on “The Workingman in the Irish republic”, SF lecturer Michael O’Tierney praised the Russian revolution and said that SF aimed at “the setting up of a state that would be controlled by the workers themselves and governed in reality by the men and women who worked.”[71]  The following month Rev Father MacSparron, speaking at Sinn Fein’s ard fheis, welcomed ITGWU militancy, saying “the Transport Union was doing a great job to smash up the capitalistic opposition to nationality” while Forbes Patterson attacked both the Hibernians and Orangemen saying that republicans had to talk to workers in Ulster through the labour movement.[72]  North Donegal TD J. O’Doherty, speaking in the Dail, welcomed the idea of a new revolutionary International and attacked the Paris Peace Conference as representing “not the people, but autocratic Governments and reactionaries in the various countries from which they came.”  IRA leader and TD Harry Boland declared that the proposed League of Nations would be “the last effort of tyrants against the people and Ireland should not join that League.”[73]  Shortly afterwards the Most Rev Dr Kelly, Catholic bishop of Ross, attacked members of the Dail for praising Russia and Hungary where Bolshevism ruled, stating, “Although Madam Markievicz proclaimed the doctrine twelve months ago of backing up the Russian revolution, he did not mind her wild ideas, because he thought she stood alone” but now he found “these ideas were held also by responsible men – members of Parliament and some officials of the new ‘Government’” and this imperilled Catholicism.[74]  The Bolsheviks, alone of foreign governments, had already recognised the new Irish Republic.[75]  The Second International had indicated support for Irish independence,[76] while the new Third International would urge upon their British supporters the necessity of providing political and material support for the republican struggle.[77]

February 1919 saw one of the most dramatic examples of the way class and national independence politics were intertwined.  A trade union activist and leading Limerick IRA figure Robert J. Byrne was arrested.  In prison, he organised other republicans to demand political status, and won the backing of the 35 unions affiliated with the Limerick United Trades and Labour Council.  Following beatings of the prisoners they went on hunger strike and Byrne was moved to Limerick Workhouse Hospital where local IRA Volunteers tried to rescue him, killing one RIC constable and mortally wounding another in the process.  Byrne was also mortally injured, his body then taken to Limerick cathedral to lie in state.  The British declared martial law in the Borough of Limerick with anyone entering it having to carry a special permit issued by the military on the recommendation of the RIC.  This sparked off a local general strike, beginning on April 14.[78]  The strike committee emerged as the main power in the city, becoming the “Limerick Soviet” and taking on the distribution of food, organising services and even printing its own money.  The ILPTUC leaders gave formal backing but were not prepared to generalise the struggle through organising national stoppages.  The British TUC, to which a section of the Limerick workers belonged, denied them strike pay.

As the struggle intensified, members of the ILPTUC leadership arrived in the city declaring they “were not prepared for the revolution.”  Thomas Johnson proposed that the working class should evacuate the city, rather than face a showdown with the British authorities.  The city’s capitalists, overwhelmingly nationalist, had originally sympathised with the strike since its focus – political status, support for Byrne and his comrades and general hostility to British rule – were compatible with their own interests.  But the declaration of the Soviet, and the assumption by organised workers of the administration of life in the city, led the local establishment to switch sides and begin negotiating with the British authorities.  The Irish Times saw the Limerick Soviet as “a very bold and candid experiment in Irish syndicalism” which was “being used as a deliberate and very ambitious attack on the whole system of Irish government. Noting attempts to develop it into a general strike, the paper claimed this would not happen because the scale of strike funds necessary could only come from British trade unions and these, having had “some first-hand experience with industrial Bolshevism, clearly do not intend, by financing it in Ireland, to weaken their own authority at home.”[79]    Deprived of wider labour support, the Soviet soon collapsed.

At the same time as the Limerick dispute, other areas saw significant levels of industrial action.  In Dublin, for instance, over thirty establishments were closed by workers’ action in mid-April.[80]  In Wicklow Town, workers struck following the sentencing of the secretary of the county’s Labourers Association on April 10.  A red flag flew at Labour Hall; the red flag also appeared at the front of a march in Sligo.[81]  That these displays of the symbol of workers’ revolution were becoming a regular event can be seen in the authorities’ banning of the red flag in public.  It quickly began appearing in towns in counties Monaghan, Waterford, Laois and Cork.[82]

The close connection between class and national liberation politics in colonial countries was revealed on the national stage on May Day 1919 when most of the country’s workers downed tools.  Mass meetings of Irish workers demanded independence for their country and a better life for themselves.  In the south, red flags appeared and in Glin, Co. Limerick, 200 IRA Volunteers turned out with a Sinn Fein band and the red banner of the Transport Union.[83]  In several places, including Derry, labour parades were banned and elsewhere the authorities declared that no emblems of socialism were to be shown.[84]  Unless workers’ common sense “has not fled irretrievably to Saturn yesterday’s performance never will be repeated,” declared the Irish Times sourly.[85]

While the British moved to suppress the republicans, banning the main republican organisations in July and Dail Eireann in September, industrial militancy continued. In July there was a major dispute at Dublin port[86] and a virtually complete stoppage of work in county Kildare, based around agricultural workers organised by the ITGWU.[87]  Industrial militancy had grown so much that when, on August 18, the Irish Times editorialised against the “present campaign of crime and terrorism” it was not attacking republican guerrilla warfare but industrial warfare, on this occasion agricultural workers trying to derail a train in order to prevent the export of food via Belfast (Dublin port was already closed).  “Industrial crime,” it declared to be a “truly disturbing phenomenon (marking) a new stage in the nation’s moral decadence.”  Political lawlessness by the republicans had upset all the old notions of right and wrong, it claimed, so that “Political Bolshevism is paving the way for industrial anarchy.”[88]  By early September it was bemoaning “the rake’s progress of Labour in the port of Dublin.  During recent months one strike has followed another.”[89]

In November, an order that no vehicles apart from heavy lorries were to be driven without a military permit led to a two-month strike by the Irish Automobile Drivers and Mechanics Union.   This was, as Mitchell notes, a clearly political strike since the permits were aimed at depriving republicans of the use of motor vehicles.  It was also seen as a political strike by the British authorities, with the secretary of state for Ireland complaining, “The only argument the strikers were able to advance was that they objected to any restrictions being placed on them by an alien government.”[90]  The strike, however, ended in failure with the ITGWU, which also organised workers in this sector, opposing the drivers’ union strike and strategy of attempting to spread industrial action to other workers with the aim of achieving a general strike.  Once again the national executive of the ITGWU came under fire for inaction.[91]  Indeed, some months before, at the labour congress of August 1919, Johnson had made clear the limitations of the leadership in the context of the potent mix of social, political and armed radicalism.  In defence of the ILPTUC national executive’s position over the Limerick Soviet, he noted that there had been twelve occasions in the previous two years when a general strike would have been legitimate but not always tactically wise.  In the case of Limerick, he argued, it could not have been won.  For instance, if railwaymen had have struck then, the troops would have run the trains, the trains would have then been blown up by the IRA and armed revolt would have become generalised, but that was not wanted.[92]  The fact that Ireland was in the midst of a national revolt, that it was deepening, and that if the workers wanted to get something out of it, it might be a good idea for them to try to take the leadership of it, was entirely alien to Johnson and the other leaders’ thinking.  Indeed, his comments on what would happen if rail workers struck provided a portent of the labour leaders’ policy the following year (see below).  Instead of preparing for such an eventuality, and thereby being able to turn it to the workers’ advantage, Johnson and the other leaders ruled out the very sorts of action which could have put organised labour in a position to determine or at least significantly influence the course and politics of the independence struggle.

In April 1920 another political general strike took place, this time in support of the hunger strike of 100 republican political prisoners in Mountjoy.  Workers’ committees undertook organising the food supply in a number of areas, many town councils handing over municipal buildings.  By the evening of the second day, the authorities gave in, released the hunger strikers and moved them to hospitals.  The actions of the workers’ committees had again scared the old establishment and it breathed a sigh of relief when the release of prisoners put an end to the strike.  “A continuation of the fight which ended yesterday might have witnessed the establishment of Soviets of workmen in all parts of Ireland.”[93]

However rural and urban class conflict continued throughout 1920 and 1921, and saw the establishment of a series of soviets.  In May 1920, for instance, workers took over thirteen creameries, establishing the Knocklong Soviet in Limerick and declaring, “We make butter, not profits.”[94]  At Arigna, in Roscommon, workers took over the coal mine and declared a soviet.[95]  In Britain, John Maclean called for the organisation of a general strike in support of Irish freedom and against the British occupation,[96] while in late 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst, the leader of the Workers Socialist Federation, faced charges for publishing material “calculated to cause dissension” in the armed forces.[97]  In south Wales, miners decided to strike a day a month until Britain ceased its military intervention in Ireland and Russia and the 1920 British Labour Party conference called for “the right of the Irish people to political independence” and British withdrawal.[98]  On October 10, a huge rally in Trafalgar Square demanded “Hands off Ireland”.[99]

In Dublin and Dun Laoghaire dockers refused to unload military equipment.  Railway workers refused to move munitions.  At Dublin’s North Wall 400 workers were fired; by August 1920 about 1500 workers had been dismissed.  While the ILPTUC national executive backed this action and initiated a fund which raised £120,000 for laid-off workers, it decided not to call a national rail strike.  Instead it aimed to force the British authorities to dismiss workers individually as they refused to transport troops and munitions.  While this meant that most workers could stay on the payroll it was hardly a bold lead.  Individual workers ended up having guns put to their heads by the military and being ordered to do their work. The British administration also began commandeering public transport and breaking up workers’ food committees.  In the midst of this struggle, Cork workers struck for half a day on October 16 in support of the city’s mayor and local IRA leader, Terence MacSwiney, who was on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, London.  Although a special all-Ireland labour movement conference held in November in the Mansion House in Dublin registered overwhelming support for the dock and rail workers, on December 14 the leadership again pulled back, advising railway and dock workers to offer to carry any cargo the British authorities wished.[100]  Once again, labour’s chance to lead was thrown away.

Such actions, combined with the IRA’s campaign and the republicans’ success on the political and electoral front, nevertheless had an important effect on the morale of the British establishment and undermined their belief that they could win the struggle.  On October 6, the London Times carried a call by Brigadier-General Cockerill for a truce and conference to “obtain the best peace possible”.

Struggles by industrial workers were not the only problem for the Irish establishment and British administration.  Another wave of land agitation broke out in early 1920. The intensity of land seizures, which took place “in all four provinces. . . (and) were the work of the poorest farmers and landless men”,[101] sent a panic through sections of the Sinn Fein leadership.  The Dail believed “There was a moment when it seemed that nothing could prevent wholesale expropriation.”[102]  Republican land courts were set up, from May 1920 onwards, often proving sympathetic to the expropriated (and usually anti-nationalist) landlords and applying British law against the landless workers and poor farmers.  The result was that, as Milotte notes, “In the midst of the ‘war of liberation’ many landless families were evicted by a newly established republican police force based on the IRA.”[103]

In 1921 recession settled in again.  Irish manufacturing trade was reduced by almost half and by the end of the year over 25 percent of Irish workers were left idle.[104]  The pressure of workers’ actions from below, especially in the context of renewed recession and increased unemployment, led the ILPTUC national executive to issue a manifesto called The Country in Danger in March 1921.[105] The Manifesto argued that during the “Great War” governments organised production and now this should be done for the “civil emergency” of unemployment.  “(T)he propertied class. . . should voluntarily offer their estate and services to the nation to save the social and economic life of that nation.”  That this was not expropriation but a short-term loan was made clear:  “This is not to demand the sacrifice of their property.  It is to ask, without calling upon the power of the state, as in other countries, to compel – that the land and wealth-producing machinery should be loaned without charge to the nation ‘for the duration of the war’. . .”[106]  The document also called for the principles contained in the Democratic Programme to be given practical effect, calling for people to be fed, rents and land purchase annuities to be temporarily suspended, protectionism, for people to deposit their money only with banks which invested alone or primarily in Ireland and several other moderate ameliorative measures.  A paragraph on workers’ control makes clear that this was not seen as an immediate requirement or possibility: “The question of the enfranchisement of the working class industrially will be easier to answer satisfactorily if the problems of economic production and equitable distribution are dealt with on the lines we have herein laid down.”[107]

Politically the moderates at the head of the labour movement continued to subordinate themselves to the moderates at the head of Sinn Fein.  On August 1, de Valera was greeted with cheers at the ILPTUC annual conference, held in Dublin.  He thanked the labour movement for not pressing its own interests, but offered nothing concrete in return[108] – equally, nothing was demanded from him.  As negotiations took place between the British government and Sinn Fein leadership, the labour movement was left on the sidelines – the very place its own leaders had put it.

Yet if peace was to break out on the national question, the struggle over the class question intensified:  “With the Anglo-Irish truce of July 1921 came new seizures, invasions of land and violent farmer-labour conflicts.”  Seizures occurred in such widely separated places as Cork, where the harbour board was taken over by workers led by two city councillors, Drogheda, where workers seized a foundry and declared a soviet, and Dublin, where the Rotunda theatre was occupied for three days by a Communist-led group of unemployed men.[109]  Further factory seizures took place in Tipperary and Limerick, with a soviet, complete with raised red flag, being declared in the latter county at Bruree in August.[110]  In October, Markievicz submitted a memorandum to the Irish cabinet warning that spontaneous seizures would have the effect of destroying property and disrupting the republican cause; she proposed that the government take immediate measures, including to “commandeer” the Irish Packing Plant, “to show the workers that we (have) their interests at heart.”[111]  Class conflict reached the point where “(i)t sometimes seemed that the Irish social fabric was beginning to come apart.”[112]  (The continuation of this process of class conflict shall be followed further in the section on the civil war and Free State.)

While the main body of the labour movement – the ILPTUC – and its most advanced section – the ITGWU – were not interested in turning this intense class and national conflict in a revolutionary direction, what of the revolutionary groups associated with Connolly, Mallin and Markievicz in the years up to the Easter Rising?


The revolutionary left

The founding of the Communist International in March 1919 helped bring out the differences within the Irish labour movement.  On the one hand were those who, while militant in their rhetoric, generally doused the flames of workers’ militancy rather than politicising it and pointing it in the direction of the establishment of the workers’ republic for which they claimed to stand (Johnson, O’Brien and the ITGWU top leadership), and those who saw the opportunity for social revolution, such as Roddy Connolly.  The two main organisations compromising the revolutionary left were the SPI and the ICA, although sections of the IRA also approximated this position, as in the case of Peadar O’Donnell and others.

The SPI existed after 1916 as a tiny adjunct to the ITUCLP, maintained “in a rather moribund state” by O’Brien and O’Shannon.  “Their motive for keeping the Party alive would appear to have been based more on sentiment than on any real political vision or commitment.”[113]  Nevertheless the party did achieve the major feat, in October 1917, of organising a rally of 10,000 people in Dublin in support of the Bolshevik seizure of power.[114]  The size of this event showed something of the spread of left-wing ideas in Ireland at the time and the possibilities for a revolutionary party. Within the SPI the Connolly faction declared openly for the new International, while the O’Brien group, although rhetorically fervently in favour of the Bolshevik revolution, continued its links with the Second International.[115]  In Belfast an Irish Revolutionary Socialist party was founded by Kathleen Coyle, Jack Hedley and others.[116]  It was not until late in 1921 that the revolutionary element in the SPI, led by Nora Connolly and Roddy Connolly, purged the O’Brien-O’Shannon wing and converted the organisation into an explicitly Marxist party.[117]

While the SPI had been maintained in a moribund state by O’Brien, the ICA had not fared all that much better after the Rising.  When youthful 1916 ICA veteran Frank Robbins returned to Ireland from the United States in March 1918 he found the workers’ army barely functioning.  Although it had tried to reorganise after the Rising and obtain arms, it had had neither money nor contacts.  There was also a very poor relationship between it and the ITGWU.[118]   Newer members lacked the social and political views of the 1916 ICAers, discipline and training were lax, and most of the 1916 women had left. Robbins briefly served on the ICA Army Council where he pressed for greater co-operation with the Irish Volunteers, but this was met with opposition, perhaps based on suspicion that the IRB was seeking to get the ICA to liquidate itself into the Volunteers.[119]  As the armed struggle escalated, with almost daily conflict in the streets of Dublin, the ICA stood aside.[120]  Mitchell has also noted that the ICA “played a passive part in the national struggle of 1919-21.”[121]  Robbins, who soon lost his place on the Army Council, believed the ICA’s inactivity was mainly due to “our failure to throw up leaders with the dynamic vision of Connolly and Mallin.  This failure was indeed a costly one for those of us who accepted the socialist principles of the workers’ republic preached by James Connolly, for it meant that we missed a unique opportunity to play our part in the struggle for Irish freedom and in the subsequent shaping of a free Ireland.”[122]  The ICA even failed to link up with other socialists outside Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers.  In the 1920 municipal election it decided not to support one of the leaders of the SPI, Walter Carpenter, who stood as a Workers’ Republican candidate (and who had two sons in the ICA), yet it endorsed Kathleen Lynn, an ICA officer at the time of the Rising, who stood for Sinn Fein and won a seat in Dublin.

One of the ICA’s rare clashes with the authorities during the period of the war for independence took place in June 1919, when the SPI organised a commemoration of Connolly’s birth.  The meeting was banned and divisions arose in the ICA over whether to mount a guard to prevent the authorities from dispersing the attendance.  In the end, the ICA got involved and in a melee between police and the ICA four police were wounded.[123]  “Now lawlessness has progressed so far that wearers of the King’s uniform are targets for sedition in a main thoroughfare of the Irish capital,” complained the Irish Times, describing how, after the banning of an event “organised by the followers of the late James Connolly”, four or five young men drew revolvers and wounded a sergeant and three constables.[124]

The main rationalisation for the ICA’s general inactivity appears to have come from its leader, James O’Neill who argued that the little workers’ army must be kept intact for “the big day”.[125]  In the end, O’Neill was tried at a court martial, presided over by Kathleen Lynn, for selling rifles to the IRA when it had been agreed to donate them.  Apart from its minuscule size, lack of weaponry and absence of leadership of the calibre of Connolly and Mallin, the ICA after the Rising existed in a situation in which large numbers of workers and a layer of trade union officials were joining the IRA.  Leading ITGWU branch officials were often also prominent IRA officers and branch halls were often used by local IRA companies.[126]  Of course, this was somewhat of a chicken and egg situation; Mitchell, for instance, notes that it was the ICA’s passivity which ensured “any worker who wanted to be active in the national struggle was forced to turn to the Volunteers.”[127]  The links between the trade unions and the republicans were also reflected in the use of Liberty Hall by Dail Eireann cabinet ministers (including Markievicz and Collins), other TDs, and members of Dublin Corporation.[128]  While Robbins mentions Markievicz being at an Army Council meeting in 1920 and Kathleen Lynn presiding at O’Neill’s court martial, these two leading Connollyites appear to have played no ongoing role in the ICA but, instead, to have immersed themselves in Sinn Fein where they quickly came to occupy leadership positions.[129]

Thus even the far-left forces which adhered to Connolly’s perspective of combined national and class struggle – or nationalist and socialist revolution combined – were divided between two tiny groups, the ICA and the SPI (of which they were only one faction), while others, notably the 1916 ICA women, had abandoned class organisations for Sinn Fein.  The ramifications of this and the reformism and economism of the mainstream labour leaders and the dispersal of the socially revolutionary elements shall be addressed in the next section of the thesis.

In this chapter, I have shown the way national and class conflict intensified to the point where the old order began to come apart.  Yet the workers and the rural poor  – who stood to gain the most from the collapse of the old order – did not develop an alternative movement of their own through which they could transform society.  The development of such an alternative requires both an alternative political view of the world and the agency through which this alternative can be implemented (a revolutionary party or movement); these do not spontaneously emerge out of everyday experience or conflict.  It was only with the Russian revolution of 1917 that the importance of such a revolutionary organisation became apparent; those who, in Ireland, might have taken up the task were either dead (like Connolly and Mallin) or had already become immersed in the revivified and transformed Sinn Fein and IRA (Markievicz, Lynn, Moloney, Liam Mellows).  Socialists such as Markievicz saw the republican movement as the adequate vehicle for the transformation of Irish society.

The labour movement, while waging militant struggles around workers’ wages and conditions and for national freedom, remained under the sway of leaders of limited vision and relatively low horizons.  They hitched the workers’ movement to the wagon of the republican movement, rather than try to take over the reins.  The factors behind their actions combined several elements: the syndicalist notion of building up industrial power while ignoring the broader political processes; a separation of the national and class struggle, in which the struggle for independence is seen as historically preceding the struggle for socialism rather than the two being seen as inseparable and simultaneous; the growth and bureaucratisation of the trade unions, which created a layer of officialdom with an interest in maintaining the apparatus of the movement rather than risking it in revolutionary confrontations.  The spontaneous militancy of the workers and rural poor, which even involved political general strikes and the formation of soviets, proved insufficient to overcome these obstacles.

[1] Mike Milotte, Communism in modern Ireland: the pursuit of the workers’ republic since 1916, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1984, p23.

[2] See chapter nine for the relationship between the national question and women’s emancipation.

[3] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p94.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p104.

[6] See, for instance, Greaves, Liam Mellows, p104, Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p71.

[7] ITUCLP Twenty-Second Annual Report, 1916, cited from Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism, p319.

[8] Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism, p316.  The “bold position” being at the forefront of the struggle for national freedom, see chapter six of this thesis.

[9] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p72.

[10] Peadar O’Donnell to Anthony Coughlan, cited in Coughlan, “Ireland’s Marxist Historians”, p299, fn 35.  O’Donnell was an ITGWU organiser in Donegal and a prominent leader of the IRA during the War for Independence, the Civil War and through the rest of the 1920s and early 1930s.  As a member of the Army Council, the central leadership body of the IRA, for most of this period, he advocated socialist republican positions and was a leader of a number of left-wing initiatives, from the campaign to get Irish farmers to withhold land annuity payments to Britain in the late 1920s and early 1930s to the formation of the radical-left Saor Eire and Republican Congress organisations in the 1930s.

[11] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p73.

[12] W.K. Anderson, James Connolly and the Irish Left, Dublin, Irish Academic Press and Melbourne, National Centre for Australian Studies (Monash University), 1994, p124.  This work contains excellent summaries of Connolly’s views on a number of issues such as the women’s movement, socialism and nationalism, insurrection, the revolutionary party, religion, syndicalism and then looks at how these issues were taken up after 1916.

[13] Ibid, p125.

[14] Ibid.

[15] V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1975, p49.  (Originally published 1902)

[16] Ibid, p50, emphasis in original.  It might be added that bourgeois ideology is also spontaneously reproduced out of the way in which the operations of capitalism appear at the surface.  It “appears” that workers sell their labour-power and create products.  The workers get their reward as a wage; the capitalist theirs as a profit.  Yet in the process the workers have created a greater value than that needed to sustain themselves and their dependents, yet this surplus is the property of the capitalist who was purchased their labour-power.  For a useful discussion of these issues see, along with Lenin (What is to be Done), Istvan Meszaros, The Power of Ideology, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989.

[17] See Connolly’s voluminous writings on trade unionism and syndicalism, a sample of which are contained in section three – “Industrial Unionism and Trade Unionism” in P. Berresford Ellis (ed) James Connolly; Selected Writings, , New York and London, Monthly Review Press, 1973, pp147-187.  These have also been reprinted in the 2-volume Collected Works.

[18] Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol 2, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978, p30.

[19] Frederick Engels, “Communists and Karl Heinzen”, reprinted in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 6, p291.

[20] In effect, this was the policy Connolly had developed after returning to Ireland, especially in the 1913-16 period (see this thesis, Section Three).  However, Connolly and his co-thinkers were unclear on the need for a political vehicle for this strategy.  The ICA, which was not a political party or vanguard party, became the instrument for implementing the strategy.

[21] See Philip Bagwell, The Railwaymen: The History of the National Union of Railwaymen, London, 1963, pp356-7 for growth of the NUR.

[22] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p104.

[23] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p98.

[24] Ibid, p97.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p142.

[27] The Bolsheviks had argued, for instance, that the working class had to take the leadership of the struggle for democracy against Tsarism (see Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolutin, 1905, reprinted in his Collected Works Vol 9, London, Lawrence and Wishart, and Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1962, pp15-140,  and Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution: and Results and Prospects, New York, Merit, 1969).  In Ireland the struggle for democracy was the struggle for Irish self-determination, a point the Third International attempted to hammer home especially to the British left.

[28] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p143.

[29] Interestingly, as Greaves notes, the SF leaders were less purist when dealing with what it regarded as the rotten and corrupt old IPP in relation to seats in the north-east.  Here it was suggested that where IPP/SF contests would split the nationalist vote and lead to Unionists taking such seats, SF dispatched MacNeill to conduct arrangements with John Dillon – the two working in conjunction with Cardinal Logue – to divide up such seats.  MacNeill, typically, compromised, allowing a 4-4 split of the seats involved.  The four nationalist seats which SF did not contest ended up making up two-thirds of the total seats won by the IPP in 1918.

[30] Irish Times, October 2, 1918.

[31] Voice of Labour, November 9, 1918.  Cited from Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p99.

[32] Sinn Fein’s views are reflected in the November 9, 1918 issues of New Ireland, Nationality and Irishman.  Cited from Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p100.

[33] Ibid, p101.

[34] P. O’Cathasaigh (Sean O’Casey), Story of the Irish Citizen Army, pp66-7.

[35] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p103.  Labour’s default in providing leadership on the national question which, as we will see, continued long after 1918, is essential for understanding the party’s long marginalisation in Irish politics.  For the past 70 years, since the 1921 Treaty, southern Irish politics have been dominated by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the parties arising out of the pro- and anti-Treaty sections of SF/IRA.  It is only in the past few years that what are often referred to as “civil war politics” have been eroded, opening the way for Labour to develop into any significant force in the south.

[36] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p98.  As well as being seen as a sign of the assertion of Irish separatism, this could be seen as helping move Irish unionism away from the pattern in Britain, the first industrialised nation, with its multitude of strictly demarcated, craft-based and variable-sized unions.

[37] See this thesis, chapter three.

[38] See Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism, p323-4.

[39] In 1914 Connolly wrote, defending a position he had earlier enunciated and which had come under criticism, “My point was that the amalgamation or federation of unions, unless carried out by men and women with the proper revolutionary spirit, was as likely to create new obstacles in the way of effective warfare, as to make that warfare possible. . .  The Greater Unionism is found in short to be forging greater fetters for the working class. . .” (“The Problem of Trade Union Organisation”, Forward, May 23, 1914.  A month earlier, in another publication, he had noted, “the spirit, the character, the militant spirit, the fighting character of the organization was of the first importance.  I believe that the development of the fighting spirit is of more importance than the creation of the theoretically perfect organization; that indeed the most theoretically perfect organization may, because of its very perfection and vastness, be of the greatest possible danger to the revolutionary movement if it tends, or is used, to repress and curb the fighting spirit of comradeship in the rank and file.” (“Old Wine in New Bottles”, The New Age, April 30, 1914.)  Both these articles appear in “Industrial Unionism and Trade Unionism”, in James Connolly: Selected Writings.

[40] Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism, p320.

[41] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, pp25-6.

[42] Ibid, p25.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p99.  The OBU is One Big Union.  Socialism Made Easy was written by Connolly in 1908, while he was in the United States and heavily involved in the syndicalist International Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies.

[45] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p99.  The union’s direction to its members is from the ITGWU annual report for 1919.

[46] Ibid, p102.

[47] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, p26.

[48] Ibid, pp37-8.

[49] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p104.

[50] Irish Times, November 26, 1918.

[51] Irish Times, editorial, January 23, 1919.

[52] See, for instance, Irish Times, editorial, January 24, 1919.

[53] Irish Times, January 27 and 28, 1919.

[54] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p172.

[55] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p100-1.

[56] Ibid, p101. O’Connor’s points about Ulster’s quiescence and craft unionism are on p100.

[57] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, p33.  A useful account of the situation in Belfast during this period is contained in Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism, Chapter 12, “Belfast”, pp344-87.

[58] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p174.

[59] Yeats cited in Irish Times, editorial, January 30.

[60] Irish Times, editorial February 4, 1919.

[61] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p173.

[62] Irish Times, editorial, February 10,1919.

[63] The three documents appear as appendices in Comerford, The First Dail.

[64] See Pearse’s The Sovereign People, in Political Writings and Speeches.

[65] Johnson papers in the National Library of Ireland, cited in Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p109.

[66] Many years later O’Hegarty would describe Johnson, incredibly, as “a doctrinaire English radical” (P.S. O’Hegarty, A History of Ireland Under the Union 1801-1922, London, Methuen, 1952, p727).

[67] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p109.

[68] Piaras Beaslai, Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland Vol 1, Dublin, 1926, p259.

[69] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p176.

[70] We might note here the change in Mitchell’s presentation of the Democratic Programme between the 1970s and the 1990s.  In his 1974 book, which covered a period of 40 years, he devoted several pages to a discussion of the DP under its own heading.  In his Revolutionary Government in Ireland, Dail Eireann 1919-22 (Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1995), a book of roughly similar length (taking into account the actual size of the pages) covering only four years (and therefore able to give more in-depth treatment), the Democratic Programme is given noticeably less coverage.  Now Mitchell describes it as “following the political fashion of the day” in Britain, Europe and the USA where governments had “pledged themselves, in the same general terms, to the extension of state responsibility for social and economic conditions.”  Mitchell now mentions only the DP provision for the welfare of children and poor relief, which further adds to the idea that the DP was an entirely unexceptional document (see, pp15-16).  The radical parts of the Programme – dealing, for instance, with subordinating ownership of property to the rights of the majority and “the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth of the workers” are not mentioned at all in this discussion.  A programme which called for the elimination of the capitalist class could hardly be described as part of the thinking common to governments in Europe, Britain and the USA at the time; Mitchell’s 1974 assessment is rather more convincing than his 1995 view.

[71] O’Tierney cited in Irish Times, March 13, 1919.

[72] Irish Times, April 9, 1919.

[73] O’Doherty and Boland cited in Irish Times, April 12, 1919.

[74] Irish Times, April 15, 1919.

[75] See, for instance, P. Berresford Ellis, History of the Irish Working Class, London, Victor Gollancz, 1972, p247.

[76] Ibid.

[77] See this thesis, chapter 6, footnote 11

[78] Interestingly, the events which led to the strike appear to have been expunged in accounts over the past twenty years.  While they are mentioned in Macardle, The Irish Republic, and Berresford Ellis, History of the Irish Working Class, the republican connection has disappeared in works such as Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, and Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland.

[79] Irish Times, editorial, April 23, 1919.

[80] Irish Times, editorial, April 19, 1919.

[81] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p177.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Irish Times, May 2, 1919.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid, editorial.

[86] See, for instance, Irish Times, editorial, July 7, 1919.

[87] Irish Times, July 11, 1919.

[88] See also editorials on “The Labour Crisis” (July 24), “Democracy and Labour” (August 5)  and “The Industrial Situation” (August 8).  “Political Bolshevism” was a favoured Irish Times term for Sinn Fein.

[89] Irish Times, editorial, September 4, 1919.

[90] The secretary of state is quoted in the Irish Bulletin, December 11, 1919; see Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p119.

[91] See Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, pp118-9.

[92] See the report on the ILPTUC conference in Irish Times, August 6, 1919.

[93] Irish Times, editorial, April 15, 1920.

[94] See, for example, Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p139; Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, pp33-4.

[95] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p189.

[96] As well as being involved in agitation along these lines, Maclean wrote The Irish Tragedy – Scotland’s Disgrace, see Greaves, Liam Mellows, pp189-190.

[97] Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969, p247.

[98] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p190.

[99] Ibid, p220.

[100] See Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, pp120-1; Greaves, Liam Mellows, p184; Charles Townshend, “The Irish railway strike of 1920; industrial action and civil resistance in the struggle for independence”, Irish Historical Studies, Vol XX1, no. 83, 1979, pp212-82.

[101] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, p32.

[102] Dail Eireann, Official Report, 1921.

[103] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, p32.

[104] Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, p109.

[105] The document is reprinted in full as Appendix H in William O’Brien, Forth the Banners Go, pp293-305.

[106] Ibid, p296.  “The war” here being the unemployment crisis.

[107] Ibid, 304.

[108] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p251.

[109] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p141.

[110] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p256.

[111] Dail Eireann, 1919-21 papers, DE 2/483, DE 2/5.  Cited from Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, see pp141-2.  Mitchell, along with a number of other writers, suggests that Markievicz feared a social revolution, but the memorandum can be interpreted in two other ways: one, as a simple statement of fact; two, as an attempt to scare her less radical colleagues in the Cabinet into implementing some progressive measures in support of both factory workers and the rural landless.

[112] Ibid, p141.

[113] Anderson, James Connolly, p125.

[114] Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland, p36.

[115] Greaves, Liam Mellows, p177.

[116] Ibid.  Hedley, a deserter from the British Navy, was a busy revolutionary; the following year he was a central leader of the takeover of creameries which declared the Knocklong Soviet.

[117] This latter development belongs to the period dealt with in the next section of the thesis, so is mentioned only in passing here.

[118] See Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p201; Fox, pp198-200; Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p79.

[119] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p203.

[120] Ibid, p206.

[121] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p80.  Fox, History of the Irish Citizen Army, pp206-210, on the other hand, has the ICA playing an active part, but the examples he gives tend to be auxiliary activities such as providing intelligence and ICAers in the Dublin Fire Brigade helping to destroy traces of the IRA Volunteers who arsoned the Custom House in 1920.

[122] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp206-7.

[123] Ibid, pp209-10.

[124] Irish Times, editorial, June 6, 1919.  The editorial saw it as one of a growing number of attacks on police.

[125] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p214.

[126] Ibid, p217; Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p105.  Among these were Archie Heron, Peadar O’Donnell and Cathal O’Shannon, the latter being a top Transport Union leader.

[127] Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics, p80.

[128] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p217.

[129] See chapter nine.

Posted on August 30, 2011, in Constance Markievicz, Historiography and historical texts, Republicanism post-1900, Thesis chapters, War for Independence period. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The working class and the national struggle, 1916-1921.

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